TimesOC: Colleagues, community pay final respects to fallen Huntington Beach officer

"Sign up for our TimesOC newsletter" and the L.A. Times logo over the Huntington Beach Pier at sunset.
TimesOC, a newsletter about Orange County, is published Wednesdays and Fridays.
(Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. It’s Wednesday, Feb. 23. I’m Carol Cormaci, bringing you today’s TimesOC newsletter with the latest roundup of news and events.

Yesterday brought turbulent weather to parts of Orange County, with a cold rain falling as people were assembling to accompany via motorcade the body of fallen Huntington Beach Police Officer Nicholas Vella to a mortuary in La Habra. The rains stopped as the procession got underway. It was a somber event to pay respects to the 44-year-old officer who died Saturday after a police chopper he was in crashed in Newport Beach, but when the sun came out from behind the clouds Huntington Beach Mayor Barbara Delgleize was moved to describe that moment as “kind magical. I don’t mean it in a fun way; I mean it in a respectful ... and ... reverent way. [Vella] was just too young.”

Los Angeles Times reporters Howard Blume, Hannah Fry, Julia Wick and Laura Newberry teamed up to report on Saturday’s crash and the initial stages of the investigation, while Daily Pilot reporters Lilly Nguyen, Matt Szabo and Andrew Turner reported on Tuesday’s events.

It’s been a sad period for those who knew and worked with Vella over the years. He was well-regarded during his 14 years on the force, with Huntington Beach Police Chief Eric Parra telling The Times Vella was “an officer that was truly dedicated to the job and was doing what he loved doing.”

Vella left behind his wife, Kristi Tovar, and their daughter. The H.B. Police Department, along with its union, publicly released Tuesday information about an account for monetary donations to help support Vella’s family. The fundraising goal is $100,000.

In Huntington Beach’s long history, there have been three previous losses of life, two men and one K-9 officer. My colleague Sara Cardine dived into their stories here. She was able to reach Lynda Prince Rudesill, the widow of one of the fallen officers, Leslie J. Prince, who died of his injuries weeks after he was struck by a driver who was under the influence one November night in 1974. She offers to lend an ear to Tovar, should she need one, acknowledging the Vella family is in for a difficult time.

Prince had valued his brief time on the force and offered sentiments that Vella might have shared: “He’d told me about the department and how it was a brotherhood and they all stood by each other, and I learned that’s really true,” she said.

An Orange County Sheriff bagpiper begins the procession in honor of fallen Officer Nicholas Vella.
An Orange County Sheriff bagpiper begins the procession in honor of fallen Officer Nicholas Vella, a 14-year veteran of HBPD, who died in a helicopter crash on Saturday.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)


— The Orange County Health Care Agency said Monday that a blocked sewer line at a restaurant in Newport Bay leaked about 35,000 to 50,000 gallons of untreated sewage into nearby waters, leading to the closure to swimmers of a portion of the ocean near the west end of Newport Bay from 8th Street.

— Hundreds of volunteers, including county employees, fanned out Tuesday in different areas of the county to count how many people were experiencing homelessness on a single day. The federally required biennial Point in Time survey collects demographic data and other information so agencies can update their practices and resources. My colleagues, reporter Priscella Vega and photographer Scott Smeltzer, were on the scene for the Point in Time effort in Fountain Valley during the early morning hours, when just five homeless people were found.

— Vega also reported on the explosion Sunday of an illegal butane marijuana lab at a commercial building in
Anaheim near Knott’s Berry Farm on Sunday that injured at least four people, including two firefighters.

— In one of Anaheim’s oldest cold-case murder prosecutions, an Orange County Superior Court jury on Tuesday convicted a former long-haul trucker, Andre Lepere, of the 1980 murder of 79-year-old Viola Hagenkord. My colleague Christopher Goffard has the full report here.

Andre Lepere takes the stand at Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach on Feb. 17.
Andre Lepere takes the stand at Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach on last Wednesday. Lepere was found guilty of rape and murder in a 42-year-old Anaheim case.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

— In another news item out of Anaheim, two men in a car speeding away from a shooting at a restaurant in the northwest section of that city were killed early Monday when their vehicle crashed into a light pole, police said.


— Looking to staff its 30 lifeguard stations this summer, the city of Laguna Beach held a tryout session over the weekend. Another round of tryouts will be conducted on Saturday, March 19, so it’s not too late for hopefuls who missed the first session. Applications are due by 5 p.m. on Thursday, March 17.

Participants run along the beach during lifeguard tryouts at Laguna Main Beach on Saturday.
(Kevin Chang / Daily Pilot)

— The Hilton of Orange County in Costa Mesa was the venue when hundreds of dancers partnered up for a chance to waltz, foxtrot, swing and rumba their way toward victory in the California Open DanceSport Championships that ran Wednesday through Sunday.

Couples perform in the semi-final round of the DCT senior open ballroom scholarship competition.
Couples perform in the semifinal round of the DCT senior open ballroom scholarship competition during the California Open DanceSport Championships at the Hilton Orange County in Costa Mesa on Friday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Daily Pilot)


— The CIF Southern Section Masters Meet on Saturday at Sonora High School produced 11 qualifiers for the CIF State individual wrestling championships, which will take place Feb. 24 through 26 at Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield. Fountain Valley High led the way, sending six wrestlers on to state, my colleague Andrew Turner reports.

Fountain Valley's Ryland Whitworth, right, wrestles Gilroy's Cody Merrill in a 195 pound five county championship match.
Fountain Valley’s Ryland Whitworth, right, wrestles Gilroy’s Cody Merrill in the 195-pound championship match during the Five Counties Tournament Jan. 15 at Fountain Valley High School. This past weekend, Whitworth was among 11 local wrestlers to advance to the state championships.
(Kevin Chang/ Daily Pilot)

— The Corona del Mar High girls’ water polo team jumped into the water Saturday afternoon, thinking it had just won the CIF Southern Section Division 1 title. But the celebration was premature, as it was ruled that though the shot clock had expired, there was still a second left on the game clock. Their competitors from Agoura High had earned a five-meter penalty shot, with an opportunity to tie the match. The Sea Kings hung in for the win, though, reports my colleague Matt Szabo.


— L.A. Times game critic Todd Martens offered up this week his commentary on the newest iteration of Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade, which debuts April 22. Martens notes the makeover is less patriotic than it once was and will include representations of more than a dozen Disney and Pixar animated films.

"Encanto" will soon get placement in a revamped version of the Main Street Electrical Parade.
(Disneyland Resort)


— The multifaceted life of Costa Mesa resident Duvall Hecht, known locally not only for mentoring the UC Irvine rowing team (he’d previously won the gold medal for rowing in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics) but as the founder of Books on Tape, is recounted in this obituary by my colleague Steve Marble. Hecht died in his home Feb. 10 at the age of 91.

Duvall Hecht at UC Irvine rowing center.
(Courtesy of UC Irvine )


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