For County, a Year of Joy, Pain, Passion

Times Staff Writer

Ventura County's 2002 was memorable for its battles to save the land and the condors, for the start of a new era in law enforcement and for the end of a 30-year wait for a public university.

The year was marked by a fiery crash at the Point Mugu Air Show and the slow burn of a national Hells Angels leader, first convicted of drug sales and then denied entry to the county fair.

The year began with the jubilation of thousands of residents who lined roadsides to witness the Olympic flame wend its way to Salt Lake City.

Its final months were marred by the ouster of a community college chancellor and the all-too-familiar tragedy of gang shootings in Oxnard and El Rio, including one that killed a 15-year-old sophomore caught in cross-fire.

In between were odds and ends that warmed our hearts and made us smile -- the Thousand Oaks High School senior who collects running shoes for the homeless; the 77-year-old grandmother who graduated as valedictorian of Oxnard High School decades after being denied the opportunity by the barbed wire of a Japanese internment camp.

"We look back not in anger," Yoshie Fujita Hagiya said on graduation day, "but with gratitude for all the unexpected joys."

From Ojai to Ormond Beach, environmentalists and others hammered out major deals to preserve farmland, open space and wetlands.

The county Board of Supervisors in January backed creation of a land conservation district aimed at buying undeveloped property for permanent preservation.

That was followed by the Coastal Conservancy moving to buy 265 acres in south Oxnard as the heart of a vast wetlands preserve and the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy campaigning to buy with state money the largest private landholding in that bucolic area.

Growing Pains

Preservation efforts shifted to the ballot box in November, as slow-growth activists battled landowners and developers over the future of thousands of acres of scrub-covered canyons and hillsides in Ventura, Santa Paula and Simi Valley.

In a split decision on urban sprawl, voters in Ventura and Santa Paula rejected by wide margins measures to build thousands of new homes. But in Simi Valley, slow-growth advocates lost a bid to further restrict development.

The year's last land-use battle erupted over the future of Ahmanson Ranch. After three days of hearings, the Board of Supervisors last month voted to certify a second environmental study of the 3,050-home project near Calabasas.

The cities of Los Angeles and Calabasas are expected to file lawsuits seeking to overturn the approval.

It was a year of swooping emotions for the program to pluck the California condor from the brink of extinction.

Against a panorama of plunging valleys, the last California condor captured in the wild was released in the spring off a remote cliff in Los Padres National Forest.

It was the beginning of what U.S. Forest Service officials had hoped would be a triumphant year, a hope bolstered a month later when for the first time in 18 years a pair of condors laid, brooded and hatched an egg in the wild.

That chick was followed by the hatching of two others. But all three died in October, dealing a blow to the effort.

More chaos reigned in the wild.

Tim Setnicka, the hard-charging, controversial superintendent of Channel Islands National Park, was transferred in October after more than five years on the job.

His was the first of a series of high-profile changes that included removal of Barry Hammitt as executive director of the county's largest government employee union and the resignation of Roger Gibbs from his job as chief executive of the Ventura County Fairgrounds.

Gibbs' resignation came about a month after he was placed on paid leave without public explanation.

"I've enjoyed being here," Gibbs said upon his departure. "It's the best fair in the state."

Law and Order

The year ushered in a new era in law enforcement with the election of veteran prosecutor Greg Totten as district attorney in the first contested race for the office in 24 years.

Totten, who was chief assistant district attorney, filled the vacancy left by the retirement of his boss, Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury.

In other matters, national Hells Angels leader George Christie Jr. was sentenced in April to three years probation for conspiring to sell drugs, capping the longest and most expensive criminal case in county history.

Months later, Christie and seven other Hells Angels who were denied entry to the Ventura County Fair because of their biker attire filed legal claims accusing fair organizers of violating their civil rights.

Port Hueneme resident Narinder Virk was convicted in July on two counts of attempted murder after a jury concluded that she tried to drown her children. And 85-year-old Ernest Heyneman of Simi Valley was ordered to turn in his library card after pleading no contest to charges of stealing more than 3,500 books and videos.

A flurry of school-related cases also went to court. Several coaches and teachers were arrested on sex charges, including former Camarillo High School teacher Chad Pridgen, who pleaded guilty in November to molesting 11 teenage boys.

From the courtroom to the classroom, it was a year of highs and lows in education.

A team from Moorpark High School took first place in the California Academic Decathlon. The Ventura County Community College District decided to buy out the contract of Chancellor Philip Westin after he came under fire for allegedly abusing his expense account.

But the biggest news came in the fall, when Ventura County's first public four-year university opened its doors after more than 30 years of planning and preparation. Before the launch of Cal State Channel Islands, Ventura County had been the largest county in California without a public four-year university.

"Those days are over," Gov. Gray Davis said on opening day, "and now the county is home to what will be one of the greatest public universities in the world."

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