A sense of closure seemed to pervade Orange County as it emerged from 1997–from the resolution of cases against key figures in the county’s historic 1994 bankruptcy to the announcements by Sheriff Brad Gates and UC Irvine Chancellor Laurel L. Wilkening that they will be leaving their jobs.
Residents braced for, then braved the unexpected with El Nino, that strange weather condition that plunged parts of the county under water. Other issues continued to simmer: The rift over what to do with El Toro Marine Corps Air Station when it closes in two years is now so wide that it seems impossible that the differing factions will ever reach a compromise.
The new year will be critical in the development of Orange County’s future,
with key elections expected to bring in fresh leadership. As we prepare to face 1998, here is a look at some of the newsmakers of 1997.
Law and Order
In the county’s worst outbreak of workplace violence in two decades,
a former state transportation agency employee wielding an assault rifle killed four people and wounded two others, including a police officer, before being gunned down Dec. 18. Fired from his job as a Caltrans maintenance worker six months earlier, Arturo Reyes Torres, 41, of Huntington Beach returned to his former workplace in Orange armed with an AK47 to pick off co-workers.
Earlier in the year, 10 Newport Harbor High School students ending a night of partying piled into a sport-utility vehicle with a designated driver at the wheel. On the way home, the speeding vehicle flipped and crashed while rounding a curve on Irvine Avenue in Newport Beach.
Eighteen-year-old Donny Bridgman was killed, while classmates Amanda Arthur and Daniel Townsend, both 18, were seriously injured. After an 11-week coma, Arthur emerged to become homecoming queen. Driver Jason Rausch, also 18, had his charge of felony vehicular homicide–which carries a six-year sentence–reduced to a misdemeanor by a judge who felt Rausch shouldn’t be tried as a felon.
Court TV cable network offered viewers gavel-to-gavel coverage of the trial of Jeen Han, 23, now awaiting sentencing for plotting with two teenage boys to kill her identical twin sister, Sunny Han, in the victim’s Irvine apartment.
Sunny Han provided her own dose of drama when she arrived dazed and confused for her second day of testimony. She later revealed she had taken dozens of sleeping pills because of the stress caused by the trial.
One of the most notorious images of the year was the face of James Lee Crummel, 54, of Newport Beach, a convicted child molester arrested in the 1979 slaying of 13-year-old Jamie Trotter of Costa Mesa. Crummel’s arrest stirred increasing local support for Megan’s Law, named after a slain New Jersey girl whose killer, a convicted child molester, lived on her street.
The law gives police power to publicize the whereabouts of known sex offenders,
and Orange County law enforcement agencies were among the first to use it.
In other firsts for the county, Gunner Lindberg became the only person to receive the death penalty in California for committing a hate crime.
Lindberg, then 20, had just moved to Tustin in January 1996 when he stabbed and slashed to death Thien Minh Ly, a Vietnamese student visiting family during winter break. Lindberg, a white supremacist, later boasted of the slaying.
Even though the homicide rate has steadily declined in recent years,
the number of capital murder trials in Orange County remains at an all-time high.
One of the most riveting was John Joseph Famalaro’s. The defense conceded he killed Newport Beach resident Denise Huber, 23, in June 1991 and then stowed her nude, handcuffed body in a freezer for three years.
Despite emotional testimony about the defendant’s troubled childhood,
jurors recommended the death penalty, saying they could not forget the photos of the bludgeoned victim’s frozen remains.
Politics and Government
As Orange County continued its bankruptcy recovery, many civic leaders persisted in their quests, while others announced they were leaving.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and defeated Congressman Robert K. Dornan held fast to their respective positions throughout 1997–she in office and he out of it–while Republicans in Congress investigated Dornan’s claim that her 1996 victory should be overturned.
Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi stirred up community reaction when he decided to investigate Nativo V. Lopez and his group, Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, for allegedly registering noncitizens to vote in the race.
Lopez denied any wrongdoing, and in the end, the Orange County Grand Jury agreed, refusing to indict any Hermandad officials.
Three years ago, county officials put their holiday plans on hold to deal with the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
This year, they got an early Christmas present: an upgraded investment rating by Wall Street that amounts to a strong vote of confidence in the county’s steady recovery from bankruptcy. In addition, Orange County schools recovered a $30-million settlement from Merrill Lynch and Co. The brokerage firm paid the money to end the district attorney’s investigation into the bankruptcy.
Robert L. Citron, the former treasurer-tax collector who pleaded guilty to forging the risky investments that caused the bankruptcy, ended a nine-month jail work program, while his assistant, Matthew R. Raabe, was sentenced to three years in prison for his role in the scandal.
Closing a chapter was a judge’s recent dismissal of a case against Auditor-Controller Steve E. Lewis, who was accused of failing to prevent the bankruptcy. Lewis’
case was the last of six stemming from the financial collapse.
Election disputes dominated the news last year.
Rhonda Carmony, wife and campaign manager for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), pleaded guilty in December to election violations for her role in recruiting decoy Democrat Laurie Campbell to split the Democratic vote in a critical election to wrest control of the Assembly >from the Democrats.
Carmony, 27, was fined $2,800 and sentenced to perform 300 hours of community service.
Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach) had his own legal troubles stemming from the same race.
Baugh, 36, was ordered in December to stand trial this year on two felony and 10 misdemeanor charges related to alleged campaign finance law violations in the 1995 race. He has denied any wrongdoing.
There will be a new sheriff in town–and a new prosecutor and a new supervisor–in 1998.
Sheriff Brad Gates announced in October that he wouldn’t seek a seventh term. The leading contender to replace him is Marshal Michael S. Carona,
the choice of many of the county’s Republican leaders.
The announcement that Gates would not seek reelection was tarnished by the scandal surrounding Assistant Sheriff Dennis LaDucer, who was fired in the wake of four sexual harassment suits by female employees. LaDucer denies any wrongdoing.
Capizzi will run for state attorney general rather than seek reelection,
and three spots on the Board of Supervisors–including William G. Steiner’s,
considered a critical vote on the El Toro issue–will be up for grabs in 1998.
The planned conversion of El Toro Marine Corps Air Station to a commercial airport continues to spark intense debate, but a survey of county residents found softening support for an air hub.
Orange County’s biggest amusement parks readied their expansion plans and a bunch of 11- 12- and 13-year-olds playing one of America’s favorite pastimes brought home a national title.
The nation’s last major family-owned amusement park, Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, was sold to an Ohio company in October in order to finance expansion in the intensely competitive amusement park industry.
Six years after the Walt Disney Co. first announced it was considering building a second theme park in Anaheim, the dream for Disney and city officials came closer to reality in 1997.
The city sold more than $500 million in bonds to finance street improvements for a new Disneyland resort and to expand the city’s Convention Center across the street.
The construction is the grandest and most costly refurbishment in Anaheim history.
The curtain fell on the El Toro Air Show with the last county performance of the Navy’s Blue Angels precision flying team and other attractions. More than 2 million people attended the show last year. The air show had become a tradition over its 47-year run.
The South Mission Viejo All-Stars stole hometown hearts last summer when they made it to Williamsport, Pa., for the Little League World Series.
Their climb to the top went unnoticed at first, as the boys quietly swept past team after team. But by the time the team landed in the national playoffs,
all of Orange County had the baseball bug.
In a heartbreaking world championship game, the team lost to Guadalupe,
Mexico, 5-4, only their second loss in three months. Still, they returned home as superstars to a rush of fans, media and crowds of strangers wanting autographs.
They were special guests at Disneyland. They were interviewed by Jay Leno.
They were the boys of summer.
A courtroom, a luxury resort, ancient human bones and El Ni?o were just a few of the top issues in Orange County in 1997.
Nearly eight years ago, an oil tanker called the American Trader spilled more than 400,000 gallons of Alaskan crude oil on Orange County’s coast.
The result was Southern California’s worst oil spill in 20 years. More than 1,000 birds and other wildlife were killed.
A jury concluded Dec. 8 that Attransco, the tanker’s owner, should pay the public $18.1 million in damages and fines, most of it for lost use of beaches that were closed five weeks by the spill. The verdict was hailed by environmental attorneys as proof the public was willing to place a monetary value on time spent at the beach.
State officials riled environmentalists when they announced plans for a private resort in a portion of Crystal Cove State Park, considered a pristine piece of coastline. The cash-strapped parks system is expected to reap $60 million over six decades from the resort.
Forensic anthropologist Judy Suchey sparked surprise and disbelief last spring with her estimate that as many as 600 ancient human burials had been discovered on a Newport Bay bluff top over 1995 and 1996. The bones were moved and reburied during an Irvine Co. archeological excavation to make way for a gated community called Harbor Cove.
Months after a summer of warmer-than-normal ocean temperatures brought scores of warm-water game fish, rain started to fall heavily as the El Nino phenomenon swept California.
Wet and wild weather ravaged the coastal communities in early December–with flood-drenched Laguna Beach among the hardest hit areas. In Santa Ana, rainfall for the year to date was 8.35 inches, high compared with an average year of 3.04 inches.
Medicine and Ethics
Two physicians were stripped of their licenses after a much-publicized patient death during plastic surgery, while another doctor faces sentencing for his conviction related to the UCI fertility scandal.
Another physician took on the state bureaucracy over policies governing the disabled.
Judy Fernandez, 47, never regained consciousness after plastic surgeon W. Earle Matory Jr. began the 10 1/2-hour liposuction of her thighs, hips,
stomach and buttocks, a mini-face-lift, a brow lift and a laser resurfacing of her neck and face. An hour and a half later, she died of blood loss.
Matory and Robert K. Hoo, a young anesthesiologist who completed his residency just two years ago, were charged with gross negligence by the Medical Board of California and stripped of their licenses.
Dr. Sergio C. Stone was convicted in October of nine counts of fraudulently billing insurance companies in connection with the egg-stealing scandal at the UC Irvine Center for Reproductive Health, a world-renowned fertility clinic that Stone and two former partners ran.
Federal investigators charged one of Stone’s former partners, Dr. Ricardo H. Asch, with stealing human eggs and embryos from some patients to be implanted in unsuspecting women at the clinic. Asch and another partner, Dr. Jose P. Balmaceda, who was charged with mail fraud in the scandal, have left the country and are fugitives.
Meanwhile, the university has paid out more than $12.5 million so far to dozens of women who alleged in civil suits that the three doctors stole or misused their eggs and embryos.
Dr. William Cable, head of the Fairview Developmental Center, challenged the state practice of transferring thousands of developmentally disabled patients out of institutions such as Fairview and into group homes where,
advocates argue, they can lead more normal, independent lives.
Cable contended that patients, most of them profoundly retarded, were being transferred to community homes with little attention paid to their medical needs. A federal judge halted the transfers in July.
At UC Irvine, there will be a changing of the guard. A controversy-ridden South Orange County college district tried to change leaders. And in the elementary districts, words were exchanged over how to teach limited-English-speaking students.
Chancellor Laurel L. Wilkening, at the helm when UCI won two Nobel prizes in 1995, announced she will step down after a four-year tenure that saw a campus building boom and a rise in UCI’s national rankings. But she also watched the university’s reputation damaged by a human egg-stealing scandal that broke in 1994 at its once-acclaimed fertility clinic.
The South Orange County Community College District made headlines this year when its board president, Steven J. Frogue, first proposed a seminar exploring a purported Israeli government connection in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, then denied charges that he is anti-Semitic, and finally became the target of a recall campaign.
Orange County made its mark as a hotbed of all-English activism: Since February 1996, four school districts in Orange, Anaheim and Westminster have persuaded the state to free them from bilingual instruction requirements altogether–the only ones in California to do so in that time.
And Gloria Matta Tuchman, 56, a Mexican American schoolteacher from Santa Ana, has emerged as a key player in the debate: She maintains that decades of her own experience teaching children of immigrant families at Taft Elementary School have shown that “English immersion” is best.
Last summer, Matta Tuchman and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron K. Unz launched a campaign to abolish bilingual education through a statewide vote in June 1998.