Few decades in recent times have had so many interesting, controversial and tragic events happen in them as the decade of the ’00s, which ironically, doesn’t accurately depict the sentiment of the last 10 years. The decade started off in fear — the Y2K hysteria and 9/11 — but ended in hope. While uncertainty lingers, as bad as it has gotten, the pendulum has always swung back time and time again.
For the year/decade in review, the VCReporter picked the top stories of 2009 in Ventura County and created a decade-long timeline of what we felt were some of the most important, controversial and life changing moments. The year in review is in no specific order.
Murders without motives
Was it a business deal gone bad? Familial strife? A contract put out by a scorned lover? Whatever the reasons, three separate, vicious homicides this year in Ventura County have left police secretive about possible motives, and the public speculating about whether some of the killings were somehow connected.
Local businessman Brock Husted and his wife, Davina, who was four months pregnant, were stabbed to death at their Faria Beach home on May 20. Witnesses say that the assailant was most likely the mysterious, motorcycle helmet-wearing figure seen entering the Husted’s home through an unlocked door. The triple murder remains unsolved.
Not more than two weeks later, 61-year-old Wendy DiRodio was also knifed to death at the house she shared with her parents in the Ventura Keys. Similar to the Husted murders, police say the killer snuck in through an unlocked bedroom window as DiRodio slept, initially fueling concerns that the nature of both incidents, as well as the method of the killings, was the work of a potential serial killer targeting victims around upscale beachfront properties in Ventura county.
Authorities have since denied that the husted/DiRodio murders are related. The county sheriff’s department also maintains that it has enough evidence to prove that the killings were premeditated and carried out by two different suspects. That information has yet to be released as the investigations continue into 2010.
In a similar turn of events, initial reports that a prowler shot and killed former Olympian David Laut, 52, outside his Oxnard home late one night in August, have since been denied by police, who say that murder was also planned out.
Jane Laut says she heard the gunfire that killed her husband after he had ventured outside to check on suspicious-sounding noises. Yet while police have so far ruled out Laut’s wife as a suspect in the crime, she has retained prominent attorney Ron Bamieh.
— Paul Sisolak
Election 2009: Mostly just a waste of time and money
If there was ever a year to be pockmarked with mudslinging, doubt, frustration, anger and even conspiracy theories, 2009 is heads above the rest.
At the beginning of the year, it became apparent that California was in an alarming budget crisis. Because no one thought ahead of time to save when times were good, state legislators were faced with a burgeoning deficit that would result in huge cuts to two of the state’s prized possessions — education and health care. Instead of slashing funding to such programs right away, they opted to leave it to the voters. On May 19, a special election was held, featuring six initiatives that would result in swapping monies from certain programs to others, borrowing money from the state lottery and making payments to schools. Unfortunately, voters didn’t think any of the proposed initiatives were good ideas, except one: Prop. 1F, which would prevent pay increases to elected officials’ salaries during deficit years. It won by a 73 percent majority.
With the closing of the polls for the state’s special election, locally, the election for four seats on the Ventura City Council and four measures in Oxnard and Ventura was ramping up. With an especially high turnout of council candidates, 15, the desire for change was apparent — even though it didn’t turn out that way come Election Day, with only one new person elected on the council, former police chief Mike Tracy.
The election, however, came with much controversy, as local advocates fought to ban superstores from opening in Ventura, allegedly an effort to shut down Walmart’s attempt to open on Victoria Avenue, and to restrict new construction to less than 26 feet in height. Also, incumbent Neal Andrews fought the good fight as the Ventura Police Officers Association sought to tarnish his name and prevent him from being re-elected. The two surefire winners were anticipated to be the tax measures — Ventura’s Measure A, a half-cent sales tax allocated for the general fund, and Oxnard’s parcel tax for the local school district. Somewhat surprisingly, all the measures failed. Neal Andrews was re-elected for a third term but lacked support from all his council mates except Carl Morehouse to be the next in line for mayor, and the seat of deputy mayor was given to new Councilman Mike Tracy.
— Michael Sullivan
County services stretched thin
Housing, food, health care, education and jobs — the essential ingredients for a civilized society all took a serious financial hit in Ventura County during 2009. Residents turned to county services in record numbers, seeking whatever help they could get.
Unemployment surged locally to 11.1 percent, up from 9.1 percent at the beginning of the year. But if you look back just three years, the Ventura County unemployment rate was only 4.8 percent, according to the state Employment Development Department. And the havoc caused by the job losses infected every aspect of middle-class survival.
Before anything else, families must eat, and the number of Ventura County residents using food stamps grew by a whopping 50 percent over the past two years. Officials say 52,000 people are now in the program, with the largest increases occurring in the wealthier East County cities of Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley. But only about half of those who are qualified for food stamps actually apply for them, a rate much lower than the national average. A family of four earning $29,327 or less qualifies for the food stamp program.
Home foreclosures are the next sign of the economic downturn. The number of bank-owned properties, a result of foreclosure, peaked at the beginning of 2009 and has steadily headed downward. But in January 2009, more than half of the home sales were of foreclosed houses.
The number of uninsured or under-insured patients using county-run clinics and hospitals rose by 70,000 during the past two years. Some clinics, such as the Westminster Free Clinic in Thousand Oaks, saw the uninsured patient load double in a year. One county-run program that provides health insurance to the uninsured and is funded by a federal grant reached its full capacity of 12,000 this past April.
And those looking to become qualified for new jobs faced severe cuts in classes due to a $6.6 million deficit at the Ventura County Community College District. About 40 jobs were eliminated at the district this year and nearly 100 part-time faculty members were laid off. Officials said the district is expecting even more state budget cuts by midyear.
— Joan Trossman Bien
Homelessness: A lingering problem
Although strides to curb homelessness in Ventura County were great this year, the problem remained as pervasive as ever in 2009.
Numbers collected by county social service volunteers revealed that a staggering 2,200 people remain homeless in Ventura County on any given day. And despite federal monies of $1.9 million being granted to both Oxnard and county officials for rapid re-housing, four other cities — Ventura, Camarillo, Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks — were denied the aid they applied for at the behest of Supervisor Steve Bennett, who personally pleaded to Washington, D.C., to provide help.
Still faced with the lack of a year-round shelter, and a shortage of health and human services due to the economy, the morbidity rate for Ventura’s homeless remained high, with an official 28 homeless people having died in 2009 alone, an increase from last year. They were memorialized this month, with the second such vigil held in the past two Christmas seasons.
No matter how small, some successes on the homeless prevention/shelter front were achieved, including approval of a city-sanctioned pilot program that will allow homeless people to sleep in their cars in Ventura during early 2010. It was fashioned after a similar program that had been successful in Oregon.
Considering that Camarillo officials had banned the same practice within their own city limits, citing crime, sanitation and other concerns, Ventura further upped its place as the local homeless prevention leader when planning heads also approved the start of a faith-based transitional living center near the downtown.
Perhaps Ventura’s biggest problem in ending homelessness is in changing the public perception of it. Critics were bold and loud, with downtown business leaders, for example, vocalizing their disapproval for the sleeping in cars program — if it were to take place in area public parking lots. A secondary walk-in program at the transitional living center, “Operation Embrace,” has also been the target of residents along the Thompson Avenue corridor; and by the end of 2009, neither the Kingdom Center nor its services have started up by the December target opening dates.
— Paul Sisolak
H1N1: Ventura County officials prepare for battle
As 2009 comes to a close, public health officials are still warning Ventura County residents that this year’s H1N1 flu pandemic may not yet be over. They stress the need for immunization as the most effective preventive measure if the influenza returns in another wave this winter.
So far, despite critical vaccine shortages and long lines at public clinics, the Public Health Department has vaccinated more than 40,000 people. That does not include the unknown tally of residents who have received the inoculation at private medical offices. The target is to vaccinate 400,000 people in Ventura County.
Public Health officials have spent $200,000 so far in this effort and publicly acknowledged the massive volunteer outreach, which was key to getting the vaccine to more of the community. The four county health clinics estimate they vaccinated about 550 people a day.
California health officials said about 12 percent of the state’s population has been infected with H1N1 since April. Local county numbers are not available, but by extrapolating from the 12 percent, it is likely that about 100,000 Ventura County residents have contracted the so-called swine flu so far. There have been 38 people admitted to hospitals locally and 11 have died. Unlike the broader national trend of children accounting for one out of 10 flu deaths, the local patients who have died have all been age 43 or older.
Public health officials said their biggest fear right now is public complacency. The H1N1 infection rate has noticeably slowed from the peak of a few months ago. But that does not mean the number of people who contract the virus will continue to drop. They warned that nearly all pandemics have come in three waves and that the virus is notoriously unpredictable. It can mutate and become far more virulent as it did during the devastating 1918 influenza pandemic. If residents are vigilant and continue to feel the urgency to get immunized, then the possibility of a surge in the infection rate on the heels of holiday travel and vacations will not have such a serious effect on the local population. A third wave could come in weeks or in months.
The vaccines have a relatively short shelf life. Of the 90,000 doses that have been sent to Ventura County, about 5,000 will expire in January.
— Joan Trossman Bien
Rocketdyne’s rocky road
The year started off promisingly for the astronomically polluted Santa Susana Field Laboratory, aka Rocketdyne. The Boeing-owned lab sits on 2,850 acres at the eastern border of Ventura County and is massively polluted by radiation and chemicals. A cleanup costing hundreds of millions has begun and is scheduled for completion in 2017.
In early January, California EPA Secretary Linda Adams said the agency would oppose federal Superfund listing for the site, insisting that the state remain in charge of the lab cleanup and employ tougher state remediation standards.
Activists rejoiced at the news.
July 13 though 27 marked the 50th anniversary of the Sodium Reactor Experiment’s partial meltdown in 1959 at Rocketdyne. According to some estimates, the disaster released hundreds of times more radiation than the infamous Three Mile Island meltdown did in 1979.
Disaster is no stranger to Rocketdyne, and by July 29, it was clear another one was looming. Daniel Hirsch, head of the nuclear watchdog group Committee to Bridge the Gap, told a Simi Valley audience about “secret negotiations” between the Department of Energy, NASA and Boeing over Rocketdyne. Hirsch said they had “been resisting complying with that law and attempting to break the promise that they made to the Congress.”
Hirsch also said that state legislators and regulators wouldn’t stand for it. They didn’t, and in August the Department of Toxic Substances Control replaced the Rocketdyne and Runkle Canyon cleanups manager, Norman Riley, and promised to get tough on the polluters.
Riley had said in an interview that he thought the tough state remediation law was a hindrance to the cleanup and that Boeing would sue rather than remove that much goo. The company did just that in November, contending it is being unfairly singled out for cleanup standards that are impossible to achieve. The battle continues.
— Michael Collins
Wagon Wheel rolls into court
The embattled case of the vintage Wagon Wheel was no stranger to the inside of a courtroom this year, as historic preservationists squared off against developers regarding the future of the former motel and restaurant in Oxnard.
The Oxnard City Council, favoring Mediterranean over Americana, had given the green light earlier this year to demolish the once popular but now dilapidated tourist attraction, in favor of a proposed $110 million mixed-use complex, viewed as a suitable companion to the perpetually in-progress, yet shiny, Riverpark and Collection developments across Highway 101.
When members of the San Buenaventura Conservancy stepped in, they took the matter to superior court, contending that several obvious portions of the environmental review process under CEQA law were skipped over. With the recent loss of two of the Petit homes, the conservancy also argued that razing the Wagon Wheel sounded the death knell for historic preservation in Oxnard, and that a compromise could be reached by building around the Wagon Wheel.
But Judge Glen Reiser upheld his ruling — twice — in favor of developers, who have yet to begin construction on the Oxnard Village project since the conservancy filed an appeal this month with a higher court. Results of that motion are still up in the air at the close of 2009, though that hasn’t stopped some of the Wagon Wheel’s neighbors from considering packing it in, including a local American Legion branch.
Leaders of American Legion Post 48 announced this week that the impending project has led them to look for a new home, a first in the legion’s 90-year history at the same Oxnard location.
— Paul Sisolak
Saying goodbye to Countrywide and Affinity Bank
The failure of two of Ventura County’s largest financial institutions continued to affect residents throughout 2009. Countrywide Financial Corporation of Thousand Oaks, which had been the nation’s largest mortgage lender and was absorbed by Bank of America in 2008, continued to generate shock waves throughout 2009. And Affinity Bank of Ventura was shuttered by regulators during the summer.
Founder and former CEO of Countrywide, Angelo Mozilo, was indicted in 2009 by the Securities and Exchange Commission on charges of insider trading and fraud. Mozilo is accused of misrepresenting the financial health of the corporation to stockholders and lying about the kinds of loans being sold by the company.
According to the consumer group Public Citizen, Mozilo was paid $244.8 million dollars in the two years leading up to the end of Countrywide. It had been the largest mortgage lender in the nation.
Countrywide remained embroiled in massive lawsuits against its former insurers, claiming that they should have paid out the claims for all of the bad loans made by the mortgage lender. Additionally, information was made public in early 2009, which revealed Countrywide’s VIP Lending Program. The secretive program had given preferential mortgage terms to famous and influential people. That program has been terminated, according to Bank of America.
Even the buildings at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza that had sported the Countrywide name have been replaced with the Bank of America name. Countrywide had paid $4.25 million dollars in 2003 to sponsor the arts center. In return, its name was prominently displayed on the arts building and was highly visible from the southbound lanes of the 101 Freeway.
Ventura-based Affinity Bank was the 84th bank in the country to be shut down by bank regulators in 2009. In August, the California Department of Financial Institutions appointed the FDIC as receiver and sold the assets to San Diego-based Pacific Western Bank. All 10 branches across the state were absorbed by Pacific Western, and customers had their insured accounts transferred.
— Joan Trossman Bien
An eventful year
From beer, tamales, music and art to movies and Christmas, 2009 saw more festivals launched in Ventura County than any year in recent memory. While festivals generally evoke a sense of fun and togetherness, this year the spirit was a bit meaner as competition and controversy cast their shadows on some.
Of note on the darker end of the spectrum were the film festivals: Ventura Film Festival (now the Ventura Film Society), the other Ventura Festival and the Ojai-Ventura International Film Festival (bets are on as to whether it gets renamed in 2010). Proving that it’s not always who you know, was well-connected but unorganized promoter Mark Rasmussen’s attempt at a South by Southwest-style music festival with his California Music Fest.
Some of the best-attended and more buzz-worthy of the new kids on the block were the Johnny Cash Festival, the California Beer Festival and the Tamale Festival in Oxnard. One of the most exciting and important event launches of the year was the first Amgen Ventura County Stage Race, which brought 450 cyclists and hundreds of spectators to downtown Ventura for a world class sporting competition.
— Michel Cicero
Riding the WAV
For a year fraught with financial woes, especially in the arts, one project that found its way to completion could finally get Ventura on the map as a leading cultural destination in Southern California. Working Artists Ventura (WAV), the sustainable, affordable, live/work project for artists and their families came to life this month as tenants began moving their belongings in. With a performance venue, gallery space and plans for group shows and community arts projects, hopes for the success of the WAV project are high.
— Michel Cicero
Backing up the bears
Gun control and criticism of excessive force by law enforcement extended into the animal kingdom this year in Ventura County, as Santa Paula Police came under fire for shooting and killing a 15-pound mountain lion cub in April. Public outcry was so extreme that officials in Santa Paula conducted an investigation and revised their rule books, creating new standards for officers responding to wildlife calls.
Response to the Santa Paula incident, though, was passive when compared to the shooting by Fish and Game wardens of a 400-pound bear that wandered up a Downtown Ojai tree in late October.
Wardens at the scene had given the animal more than 24 hours to retreat from the tree, but when it failed to come down, they tranquilized the bear, euthanizing it with a bullet to the head. For one, officials claimed it was to prevent tranquilizer chemicals, which remained in the animal’s system, to circulate back into nature should the bear have been released back into the wild. A more important reason, they maintained, was to prevent the bear from revisiting the area for food.
Yet some concerned residents told a different story and claimed that it was inhumane treatment, contrary to an incident in Camarillo earlier in the year, when a bear cub that wandered into an apartment complex was tranquilized and then set free, unharmed, by Fish and Game.
Saying that the Ojai bear’s welfare was violated, some residents formed the grass-roots Ojai Wildlife Group. Not only did its members slam Fish and Game wardens over their methods, but they’ve pleaded with city leaders to give the group authorization to respond more humanely in the future without Fish and Game involvement.
An answer by the Ojai City Council is still to come.
— Paul Sisolak
January 2000 — (Ventura County)
Alaska Airlines flight 261
crashes near Anacapa Island;
November 2000 — George Bush won the presidential election despite losing the popular vote to Al Gore.
September 2001 — Four planes hijacked
by 19 Middle Eastern terrorists,
three crash into the World Trade
Center and the Pentagon, 3,000 fatalities.
Anthrax attacks on media outlets
and U.S. officials cause international alarm.
October 2001 — Enron, the Texas-based
energy company, collapses
and files the largest corporate
bankruptcy at that time
in U.S. history.
February 2002 —American journalist
Daniel Pearl beheaded after being
kidnapped and tortured by al-Qaida terrorists.
Fall 2002 — (Ventura County)
Cal State University, Channel Islands,
opened with more than 1,000
upper division transfer students.
December 2002 — The U.S. Catholic Church
rocked by sex scandals after Cardinal
Bernard Law of Boston resigned.
Law was accused of covering up
activities of priests who preyed
on young boys in their care.
Late 2002/mid-2003 — The bird flu,
SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome)
kills more than 700 people,
most of them in China.
February 2003 — The NASA space shuttle
Columbia is destroyed upon
re-entry into the atmosphere,
killing all seven on board.
June 2003 — International icon Martha Stewart
charged with nine counts of securities fraud and
obstruction of justice after selling stock using
insider information to avoid a loss. She was
later convicted of most of the charges and
sentenced to five months in jail.
October 2003 — (California)
Governor Gray Davis
April 2004 — CBS News’ “60 Minutes”
uncovered the Abu Ghraib jail scandal,
where American soldiers were severely
abusing the prisoners.
May 2004 — Massachusetts became the first
state in the country to legalize same-sex
marriage through a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
November 2004 — President Bush
wins a second term as president,
narrowly defeating Democrat John Kerry.
December 2004 — Nearly 250,000 people
dead after a tsunami wreaked havoc
following a 9-plus earthquake centered
off the coast of Indonesia.
January 2005 — (Ventura County)
The La Conchita landslide
kills 10 people and damages
May 2005 — The secret identity of
Deep Throat, the insider who revealed
Watergate, is disclosed — the former
FBI Deputy Director W. Mark Felt.
August 2005 — Hurricane Katrina devastates
the Southern United States, causing at least
1,836 deaths and more than $100 billion worth of damage.
February 2006 — Vice President Dick Cheney
accidentally shoots a companion
with buckshot on a hunting trip.
August 2006 — (Ventura County)
Thousand Oaks shooting rampage leaves
resident Tim Heyne’s wife and friend dead.
Also, Pluto is reclassified as a dwarf planet.
September 2006 — (Ventura County)
Transient starts the Day Fire in Piru Canyon,
which burns for more than a month, destroying
around 162,000 acres and costing more
than $100 million in fire suppression costs.
December 2006 — Former Iraqi dictator
Saddam Hussein executed by
hanging for the killings of
148 Shiite Muslims.
April 2007 — Troubled Virginia Tech
student Seung-Hui Chi massacres
32 colleagues and faculty before killing himself.
August 2007 — Idaho Senator Larry Craig
pleads guilty to charges based
on a police sex sting in
an airport men’s room.
February 2008 — (Ventura County)
Fifteen-year-old Larry King,
a flamboyant gay teen at E.O.
Green School in Oxnard, shot in the
back of the head by then 14-year-old
Brian McInerney during class.
March 2008 — New York Governor
Eliot Spitzer admits to prostitution scandal.
May 2008 — A 7.9 earthquake kills
more than 60,000 people in China.
September 2008 — (Ventura County)
Metrolink crash kills 25 people and
injures 135 more; engineer who was
killed and caused the accident
had been texting teenagers at the time.
October 2008 — The Stock Market plummets,
the Dow Jones Industrial Average
falling 1,874 points in one week.
November 2008—Barack Obama,
the first African-American president,
January 2009 — Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger
successfully crash-landed an Airbus 320
plane in the Hudson River near Manhattan
after a flock of birds reportedly knocked out both of the jet’s engines.
February 2009 — Bernard Madoff’s
$50 billion Ponzi scheme revealed.
June 2009 — Michael Jackson,
“the King of Pop,” dies at age 50.
July 2009—News anchor, Walter Cronkite,
“the most trusted man in America,”
dies at age 92.
October 2009 — Nobel Committee
announced prize going to President Obama.
December 2009 — Climate conference
held in Copenhagen; last meeting before
the Kyoto Protocol to prevent climate
changes and global warming runs out.
Landmark health care bill passed, which
will provide insurance for 30 million more
Americans and provides legislation that
bans the insurance industry from denying
coverage or charging higher premiums on
the basis of pre-existing medical conditions.