Editor’s note: This week begins the Town Crier’s two-part series examining the top 10 stories affecting Idyllwild in 2014.
IFPD inundated with grand jury investigations
In 2014, the Idyllwild Fire Protection District was again the subject of a Riverside County grand jury investigation. Two reports were issued about the local fire district and possibly a third is being prepared for 2015, according to district commissioners.
The first report was released in January and addressed three issues: the responsibilities of the administrative captain, political activities of uniformed firefighters and the district’s overtime expenses.
The second report, issued in June, was broader. This time the grand jury investigated the behavior of Administrative Capt. Mark LaMont, possible nonfeasance of Fire Chief Patrick Reitz and a Brown Act violation.
The IFPD commission’s reaction to the first report was unanimous opposition. The response identified many instances where the commission felt the grand jury had facts and details wrong. For example, commissioners Rhonda Andrewson, Jeannine Charles-Stigall and Nancy Layton were especially upset that the report’s list of staff stated there were three captains and an administrative captain. Since former Capt. Michael Mulhall had retired in 2013, there were only two staff captains at that time the report was released.
However, none of these discrepancies related to the grand jury’s recommendations. But in February, the commission approved its response, which rejected all four recommendations in the report.
Then four months later, a second grand jury report was made public. This one addressed several specific personnel issues with which the commission immediately rejected. The report recommended an IFPD investigation of several incidents involving then-Administrative Capt. LaMont. Two weeks after the report’s release at its July meeting, the commission approved his promotion to shift captain.
This report described several incidents between LaMont and several former members of the department, including former reserves. Among the alleged incidents was an effort to discredit a reserve firefighter, about which the grand jury had sworn testimony from several firefighters refuting the captain’s opposite claims.
At the July commission meeting, President Jerry Buchanan appointed a committee, composed of Vice President Larry Donahoo, Reitz and himself, to prepare a response to this report. At the end of August, the response was approved.
But unlike the response to the first grand jury report, this one was not unanimous. Andrewson was the lone vote against it.
However, the general tone and attitude was similar. The commission expressed disappointment in how the grand jury conducted its investigation. Among the identified problems were these three: since the district did not provide the IFPD incident logs, which the grand jury referenced, IFPD could not vouch for their accuracy. The grand jury chose not to interview four commissioners. While Reitz and LaMont did testify, they were not questioned about all the accusations and allegations discussed or described in the report.
“The district is concerned that the grand jury failed to thoroughly do its work,” said Buchanan. “There was a lack of attention to details.”
The district disagreed or partially disagreed with almost all the findings and recommendations. Regarding a review of the allegation of that the chief’s actions constituted malfeasance, the commission replied, “…it is the district’s Board of Commissioners, and not the grand jury, that supervises the fire chief and establishes the criteria under which the fire chief is employed.”
Regarding actions and investigations of LaMont’s behavior, the letter declared there was no reason to conduct an independent investigation into his behavior. Further, the commission considered this recommendation inappropriate for several reasons including the inadequate and biased investigation the grand jury conducted.
Unlike other agencies’ responses to grand jury reports, this one is still to be posted on the grand jury website. In October, the commission held a special meeting to discuss a letter from the grand jury rejecting the commission’s response.
IFPD responded by sending the grand jury a letter requesting further explanation of the problem with its original response. But as of the end of the year, no clarification, resolution or conclusion about the adequacy of IFPD’s response has been affirmed.
At the commission’s November meeting, Buchanan announced that commissioners and others had received new subpoenas to appear before a 2014-15 grand jury. He did not state the details or subject of this inquiry or whether it was new or a continuation of last year’s investigation.
“I have no idea what this issue is their looking at, but we intend to comply,” he said.
Really, it’s a public meeting when a quorum of members meet
The last grand jury investigated a meeting between IFPD and Riverside County’s Fire Department officials. A quorum of the fire commission and its Finance Committee met with county fire staff in Perris about the Emergency Dispatch Center.
The grand jury also concluded that since a quorum of the commission and committee were meeting, the session should have been noticed and open pursuant to the Ralph M. Brown Act, Government Code 54956.
In a separate letter to the grand jury, the commission and committee members replied, “The district states without admitting any violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act that: only the board president and fire chief were designated to engage in discussions with the RVC Fire/Cal Fire staff. There were no collective discussions, conclusions, decisions, assurances or promises made [while] traveling to, during, traveling from, or after this trip, relating to this trip.”
In response to a question, Buchanan agreed that state law — the Brown Act — defines a meeting of a legislative body, which both the commission and committee constitute, as a quorum of its membership. He also confirmed that the session with Cal Fire was not a properly posted meeting.
At the October Finance Committee meeting, Layton also admitted that the meeting should have been posted.
Frequent power outages in 2014 to avoid future outages
One of the most unusual and, perhaps, frustrating stories of 2014 was the incessant power outages. They started in March and continued seemingly nonstop through November. Some lasted nearly eight hours.
Southern California Edison officials explained the necessity for the continuing work on local electrical lines and power poles. When finished, the work will improve service and the chances of avoiding unexpected weather-related outages as occurred in February 2009, when some residents were without electricity for nearly 60 hours.
“We’re targeting high-fire and wind areas,” said Louis Davis, SCE’s region manager, noting that planned replacement with stronger poles is designed to ensure the electrical grid can withstand emergent conditions. “We’re fortifying infrastructure so that ice and falling tree branches can’t easily take out electrical lines and poles, and the weight of snow won’t be sapping wires.”
In addition, SCE was upgrading equipment at the local substation from 4,000 to 12,000 volts. “The higher voltage allows SCE to serve additional customers and meet customer needs, is more modern, and will help maintain the reliability of the system,” said Robert Laffoon-Villegas of Edison’s Media Relations Office in an email.
Davis was very apologetic to the community and understood the frustration SCE imposed, but Idyllwild has only one substation. No duplication of equipment is available. Power cannot be shifted to other equipment or back-ups used while this substation is shut down.
“There is no good time to shut off the power,” he explained. “We try to avoid nights because of the temperatures and people needing alarms in the morning.”
In April, Jeremy Goldman, SCE regional manager for local public affairs promised, “This work will benefit all residents in the community. This may be necessary to replace aging infrastructure, expand service to new customers, or to complete other needed improvements.”
During that month, two four- to six-hour outages essentially shut down the town’s business center. But the frustration caused some owners to contact the county about the problem.
The frequency of outages and even notification of outages that did not occur spiraled through frustration to simple exasperation and finally acceptance. This is fortunate since Davis said the system upgrades will continue locally for one more year.
“The project, which began in January 2014, is funded for two years,” said Davis. SCE tries to minimize effects on neighborhoods by clustering pole upgrades and doing as many upgrades per day as crews can in a particular small area.
“We try to localize it to minimize disruption,” he said.
SCE also has an app that can be downloaded to a mobile phone or tablet, providing a map of the outage area. This app also can be found at www.sce.com/outage.
Drought, an unwanted visitor, won’t leave
Since the 1940s, when weather data began being collected on the Hill, the average annual rainfall has been about 25 inches. Since 2005, that amount of rain has fallen only twice — 2005 and 2011.
The past year — on the Hill and throughout California — is the third consecutive year of substantially less rain than average.
Weather researchers for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently reported they were unable to determine any long-term trend in the Californian weather. Nor did they find any conclusive evidence linking human-caused climate change to the current three-year drought and consequently attributed it to natural conditions.
And naturally, December 2014 was a wet month. Between 4 and 5 inches of rain has fallen this month and the long-term December average is 3.4 inches.
The December rain has raised the total rainfall amount for the six months since July 1 to nearly 11 inches, which is also greater than the long-term level. Helping the total rainfall were the early August storms, which dropped more than 2 inches, an unusual July or August event on the Hill. Unfortunately, current three-month forecasts see only a slight improvement in precipitation.
Despite another year of drought, the Hill fortunately escaped without a significant fire. No fire comparable or even close to the Mountain and Silver fires of 2013 occurred.
Solution to triple-murder non-lasting
On Sept. 17, 2006, a triple murder occurred in Pinyon Pines where the bodies of Becky Friedli, 18, her mother Vicki Friedli, 53, and Jon Hayward, 55, Vicki’s boyfriend, were found on their property.
Becky’s body was found burning in a wheelbarrow outside the house. The other bodies were found inside the burning home. An affidavit from the District Attorney’s Office stated that Haywood died from a 12-gauge shotgun wound to the chest. Vicki’s death was caused from a wound to the head, possibly from a Glock handgun.
In 2014, after seven years, this unsolved case was apparently solved and suspects headed to trial, only it totally unraveled and remains unsolved.
In December 2013, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Central Homicide Unit presented its case to the DA for a potential filing decision. After its review, the DA’s office decided to constitute a criminal grand jury to review the case.
On Tuesday, March 11 investigators from the CHU arrested both Cristin Smith and Robert Pape. On Wednesday, March 12 both men were charged with the triple murders.
“I’m elated, very, very happy, finally after seven-and-half years,” said Ron Friedli, Becky’s father and Vicki’s former husband.
Pape is Becky’s former boyfriend. Ron speculated that Pape’s motive was Becky’s breaking off their relationship. “They had dated about a year earlier and he broke it off for another girl,” said Ron. In the spring of 2006, he wanted to resume the relationship.
Within seven months, all charges against Pape and Smith were dropped. Until September, most of the courtroom sessions were perfunctory or delayed. In July, the prosecution submitted a request to consolidate the trials, but Pape’s defense objected. Hearings on this motion were postponed several times until Sept. 15.
Richard Blumenfeld, Pape’s attorney, objected to the joining of the two trials for several reasons, which he argued would be prejudicial to his client. For example, Smith made a statement to Sheriff’s Department investigators, which he might not want admitted to his trial. Further, Blumenfeld felt “the case against Mr. Smith is forensically much stronger (there is an utter absence of forensic evidence implicating Mr. Pape) …”
The defense alleged that evidence was misrepresented to the grand jury, exculpatory evidence omitted and local politics played a role in the indictment of Pape and Smith. And he held DA Paul Zellerbach responsible.
Finally, Trial Judge Charles Stafford decided to order Zellerbach to appear at an Oct. 6 hearing. “DA Zellerbach is aware of the judge's order and intends at this time to abide by the order,” said John Hall, senior public information specialist for the DA's Office.
In his papers, Blumenthal objected to the case he claimed was entirely circumstantial and paper thin.
The investigation was originally “aborted within a year or so of the homicides …” then was revived “… on the same state of the evidence previously rejected by the district attorney as insufficient to prosecute [Pape] or anyone else for these crimes.”
In his concluding sentence, Blumenthal played the politics card entwining Zellerbach in the murder case.
Blumenthal described the DA Office’s actions during the grand jury proceedings as “… a pattern of gross misconduct,” which he attributed to Zellerbach.
“Initially these tactics were probably calculated to get the district attorney through a bitter re-election campaign. The election is over. It is time this court said ‘Enough,’” said Blumenthal.
In June, Zellerbach was defeated for re-election. Michael Hestrin will be sworn in as Riverside County DA on Jan. 5.
Then, on the morning of the proposed hearing when Zellerbach was to appear, the DA’s Office dismissed all charges against Pape and Smith.
In a press release, the DA’s Office stated, “Upon a closer review of the grand jury proceedings, the District Attorney’s Office has determined that legal issues arose during the proceedings against defendant Pape that make it appropriate to dismiss the case at this time. Although defendant Smith was held to answer after a preliminary hearing, the District Attorney’s Office has concluded that it would not be appropriate to continue the criminal proceedings solely against defendant Smith so the charges against both men have been dismissed.”
The office stated its commitment to continue investigating the triple homicide. When asked if Smith and Pape would continue to be suspects in the ongoing investigation, Hall responded, “All we are saying is the investigation is ongoing.”
Supervisor Stone moves to Sacramento
The 2014 general election was the first opportunity for residents to choose a state senator to represent the new 28th District. After the re-districting of the state’s legislative districts following the 2010 census, the new 28th Senate District bridged the county from the Colorado River to Temecula. No seated senator resided within its boundaries and as an even-numbered district, the first opportunity to elect a senator would be 2014.
The June primary field was crowded. Two Democratic candidates were Philip Drucker of La Quinta and Anna Nevenic from Palm Springs. Three Republicans — Bonnie Garcia, Glenn Miller and Jeff Stone —also were on the ballot vying for their party’s nomination.
Despite multiple candidates from the two major parties, the state’s “top two” law advanced the two candidates, regardless of party, receiving the most votes, to the November general election.
With 21.9 percent of votes, Riverside County’s 3rd District Supervisor Jeff Stone was the top voter getter. Trailing, but second was, former Assemblymember Bonnnie Garcia, who garnered 19.9 percent of the voter. She narrowly advanced over fellow Coachella Valley resident Glenn Miller, who received 19.4 percent of the vote.
The final campaign was bitter and the candidates, even from the same party, ignored Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
Finally on Nov. 4, after a multi-million dollar campaign, Stone prevailed with 53 percent of the vote.
In June, after the primary, Miller eventually endorsed Stone. In December, Stone appointed Miller to be his district director.