May 5, 2005
BANKRUPTCY RUMORS: The San Jose
company that wanted to build a liquefied natural gas terminal
on Humboldt Bay until dissuaded by public sentiment last year
saw its stock drop 36 percent in April amid speculation that
it was headed toward bankruptcy, according to the San Francisco
Chronicle and other news sources. Calpine Corp. posted a
news release on its Web site to try to dispel the rumors. "While
it is not Calpine's policy to respond to market rumors, we feel
compelled to comment today to assure the marketplace that these
rumors are false," the April 22 statement read. "Calpine
remains in compliance with its corporate and project indentures.
Further, the company assures the market that it has no plans
to file for bankruptcy."
by HANK SIMS
After seven and a half years and two mistrials, a federal jury in San Francisco ruled last Thursday that local law enforcement agencies used excessive force when they swabbed pepper spray directly into the eyes of eight nonviolent forest protestors on three separate occasions in the fall of 1997.
The ruling, which awarded each of the eight activists a symbolic $1 in damages, was the first judgment in the long-running, costly lawsuit brought by the activists against Humboldt County, the city of Eureka and current and former law enforcement officials.
"We feel very vindicated," said Spring Lundberg of Garberville, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. "The main concern has always been to protect civil liberties, and that's what this decision does."
But as the case now moves to the question of whether or not Eureka and Humboldt County should have to pay the activists' legal costs, which are still unknown but likely to be substantial, residents on both sides of the issue are sorting out what the decision means.
On Monday, the lead defense attorney in the case -- Nancy Delaney of the Eureka firm Mitchell, Brisso, Delaney & Vrieze -- challenged Lundberg's characterization of the decision as a victory for the activists.
"In effect, the plaintiffs, despite their puffing and headlines and whatever, did not receive a definitive verdict," she said.
Delaney said that during the course of the two-week trial, the plaintiffs claimed that the pepper spray incidents had left them emotionally scarred in various ways. In their closing arguments, the plaintiffs' attorneys -- the same legal team that represented Earth First! Activists Darryl Cherney and Judi Bari in their successful suit against the FBI in 2002 -- asked the jury to award damages of up to $100,000 per person in compensation for their alleged injuries.
The fact that the jury was only willing to award nominal damages was an indication that they essentially sided with law enforcement, Delaney said. "Essentially, the jury, by its verdict, showed that it did not believe them."
Delaney said that she spoke by phone with the jury's foreman, who said that he believed he was doing the defendants a favor by putting an end to the legal battle, which resulted in hung juries on two previous occasions, in 1998 and 2004. Delaney said that it was her understanding that the jury was originally split 5-3 in favor of law enforcement when deliberations began early last week.
Juror Conni Chandler of Hayward, an administrative assistant for consulting firm Deloitte & Touche, partially agreed with Delaney's characterization of the jury's deliberation. She said that, though there was a 5-3 majority for the defense when deliberations began, supporters of the plaintiffs -- of which she said she was one -- were able to persuade members of the other side to switch positions.
"Actually, two of the people started to come over to our side even before the compromise was met," she said. "They kept watching the tape and they changed their minds. One of them actually wanted to award -- she thought along the same lines as I did, she thought they deserved money."
Chandler said that about an hour before the decision, the jurors reached a consensus that the police officers did, in fact, use excessive force about an hour. When discussions turned to monetary damages, though, Chandler said that she and the other supporters of the plaintiffs relented.
"They said, `We feel like [the plaintiffs] do not deserve any money, because they were trespassing and they broke the law,'" she said. "That was their whole argument. I think we had to compromise."
For her part, Lundberg dismissed Delaney's interpretation of the verdict as a partial victory for the defendants in the case. She charged that Delaney had a financial interest in putting the best face on the results.
"Her firm is getting a lot of taxpayer money for fighting this case, so of course she would have a different spin," Lundberg said.
According to officials in Humboldt County's General Services Department, the county has spent upwards of $392,000 to date in legal expenses fighting the charges, with more bills for the most recent trial still expected. A portion of that money has been reimbursed by the county's insurance agency, though by press time the exact amount could not be determined.
The county and the city of Eureka split the legal bills in the case 50-50, so it is likely that the cost of the defense will total over $800,000, even if the court does not award attorney fees to the plaintiffs. Eureka City Attorney Dave Tranberg said Monday that its own insurance fund has covered all expenses in the case, apart from a $25,000 deductible that was paid by the city.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs have one month to file a motion with the court asking to be awarded legal expenses. The question will be decided by federal Judge Susan Illston, who oversaw the jury trial this month.
The lawsuit stems from three separate incidents in September and October 1997, when protestors at the headquarters of the Pacific Lumber Co., at the gates to a logging site in Bear Creek and at the Eureka offices of then-U.S. Rep. Frank Riggs had pepper spray rubbed directly into their eyes with cotton swabs by law enforcement officers. The officers were attempting to get the protestors to release themselves from "lock boxes," into which they had secured their arms so as not to be dragged away from the site of the protest. Throughout the trial, law enforcement and defense attorneys maintained that pepper spray was a safer alternative to physically cutting the "lock boxes" apart with power tools.
The incidents became the subject of national attention after several network news outlets broadcast videotapes taken of sheriff's deputies holding back protestors' heads and swabbing their eyes, as the protesters screamed in pain.
In addition to Lundberg, two other plaintiffs -- Maya Portugal and Eric Neuwirth -- still live in Humboldt County.
SEE ALSO: May 5, 2005: FROM THE PUBLISHER
by HELEN SANDERSON
Humboldt County has the highest rate of drug-induced deaths in California, according to a report released last month by the state Department of Health Services. And it does not appear that the North Coast's drug problems will get much better any time soon.
"The stereotype is that ghettos and barrios and metropolitan areas have the problems and not rural communities like here, but the overdose rate is led by us," said Gordon Costello, executive director of North Coast Substance Abuse Council, a Eureka treatment center for drug addicts.
According to the County Health Status Profiles 2005, which posted data from 2001-03, Humboldt ranks second out of 58 counties in drug overdoses, trailing slightly behind Del Norte County.
Humboldt has a drug-induced death rate of 29.6 per 100,000 people, according to the report. Del Norte's rate is 30.5.
But our northern neighbor's statistics have a high rate of uncertainty and therefore are considered "unreliable" by the state, which in effect bumps Humboldt County to the top spot.
And over the past few years Humboldt has reigned at or near the top spot, officials say. In fact, Humboldt's rate is significantly higher than the state average of 9.4 drug-induced deaths per 100,000 people. The goal of the state is to reduce that to1 death per 100,000 due to drugs.
Humboldt County has a long way to go.
One of the victims of drugs last year was a 26-year-old man who died of an overdose while on a waiting list for residential drug treatment.
Costello has seen his inpatient residential services shrink due to state budget cuts. In 2001 the facility had 14 beds; this year they only have eight, he said. To make matters worse, the numbers of addicts requesting services has climbed steadily. As of last Friday, the facility had a waiting list of 46 people, many of whom will have to wait months for treatment.
There are only three other residential treatment facilities that offer 24-hour care -- Humboldt Recovery Center, Alcohol and Drug Care Services and Singing Trees in southern Humboldt. All of these care centers are operated on a social model of care, which means that medication is not given to the addict to quell their detox process.
The county's only inpatient detox facility that administered medication to addicts was at St. Joseph's Hospital, and it closed a few years ago.
"The insurance structure doesn't support that program anymore," said Humboldt County Public Health Officer Ann Lindsay.
Currently, the best chance that the county has for establishing an inpatient, medical model facility is through legislation that state Sen. Wes Chesbro (D-Arcata) has been pushing for the past three years, which would require health insurance companies to cover alcohol and drug dependencies like other chronic diseases, Lindsay said.
Other ways addicts sometimes find help is at clean and sober houses. But since they cannot be supervised all day, some people relapse easily.
Shawn Anderson was one of these people. Humboldt County Coroner Frank Jager said Anderson, 44, was staying at a clean and sober house in Eureka last year when he was found in a bathroom by roommates, dead from a heroin overdose. A burnt spoon was lying beside his body.
Anderson, who was on parole for drug-related crimes, lived at the residence for three weeks and had tested clean every day, Jager said. His parents came to Eureka from Washington state the night before to visit. They were planning to take him out to dinner the day he overdosed.
According to county public health statistics, there were 50 overdose deaths here in 2003, and 35 deaths in 2004. So far in 2005 there have been 14 deaths.
Last year's death rate could have been much higher.
Jager said that in the last six months of 2004, 17 people who overdosed on opiates were saved by a new drug called Narcan.
Narcan is provided to families and caretakers of hard-core addicts of opiates like heroin through the Mobile Medical Office, a traveling van providing care for poor people, in the event that they overdose.
Jager, Costello and Lindsay, along with mental health and law enforcement officials, are members of the Alcohol and Other Drugs Death Review Committee, which meets every two to three months.
The addictions faced by Anderson and two other middle-aged men who died under similar circumstances in 2004 were discussed at a meeting last month in an effort to evaluate the ways that the system did not work for these addicts.
One approach under consideration is to provide counseling to drug addicted inmates before they are released from jail.
"There should be more intense counseling for when they go back out so they understand how dangerous it can be to use the same amount of
drugs as they did before, or of using drugs period," Jager said.
Jager keeps a database on all of the drug overdose deaths in the county, and in the past few years, he said, there has been a dramatic increase in the abuse of prescription drugs.
According to the county's AOD Death Review for 2004, almost one-third of drug overdose deaths were caused by prescription drugs.
"Also what we're seeing now, which I didn't see 15 years ago when I was a police officer, is a lot more prescription drugs that are being sold on the streets," Jager said. "I don't know what the reason is. The only thing I see is that there are a lot of people in pain and they're dealing with it through self-medication."
Also on the rise is the rate of drug-induced suicides. Most years, Jager said, there would only be one or two suicide deaths from drugs. Last year eight people intentionally killed themselves by overdosing -- all of them used prescription drugs, including OxyContin (a pain medication), Zyprexa (an antipsychotic), and Vicodin (a pain medication), or a mixture of many drugs, something called polypharmacy intoxication.
Jager said that about half of the people who overdose from drugs are destitute, the other half are "just like you and me."
"There is this stigma surrounding drug deaths because they reflects badly on families and communities, so people assume it is only happening to street addicts on heroin," he said. "But polydrug abuse is the most common, and it happens to all kinds of people."
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