The Mua family, those strawberry-growing folks whose torched roadside stand made a big splash in the local press this month, are settling into their new stand, rebuilt by volunteers hoping to show we are a community with heart. I stopped by this week and talked with 13-year-old Wendy Mua and her 17-year-old brother Rassmy. Wendy said her parents, Pavus and Mary Lou, have been in the strawberry business since she can remember—at least a dozen years. Besides selling from the roadside stand on River Road, they also set up shop at the Thursday Night street fair in downtown Chico. The Muas used to sell their berries at the Saturday Farmers’ Market, Wendy told me, a vending spot that constituted an important part of their marketing efforts. Unfortunately, the family was kicked out of the Saturday market when other vendors accused them of selling produce someone else had grown—a cardinal sin, apparently, at the Farmers’ Market. The Muas believe they may be under a lifetime ban from the Saturday market.

I also asked Rassmy, a senior at Chico High School, what caused the family to be banned from a lucrative spot in the Farmers’ Market. “Some of the other vendors didn’t like our parents,” he explained. “They started rumors that the products my parents sold we’re not grown by us. It’s not true. All this stuff we have was grown here.” Rassmy gestured to the acres of green plants behind the roadside stand. “This is a big deal to my parents. They’ve been in this business since I was 2 or 3.” Terry Givens, manager of the Farmer’s Market, said the Muas were accused of selling green beans back in 2000 when there were no green beans being grown on the property. The market board of directors voted to ban the Muas, a “very difficult decision,” Givens said.

The Butte County Sheriff’s Office, which is investigating the suspected arson, does have some suspects, I’ve learned. Cheryl Broom, the BCSO press information officer, told me she could not give any information or discuss the matter because to do so could compromise the ongoing investigation. What I’ve heard is that there are as many as five suspects, four males and one female, whose identities, when revealed, should dispel rumors that competing strawberry vendors—other Hmong—were the real culprits behind the fire. As one friend observed: “These people have existed together without a country for 5,000 years. That’s just not their way of doing things.”

You never know in this business which words are going to lead to trouble when you string them into a sentence and then put those sentences into a paragraph and fit those paragraphs into a column. Most of the time you send those various word patterns out into the world and never hear about them again. Last week was different. Seems some Butte County prosecutors took exception to the fact I had mentioned them in the same sentence with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft—that I’d heard his belligerent style had filtered its way down to the local ranks of prosecutors. I struck a nerve that usually doesn’t respond—the DA’s Office. I heard some prosecutors working over the weekend were so disheartened by my cruel comparison they just put down their work for the day and went home with sort of a “why even bother?” attitude. I got an e-mail from DA Mike Ramsey who said he was tired of the hard-working people in his office getting unfairly criticized.

And I got an e-mail from Susan M. Hearne, who signed herself a “Park Ranger Attorney.” (All I could think of was legal representation for Yogi Bear, accused of being a pic-i-nic basket thief.) Hearn chastised me and said I should thank a prosecutor each time I’m able to cross the street without getting mowed down by a drunken driver (actually she said I should drop to my knees and kiss the pavement) or whenever a co-worker comes to work without a black eye. Huh? Then I put two and two together. This is no time to knock county prosecutors. They are trying to get raises out of the Board of Supervisors. There was a picket this week to protest the low pay the prosecutors and the county’s nurses receive compared to their cohorts in surrounding counties. And they are paid relatively poorly. Welcome to Butte County. Still, this makes is difficult to attract and keep good prosecutors. (Otherwise you get little John Ashcrofts.) Give ’em the raise, I say. I don’t want to get run over by a drunken driver the next time I cross the road. Hearne, I’ve learned, has resigned as a prosecutor to go back to her old job of park ranger, where she can make more money.