A look back at 2013

Written by Union Democrat staff December 31, 2013 11:28 am

 

January

Tuolumne man imprisoned for fake courthouse bomb

A Tuolumne man was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Jan. 2 for planting a fake bomb outside the historic Tuolumne County Courthouse on Yaney Avenue in late 2011.

Sonora police determined Terry Paul Keever, 56, was behind a bogus device found inside a canvas bag that prompted an evacuation of the courthouse building on Nov. 28, 2011.

Keever was a Tuolumne County Jail inmate at the time of his arrest on June 16, 2012. He was due in court for a separate case the day of the bomb threat and was sentenced to jail in that case just two days later.

A California Department of Justice crime lab conducted DNA tests on the fake bomb, which returned a match for Keever.

The punishment for planting a fake bomb at a government building is up to one year in county jail. Tuolumne County Presiding Judge Eleanor Provost increased Keever’s sentence because of his prior convictions, poor performance on probation and parole, and attempts to implicate another person in the bomb threat to mislead police.

Merced River Plan unveiled

Yosemite National Park unveiled a contentious long-term management plan for Yosemite Valley that could affect park attendance and recreational activities.

The Merced River Plan would keep the number of visitors allowed in the valley to 19,900 per day and close various amenities in the park, including the Curry Village ice rink.

The proposed $200 million plan also calls for increased shuttle buses to reduce traffic congestion in the valley.

In July, a federal court in Fresno extended the court-ordered deadline for the plan from July 31 to Dec. 31. National Park Service officials asked for the extension after receiving more than 30,000 public comments.

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, and others argued the plan would hurt surrounding “gateway” communities that depend on tourist traffic to the park.

Environmental groups like the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center have said the plan doesn’t do enough to protect the river corridor.

School consolidation discussed

The Tuolumne County Office of Education opened talks of possibly merging the Summerville and Sonora union high school districts.

County officials began discussing a merger at Sonora High and Summerville High board meetings Jan. 22. Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Joe Silva said he would seek funding for a study from the nonprofit Sonora Area Foundation if the schools showed interest.

A group of consolidation proponents, led by former Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors candidate Domenic Torchia, requested funding for a study on unifying all of Tuolumne County’s 11 school districts into one.

The foundation denied the requests in April over concerns that funding a study could be perceived as political advocacy.

Torchia’s group, also known as the Tuolumne County Committee for Unification of Resources for Education, or TuCCURE, began gathering signatures from voters in October to put a district consolidation measure on the November 2014 ballot.

The group needs to gather signatures from 25 percent of voters in each school district, about 13,500 total, in order to put the measure on the ballot. As of Dec. 2, they had gathered about 650 names and planned on ramping up efforts over the holiday season at local stores and shopping centers.

Sheriff weighs in
on gun debate

Tuolumne County Sheriff Jim Mele wrote a defiant letter to President Barack Obama Jan. 22, seemingly spurred by the Obama administration’s efforts to place limits on gun sales nationally.

Mele joined a number of county law enforcement leaders — mostly in the western United States — who weighed in on gun control, following the administration’s calls for a renewed ban on so-called “assault weapons,” as well as new federal gun registration requirements.

“I believe that every law abiding adult citizen has the right to own, possess, use, keep and bear firearms,” Mele wrote.

“We will continue our fight for that which is right and that, is to protect and serve the citizens of this County. I and the young hero’s that serve our community, will not take guns from law-abiding citizens who have the right to protect themselves and their families.”

Mele said he would not enforce a law that he felt infringed on gun rights.

“If that meant I had to step down, I would step down,” he said in an interview.

Body of missing 
Air Force pilot found

The family of Lucas Gruenther, a Summerville High graduate and U.S. Air Force pilot, announced Jan. 31 that his body was found in the Adriatic Sea.

Gruenther, 32, was chief of flight safety for the 31st Fighter Wing and stationed at Aviano Air Base in Italy. The base lost contact with Gruenther’s F-16 Fighting Falcon during a nighttime training mission over the Adriatic Sea on Jan. 28.

His wife, Cassy Gruenther, also a Summerville High graduate, gave birth to the couple’s first child, Serene, just 10 days after the accident.

Hundreds of friends and family celebrated the life of Gruenther at Summerville High on March 17.

A 52-page report on the jet crash released in October by the Air Force determined Gruenther became “spatially disoriented,” due at least partially to poor weather conditions, the use of night-vision goggles and the plane’s high rate of speed.

Gruenther suffered fatal neck and head trauma during a high-speed ejection from the jet, according to the report.

February

Murder-suicide in Murphys

A Murphys man shot and killed his two teenage children and the family dog before turning the gun on himself in early February.

Philip Marshall, 54, and his children, Alex, 17, and Macaila, 14, along with their pet Shih Tzu, were found dead at their home in the Forest Meadows subdivision on Feb. 2.

Friends of the Marshalls discovered the gruesome scene after going to check on Alex and Macaila, who they hadn’t heard from them since Jan. 31.

A six-page investigation report released by the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office in March stated Marshall had previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Investigators believe Philip Marshall acted alone when he used his 9mm Glock semiautomatic handgun to murder his children as they slept on the couch. His toxicology screen showed painkillers and an antidepressant were in his system.

Marshall’s children were both students at Bret Harte High, where Alex played baseball and football for the Bullfrogs.

Several memorials for the slain children were held at the school. The Bullfrogs’ varsity baseball team honored Alex by hanging his jersey in their dugout throughout the 2013 season.

Claim over 
Columbia El sex acts settled

Columbia Elementary School’s insurers finalized a $100,000 settlement on Feb. 7 with the victim of sex crimes perpetrated by Brennan Pendley, a former Columbia after-school program aide.

Brennan Pendley, son of Columbia Union School District Superintendent John Pendley, pleaded guilty in 2011 to having unlawful sex with the eighth-grade victim. The settlement resolved a tort claim served on her behalf by Sonora attorney Brad Young.

The number of complaints by citizens during Columbia Elementary board meetings, which had been steady for more than a year, ebbed after news of the settlement spread. Their complaints centered on John Pendley’s role in hiring his son, who was unqualified for his after-school-aide job, Pendley’s allowing his son to work at Belleview School as a laborer after the Sheriff’s Office investigation was launched, and on Pendley’s role in getting staffers to write letters to a judge urging leniency on his son.

A 2013 Tuolumne County grand jury report released in June found Columbia and Belleview Elementary had failed to follow regulations and best practices in hiring Brennan Pendley, who was 23 years old at the time.

In its formal response to the report, the Belleview School District promised to review its hiring and job assignment policies at the recommendation of the grand jury.

Deputy DA 
accused of misconduct

A Tuolumne County prosecutor was accused of misconduct in February over claims he made during a heated race for a seat on the Yolo County Superior Court bench in 2012.

California State Bar attorneys filed “disciplinary charges” Feb. 12 against Clint Parish, then working as a Tuolumne County deputy district attorney.

A state judge admonished Parish in September over allegations that he made false claims in 2012 about himself and an opponent while running for the Yolo County judgeship. No further disciplinary action was imposed.

Parish was hired as a Tuolumne County deputy district attorney in fall of 2012, shortly after losing in the Yolo County election. He is no longer with the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office, however, after failing to pass his one-year probationary period.

In November, Tuolumne County District Attorney Mike Knowles declined to specify why Parish failed the process.

Prior to the State Bar Court’s decision, Knowles defended his decision to hire Parish.

Parish has since opened a private, criminal-defense practice with offices on Washington Street.

Winter storm wreaks havoc

An unexpectedly strong winter storm dumped heavy snow on the Mother Lode on Feb. 19, causing massive traffic snarls, knocking out electric power to thousands of people and stranding students at area schools.

The storm dumped snow at elevations far lower than the 2,400 feet forecast by the National Weather Service. Snow fell as low as La Grange and Copperpolis, and created blizzard-like conditions at higher reaches.

Twain Harte received 9 inches of snow, while Dodge Ridge Ski Area received well over 3 feet by late that afternoon.

About 17 weather-related auto accidents were reported in Tuolumne County at the height of the storm around 4:30 p.m., as well as 11 more in Calaveras County.

Up to 100 cars were caught up in a collision and pile-up at Highway 49 and Rawhide Road near Tuttletown. On Highway 4 in Calaveras County, a 13,000-pound armored transport vehicle caused a 30-car pileup after it lost control and crashed near Forest Meadows Drive.

Several schools canceled bus service and were closed the following day, including Belleview, Columbia, Curtis Creek, Long Barn, Sonora Elementary, Sonora High, Summerville High and Bret Harte High.

Nearly a dozen power outages affected more than 1,000 PG&E customers in Sonora, Jamestown, Murphys, Columbia and Angels Camp.

A tanker truck overturned on Highway 108 between the Yosemite and Montezuma junctions the next morning about 6:25 a.m., spilling up to about 1,800 gallons of fuel which seeped into the surrounding soil.

Caltrans crews worked for two weeks to clear contaminated earth along the three-mile stretch of highway west of Jamestown and make repairs to the damaged roadway.

Sonora Walmart case 
heads to Supreme Court

The case involving Walmart’s plan to transform its Sonora store into a 24-hour, grocery-selling “Supercenter” is headed to the California Supreme Court.

A petition for review was granted by the Supreme Court on Feb. 15, after an October appellate court ruling was challenged. The Supreme Court will now have to decide whether the city of Sonora can exempt the mega-retailer from state environmental regulations.

The Fifth District Court of Appeal ruled that the city cannot exempt the store from environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act without voter approval, overturning a Tuolumne County Superior Court ruling.

The store’s expansion, which was approved as an ordinance by the Sonora City Council in 2010, is being challenged by a mostly anonymous group known as the “Tuolumne Jobs and Small Business Alliance,” which is being represented by Stockton attorney Brett S. Jolley.

Attorneys for both sides have since filed briefs with the Supreme Court, but the matter is still pending review.

The case was originally scheduled for an early-2012 trial in Tuolumne County Superior Court.

March

Wildcat gridders lose to rival Oakdale in final VOL meeting

The Sonora Wildcats football team squared off against arch-rival Oakdale in early November for the final time in Valley Oak League play.

As is mostly the case when the Wildcats and Mustangs collide, playoff berths were on the line. Oakdale prevailed 28-21 in the 96th meeting between the two schools and holds a 60-35-1 series advantage.

The rivalry is not coming to an end when the Wildcats move into the Mother Lode League starting in the fall of 2014. Sonora will play at Oakdale to start the season for the next two years and after that, nothing is guaranteed.

Bears win school’s first basketball section title

The Summerville boy’s basketball team enjoyed its second special season in the last three years, although the 2013 squad did something no other Bear team has ever done — win a section championship.

The Bears navigated through a difficult Mother Lode League schedule undefeated to win the title and earn the No. 2 seed in the Section playoffs.

Summerville hosted a first and second round game and the “Bear Cave” rabid fan base made the Tuolumne gym a hostile environment for visiting teams.

The Bears ripped Riverbank in the semifinals at Tokay High in Lodi to earn the right to be Kings for a day at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento. 

Summerville buried Liberty Ranch on March 1 to earn the school’s only basketball section title.

Summerville’s magic carpet ride ended in the first round of the CIF State Championships.

Man says neighbor a hero

A Columbia-area man says his neighbor is a “hero” for waking him when his home caught fire on March 8.

The fire happened on the 22400 block of Gunsight Road, near Quail Mine Road. It was reported about 8:22 a.m.

It started in the flue and spread to the attic.

“My neighbor from a few doors down woke me up in my bed saying, ‘your house is on fire,’ ” said Rick VanWinkle, adding that he has no sense of smell so would have continued sleeping.

Adam Jimenez, the neighbor who woke VanWinkle, was visiting his friend’s house   when the fire broke out.

He said he heard a noise, thought it was a door opening, and looked outside to see smoke. 

VanWinkle called his friend “the hero of the day.”

Spring record temp met

Sonora met its record-high temperature for the date on March 13 — the thermometer hitting 78 degrees. The record was set in 1934.

The record low for the date is 21 degrees, set in 1977.

Golden find in Sonora

On March 19, construction laborer Eberardo Rodriguez, of Moreno Valley, was trenching the asphalt at Green and Bradford streets for a high-speed Internet link in downtown Sonora, when he made an incredible find: a dime-sized gold coin predating the Gold Rush and California statehood.

The $2.50 coin was minted in 1844 in Charlotte, N.C., the markings indicated.

According to the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation website, 11,622 Charlotte mint $2.50 coins were made that year. The metal alone had a value of $195.01, according to the NGC. However, factors such as age, condition and origin of the coin also determine its value.

Gary Carter, owner of DD’s Antiques N Such in Jamestown, offered to buy the coin from Rodriguez for $300, but the construction worker declined to sell it.

“If it was in excellent condition, it books for $900 and up,” Carter said.

April

Leaders nix 
local planning boards

On April 2, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors took the final step toward eliminating multiple local planning commissions and design review committees, a move critics said would disenfranchise communities from the planning process.

The board voted 4-1 on the final proposal, effective July 1.

The decision-making handled by the commissions is now handled by a single county planning commission, which is the norm in most counties. It also pared back the design-review process and county leaders hope will simplify the development process.

While backers say it will streamline the land-planning process, opponents said the committees and commissions give the county’s individual communities a voice and a role in local government they would not otherwise have.

The county had area planning commissions for Columbia, Jamestown and Southern Tuolumne County, which made recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on amendments to county zoning and long-range development plans, as well as land-use and development proposals in their areas.

Changes also included disbanding the Phoenix Lake, Muller subdivision, Twain Harte and Tuolumne City design review-planning advisory committees. Those committees commented on permits in their designated areas, which have additional zoning rules for properties.

The design review standards is only handled when county planners reviewed other permits for construction projects, and the design review permit was eliminated altogether. 

First dog park unleashed

Sonora’s first dog park, at Covey Circle, not far off Greenley Road, opened to the public.

The Sunrise Rotary Dog Park was built by volunteers and, as of April 10, was awaiting some finishing touches. 

The Sonora Sunrise Rotary Club completed the fencing for the runs, which include enclosed access areas to unleash the dogs, as well as benches and shade trees.

Eventually, the dog park plan includes water fountains for drinking and trash receptacles for cleaning up after the dogs.

The project has been ongoing since 2010 and is supported entirely by donations and volunteers from the community and local contractors. The Sunrise Rotary has also held multiple fundraisers for the park, progress on which has been limited to the resources on hand.

For more information on the Sunrise Rotary Dog Park, visit www.sunriserotarydogpark.org.

Winfield takes
helm at Twain Harte, too

Trustees at Soulsbyville School District and Twain Harte-Long Barn Union School District voted April 11 to share Superintendent Jeff Winfield, superintendent at Soulsbyville. 

Twain Harte picked up 27 percent of his salary and benefits. 

Winfield’s tentative salary for the 2013-2014 school year was $104,000.

He planned to spend roughly two and a half hours a day at Twain Harte-Long Barn, and the rest at Soulsbyville.

For the past several years, Twain Harte-Long Barn shared Superintendent John Keiter with Summerville Union High School District. Keiter retired in June and Summerville High hired its own full-time superintendent. 

Girl killed in Valley Springs; brother faces trial

On April 27, an 8-year-old Valley Springs girl was murdered in her home on Rippon Road.

Leila Fowler, a third-grader at Jenny Lind Elementary, was stabbed to death while her parents were at a baseball game in town. 

Her 12-year-old brother, who was home with her, told the family that an intruder killed her and then ran off.

The town was thrown into fear and authorities searched the area to no avail. 

Sheriff’s deputies guarded local schools and bus stops and ponds were searched for the murder weapon. 

Local, state and federal law enforcement worked the case.

On May 11, Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office arrested the 12-year-old brother, now 13, on suspicion of second-degree murder. He’s being held at a Placerville juvenile detention center awaiting trial.

The boy’s lawyer has said he is innocent.

May

Public stirred 
over Columbia apartments

Debate heated up over a controversial proposal to build high-end apartments in Columbia at Parrotts Ferry and Union Hill roads.

The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors unanimously granted requests from developers Golden State Holdings and RC Equities for special permits and zoning changes for the 80-unit development. That decision overturned a previous rejection by the Columbia Area Planning Commission of the proposal, which generated some heated public debate at multiple public meetings.

Opponents claimed the complex would increase traffic and crime in the area, deplete the local water table, and affect historically-significant landscapes — the rock outcroppings left over from mining operations. Supporters said the complex would fill a need for quality rental units and boost the economy.

The following week, TUD considered lowering capacity fees and/or connection fees within the district to encourage development. While TUD officials said the proposal was independent of the apartment complex, it found its way onto district agendas only months after the developers asked TUD for substantial reductions in what would cost the developer almost $800,000 in up-front connection fees for sewer and water.

Though approved, the project eventually was killed by the developer as a result of a lawsuit. TUD has yet to implement any of the proposed changes to connection fees.

Black Oak Casino
and Resort opens new hotel

With a blessing, the click of cameras and a snip of some scissors, the new hotel at Black Oak Casino Resort formally opened May 15.

Members of the public and Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians gathered for a special ribbon cutting ceremony for the hotel, which quietly opened earlier in the month. Tribal leaders also celebrated the 12th anniversary of the Black Oak Casino, recognizing how far the popular destination had come since opening as a 28,000-square-foot hall with some slot machines and a few table games.

Now the resort boasts the largest hotel in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, with 148 rooms and 16 suites. The new, five-story building also holds about 6,000 square feet of space in multiple rooms for meetings, conferences and other public events. An outdoor pool is planned, as well.

June

Counties tackle 
budget shortfalls

Boards of Supervisors and top staffers in Calaveras and Tuolumne counties grappled with budget issues for yet another round budget hearings, continuing the trend of cutting back since the financial crash and ensuing recession in 2008.

Calaveras County faced a $2 million shortfall between revenues and expenditures with estimates that the general fund budget would shrink in the next year again. To close the gaps without layoffs, the county Board of Supervisors and administration used a mix of keeping positions vacant, cutting spending on supplies, contingency reductions and other miscellaneous moves.

In Tuolumne County, supervisors and administrators also had to find about $2 million in cuts and opted to eliminate seven positions while restoring forced furloughs that had been in place multiple years as a cost-saving measure.

The Board of Supervisors approved the preliminary budget in June, though contract talks with employee bargaining groups continue through 2013.

Anglicans move 
out of Red Church

With some prayers and tears, the Anglican parishioners at St. James’ Church in Sonora formally moved out of the building on June 12.

The congregation at the historic Red Church gathered for a final noontime service before handing the building back to the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin. It was the final act of closure following years of legal wrangling over who owns the oft-photographed building at Highway 49 and Snell Street, as well as another in Turlock.

After the service, they left and reconvened for a celebratory service at St. Michaels and All Angels Anglican Church on Highway 108, which will now serve as their home church.

A legal settlement between the two dioceses has the Anglican church officially turning over the building by July 1. The Red Church and other properties in the region had been involved in legal battles with the San Joaquin Episcopal Church over who owns the church properties. The churches were previously under the authority of the Episcopal Church, but their affiliations were shifted in 2007 when the previous San Joaquin Diocese pulled out of the Episcopal Church and joined the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone over theological differences.

New Columbia El 
sex crime allegation

The Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office investigated a claim that a Columbia Elementary School tutor sexually assaulted a student on campus in October 2010.

No arrest was made in 2010, and the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office did not file charges. Columbia Elementary School immediately told the volunteer not to return, according to Sheriff’s Sgt. A.J. Ford.

The alleged incidents took place on campus during the school day. The suspect was an elderly man and retired teacher who had since died, Ford said.

This was the second allegation of sexual misconduct on campus in as many years.

In the spring of 2011, Brennan Pendley, an after-school program aide and son of Columbia Union School District Superintendent John Pendley, was arrested on sex charges related to a female student. Brennan Pendley later pleaded guilty to having sex with the eighth-grade girl in a classroom in spring 2010. He was 23 at the time.

July

Fire fees

The second round of controversial state firefighting fees began in July for many Mother Lode residents as a judge allowed a legal challenge to continue against the fees at the end of the month. 

The $150 fee for State Responsibility Area fire costs in primarily rural areas is to pay for fire prevention costs such as clearing brush and thinning forests, according to the state. It was enacted in July 2011. 

The fees were delayed this year as a result of technical issues and because more than 100,000 appeals were filed with Cal Fire.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a class-action lawsuit in 2012 calling the annual fee an illegal tax.

A Sacramento judge, Eugene Balonon, allowed the lawsuit to continue, but ruled that some plaintiffs had to be removed for not first following the state’s appeal process. 

Ron DeLacy dies

Long-time Tuolumne County resident, journalist and musician Ron DeLacy died July 21 at his Columbia home after a year-long battle with cancer.

DeLacy was known in the Mother Lode mostly for his music, playing in the High Sierra, Bear Valley and Strawberry music festivals in his “politically incorrect folk duo” Doodoo Wah, which also toured the country, recorded six albums and won seven advertising awards. 

He worked for six daily newspapers, starting in Hawaii and including 27 years with the Modesto Bee. 

DeLacy had recently been chosen to ride in Columbia’s Glorious Fourth of July Parade as grand marshal. 

Columbia arsonist sentenced

A 22-year-old man with mental illness was sentenced in late July for admittedly setting the Columbia House Restaurant, in Columbia State Historic Park, ablaze. 

Daenon Brewer was sentenced to 7 years, 4 months in state prison for arson, burglary and drug possession, as well as ordered to pay $3,440 in restitution. 

The building was about 75 percent destroyed in the Dec. 10 fire, which did damages amounting to nearly $1 million, according to prosecutors. 

His mother said he has struggled with mental illness after receiving traumatic brain injury when he was hit by a car in 2010 and they have had trouble getting adequate help. Judge James Boscoe of the Tuolumne County Superior Court said it was considered in his sentencing. 

The restaurant is being restored.

West Point homicide

A man and woman were both found shot in a West Point home on July 9. 

Norman Gresham III, 47, was found dead and Jessica Elder, 37, was unconscious with a gunshot wound to the head and rushed to a Modesto hospital.

A Calaveras County man, Gary Fielden McMahan, was named by the county Sheriff’s Office as a “person of interest” and the next day was arrested in Sacramento after allegedly stealing a motorcycle and evading police. 

McMahan was charged in Sacramento Superior Court with the crimes related to the alleged evasion, but has not yet been charged with any crimes in relation to the homicide. No one else has been arrested or charged as of yet. 

Elder was released from the hospital to live with relatives outside the county and a Sheriff’s Office spokesman said she was not believed to be in danger.

Gresham’s father said he had spoken with his son days prior to the shooting and there was no indication he was in trouble.

August

“Hopping mad” —
McClintock Frog Status

Hundreds of people gathered in the Sierra Building at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds to show their concern over a proposed endangerment-status change to three frogs by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which many thought would put undue restrictions on land use in the Mother Lode. 

Congressman Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, hosted the public forum about the Service’s proposal to protect habitat for the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog and the Yosemite toad — an area which includes over a third of Tuolumne County and a small portion of Calaveras County.

Five out of six panelists invited by McClintock’s staff and the vast majority of the crowd were against the proposal, saying the proposal was based on bunk science and could impact public use and cattle-grazing in the protected areas. 

The one panelist and few supporters present said the vast majority of the habitat was on federal land and essentially would only require federal entities to check with the Forest Service about proposed projects and uses of the land. 

The Forest Service has not yet made a final decision. 

Film shoot in Groveland

A new film was shot in Groveland, partially featuring the town itself, and starring a man formerly in an Academy Award-winning film.

“The Road Within” — an indie film about a man with Tourette syndrome running away with friends from a clinic — is set to come out in 2014 and had some key scenes shot in Groveland in August.

Cast members Zoe Kravitz, daughter of actress Lisa Bonet and musician Lenny Kravitz, and Dev Patel, star of the 2008 Academy Award-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire,” were there, among others. 

A researcher for the film said Groveland was a “no-brainer” for charming, small towns and the town and business names would likely not be changed. 

Rim Fire 

The Rim Fire started on Aug. 17 in a relatively remote canyon of the Clavey River, about 5 miles west of the Lumsden Bridge over the Tuolumne River within the Stanislaus National Forest. 

It multiplied in size within its first days, forcing the closure of Highway 120 and evacuations for hundreds of residents along the highway as well as recommended evacuations for residents along the eastern side of Highway 108 within weeks.

It ultimately grew to be the state’s third-largest recorded fire at 257,314 acres — about a third in Yosemite National Park. It was fully contained Oct. 24. It burned 112 structures, caused 10 injuries but no deaths, and cost $127.35 million in direct suppression costs alone.

The smoke triggered air quality warnings in both Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, forcing local schools to close.

The fire’s cause was determined to be a hunter’s illegal campfire. The unnamed man has yet to be charged with a crime.

Child abuse

A string of child abuse cases with serious injuries and death came through Tuolumne County Superior Court at this time. 

One 25-year-old man, Shaheed Williams, pleaded guilty mid-August to putting his own 4-month-old son in a coma for several days and possibly paralyzing him for life by choking him multiple times. 

Another, Kevin Boehmer, has just been sentenced after pleading guilty to volunteer manslaughter and assault charges for killing his 3-month-old daughter. 

During this, another case with an infant with broken bones began, but was dropped for further investigation. 

The Prevent Child Abuse Tuolumne County council compiled a list of county resources for struggling parents, gave warning signs of an abusive person and recommended preventative action. 

The Center for a Non-Violent Community maintains a 24-hour crisis line for anyone, including those only seeking advice, at 533-3401.

 

September

Bear Valley back on market

A prospective buyer of Bear Valley Mountain Resort backed out of the deal Sept. 4.

The purchase contract, signed by an unnamed company in June, was terminated that week.

The resort, off Highway 4 in eastern Alpine County, is now owned by partners Dundee, San Jose-based developer Toeniskoetter, Breeding & Halgrimson and Palo Alto-based Radar Partners, a venture capital firm.

Bear Valley spokeswoman Rosie Sundell explained that managing Bear Valley Village can be complex because it includes Forest Service, county and private land.

The 1,700-acre ski resort went on the market in 2012. Included in the offering were slopes leased from the U.S. Forest Service, the 53-room Bear Valley Lodge, restaurants and retails shops in Bear Valley Village, a 9,000-square-foot employee housing complex and 11 acres identified for condominium development.

After about seven years of planning and environmental review, Alpine County approved a development plan in December 2012 permitting construction of more than 300 condominiums, a new lodge, a chair lift from the village to the mountaintop and an outdoor amphitheater.

Bear Valley owners have previously stated an infusion of millions of dollars in capital through either a sale or investment partnership will be necessary to advance the plans. 

Rural schools 
legislation advances

The U.S. Senate passed a bill Sept. 26 that will bring more than $1 million to the Mother Lode for public schools and county roads. 

Senators unanimously approved the Helium Stewardship Act of 2013, which includes a $329 million, one-year extension of a federal subsidy for timber-dependent counties in 41 states.

The House of Representatives also approved the measure unanimously. 

The bill was signed by President Barack Obama on Oct. 1.

The Secure Rural Schools program was enacted in 2000 to help timber counties make up for revenue lost when national forests reduce logging to protect wildlife.

Since the program expired in 2006, it has been reauthorized several times.

In 2008, Congress enacted legislation to modify the formula for allocating the payments.

The extension passed in Congress will offer funding at a 5 percent decrease from last year.

For the 2011-12 federal fiscal year, Tuolumne County school districts received $481,682 in timber payments. Additionally, Yosemite Community College District received $14,897 and the Tuolumne County Office of Education received $87,632.

Calaveras County also collects money from the Secure Rural Schools program, but receives much less than Tuolumne County because it has significantly less federal land.

Last year, Calaveras County school districts received $58,375, Yosemite Community College District received $1,022, San Joaquin Delta received $576 and the Calaveras County Office of Education received $17,706.

Funding won’t arrive until January.

Confidence Inn burns

The historic Confidence Inn was damaged Sept. 30 in a structure fire.

The fire was reported at 5:30 a.m. by a motorist driving by the business, 23370 Highway 108 in Confidence.

The Inn’s tavern and former restaurant area were damaged.

The Inn was established in 1926. Despite the name, it had not functioned as an inn for several decades. The restaurant hadn’t been open for several years.

In its heyday, the Confidence Inn was the only operating business in the town of Confidence, a once-thriving gold mining area, now with a population of about 50.

The fire’s cause was determined to be accidental due to electrical wiring in the attic.

Owner Patricia Clement, who’s owned and operated the business since 1994, was unsure if she’d rebuild.

Damages were estimated from $250,000 to $300,000.

October

U.S. government shuts down

With members of Congress and the president unable to make a budget deal, the federal government shut down from Oct. 1 through Oct. 16.

Locally, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation offices and services and Yosemite National Park were shut down, affecting thousands of people. 

Recreation facilities and services were put on hold, which had a negative economic impact for the Mother Lode, especially businesses in Groveland and people who didn’t get paid for the lost time at work.

Yosemite represented the biggest impact from the federal shutdown, as the popular park was closed to all recreation and traffic not heading through Tioga Pass. The Park Service furloughed 660 employees, who did receive back pay per legislation.

At least one business in Groveland went out of business because the strain from the shutdown added to the strain from the Rim Fire was too much to bear.

Concessionaire Delaware North Companies essentially laid off about 1,100 of its 1,400 employees who usually work at the park’s lodges and restaurants in the fall. 

Along with the employees at Yosemite, countless tourists were forced to cancel their plans with the closure.

The House and Senate voted Oct. 16 to end the shutdown that began when Republicans tried unsuccessfully to use must-pass funding legislation to derail the president’s landmark health care law, the Affordable Care Act.

Congress approved government funding only through Jan. 15.

 

Burson slaying probed

An Oct. 16 shooting left a man dead and a woman critically injured at a ranch near Valley Springs.

Charity Ford, 56, of Burson, faces charges of suspicion of murder, attempted murder and child cruelty. She is accused of shooting her husband, Randy Ford, 52, and granddaughter, Britney McGhee, 20, about 10:15 p.m. at their home on the 5700 block of Amos Lane, according to Calaveras County Sheriff’s Department.

Ford told authorities she believed her husband was cheating on her and admitted shooting him. 

She is awaiting trial in Calaveras County Jail, held on $3 million bail. She’s set to have a preliminary hearing Feb. 3 in the Calaveras County Superior Court.

Pools and drops of blood and bullet casings showed that Randy Ford was shot inside, then chased outside and shot again, according to sheriff’s investigators.

The “Statement of Probable Cause” required for a search warrant states that Charity Ford told Calaveras County Sheriff’s deputies she had been taking antidepressants, but quit them a month prior, and had consumed some alcohol that night.

McGhee, who called 911 that night, said she heard a gunshot, went into the hall and saw her grandmother holding a 9mm pistol, according to the documents. Her grandmother then shot her in the thigh, McGhee said. 

McGhee fled to her room and heard more gunshots, records state.

He was found dead about 140 feet from the house, next to the driveway about 10:25 p.m., 10 minutes after the 911 call. An autopsy showed he died of shock and hemorrhage from five gunshot wounds.

McGhee had a 5-month-old son in the house, who was found uninjured. She has since stabilized and has been released. 

Toronto elephants 
arrive at PAWS

Iringa, Toka and Thika — ages 44, 43 and 33, respectively — became the three newest residents of the Performing Animal Welfare Society ARK 2000 sanctuary in San Andreas.

The African elephants left Toronto late Oct. 17 and arrived at the sanctuary on Oct. 20. A press conference held at the ARK 2000 sanctuary Oct. 21 included retired TV game show host Bob Barker, who paid $950,000 for the animals’ relocation.

Barker, a longtime supporter of PAWS and former host of “The Price is Right,” is serious about elephants.

“Elephants cannot be happy or healthy in a zoo,” he said, adding that PAWS is “truly a paradise for these magnificent animals.” 

The transfer of the three Toronto elephants had been anticipated for the past two years. 

The Toronto Zoo decided to close its elephant exhibit for a variety of reasons, including the cost of building a new elephant facility. In October 2011, the Toronto City Council voted to send the elephants to PAWS.

TUD fires GM Kampa

The Tuolumne Utilities District board voted to fire General Manager Pete Kampa during a closed-door meeting Oct. 22.

The board voted 3-2 to fire Kampa effective immediately, with directors Ruanne Mikkelsen and Delbert Rotelli against the decision.

Kampa was hired in 2006 after serving as general manager at Twain Harte Community Services District.  

Later that week, TUD district engineer Tom Scesa was tapped to replace Kampa as general manager.

The move was made during a performance evaluation, which Kampa was not invited to attend.

Under his contract, Kampa will receive an additional year’s worth of pay and medical benefits — about $150,000 — because the board decided to terminate the agreement “without cause.”

In March 2012, the board renewed Kampa’s contract for another five years and he agreed to a 7 percent cut in compensation in light of the district’s budget woes, reducing his base salary to $150,000.

Kampa became a target for several ratepayers who opposed a proposed 50 percent rate hike in late 2011. Kampa argued the increase was necessary to cover the cost of needed improvements to the district’s aging system infrastructure, which includes storage tanks, treatment plants and water tanks.

The district is currently ineligible for many state grant programs to help fund such improvements because its rates are considered too low.

Amid hundreds of customer protests, the board scrapped the controversial proposal and adopted a rate plan with a smaller increase in June 2012. Dissatisfied voters took to the polls that November and elected four new directors, including Sarno, Maciel, Johnson and Jim Grinnell. Mikkelsen was appointed by the board to replace Grinnell after he resigned in June due to health reasons.

Kampa said many of the problems at TUD stem from the acquisition of several defunct water districts in the 1990s.

Over the years, the district’s rates did not rise at the same time as increasing costs to repair and replace the acquired water-system infrastructure.

November

Bypass extension opens

The second phase of the East Sonora Bypass — extending Highway 108 from Peaceful Oak Road to Via Este Road — opened at the beginning of November.

Favorable weather allowed Caltrans crews to finish the bypass eight months ahead of schedule.

“The new expressway will be safer and save motorists time while reducing fuel costs,” Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty said during a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by 100 people. 

The $54 million project was funded through multiple sources, with $17 million from Tuolumne County.

Phase I of the East Sonora Bypass — from Sanguinetti Road to Peaceful Oak Road — was completed in 2004.

Twins die in Valley Springs

A Valley Springs mother was investigated in the deaths of her disabled twin sons following their deaths on Nov. 12.

Julia Hall appeared to be high on prescription drugs and may have ignored an alarm sounding for up to three days when her sons’ respirators shut down, according to statements contained in search warrant documents. 

Joshua and Ryan Hall, both 22, died from asphyxiation when their ventilators failed, the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Department reported.

No charges have been filed and Hall has not been arrested. 

Karaoke singer 
earns medal in Finland 

An Arnold mother of four took home the women’s bronze medal for the United States at this year’s Karaoke World Championships in Finland.

Kim Evans, 49, competed against female singers from around the world at the three-day competition in late November. 

Her final song, which secured third place, was “Fancy” by country star Reba McEntire.

Evans earned a spot at the 10th annual Karaoke World Championships following her win at the national finals held at Black Oak Casino in Tuolumne. 

Sonora Elementary set on fire

A Nov. 23 arson fire at Sonora Elementary School damaged 15 classrooms and caused more than $3 million in damage. 

More than $400,000 in new classroom technology — $50,000 per room worth of iPads and computerized chalkboards called Smartboards — were damaged or lost in the most severely hit classrooms.

The Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office has recommended a 17-year-old former student arrested on suspicion of purposefully starting the blaze be tried as an adult. A court decision to authorize adult prosecution is expected early next year. 

The school’s parent organization, Support Sonora School, played an integral part of the fire recovery. The group has collected bags of school supplies for each student and teacher directly affected by the fire, brought food to staff following the fire and raised more than $10,000 for the fire recovery.

Building F — which housed primarily fourth- and fifth-grade classes as well as office space — is expected to be demolished, while Buildings D and E will be cleaned and returned to use. 

December

Wildcat volleyball
team goes wild

The Sonora Wildcat volleyball team enjoyed a season of historic proportions.

The Wildcats went undefeated and earned the championship in the Valley Oak league.

They earned the top seed in the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs and proceeded to win their first title after reaching that game for the first time.

Sonora was rewarded with a No. 2 seed in the CIF State Championships.

The Wildcats hosted two games, and won both, in front of record-breaking crowds for volleyball at Bud Castle Gym.

The special season ended on Dec. 3 on the road in the State semifinals at private school power Menlo.

Sonora was the only public school in the State semis.

Record-low temps 
and low snow 

An early December snowstorm brought several inches of snow to the lower foothills and more than a foot to higher elevations.

The storm cut power to thousands of homes and the region experienced record-low temperatures. Many events were canceled because of the storm.

Warming shelters were opened to serve residents in both Tuolumne and Calaveras counties.

 

The storm proved an anomaly. Days later, Sonora saw some of it warmest days in years — in the mid-60s — and precipitation remained well below average for the year for the Central Sierra.