Top 10 Stories of 2011


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The earth shook. The waters parted -- or at least sloshed disturbingly. And the politicians talked.

Starting in January with a reshaped Eureka City Council and ending in December with confirmation that Humboldt's first Wal-Mart is on its way, 2011 was a year like every other and like no other. Amid the deaths and births, the small triumphs and larger tragedies, we can look back and say, well ... we made it this far. 

Power Plays in Eureka

In Eureka this year, politics got ugly. Or uglier, if you prefer. It actually started at the tail end of last year, when the new conservative majority on the City Council torpedoed the previous council's decision to buy the empty, deteriorating Jefferson School and hand its management over to a West Side community group. That caused some bitterness and hurt feelings, though it worked out OK in the end: The West Side Community Group simply purchased the school itself.

But things really got nasty in June when popular Eureka Police Chief Garr Nielsen was suddenly and unexpectedly fired by City Manager David Tyson. Without an official explanation, local residents were left to dig through the dirt looking for clues. And the dirt was abundant.

During Nielsen's four-year tenure he managed to achieve his primary directive -- namely, cleaning some of the stink off of a department that had seen five officer-involved shooting deaths in a span of 15 months. But in the process, Nielsen made enemies within the department, one of whom accused him of sexual harassment (a charge that didn't stick) while another created an anonymous blog to make salacious allegations about the chief and a subordinate female officer. That officer, a dispatcher named Tawnie Hansen, ultimately sued the author of the blog. She also sued Tyson, the city manager, claiming that he'd made unwanted sexual advances toward her and that he deliberately slow-played an investigation into the blog because he was jealous of her rumored relationship with Nielsen. Tyson denied the allegations, but the city settled the suit for $200,000.

With this lurid backdrop, Nielsen's firing drove a wedge into the community, which dutifully fell into its established political camps. Nielsen's supporters came primarily from the progressive side, including perpetually out-voted Councilmember Linda Atkins, who made waves at a June 27 community meeting when she volunteered to help citizens circulate a petition calling for Tyson to be fired. But Tyson had backing from the conservative community, including the other four members of the City Council, who quickly voted to affirm his decision to fire Nielsen.

In September, Nielsen filed a claim against the City of Eureka alleging contract violations. The City Council voted to reject the claim, sending it off to court. Nielsen has returned to his previous home state of Oregon, but the whole sordid mess will no doubt play into the reelection campaigns of Atkins and fellow councilmember Melinda Ciarrabellini next year.

-- Ryan Burns

Richardson Grove

Ever since Caltrans decided to realign the narrow, 1.1-mile squiggle of redwood-lined Highway 101 through Richardson Grove State Park, there's been trouble -- the kind of trouble familiar to split-heart Humboldt County, where people have been battling over big trees and economic prowess for decades. Some folks say the realignment will kill big old redwoods by injuring their roots. And that would be terrible. They also say that improving the highway will effectively shred our Redwood Curtain by letting standard-sized trucks laden with Big-Box homogenese zip through with ease. Others, including Caltrans, counter that straightening out the bit of highway in question would actually help local businesses. Unlike their big-box brethren, the reasoning goes, local small fry can't afford the costly unloading of cargo from standard long trucks, most of which are banned north of Legget, and reloading it onto smaller trucks to get the stuff up here.

The debate reached rage point on Feb. 7, when more than 100 opponents to the Richardson Grove Improvement Project, flaunting imagery of war tanks and Wal-Mart, held an explosive rally at the Caltrans office in Eureka. Just like in the old timber-war days, some folks locked arms together in metal tubes. Cops came, sawed through the pipes, arrested 12 people. Police alleged someone threw a cup of coffee at them; protesters alleged the cops tazed someone. There was window banging, kicking and nunchucks.

And all of that was super exciting. However, the real turning point in the controversy came months later, on July 6, when U.S. District Judge William Alsup granted a preliminary injunction to stop Caltrans' improvement project. Several individuals and environmental groups had filed companion lawsuits against Caltrans in federal and state court. They alleged that Caltrans violated several federal and state acts -- including the National Environmental Protection Act -- by doing only an environmental assessment (released in draft in 2008 and approved in 2010) and not a full-on environmental impact study.

"Plaintiffs have demonstrated that irreparable harm is likely," wrote Judge Alsup, noting professional opinions by scientists other than those hired by Caltrans. And, he noted, "The public interest is best served by letting the ancients thrive a little longer while the merits of their future are evaluated in court."

So the project, originally set to begin in January 2012, is on hold until the case is over. Both parties have since filed more court documents and endured settlement negotiations, to no avail. A trial in the federal case is set for Feb. 23, 2012, in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The trial in the state case is set for the week of March 12 in Humboldt County Superior Court.

-- Heidi Walters

The Tsunami

The 9.0 earthquake in Japan on March 11 triggered a massive tsunami that tumbled already damaged and burning cities into rubble; killed almost 16,000 people and left nearly 6,000 wounded and 3,500 missing; and caused meltdowns in three nuclear power reactors, leading to the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people.

Next to that horror, our own affair with the tsunami, whose surges began striking our Northern California shores many hours later and caused hundreds to be evacuated from their homes, seems inconsequential -- even exciting, if you consider the tale of one crazy fisherman who surfed the tsunami out of the Crescent City harbor to the amazement and dismay of onlookers.

And yet the tsunami destroyed Crescent City's harbor, sinking about a dozen boats, and washed 25-year-old Dustin Douglas Weber, who'd recently moved to Requa, out to sea from the mouth of the Klamath River. Weber had gone down to a small rocky spit after the first surge, not realizing there'd be more sudden big waves. (His body washed ashore three weeks later and 300 miles north near the mouth of the Columbia River.)

In the ensuing days, here in Humboldt, news of the meltdowns prompted a wave of panicked coast-dwellers into the mountains, fleeing possible nuclear fallout. Researchers did discover small amounts of radioactive material in rainwater collected in the Bay Area, and in milk and some plants, but not enough, they said, to be harmful to people.

Crescent City has since rebuilt part of its harbor and rigged temporary docks, and it's ready for crab season.

-- Heidi Walters

The Landslide

We can't decide which was more impressive -- the massive slab of forested hillside that kerthumped onto Highway 101 several miles north of Garberville on the morning of March 30, or the hop-to-it public-service response of the locals as soon as they saw that their main access to and from anything town-like had been demolished.

The slide, which came in the third-wettest March on record, measured 600 feet wide, 1,500 feet long and a dozen feet deep. It looked like a hairy, squashed caterpillar of monster proportions, fluffy tufts of full-grown trees on its nose and edges and ripples of green grass and gooey mud in its center. It buckled the road, blocked all four lanes and stopped just short of flowing into the Eel River.

Caltrans crews got busy and the usual official news releases went out: The road would be closed possibly two weeks; three schools were closed; nobody was hurt. Then the local newsies took off: KMUD and KHUM broadcast interviews and frequent updates. Lost Coast Communications' newly launched blog Lost Coast Outpost (run by former NCJ editor Hank Sims), Kym Kemp's Redheaded Blackbelt blog and Bobbi Wisby's SoHum Awareness Facebook page became hubs of information on all the best side routes to get around the big slide -- and the routes to avoid that had also been wrecked by slides or were covered in snow. Local photogs posted amazing aerials and on-scene landslide porn. And some folks taking those wild rides home, or to work, ended up rescuing travelers who'd plunged into the hills willy nilly. Sooner than predicted, Caltrans had paved a one-way, controlled-traffic path over the slide by April 4. By November, it had restored the highway to four lanes and installed drainage and a retaining structure on the slide. It planned to commence striping in December. The price to put everything back together again? About $8 million said Scott Burger, a Caltrans public information officer.

And it all could happen again, he said -- on any of the rural highways that wind through our slip-slidey mountains. But the locals know that.

-- Heidi Walters

Logs to China

You may have noticed a lot more logging trucks on the roads this year -- trucks loaded with Douglas fir, white fir, spruce and hemlock logs. But chances are those logs weren't headed to one of the handful of remaining Humboldt County sawmills. More likely they were loaded onto ships, either here in Humboldt Bay or at some other West Coast port, then sent across the Pacific to China, where rapid industrialization has opened up a huge demand for softwood.

This bullish export market is welcome news for timberland owners throughout the Pacific Northwest. The housing collapse has been brutal to the entire industry, with tight credit markets and the steady stream of foreclosures keeping housing starts at anemic levels.

But not everyone was thrilled with the idea of sending whole logs overseas. Veteran lumberman George Schmidbauer, for example, was forced to eliminate a shift at his sawmill in March, placing 60 mill workers on unemployment, due to lack of supply. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of un-milled logs were being stockpiled across the street at the Schneider dockyard, awaiting a western-bound shipping vessel.

While everyone seemed to agree that it's less-than-ideal to export whole logs rather than value-added products like processed lumber or manufactured goods, those complaints carried little weight next to the laws of supply and demand. And while mill workers went on unemployment, bar pilots, truck drivers, longshoremen and stevedores were thankful to see any work at all. Plus, the Harbor District, which had seen shipping traffic evaporate after the closure of the Evergreen Pulp Mill, had some justification for the federally funded dredging of our bay.

Humboldt Bay remains an expensive shipping port due to its meager infrastructure and the difficulty of navigation. It remains to be seen whether foreign exports will lead to more opportunities and a new period of economic growth around Humboldt Bay, or whether we're merely shipping out scaffolding for the world's next superpower.

-- Ryan Burns

Sophia's Death

When a mother stands accused of killing her own child, it triggers deep confusion and anger -- a morbid fascination that can feed a media frenzy.

Witness the public outrage following the acquittal of Casey Anthony, the Florida mom who'd been accused of murdering her 2-year-old daughter. Millions of people found themselves emotionally invested in the lives of complete strangers.

In May, when McKinleyville mom Claudia Parker Pedreros allegedly confessed to drowning her own 2-year-old daughter Sophia in the Trinity River, a similar horror hit home. Initial reports on May 20 listed Sophia as merely missing. Her mom, an expatriate from Chile, was found walking naked down a highway near the river. Humboldt and Trinity county sheriff's officers began a frenzied search and circulated a photo of the toddler in denim overalls, her dark eyes staring into the camera, chubby cheeks framed by curly black locks as she smeared green paint onto a piece of paper.

Sohpia's small, naked body was found the following day, tangled in submerged vegetation near the riverbank. During a two-hour interview with law enforcement, including FBI agents, Claudia allegedly confessed to holding her daughter underwater while reciting the Lord's Prayer, among other, conflicting stories. She was booked into the Trinity County jail, where she remains to this day.

Gradually, through interviews with Claudia's husband Robert Parker, law enforcement officials and her family members in Chile, a picture of Claudia Pedreros emerged -- that of a deeply troubled and lonely woman, socially isolated, fearful of her husband and likely suffering from postpartum depression, if not psychosis. According to an exhaustive Times-Standard report by Thadeus Greenson, Claudia had once fled to a neighbor's house where she compared living with her abusive husband and his elderly father to living in hell.

Through her lawyer, Pedreros pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. In October she was deemed competent to stand trial. Her next court date is scheduled for Jan. 24.

-- Ryan Burns

Nursing Home Woes

Back in April, almost all of the nursing homes in Humboldt County were taken over by a new operator, owned by unspecified investors and a Los Angeles man named Shlomo Rechnitz.

The arrangement allowed the previous owner/operator to sidestep a monitoring agreement that was part of settling a huge class action lawsuit over understaffing.

Instead of submitting to two years of special supervision of staffing levels, as the settlement required, Skilled Healthcare Group Inc. leased its five Humboldt County nursing homes to Rechnitz and his allies, who locally call themselves Brius. (Other Rechnitz properties elsewhere use other names.)

And guess what? Everybody involved says Brius doesn't have to undergo that monitoring.

All this switching around came after a 2010 jury verdict that concluded Skilled had understaffed 22 California homes so badly it should pay $677 million.  Now Skilled still owns its five Humboldt homes, but Brius operates them, paying Skilled rent.

Meanwhile, since the Journal began reporting on the new operator last summer, top administrators at two Brius homes have left, and the state has released new details on problems with care.

Brius has passed its state surveys made public so far, doing nothing that seriously endangered residents' health, according to California regulators. But it's not all valentines and roses in those state reports. Among the findings from June inspections: Call lights were not being answered promptly at Pacific Rehabilitation & Wellness; an occupational therapy staffer at Granada Rehabilitation & Wellness stood by and said nothing while a resident repeatedly pointed out how difficult and painful it was to use exercise equipment without proper shoes; residents went days without their scheduled showers at Eureka Rehabilitation & Wellness, and medications were not monitored properly at Fortuna Rehabilitation & Wellness. Brius executive Brad Gibson declined to talk about the findings, although he did say he would consider questions submitted in writing.

Meanwhile, Thomas Burns of Arcata, whose sister spent her final years at Eureka Rehabilitation & Wellness, told the Journal earlier this month that he was "shocked" by the abrupt departure in October of Mary Johnson, the home's widely praised administrator. Johnson improved staff morale, lowered turnover and was always responsive, Burns said.

Johnson, who has since taken a job managing a nursing home in Lake County, said she was mystified by her firing, but it did come after ongoing conflicts over admissions. She said she had balked at taking on patients who didn't belong in a nursing home or might put others at risk.

Roger Endert, former administrator at Seaview, left in late summer over what he described as "differences in philosophies." He declined to provide details, but said, "I care very deeply about those residents and my staff. ... They deserve everything I was able to give them, and I wish I could have given them more." Endert has accepted a job running a nursing home near Bend, Oregon.

Gibson had no comment on the departures.

-- Carrie Peyton Dahlberg

Klamath Whales

For the first summer in their 60-year-plus residency, Trees of Mystery’s Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox were overshadowed on their stretch of Highway 101 by another -- albeit unintentional -- tourist trapping duo.

The mama gray whale and calf that conveniently occupied a stretch of the Klamath River underneath the 101 bridge earlier this year gained national attention and gave thousands of often accidental whale watchers an experience that may conceivably never be replicated.

For 53 days from late June to mid August, the unusual cetacean infestation was a spectacle you could have easily sold tickets to (and some tried). With the warm summer sun above, mama and baby continually and captivatingly swam side-by-side back and forth under the bridge while onlookers ran from one side to the other, all the while dodging peak-tourist season traffic, so as not to miss a moment of cute. Countless pictures were snapped. Poems and songs were written. One dude waded out into the river with a violin to perform a solo concert for mama.

It was an unforgettable period, for sure.

This story, of course, has a less than adorable ending. While the younger gray whale eventually found its way back out to more suitable digs, mama seemed determined to languish in the Klamath. Human intervention intended to drive her back to the ocean -- fire hoses, pipe-banging, killer whale sound recordings, etc. -- had no effect. This was the spot.

After weeks of deteriorating health, mama whale came to rest in (human) waist-deep water just downstream from the bridge. At around 4 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 16, she died.

-- Andrew Goff


For anyone trying to regulate medical marijuana, 2011 was a mess. A somersaulting, upsidedown-roller-coastering, stomach-churning flip-flop of a mess.

Although the Obama administration started out a couple of years ago making nice to states that allowed some kind of medicinal pot use, it seemed to forget all that this year.

In June, a federal memo from a deputy attorney general warned that big grows are still big-time illegal. In July, the DEA decided pot still belongs on its Schedule One list of drugs with no redeeming medical importance. In early October, U.S. attorneys reportedly were warning California dispensaries and their landlords to shut down or face criminal charges and property seizures. Then in mid-October, the DEA swarmed in on a high-profile medical marijuana collective in Mendocino County.

And just when the feds were turning up the pressure, a state appeals court chimed in and panicked pretty much every California city that has tried to regulate marijuana by ruling that, ahem, you can't. That was Ryan Pack et al versus the Los Angeles County Superior Court, a murky little masterpiece involving Long Beach's plans for regulating dispensaries.

It's OK to ban dispensaries, the second appellate district court ruled in that case. It's even OK to restrict their hours. But you can't, say, set a maximum allowable number of dispensaries within city limits, because that authorizes something that federal law prohibits. That decision is now being appealed to the California Supreme Court. The League of California Cities just joined those asking the state's highest court to please sort this one out, because the lower court's decision "created confusion rather than clarity."

All that confusion has even the laissez-faire in Humboldt feeling laissez faint-hearted. Arcata, Eureka and Humboldt County have all put a temporary halt to issuing permits for any new marijuana dispensaries.

"Everything is in flux because in a sense the state courts have put zoning regulations in a state of confusion," said Larry Oetker, Arcata's community development director, in a telephone interview last week.  "It's so dysfunctional. ... The federal and state government have absolutely failed to have any kind of coherent marijuana strategy."

Welcome to 2012.

-- Carrie Peyton Dahlberg


“We are the 99 percent.”

The international Occupy movement, the Arab Spring-inspired, Adbusters-organized campout to raise awareness of big businesses' role in the undeniable increase in global economic inequality, would undoubtedly be on any year-end list of the world’s top 10 stories -- likely at the top.

The official birthday for the Occupy movement will forevermore be commemorated on Sept. 17, when Occupy Wall Street first set up shop in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. Since then, the “Occupy Together” Meetup page lists more than 2,500 protest communities that have shot up on six continents.

Of course, Humboldt wanted in. On Sept. 30, less than two weeks after OWS landed on New York, Occupy grew its first face here in Humboldt when Arcata resident Trish Tillotson and cohorts deemed the Arcata Plaza ripe for occupyin’. Now, we’ve been graced by not one but three local occu-factions, with Occupy Humboldt staking out HSU and Occupy Eureka holding down the Humboldt County Courthouse. Occupation complete.

As with the entire Occupy movement, clashes with law enforcement have become a major theme, with the pissing match between Occupy Eureka and city and county officers being the most constant example. You put up tents, we’ll take ‘em down. You put up a fence, we’ll hang signs on it. Well, you’re all under arrest. Happy? Yes, actually.

And as with the larger movement, the question most tussled over seems to be what effect, if any, Occupy is having on the issues it highlights. The query seems even more appropriate when applied to the ragtag groups that have been exhausting themselves in our small, rural, geographically isolated region for over two months now. Are they doing any good?

Maybe. Maybe not. We are still talking about them ...

-- Andrew Goff


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