Top Ten Stories of the 1990s

From a news perspective, the 1990s in Newport-Mesa had it all.

Million-dollar embezzlements by officials in a city and a school

district. A sexual harassment scandal in the Newport Beach Police

Department that took down the chief and his top lieutenant. A hard-fought

and highly emotional political campaign over a proposed airport that

divided the north and the south. An ongoing environmental story. An

international sports star in our backyard. A devastating car crash and

its aftermath, including what many called a modern miracle.

And as if that wasn't enough, the county went bankrupt.

Here are the Daily Pilot's picks for the top 10 stories of the decade.

1. EMBEZZLEMENTS. Financially, 1992 started off bad and ended even worse

in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa.

In January, Bob Dixon was arrested in front of City Hall for stealing

$1.8 million from the city. Then in October, Stephen Wagner was arrested

for embezzling nearly $4 million from the Newport-Mesa Unified School

District.

The twin embezzlements have had long-lasting effects. New leadership

was brought in at both City Hall and the school district in the wake of

the embezzlements, which led to major restructuring of those institutions

and, especially in the case of the Board of Education, major community

involvement in policy decisions.

The district is still recovering from Wagner's theft, as much in terms

of public trust as dollars and cents. When investigators searched

Wagner's Dover Shores home, they found paintings, mink-lined tuxedos,

jewels, china and a gold-plated piano.

In March 1994, Wagner was sentenced to five years in prison for what

was believe, at the time, to be the largest embezzlement from a public

agency in state history. He died while in jail from complications from

AIDS after spending about a year and a half in a medical ward. On news of

his death, many who worked with Wagner still could not bring themselves

to forgive him.

Dixon's former friends and colleagues, too, were stunned when he was

arrested. Many thought they had known him so well, and yet learned they

did not know him at all.

It turned out the 17-year employee had spent about 11 of those years forging more than 400 checks.

Like Wagner's, Dixon's home was filled with the fruits of his

ill-begotten money: a drawer full of silk ties, more than 1,000 compact

discs and some 20 umbrellas.

Dixon got four years for his crime and spent 18 months in prison

before being released to a halfway house. Strangely enough, Dixon left

that halfway house just weeks after Wagner was sentenced.

When the Pilot caught up with Dixon in Berkeley earlier this year, he

had nothing to say.

2. EL TORO. It's the base closure that just doesn't have any closure.

Ever since the federal government decided back in 1993 to close the El

Toro Marine Corps Air Station, what to do with the property has dominated

headlines -- not to mention pocketbooks.

It has pitted North County cities, led by Newport Beach, against South

County cities in a bitter, Civil War-style war. The north wants to keep

John Wayne Airport from becoming a major commercial hub and the south

wants to keep the roar of engines from invading quiet residential

communities from Irvine to Laguna Woods.

In 1994, voters got involved when they narrowly passed Measure A,

which allowed the county to move forward with its plans to build an

international airport at the 4,700-acre base.

Two year later, an attempt to overturn Measure A failed miserably as

Measure S went down to defeat.

But that was hardly the end of the story as things have only heated up

since the base actually closed in July. The Safe and Healthy Communities

Initiative, which would require a two-thirds vote for any new jail,

airport or landfill in the county, has created a renewed and expensive,

campaign.

The two sides will spend about $14 million of public funds -- through

the county and the cities -- on the fight this year, which is about as

much as has been spent for the two previous votes.

The fight has been at times testy and personal and always political.

Among the individuals who have contributed to the pro-El Toro side,

none has given quite like Newport Beach's George Argyros, who has pumped

more than $2 million into the fight.

Alternative plans being thrown into the mix by South County forces

include turning the base into a huge, regional park rivaling San

Francisco's Golden Gate and San Diego's Balboa.

Voters will decide the initiative's fate in March.

And then, the next chapter in this never-ending story will begin.

3. UPPER NEWPORT BAY. Throughout the 1990s, civic leaders and

environmentalists alike struggled to find the answer to what seemed like

a simple question: How to prevent Upper Newport Bay -- one of the largest

remaining estuaries in Southern California -- from turning into a giant

meadow.

But the task, which spanned the decade, proved difficult.

The problem was this: sediment, pouring in from inland areas, was

threatening to prevent tidal flushing, which would clog up the bay. It

was first noticed in the 1980s, when three sediment basins were dredged

on the bay floor. This way, dirt and debris could settle at the bottom

and the tide could still flush the bay to provide its unique mix of fresh

and salt water.

In the mid-1990s, it was already time for the largest of those basins

to be dredged. But while the sediment continued to pile up, the money for

the project didn't. Getting the $5.4 million from the state for the

project was a years-long task -- one that didn't end until long after the

dredging had begun.

Then came El Nino. The heavy rain season of late 1997 and early 1998

brought an extra 200,000 cubic yards of muck and added another $2 million

to the project's price tag. County officials agreed to front the cost of

the dredging while they continued to lobby the state for funds.

In the summer of 1998, the state agreed to pay the $5.4 million and

the federal government approved the additional $2 million for the El

Nino-related damage.

El Nino-fueled storms also wreaked havoc on Back Bay Drive, closing

some portions of it for more than a year for major repair work.

Another aspect of the bay's woes during the 1990s was the Irvine Ranch

Water District's very unpopular plan to discharge its highly treated

waste water into the bay. The district got a permit for the project from

a regional water board, but an agreement with the city held the dumping

off for two years. In the meantime, Defend the Bay -- led by activist Bob

Caustin -- appealed every decision and took the water district to court

several times in an attempt to derail the plan.

The efforts finally paid off in the fall of 1998, when a Superior

Court judge overturned the district's permit. A new bay-dumping project

was developed and presented to the public, but has since been put on the

back burner.

Another highlight of the decade was the groundbreaking on the county's

interpretive center. The educational facility, which has taken years to

get off the ground, will help reduce the amount of habitat destruction

caused by tourists and enhance everyone's knowledge of the bay.

In the past decade, the estuary has been one of Newport-Mesa's most

treasured jewels. No doubt it will continue to be so in the next

millennium.

4. ARB CAMPBELL AND TONY VILLA. New City Manager Kevin Murphy was barely

a year on the job, mopping up the aftermath of the Bob Dixon embezzlement

when the news got even worse. Longtime Police Chief Arb Campbell and his

right-hand man Capt. Tony Villa were the subjects of a sexual harassment

lawsuit filed by four women employees of the Police Department.

Murphy and other city officials were incredulous at first, defending

the chief and portraying the women as disgruntled employees.

But before it was over, the scandal would spill across the newspaper

headlines daily with details of alleged lewd conduct by the two men,

including one instance where a dispatcher accused the pair of raping her

after a 1981 party at the Bonita Canyon landfill.

The department's morale sunk to new lows during the controversy. City

officials and business leaders seemed torn over their longtime support

for the chief. Long-standing officers aired their deep-seeded grievances

and ultimately the rank-and-file officers put the icing on the cake by

issuing a 90% vote of no confidence for Campbell.

Murphy wound up firing Campbell and Villa, then -- faced with a long,

grueling civil lawsuit -- later did an about-face and made a deal with

both officers and their attorneys to rehire them back and retire them

with their pensions and benefits intact.

As for the women, the total who joined the suit swelled to 10 and a

city investigation dug up even more who said they suffered from Campbell

and Villa's alleged antics. And while they all wound up with cash

settlements from the city, many saw their careers in law enforcement

crumble.

Today, the remnants of the ugliness that besieged the department are

long gone, and Chief Bob McDonell, hired by Murphy to restore the

department's morale, prefers to keep that old news where it belongs. In

history's scrap heap.

5. ORANGE COUNTY BANKRUPTCY. On Dec. 6, 1994, Orange County's perfect

little world came crashing down.

The county, known for its wealthy, successful residents who live in

million-dollar coastal homes, filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy

in U.S. history. The filing came five days after rising interest rates

caused its risky, high-yield investment fund to crash, losing $1.5

billion in money from 180 public agencies.

Among those agencies were the cities of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa,

as well as the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. The district had $82

million invested -- $47 million of which it borrowed specifically to put

in the pool. Costa Mesa had about $3 million tied up and Newport Beach

had $16 million. In the five years since, they have recovered most of it,

but officials acknowledge they will never get all of it back.

If only they had listened to John Moorlach, the Costa Mesa certified

public accountant who predicted with uncanny accuracy the county's

financial time bomb in his 1994 campaign for county treasurer. Few paid

attention to the warnings, dismissing Moorlach as a skewed public-office

candidate. Then-state Sen. Marian Bergeson even withdrew her endorsement

of him after he was too critical of then-Treasurer Bob Citron.

County officials did not call Moorlach for several days after the

bankruptcy. Despite his offer to serve as treasurer, they commissioned

Bill Popejoy to get the county together. Popejoy left three months later

and Moorlach was finally asked in March 1995 to step in.

Moorlach was reelected in 1998 after running unopposed. With a more

conservative and well-documented investment strategy, which also includes

a four-member oversight committee, he is trying to put the past behind

him and move on. The public agencies that were affected say they are now

virtually fully recovered from the bankruptcy.

But one thing is certain: No one in this county will ever forget that

day.

6. IRVINE AVENUE CRASH. The story grabbed national headlines and tore a

community apart.

The circumstances weren't unusual for teenagers. Many adults would

admit they had indulged in drinking during their high school days. Some

would even say they have driven under the influence.

When a Chevrolet Blazer carrying 10 Newport Harbor High School

students skidded out of control on Irvine Avenue, residents sat paralyzed

as the drama played out like a made-for-TV movie. Over a two-year period,

there were angry words, civil lawsuits and even what some called a

miracle.

The driver of the vehicle, Jason Rausch, was the designated driver

after a party. Rausch was sober but some of his passengers had been

drinking. Rausch was driving erratically through a series of curves on

Irvine Avenue when the sports utility vehicle crashed into a median and

flipped over. One student, 18-year-old Donny Bridgman, was killed. The

remaining passengers were also injured. The most seriously hurt were

Amanda Arthur and Daniel Townsend.

Out of all the victims, Arthur captured most of the public's

attention. The accident had left Arthur with major head injuries that

kept her in a coma for three months. Without medical insurance, Arthur

was neck-deep in financial and fatal peril.

As the community began its outpouring of support for the Arthur

family, Amanda awoke from the coma. Though the injuries will always have

some effect on her, she returned to school and is now enrolled in a

junior college program.

Rausch eventually was convicted of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter

and was sentenced to three years probation. He was vilified by some

because he failed carrying the responsibility that night. He was praised

by others for coming to the aide of some of his classmates after the

accident. Rausch has never publicly spoken about the accident. He is

enrolled in a university in Colorado.

Once the criminal case against Rausch was over, the civil cases filed

by all but one of the victims began. It wasn't until earlier this year

that the cases were resolved and the final chapter was closed on this

emotional saga.

7. LINDSAY DAVENPORT. She is lured by media giants, owns a record

endorsement deal for women in sports and is a two-time Grand Slam singles

champion, but tennis star Lindsay Davenport of Newport Beach is as

unpretentious as the girl next door.

Davenport, who has been known to hit with kids at her home club, the

Palisades Tennis Club, won four singles titles on the Women's Tennis

Association Tour in 1999, including Wimbledon, her second career Grand

Slam.

Davenport, who won the U.S. Open in 1998 and an Olympic gold medal at

the 1996 Atlanta Games, moved to Newport Beach shortly after turning pro

at age 16 to be closer to her coach, Robert Van't Hof.

She has captured 23 career singles titles and 28 doubles

championships, including three Grand Slams. Davenport earned her first

No. 1 ranking on the WTA Tour on Oct. 12, 1998, and, despite a left wrist

injury in '99, was able to remain in the top three. This year, she

reportedly agreed to a five-year, $12-million deal with Nike.

A member of the U.S. Fed Cup team, Davenport is an advocate of the

Palisades Club hosting a Fed Cup tie, possibly in 2000.

In 1999, Davenport became only the third American-born woman to win

Wimbledon in the Open era. In '98, her U.S. Open title marked the first

time an American-born woman won since Chris Evert in 1985.

She was a Southern California junior sensation who grew up in Palos

Verdes and graduated from Murrieta Valley High in June 1994, a year after

turning pro.

Davenport's father, Wink, participated on the 1968 U.S. Olympic

volleyball team; her mother, Ann, is president of the Southern California

Volleyball Assn.

Davenport likes alternative music; her lucky number is eight; she

loves the Atlanta Braves; and she has two dogs, both Rottweilers.

8. NEWPORT BEACH CENTRAL LIBRARY. In 1974, it seemed like an

impossibility. The need was there -- the 10,000-square-foot building in

Newport Center had outgrown the city's requirements by the time it was

built.

But there was so much to do. Find a location. Raise the millions

needed for the construction. Come up with plans and designs that could be

agreed upon by everyone involved.

The dream was realized in the spring of 1994, when the sparkling new,

54,000-square-foot facility opened its doors. It came after two decades

of tireless work by people in a variety of segments of the community,

including businesses and civic leaders.

Now, it is the jewel of the city and a gathering place for the

community. In addition to offering a wide selection of books, videos and

CD-ROMs, the library also puts on a Distinguished Lecture series and the

Manuscripts series, as well as hosts art shows throughout the year. These

events have profiled best-selling authors, Pulitzer Prize-winning

writers, TV news personalities and artists, and have added culture to the

community.

A key figure in the construction of the library was Elizabeth Stahr,

who chaired the first foundation that raised $2 million for the

public-private partnership. This foundation was eventually dissolved and

a new one was created to raise money for books and events.

However, in the last year, the united community effort it took to

build the library has descended into a bitter feud between the trustees

and foundation. The fight is primarily about control over finances and

seems to be fraying the fabric holding the institution together. Both

Foundation Chair Dave Carmichael and Trustee Chair Jim Wood, though, say

they are optimistic that this will all be resolved by January.9. DENISE

HUBER MURDER. The only clue was a car deserted on the Corona del Mar

Freeway.

It was a mystery that captured newspaper headlines for most of the

decade. It was a murder that was inconceivable in Orange County.

The grisly death of 23-year-old Denise Huber of Newport Beach was as

horrific as it was challenging for investigators. When Huber vanished in

June 1991, police had only the victim's car as evidence.

Years passed and the frustration grew. There were hundreds of tips

given to police, but none really amounted to anything. In July 1994, the

break came. Arizona authorities called Costa Mesa police and informed

them they had found Huber's body.

Her killer, John Famalaro, had kept her frozen corpse in a freezer.

The freezer was kept in a truck parked at his Dewey, Ariz. home. A

neighbor had noticed a power cord coming out of the back and found it

suspicious.

Investigators said Famalaro had duped Huber into coming along with him

after her car blew a tire. Authorities said Famalaro sodomized her and

bludgeoned her to death with a set of tools in his Laguna Hills

warehouse.

It took another three years for Famalaro's trial. Though the defendant

came from a household where he reportedly led a loveless childhood, it

couldn't outweigh the brutality of the crime. A jury found Famalaro

guilty and recommended the death penalty in June 1997. A judge later

upheld that decision and Famalaro currently sits on Death Row.

Through it all, the parents of Denise Huber -- Dennis and Ione Huber

-- remained strong. A book was written about the crime called "Cold

Storage." It is still difficult to find on Orange County bookshelves.

10. 55 FREEWAY EXTENSION. After 20-plus years of debating what and where

the Costa Mesa Freeway should be, its final extension was approved, built

and finally opened in 1992.

The 2.3-mile extension ran from the Orange County Fairgrounds to its

final end point today on 19th Street but not before enduring its share of

controversy.

Back in the 1970s, Caltrans envisioned the freeway would run to the

Pacific Ocean, linking up with Pacific Coast Highway. Staunch opponents,

mostly Newport Beach residents, convinced the state agency to rethink its

plans.

In 1989, the plans were approved to have the freeway extended,

replacing the vast ditch that was there previously. The ditch was a

storage area for construction companies and turned into a muddy lake when

it rained heavily.

For $50 million, business along Newport Boulevard suffered during the

construction while downtown merchants eagerly awaited the profits to

start motoring in.

The freeway was opened in phases with its final part in June 1992.

Although the freeway has a final destination, it isn't uncommon to have a

logjam of traffic on the weekends or during rush hour.SL -- Compiled by

S.J. Cahn, Tony Dodero, Rich Dunn, Jenifer Ragland and Noaki Schwartz

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°