July 13, 2006
HAGEN OUT, DIKEMAN NEXT? On Friday, Deputy District Attorney Paul Hagen, a circuit prosecutor specializing in environmental crimes, was fired by the California District Attorneys Association, the nonprofit organization that employed him to work in Del Norte, Lake and Humboldt counties. Hagen, who was based in Humboldt County, had previously clashed politically with Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos, leading many courthouse watchers to believe that Gallegos arranged Hagen's dismissal.
The abrupt termination of the region's top environmental prosecutor left some confusion and anger in the regions he served. Reached Monday, Del Norte County District Attorney Mike Riese, one of the three DAs who shared Hagen's services, was livid at the California District Attorneys Association not only for taking away a capable prosecutor but for leaving him in the lurch. Hagen is scheduled to take several cases to trial in Del Norte County over the coming months, with one scheduled for this week; Riese only found out that the association had fired him after the fact, though he was assured that Hagen would be available to try the case beginning this week.
"I talked with the director [of the CDAA] Friday, and told them that I'm highly disappointed in the lack of notice," Riese said. "At no time did they ever confer with me." Riese added that if the problem was that Gallegos and Hagen did not gel personally or politically, he would have been happy to offer his office as a home base for the roving prosecutor: "If he had a problem with Paul Gallegos, I would have housed him here," Riese said.
Earlier this year, in the run-up to the June elections, Hagen, a member of the Humboldt County Democratic Central Committee, cast the sole vote against that body's endorsement of Gallegos' reelection campaign. He argued that the committee should not choose between two Democrats — Gallegos and Deputy District Attorney Worth Dikeman.
Gallegos is on vacation and could not be reached for comment. Mike Testerman, the CDAA's assistant executive director, said Tuesday that he couldn't comment on the issue, but said that the association had no immediate replacement for Hagen. "There's no way to determine when there will be a replacement put into that position," he said. "That said, we are working with the affected district attorneys to provide appropriate coverage."
Among many other cases in his eight years as the circuit environmental deputy, Hagen successfully prosecuted the Pacific Lumber Co. three times between 1999 and 2002 for criminal violations of the Forest Practices Act and illegal alterations to stream beds. In addition, in 2004 he reached a settlement in a civil suit against the company that charged it with unfair business practices. Nearly half of the $80,000 settlement in that case, which stemmed from sloppy logging practices in the Van Duzen watershed, was used to fund educational programs on salmon habitat and endangered species in local elementary schools.
Hagen said Monday that he could not discuss the particulars of his termination, but said that he and his family plan to remain in Humboldt County.
Meanwhile, it appears that Gallegos has filled at least one of the positions that has been vacant in the office for some time. The California Bar Association web site reports that Arnold Klein, who last worked as a prosecutor in Monterey County, now lists the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office as his place of employment. Klein, who was admitted to the bar in 1972, is best known for his work as a defense attorney in the "Twilight Zone" case, which stemmed from an incident that killed actor Vic Morrow and two child extras during the filming of the 1983 movie.
One courthouse regular predicted last week that the hiring of Klein would precipitate the long-expected termination of Dikeman, a 20-year veteran of the office who ran against Gallegos in this year's election. "Paul's going to have his own old guy now," the regular observed.
— Hank Sims
PLEA BARGAIN: Four men charged in the alleged kidnapping, rape, sodomy and false imprisonment of a woman in Whitethorn have agreed to a conditional plea bargain offered by the Humboldt County District Attorney's office. The men — 21-year-old brothers Levi Cole Garza and Nate Robin Garza, 31-year-old Gregory Donald Scheider and 32-year-old Deshawn Lee Moore — have faced the charges since mid-March, following an incident that allegedly took place over three days, March 7, 8 and 9.
According to reports, the woman testified during a prolonged preliminary hearing that during the ordeal she was tied to a tree overnight, threatened she would be shot with a rifle, taken indoors and tied down and raped by three of the men — all allegedly in retribution for her role involving a $6,000 drug-related debt.
The trial had been set for this month. But Deputy District Attorney Jeffrey Schwartz said on Tuesday that all four of the accused men agreed to plead guilty to several charges. All four plead guilty to "rape in concert" — less delicately known as gang rape — and to false imprisonment. Levi Garza additionally plead guilty to kidnapping and marijuana trafficking. All four men "insist the sexual part didn't happen," said Schwartz. And so, as part of the plea bargain, they will take lie detector tests.
"What makes this case unusual is that we're going to rely on the lie detector," he said. Lie detectors are not considered reliable in the courtrroom, but they are "a tool we use" in other arenas, such as plea bargaining, said Schwartz. He said he has faith in lie detector tests, and that the county's polygrapher, Jim Dawson, is "one of the best in the state."
If the case had gone to trial, Levi Garza was facing a maximum sentence of life in prison because of the "kidnap for sexual assault" charge. "Realistically, I didn't see that" happening, Schwartz said. "We had some proof problems — was it a kidnapping, or was it not a kidnapping?" The evidence for false imprisonment — tying her up — is more clear, he said. It carries a lesser sentence. And, if a trial jury had found the men guilty of rape in concert, the maximum sentence they would have faced is nine years. Under the plea bargain, depending on the lie detector test results, here's what could happen:
If the lie detector says the men are telling the truth — that they didn't rape the woman — then the rape-in-concert guilty plea will be dropped. Three of the men would then face five years in state prison (85 percent of which they would have to serve), a strike under the three strikes law, and life-time sex-offender registration for the false imprisonment guilty plea. Levi Garza would get the strike, life-time sex offender registration, and up to eight years in state prison.
Schwartz said the difference in sentencing, between a trial and plea bargain, in this case likely would not have been very significant because he didn't know if they'd be able to prove the kidnapping charge. But, he said, "the bottom line is, this whole arrangement is driven by the wishes of the victim. She states that she was tied up and raped by three men in a living room. She would have to go over that humiliating experience in telling that to the jury. She doesn't want to do that." She has already had to tell her story numerous times, he added, "and her emotional level is high."
— Heidi Walters
KARUK FIRE UNDER INVESTIGATION: The early-morning fire that turned a Karuk ceremonial structure into a pile of smoldering sticks over 4th of July weekend has been upgraded to a criminal matter. The Forest Service launched an initial investigation, but the case has been handed over to the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department, which has consulted with the Federal Bureau of Investigation about possible crimes and felonies committed.
The Kaatimiin dance house, located in Somes Bar and built in 1973, was used by Karuk, Yurok and Hupa tribes for Brush Dance ceremonies, which are healing ceremonies for children. The annual dance that was to be held on July 22 has been canceled, said Karuk spiritual leader and de facto spokesman Julian Lang. He said he believes the fire was "definitely premeditated" and is convinced that it was a hate crime.
"I've seen fires started by acts of God, like lightning strikes," he said. "This was definitely not an accident or an act of God."
But Siskiyou Sheriff's Department Public Information Officer Susan Gravenkamp said that it is too early in the investigation to determine whether or not it was actually a hate crime, and no evidence has yet surfaced that would lead to that conclusion. She said they are treating it as an arson case, but have no leads or suspects.
This is the second time in less than 10 years the dance house has been destroyed, leading Lang to believe that the fire was indeed politically motivated. He likens it to burning a Christian church.
"Whatever happened, it wasn't just a hit-and-run kind of thing," Lang said. "Someone lit the fire and tended to it as it spread. It really required some organization. Someone was in charge and knew what to do."
The Karuk Tribal Council is finalizing arrangements with the sheriff's office to offer a (approximate) $10,000 reward for information that helps solve the case.
— Luke T. Johnson
by HELEN SANDERSON
The City of Fortuna's plan to increase water and sewer rates, in some cases quadrupling a ratepayer's bill over the course of five years, "irritates the dickens" out of Odell Shelton (right). So much so that the former mayor is leading a petition drive to protest the new rates. He's even gone so far as to spend his own money in the campaign, taking out ads in the Times-Standard late last month.
And the movement has gained steam. Last Friday, seated at his desk at Shelton's Auto Lube — where a plaque hanging behind him read, "Grandpas Have Special Ways of Fixing Things" — the 63-year-old pulled out a pocket knife and sliced open Friday's mail: five petitions .
"See," he said, plucking a letter from a manila envelope, "every day I get people bringing `em in."
The deadline for submissions is July 27, and 2,300 petitions — representing just over half of all F-Town property owners — are needed to block the rate increases. Shelton didn't know how many were collected as of Friday, but said the plan is to bring in 3,000 anyway.
Fortuna officials, and current members of the City Council insist that the rate increase is necessary to pay off construction debt on a long-needed upgrade to the city's sewage and water system. But Shelton thinks they've got it all wrong, and lays blame for the hike squarely at the feet of City Manager Duane Rigge. He says Rigge has not taken care of Fortuna's money properly, and Friendly City residents should not have to pay for those missteps.
Shelton, who lost his bid for re-election in April, does not mince words about his dislike for Rigge. "You got an idiot for a city manager," he said.
Fortuna's new sewer plant, named in honor of longtime city employee and councilman Tom Cooke, who died last year, received $13 million in upgrades to convert it to the more efficient anaerobic method of digesting waste. Construction is currently ahead of schedule and will wrap in the fall.
To pay for it the city has essentially borrowed money from itself, using reserves from various funds that need to be paid back. The only way to raise the cash, according to city staff, is to issue bonds. The plan is to float a $20 million bond to pay for the sewer plant and also finance $7 million to replace three aging reservoirs — two on Stewart Street and one on Home Avenue, one of which is 100 years old and another that is leaking. Water and sewer bills will then go up to pay off the 30-year bond.
Shelton's beef is that the city already takes in $600,000 net income per year from water/sewer bills and hookups. On top of that, he says City Manager Rigge went about financing the new sewer plant all wrong. Rigge should have pursued bond money before starting construction years ago, not the other way around. He says a more reasonable fix would be to increase everyone's rate by just 10 percent.
"You do what you can afford to do," Shelton said. "Don't put your grandkids in debt for 30 years."
How this might effect citizens' bills is a little murky. On its website, sunnyfortuna.com, the city provides a rate calculator for citizens to calculate how their rates will increase each year through 2011. Some people freaked when they computed their bill.
Take, for instance, Sue Long, whose current bill is $54.85. On average she pays between $53 and $55 a month for her family of five. They use a lot of water — 1,832 cubic feet per month. (The base rate for the city is 250 cf per month. Under the new rates, every 100 cf over that will cost up to $1.90 for water and $8.61 for sewer.)
Long went online and discovered that under the city's plan, next year she'll pay $124.47. Every year after that, for at least the next five years, the price will continue to go up. Come 2010-11, if her family keeps using the same amount of water, her bill will be $211.39 a month.
Most of the time, calculators don't screw up. But Fortuna's has a glitch. So Long's projected bill might not be completely accurate. Rigge calls it a "complicated nuance."
Here's how it gets a little tricky. As a favor to citizens, the city is averaging the winter rates and charging the same rate throughout the summer months. The rationale is that as folks irrigate their lawns in the summer, water usage goes up. But that excess flow is not headed for the sewer — the most costly part of the service — and so the city figures residents should not have to pay higher sewer rates. So, those who use the calculator must consider that they will not pay more May through October than they would in the winter.
Still, Long thinks her calculation is fairly accurate because she hasn't begun watering her lawn yet and therefore the rate she entered into the calculator reflects her winter usage.
Long is on the high end of the water usage spectrum. For a base rate user — someone who does not use more than 250 cubic feet of water of 450 cubic feet of sewage space per month — their 2006-07 bill would be $35.51 a month. By 2010-11 they would pay $62.34, according to the city calculator. That's a 75 percent increase over five years.
According to Rigge, water rates are currently artificially low and from his point of view, people in Fortuna need to start paying for what they use. Under the current water and sewer system, "high-end" users like Sue Long's family and commercial users are essentially subsidized by those who use very little because the city has an average "flat rate" for water and sewer.
And as for the $600,000 that Shelton takes exception to, Rigge says that money is used to maintain the system — new valves, pumps or mains. It doesn't fund "big-ticket items," or large capital improvements like a new water tank, or the Tom Cooke sewer plant. Over the years, the city never socked money away for costly repairs and now Fortuna is in a jam.
But Rigge is emphatic that the projects cannot wait any longer. A major earthquake could destroy the reservoir and wreak havoc on the city. "For all intents and purposes, 2010 is today," he said.
It's Rigge's opinion that Fortuna's history of proceeding slowly has made their current situation worse and left the city with no choice but to chase after a huge loan.
The $20 million bond on the table is a tax-free municipal bond. If the citizens reject it the city will be forced to pursue another way of financing the construction. One option is to float general obligation bonds which will cost the city, and the rate payers, more in the end.
According to Rigge, the core of the problem is that clean water and sanitary sewers are undervalued. Some Fortuna residents think even $35 is too much to pay. "But the same person would tell you they gladly pay $75 for video service, for cable," he said. "And I'm sorry, but when one comes over the other it's insane."
Rigge urges anyone with questions about their water bill to call City Hall and talk it out. Many people have already done so, he said, and found that their rate will not be as steep as they thought.
Some protesters who have discussed their bill with city employees have since sent letters to city hall to remove their names from the petition.
And as for Shelton, Rigge says that his Auto Lube, with its car wash, is one of the highest consumers of water in town. So if the petition doesn't pan out, the former mayor has a lot to lose.
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© Copyright 2006, North Coast Journal, Inc.