Cause of copter crash that killed HBPD officer confirmed in final NTSB report

A Huntington Beach Police Department helicopter crashed into the water off Newport Beach on Feb. 19, 2022.
A Huntington Beach Police Department helicopter crashed into the water off Newport Beach in front of dozens of witnesses on Feb. 19, 2022. HBPD police office Nicholas “Nick” Vella died as a result of the accident, which the National Transportation Safety Board issued its final report on last month.
(CBS2 / KCAL9)
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Good morning. It’s Wednesday, Jan. 17. I’m Carol Cormaci, bringing you this week’s TimesOC newsletter with a look at the latest local news and events.

A 17-page National Transportation Safety Board report, its final pronouncement on the cause of the Feb. 19, 2022, helicopter crash that took the life of a Huntington Beach police officer confirms details from the NTSB’s initial investigation but adds that the pilot’s fatigue may have also played a role in the crash.

According to the Daily Pilot’s reporting on the report issued last month, the probable cause of the crash, according to NTSB investigators, was “the helicopter’s encounter with unanticipated right yaw [veer] during a low-altitude, low-airspeed, tight-radius orbit.”

The pilot, whose name has not been released to the public since the accident, took corrective measures but was unable to prevent the chopper from going down into the waters near Lido Peninusla in Newport Beach. He suffered injuries in the crash; his tactical flight officer, 44-year-old Nicholas “Nick” Vella, the only other occupant of the HBPD helicopter, died as a result of injuries he sustained when the craft fell into the water.

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Investigators reported an examination of the helicopter’s airframe and engine didn’t reveal any anomalies that would have precluded normal operation. But they further noted in their report the pilot had been up since 4 a.m. that day. He took a commercial flight to Long Beach and reported for his shift at the Huntington Beach Police Department at 3 p.m. He and Vella were sent out at around 6:30 p.m. on a call for air support from the Newport Beach Police Department, which contracts for such services with its neighboring city.

Authorities said the HBPD did not have any policies in place relating to crew rest requirements prior to reporting for duty. City spokeswoman Jennifer Carey told the Daily Pilot Friday the department “is reviewing existing policies and procedures designed to enhance the safety of our officers and community.”

Vella, as many will recall from all the news reports that followed in the wake of that awful accident, was mourned by people whose lives he’d touched during his career, other police agencies and members of the general public who were saddened by the loss of the 14-year veteran of the HBPD.

In fact, he continues to be memorialized by fellow officers. Yesterday I came across this eventbrite invitation to the second annual Nick Vella Memorial Poker Tournament & Fundraiser benefiting the work of the Huntington Beach Police Officers Foundation. The gathering is set for Feb. 17, almost two years after that fateful night when Vella went out on his last call.

MORE NEWS

An illustration shows how releasing silver iodide particles into storm clouds maximizes precipitation during a storm.
(Courtesy of SAWPA)

A new cloud-seeding pilot program hopes to make it rain in Santa Ana River watershed. Started in November as a four-year pilot under the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority, the project aims to increase precipitation levels anywhere from 5% to 15%. The cloud-seeing program involves releasing particles of silver iodide from the ground via flares into the air during a storm event. The full Daily Pilot news feature on the program can be found here.

The nonprofit Priceless Pets will be paid up to $30,000 per month to become Costa Mesa’s animal control intake center on an emergency basis. City officials approved the temporary arrangement after they received notice from Newport Center Animal Hospital relaying plans to terminate a longstanding arrangement with Costa Mesa to treat domestic animals found on the city’s streets, according to this Daily Pilot article.

A San Clemente beach stabilization project has been postponed for about two months, it was announced Monday. In a joint statement Rep. Mike Levin, (D-Dana Point) and San Clemente Mayor Victor Cabral said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to delay the project due to ongoing sand quality issues.

The city of Huntington Beach is continuing its fight against the state of California’s housing mandates. The Daily Pilot reports the city filed an appeal in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday, hoping to reverse a November decision against it by a federal judge. U.S. District Judge Fred Slaughter ruled then that Huntington Beach did not have standing in federal court to file suit against the state, but City Atty. Michael Gates disagrees. He claims that Regional Housing Needs Allocation requirements to zone for 13,368 units in this housing cycle — and the requirement to sign a Statement of Overriding Considerations — violated Surf City’s 1st Amendment protection for compelled speech and 14th Amendment due process protections.

PUBLIC SAFETY & COURTS

 An Uber sign is displayed at the company's headquarters in San Francisco.
An Orange County woman claims she was raped by her driver on the night of April 16, 2023. Attorneys for the rideshare giant are attempting to aggregate her case into a statewide master complaint comprising 1,533 similar cases.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

A woman allegedly raped by her Uber driver near UC Irvine has filed suit against the rideshare giant for negligence and battery. The woman, who used the Uber app to call for a ride from Corona del Mar to her campus housing in Irvine one night last April, said she fell asleep in the back seat during the ride and awoke while allegedly being raped by her driver, Daniel Mercado. According to this Daily Pilot story on the lawsuit, although the college student had opted in to a safety feature — whereby Uber contacts riders if a ride has stopped for more than 5 minutes without being “completed” to see if they are OK — Uber’s efforts to contact the rider went unreturned, as the woman was allegedly being assaulted at the time. Yet, the company never followed up on the non-response by contacting 911 or any other emergency services, the complaint maintains. The victim filed a police report herself within six hours of the incident to the Irvine Police Department. Mercado’s whereabouts are unknown, according to the woman’s attorney, and is believed to have fled to Mexico. The complaint states Mercado had been previously convicted of child abuse/neglect, was once arrested for domestic violence and had other charges and convictions made against him before being hired by Uber.

A 45-year-old Newport Beach man was arrested last Wednesday night after an hours-long standoff with police. The NBPD received a call at around 6:30 p.m. of possible domestic violence in the 1200 block of Nautilus Lane. The Daily Pilot reported that upon arriving there, officers saw a man, later identified as Ken Mescher, trying to climb into the home through a window. They escorted the alleged victim out to safety, but it took hours to get Mescher out. Police fired shots after Mescher allegedly released his dogs on them. No officers were injured, but one dog was shot in the leg.

A 34-year-old suspected motorcycle thief injured during a police chase Jan. 9 in Santa Ana has died in a hospital. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department announced the death Monday, according to City News Service. Officers with the Santa Ana Police Department had initiated a vehicle stop on the man, whom they believed was in possession of a stolen motorcycle. The unidentified suspect crashed into a vehicle in the 900 block of West Edinger Avenue and was hospitalized. The in-custody death will be investigated by the Orange County district attorney’s office.

• A male was taken into custody Tuesday when police investigated a report of “a possible gunshot being fired” in a Placentia church. Placentia police responded to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in the 700 block of North Bradford Avenue where a Mass was being celebrated at about 8:20 a.m., reported CNS. No injuries were reported. “A male subject was seen with what appeared to be a handgun,” police said in a statement. “Officers responded and took the male in question into custody. Out of an abundance of caution, Valencia High School, which is located at 500 N. Bradford Avenue, Kraemer Middle School and Ruby Drive Elementary, were advised to shelter in place,” police said.

Firefighters quickly knocked down a fire Sunday inside a garage at an assisted living home in Mission Viejo. According to CNS, firefighters were called to the home in the 26000 block of Carmenita at 4:25 a.m. after a caretaker was awakened by a smoke alarm and got all six residents out of the building. One person suffered a laceration to the head during the blaze, authorities said. The cause of the fire was under investigation.

A man convicted of sexually assaulting two young sisters in Lake Forest over a five-year period has been sentenced to 145 years to life in prison. Yuri Abdel Villatoro, 54, was convicted Aug. 30 and sentenced Friday, according to another CNS report. Villatoro, who assaulted the children while he was renting a room with their family, was given credit for 2,129 days behind bars awaiting trial.

SPORTS

JSerra coach Keith Wilkinson, right, received a six-game suspension from the Southern Section.
JSerra coach Keith Wilkinson, right, received a six-game suspension from the Southern Section for throwing a shoe toward an official on Jan. 4.
(Nick Koza)

JSerra coach Keith Wilkinson was suspended for six games for throwing shoes on the court. Wilkinson received a six-game suspension from the CIF Southern Section after throwing a couple of shoes on the court when his team was playing Mater Dei on Jan. 4, with one of those shoes aimed toward an official, according to this L.A. Times brief by Eric Sondheimer. Wilkinson will return Jan. 26 against Orange Lutheran.

Huntington Beach girls’ basketball coach Russell McClurg recently enjoyed his 500th win in his prep coaching career. The milestone came last week when the Oilers won the Wave League opener at Laguna Beach High. Freshman guard Emma Miyai scored 17 of her game-high 19 points in the first half, and the Oilers edged the Breakers for a 41-39 win.

LIFE & LEISURE

Robyne Wood cuts the ribbon of the new Robyne's Landing transitional home.
Robyne Wood, with scissors, cuts the ribbon during the grand opening of the new Robyne’s Landing student transitional living home in Huntington Beach.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

Robyne’s Landing, a transitional living house in Huntington Beach for abandoned and severely neglected students, opened last week. Operated by Huntington Beach nonprofit Robyne’s Nest, the four-bedroom, four-bathroom house is on Lindsay Lane. “We hope this can be a place for kids whose parents, for whatever reason, are not taking care of them,” the organization’s founder and executive director Robyne Wood told the Daily Pilot. “They can come here, finish high school and feel like they mean something and they’re worth something. If they can finish high school and get on a path to self-sufficiency and get all the skills that they need, it really is important … No child needs to be on their own trying to finish off school.”

A new Hall of Fame in the county was unveiled Friday. Orange County officials welcomed the first 10 inductees, including Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis and singer Gwen Stefani, CNS reports. Other notables inducted into the Hall of Fame, which will be on display in the lobby outside of the Board of Supervisors’ hearing room in Santa Ana, were businessman Frank Jao, civic leader General William Lyon, Walt Disney, songwriter Bill Medley, philanthropist Henry Segerstrom, Olympic champion Amanda Beard, Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant and golf icon Tiger Woods.

The U.S. Navy reports an Anaheim Hills native graduated this month as the top sailor from Recruit Training Command, Division 007, earning the Military Excellence Award. Seaman Recruit Nathan Africano, 23, the son of Leslie Jennings and Timothy Africano, will next go into intelligence specialist training school, according to this news item from the Navy’s public affairs office.

A group of teens looking for public places to exhibit their own artworks formed a special association, and their efforts are bearing fruit. The Assn. of Designers and Artists, the brainchild of Sage Hill senior Jennifer Huang, formed about a year ago and now has 30 members representing several O.C. high schools. Its first official exhibition themed “Moments of Youth,” opened earlier this month at the Center Gallery in downtown Anaheim and will run until Feb. 8.

Bear Coast Coffee has expanded north into Laguna Beach. First opened on the San Clemente Pier, the business next opened two locations in Dana Point and can now also be found in the historic Coast Liquor building in Laguna, where it recently held its grand opening. “We see people meet over coffee, get married and then have kids, and we continue to serve these families,” owner Jeff Clinard said. “We’ve seen that happen since the beginning of Bear Coast, and that’s my goal when it comes to the growth of our company. … Coffee’s great, people are better.”

CALENDAR THIS

Mark Christopher Lawrence,  actor and stand-up comedian.
Actor and stand-up comedian Mark Christopher Lawrence will host the Jan. 30 Comedy Night at the Laguna Playhouse.
(Courtesy of “Family Camp” film)

The next Comedy Night at the Laguna Playhouse is coming up. This event is set for Tuesday, Jan. 30 at 7:30 p.m. at the Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road. The evening’s host for the adults-only night of stand-up comedy is Mark Christopher Lawrence. The headliner is Dustin Nickerson, Josh Lawson is the featured act, and the opening act will be Josiah Moreno. Tickets start at $35.

Ghouls, clowns and cosplayers are expected at the Heritage Museum of Orange County's fundraiser.
Ghouls, clowns and cosplayers are expected at the Heritage Museum of Orange County’s fundraiser, Sideshow of Horrors, on Saturday, Feb. 10.
(Jessica Peralta)

Where else might one expect to find something called the Sideshow of Horrors than a local history museum? Heritage Museum of Orange County will host this family- and pet-friendly spooky event on Saturday, Feb. 10, from noon to 6 p.m. Admission is free. According to this Daily Pilot/Times OC story, there will be 50 vendors selling both horror and Valentine’s Day-themed items ranging from handmade candles to jewelry and creepy dolls. Money raised through vendor fees will go toward fundraising goals for the restoration of one of the historic homes at Heritage Museum, the Maag Farmhouse. The museum is located at 3101 W. Harvard St., Santa Ana.

KEEP IN TOUCH

Thank you for reading today’s newsletter. If you have a memory or story about Orange County, I would love to read and share it in this space. Please try to keep your submission to 100 words or less and include your name and current city of residence.

I appreciate your help in making this the best newsletter it can be. Please send news tips, your memory of life in O.C. (photos welcome!) or comments to carol.cormaci@latimes.com.