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Tragedies and Triumphs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County’s year 2000 was memorable for an unprecedented air disaster and a flurry of violent acts, for tree-hugging and farmland-saving, for skinhead crimes and desperate women charged with killing their own, or trying to.

For cool-handed Harry Hufford righting the course of county government and for a private hospital brazenly grasping for public money.

And for the odds and ends that made us smile--a tart-tongued Erin Brockovich and an Oxnard pooch that jumped from a freeway bridge and lived to bark another day.

The year’s first month ended horrifically as 88 people died when the tail of an airliner broke and it corkscrewed into the ocean seven miles off the coast.

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The year’s final months delivered a more-familiar tragedy as youthful Oxnard gang members shot each other at a pace not seen in years.

In between, 2000 was a year when voters embraced incumbents and this once-conservative county split down the middle between Al Gore and George W. Bush, even though the Texas governor came here to speak in Spanish to Latino voters from a train caboose.

Among our lawmakers, Elton Gallegly was finally challenged and Tony Strickland ran for his political life. Hannah-Beth Jackson, Tom McClintock and Brad Sherman showed they have the legs of long-distance runners. And Mr. SOAR, Steve Bennett, was one of several candidates to parlay a slow-growth resume into elective office.

The state moved to restore the Southland’s last free-flowing waterway, the Santa Clara River, and to preserve the county’s longest undeveloped stretch of private oceanfront, Ormond Beach. Ventura County fought a new city at Newhall Ranch on its eastern flank but welcomed a smaller one at Ahmanson Ranch to the south.

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With a budget windfall, school districts finally rewarded their teachers. But amid demands for classroom accountability, new state tests revealed which schools were performing well and which were not.

A years-long economic boom blasted right through 2000, but by year’s end there were signs of softening. The year slipped in with the irritating Y2K nonevent, and is slipping out with more ominous warnings of electric brownouts.

In athletics, a nimble halfback from Ventura ran for more yards than any high school rusher in U.S. history, an Oxnard boxing champion fought like a warrior in defeat and a former Thousand Oaks sprinter tasted gold three times in Sydney.

And in a bit of brilliance Ventura County has come to expect, two teams of high school scholars topped the state, then Simi Valley placed second in the nation in the Academic Decathlon.

Our Top 10 stories for 2000:

1: Air Disaster

The nightmare began with an ear-splitting boom when Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crashed belly up on Jan. 31 into the sea, shattering to pieces before sinking 700 feet to the bottom of the Santa Barbara Channel.

Never had Ventura County seen a more devastating air disaster. No one survived.

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Sudden death on this scale--88 men, women and children--jarred the county’s collective consciousness--first rallying rescuers, then tugging at the hearts of volunteers and finally ending with somber farewells that buoyed victims’ families.

Throughout the first long night, a flotilla of Ventura County boaters braved 15-foot swells to follow a grisly trail of floating fuel and bobbing flotsam--wreckage, body parts and several pairs of shoes.

In a community that has endured earthquakes, fire and flood, never had so many pulled together in such a desperate race against time.

On Day 3, the search-and-rescue mission turned to search-and-salvage.

Fishing boat captain Fred Mathis ferried family members to the wreckage site. A circling cutter played the “Dead Man’s Salute.” The families laid red-and-white carnations on the water.

Six days after the crash, the coroner’s office continued to identify bodies, a process finally completed this month. Questions were raised about the quality of work performed by mechanics at Alaska Airlines. Investigators eventually found a lack of grease on a mechanism in the plane’s tail that broke before the crash.

Ventura County was left with a heightened awareness that life is uncertain.

“I think it’s a fool that says God had a plan,” said Port Hueneme Pastor Dan Green. “That’s trite. That’s misinformation. When these accidents happen, it brings to mind that rain falls on the just and the unjust.”

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2: Money Grab

Like a predator sighting wounded prey, Community Memorial Hospital went after Ventura County government while it was down.

In the aftermath of a $15-million county fine for improper Medicare billings, the private Ventura hospital tried to wrest control of $260 million in tobacco settlement funds from the Board of Supervisors and give it to private hospitals.

Spending a record $2.3 million on Measure O, Community Memorial pummeled voters with mailers, billboards and electronic ads, insisting that the supervisors could not be trusted to spend the windfall cash on health care.

But the county trumped its old nemesis in the latest battle of this seven-year hospital war a week before the November election. Supervisors passed a law that directs most of the money to the county’s own safety net for the poor while giving some to private hospitals and health agencies. Outspent 20-1, opponents of Measure O prevailed 2-1 on election day.

“They were so slick they were unbelievable,” Supervisor John Flynn said.

But behind the scenes, a peace was in the making. After the election, the two sides quietly began meeting to find ways to work together. They need to.

Several local hospitals, including Community Memorial, are barely making a profit.

In other reflections of the stark reality of managed health care: Tiny Santa Paula Community Hospital declared losses of more than $2 million in fiscal 2000; the trustees of Ojai Valley Community bought back their little hospital from a national chain to restore services; and the county’s largest physicians’ group, Simi Valley-based Family Health Care, shut down, temporarily stranding 135,000 patients. The financial straitjacket fit tightly too on St. John’s hospitals in Oxnard and Camarillo, where nurses staged a Christmastime strike partly over what they consider to be substandard pay.

County chief administrator Harry Hufford said the new year offers great promise to resolve old differences.

“I’d love to figure out an end to these hospital wars,” said Hufford, who has begun peace talks with Community Memorial.

3: Cool-Hand Harry

Speaking of Hufford (and lots of bureaucrats were), the appointment of the 69-year-old to replace cut-and-run CAO David Baker in the final days of 1999 reverberated throughout 2000.

Hufford--the cheerful, wily and tough former top manager in the nation’s largest county, Los Angeles--helped solve the “overwhelming” financial and leadership problems Baker found here by getting an often-cranky Board of Supervisors to work together.

Hufford, initially hired for seven months and now contracted for 16, credits the board for backing him all the way through a tough budget fight that erased a $5-million deficit and eased the jitters of Wall Street bond firms.

Then the board voted unanimously to change the way the county does business by making its chief administrator more powerful.

The supervisors, meanwhile, paid a price for past transgressions, when supervisors John Flynn and Kathy Long had to survive tough challenges for reelection. Supervisor Judy Mikels also suffered when her state Senate opponent, McClintock, eased to victory.

Now, Hufford is hunkering down for a final four-month charge.

First, in a daunting test of supervisorial support, Hufford wants the board to amend a 1995 county ordinance implementing Proposition 172. The change would reduce the annual inflationary hike guaranteed to county law enforcement agencies on top of their $40-million yearly windfall from a special half-cent sales tax.

Then, as he eyes his April exit, Hufford will need to sell Ventura County to his successor, an administrator the board promises to hire on a 5-0 vote.

“If those we interview see a 4-1 vote,” Flynn said, “they might wonder: ‘Isn’t this board together? What’s the problem here?’ ”

4: Resurgent Crime

Six times in eight November days the guns of Oxnard’s barrios exploded, and before the month was out members of youth gangs there and in Santa Paula were suspected of perhaps a dozen shootings, two fatal--the worst spate of local violence in many years.

If street violence ended the year, the desperate act of a despondent mother began it.

In January, police say 40-year-old Narinder Virk woke her two young children at 2 a.m., walked them two blocks to Channel Islands Harbor, pushed them into the water and held them under. Only the heroics of a neighbor, ex-lifeguard Brian Wiggins, saved them.

Virk’s attorney said she was suicidal after being abused by her husband and snapped after he left for India with plans of divorce. She pleaded not guilty due to insanity, becoming the fourth Ventura County woman in a year to raise domestic abuse as a defense to charges of murdering or attempting to murder family members.

Contrast these acts of passion with the DNA science that shed new light on two notorious murder cases last year.

For two decades, the slayings of prominent Ventura attorney Lyman Smith and his wife, Charlene, remained a mystery. But in October investigators said biological evidence found at the Smith home and at four more slayings in Orange County was linked to a single serial killer, for whom the search continues.

In a separate investigation, the grand jury indicted Michael Schultz, 31, in the 1993 rape and murder of Ventura auto dealership manager Cynthia Burger, 44. Schultz was nearing release on a five-year burglary sentence when his girlfriend turned him in and a DNA test confirmed the link. At Schultz’s arraignment, friends of 15-year-old Jenniffer Vernals of Ventura sat in the courtroom. Schultz is a suspect in her slaying too.

But it took the case of 37-year-old bar-crawler Andrew Luster to capture the fascination of the tabloid world. An heir to the Max Factor cosmetics fortune, Luster was charged with 50 criminal counts for allegedly raping three young women after giving them a date-rape drug and videotaping the assaults.

“I’m a wealthy guy,” prosecutors say Luster told police. “I can’t screw up. I am not going to lose my money.”

5: Non-Capital Punishment

The victims were all killed in cold-blooded fashion--a fresh-faced ninth-grade girl from Ojai, a high school football player from Ventura, a nursing student working a day job in Santa Paula and a bullying husband in Ventura.

But for reasons of age, law or tactics, prosecutors did not seek the death penalty.

In February, smirking high school dropout David Alvarez, 24, the son of a wealthy Ojai couple, was sentenced to 25 years to life after acknowledging he strangled 14-year-old Kali Manley of Oak View after a two-day cocaine binge in 1998. Prosecutors questioned whether they could prove the attempted rape “special circumstance” required for a death sentence.

The same month, 38-year-old Gladis Soto was sentenced for shooting her sleeping husband to death, sawing his body into pieces and trying to burn it in a Ventura riverbed. Her attorneys argued that she lashed out after years of domestic abuse and had no criminal record.

She received 52 years to life for killing the father of her five children.

In March, Jose “Pepe” Castillo, 22, admitted that, while looking to pay off a drug debt, he killed 25-year-old Mirna Regollar in a failed robbery when the mother of two pressed an alarm in a Santa Paula minimarket. Then he saved his own life by turning against his accomplice, Alfredo Hernandez, 23.

Castillo had already admitted stabbing popular Ventura teen Jesse Strobel to death in 1993. Because he was 15 at the time, Castillo got only 3 1/2 years for that killing.

Next year, jurors will face the question of life or death in two cases involving white supremacists charged with killing young women to cover up crimes.

Jury selection has begun for 28-year-old skinhead Justin Merriman, who is accused of raping, stabbing and beating 19-year-old college student Katrina Montgomery to death in his Ventura home in 1992.

Working the Montgomery slaying, prosecutors believe they solved another murder when a prospective witness talked about the death of 17-year-old Nichole Hendrix in a Ventura motel room in 1998.

Now they have charged David Ziesmer, 27, of Oxnard, with stabbing and stomping Hendrix to death. Merriman and Ziesmer are members of the same Ventura gang, Skin Head Dogs.

6: Natural Selection

Onshore and off, up two rivers and beside them, on farmland and open space, the greening of Ventura County’s natural and political landscapes continued.

In its sixth year, the county’s ballot-box revolution to save its farms won in a seventh city, Santa Paula. Fillmore residents rejected two growth-control measures. But Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources supporters said the dueling measures confused voters and they promised to try again.

Elsewhere, SOAR leaders cashed in their environmental chits. SOAR co-author Bennett swamped Ventura Councilman Jim Monahan in the most expensive supervisorial race in county history.

In Moorpark, slow-growth activist Roseann Mikos was the top vote-getter for City Council. And in Thousand Oaks, SOAR sponsor Linda Parks and millionaire attorney Ed Masry--running on an environmental platform--overwhelmed a seven-candidate City Council field after spending a record $155,000.

Ventura County also won a key skirmish with Los Angeles County over development of the 22,000-home Newhall Ranch. A judge halted the project until builders can prove the venture will have a reliable water supply without drawing down underground basins that also serve this county.

Striking a blow for endangered trout and sandy beaches, U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt began the symbolic demolition of obsolete, silt-filled Matilija Dam near Ojai. Federal officials pondered, too, expansion of the Channel Islands marine sanctuary, a move fishermen said could put them out of business.

The California Coastal Conservancy also moved aggressively, beginning to buy a 12-mile stretch of stream-side habitat near the mouth of the Santa Clara River and agreeing to purchase hundreds of acres at Ormond Beach.

In Ojai, 51-year-old John Christianson jumped a fence, then spent an arduous day up a towering oak, but still failed to save two of three diseased trees the City Council feared might fall on children.

“We’re not freaks. A lot of people move to Ojai for the trees,” explained Ruth Henderson, 58, as TV camera crews arrived from L.A.

7: No Boom Gloom

The superheated economy of the late 1990s kept on roaring in 2000. At least for a good, long while.

Final numbers will show that this year rivaled the last, overall, with healthy gains in every economic sector.

County jobs, already at a record high, climbed another 6,300 from a year ago.

Home prices, already at a record high, climbed 8.8% as the cost of a typical house jumped $21,000 to $259,000.

Builders erected houses, business parks and office buildings at a pace nearly as fast as in 1999--the peak construction period since the 1980s.

In the emerging high-tech and biotechnology industries, dozens of companies in Thousand Oaks, Moorpark and Camarillo recruited hundreds of skilled workers from other nations to meet demand.

“It’s still a good market out there,” DataQuick analyst John Karevoll said. “So it’s tough to predict much of a slowdown. It’s more like a leveling off.”

But by year’s end, there were signs of a pullback. Job growth had cooled from the 3.5% pace of the first six months to about 2%. Housing prices had dropped a notch from a September peak. And only about one-fourth of local residents could afford to buy a house.

“We’re definitely cooling off,” economic forecaster Mark Schniepp said. “We have the worst housing crisis in the history of the county.”

Even with slower growth, new jobs will far exceed available housing, since the Silicon Valley is eyeing the 101 Freeway Corridor as an affordable alternative to the $500,000 tract houses of the Bay Area. The same is true of white-collar residents of Santa Barbara.

“Next year we’ll see a retrenchment, but we’re not going to see any major pullback,” Schniepp said. “Overall it will be another good year.”

8: Teacher, Student Appreciation

Improving education was the top campaign issue of 2000. So when a supercharged state economy blew in a huge budget surplus, Sacramento showered $1.8 billion on schools.

That meant that some local teachers finally got their fair share. Fillmore, Pleasant Valley, Oak Park, Ocean View and Ventura districts all passed along raises of at least 10%.

Voters statewide also gave public schools a double boost in November, rejecting student vouchers and reducing from two-thirds to 55% the ballot box majority needed to approve school bonds.

Fillmore Unified, which has struggled to pass bond measures, may be the first local district to benefit.

If politicians were finally embracing public education, they were also holding teachers more accountable. In Ventura County, students outperformed their peers statewide and exceeded national averages in math, reading and language. The county ranked 17th of 58 in California.

No local group of scholars outperformed the band of Academic Decathletes from Simi Valley. Those nine students placed second in the U.S. after winning a remarkable duel with rival Moorpark High--the defending national champion--for the state title.

Yet, controversy surrounded this victory when an English teacher publicly complained that team members received excused absences from her class to study for the national competition. And when coaches Ken and Sally Hibbitts decided they needed a break from the intense seven-day-a-week preparations, Simi Valley could not find another coach.

The school hopes to regroup for another run next year.

9: Break for Glory

Ventura High’s Tyler Ebell, a scatback with stamina and explosive speed, set national records this fall by running for 4,494 yards and 64 touchdowns. But it was Ebell’s good spirit and kind heart that captured the fascination of a broader public.

After scoring the clinching touchdown in the Cougars’ championship season, the first person Ebell hugged was a boy with Down’s syndrome. Then he posed with him for pictures. Every game weekend, Ebell treated his beefy linemen to burritos. And with a tattoo of Mighty Mouse on his arm, he made fun of his own slight stature.

“Tyler is a special kid in many ways,” Coach Phil McCune said. Now we can all watch as the UCLA recruit runs for daylight in the Rose Bowl next season.

Not quite fitting in that same hero mold was Oxnard’s Fernando Vargas. Proud of his street toughness, Vargas, 23, faces felony charges of beating a man in the Montecito home of a topless dancer. Even officials in his hometown chided Vargas for a purported lack of support for his old boxing club and its young fighters.

But then Vargas fought the professional fight of the year, courageously getting up from the canvas after two first-round knockdowns, overcoming three low blows and knocking down a peerless world champion, Felix Trinidad, before finally falling in the 12th round.

Women athletes also had their day. Ventura College’s Lady Pirates, at 38-0, became the first women’s basketball program to finish a California community college season undefeated for the second time.

It’s an old story by now, but Marion Jones, who first sprinted to glory in El Rio and Thousand Oaks, showed she was the world’s best by winning three gold medals and two bronzes in Sydney.

An unexpected triumph, came from 1,500-meter runner Marla Runyan, the first legally blind athlete to compete in the Olympics. The 1987 Camarillo High graduate placed eighth in the world. Diver Troy Dumais of Ventura also placed fourth and sixth in springboard and synchronized diving, respectively.

The days before these Olympic glories, however, revealed how quickly gold can fade. Justin Huish, a two-time gold medal archer in 1996, was ordered to stand trial on charges of possession of marijuana with intent to sell.

10: Erin & Ed

The year’s finest distraction came larger-than-life and in movie-star quality.

It turned out to have four chapters: The Movie, The Sting, The Crusade and The Campaign.

Before Julia Roberts wiggled into Erin Brockovich’s skin, the bawdy legal investigator at Masry & Vititoe in Westlake Village had worked her way into the homes of hundreds of small-town residents whose health was harmed or threatened by chromium 6 in their water.

The story of how this unlikely hero--a tough single mom--wound up with a piece of a $333-million settlement from PG&E; is sure to receive Oscar consideration.

But as Brockovich embraced her new-found celebrity, an unexpected twist threw her life, once more before the cameras. After a lawyer representing her former husband and her ex-boyfriend called to solicit $310,000 from Brockovich and her boss, Ed Masry, Brockovich and Masry went to authorities.

“They were going to go to the press and say that Erin and I had a sexual relationship,” Masry said, “and that Erin was a bad mother.” Neither was true, they said.

So they participated in a videotaped sting. Prosecutors finally dropped attempted extortion charges against the pair, but are taking action against their Century City lawyer.

In Chapter 3, Brockovich grabbed attention by testifying at a series of public hearings, warning government officials that they had underestimated the peril of chromium in drinking water.

Masry then took his environmental politics to the Thousand Oaks City Council, defeating two incumbents in a nasty campaign. He accused Councilman Mike Markey of lying when he said Masry had survived repeated heart attacks.

Masry acknowledged health problems--he has dialysis three times a week for a malfunctioning kidney. But he said he feels good and can serve as a councilman.

“I’ll race Markey down T.O. Boulevard for a mile,” Masry challenged before election. “I’ll drag my dialysis equipment and still beat him.”


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