Sunday, April 24, 2016

Travel nightmare: flight delays, missed ship, broken ankle

“I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up.” That was me just before Christmas, on a public phone in the popular LGBT Blue Chairs Resort in Puerto Vallarta, after tripping and falling on the rooftop veranda floor.
“Very funny,” the desk clerk said, apparently thinking I was imitating the television commercial. “Are you drunk?” Then he hung up, thinking it was just another crazy American on a bender in Mexico.

I crawled on my hands and knees to the elevator. Unfortunately, I couldn’t reach the call button so I started yelling, “Help!” Soon guys started coming out of their rooms, and the desk clerk, who was horrified when he realized I really was injured, called an ambulance.

This sad tale is about an aborted 18-day holiday dream cruise departing San Diego, hugging the Pacific coast with stops all along the southern route, then crossing the Panama Canal to venture through the Caribbean, with a stop at Aruba and in the Bahamas before docking in Fort Lauderdale.
Unfortunately, I never stepped foot on Holland America’s MS Amsterdam and instead returned home to Dallas-Fort Worth for emergency surgery on a broken ankle.

We’ve all heard airplane travel has changed drastically in recent year. But the reality of the flying experience today will shock the most seasoned traveler. It’s not important what airline I was flying because they all operate the same today. Policies are more geared toward turning profits than satisfying patrons.

I had spent three months planning my trip down to the tiniest detail before I left for DFW International Airport Dec. 18. As we sat on the plane — buckled up, ready to lift off and already 30 minutes late — the captain advised us of a mechanical problem. About 45 minutes later, he told us to return to the terminal.

For the next six hours we waited, and every 60 minutes the monitors revised our departure time by an hour. Our bags were on the plane, and we could not retrieve them to make other arrangements. In fact, there were no other arrangements to be made. That’s the result of cutbacks in the number of flights operating today.

I met one other passenger in the terminal headed for the cruise ship, a gay 91-year-old World War II veteran who planned to meet his gay 94-year-old brother from San Francisco onboard. He hung out with me after hearing me complain to the airline representatives.

For hours our plane sat at the gate, preventing other planes from landing and unloading and reloading. Chaos ensued as passengers came and went, looking for their planes.

Finally, after the mechanics finished we boarded and the plane took off for San Diego, arriving about two hours after my ship left the port.

The captain asked us to be nice to the flight attendants because after all, “they’ve been sitting and waiting too.”

In San Diego we met a crowd of passengers waiting for the flight back to Dallas who had been stranded. When we got there, my new friend and I went to the airlines ticket counter — if we had been expecting concern and assistance, we had that figured wrong. We were traveling coach, not first class.

At first, the ticket agent refused to put us up in hotel rooms for the night, but a manager reversed that decision. Still, they balked when I asked them to book us complimentary flights to Puerto Vallarta where the ship would dock first.

Their advice: “Always book your airplane travel with us through the cruise line so they can take care of your needs.” Then they offered to sell me a ticket to Puerto Vallarta through Phoenix for almost $1,000. I declined.

My new friend bought the last remaining ticket on another airline for about $500. The manager said I couldn’t expect the airline to help me out when I had paid so little for my ticket online. Later, I found a ticket on Expedia for $265 on the very same flight offered to me by the airline for $1,000.

The next day, I flew to Phoenix where the agents told me they had oversold the flight so I still might not make it to the ship. I begged them to get me on the flight, and somehow they did.

When I arrived in Puerto Vallarta I reconnected with my new friend at the Blue Chairs, where we had booked rooms the previous night.

We went out to dinner at Café Olla, my favorite restaurant in the resort. What a fiasco we had endured, but we toasted with margaritas over the thought of boarding the ship Monday morning.
Later that night I was walking in the moonlight, trying to relax enough to get some sleep after two hectic travel days. I tripped in the dark.

Long story short, I went to a Mexican hospital where they put my ankle in a pre-operative cast and charged me about $2,800. You don’t get your passport back if you don’t pay the bill. (Never travel in a foreign country without travel insurance that will reimburse emergency medical expenses.) I flew home to Dallas on the same airline Monday morning, but first class this time. What a difference $200 makes in the price of a ticket and how you get treated. They actually showed me some sympathy and catered to me.

I had said goodbye to my new friend who boarded the ship as I headed for the airport.
My nephew and his wife, who live in Winnetka Heights, picked me up at the airport and the next day she took me to the doctor, who sent me immediately to surgery. Now, I’m home on Cedar Creek Lake, recovering and confined to a wheelchair.

The airline representatives in San Diego told me when I take a cruise I should always arrive in the city a day before the ship leaves.

Obviously, the airlines can’t be trusted to get you where you are going on time.
I also will take their advice and book my air travel through the cruise line, whose representatives could not have been more gracious. They have already refunded all of the money I paid for the cruise, including the entertainment package.

What’s more, I’m flying first class from now on. It’s nice to be treated a little special, rather than being herded around like a cow on a trailer.

Police sniper kills Cedar Creek Lake gay man in standoff


Anthony Bertoni lived in a run-down house surrounded by an eight-foot chain link fence. Signs of his mental illness were obvious in his notes he taped all over his car. (Photos by David Webb)

CEDAR CREEK LAKE — A standoff between a 56-year-old gay man and law enforcement officers ended in the man’s death Feb. 10, revealing how the isolation and disregard of a deeply disturbed individual can end tragically and endanger an entire community.

Anthony Bertoni, 56, lived in a small house surrounded by an eight-foot chain link fence on the county line between Henderson and Kaufman counties, on SH 274 near Cedar Creek Lake. He was a gay man suffering from an illness that resembled schizophrenia, according to an acquaintance, who knew him for several years.

Bertoni often complained about being the victim of anti-gay harassment, but the woman said she never witnessed nor saw any evidence of the harassment.

In truth, Bertoni may have imagined the harassment. He suspected his neighbors of throwing rocks at his house and other offensive actions, and Henderson County Sheriff Ray Nutt said law enforcement officers responded to disturbances at the small row of houses numerous times over the years to calm down quarrels between Bertoni and his neighbors.

On his car parked outside of the fence in front of his house, Bertoni posted signs saying, “Murder” and “Suicide,” along with rambling, nonsensical letters.

Finally, the quarrels erupted in violence when Bertoni fired a shotgun at one of his neighbors about 7 a.m. on the day of his death. A pellet struck the victim in the face and several others pellets injured his arm. A helicopter transferred the man to Baylor Medical Center in Dallas, where he was treated and released.

Law enforcement officers quickly descended on the scene, and a standoff ensued as personnel from both Henderson and Kaufman Counties and the Texas Department of Public Safety shut down traffic in the neighborhood known as Cap City. Bertoni fired several shots as the standoff began, then at about 3:30 p.m. he opened the door of the house and fired more shots.

That’s when a sniper on the roof of the Calvary Baptist Church across the highway shot and killed Bertoni.

A few days before the standoff, Bertoni visited a nearby store and complained to a clerk about being unable to sleep. Yet another neighbor who called emergency services after the initial shooting on Feb. 10 said Bertoni had quit taking medication that she suspected was designed to control his mental disturbances.

 The acquaintance, to whom Bertoni had confided his sexual orientation, said he came to the Cedar Creek Lake area from California several years ago. Public records show he lived in Palm Springs and San Diego previously.
Cedar Creek Lake has a large LGBT community, and Bertoni engaged in a couple of relationships with other men, the acquaintance said. But in the last couple of years, he professed to be asexual and kept to himself, she said.

Bertoni originally planned to open a business styling hair at his home on the highway, but he abandoned the plan and sold his equipment. He was estranged from his adoptive parents, who had rejected him after learning about his sexual orientation, the acquaintance said.

By the time the shooting started on Feb. 10, the woman had already severed contact with Bertoni because his obvious mental illness led him to paranoid delusions, she said. The woman said he accused her and her daughter of stealing his belongings, but later wrote them a long letter saying he found the missing items and apologizing for the accusations.

Bertoni suffered from a multitude of physical illnesses, and the woman said she suspected he might be HIV-positive.

In the wake of the standoff and the shutdown of SH 274 and CR 4044 that lasted for more than 24 hours, forcing traffic to detour on backroads, the quiet community remains stunned. Residents shuttered themselves inside their homes during the standoff and until after the numerous squad cars and investigators left the scene the following afternoon.

Bertoni’s car remains parked in front of the house where he died. The chain link fence lies on the side of the yard where an armored vehicle shoved it aside to allow law enforcement officers to get close enough to engage Bertoni.

 Except for his immediate neighbors, no one in the small community knew Bertoni, and he seemed to not be well known in the LGBT community on Cedar Creek Lake.

At this point, with Bertoni dead and no one around who was close enough to really know much about him and his mental state, no one can say if an intervention might have saved his life and spared the community from the trauma of the standoff and shootings. But there is no doubt that doing nothing left the man’s downward spiral unchecked, and put him on a collision course with the community around him.


Reclusive HIV-positive man changes name after adoptive mother abandons him, dies tragically from police bullet


James Torres, who used the name Anthony Bertroni when he moved to Texas, underwent experimental treatments for AIDS in the early 1980’s (below). His sister, Shauna Woods pictured with him when they were teens, said his mother abandoned Torres when he came out as gay.

CEDAR CREEK LAKE — For two weeks after a law enforcement officer shot him to death in a day-long standoff, James Frederick Torres, also known as Anthony Bertoni, lay in a funeral home, waiting for his next of kin to sign documents allowing his body to be cremated at county expense.
In death, Torres remained alone and adrift, much the same as he had for at least the last decade of his life, maybe much longer.

Law enforcement officers knew the identity of Torres’ stepsister who had attempted to help him in recent years. But they knew little else about the reclusive, 56-year-old man who lived on Highway 274, on the Henderson and Kaufman county line, in a small, dilapidated house surrounded by an eight-foot chain link fence. Outside the fence sat an old, broken down car plastered with disturbing signs, on which were written “Murder” and “Suicide,” and incoherent letters taped on the inside of the windows.

After his death, Anderson and Clayton Brothers funeral home staff and public officials struggled to unravel the mystery of Torres’ life, so they could put him to rest and discover the evidence needed to close the Texas Rangers investigation into the day Torres suffered his last psychotic episode.
He started that day by firing a shotgun at a neighbor, then barricaded himself in his home for eight hours. He ultimately walked outside shooting a gun, and a bullet from a Texas Department of Public Safety marksman perched on the roof of the Calvary Baptist Church across the highway struck him down in what seems now like an act of “suicide by cop” — what it’s called when a suspect deliberately acts in a way that an officer is forced to shoot him or her.

The standoff closed down Highway 274 and County Road 4044, disrupting the small Cap City community of the Cedar Creek Lake area for 36 hours. Afterwards, everyone struggled to make sense of what had happened. Few people in the community, except for Torres’ immediate neighbors, knew that anyone even lived in the house. But clues begin to emerge in conversations with his stepsister, Shawna Wood, who never quit caring for the distraught, troubled man whom it is now known suffered from what is believed to be paranoid schizophrenia.

Wood, who lives in Oregon, said she visited with her stepbrother in 2010 at the house in the Cap City community where he died, and she realized then he suffered from delusions that frightened her. She said at the time of his death he lived in the house with no running water and 16 cats to keep him company. He suffered from a failing liver and kidneys decimated by a 35-year-long HIV infection and early experimental treatments. He only left the house to shop at Walmart at 3 a.m., wearing mirrored sunglasses. At times Torres called himself Jesus Christ, and at other times he referred to himself as being controlled by demons, she said.

Torres spent time in a Dallas psychiatric hospital in 2014, after law enforcement officers with whom Wood cooperated convinced him to admit himself voluntarily, and he showed improvement. Unfortunately, he quit taking the medication administered at the hospital upon release, and he relapsed, his stepsister said.

Wood said law enforcement officers attempted to talk Torres into returning to the psychiatric hospital, but he refused. They said his guns could not be legally confiscated, even though concerns about him being a threat to himself or others arose, she said.

His stepsister stayed in contact with Torres until his death, sending him food by way of public carriers because he feared leaving the house. He thought people wanted to hurt him because of his sexual orientation and HIV-status, and he imagined various conspiracies being orchestrated by the people who lived around him, Wood said, adding that efforts by a local pastor and others to help him failed.

After his death, Wood, one year younger than her stepbrother, knew what few other people did. She was not next of kin to the man who had moved to Texas eight years ago from Palm Springs, Calif., after changing his name from Torres to Bertoni. Torres’ mother, whom he last saw at age 17, likely was still alive and ultimately responsible for all decisions, and the mother was the heir to anything belonging to her son, such as the house he bought on EBay sight unseen.

Wood said after Torres died she had no idea of her stepmother’s whereabouts. “I haven’t seen her or talked to her for 20 years,” Wood said. “And I don’t want to talk to her now. I never cared for her.”
Torres’ adoptive mother divorced her first husband, and in 1970, when Torres was 11, she married Wood’s father, a prominent doctor in Freemont, Calif., Woods said. Wood’s father, having been recently widowed when his first wife died of cancer, allowed Torres’ mother to rule the household in a miserly, vindictive way, Wood said.

Wood described her stepmother’s treatment of both her and Torres as “brutal,” saying the woman changed her home in ways that upended her whole life. She said her stepmother taped a picture of a pig on the refrigerator and told her she resembled the farm animal because of her weight, Wood added.

“’Bitch’ would be too kind,” Wood said in describing her stepmother. “When my dad married her in 1970, the first thing she did was forbid me from visiting with my nanny, this wonderful Italian lady who promised my mother on her death bed that she would take care of us. After that, we raised ourselves. Next, I came home from school and my poodle Taffy was gone. She said she ran away. Years later one of the neighbors told me she put Taffy in the car drove her somewhere.”

At age 15, Wood said, she went away to boarding school in Florida and finally began to enjoy life again. But her departure ended the close relationship with her stepbrother, Torres. She said that their relationship had become so close at one point that her stepmother insisted on Wood getting a physical examination to ensure no sexual activity had occurred between the children, Wood said.

“I couldn’t take the bullshit anymore,” Wood said of her reason for leaving. “I found out as an adult I paid for it myself with Social Security because my mother was a pediatrician. But I can’t believe my Dad was an obstetrician and gynecologist and couldn’t pay for it. After marrying her, it was like living in poverty in a wealthy household. It was just so bizarre.”

Wood said her father wound up divorcing Torres’ mother in 1995 after 25 years of marriage because he came to distrust her. After he died, Wood discovered there was almost nothing left of his estate, and she inherited only enough to buy a house.

“She ended up with nearly everything because at the time he had Parkinson’s, and he didn’t fight anything as he didn’t have the energy,” Wood said. “For years they had separate property, but in 1978 after he became Mormon, he put her name on everything. Essentially, anything that was my mother’s became hers.”

For several years Torres quit speaking to Wood, angry that she had inherited money from her father while he likely would never get anything from his mother. “It didn’t really make sense to me,” Wood said.

Wood said Torres’ mother, a devout Mormon, wanted nothing to do with her adopted son when he got older. He came out as gay as a teenager and contracted HIV in about 1981, when many people referred to the illness as “gay cancer” and scientists had not yet discovered the human immunodeficiency virus and coining the name “AIDS.”

Wood said when her stepbrother was first hospitalized with an HIV-related sickness at a Freemont hospital, neither her father — who delivered babies at that hospital daily — nor his mother ever visited him, and the nurses there treated him like a leper.

“They practically slid his food trays under the door,” Wood said. “He was put in quarantine.”
Wood gave the funeral home, a title company lawyer representing a potential buyer of Torres’ property and law enforcement officers her stepbrother’s real name and the name of his mother, who along with her first husband, a man of Argentine descent, adopted Torres as a baby in Stockton, Calif.

None of the people searching for Torres’ mother seemed to be able to determine if she was alive or to locate her. But an Internet search by the Dallas Voice found her living, at age 84, in Logan, Utah, and about to move into an assisted-living facility. The woman, who before retirement ran a school that taught medical office procedures, also authored two technical books and one murder mystery that are available on

After sending emails to eight addresses listed for Torres’ mother, at least one went through and a friend of hers responded by phone to find out what the inquiries concerned. The friend put his mother on the phone, and the mother participated in two on-the-record interviews over a two-day period.
During those interviews, Torres’ mother said she was unaware of his death, and that she had not talked to him since he ran away from home at age 17.

“He just didn’t like living with us,” his mother said. “We were a religious family, and he didn’t like going to church. We looked for him for years. He never came home.” She acknowledged her church taught against homosexuality. “It probably did,” she said. “I think most churches do.”

On the second day, the mother called back, demanding under threat of legal action that her name not be used in any story about her son because of the potential embarrassment being associatd with Torres and his troubled life and death could cause her.

“I have relatives living in Texas and friends all over the country,” she said. “I don’t want them to know about it.”

When advised that the funeral home needed permission to cremate his body, she asked, “Who is going to pay for it?” After learning that Torres had owned a home that sat on commercial property that someone wanted to buy, she asked, “Who will get the money?”

The potential buyer told Torres’ stepsister that the dead man’s mother called him the same night she learned about his death and the existence of his property, demanding a substantially higher price than he was willing to pay, according to Wood. When he explained the house would have to be torn down because of its deteriorated state, the buyer told Wood, Torres mother said she planned to immediately list it with a real estate agency if he failed to meet her price.

Torres’ mother said as a toddler her son seemed hyperactive, almost angry, bouncing and banging his hands on the bedding. As a young child he and a friend started a fire in the garage, she said, and he and some friends stole a vehicle as teenagers and drove it to another state. Wood offered a different story, though, saying the vehicle belonged to Torres’ adoptive father, and that it was more of a prank and a lark than a theft.

Still, his mother said, “My first husband and I wondered if there was something wrong with him.”
When asked if she disowned Torres because he was gay and HIV-positive, she said, “Who told you that?” Advised that Torres told several friends of their estrangement and the reason for it, she said, “I don’t remember that. I don’t remember things well anymore. I have a disability.”

Torres’ mother said she remembers her adopted son was taunted at school by kids who accused him of being black because of his dark coloring. In fact, he was of native Hawaiian descent, she said. “He came home from school upset about that,” she said. “I told him he wasn’t black, but it bothered him.”

His mother said she heard her son was living in San Francisco in his 20s with a psychiatrist, and she heard that he was gay and later that he was sick. “I didn’t know what was wrong with him,” she said.

Wood claimed that her stepmother and father never looked for Torres, and that they knew well the nature of his ailments.  His mother abandoned him, she said. “My God, even in death she will deny the connection,” Wood declared, after hearing her stepmother’s version of Torres’ life.

Wood said one of her biggest regrets now is that Torres will only be remembered for the tragic way he died and his suffering from mental illness and HIV-related issues.

“He was fun,” she said of her stepbrother. “He was the best. I will always wonder if Jimmy’s life would not have been so tragic if she had not abandoned him. ”

Lisa Kaii, a lifelong friend of Wood’s and her stepbrother, confirmed the account of Torres as a teenager and his mother. “He was so much fun,” Kaii said. “He was always laughing and making us laugh. He made up jokes and songs all of the time. His mother was crazy. We didn’t like to be around her.”

Wood said her biggest goal now is to see her stepbrother’s body treated with the dignity he deserved in the absence of a funeral or memorial service. She received good news to that end March 1.

“We’re almost there,” Wood said. “I just received an email his mother signed permission to cremate. Maybe soon he’ll be at peace. Jimmy’s life did matter.”



Transgender bias sparks ugly campaign of lies

The easiest sale on any political issue is to frame it as critical to the safety of children, and that could become key to a civil liberties battle brewing nationwide that pivots on transgender equality.

It’s a discussion that most Americans simply can’t understand because they have never met a transgender individual. They misunderstand the nature of transgender people and can easily fall victim to the conservative argument that the “innocence of children” is at stake.

The inclusion of children’s safety to the debate came to my attention just recently when I saw a post on Facebook by a relative who had shared a graphic by Political Insider saying “men do not belong in the bathroom with girls.”

I realized then that the battle over transgender equality in North Carolina had spread in a particularly ugly way.

Conservatives, still smarting from losing the marriage equality fight, seized on the transgender issue in North Carolina, where state lawmakers recently passed House Bill 2, commonly known as the “bathroom bill.” It bans transgender people from using public restrooms corresponding to their gender identity.

A transgender woman wearing feminine attire will be forced to use men’s restrooms under the provisions of the law that also prohibits cities and counties in North Carolina from adopting anti-discrimination laws. Transgender men would correspondingly use the women’s restroom.

The North Carolina General Assembly hastily met in a special session after the city of Charlotte passed an ordinance protecting transgender people. The state Assembly passed the controversial bathroom bill in one day. Gov. Pat McCrory signed the bill that night.

McCrory appeared on Meet the Press April 17, saying the legislature had acted quickly to prevent the Charlotte ordinance from going into effect April 1. The governor defended the action, saying transgender issues represent a “new social norm” that will require more discussion before transgender people can be integrated into society.

McCrory said transgender issues rose to the forefront after Houston voters in November overturned an ordinance enhancing LGBT protections. Conservative activists warned men would be using women’s restrooms if voters allowed the ordinance to remain in place. “This is a national debate that has literally come on in the last three months,” the governor said.

It was a tough interview by host Chuck Todd, and McCrory failed miserably in his attempts to justify North Carolina’s stance.

McCrory’s critics view his reasoning as disingenuous, and they note he is battling to remain governor, an office also being sought by Attorney General Roy Cooper. Immediately after he left the news program’s set, McCrory, who has remained largely out of sight in his home state since signing the bill, sent out a contribution request saying he had “defended North Carolina against the coordinated campaign of attacks and selective outrage from out-of-state special interests.”

McCrory blames the Human Rights Campaign and its influence over corporate America for a loss of an estimated $40 million in business opportunities since the passage of the law. Various corporations are either threatening to boycott the state over the new law, or they have already pulled the plug. Some estimate North Carolina could lose billions in revenue in the future.

The controversy is getting a lot of attention all over the country, as a transgender woman from Dallas returning from an HIV seminar recently learned when she got bumped up to first class on a flight home because a passenger objected to sitting next to her.

That amused me because she is one of the least threatening people I’ve met in the world of activism. I doubt that the passenger would have made such a comment without feeling emboldened by the conservative argument.

Now, lawmakers in seven other states are considering legislation similar to that enacted in North Carolina: Illinois, Kansas, Massachusetts, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
It might be that conservative activists feel the need to escalate their attacks to include scare tactics involving children because of the financial backlash in North Carolina and the support of high profile supporters like actor George Clooney and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

My response to the fears about children is: Who in their right mind would allow a child under the age of 13 to go into a restroom for the general public alone in the first place? Given the sort of ghastly crimes involving assaults and abductions we learn about every day, why would anyone not exercise the greatest vigilance when it comes to children?  Attacking people who are merely trying to live their lives as they feel destined instead of exercising due caution to protect children seems absurd.

Transgender women do not identify as men, and society has never viewed them as “real men” — not until it became politically expedient to do so to back up conservative issues. In the privacy of a stall, why would anyone care?

Even Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said this week on the Today show he advocates allowing people to use whatever restrooms they choose. He noted there appeared to be little if any concern about such practices until North Carolina politicians made an issue of it.

Trump's bitterest critic, fellow Republican candidate Ted Cruz, quickly lashed out at Trump's support parroting the children's safety warning. He said Trump would put children at risk in the name of political correctness.

I’ve encountered a lot of women in men’s rooms over the years because of long lines for women’s rooms. It really didn’t bother me.

People generally go into restrooms for only one reason. Any speculation beyond that is a little kinky.