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The Top 2000 Ways to Say Orange County

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Can a county of 2.8 million people speaking more than 50 languages, observing dozens of faiths and operating under 33 city governments possibly share a single defining moment during the year?

Orange County couldn’t celebrate a Super Bowl win (no team) or the World Series (no pitching). We didn’t have a native son win the White House (no candidate), but a native daughter (Rep. Loretta Sanchez) did lose a gig at the Democratic National Convention after planning a party at the Playboy Mansion.

Another potential defining moment passed quickly in June for Orange County residents. We were told then that thousands of us might line up for a whiff of a rare flower on display at Cal State Fullerton that stinks when it blooms. The flower bloomed a bit early, and huge crowds never materialized.

Oh, well.

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Not that we should define ourselves in numbers, but in case you care, the median home price in the county kept climbing and settled at $281,000 in November. Meanwhile, the county’s unemployment rate heading into the year-end holiday season was a microscopically low (2.2%).

Those are numbers. Where’s the soul?

We lost some when the Tidy Didy Diaper Co. in Brea and the Haunted Shack at Knott’s Berry Farm both went bye-bye after 45 years of local service. The diaper company made its last home delivery of cloth diapers in January, but a Los Angeles firm began picking up the slack a few months later. At Knott’s, the historic shack was replaced by a bungee jump.

Progress? In the eye of the beholder.

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Still, let’s not give up the search for a defining moment. Let’s hunt and peck our way through 2000 in Orange County and not be surprised if things weren’t always as they seemed. After all, any year hailed as the start of a new millennium when it really wasn’t is bound to be somewhat illusory.

So, in search of definition but with wariness as our guide . . .

El Toro: It seemed like the proposed international airport at the former El Toro Marine base was scuttled when voters in March overwhelmingly passed Measure F, which would have required two-thirds voter approval for such large public works projects as an airport.

But, nine months later, a Los Angeles judge scrapped the vote, sending both sides back to regroup.

Airport opponents now talk of a new initiative--No. 4 since 1994 if you’re keeping score--that might be ready in 2002.

A midyear casualty of the airport wars: County Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier, an airport expert who quit in June amid squabbling with the Board of Supervisors.

Tobacco money: Voters also took on the supervisors in November by passing Measure H, which seemed to tell the board how to spend federal tobacco-settlement funds. But the board took Measure H to court too, where a decision is pending.

For the year, that meant two initiatives overwhelmingly supported by voters were challenged in court by 3-2 votes by the supervisors. Disconnection, anyone?

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Festival of the Arts: The board that runs the Festival of the Arts in Laguna Beach--home of that sought-after ticket, the Pageant of the Masters--announced plans to move the annual show to San Clemente, despite loud opposition from local members. Getting mad, and then getting even, the rebels ousted five board members in a recall and effectively killed the San Clemente plans.

Broadcom: A similar reversal of fortune arrived at the doors of Orange County’s answer to “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”

The Irvine chip maker’s stock had made millionaires out of hundreds of its employees who, if they’re lucky, still are. However, the stock that seemed impregnable when it closed at $282 last December now has burrowed well under $100. Edwards Theatres: In August, the overextended Newport Beach theater chain filed for bankruptcy protection and shut down some theaters.

Disneyland: The Orange County beacon is set to open a second theme park in Anaheim and is talking about a third. Meanwhile, the park has been so crowded in recent days that it has been forced to close its gates on several occasions.

But, for the second time in less than two years, tragedy struck in the Magic Kingdom. In September, 21 months after a tourist was killed standing on the dock waiting for the Columbia boat ride, 4-year-old Brandon Zucker was seriously injured when he fell out of the Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin.

Brandon has never regained consciousness. A state investigation blamed operator error and flawed ride design for the accident. Disneyland maintains the park is safe, but will make the changes called for by the state. Disney has already upgraded safety and emergency-response procedures.

Power crisis: South County residents were among the first in the state to see the onrushing electrical storm. Many residential and commercial customers of San Diego Gas & Electric saw their summer bills more than double, prompting the company to mail rebates to 100,000 South County customers.

Beach pollution: The county’s beaches continued to be plagued--literally and figuratively--by pollutants. A growing recognition that much of the sewer-line systems in the county need repair led to a belated admission by Huntington Beach that it didn’t report massive leaks to the state during the 1990s and further allegations that the city didn’t come clean with other agencies during the beach-closure emergency in 1999.

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City officials got year-end grand jury subpoenas.

Overturned convictions: Uncertainty reared its head twice in 2000 in a place we don’t like to see it--the criminal justice system.

In January, a judge freed DeWayne McKinney after he’d spent 18 years behind bars for murder. Investigations by the Orange County district attorney and public defender’s offices cast doubt on McKinney’s guilt after one of his alleged accomplices told authorities that McKinney, 21 when convicted, wasn’t there the night in 1980 when a fast-food restaurant manager was shot to death.

In an ironic twist, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas was the prosecutor at McKinney’s original trial and had argued unsuccessfully for the death penalty.

In August, the D.A.'s office again was in Orange County court asking a judge to reverse a serious felony conviction--this time for 18-year-old Arthur Carmona.

Rackauckas’ grudging decision to seek the release of Carmona, who by then had spent 2 1/2 years in custody for two armed robberies, came after media and citizens’ questions about his guilt and a powerful appellate brief filed by a Los Angeles law firm that handled his case for free.

In both the McKinney and Carmona cases, convictions were built almost solely on witness identifications. While not disparaging witness accounts, Rackauckas announced several weeks later a unique joint venture with the public defender’s office in which they would send letters to state prison inmates from Orange County, asking if they knew of any physical evidence that might exonerate them, such as DNA tests. The offices agreed to set up a panel to evaluate the replies.

Irvine intrigue: Irvine police in March began trying to piece together the shooting of James P. Riley, CEO of Biofem Inc., who survived a bullet wound to the face outside the Irvine Spectrum company.

As days and weeks passed, the case grew increasingly complex. His business partner, Dr. Larry Ford of Irvine, committed suicide three days after the shooting, and a police search of the dead man’s home and yard revealed a cache of weapons and germ-warfare materials. Police, who later arrested the alleged driver of the getaway car used in the hit, suspect that Ford helped plan the attack. No triggerman has been arrested.

Somber cases: Two particularly saddening murder cases involved the deaths of county youngsters.

In November, a jury spared 39-year-old Steven Allen Abrams after convicting him of driving his car into a Costa Mesa day-care center and killing two preschoolers. Agreeing that the Santa Ana man’s mental illness dominated his actions, two jurors went public and called for more help for the mentally ill.

In December, jurors returned a second-degree murder verdict against 49-year-old Peter Solomona of Buena Park for his point-blank killing of teenager Brandon Ketsdever, 17, who, with two friends, had swiped a $20 Halloween decoration from the man’s porch.

The convicted man testified that the teens’ action angered him but that the gun went off accidentally after he approached them in their car outside his house.

New bishop: Longtime immigrant advocate Jaime Soto was named auxiliary bishop for the county diocese. At 44, Soto became the county’s first Latino to reach the position.

A defining moment? Close, but . . .

So, what are we saying? Was there no moment that captured our communal sense of yearning and adventure? No instant when we rose as one and cried, “Yes, yes, that is who we are!”

Well, just maybe, it came the Friday before Christmas.

A 20-year-old valet at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Dana Point got the keys to a guest’s $175,000 Ferrari.

Sure, he could have let the car sit in the garage. But, at 1 in the morning, dreaming big dreams, he had other plans.

He took the car for a spin. He had to light that candle.

Within seconds, he had wrapped the Ferrari around a palm tree.

Ritz-Carlton. Valet parking. Ferrari. Palm tree.

Somewhere in there is a morality tale about our hopes and dreams and risks of failure.

Take it with you, boldly into the new millennium.


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