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By Traci Chapman
“These are the people who are left to pick up the pieces caused by someone else’s destruction, people who do their best to wait patiently for justice, people who ask for nothing more than dignity and respect and to be treated fairly.”
Canadian County District Attorney Michael Fields
Renee Weber has taken a journey spanning more than 20 years, one she says will never end. That journey began with an unspeakable act of violence, but has continued through faith and forgiveness.
The story of Weber’s life – and how it changed forever – began Wednesday, Dec. 8, 1993, with a phone call. Weber’s sister, Cindy Jarman and her 5-year-old daughter, Tonya, and son, Timmy, 3, were missing, along with a truck Cindy had borrowed. In the days that followed, a search for Weber’s family became the discovery of their bodies in a rural Canadian County area near Piedmont. It was only days later that Cindy’s ex-boyfriend, Michael Hooper, was arrested for the crime, Weber said.
“We really didn’t have a lot of doubt,” Weber said Monday night.
It was the start of Weber’s journey – a trial, a conviction, a death sentence, appeals. Then a turnaround when the Oklahoma Court of Appeals revoked Hooper’s death sentence. It was later reinstated in 2004, when Hooper was again given a death sentence. In August 2012, almost 19 years after his crime, Hooper was given a lethal injection for his crimes.
That was the end, and yet it wasn’t, Weber said. Through the journey that began with grief and anger there began to be something else – faith and, finally, forgiveness, for the man who had taken Cindy and her children, she said.
“I went through it all – confusion, hurt, hatred and anger,” Weber said. “The question is, ‘Where do I go from here?’”
What Weber did was go to church with her mother and learn to accept a power higher than herself and greater than the court system which would try Michael Hooper. As she learned about Christ’s ultimate sacrifice, Weber said she realized something that shocked her.
“At that moment, I had forgiven the man who murdered my family,” she said.
The years of hatred and anger – and that ultimate forgiveness – taught Weber she had given Hooper power over her. It had allowed him to control her thoughts and feelings and turned her, and her love for her sister, niece and nephew into bitterness, she said.
“I allowed him to take over my feelings, I couldn’t move forward,” Weber said. “Once I saw that and once I realized what was going on – I was no longer the victim.”
Although Cindy Jarman and her children have been gone for more than 20 years, Weber, her family and friends keep the family alive. Cindy’s spirit is in everything Weber does, which includes her work to help others who have a journey like hers. Her journey, still ongoing, was what led her to Canadian County Courthouse Monday night as keynote speaker of the 22nd annual Canadian County Candlelight Vigil.
“I am sorry for the reason you are here,” Weber told the crowd gathered at the annual event. “It doesn’t matter if it happened just recently or a long time ago, we all know the same pain.”
Violent crime knows no distinction – background, financial status, race, religion – none of those matter when a family member is taken suddenly and violently. Some of those attending the vigil have been a part of the event for years, while every year new people join the event, Canadian County District Attorney Michael Fields said.
“It’s not a happy gathering, but hopefully it’s a healing one,” Fields said.
There is the family of Amy and Bryor Gibbins, a Calumet mother and son allegedly killed by a Tulsa man June 16, 2013. They are just beginning a journey in a case that has not yet had a preliminary hearing. There to help them are Kenneth and Nina Bryan, parents of Nichols Hills Fire Chief and former Mustang City Councilman Keith Bryan, who was killed in September 2011. His wife sits in jail for life, convicted last year of his killing.
Some families may never get answers, such as El Reno educator James Shaw’s wife and children. Shaw was stabbed to death in his home in May 2007. No one has been arrested for his murder and leads have gone cold, prosecutors and law enforcement personnel said.
“There’s always hope for a breakthrough, and it’s heartbreaking to watch what a family goes through in something like this,” OSBI public information officer Jessica Brown said last year.
While the pain will never go away for the family and friends left behind, there are more resources for them in the 30 years since the passage of the Victims of Crime Act. Today all 50 states have crime victims rights laws, as well as victims compensation funds. These are not financed by taxpayers but by the fines and penalties paid by those convicted of crimes, Fields said. More than 10,000 victims services agencies also help those affected by crime across the country.
The movement to help victims has come a long way, but that journey – like those of Weber, the Bryans, the Shaws and others – will not be over until every victim receives the help and support they need.
“There are certainly challenges to overcome and we won’t rest until we have accomplished everything we’ve set out to do,” Fields said. “Until the day comes when every single victim of every single crime receives the services he or she needs, we will continue to push for change.”
In the meantime, prosecutors and law enforcement will continue to work for justice and healing for the families of those taken by violence, the district attorney said.
“It’s what we do, really it’s who we are,” he said last year after the Rebecca Bryan conviction. “If we can find that justice, help a family find that peace, then we’ve done what we set out to do.”
By Traci Chapman
Cancer – it’s a disease that has touched almost everyone in some way.
For anyone who’s loved and lost someone to the disease, for those who have battled cancer and prevailed to fight another day, hope is something that can sometimes be in short supply. But hope can be found in plentiful supply on Friday, as hundreds of Mustang residents join together for a common cause – to stamp out this disease forever.
It’s the Relay for Life and it’s set for Friday evening. Running from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m., the annual event is a national effort designed to raise funds for cancer research and education. According to the American Cancer Society’s relay website, the event is “the world’s biggest fight to end cancer.”
The relay is also a chance to celebrate and remember. There are the survivors, those who have beaten the odds and beaten cancer, and those are the people who will gather with Jessica Adams and her fellow students at a survivor dinner held at Horizon Intermediate Center Friday evening. Scheduled for 5:30 p.m., Adams said she hoped all survivors would gather to celebrate their gift of continued life, some of them in face of overwhelming adversity.
There are those, of course, who did not make it, and everyone is touched by someone they have lost – a family member, close friend, acquaintance. They are part of the event too, in spirit. As Adams says, “I wish my dad could be here to walk with me.”
According to Mustang’s Relay for Life web page, more than 47 teams, comprising of 368 participants, have so far raised more than $29,689 for cancer research. Those figures are not complete, organizers say, and only part of the picture.
Relay for Life will be held at Mustang High School football field, and members of the public are invited – and encouraged – to attend the event.
By Traci Chapman
Cindy Baker is always there – with a hug, a smile, a tissue, kind words.
She is there at the worst of times, bringing help and hope to families who have been suddenly thrust into an unknown world, a parallel universe where someone they love has been the victim of a violent crime. It doesn’t matter if it’s rape, domestic abuse, murder – to Baker, they are all the same and they are something to be tackled with love and understanding.
“I want to thank this (district attorney’s) office, I want to thank Cindy Baker – I don’t know what we would have done without her through this time,” said Anita Gibbins, whose sister, Amy, and nephew, Bryor, were killed last June.
It’s a sentiment echoed by many of the people who have walked through Canadian County district attorney’s office doors, when they met more than the people who would work to convict the person responsible for their loss. It was there they met Baker, the longtime victim coordinator assistant. Over the years she would become a friend and guide through a painful part of their lives. It’s a job, but it’s so much more to her, District Attorney Michael Fields said.
“She’s someone special, you watch her with the victims and you know how much she cares about them,” he said.
Baker attends countless hearings, takes never-ending phone calls, but it’s at the office’s annual candlelight vigil where she really shines, officials say. It’s an opportunity for victims and their families to come together – to mourn, to support each other, to look for answers, and hopefully, to find some peace, even if it’s just for a bit, Baker said.
“It’s something that’s come to mean as much to me as it has to the families,” Baker said last year. “There’s so much we want to do for them.”
And do for them she has, as was evidenced by the people who stood up during Monday’s vigil to thank her – and the rest of the DA’s staff – for their help. Beyond justice for their loved ones, Baker and the others have offered at least a beacon of light for them, much as the candles mark the conclusion of each annual vigil.
This year was different for the woman who organizes each year an event for others. While not a victim of violent crime, Baker’s world was shaken recently when her 16-year-old grandson, Karson, was killed in an automobile accident. She shares in their loss while remembering her own, still a beacon for them through her own tears, Fields said.
“I thought this might be hard for her, but I also think it might help Cindy with some healing as well,” he said.
Baker honors Karson and his memory every day, in the way she helps others, her co-workers say. It’s a scenario where a job was truly created just for one person.
Years ago, Baker said she felt blessed by God to have the position she holds. Now heading toward her 20th year in the victim coordinator position, she is known for her caring and compassion by victims, her co-workers and beyond. In 2012, she was named Outstanding Victim Witness Services Employee of the Year by the Oklahoma District Attorneys Association.
“Cindy is very deserving of this award,” Fields said at the time. “In my mind, she epitomizes the highest ideals of public service.
“She has a heart for people and it really shines through in her work,” he said.
Baker was nominated by her fellow employees and selected by ODAA’s board of directors at its annual meeting, Fields said.
The county’s Victim Witness Program is part of a five-county effort in Canadian, Blaine, Garfield, Grant and Kingfisher counties. Baker – and her counterparts in the other locations – work with victims and their families throughout the criminal justice process. From applying for financial assistance to notifying victims about court hearings and the status of an offender’s parole or incarceration, Baker is the primary link between victims and the system which could ultimately try and punish those behind the violence which changed their lives.
“Crime victims deserve our understanding, our compassion and our respect – Cindy Baker understands this,” Fields said. “She is a respected, effective voice for victims of crime.”
For the families she deals with, Baker is something much simpler – a friend. Her spirit, as well as those taken too soon, were part of Monday’s candlelight vigil.
“It’s been difficult, but you’ve always been there and we love you,” Nina Bryan told her.
A 16-year-old girl was killed Thursday night in a head-on collision on Mustang Road.
Sgt. Gary Knight of Oklahoma City Police Department said Friday Rachel Scarberry, 16, was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident, which occurred shortly after 9 p.m. near SW 38th Street and Mustang Road.
Scarberry was driving a red Ford Focus northbound on Mustang Road when she veered left of center, striking a Ford F250 head-on. The other driver, who was not identified, was not injured, Knight said.
“It’s our understanding Ms. Scarberry had only had her license for a few weeks,” the sergeant said.
It was not known why Scarberry strayed into the other lane, and the investigation into the accident is expected to “take weeks,” Knight said.
By Traci Chapman
Canadian Valley Technology Center officials were celebrating Tuesday, after voters approved a $12 million bond issue slated for reconstruction of the school’s El Reno campus.
In an election spanning several counties, 62.7 percent – 2,156 individuals – of those casting ballots approved the proposal, with 1,281 voters, or 37.3 percent, voting against. A total of 3,437 people participated in the election.
Unlike bond issues for common education, the technology center bond issue required only a simple majority for approval.
Bond issue funds will round out insurance proceeds received by the center and will help to reconstruct the school’s El Reno campus, which was destroyed by the May 31, 2013, tornado. Since that time, programs, staff and students have been scattered throughout the county at several locations holding classes. Superintendent Dr. Greg Winters said the bond issue would allow all of those people to “come home,” as well as provide storm shelters for every person on campus. When completed, those shelters would hold up to 1,200 people; Winters said about 1,000 to 1,200 people attend or visit the technology center campus daily.
“Any building we build ever again will have a safe room in it,” he said. “We’re building the safest technology center in the United States of America.”
Several people took shelter at the campus, which did not have a storm shelter. Winters said it was “a miracle” there were no injuries at the site.
Skeletal steel and concrete was salvaged from parts of two buildings, and the center’s business and industry services division on the west end of campus was reconstructed during summer 2013. While the school was fully insured, construction estimates topped out at about $45 million because of needed code improvements, landscaping and safe room construction, as well as parking lots and driveways, Winters said. Voters’ confidence in the school filled that gap, the superintendent said.
“We are proud to be a part of this community, and the community always supports the center,” Winters said last week.
The superintendent said he hoped to move forward quickly with the construction process, with the bid process beginning as early as this month. He said he expected the entire project to take about 2 1/2 years, with an anticipated fall 2016 completion date.
Property taxes would increase about $1 per month for a homeowner with a home valued at $100,000, Winters said. The bond would expire in 10 years, the superintendent said.
“We appreciate folks getting out and supporting Canadian Valley to get the school rebuilt,” Winters said. “I am proud of the turnout and that voters strongly supported us.”
By Traci Chapman
A former Canadian County CASA director has been arrested on 72 complaints of embezzlement and fraud, involving more than $70,000 allegedly taken from the child assistance agency.
Traci Owens, 45, of Yukon on Monday surrendered to Canadian County sheriff’s investigators on a case investigated for almost six months, Undersheriff Chris West said. Owens was appointed in 2010 as Canadian County’s executive director for CASA – Court Appointed Special Advocates.
“(Owens) came under suspicion last fall when officials realized discrepancies in financial documents existed,” West said. “Although the discrepancies weren’t noted until November 2013, it’s believed Owens may have begun embezzling funds as early as September 2011, about a year after she became executive director.”
CASA is a nonprofit organization comprised of volunteers who are appointed by judges to advocate for abused and neglected children.
“Volunteer advocates — empowered directly by the courts — offer judges the critical information they need to ensure that each child’s rights and needs are being attended to while in foster care,” is stated as CASA’s mission on its national website.
“For many abused children, their CASA volunteer will be the one constant adult presence in their lives,” West said. “A large portion of the funding that supports CASA is generated by local donations and benevolent organizations such as the United Way.”
Owens worked for the organization until June 2013, when she emailed the county CASA board and tendered her resignation, after questions were raised about attendance issues, West said. The CASA employee who took over the directorship “quickly noted discrepancies in finances after reviewing financial documents,” the undersheriff said.
During the more than five-month investigation, the sheriff’s department obtained a search warrant for Owens’ Yukon home, as well as a warrant for her arrest, West said. Investigators collected documents and computer equipment at the home, he said.
“Owens systematically abused her position by issuing herself extra payroll, bonus checks and other unauthorized expenditures, and all but bankrupted CASA,” Sheriff Randall Edwards said.
Owens was booked into Canadian County Jail and held on $50,000 bail. She posted that bond and was released Monday evening, West said. Charges were expected to be filed this week, he said. If convicted, Owens faces up to 10 years in prison.
Owens is not the first CASA director to be accused of embezzlement from the organization. In 2009, Oklahoma CASA Executive Director Anna Naukam, 51 at the time of her indictment, and her 64-year-old husband, Eugene Naukam III, were convicted of embezzling about $500,000 from the organization. Eugene Naukam worked as CASA special projects coordinator.
Both Anna and Eugene Naukam eventually plead guilty to the charges. Eugene Naukam was sentenced to five years in prison and 15 years’ probation after admitting to one count of conspiracy to commit a felony and 41 counts of embezzlement. His wife also admitted to the conspiracy charge, as well as 148 counts of embezzlement with a sentence of 15 years in prison and 20 years’ probation. Together, the couple was ordered to pay more than $697,024 in restitution.
In reports published at the time of Naukam’s arrest, it was Owens who commented on behalf of CASA about the charges.
“We’ll be saddened and disappointed if the allegations turn out to be true,” she said.
“What makes this case so heinous is that the monies that were embezzled were to support under-privileged children and she spent it on herself, further victimizing these children,” Edwards said.
By Traci Chapman
May 31, 2013, started out as a normal day at Canadian Valley Technology Center’s El Reno campus.
By the time the sun set, all nine of the buildings on that campus would be destroyed in an EF-5 tornado that would break records as the widest ever recorded – at 2.6 miles – and logging wind speeds as high as 296 mph, according to National Weather Service data.
On April 1, technology center officials hope voters will approve a $12 million bond issue they say will help the campus get back on track. Although some concrete and iron supports remain of the buildings at the campus, located on state Highway 66 on the far-east edge of El Reno, the complete rebuild of the campus is not covered by insurance settlements received by the school, Superintendent Dr. Greg Winters said.
“This would help pay construction costs and would add less than $1 per month in ad valorem taxes on a $100,000 home or property,” Winters said.
Voters throughout the county are eligible to participate in the election, Canadian County Election Board Secretary Wanda Armold said Tuesday. Anyone who lives within a Canadian County school district also lives in a Canadian Valley Technology Center district, which extends beyond Canadian County, she said.
“There is Okarche and Geary – those are not in technology center districts, and areas like Deer Creek and Cashion are in Francis Tuttle’s area,” Armold said. “Every one of our precincts will be open.”
As part of the planned center rebuild are safe rooms that could protect about 1,200 people, Winters said. Between 1,000 and 1,200 people attend classes or visit the campus on any given day, the superintendent said.
The May 31 tornado first touched down at 6:03 p.m. southwest of El Reno, demolishing houses south of El Reno Municipal Airpark as it traveled what would eventually be 16.2 miles, ending at 6:43 p.m.
Four other tornadoes occurred at the same time or shortly after the El Reno twister, all in the Oklahoma City metropolitan area, including south of Mustang and Moore, which had suffered its own EF-5 tornado just 11 days before. Two of those were assigned EF-0 classification, while the others garner an EF-1 rating.
Although more people were killed outside Canadian County than inside its borders, Oklahoma City police said flooding – not tornadic activity – led to those deaths. Two families were found drowned after taking refuge in storm drains.
All of Canadian County’s victims were in vehicles, either on Interstate 40 or on or near U.S. Highway 81, Canadian County Undersheriff Chris West said. Those killed were 67-year-old William Rose O’Neal, a retired federal prison counselor from El Reno; Hinton rancher and truck driver Richard Charles Henderson, 35; Maria Pol Martin, 26, and her 1-year-old son, Rey Chicoj Pol, also of Hinton; Wilburton oil field equipment manager Dustin Heath Bridges, 32; and three professional storm chasers – 55-year-old Timothy Samaras and his son, Paul Samaras, 24, both of Bennett, Colo., and their partner, Carl Richard Young, 45, of South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
More than 120 homes and businesses were destroyed or seriously damaged as a result of the tornado and accompanying rain and hail, with the technology center and OKC West – located across Route 66 – taking a direct hit from the storm. No one taking refuge at the school was injured, although several teachers and students were there when the tornado struck, Winters said. Proposed tornado shelters would ensure that would be the outcome should the center ever be hit again.
“After all, it’s safety we are thinking of,” he said. “All of these other things – it’s difficult to replace them but they can be replaced.
“You can’t replace people,” Winters said.
Polls will be open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., Armold said.
By Traci Chapman
A rally Monday is expected to bring thousands of educators, parents and students to the state Capitol with one goal – get legislators to take seriously the need for increased public education funding.
Mustang Public Schools will be at that rally in a big way, Superintendent Sean McDaniel said Tuesday. The issue is critical for both district and student success, as Oklahoma continues the battle to prepare upcoming generations for their adult lives, he said.
“Our hopes are to accomplish two things; one, we want legislators to understand our local plight as a result of inadequate funding, and two, we want a substantial increase to common education funding this session as well as a viable long-term plan for funding common education moving forward,” McDaniel said.
Funding cuts have been an ongoing problem for several years, but the problem has recently intensified, McDaniel said. If education budgets are slashed further, those cuts could impact students in the classroom.
“Significant challenges that Mustang faces due to continued cuts to funding are inadequate staffing that will very quickly result in larger class sizes and cuts to programs and resources,” the superintendent said. “Additionally, our students in Mustang will begin to miss out on small group and one-on-one instruction as our class sizes get larger.
“Research is very clear that smaller class sizes do make a difference for students,” McDaniel said. “When you combine a large class size with a teacher who is less than a superstar, it will affect kids.”
Another side of that coin was the ability to attract – and keep – quality teachers. Offering competitive pay would mean educators would pick Mustang as their home, which would be the greatest benefit to students, McDaniel said.
“Reasonable pay – which I would define as the regional average as a start – would keep our teachers here and it would be a significant step in the right direction for our state,” he said. “The teacher is the single most important factor in a child’s success.
“By increasing teachers’ salaries to at least the regional average, we stand a better chance of recruiting and retaining our very best,” he said.
Those averages already impact Mustang, when teachers are lured to more lucrative areas or leave education completely, McDaniel said.
“We lose teachers from our state annually who leave the profession or move to other states because Oklahoma teacher pay is one of the lowest in the country,” he said.
Hope is on the horizon, McDaniel said. Rep. Lee Denny authored House Bill 2642, and if passed, the bill would mean $500 million dedicated to common education over the next 10 years, he said.
“Although this piece of legislation will not immediately restore funding to Oklahoma’s public schools, it will get us on a path that will help significantly,” McDaniel said.
Problems are not just at the state level, however, the superintendent said. There would always be ways districts could be more efficient and cut costs.
“We don’t believe this can just be a simple hand-out from our Legislature,” McDaniel said. “We believe we need to continue to be wise with our spending and do the very best we can to maximize the funds we do have.”
McDaniel said he believed the rally is critical to common education across the state, and that’s why he asked Mustang Board of Education members to cancel school that day. Although teachers and staff are not required to attend the rally, he said he believed a “strong show of support” would be seen – because everyone at the district knows exactly what is on the line when it comes to state funding.
“Our district will reach a point in the next three or four years, if we do not see an increase in funding, when resources and supplies and materials become scarce,” McDaniel said. “Thankfully, we have had responsible and intelligent people through the years in Mustang who have made very wise financial decisions for this district, and while that will certainly continue, we can only stand cuts for so long before it affects the classroom and the kids.”
The entire community is invited to be part of the rally, the superintendent said. An anonymous supporter offered to pay for drivers and rent buses to transport people to and from the Capitol. Parents, students and anyone interested in being part of the rally is invited, he said. Buses will leave from the north end of the Mustang High School parking lot at 8:45 a.m. and will probably return about 12:30 p.m., he said. Parking is available in the student lot, and individuals can also drive their own vehicle. Anyone wishing to attend can contact McDaniel’s assistant, Brenda Dunn, at 376-7399 by Friday morning, he said.
“This is a critical time in public education,” McDaniel said. “What happens on Monday, March 31 at the Capitol will make a difference one way or the other.
“If we get 20,000-plus parents, students, community members and educators to show up, it will send a very positive message to our legislators,” McDaniel said.
Eric Halter goes above and beyond his regular duties at Mustang Fire Department, giving to others in his free time.
Last week he was honored for his work and commitment as he was named Firefighter of the Year by American Legion Post 353.
Chief Carl Hickman recommended Halter for the honor. A graduate of Eastern Oklahoma County Technology Center’s Fire Academy, Halter joined MFD in February 2007. He is certified as Firefighter II and Fire Officer I, as well as a registered emergency medical technician, Hickman said.
Halter served as a drill instructor with the U.S. Army Reserve from December 2001 until December 2009, with the rank of staff sergeant, the chief said. He coordinated his schedule and gave his time to both his army service and firefighter duties with complete dedication, Hickman said.
It is in his work to help others where Halter really shines, the chief said.
“He was the race coordinator for a program called Muscles for Missions, which was a 5K run/walk with Mustang Nazarene Church,” Hickman said. “The event helped raise funds to support construction, education and medical care for the poor around the globe.”
In 2011, Halter and fellow firefighter Josh Moore also participated in the Oklahoma City Marathon, running to remember the 168 people killed in the 1995 Alfred P. Murrah bombing and to honor the survivors, Hickman said.
“Halter ran the race in his firefighting gear,” the chief said.
Closer to home, Halter is a “star” of the department’s fire prevention puppet show, works as a CPR instructor and teaches classes at his church and throughout the community, Hickman said.
“It’s an honor working with a firefighter and a man like Eric Halter,” the chief said. “He truly deserves this award.”
By Traci Chapman
An uptick in tax revenues meant good news in more ways than one for Mustang city employees, after council members unanimously approved a one-time bonus for them.
The move came during Tuesday’s regular meeting, when council approved the $750-per-person bonus, made possible by increased sales and use tax collections, City Manager Tim Rooney said.
“This was something we wanted to do for everyone, collective bargaining and non-collective bargaining employees alike,” Rooney said.
Council members Matt Taylor, Kathleen Moon-Staples, Terry Jones and Mayor Jay Adams all voted in favor of the measure. Council members Linda Bowers, Linda Hagan and Donal Mount were absent.
“I’m glad the ship is sailing and we’re in the black,” Adams said. “Righting the ship took a lot of hard work by everyone, the employees as well.”
Members also approved improvements to SW 89th Street, with two sections of work to be done between Mustang and Sara roads and from Sara to Morgan Road, Rooney said.
Cost of the work would be $430,000, with an additional $20,000 budgeted for possible contingent costs, the city manager said. Funding would come from the city’s street improvement fund, which currently has $650,000 in it, Rooney said.
“This a project we know needs to be completed because of the poor condition of the road,” he said.
The project cost will be lower thanks to help from Canadian County Commissioner David Anderson, as well as Silver Star Construction, which works for the city, Rooney said. Repairs are expected to be completed by the end of April, weather permitting.
The road will be closed to through traffic during construction, but local residents will have access to their homes, the city manager said. Work could begin in a few weeks, he said.