That was the year that was

CN&R editors review the top stories of the year gone by

Although 2002 could hardly top its predecessor for sensationalism, it had a pretty good run, including: the president’s steady drive to war in Iraq and the lack of coverage of anti-war demonstrations; the government’s continued rousting and deporting of Middle Easterners (including a Corning man) in the wake of 9-11 and the accompanying passage of the civil-rights-stripping USA Patriot and Homeland Security acts; the Washington, D.C., snipers’ reign of terror; and, more recently, the fallout from Sen. Trent Lott’s tribute to Strom Thurmond’s racist run for president in 1948.

Locally it was a year for the retirement of two college presidents and a police chief as well as the last gasp, temporarily at least, of rowdy Halloweens. A local developer harvested many large, old oak trees to the dismay of nearly everyone in town, and elections produced a new balance of power on the Chico City Council.

Here’s our take on the major local events of the past year

Two college leaders bow out
In an August announcement that caught many off guard, President Manuel Esteban announced at a back-to-school assembly for Chico State University faculty and staff that he would be retiring at the end of the school year.

That same week, Sandy Acebo, superintendent/president of Butte College, also announced that she would retire effective in June 2003.

Not long after Esteban’s revelation, controversy erupted—but not because of anything he did. (The suave Latin leader has proven very popular in both the campus and greater Chico communities, bridging the gap between “town” and “gown” that existed under prior presidents.) The California State University Board of Trustees decided that, rather than immediately start seeking a new president for Chico State, it would first look for leaders at the CSUs in Pomona and Sacramento—even though those guys announced their retirements later.

That miffed faculty members and student leaders, who, fearful that smaller Chico State would get the “leftovers” of the other searches, called unsuccessfully to be part of an earlier search. Instead, figuring the administration here is stable enough to get along on its own for a while, the CSU predicts it won’t even start looking until spring, and then will hire a new president by September or October 2003. The 62-year-old Esteban has been president for 10 years.

The campus community is hoping the CSU trustees and chancellor listen to the local advisory committee when deciding whom to hire.

HAPPY RETIREMENT MR. (AND MS.) PRESIDENT Sandra Acebo, announced in August that she would be retiring as leader of Butte College at the end of the school year.

Photo By Tom Angel

The same goes for the replacement of Acebo, who is similarly affable and well-liked. Acebo, 58, has been at Butte since 1998 and surprised herself a bit when she realized she’d like to retire and spend more time with her family. A replacement is expected to be found by February or March 2003.

Both plan to stay in the Chico area.

Apartment builders freak out homeowners, then leave
When Sterling Student Housing came calling, Chico NIMBYs answered back.

Amid the shouting and tears of would-be neighbors, the Texas company rolled out the lawyers in pursuit of a zoning change to Chico’s General Plan that would have allowed the construction of a 176-unit, 648-bedroom complex (scaled down from 320 units) on the east side of Highway 32 between West Eighth and West Lindo avenues, along the Union Pacific railroad tracks.

“This will be, physically, the nicest property in Chico,” promised Jack Dinerstein, Sterling’s president, who flew in to make his case. The complex was described as a Shangri-La where students could enjoy high-speed Internet access, sports and swimming in a self-contained community.

Neighborhood residents feared the apartments would become an “animal house” of debauchery, endangering their children and devaluing their properties.

But Sterling, which cynics pointed out had contributed $1,000 each to the campaigns of City Council members Rick Keene and Steve Bertagna, went through three tries with the Planning Commission before succeeding in securing a 4-2 vote from the City Council. But the council added conditions such as new traffic signals, security and bike paths.

The problem was solved, not by courts, city ordinances or commissions, but because Sterling simply bowed out. The Texas firm must have had some point after which it wouldn’t bother with Chico anymore, and it reached it.

The controversy is likely to surface again, in a different form, especially if Sterling’s initial perception of Chico as an “underserved” market when it comes to student apartments holds true.

That same week, Manuel Esteban (pictured with his wife, Gloria), revealed that he too is stepping down.

Photo By Tom Angel

If an oak tree falls in Chico
On an early rainy morning in March, neighbors of the Terra Bella subdivision in southeast Chico heard the buzz of chainsaws followed by the falling thud of large oak trees. Some ran to their windows and then to their phones to report the suspected carnage to the city and later to the media.

And with that developer Andrew Meghdadi became the most despised man in town, the target of criticism from college professors, environmentalists, and even fellow developers. The city Planning Department said that of an estimated 212 trees on the property, 117 came down, including 24 oaks, but the approved plan called for only 33 to be removed. The extensive tree cutting, Planning Director Kim Seidler said, not only destroyed the property’s viewshed, but also reduced wildlife habitat and increased erosion.

At an April 2 meeting the Chico City Council took Meghdadi to task for cutting down more trees than the city said was allowed. The council, with normally developer-friendly councilmembers leading the charge, threw the book at Meghdadi and ordered him to prepare a “supplemental” environmental-impact report (cost: $50,000 to $100,000), complete with a new round of public hearings and project conditions and offer a full explanation of how this happened. The council also ordered an investigation into allegations that Meghdadi operates without a business license and agreed the mayor would write a letter to the state Contractors Board looking into possible suspension of Meghdadi’s state contractor’s license.

Meghdadi and his attorney asked for 45 days to prepare its side of the story but never got a chance to present it to the council. So he hired a high-powered Sacramento attorney, and on July 1 Meghdadi filed suit against the city, saying it did not have the authority to place the conditions on the subdivision. The Contractors Board dropped its investigation, saying it did not have the jurisdiction in this case, particularly since the city has no tree-protection ordinance beyond parking lot and street-lining trees.

The City Council recently approved another $50,000 to cover legal fees as the case heads into next year.

Election year (the more things change … )
The March primaries saw the re-election of Supervisors Jane Dolan and Mary Anne Houx and the defeats of Sheriff Scott Mackenzie by Perry Reniff and Measure B, the effort by the conservative board majority to gerrymander Dolan and Houx out of their bases of support. The signal was that the local electorate seemed to reject the campaigns run by political consultant David Reade.

But in the Nov. 5 general election Reade’s candidate for 2nd Assembly District, Republican Doug LaMalfa, was handily elected as was 3rd Assembly District Republican candidate and former Chico City Councilmember Rick Keene.

Nov. 5 also saw a shift in the balance of power in the Chico City Council, when progressive Scott Gruendl defeated conservative Ross Bradford, effectively removing the conservative majority that had controlled the council for the last six years. Now there is a balance of three progressives and three conservatives and a true moderate—Mayor Maureen Kirk—sitting in the middle.

Voters also soundly ousted incumbents Donna Aro and Ann Sisco from the Chico Unified School District Board of Trustees. The board had been blamed for not doing more to ease contract-negotiation tensions with the teachers’ union and for not securing the land to build the bond-funded new high school.

OAK PLUNDER OR BLUNDER? Developer Andy Meghdadi raised the ire of city officials and just about the entire town when he had more than 100 trees logged off his property that the city said he wasn’t supposed to remove. As the City Council moved to punish him, Meghdadi turned the tables and filed a lawsuit against the city.

Photo By Tom Angel

Chico voters went instead with Rick Rees, Scott Huber and Anthony Watts—the latter two best known for their small-town “fame” status. (Huber is a real estate agent with a big billboard; Watts was a TV weatherman.)

Heat strikes out
Six years after they arrived, a couple months after winning their league championship and just few weeks after they announced they were leaving the Western Baseball League, the owners of the Chico Heat baseball team said the company itself would cease to exist, effectively putting the nix on professional baseball in Chico for the near future.

Negotiations to bring the Visalia Oaks, a single-A Major League-affiliated team, to town fell through when Oaks owner Tom Sealer announced the team would stay where it was for the 2003 season.

Purchasing the Oaks outright would have cost upward of $4.5 million, said Heat co-owner Jeff Kragel. He said he and team founder Steve Nettleton were hoping to lure the Visalia team here and become minority owners.

“We saw our future with the WBL winding down and the league becoming insolvent,” Kragel said. “We didn’t want to ignore that and then go ahead and sell tickets and advertising.”

So, for the first time since 1997, Chicoans will not hear the crack of the wooden bat inside Nettleton Stadium.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Nettleton. “The main sticking point was the inability with the long Class-A season to co-exist with the Chico State Wildcats.”

The teams would have to share the on-campus stadium once called Bohler Field, before Nettleton, former owner of several Food 4 Less stores, poured $2 million into renovations and created the 3,500-seat home for the Heat. The franchise cost $250,000.

The Heat played 45 games at home each year as a WBL franchise; a class-A schedule would be considerably longer.

WHERE IS HE NOW? When a Corning man was detained by the government, many locals feared he was hooked up with terrorists. It turned out Ali Mubarak was just a small-town dad who ended up deported to Pakistan, a place he barely remembered.

Photo By Tom Angel

Nettleton said both sides worked hard to reach a compromise, but in the end “it couldn’t happen.”

Corning man deported as part of federal sweep
The domestic “war on terrorism” reached all the way to Corning this year, when the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service deported a Pakistani immigrant and owner of an airplane painting business, ostensibly for a visa violation but more likely because he once knew a man who later turned out to be a terrorist.

Nasir Ali Mubarak, who goes by his middle name, came to this country on a student visa in 1991 to attend flight school. He ended up settling in Corning, starting a business at the Corning Municipal Airport and marrying an American woman. Friends in Corning and Red Bluff said he was an honest, hardworking person and a good candidate for citizenship. A neighboring business owner at the airport said he was shady and unreliable.

But when it was revealed that the man he initially traveled here with was Abdul Hakim Murad, convicted in 1995 of terrorist conspiracy, the FBI became suspicious. A few hours after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the East Coast, two agents showed up to interview Mubarak at his business. They didn’t find anything amiss, but their suspicions didn’t subside either.

When Mubarak and his wife, Corning resident Stephanie Mubarak, traveled to Dallas, Texas, to buy a car they saw advertised on the Internet, the FBI held Ali for questioning. He was transported back to California and held in the Yuba County Jail for nearly two months before being deported to Pakistan, where he hadn’t actually lived for about 30 years.

His troubles didn’t end there. In Pakistan, his wife reported, Mubarak was held for another month by federal police, allegedly at the request of the FBI. Both the Pakistani government and the U.S. Department of Justice denied that Mubarak was held at the request of the U.S. government.

Mubarak was never accused of having ties to terrorists, and the only crime he is said to have committed is overstaying his visa, something nearly every immigrant is guilty of at one point or another, even if they are allowed to become citizens.

Mubarak’s case was far from isolated. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the government has rounded up possibly thousands of immigrants, mostly from Middle Eastern countries. Though the DOJ admits that the vast majority of them are not linked in any way to terrorists, hundreds have been deported, and many others are still being held without charges.

Chico medpot advocate gets 10 years for ‘conspiracy’ to grow
Bryan Epis, a founding member of the Chico Medical Marijuana Co-op, found out the hard way this year how much respect the federal government has for California’s “Compassionate Use” law allowing the cultivation of medical marijuana. Epis, 35, was sentenced in October to a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison for growing pot, which he still insists was intended for sick people.

SPOOKY HALLOWEEN Chico’s downtown was teeming with police for Halloween 2002, as the city decided more was more when it came to protecting the city from violence. Some felt it was overdone, but the revelers were kept in check.

Photo By Tom Angel

In a phone interview from a Sacramento-area jail conducted a few weeks after his sentencing, Epis said he was disappointed that the judge in his case had not allowed for a medical-marijuana defense, which virtually sealed his fate before the jury. Lawyers in the case were specifically barred from mentioning that the marijuana he was growing was intended for medical use, he said, leading the jury little choice but to convict him. The mandatory minimum sentence for his charge, conspiring to grow 1,000 pot plants, took the sentencing out of the judge’s control.

“I did the controversial thing in the wrong county,” Epis said.

Epis, who had been offered a plea bargain that would have put him in jail for four years in exchange for admitting guilt, said he regretted not taking the deal but didn’t at the time because “I believed in what I was doing.”

Epis himself had a doctor’s recommendation to use marijuana for back pain related to an injury sustained in a car crash. Though he has always maintained that his growing operation was philanthropic, prosecutors in the case said he was using the vaguely written Compassionate Use law as a cover for drug dealing. Investigators claimed to have found a document on his computer that seemed to be a business plan for making money from sales of the illicit weed.

“Bryan was out to make a buck,” Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said after the trial.

Epis has said he will appeal the ruling, but he may face an uphill battle in the federal court system. In the weeks surrounding Epis’ sentencing, federal authorities launched raids against several widely known medical marijuana advocates and dispensaries. Many thought it was both a warning to Nevada voters, who were contemplating legalizing pot, and a slap at California’s medpot movement.

Jeff Jones, one of the founders of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative, was also swept up in the Epis case, as he was convicted in December of jury tampering for handing out pro-medpot fliers in front of the courthouse where Epis was being tried. Jones faces a maximum of six months in prison and will be sentenced in February.

Be gone, demons: Halloween exorcised
The Chico City Council, tired of seeing drunken, unruly crowds descend on Chico every Halloween, pulled off the impossible this year and shut the party down with the help of a few hundred cops.

Taking a hard line against the Halloween tradition of rowdy, unsanctioned street parties, the city voted in March to spend $40,000 on a multi-media ad campaign designed to keep college-aged kids from traveling here to party. The ads featured footage of people at prior Halloweens being arrested, and caused many to think the council had gone too far.

D.A. ON THE DEFENSIVE After a Pleasant Valley High School student was sexually assaulted at a party, District Attorney Mike Ramsey caught flak when the daily newspaper reported his tone as unsympathetic toward the victim. Protests against the D.A. were mounted, as Ramsey insisted he was quoted out of context.

Photo By Tom Angel

Groups like the Associated Students and the Downtown Chico Business Association refused to sign on to a city-generated letter because the tone seemed too negative. At one time, the city had even considered ad campaigns in other cities to discourage out-of-towners from coming here, but they determined that could have the reverse effect.

Reminiscent of when former Chico State president Robin Wilson took rowdy Pioneer Days “out back and shot it in the head,” the effort produced results: There were only about 5,000 people on the streets this year, compared to an estimated 15,000 in 2001.

In the end, even the naysayers had to admit the plan worked, as police logged more arrests but made those arrests for mostly minor offenses. The number of assaults, stabbings and fights was dramatically decreased, and no sexual assaults are known to have taken place.

The ads might have kept people away, but what kept them in line was the presence of more than 400 police officers from agencies across the North State. The California Highway Patrol set up DUI checkpoints at all the major intersections leading to downtown, and police patrolled the downtown and South Campus neighborhoods on foot, on horseback, in cars and from a helicopter. Partygoers dressed up and got drunk as usual, but most of them either stayed out of trouble or stayed put at bar events and smaller parties. Another factor that helped disperse people early in the night was the marked absence of portable bathrooms.

The one serious incident reported during the festivities turned out to be a hoax. Though it was widely reported that a pipe bomb had been found behind the market at Fifth and Ivy streets, hardly anyone noticed a few days later when the bomb turned out to be a sand-filled dummy device.

Speaking after the holiday non-event, City Manager Tom Lando expressed a desire that the city work with local schools and businesses to develop some kind of more manageable Halloween party. The goal, he said, is to find an activity that people can enjoy, that the city can live with, and that local police can handle on their own.

PV High student sexually assaulted
The community went through several stages of shock, anger, and outrage over an incident that occurred in October at an unsupervised, alcohol-fueled house party attended by more than 100 Pleasant Valley High School students. At the party, a drunken 16-year-old girl was allegedly sexually assaulted by as many as four boys, aged 17-20. At least two of the accused are said to have used a pool cue in the alleged assault, which took place in front of about a dozen witnesses.

The incident itself would have been enough to generate a public outcry, but thanks in part to a page-one story in the Enterprise-Record headlined, “Assault sickens investigator; DA unconvinced,” much of the public’s rage was directed toward Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey. The story, which quoted Ramsey as saying the victimized girl had been “doing the house” before her assault, made the D.A. public enemy No. 1 to many who felt he was blaming the victim and failing to protect the rights of sexual-assault survivors.

At a rally in City Plaza, Ramsey attempted to defend his record but was roundly castigated by the crowd, who accused him and his office of being soft on sex offenders. Ramsey vehemently denied the allegations and said he was misquoted in the article. Other speakers at the rally denounced media coverage of the incident, saying it had been too graphic and portrayed the victim in a bad light. The ongoing case continues to be the subject of anguished debate over the morals of teenagers and the failings of their parents, the justice system and the media.

PHOTO FINISH During Chico’s rowdy Labor Day weekend, photographer Misha Osinovskiy, with the Chico State University student newspaper The Orion, snapped away during an arrest and found himself behind bars.

Photo By Tom Angel

Of the six young men arrested in the case, one 17-year-old has been granted a form of juvenile parole for his actions at the party and will be monitored by the state for three years. The youth apparently did not participate in the assault but admitted to receiving oral sex from the victim earlier in the night. Ramsey, who had tried for a harsher sentence, said the boy actually played a part in stopping the assault.

The other two minors plead guilty to avoid being tried as adults and were sentenced to 180 days each in Juvenile Hall. Meanwhile, Dereck Rickmers, 20, who has pleaded innocent to three counts of penetration with a foreign object of an intoxicated victim, is being tried. Two 18-year olds were arrested for engaging in consensual oral sex with a minor before the alleged assault. Neither has yet been charged.

Red Bluff cop gunned down, suspect offers Net confession
Red Bluff sustained the first killing of a police officer in the town’s history last November, allegedly at the hand of a suspect who confessed to the crime over the Internet. The Nov. 19 shooting death of Officer David Mobilio shocked Red Bluff residents and set off a nationwide search for the killer, which was made easier by the suspect’s repeated offering of clues.

Police now believe Mobilio was shot by Andrew Hampton McCrae, a.k.a Andrew Mickel, a former Army Ranger and student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. McCrae brought attention to himself a few days after the killing when he sent an e-mail to 14 Web sites claiming responsibility for the crime. He then repeated the claim in a post to San Francisco’s, in which he said he killed Mobilio to protest “police-state tactics [and] corporate irresponsibility.”

“All of the major problems in the world today are caused by corporate irresponsibility,” McCrae offered. “Corporations murder thousands of people each year this way and are never held accountable.” The post goes on to state that he hoped his status as a corporate officer in a company he recently set up called “Proud and Insolent Youth"—a reference to the classic kids’ novel Peter Pan—would shield him from prosecution.

McCrae was captured Nov. 26 in Concord, N.H., after a four-hour standoff with local and federal police. Before he gave himself up, he confessed again to a local newspaper reporter. He is currently being held in Merrimack County Jail and will likely be extradited back to Red Bluff sometime next year.

Activists at Evergreen College said they hoped McCrae’s words and actions would not reflect badly on the anti-corporate movement. Folks in Red Bluff who read and responded to McCrae’s Internet posts said they would like to “rip off [his] fucking testicles and burn [his] throat with acid,” or “punish him the way they did hundreds of years ago!”

Red Bluff Police Chief Robert Petitt said McCrae’s actions had made it easier for investigators to find him. But until it was exposed in media accounts, Petitt kept to himself the fact that McCrae had come into contact with the law in Oregon less than 24 hours after the shooting. According to reports in the Sacramento Bee that were later confirmed by Petitt, McCrae was given a ride into town by sheriff’s deputies after he crashed his car near Burns, Ore. Police now say they are in possession of McCrae’s car and also have a handgun McCrae purchased in October that matches the type used in the slaying.

Other noteworthy stories:

Orion photog arrested
Misha Osinovskiy, a student photographer, was arrested Sept. 1 for taking photos of a plain-clothes police officer handing out a citation during the Labor Day weekend. After spending the night in the Butte County Jail and a few more days of uncertainty, Osinovskiy learned he would not face charges in connection with the arrest.

On the night of his arrest, Osinovskiy was taking photos of revelers in the neighborhood south of the Chico State University campus, when he came upon Jerry Berenger, an Alcoholic Beverage Control officer out of Redding. Berenger was then issuing a citation for public urination. Osinovskiy, on assignment for the campus newspaper The Orion, took a flash photo. Berenger warned him not to take another. Exercising what he believed to be his right to take a photo in a public place, Osinovskiy snapped his shutter and set off the flash again. Berenger arrested Osinovskiy.

Police chief quits
Chico Police Chief Mike Efford announced May 16 that he would retire Aug. 1 from the office he’d held for less than three years. He did, however, stay on through Halloween, but also took on a part-time job as top cop at Butte College. Efford, insiders said, was not a good fit for the job, and the city ended up giving him a $71,000 severance pay check.

Efford said he plans to stay in Chico, where he still has a daughter attending Chico State University. “I might look for something in the private sector, maybe teaching,” he said. “My wife and I really like this town and feel very comfortable here.”

Eat your greens
Peter Miguel Camejo, gubernatorial candidate for California’s fledgling Green Party, came to Chico in October with plans to give a speech inside the Chico City Council Chambers. Unfortunately, no one from city government showed up to unlock the chamber doors at the agreed-upon time of 6:30 p.m., and Camejo was forced to speak to about 250 enthusiastic supporters in fading light as the sun sank behind the buildings of downtown Chico. The lockout symbolized the fate of both the Green Party and Camejo’s campaign; they couldn’t get on TV or invited to a debate with the governor.

A few weeks later Gov. Gray Davis came to Chico State University campus and, standing in front of a gathering of hard hats, talked about how he was the working man’s candidate. And about a week after that, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon brought his crippled campaign to the Chico chapter of the Elks Lodge. In Butte County, at least, Simon defeated Davis (who won the seat statewide) and Camejo got a surprising 10 percent of the vote.

Roundabout wins approval
A determined group of citizens presented a nearly unprecedented plan of detail, passion and logic to the Chico City Council that compromised the widening of Manzanita Avenue through Bidwell Park. The key was the adoption of a roundabout to control and move traffic through the Manzanita-Vallombrosa intersection.

The plan, concocted and presented by ROAR, Residents Outraged About Roads, saved the city 100 trees and a couple million dollars. The victory may be temporary, however, as the city did approve preparations for major road expansions if and when the traffic becomes too much to bear.