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Lobdell: Unsolved mysteries in Newport-Mesa

In recent weeks, two intriguing mysteries have emerged in Newport-Mesa that I’m dying to see solved:

1. Why were Costa Mesa Police Chief Christopher Shawkey and Capt. Ron Smith — the cop shop’s leaders — put on administrative leave?

2. What were the circumstances behind the single-engine plane crash in Newport Beach’s Back Bay that killed the pilot and two passengers?

Let’s first look at what happened in the Costa Mesa Police Department. Last month, City Manager Allan Roeder sent an e-mail to surprised employees.

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“Police Department personnel, please be advised, as of this date Chief Shawkey and Captain Smith are on leave,” Roeder wrote. “As this involves potential personnel matters, I would respectfully ask that you not speculate nor discuss this matter out of respect for these two individuals and the professional integrity of the Costa Mesa Police Department.”

I predicted the real story would spill out within days, if not hours. Secrets are nearly impossible to keep at any level of government, with gossip and political maneuvering being two favorite pastimes. In Costa Mesa’s case, you also have the added dynamic that the news involved the city’s two top lawmen.

So what in the world happened?

It’s no secret that the community hasn’t exactly embraced Shawkey since he became police chief in 2007. I’ve heard concerns that he spent too much time in Arizona (he previously had worked at the Phoenix Police Department) and there’s been speculation that his alleged absenteeism might be a reason for Shawkey being placed on leave.

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I don’t buy the theory because that type of problem — if indeed it even existed — could be handled more subtly than putting the police chief on leave.

The case of Smith is much more curious. The police captain — on the force for three decades — has had a storied career in Costa Mesa, solving many of city’s biggest crimes over the years. He earned a reputation as a no-nonsense police officer. A cop’s cop.

He’s also a complex character. For instance, he’s a martial arts expert and bibliophile who decided, on a whim, to only read novels with the word “and” in the title. Interesting guy.

We can deduce just a couple of things from these two being placed on administrative leave. First, it’s likely that whatever caused Shawkey and Smith to be removed from active duty is related. Second, very few people are aware of the allegations — the circle must be very tight for nothing to leak out.

I understand privacy laws silence the city when it comes to employee personnel issues. Those rules make sense for the rank-and-file.

But for high-profile positions — city manager, police chief and fire chief, for example — the public should have a right to know the circumstances that led to a leave or firing.

I get that it’s not how the law works, but at the highest levels of government, the public deserves to know the details about potential misdoings of top public servants. The taxpayers are the boss.

Most people have their fingers crossed that Shawkey, and especially Smith, re-emerge from this episode with their reputations untarnished. As one friend asked me, “If I can’t believe in the integrity of Ron Smith, who can I believe in?”

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Hopefully, as this mystery unfolds, we’ll still be able to believe in Smith’s integrity.

For my money, an even larger riddle dropped from the sky over Newport Beach last month when a single-engine plane crash-landed in the muddy Back Bay estuary, flipping over and trapping its pilot and two passengers inside. The coroner determined that the surfing buddies — coming back to the Torrance airport from a trip to Baja, Mexico — drowned after the plane hit the water.

These facts we know: On Nov. 21, the three men stopped at an airport in the California border town of Calexico before flying north. The plane, a four-seat, 1968 Beechcraft Muskateer, had a flying range of about 1,000 nautical miles.

But at 5:45 p.m., the pilot radioed the John Wayne Airport control tower, saying the plane was low on fuel and wanted to land on Newport Center Drive. A few minutes later, the plane went down near Back Bay Drive.

The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the accident, a process that usually takes months. In the meantime, we’re left with many unanswered questions such as:

1. How could a private pilot with a reputation for being meticulous run out of fuel?

2. Did the blustery winds that day cause the plane to use more fuel than expected?

3. How much gas, if any, did the plane get in Calexico?

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4. Did the plane have a fuel leak or broken fuel gauge?

5. Why didn’t the pilot land the plane on Newport Center Drive, as he had planned?

6. If not Newport Center Drive, why not try to land on Jamboree Road, which borders the Back Bay, or the nearby athletic fields of Corona del Mar High School or the parks of Eastbluff?

7. Did the pilot think he was landing in deeper water, unaware that his plane would be stuck in the Back Bay’s swallow water and mud?

I just can’t imagine that an experienced pilot known for his carefulness would not pay attention to his fuel level, run out of gas, and be forced to crash-land his plane in an unfamiliar estuary. It may take months, but I do think this mystery will be solved.

And while we wait for answers about the plane crash and the fate of Costa Mesa’s highest ranking lawmen, there’s another Newport-Mesa mystery waiting to be solved: How the 150-acre Orange County Fairgrounds could be sold — against the community’s will — for just $20 million down and an additional $100 million paid out over 40 years.

I have a feeling we’ll soon get to the bottom of “The Case of the O.C. Fairgrounds” soon. Stay tuned.

WILLIAM LOBDELL is former editor of the Daily Pilot, former Los Angeles Times reporter and editor, and a Costa Mesa resident. The column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is williamlobdell@gmail.com.


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