The year that was 2009By Michelle Durand
Worry, money and debates over future change - the themes running through the landmark moments of 2009 on the national front also echoed those a little closer to home.
No matter the day or month, the economy was a prevalent issue from jumping foreclosure rates and dropping property taxes to federal stimulus money allocations and crash-strapped Peninsula cities asking voters for financial help. Fallout from the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in 2008 reverberated through the county and its cities, districts and agencies and will continue into the new year. Nonprofits had record need and dwindling donations as unemployment increased, homeless shelters burst at the seams and some of the most vulnerable populations had funds for their needs snatched from the state.
Development stayed in the spotlight - particularly the progress of the Cargill Saltworks site plan in Redwood City and signs Burlingame may finally get its new Safeway grocery store - but also included the shelving of plans and fights over proposals like a new jail on county property in Redwood City.
Some of the year's biggest stories resonated most keenly with those in its immediate vicinity, like the foreclosure shuttering of the historic Fox Theatre in downtown Redwood City.
Others ran parallel to state and national debates - the fights over high-speed rail from here to Southern California and a series of local town hall meetings on health care that drew crowds and strong opinions.
And then some - like the thwarted massacre on a high school campus - turned eyes worldwide to San Mateo County.
'A cold-blooded plan of execution'
What began as an ordinary school day at Hillsdale High School in San Mateo turned into a national media storm, fueled by memories of student attacks and fears of what could have been, after former student Alexander Youshock appeared on campus with pipe bombs, a chain saw, a machete and a plan to kill as many people as possible.
Shortly after 8 a.m. Aug., 24, Youshock allegedly arrived on campus with a vest strapped with pipe bombs and the sword and carrying a chain saw he nicknamed Collie - short for Columbine. Aside from the weapons, Youshock reportedly had a welder's mask to protect his face during the attack and a plan to commit suicide or take a hostage if police wouldn't shoot him dead. After setting off two pipe bombs that injured no one, Youshock reportedly attempted to start the chain saw but had problems. English language development teacher Kennet Santana tackled Youshock. Principal Jeff Gilbert and counselor Ed Canda joined and the three held him until police arrived.
Prior to that Monday morning, Youshock reportedly compiled a list of teachers assigned with the words "guilty" or "not guilty," ordered the explosive material online while telling his mother he was constructing model rockets and videotaped himself preparing the weapons and wielding the chain saw.
San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer called it "a cold-blooded plan of execution."
According to prosecutors, Youshock planned the rampage at his former alma mater out of a desire for revenge, particularly toward a chemistry teacher whose class he had attended.
Prosecutors charged Youshock, 17, as an adult with two counts of attempted murder, two counts of exploding a destructive device with intent to commit murder, one count of possession of a destructive device in a public place, one count of use of explosives in an act of terrorism and two counts of possession of a deadly weapon. He has pleaded not guilty and is currently being evaluated by two court-appointed doctors to determine if he is able to aid in his own defense or should be hospitalized.
Death for a cop killer
The gunning down of East Palo Alto police Officer Richard May stunned the Bay Area and nearly four years later, the San Mateo County District Attorney's Office delivered his family a guilty verdict against convicted killer Alberto Alvarez.
The jury also returned something the county had not seen for one of its own cases since 1994 - the death penalty.
Jurors deliberated just six hours before convicting Alvarez, 26, of gunning down May Jan. 7, 2006 after the officer responded to a call for help at a taqueria. May had a teenage police explorer riding along but the 16-year-old was not injured.
The gunfire exchange between the two left Alvarez shot in the leg but, according to prosecutors, he first fired on May, including a final fatal shot to the head in a driveway on Weeks Street.
The death penalty decision took just more than three days to return. Jurors after the verdict was read noted Alvarez's emotionless demeanor and that he lied about being denied a transfer out of East Palo Alto by his probation officer.
May left behind a wife and daughters.
County jurors last imposed the death penalty in 2004 for Modesto fertilizer salesman Scott Peterson who was convicted of killing his pregnant wife. The death penalty hasn't been returned for a county case since 1994 when three people were sentenced to Death Row for unrelated crimes.
Elderly man fatally beaten in home invasion
The brutal beating of a Belmont man turned into a murder charge against a transient being held in Yolo County after the victim died from his injuries.
The home invasion and severe assault on 88-year-old Albert Korn stunned the community as law enforcement looked for the man's missing car and the suspect. He is accused of entering a back window of a home on the 2500 block of Hallmark Drive in Belmont the afternoon of Tuesday, June 2. Authorities believe he beat Korn before fleeing with his wallet and jewelry in the man's 2004 Jaguar X-Type. Korn was placed in an induced coma with head and face injuries at Stanford Medical Center where he remained until being taken off a ventilator June 17.
Fingerprints from the scene and the recovered car were linked to Tyler James Hutchinson, a 21-year-old transient held at the Yolo County jail on suspicion of similar home invasion robberies just days after Korn's attack. At the final home, a couple inside apprehended him.
Hutchinson was convicted in those crimes and sentenced in December to six years and eight months in prison. He is awaiting transport back to San Mateo County for prosecution in Korn's death. He faces a potential capital trial because the death stemmed from the commission of another felony.
The Belmont incident was not Hutchinson's first trip through the San Mateo County judicial system, although nothing as violent as Korn's beating. In late January, the District Attorney's Office charged Hutchinson with misdemeanor charges of making criminal threats and battery against two women and their young children at the Hillsdale Caltrain station in San Mateo. Hutchinson reportedly yelled epithets and spit at one woman. He was sentenced to 120 days jail and probation.
Curtain falls on historic theater
The curtain fell on the historic Fox Theatre at the tail end of November, ending three months of attempts by the owners to stave off a foreclosure auction but raising questions about the future of the downtown Redwood City fixture.
While San Mateo County was not immune to the shaky economy and growing foreclosure rates, news the Fox was in dire straights surprised and saddened those who had welcomed its rebirth.
The theater's financial problems first came to light in September, as owners John Anagnostou and Michael Monte neared the three-month deadlines for notices of default filed during the summer. Even as the theater foreclosed and the auctions were scheduled, the owners publicly said they wished to retain it. But efforts fell through and, with no buyers in site for the Art Deco facility at 2215 Broadway, the bank bought it back for $70,000.
The theater's net value is $2.39 million, according to the San Mateo County Assessor's Office, but nearly $1.3 million was owed on the loan.
Alongside the mortgage payments, the Fox Theatre was also nearly $30,000 behind in property taxes until just before the first auction.
The theater seats 1,400 and includes a bar and concession area. The property also includes the Little Fox nightclub next door. When the theater reopened, the city expected it to draw crowds downtown and the newly spruced up Courthouse Square across the street.
After the foreclosure, Redwood City officials fueled speculation about possibly purchasing the theater by discussing it in a closed session of the City Council but no plans were made to make an offer.
Jury deadlocks in long-awaited molestation trial
In July, jurors deliberated two weeks before declaring they were hopelessly deadlocked in deciding if former San Mateo child psychiatrist William Hamilton Ayres abused any of the six former patients prosecutors say were fondled as young boys under the guise of medical exams.
The judge declared a mistrial, prosecutors announced plans to try again and Ayres replaced the hired defense attorney well known for representing convicted music producer Phil Spector. The lack of a verdict frustrated the former patients and supporters who crowded the courtroom for weeks during the trial and who had waited years for what they believe is justice. Ayres, 77, will be retried April 12 on the same nine counts of lewd and lascivious activity and the special allegation of substantial sexual activity. If convicted, Ayres faced life in prison.
During deliberations, two jurors were replaced. The day after the jury announced it was hopelessly deadlocked, the District Attorney's Office said the jury split 11 to 1 in favor of guilt on six counts, 10 to 2 in favor of guilt on one count and 7 to 5 in favor of guilt on two counts.
Ayres is accused of molesting six former male patients when they were aged 9 to 13 between 1988 and 1996 under the guise of medical exams. Ayres has pleaded not guilty and testified that while he did perform physical exams they were in the course of treatment and not inappropriate.
Prosecutors have long held there are dozens of victims but the majority of claims are too old to be charged. Police arrested Ayres in April 2007 after a search warrant of his storage locker turned up medical files used to identify potential victims.
The Ayres case drew wide publicity after his 2007 arrest because he commonly received referrals from the county's courts, schools and social workers. He also served as president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry between 1993 to 1995 and developed a controversial sex education program for teenagers called "Time of Your Life."
Schools get lesson in cuts
The double-whammy of state budget cuts and local losses left county school districts hurting and worried about what will happen when millions of dollars in one-time federal funds - used to keep a number of jobs from elimination this year - goes away.
The Redwood City Elementary School District was particularly hard hit. In 2008, the district made more than $6 million in cuts with only $4.3 million in stimulus funds to thank for the number not running into the double-digits. The budget cut plan included increasing class sizes, layoffs, loss of programs and fewer periods of courses available to middle school students. Dance, art, physical education - all were on the chopping block alongside computer equipment, summer school and staff.
As early as the summer, board members talked numbers in meetings filled with parents, teachers and residents who wondered how the school experience they knew would survive with so fewer resources. At one meeting, Trustee Hilary Paulson said she was dressed in black as for a funeral.
"I kind of feel like this is what it is," she said.
The state cuts were compounded by the failure in May of a five-year $91 annual parcel tax measure which would have poured $2.2 million to $2.3 million into the district.
Only 40 percent of parents voted, leading Trustee Dennis McBride to say that if 70 percent had shown up in favor the board would have fewer items on the chopping block.
The future looks no brighter.
If the state announces reductions as widely expected in 2010, the district expects to make $8 million to $10 million in cuts.
Redwood City was not alone in trying to absorb deep cuts.
The Sequoia Union High School District made $1.9 million in preparation for its fair-share contribution. At the time, officials thought the reductions could be temporary but in December the district said the cuts must be maintained.
San Carlos Elementary School District began making cuts in December with the ultimate goal of cutting $1.5 million. Reductions included layoffs, many of which take effect Feb. 1. These cuts were for a variety of issues unaffected by any state anticipated reductions.
In preparation for the looming losses, some districts are beginning to both consider and put parcel tax measures before voters. Thus far, Burlingame and San Mateo-Foster City elementary school districts moved to have all-mail ballots in early 2010.
The San Mateo County Community College District may study a variety of tax options through a public survey.
Cities ask residents for financial help; election brings turnover
The November election in San Mateo County brought quite a bit of change to city councils and, for all but two cities who asked, new sources of revenue to keep critical services afloat and stave off cuts.
In Burlingame, Councilwoman Rosalie O'Mahony lost a re-election bid after 20 years of service and the Redwood City Council got its first new faces - two to be exact along with a returning incumbent - in five years. In San Mateo, newcomers David Lim and Robert Ross were elected and appointed incumbent Fred Hansson lost his seat. Belmont got a bit of deja vu with the return of Dave Warden, a former councilman who spent the last two years off the council.
But the biggest news was the need for cities to ask residents to give more.
Due to a mix of overall economic downturn, state takeaways and individualized hits from property tax drops, cities told voters to choose between greater taxes or seeing everything from public safety services to beloved programs on the chopping block.
While other cities passed revenue-enhancements, San Carlos voters rejected Measure U, a six-year half-cent sales tax increase aimed at raising $2 million annually. It's failure led to a round of previously agreed upon cuts in June such as automating the City Hall main phone number, cutting planning and building division hours, closing Cedar, San Carlos Avenue and Vista parks, reducing park maintenance, removing the Laurel Street flower baskets and reducing parking enforcement. Cuts also came for a building inspector, 2.5 parks maintenance workers, the youth center part-time staff and a recreation coordinator - the first time in recent history full-time staff received pink slips.
City leaders warn more cuts will likely come midyear.
Redwood City voters failed to pass Measure Y, a business license tax that would have generated approximately $650,000 in new annual revenue.
Although Redwood City and San Carlos were on the losing end Election Night, other cities fared better as six cities passed hotel tax hikes and San Mateo voters also approved a half-cent sales tax.
The proposal in Burlingame netted the strongest support with 79.4 percent of voters approving Measure H, followed by San Mateo's Measure M, Millbrae's Measure J and San Bruno's Measure F took 70.1 percent of the vote. The passage of the hotel taxes weren't all that surprising - most were sold as a way to raise money from tourists and business travelers instead of residents and all but Brisbane's Measure G had no organized opposition. Even it passed. These hotel proposals were similar, each asking a straightforward 2 percent increase for a total of 12 percent. South San Francisco's Measure O was structured differently, raising the hotel tax 1 percent - to 10 percent - and adding a $2.50 per room, per night fee.
On top of the hotel tax measure, San Mateo asked voters to increase the sales tax by a quarter cent for the next eight years to help fill a $4 million shortfall.
Rail debate divides opinion
Despite state voters voting in favor of $9 billion for high-speed rail in November 2008, the initial enthusiasm about the California High Speed Rail Authority's plan soured as details came to light about the plan to run 125-mph bullet trains between Northern and Southern California.
Some cities talking about grade separations and tunneling; others demanded the line not encroach on property to build the system. Residents wondered about financing as project estimates grew to $40 billion and the division of cities by raised platforms. Cities like Menlo Park voiced opposition and joined a lawsuit aimed at keeping construction in the East Bay or have the final stop be in San Jose rather than San Francisco.
Meanwhile, advocates like retired. San Mateo County judge and CHSR boardmember Quentin Kopp tried calming worries and held public workshops about strategies for the next two years heading toward the draft Environmental Impact Report and final EIR scheduled for January 2012.
No cure for health care fight
The national tug-of-war over health care reform got a local stopover the summer as U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, held town hall meetings to cull information, answer questions and adeptly avoid political hot button terms like "single payer" or public option."
In Montara, more than 300 people showed up on a Sunday morning, bringing queries and sharp opinions about the plans and on perceptions about included aspects like so-called death panels and what some called "Gestapo tactics." While the meetings never turned violent, the audience was not opposed to boos and heckling that required sheriff's deputies to calm the shouting. The crows also carried signs - "Big Brother out of Health Care" and compared government-funded health care to fascism.
The meetings also drew formally organized groups like Organizing for America which handed out pro-reform signs with official presidential logos.
Attendees were less kind in San Carlos, greeting Speier with "liar" and "communist " for endorsing America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009. One questioned how Congress could support legislation that would increase the national debt. Another said the public option resembled socialism. Others offered up health insurance nightmares.
Even a telephone town hall meeting drew crowds, albeit not in person. More than 12,000 people joined in the conference call, overloading the system and prompting the coastside town hall meeting to be moved to accommodate the expected crowds.
An 'amazing twist'
It was something out of a Law and Order episode - just as one man began trial on charges he participated in the 8-year-old murder of a Daly City teen, authorities received an unexpected gift: The apprehension of the suspect during a routine Long Island traffic stop.
Erick Romeo Morales, 27, had been on the lam for most of the time since the May 2001 fatal stabbing of Quetzlcoatl Alba, 15 and some authorities believed he had fled to his native Guatemala. But on Oct. 12, New York troopers pulled over a driver on suspicion of driving while under the influence and identified him through fingerprints as Morales. The discovery halted the trial of alleged accomplice, Reynaldo Maldanado and left Morales potentially facing the death penalty if convicted of murder and the special circumstance of lying in wait.
Alba was an acquaintance of Maldanado and Morales whose fatally stabbed body was stashed in a storage area of the Westlake Apartments in Daly City. Maldanado and Morales were eyed as suspects but fled before either were arrested.
In 2007, a year after Daly City police reopened the case, Maldanado, 30, was identified by a friend who said he confessed to the killing and had a "trophy photograph" of Morales standing over the body.
Morales has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors have not yet announced if they will seek a capital trial or ask that Morales be tried alongside alleged accomplice Reynaldo Maldanado.
The capture and the timing were "amazing," said Assistant District Attorney Karen Guidotti, adding she couldn't recall a similar situation in which a suspect apprehended years after the crime just as an alleged accomplice was standing trial.
Copyright ©2010 San Mateo Daily Journal. Published 01/01/2010.