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Nov. 20, 2003


The Madaket mess
Vintage tour boat at center of dispute

Von Humboldt was gay -- we think

Robert Durst's Humboldt past


DIS THE JOURNAL, GET A PROMOTION: A week ago Monday, surrounded by all the glitter and pageantry of a fund-raiser for Rep. Mike Thompson, Jim Branham, spokesman for the Pacific Lumber Co., rather publicly turned up his nose at the Journal, declaring our little publication beneath his dignity and explaining why he consistently refuses to comment for our stories. Well, there's only one place to go from there -- up, up, up, baby! On Wednesday, just as that week's issue was hitting the streets, Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Branham second-in-command of the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA). "I am thrilled to serve in this position for Gov. Schwarzenegger's administration," Branham was quoted as saying in a Schwarzenegger press release. "As EPA undersecretary, I will be able to use my experience and knowledge to help preserve California's natural environment for future generations." Cal/EPA is an umbrella agency that brings the work of several state boards and commissions -- including the Air Resources Board, the Integrated Waste Management Board, the Department of Toxic Substances Control and others -- under one roof. According to its Web site, Cal/EPA's Office of the Secretary, where Branham will be stationed, "provides the vision and leadership that focuses the efforts [of these agencies] on the goals of the administration." In one of PALCO CEO Robert Manne's now-infamous letters to employees, he writes, "I was recently briefed on the Aug. 26 Regional Water Quality Control Board meeting where the regional staff and their science team made a presentation that lacked scientific credibility and showed their continual bias against the Company." Well, good news for Mr. Manne -- the Regional Water Quality Control Board is also under the Cal/EPA umbrella, and thus now subject to Branham's attentions. It's things like this that have environmentalists up and down the state groaning about his appointment, but most have taken comfort in the fact that Branham's new boss -- Terry Tamminen of Santa Monica -- is judged to be a rock-solid treehugger. Branham could not be reached for com-... oh, never mind.

MAD RIVER HATCHERY, R.I.P?: Last summer's state budget cuts were hard all around, but few local institutions felt them quite so much as Blue Lake's Mad River Hatchery, which is operated by the California Department of Fish and Game and raises fish for release to local waters. Faced with a nearly 25 percent cut to its hatcheries program, the department swallowed hard and decided to close Mad River, which for years has raised steelhead, salmon and trout for local lakes and streams. State Assemblymember Patty Berg and Sen. Wes Chesbro, with strong support from Supervisor Jill Geist, launched a valiant campaign to save the hatchery by raising funds from other sources -- alas, the deadline for that effort passed last week, and the required $100,000 was not found. According to Gary Stacey, fisheries manager for the local DFG office, that means that the department must begin the painful process of "mothballing" the facility. Staff will be transferred to other fisheries over the next few months, if space can be found for them. No new eggs will be brought in this year, but the hatchery's current stock of steelhead will be kept and released into the river around March 2004. After that, the hatchery will be no more -- unless a new plan to return it to service next year succeeds. Stacey, who met with Geist on Friday, said that under the new plan, local hatchery supporters will have to pledge an annual $110,000 for the plant's operation, plus a one-time expense of $50,000 to upgrade aged equipment. In addition, they'll have to find about $100,000 worth of volunteer labor to staff the hatchery and maintain its infrastructure. Stacey said he was hopeful, and that his department would help the effort in any way it could. "We realize how important that facility is to the local economy," he said. Geist -- who late Tuesday declared herself "extremely excited about the plan" -- said that she would soon be putting together a community meeting that presents the plan to the potential donors.

LOCAL GUARDSMEN ON THE MOVE: Twenty local soldiers -- members of the local National Guards' 579th Engineering Division -- shipped out for an approximately six-month training program on Monday. If all goes as expected, this will be followed by a year-long stint somewhere in Iraq. According to Eddie Morgan, company commander, the division specializes in construction of bridges, roads and buildings, but is sometimes called upon to destroy weapons caches. Morgan noted that a local foundation donated $5,000 to the soldiers, to fill in gaps in paychecks as the soldiers shifted from civilian to their military jobs. "We've received a lot of support from the local community, and we very much appreciate that," Morgan said. "And we're proud to serve our community."

LAND OF THE GRASSHOPPER SONG (HEAVY METAL VERSION): The county's Department of Health and Human Services released two separate warnings last week, both of them dealing with dangerous levels of lead in household products. First, it was discovered that grasshoppers imported from the Mexican state of Oaxaca -- a popular delicacy in Mexican cuisine -- had poisoned several children in Monterey County. Tests done on the grasshoppers, or "chapulines," showed that they contained lead levels up to 400 times greater than safe levels published by the Food and Drug Administration. Anne Wade, health education specialist with the county's public health branch, said that her department had visited three local groceries that specialize in Mexican products -- two in Fortuna and one in Eureka -- and told them about the warning, but that her primary concern was for local folks who may receive the grasshoppers as gifts, or who may consider sampling them while on vacation. The second warning concerned "Double Dipp'n Fun" sidewalk chalk, which was sold in Target stores between March and July 2003. According to Wade, health officials found out that the product had unsafe levels of lead after a preschooler in Wisconsin came down with severe lead poisoning. Humboldt County may have dodged a bullet -- the local Target outlet, which will soon stand at the north end of Eureka at the old Montgomery Ward site, is still under construction; nevertheless, Wade said, many local families shop at large stores outside the area. Except in extreme cases, lead poisoning is only detectable by a blood test -- the health department recommends that children should be tested at ages 1 and 2, and that children between the ages of 3 and 6 should get tested if they haven't yet.

Vintage tour boat at center of dispute


[Roger Rufford and Josh Smith standing in front of Madaket]For 30 years, Leroy Zerlang has taken sightseers around Humboldt Bay on the old ship he and his father helped save from the wrecking yard. In that time, the Madaket -- a 45-foot ferry built locally in 1910 -- has hosted weddings, funerals at sea and single-handedly kept a part of local history alive and vivid in the imagination of residents.

[photo at right:
Madaket repairman Roger Rufford (left) and co-captain Josh Smith.]

Zerlang -- who in a 1988 book calls the Madaket "his life" -- has been with the ship throughout, standing at the wheel and, not infrequently, desperately searching for the cash needed to keep the ship afloat.

"I'm now carrying adults on this boat that I carried when they were kids," Zerlang said last Tuesday, a week after one of the most trying few days of his life.

On Nov. 1, his father and shipmate William Zerlang died at the age of 90. Two days later, and with no notice, federal marshals seized the Madaket and towed it away on the orders of a federal Admiralty Court. Now, Zerlang and his colleagues have less than 20 days to prevent the ship from being sold at auction -- which, they fear, would spell the end of an era on Humboldt County waterways.

The seizure of the vessel was the culmination of a long-running dispute between the Humboldt Bay Maritime Museum, owners of the ship, and Stanwood A. Murphy Jr., a local businessman and scion of the family that owned Pacific Lumber Co. before its takeover by the MAXXAM Corp.

And this week, things just got worse for Zerlang and the museum, after it was revealed that the museum has not paid property taxes on the ship since 1999, and may owe the county around $2,500.

Taken together, the two past-due bills paint a picture of an institution that, however beloved, has a chronic problem meeting its financial obligations, and which as a result may soon be driven into bankruptcy.

In its early days, the Madaket was one of a fleet of ships that used to ferry workers from Eureka to the lumber and paper mills on the Samoa Peninsula. Most of the ferries were sold off or scrapped when the Samoa Bridge was built in 1971, but a group of philanthropists and mariners bought the Madaket -- the prettiest and best maintained of the bunch -- and retrofitted it to take tourists on cruises around the area. In 1983, title of the ship was passed to the Maritime Museum, which the Zerlangs helped found.

In response to a 1989 fund-raising drive, Murphy lent the museum $62,500 to help pay for major repairs to the Madaket, according to the ship's owners. Murphy's attorney, Richard Smith, said that with interest, the amount now owed is more than $100,000.

He said the loan was not repaid according to schedule, despite ongoing negotiations and two compromise agreements the parties reached in the '90s.

"I don't think there's any question that Mr. Murphy did everything a reasonable and concerned person could do to notify these people that they had an obligation, and they should address it," Smith said last week. "The resort to the courts was taken after exhausting all other reasonable methods of resolving this."

Unbeknownst to the museum, in 2001 Murphy filed a complaint against the owners of the ship under maritime law, a separate branch of the federal legal system that enforces nautical matters. Murphy was given a "ship's mortgage" on the Madaket during the negotiations with the museum, and by filing with the Admiralty Court he sought to repossess the ship in order to secure the money he was owed.

The peculiarities of maritime law allowed Murphy to file the action and argue his case to the court without notifying the museum or allowing it to prepare a defense. Dario Navarro, an attorney who has volunteered to help save the Madaket for the museum, argues that this unusual provision violates the museum's Fifth Amendment right to due process.

"It's a complete creature of archaic maritime law that goes back centuries," Navarro says.

Since the ship may be sold to the highest bidder as early as next month, it is unlikely that Navarro will be able to make that argument to the court in time for the Madaket to be saved, though he is trying to get a court date scheduled. In the meantime, he and the museum's directors are searching, in any direction they can, for a way to get the ship back.

Last Tuesday evening, Navarro spelled out his strategy to an impassioned group of Madaket supporters gathered at the Maritime Museum. As a first step, he asked them to petition the state Legislature and the new governor to quickly list the ship as a California Historic Landmark and to intervene in the legal dispute.

As a last resort, Navarro warned, the museum may be forced to declare bankruptcy, which would automatically stop the sale while the institution reorganized its finances.

Smith said that his client does not want to see the ship scrapped or sold out of the area -- after all, he says, it was in large part Murphy's goodwill that allowed the ship to stay afloat and serve the county for the last decade. But Murphy turned down the museum's original offer of $50,000, and Smith was doubtful that the museum would be able to make an acceptable follow-up.

Meanwhile, the Madaket sits in limbo, berthed in the middle of the bay at Woodley Island. Last Wednesday, 23-year-old Joshua Smith -- grandson of William Zerlang and, with his uncle Leroy, a co-skipper of the ship -- stood on the pier and ran his eyes over the old boat his family has stewarded all his life.

"I practically grew up on this ship," he said, with more anger than remorse. "How could they come take it from us without even telling us about it?"

Von Humboldt was gay -- we think


[engraving of Von Humboldt]The organizers of Humboldt State's new academic program -- a minor in "multicultural queer studies" -- held an inaugural party last week, and there answered the question they had posed in a press release announcing the event.

Was Alexander von Humboldt, the 19th-century German geographer, naturalist and explorer who gave his name to both the county and the university, gay?

The answer, apparently: Yes, no or maybe. It all depends on how you define your terms.

"Outside of our Western framework, words like `gay' don't make much sense," says HSU professor Melinda Myers, a sex columnist for the Lumberjack who will teach in the new program.

As it happens, von Humboldt turns out to be a perfect example of the category-busting gender ambiguity that the new minor -- which emphasizes the word "multicultural" in its title -- hopes to make a key part of its scholarship.

Alexander von Humboldt never married, and throughout his life -- he died at age 90 -- he had a series of very close relationships with other men. One of the first, formed while he was still a young man, was with a fellow student named Wilhelm Wegener. Some of von Humboldt's correspondence with Wegener survives:

"When I measure the longing with which I wait for news of you, I am certain that no friends could love one another more than I love you," von Humboldt wrote. "When I recall all the signs of your friendship, I feel tormented in the thought that I don't love you as much as your sweet impressionable soul, your attachment for me, deserve."

Years later, he wrote a similar letter to another companion, Reinhard von Haeften, saying that he had decided against making a trip across Germany:

"It would have meant seeing you six days later, and such a loss cannot be made up by anything in the whole world. Other people may have no understanding of this. I know that I live only through you, my good precious Reinhard, and that I can only be happy in your presence."

Despite these passages and similar ones from von Humboldt's letters, as well as the facts of von Humboldt's life, some of his biographers have historically taken umbrage at the "absurd" suggestion that he was sexually involved with other men. They say that such language was common in 19th-century Europe -- that in the Romantic period, according to one, love and friendship were "synonyms of one and the same human relationship."

Other biographers dispute this and assert that von Humboldt was definitely homosexual. But the doubters' point may be just as interesting, from the perspective of HSU's new academic program.

Eric Rofes, an education professor who will be another of the program's lecturers, said that the committee that organized the new minor spent seven months discussing its title until it agreed upon "multicultural queer studies."

The reason for the word "multicultural" was twofold, according to Rofes. First, it identified that the program would be identified with issues of justice and equality, like other academic programs that bear that title. Second, the program would focus on the way that sexuality was and is thought about in other periods of history and places around the world.

A poster at last week's party helped define the scope of the other half of the minor's title. "Queer," it said, refers not only to bisexual or homosexual men and women -- it also includes straight people whose sexuality nevertheless falls outside social norms of behavior.

So, with that in mind, was von Humboldt gay? Probably. Was he queer? Most certainly.

Robert Durst's Humboldt past


[file photo of Robert Durst, front and profile]Lest anyone has forgotten, the 60-year-old New York millionaire found not guilty of murder last week by a Texas jury -- despite his admission that he dismembered his neighbor's corpse -- was once a Humboldt County resident.

As the Journal reported two years ago, Robert Durst lived in a two-story house across from Trinidad Head from the mid-'90s through 2001. He was often seen getting coffee in the morning, running or attending local events when he wasn't traveling.

In 2001 Durst sold the home, reportedly because he feared the sale of the city's harbor to the Trinidad Rancheria would increase traffic and crime. He was renting a house in Big Lagoon when he became a fugitive and the subject of a nationwide manhunt.

But even before then, Durst, a member of one of New York City's richest and most influential real estate families, was in the media spotlight. Why? Because he had been linked to two high-profile, unsolved crimes.

His first wife, Kathleen Durst, disappeared in 1982. In 1999 that case was reopened and he was sought for questioning. Police also wanted to interview him regarding the murder Christmas Eve 2000 of his longtime friend, Susan Berman, in Los Angeles. Berman was the daughter of a mobster who made her living writing about organized crime.

In October 2001 he was arrested in Galveston, Texas -- but not for killing Berman or his former spouse. Instead, he was charged with the murder of his 71-year-old neighbor, whose hacked up corpse had been found by fishermen in Galveston Bay. He was released on bail the following day and disappeared. Not long afterward, he was seen at a campground near the Humboldt-Trinity county line. A month later he was arrested for allegedly shoplifting in a small town in Pennsylvania, even though he had $500 in cash on him. He was returned to Texas to face trial and, well, you know the outcome.

Those distressed by the verdict can take some solace in the knowledge that Durst is still a suspect in the other murder cases.

Durst's former Trinidad neighbor, Diane Bueche, who died last year, told the Journal in 2001 she had considered Durst a close friend for many years but she feared for her safety while he was a fugitive.

"Who knows how much of what he said is true?" she said. "He was obviously a notorious liar. He told me he liked to shop with his daughter in the fancy stores in New York. He doesn't even have a daughter!"



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