Other stories of interest

Shooting at Las Plumas
Gun violence in schools has made national news for years. In September, that reality hit close to home when a Las Plumas High student brought a .22-caliber handgun to school allegedly to shoot a romantic rival.

No one was hurt, although two shots were fired into the ceiling in the band room where the Oroville teen held about 30 of his fellow classmates hostage. The boyfriend of the alleged gunman’s ex-girlfriend had not shown up for school that day.

Greg Wright was arrested shortly after the incident, and the DA’s office subsequently decided to try him as an adult (he’s just 17) on multiple counts, including attempted murder. That charge was dropped as part of the plea bargain Wright accepted last week, in which he pleaded no contest to nine counts in exchange for a 22-year sentence instead of life. He’ll spend at least 19 years in prison.

CUSD ignores abuse of power
When the CN&R exposed, in the March 8 cover story “Abuse of authority,” that former Chico schools Superintendent Scott Brown and members of his staff had used abusive intimidation in their controversial 2004 effort to oust popular former Marsh Junior High Principal Jeff Sloan, there was reason to think the district might finally investigate itself to root out the wrong-doers and hold them accountable.

No such luck. Soon after the story appeared, then-Superintendent Chet Francisco announced he had no plans to look into the matter and preferred to focus on the future.

Jeff Sloan

Sloan, meanwhile, remained dogged in his pursuit of information, filing dozens of Public Records Act requests for e-mails and documents related to his case. Later in the year, he lost a small-claims suit against the district seeking legal fees, when a per-diem judge ruled against him on a technicality.

The nearly 4-year-old story won’t go away, though. In November, Sacramento Valley Mirror editor and publisher Tim Crews sued the district, charging violations of the state Public Records Act in its failure to turn over documents related to the Sloan case.

Hazing case invokes Matt’s Law
Just when all seemed quiet within Chico’s Greek system, in April, University Police busted a fraternity for hazing pledges. And unlike the rogue organization where Chico State University student Matthew Carrington died about two years earlier, the alleged criminal activity took place at Beta Theta Pi—a prominent university-recognized frat operating out of a home on the east side of downtown.

By mid-summer, the Butte County District Attorney’s Office announced it would be prosecuting three members of the organization: Chico State students Christopher D. Bizot and Michael F. Murphy (an editor at the university’s student paper) and Butte College student Matthew W. Krupp. Few details of the incidents in question have been released, but they are said to include subjecting pledges to ice baths and extreme calisthenics.

Defense attorneys attempted to have the charges of misdemeanor hazing dropped after the 13 pledges agreed to a civil settlement of a buck each. But Superior Court Judge Tamara Mosbarger denied the request last week and scheduled the defendants for a jury trial in April.

Ironically, the men will be the first in the state charged under Matt’s Law, anti-hazing legislation named in honor of Carrington. The law defines hazing as “any method of initiation … which is likely to cause serious bodily injury” and had gone into effect just a few months before the police investigation.

Park plan gets pricey
After spending nearly a half-million dollars on a new management plan for Bidwell Park, in September a frustrated City Council was forced to allocate another $100,000 to pay for the consultant to write responses to more than 180 pages of comments received, including some that hinted at lawsuits. As Councilman Larry Wahl put it, “A lot of good could have been done in the park for $600,000.”

In the meantime, there’s been no resolution of the controversy over whether a former BLM parcel that’s now part of Upper Park should be formally made a disc-golf site. Disc golfers have been using it as such for years, with the city’s tacit approval, and the new plan includes a couple of environmentally friendly designs for permanent courses, but so far no decision has been made. Some environmentalists say the site is too fragile for such use.

Universal health-care supporters

Governor vs. OneCareNow
Arnold Schwarzenegger rolled into town June 11, bringing members of his cabinet to Little Chico Creek Elementary School for a town-hall meeting. The governor covered a number of issues, but the one at the forefront for most attendees was the health-insurance plan he was pitching up and down the state.

His concept of mandatory coverage met opposition from local members of OneCareNow, who favor SB 840, the California Universal Healthcare Act sponsored by state Sen. Sheila Kuehl. A version of the governor’s plan passed the Assembly this month but has stalled in the state Senate, stretching this debate into 2008.

Getting serious about downtown
This was the year the City Council stopped talking about downtown and actually started doing something about it. It turned out that the much-criticized Downtown Parking and Access Charrette, held in 2006, resulted in a city report containing a pretty good set of recommendations, and the council started acting on them.

In March, it authorized some streets to be converted to diagonal parking and to implement a public-information program. Then, in October, the council voted to expand the use of parking meters to evenings and Saturdays, move forward on the diagonal parking and put up more signage downtown. It also decided to explore whether to eliminate in-lieu parking fees to businesses wishing to locate downtown.

Finally, as the year ended, the council approved Councilwoman Mary Flynn’s proposal to create an ad-hoc committee on downtown to advise the General Plan Advisory Committee.

Perhaps most important, the council and the community at large accepted the fact that an additional parking structure downtown, long a point of controversy, was neither needed nor affordable at this time.

Lookout Point
For years, Chicoans and Ridge residents have driven out to Lookout Point to enjoy the view of Butte Creek Canyon. Others have used it as a Thelma and Louise-style drop-off, either accidentally or intentionally driving over the cliff.

Butte County could do nothing to make the spot safer, since the government cannot block access to private property. The owners, perhaps concerned about litigation if their own measures failed, also let it be.

Capt. Don

But the county finally negotiated a purchase in September and will use grant money to transform it into a safer public space. As part of the deal, the county will remove the wrecked cars from the land below.

Death of a sideshow man
Capt. Donald P. Leslie was featured in a two-part cover story in June that followed the last eight months of his life in hospice care. The former sword swallower had spent his career—since he was a teenager—on the stage, entertaining the masses. It only seemed fitting a reporter would be with him till the end.

Years of breathing fire and smoking contributed to the tongue and mouth cancer that would claim his life in June 2007. But he still had one more story to tell. He, along with Enloe hospice nurse Shannon Fuller and his caretaker, Kristen Swain, allowed reporter Meredith J. Cooper to follow their progress through his final days. The stories that followed chronicled not only the life of the very unique Capt. Don, but also hospice and the realities of death.

Exit, stage left
One of Chico’s most popular theater companies found itself without a company in June after the Blue Room announced that longtime Artistic Director Joe Hilsee was being replaced with Chico State professor emerita Gail Holbrook.

Joe Hilsee

Holbrook took on the role of executive director, incorporating the artistic director job as well as that of the theater’s managerial head.

The move surprised some backers, who wondered if it would take away the creative edge for which the theater is known—and definitely disappointed the longtime members of the company, who showed their solidarity by following Hilsee to form the Rogue Theatre.

The Blue Room, under Holbrook, began its new season with Doubt: A Parable, and went on to put on David Tucker II’s Another Day in Baghdad. The Rogue debuted in October with a production of Martin McDonagh’s Pillowman, using different venues around town.

Calls for peace in Iraq
The continued presence of the American military in Iraq dominated national debate. That topic was hot in the North State, too, particularly when the invasion hit its five-year anniversary. It gained new momentum as presidential candidates ramped up for the key primaries, including California’s, in early 2008.

War protestors

Loss in the Sierra Nevada family
The disappearance of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. executive Steve Harrison turned out to be one of the more captivating stories of the year.

Contributing to the mystery were the abandoned hybrid car left unlocked, the keys buried a few feet away from it; the empty prescription bottle found near the riverbank where his trail went cold, and the lack of any note indicating he had taken his own life.

After more than a week of searching by law enforcement as well as some of his colleagues, Harrison’s body was found on Aug. 16. The 54-year-old was a longtime friend and partner of Sierra Nevada owner Ken Grossman was a key figure in the brewery’s development. Harrison was also an avid biker, and at its Sept. 4 meeting the Chico City Council voted 6-1 to name the new Potter Road bike path after him.

Where are the bees?
In a “baffling case of the hives,” local beekeepers and almond farmers reported dramatic bee losses this year as a result of “colony collapse disorder.” Bees by the millions were leaving their hives and simply not returning. Since half of California’s farm products, and all of its almonds, depend on bees for propagation, it was a genuine crisis.

And it wasn’t just a local phenomenon. Beekeepers across the country were reporting huge losses, some more than half of their bees.

The cause of the disorder remains unknown, but by late summer scientists were zeroing in on something called Israeli acute paralysis virus that seemed strongly associated with beekeeping operations that had experienced big losses. Other factors—poor nutrition and stress from industrial-style beekeeping, in particular—could also have played a role in the die-off, researchers say.

Pot politics
The big news on the reefer-madness front came in February, when the Butte County Board of Supervisors held its collective nose and voted 3-2 to issue ID cards for people with a doctor’s recommendation to use medical marijuana.

Otherwise, the marijuana story locally was as usual: big busts of Mexican-cartel farms in the hills and more local growers moving their plants indoors. In August, pot hunters—federal, state and local—launched a huge raid in Shasta County, netting tens of thousands of plants, with no apparent effect on local availability. Earlier this month, officers raided two Chico homes and found sizable hydroponics operations.

Finally, the saga of Brian Epis, the Chico man who was the first Californian arrested for growing marijuana for a cannabis collective, continues. Sentenced to complete his 10-year prison term, he remains out of jail pending an appeal. The case is now more than a decade old.

CSU—costs spike unbelievably
Chico State students wonder why they have to bear escalations in fees while California State University system, supposedly cash-strapped, continues to give hefty raises to its top executives. Their professors wonder that as well. By the end of January, members of the California Faculty Association began picketing at various campuses, including Chico, and talks of strikes loomed.

At issue was the CSU’s proposed 24 percent salary increase for about 23,000 faculty members, librarians, coaches and counselors looking for closure to a several-years-old contract dispute. Because the proposal remained contingent on state funding, union members argued the bump in pay wouldn’t materialize.

Adding insult to injury, around the same time, the CSU Board of Trustees approved a 4 percent pay raise for each of the 23 university presidents, along with Chancellor Charles Reed and four other high-ranking officials. Faculty members lambasted trustees over the decision, considering a newspaper’s investigative report the previous summer uncovered controversial perks paid to the system’s upper echelon.

By April, just when it looked as though faculty would strike, the union and the CSU reached a tentative agreement. When finalized in May, the contract included faculty base pay increases totaling 20.7 percent over four years.

Housing market stalls
“Buyer beware” turned into “sellers and lenders beware” when a rash of foreclosures and economic uncertainty put the brakes on the burgeoning home market. The North State fared better than areas where subprime mortgages and intense demand led to overinflated property values, but even here, real-estate professionals faced challenging times.

In a final flurry before the Congressional winter recess, the federal government attempted to kick-start the market with a series of measures, including legislation to rein in those mortgages with low introductory rates that later balloon.

Neal Road Sanitary Landfill

‘Poop friction’ at the landfill
When workers at Butte County’s Neal Road Sanitary Landfill—aka “the dump"—became concerned that sewage sludge, a potential disease carrier, was being handled in a dangerous way, they complained to Cal/OSHA, which investigated and on Oct. 15 issued citations.

But that was the least of it, as far as the workers were concerned. What bothered them was that their supervisors had ignored their warnings about the nasty stuff and allowed them, and the landfill, to become splattered with the fecal waste.

County officials acknowledged some mistakes and, noting this was the first time a sewage pond had been cleaned, pledged to do better next time.

Sustainability central
Going green became the hip thing to do this year, with corporation after corporation jumping on the end-global-warming bandwagon.

Chicoans just smiled—sustainability was already big here, touching enough lives and generating enough interest that the CN&R launched GreenWays, a weekly section dedicated to it. Look here this week for an eco-conscious year in review.

CN&R turns 30
This may seem self-congratulatory, but we’d be remiss not to mention this paper’s 30th anniversary, which came in a year marked by downsizing and buyouts at major metropolitan dailies.

The origins of the Chico News & Review trace back to a Chico State student paper that went off campus in 1977. A core group, including current News Editor Robert Speer, transformed it into an independent weekly.

The first issue came out Aug. 30, 1977, with a cover story on a topic still resonant today: preventing forest fires. The CN&R won scores of awards in the decades that followed, including General Excellence from the California Newspaper Publishers Association in 2005.

Arsonist’s tragic tale
Perhaps no story this year was as strange and unsettling as that of James Hough, the husband, father and bottling plant manager who turned out to be a firebug and, when he was caught, hanged himself in the Butte County Jail.

As portrayed in the CN&R’s Nov. 1 cover story, “The life and death of a serial arsonist,” Hough, who was 56, was an otherwise ordinary middle-class man, respected in his Live Oak community and loved by his family, yet for some reason had an uncontrollable urge to set wildfires. His arrest left his wife and sons, who had no idea that he led a secret life, devastated and disbelieving.

James Hough

Freelance journalist Gordon Gregory recounted how arson investigators tracked Hough and caught him just after setting his last fire, and his sympathetic portrait of Hough’s wife and sons, who believe Hough killed himself to save them from crushing legal costs and a lengthy trial, helped flesh out this enigmatic man’s life story.

Happy endings
Butte County got national attention this summer when part of a Highway 149 overpass collapsed on top of a FedEx truck and, amazingly, neither the driver nor the construction worker atop the bridge—who slid to the ground with the rubble—got seriously injured.

Last week, newscasts honed in on the county again when a Paradise man and his three children got lost in the woods near Inskip. Frederick Gonzalez, 18-year-old son Chris, 15-year-old daughter Lexi and 12-year-old son Josh headed up the Skyway after their Sunday church service Dec. 16 to look for a Christmas tree. They lost their bearing in the snowy woods, even before a storm system brought fresh snowfall.

Relatives reported them missing Monday. By Tuesday, rescue teams from around Northern California had joined the search; Wednesday morning, more than 100 people combed the mountain. A CHP helicopter took advantage of a short break in the weather to join the hunt, and at 12:47 p.m., the crew spotted the word “help” written in the snow and the Gonzalezes nearby.

They’d survived their four-day ordeal by taking refuge in a culvert. None suffered an injury more serious than minor frostbite, and all four were well enough that evening to tell their story on CNN.