Events of 1993 Cost Valley Its Last Vestige of Serenity


It was the year the San Fernando Valley lost whatever remained of its innocence and flexed its political muscles.

The muscle ensured the election of a Republican mayor to succeed a liberal Democrat who many Valley dwellers felt had ignored them during his 20-year rule downtown.

The tatters of its sleepy past as a suburban retreat were buried by the lurid trial in Van Nuys of two wealthy young men who admit to shredding their parents with shotguns. At the same time, parents escorted their children to school, fearful of a serial molester whose brazen crimes drew the attention of a nation beleaguered by violence.


It was 1993, the year the Valley, once the quintessential “quiet place to raise kids,” dealt with harshly adult pressures, like a kid moving out of his parents’ house, feeling simultaneous hope, determination and terror.

The fat, prosperous, rising-middle-class days of the ‘80s were gone.

The recession that was supposed to be just a bump in the road to prosperity threatened to turn instead into some kind of economic sinkhole that sucked in more and more jobs. Men and women who a few years ago were building Firebirds at the GM plant and computing payloads at Lockheed were now hawking karaoke machines down at The Good Guys.

Housing values, which once enabled the owner of a bungalow in Reseda to sell out and use the profit to buy a ranch in Nevada, bottomed out harder than an old pickup.

It’s traditional to celebrate the passing of the old year. But this time, most of us would probably volunteer to drive the old mope to the city limits if that will get it out of town any faster.

What kind of year was it really? The kind when the local economy had gotten so bad in the high desert that people there greeted a new state prison Feb. 1 with open arms because it would generate jobs. Warden Otis Thurman promised that 300 of the 800 new jobs would go to people who live near the 252-acre prison in west Lancaster.

Rep. Anthony Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills) got an early start on a year of what some people would contend was heavy-handed immigrant-bashing--although others would argue that his was a long-overdue effort to restore some order to America’s leaky borders--when he introduced several bills designed to slow the influx of illegal immigrants.

One provision would deny citizenship to the children born of illegal immigrants in the United States. “The federal government has failed miserably in its effort to stop illegal immigration,” Beilenson said in February.

The measure is still pending at year’s end and seems likely to be a lightning rod as the immigration debate spills over into the 1994 election season.

School violence was back on the front pages in late February, when Michael Ensley, a 17-year-old Reseda High School student who liked to play dominoes, was gunned down in a corridor of the school’s science building during a snack break. Ensley was the second student to be shot and killed on a Los Angeles Unified School District campus within three weeks, and the killing prompted the district to expand metal-detector searches to all 49 high schools.

In the skies, as on the ground, the old, sleepy Valley was passing away. In March, the Burbank Airport Authority voted to build a huge new terminal that by 2010 is expected to serve 10 million passengers a year--2.5 times the current total.

The new terminal will be built on 110 acres owned by Lockheed Corp. that had been home to the firm’s advanced aviation center, the Skunk Works.

In late March, an old conflict flared anew when it was revealed that a clinic at San Fernando High School was one of only a handful of school-based clinics in the nation providing students with Norplant birth control devices, the controversial long-term system that uses matchstick-sized implants inserted under the skin.

Some of the same community activists who railed against the clinic when it opened in 1987 took up the cudgel again. Clinic operators called the furor “unconscionable,” but some of the simplest, and most eloquent defenses came from the students.

One girl made it plain that Norplant may have been the only thing keeping her from getting pregnant. She said the pill was a hassle and her boyfriend wouldn’t use condoms. “A lot of my friends have kids,” she said, “and I see what it has done to them.”

On April 20, the kind of mass mayhem particular to the economically distressed and armed-to-the-teeth ‘90s was visited upon the MCA World Headquarters in Universal City. John Jarvis, a 58-year-old man with a grudge and a full ammunition magazine, pumped bullets into the 15-story Black Tower between sips from a bottle of liquor.

Seven employees were wounded, five by flying glass, before the 35-shot barrage ended. Unlike the more deadly mass shootings around the nation, which have lent a new term to the language, referring to shooting up the office as “going postal,” this incident had a distinctly downbeat quality to it. Not only did pedestrians wandering by on errands not give a second thought to the pops in the air, but it all ended when a single police car drove up. Jarvis, who lost a job at MCA in 1986, took a last swig from his bottle and gave up.

President Clinton swept into town May 18 to pump up public support for his economic plan. Valley College students crowded up against Secret Service agents to hear him and maybe shake his hand. One man, overcome by excitement, tried to start a chant: “ ’96! ’96! ’96! ’96!”

No one joined in. “Let’s just get through ’93 first,” said a lone voice in the crowd.

It was a particularly prescient remark, because getting through ’93 would prove to be a trial, especially for politicians such as state Assemblyman William J. (Pete) Knight (R-Palmdale), who succeeded in creating the kind of controversy in his Antelope Valley district that an opponent could only dream of stirring up when he distributed a poem ridiculing illegal immigrants.

Called “I Love America,” the five-stanza poem written in a mocking style tells the story of an immigrant who crosses the border illegally, goes on welfare, asks friends to help invade an Anglo neighborhood, and jokes that Americans are crazy to support them with their taxes.

Latinos were deeply offended. But the depth of anger over the festering immigration issue revealed itself on a local talk radio station when callers overwhelmingly supported the onetime X-15 test pilot.

In late May, a study showed what all the former aerospace workers studying for their teaching credentials already knew. As the American military was whittled down, defense spending in the Valley and surrounding areas had declined dramatically. The plunge was 16% since 1989, a rate three times greater than the rest of the hard-hit state of California.

Universal CityWalk, which opened May 24, was everything L.A.--gaudy, cheerful, outgoing and, best of all, it was a mall.

CityWalk--you knew this was a trendy place because it had eliminated the space between words--was a $100-million testimonial to the Southern California lifestyle, complete with a fake beach and a fortuneteller. The collection of 40 shops and restaurants attached to Universal Studios was also a hit with the public from the moment it opened.

“There are more people than we know how to deal with,” said one overwhelmed shopkeeper.

As the school year dragged to a close, a group of Sylmar elementary schools put themselves in the vanguard of the school choice movement when they agreed to allow parents to choose among the seven campuses, regardless of the neighborhoods where the parents lived.

The competition for students heated up quickly. One school boasted in a brochure of its “attractive, well-kept campus” with a “view of the surrounding mountains.”

Foreshadowing the vote later in the year on the statewide school voucher initiative, it turned out that most parents in Sylmar were happy with the campus around the corner, whether it had a view of the mountains or not. Very few actually opted to send their kids elsewhere.

In June, the National Park Service announced the acquisition of Bob Hope’s 2,308-acre Jordan Ranch in the Simi Hills east of Thousand Oaks. It was the largest single addition to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and brought area Park Service holdings up to more than 20,000 acres, well on the way to the goal of 35,000 acres.

“I’ve got Bob Hope’s ‘No Trespassing’ sign in the back of my truck,” said Joseph T. Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, in celebration of the acquisition.

Election day on June 8 brought a revolution to Los Angeles, a revolution engineered in the crime-weary, recession-scarred Valley. Pushing aside the anointed successor to Tom Bradley, the Valley ensured the election of a novice politician, Republican Richard Riordan.

Riordan repaid the debt by beefing up the Valley’s clout on a variety of city commissions. His trademark giggle in place, Riordan hit a succession of grace notes when he pledged more police and promised to make the city more friendly to business.

The same fears of crime and anger over a recession that wouldn’t end caused voters to throw out 16-year incumbent City Councilwoman Joy Picus in favor of her former aide, Laura Chick.

Striking a theme that many voters could identify with, Chick told audiences that she had moved to the Valley in search of good schools, quiet neighborhoods and low crime. But suburban tranquillity, she said, “is slipping through our fingers.”

At the same time, Richard Alarcon became the first Latino elected to the council from the Valley, when voters chose him to succeed Ernani Bernardi, who retired after 32 years on the council. The race was close between Alarcon and Lyle Hall, but Hall’s campaign manager, Bob Stiens, finally summed it all up: “The fat lady has sung . . . and she’s left the stage.”

In late June, Roberta Weintraub, the Valley’s conservative voice on the school board, retired after 14 years. Known for her strident opposition to busing, which got her elected in 1979, she changed so much over the years that by the time she left office she had angered former supporters by championing such liberal causes as equal pay for the district’s women employees and dispensing birth control at school-based health clinics.

At a reception in her honor, Weintraub had no regrets: “There’s no resemblance to the Valley of yesteryear. So I’m happy with what I’ve done.”

In the heat of the summer, a key Assembly committee rejected a broad proposal to dismantle the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District, a stinging defeat for Valley interests who contend the 640,000-student district has grown too big and unwieldy to deliver effective education.

State Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Van Nuys) said he would not give up the fight to break up the nation’s second largest district. “We intend to carry on the battle for the public schools,” he said.

Sensational was almost too tame a word for the legal carnival that began July 20, when Lyle and Erik Menendez went on trial for the shotgun slayings of their parents. Filled with rancorous exchanges between the attorneys and testimony that verged on the obscene, the trial became a cultural phenomenon. On Halloween, the coolest costumes in West Hollywood weren’t the drag queens dressed as Disney characters, but young men in tennis togs, carrying toy guns under their arms.

One of the most unusual crime stories of the year came to light when police swooped down on a $400-a-month ranch house in Chatsworth on Aug. 10 and recovered nine works of modern art worth $9 million. Most of the paintings by Picasso, Degas and Chagall, among others, were hidden in a wall in Peter McKenzie’s rented house.

“As far as burglaries go, this was one of the most major of all time,” said Los Angeles Police Detective Bill Martin.

The paintings, including “The Party” by Picasso and “The Balleteuse Fixing Her Shoe” by Degas, were taken a year earlier from a public storage warehouse where McKenzie worked part time.

The paintings’ owner, Eve Weisager, 85, of Van Nuys, said she had just about given up hope of getting them back. She remembered thinking, “I’ll probably never see them again as long as I live, and how much longer can I live?”

In October, a North Hills couple was convicted of conspiring to manufacture and sell illegal weapons to an undercover FBI agent and an informant who posed as white supremacists looking for machine guns.

The convictions of Doris and Christian Nadal concluded an 18-month federal investigation into white supremacist groups in Southern California. Federal agents searched the Nadals’ home and found Nazi literature and a framed photograph of Adolf Hitler. During the trial, Christian Nadal, a flight engineer with his own plane and a boat docked at Marina del Rey, was described as an extremist willing to commit crimes in support of his belief that whites should arm themselves against minorities. Among other things, he was accused of wanting to drop bombs on South-Central Los Angeles.

Also in October, the central figure in one of the nation’s most far-reaching legal corruption cases was convicted of 13 felony charges. Lynn Boyd Stites, a Woodland Hills attorney, became the 13th lawyer to be convicted in the Alliance insurance fraud case, which the government estimated cost the insurance industry $50 million.

The wildfires that raced across Southern California--and killed three people, including British screenwriter-director Duncan Gibbins--produced many moments of pure terror. But few were as compelling as the danger that confronted the crew of Engine 98 as they relaxed on Lilac Lane in eastern Ventura County early on the morning of Oct. 28.

They were there to prevent the 1,500-acre Chatsworth fire from spreading into the area’s custom homes, but the fire appeared well under control. Then just before dawn, the wind shifted and a wall of fire 50 feet high roared out of a ravine and engulfed the firetruck.

“In under one minute it turned from a safe environment into an inferno,” said Los Angeles City Fire Capt. Sonny Garrido.

The four firefighters aboard Engine 98 leaped into the cab of the truck for safety, but the flames caused the windows to implode. All four were seriously burned. But in less than two months, all would be out of the hospital and eager to get back to work.

With the same kind of grit, residents of Topanga Canyon, long known for a particular kind of plucky bohemianism, survived the flames that spread over 18,000 acres between Malibu and Old Topanga Canyon Road.

Though 350 buildings from the canyons to the sea were damaged or destroyed, New Agers and old artists alike refused to leave homes that many had built with their own hands.

Psychiatrist-songwriter Peter Alsop distilled something about the off-center canyon residents when he hopped in his hot tub to watch the flames approach. “I was thinking that this has got to be the ultimate California experience,” he said.

By year’s end, police still had not tracked down a serial child molester accused of crimes against 32 children, including the rape of a 9-year-old girl.

The brazenness of the attacks--they continued even after police launched a publicity blitz to warn parents and school officials--set off what one school principal described as a “frenzy” among the public.

Parents began walking their children to school, and some children became so preoccupied with fear over the molester that they had difficulty concentrating on their schoolwork. Others had bad dreams about him, while at one school, children ran in fear from a top school district administrator because he was black, like the molester.

“This person or persons has to be apprehended,” said a weary school principal. “These kids are suffering.”

Finally, the alarm bell over school violence began ringing again at year’s end, after a teen-ager waiting for his mother to pick him up at Chatsworth High School was shot three times when he refused to give up his backpack to several robbers.

Gabriel Gettleson, a hard-working young man who played guitar in a fledgling heavy-metal band, barely survived the shooting but the incident mystified people trying to understand the senselessness of so much modern crime. All he had in the pack was his homework.

It was the first shooting in the history of Chatsworth High School, proof that no school and no student was exempt from violence.