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Caballero-Melgar found guilty on all counts

A federal jury convicted Jorge Santos Caballero-Melgar of all counts against him in connection with the deadly robbery of La Placita market.

Jose Cruz, 31, was shot and killed while attempting to intervene in the robbery of the Morgantown Road store March 17, 2017.

A jury of eight women and four men spent about 90 minutes deliberating in U.S. District Court before returning with a guilty verdict Monday afternoon against Caballero-Melgar, 36, of Nashville.

Caballero-Melgar was convicted of conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery, murder through use of a firearm during a crime of violence, interference with commerce by robbery, conspiracy to carry or possess a firearm during a crime of violence and illegal re-entry after deportation.

Over a five-day period, prosecutors presented evidence that Caballero-Melgar orchestrated robberies of businesses in Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina from December 2016 to September 2017.

The evidence was bolstered by testimony from five co-defendants who admitted to their roles in a total of seven robberies and said Caballero-Melgar acted as a lookout and kept in touch with them over the phone while other members of the conspiracy carried out the robberies.

Security camera footage from six of the robberies showed the suspects brandishing firearms and restraining employees with duct tape during the crimes.

Cellphone records examined by FBI agents showed that a number registered to Caballero-Melgar was active at the site of each robbery as it took place, and activity on the number could be traced to and from Nashville during the time immediately before and after each crime.

“He sent other people in to do the robberies while he stood outside, he talked to victims on the phone,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Marisa Ford said during her closing argument. “He was the one who orchestrated and led this group.”

Jonny Alexander Reyes-Martinez, who pleaded guilty to murder, robbery and other crimes, admitted firing the shot that killed Cruz at La Placita.

On the witness stand, Reyes-Martinez said the La Placita robbery was Caballero-Melgar’s idea and that Caballero-Melgar provided him with a handgun that was loaded in Caballero-Melgar’s vehicle just before the robbery,

Caballero-Melgar’s attorney, Bryce Caldwell, tried to raise doubts during his closing argument about Reyes-Martinez’s credibility as a witness, introducing a copy of Reyes-Martinez’s plea agreement that recommends a sentence of 17.5 to 35 years.

Caldwell argued that Reyes-Martinez pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the prosecutors in the interest of self-preservation.

“(Reyes-Martinez) is the person with the most to gain and the most to lose,” Caldwell said. “He readily admitted to shooting another human being so he could escape. He said he used a gun to make people pay attention – no, he used a gun to make sure people submitted to his will.”

Caballero-Melgar didn’t testify at the trial. Caldwell called no witnesses.

Ford said the phone records, testimony from co-defendants and other evidence showed the extent of Caballero-Melgar’s involvement in the conspiracy.

“The evidence is not merely sufficient in this case, it is compelling,” Ford said.

Reyes-Martinez and Jose Adan Mejia Varela participated in the robbery at La Placita. Cruz tried to intervene as they attempted to leave, and Reyes-Martinez fired a shot during the struggle that entered Cruz’s lower back after striking Varela’s elbow.

Reyes-Martinez and Varela await sentencing. Two other people, Estrellita Soto and Lilian Duron, pleaded guilty to robbery charges in the incident.

Soto and Duron admitted going to the store before the robbery to conduct surveillance and send a money order that was eventually stolen back by their co-defendants.

Duron was sentenced to four years in prison, while Soto was given a sentence of five years and 10 months.

Caballero-Melgar, who faces a maximum possible sentence of life in prison, will return to court Aug. 2 to be sentenced by U.S. District Court Chief Judge Greg Stivers.

– Follow courts reporter Justin Story on Twitter @jstorydailynews or visit bgdailynews.com.

Medical Center honors legacy of Shadowen with memorial tree

Dr. Rebecca Shadowen was the daughter of a farmer and appreciated growing things. Thus, it made sense for The Medical Center at Bowling Green to honor her life with a tree planting.

Shadowen was an infectious disease expert who helped lead the early stages of the local response to the coronavirus pandemic as a member of the Bowling Green-Warren County Coronavirus Workgroup. She died at age 62 on Sept. 11 after battling complications from the virus for nearly four months.

In a ceremony Monday, The Medical Center planted a tree in her memory in front of a crowd that included her immediate family members and former colleagues.

“This tree, to me, serves as a reminder of what all she taught us,” said Dr. Melinda Joyce, Med Center Health vice president of corporate support services. “I really want this tree to serve (as a reminder) for those people who work at Med Center Health as well as those who come to Med Center Health for care to know that we are going to be following her principles.”

The tree, a Flame Thrower Rosebud, was donated by local arborist David Draper, who knew Shadowen and her family. Draper said the tree is known for its bright yellow, red and orange colors.

Next to the tree is a plaque that commemorates Shadowen. The memorial is in the center of Med Center Health’s campus at High Street and Second Avenue.

“We were friends for over 30 years,” Joyce said. “We actually met on her first day when she came to the hospital. Most importantly, she was about the patient. It helps to represent what she meant to all of us.”

Joyce said Shadowen would be proud of The Medical Center vaccine clinic’s efforts to eradicate the virus.

“She would be proud that we have ... 78,000 corporatewide doses being administered, but she would still not be satisfied with that,” Joyce said. “She would say that we still need to get all the people so we can truly end this world disease.”

David Shadowen spoke about his wife. “That tree for her would be a great memorial. I think that The Medical Center took the time to do this for her – she would be very happy,” he said.

At the end of his remarks, he stressed the importance of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. He said his wife would be doing the same if she were still alive.

“I don’t think it would be proper for me to talk to a crowd without requesting that we encourage all of our family, friends, co-workers and even strangers to get the COVID-19 vaccine,” he said. “We need our region, our state and our whole country to do this so that we can protect our wives and husbands and parents and children and strangers.”

Chandler expanding number of apartments in The Hub

Just as he is turning loose of such real estate holdings as his Chandler Park Apartments, Bowling Green developer David Chandler is aiming to beef up the apartment piece of his The Hub development on Lovers Lane.

Chandler, who has developed hotels, apartments and other projects in multiple states, was approved in April by the Warren County Design Review Board for an addition of 216 apartments in The Hub.

It will bring to 806 the number of multi-family units in The Hub, a 103-acre development next to the Lovers Lane Soccer Complex.

Chandler’s original plan called for 590 apartments on the property being developed on the late Dr. Roy Cooksey’s farm, but Chandler said the response to the apartments already built was an impetus to change his plan.

“We feel good about the reception we’ve had so far,” Chandler said. “We have 355 apartments leased currently, and we still haven’t finished all our amenity package that includes a pool and a golf putting green.”

Work on those amenities is continuing, along with work on the original 590 apartments, but Chandler said the time is right to move forward with nine more buildings that will include one-, two- and three-bedroom units.

“It (more apartments) was always a possibility,” Chandler said. “We wanted to see how the market was. The apartments have been received better than I could’ve imagined, so it made sense to start this next phase.”

Chandler pointed out that other parts of The Hub are also progressing. Work on a five-story, 195-room Embassy Suites by Hilton hotel is continuing, along with construction of a three-story, 32,727-square-foot office building being developed by former Bowling Green Mayor Johnny Webb and Jim Scott of Scotty’s Contracting and Stone.

Chandler hopes to have the Embassy Suites completed by early next year. He’s still looking for a tenant for a 3,900-square-foot restaurant space to be included in the hotel, but he said the coronavirus pandemic has delayed that project.

“We’re in conversation with several restaurants, but they’re just recovering from the pandemic and starting to talk again,” he said.

While all the construction at The Hub would suggest that Chandler is still in hyperactive building mode, the 61-year-old is actually trying to wind down on many of his projects.

He and longtime business partner Mike Simpson recently sold their Chandler Park apartment developments in Bowling Green, Owensboro and Paducah in two deals worth about $110 million.

Chandler Park Owensboro, a 320-unit complex on 17 acres, and Chandler Park Paducah, a 240-unit complex on 12 acres, were sold to St. Augustine, Fla.-based DLP Real Estate Capital.

The Chandler Park Bowling Green complex, first built in 2006 behind Greenwood Mall and expanded twice to its current 390 units, was purchased by Nashville’s Covenant Capital Group.

Simpson said the timing was right to make the deal.

“We’ve had a number of overtures from people interested in those properties in recent months,” Simpson said. “Retail commercial real estate has taken a hit during the pandemic, and office space is somewhat risky as well.

“But multi-family residential properties have remained consistent. After much consideration, we decided to enter into a deal.”

It’s a deal that Chandler believes is the right move for him at this stage in his life, although he admits to having an attachment to the properties.

“I kinda invented those projects in my mind and brought them to reality,” he said. “They’re good, healthy assets. The sale was just about the timing in my business life.”

Chandler had maintained an office at Chandler Park Bowling Green since its inception and has now moved that office to The Hub. He called the sale to Covenant – a company with $1.2 billion in real estate assets under management – a “reasonable offer in which both parties win.”

The sale will mean some changes at Bowling Green’s Chandler Park, according to a news release from Covenant.

“We intend to complete a comprehensive $3.3 million renovation to the exterior of the property and the interior of all the units,” the news release reads.

While shedding some of their signature real estate properties, Chandler and Simpson have made recent deals that show they’re not finished developing property.

In 2019, they purchased at auction the 200-acre Cave Valley Golf Club, an 18-hole course in Park City, along with surrounding acreage.

Chandler hopes to reopen the golf course in the spring of 2022.

“That has been a much grander undertaking than I initially imagined,” he said. “But we’re excited about it. I’m looking forward to bringing that landmark back to life.”

– Follow business reporter Don Sergent on Twitter @BGDNbusiness or visit bgdaily news.com.

WKU proposes 2% tuition hike, faces nearly $8 million in cuts

Facing a looming budget shortfall totaling nearly $8 million, Western Kentucky University is pursuing a 2% tuition hike for undergraduate students, a proposal WKU’s Board of Regents will review Friday.

This comes as WKU waits for a final decision from the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education about how high public universities can raise tuition this year. The CPE is expected to make that decision by mid-May.

“Increasing tuition is never taken lightly,” a budget development update included in agenda materials for the board’s second quarterly meeting said. “However, in a time of historically declining or flat state support, the (budget executive committee) recognizes that the institution must consider an increase.”

As the state’s share of funding higher education has shrunk in recent years, Kentucky college students have been asked to pick up more and more of the tab.

A report in February from the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy said Kentucky is among the 10 states with the worst cuts to state funding for higher education since before the Great Recession.

“Lawmakers spent 27.0%, or $2,977, less per Kentucky student in 2019 compared to 2008 – far exceeding the national average decline of 11.6% or $1,033 per student,” the report said. “These cuts have helped drive up the cost of public colleges and universities, imposing the greatest cost burden on families of color and those with low incomes.”

Tuition and fees contributed to about 47% of WKU’s overall $353.2 million in revenue in the current operating budget. State appropriations, by contrast, made up about 20%.

In the fall of 2020, undergraduate enrollment declined by 3.6% from fall 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That enrollment decline has continued to grow: spring undergraduate enrollment is down 5.9% compared to the same time last year, per the NSC Research Center.

The budget development narrative included in materials for the regents’ meeting cast an uncertain shadow on fall 2021 projections, stating that “fall 2021 enrollment is difficult to forecast due to the unprecedented closure of high schools for most of (academic year) 2020-2021 year.”

It also said “communications with high school students have been challenging during the pandemic.”

Additionally, meeting materials said WKU is facing $7,882,662 in so-called “soft” budget cuts, which will need to be addressed in the university’s fiscal year 2022 budget.

“These targets will be managed by the respective dean or vice president. The targets can be addressed through a multitude of ways including operational spending reductions, travel reductions, lapse personnel dollars, strategic hiring pauses, etc.,” the meeting materials said.

Most of the cuts (54%, or $4,256,636) will fall on WKU’s academic and support units, while administrative support units will shoulder a smaller share of the burden (46% or $3,626,024).

Campus administrators have framed the cuts as significantly smaller than the $27 million budget deficit WKU had to contend with when the current fiscal year’s budget was being developed. The cuts will also be “bottom-up” rather than “top-down,” Susan Howarth, WKU’s chief financial officer, said last month.

“They can use every tool they have in the toolbox,” she said. “That would be lapse salary, travel reductions, procurement reductions, hiring pauses – but again, that would be up to the individual deans and vice presidents.”

After a year of faculty and staff efforts to keep the campus operational amid the pandemic, WKU’s Budget Executive Committee is also recommending the creation of a 2% compensation pool in the fiscal year 2022. The funds will be dispersed by mid-year (January 2022) for faculty and staff raises.

“As this pool will be distributed in January, half of this pool, or approximately $1.1 million, will be identified in the FY 2022 budget. The remaining amount will be earmarked in the FY 2023 budget. The final distribution methodology of this pool will be determined by senior leadership, in concert with campus shared governance groups,” the meeting materials note.

– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @NewsByAaron or visit bgdailynews.com.

Rebecca Shadowen