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Oct. 9, 2003


Gallegos talks pot, meth and PL
DA opines, gets feedback from McKinleyville Chamber

Rogue landfill
County finds everything from cars to a dead cow
buried near the mouth of the Eel

SoHum's intrepid reporter
KMUD's Estelle Fennell is more than a journalist



GATECRASHING: The controversial barricade of Trinidad's Wagner Street Trail was torn down last week, after Humboldt Superior Court Judge John Feeney agreed to the state Department of Justice's request to have it removed. The trail was closed to the public in September, after the City of Trinidad reached a landmark settlement agreement with resident John Frame, who has been suing the city off and on for the last 10 years or so. In the agreement, the city agreed not only to close the public trail, which passes behind homes owned by Frame, but also to give him the city land through which the trail passes. The DOJ, which is representing the California State Coastal Conservancy, argued that the city had no right to sign away public access to the trail, as the CSCC owned a public access easement over the land. But the judge's order was only a temporary stay; the parties continue to battle it out in court.

TEEN CRIME SPREE: Eighteen-year-old Christina Cottrell led the Eureka PD on a high-speed chase through the city Sunday afternoon, after police discovered Cottrell and two companions sitting in a stolen automobile. Police called off pursuit after Cottrell reached 70 mph and ran 16 stop signs, but Cottrell soon lost control of the vehicle and crashed. She and one companion -- a 16-year-old female -- fled the scene. The other passenger, 22-year-old Jack Daniels, stayed in the car and pretended to be asleep. All were apprehended. ... Two Fortuna and two Rio Dell kids -- ranging in age from 13 to 15 -- were arrested and charged with perpetrating a series of Fortuna auto burglaries. The bust was the fruit of a month-long investigation by the Fortuna PD, which also recovered much of the booty.

AX ATTACK: A recently released inmate of the Humboldt County Jail went on a rampage in downtown Eureka Sunday morning, attacking Thomas Randolph, 51, an Oregon tourist with a knife and an ax. Idaho resident Cody Alan Dwire, 29, appeared to have chosen his victim at random. The EPD arrived on the scene after a Eureka Inn guest tried to stop Dwire by bashing him over the head with a chair; the police took both men to the hospital, where the victim underwent surgery and is recovering. Dwire will be charged with attempted murder.

MARIA SHRIVER , wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger, stopped in Eureka last week while on a "Remarkable Women" tour across the state. The invitation-only, female-only event was held at the tony Avalon Restaurant. Shriver assured the local gynecocracy that her husband was "smart." ... Local gubernatorial candidate Darin Price took to the airwaves at the 11th hour with a low-budget TV ad. In the ad, Price, a chemistry lecturer at HSU, committed political suicide by urging his supporters to vote no on the recall. However, he suggested that a vote for Price as replacement candidate would send a message to Sacramento that the North Coast is a force to reckon with.

THE SHERIFF'S OFFICE will lay off a legal assistant and freeze other vacant positions under a "reverse supplemental budget" approved by the Board of Supervisors Tuesday. The department, already reeling from California's financial crisis, was hit again a few weeks ago, when the state froze a program that provided aid to rural law enforcement offices. The death of the program meant that Sheriff Gary Philp had to prune back his budget by $500,000. Now comes late-breaking word that the District Attorney's office will have to go through a similar process. According to Assistant County Administrative Officer Karen Suiker, the DA will be losing 40 percent of an annual $130,000 grant from the state Office of Criminal Justice Planning earmarked for statutory rape cases. "We anticipate the DA will submit a reduction plan similar to the one the sheriff has presented," Suiker said.

STATE OF TWO MINDS: The state government bought 691 acres of Humboldt County old-growth redwoods for conservation and, at the same time, prepared to argue that California needs to cut more timber. Last Tuesday, the state's Wildlife Conservation Board agreed to support Gov. Gray Davis's proposal to acquire 691 acres of land in the Grizzly Creek area from Pacific Lumber for $18.2 million. The deal is a leftover option from the Headwaters Forest agreement. ... Meanwhile, a leaked copy of a California Department of Forestry report surfaced; reportedly, it argues that excessive regulation of forestry practices in the state is causing increased timber harvesting, and attendant environmental problems, in other countries such as Canada. The root of the problem is that California consumes more forest products than it produces. The report will be presented to the state Board of Forestry, which is currently attempting to devise a new strategy for management of the forests over the coming years.

POT FOUND IN PLAYROOM: A 24-year-old Fieldbrook woman was arrested Oct. 2 after sheriff's deputies armed with a search warrant found an indoor and outdoor pot-growing operation at her home -- including about five pounds of marijuana drying inside her daughter's playroom, the Sheriff's Office reported. The 5-year-old girl was placed in protective custody. Deputies seized 102 pounds of dried pot, 88 plants and a half-pound of manufactured hash from the home, located off Crockett Crossing Road. The mother, Rachel McFarland, was arrested on suspicion of child endangerment, cultivation and possession for sale of marijuana, and booked into Humboldt County Jail. Another suspect, Jevon Barnes, 26, was not at home at the time the search warrant was served, officials said.

CRASHES CLAIM TWO: A Redway man was killed on Highway 299 about 3 p.m. Sunday when he tried to pass two other vehicles over a double-yellow line, sideswiped a pickup truck in the opposite lane, then hit one of the vehicles he was trying to pass, a Subaru Forester. The second collision sent both cars careening down a steep embankment east of the North Fork Mad River Bridge. Lee Allen Huber, 45, of Redway, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected from his car and died at the scene, the California Highway Patrol and coroner's office reported. The driver of the Forester, Suzanne Patricia Scott, 44, of McKinleyville, was transported to Mad River Hospital. The driver of the pickup, Jill Deanna Winnop, 26, of Trinidad, was not injured. Also on Sunday, a Ford Aerostar van traveling northbound on Highway 101 near Confusion Hill veered into the southbound lane for unknown reasons and collided head-on with a dump truck, killing the van's driver, Marie Dow, 43, of Chico, and severely injuring two 11-year-old children in the van. Another van, driven by Gary Galyean, 41, of Blue Lake, struck the side of the Aerostar. A child in his car was treated for minor injuries.

HSU IS LISTENING: Humboldt State is holding a series of public forums on its two long-range plans, one for campus buildings and parking, the other for its future mission. Meetings on future campus facilities and capacity are scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 22, at 6 p.m. in HSU's Science B, room 135, and Thursday, Oct. 23, at 9 a.m. in the Green and Gold Room in Founder's Hall. For more information, see the Web site.

Gallegos talks pot, meth and PL
DA opines, gets feedback from McKinleyville Chamber


It wasn't an earthshaking meeting, just Humboldt County's DA out in the community keeping in touch with the people who elected him.

Or not.

The latter seemed most likely with this group, about 10 members of the McKinleyville Chamber of Commerce who spent an hour clustered around a table with Paul Gallegos at the Village Pantry restaurant on Central Avenue Monday afternoon. They were civil, even courteous, but the customary deference, even obsequiousness, normally accorded someone occupying Gallegos' powerful position was noticeably absent.

The elephant in the living room was the ongoing effort to force a recall election of Gallegos. Did the DA, as he talked with these folks and looked them in the eye, wonder how many of them want him ousted? Or has he compartmentalized things to such an extent that the issue never arose for him?

Regardless, he seemed his normal self: engaging, honest to a fault, combative when challenged. But still a little coltish, still a little unsure. Which would probably be the case even if there wasn't a recall movement afoot. Being elected DA is one thing; projecting the authority of the office takes time. Even Terry Farmer would admit that.

Marijuana was the first subject on the agenda; to be precise, the district attorney's new guidelines, which allow people who use pot for medical purposes to have up to three pounds. "Someone growing three pounds of pot is not a big problem compared to what we have in Humboldt County," Gallegos observed. "We have marijuana cultivation that's [on a scale of] thousands of pounds."

Gallegos said a long-term goal is greater uniformity in the medical pot guidelines that exist in California's counties. Right now, evidently, there's quite a bit of variation, although Gallegos said the guidelines in Humboldt, Del Norte and Sonoma are "identical."

Gallegos acknowledged that there has been resistance within the county to his guidelines. (He didn't specify from whom, but presumably he meant law enforcement.) "Some say their policy is still zero tolerance, but we are seeing some changes in some agencies, who say they are grateful for the clarity."

At this point, in what may have been the only time during the meeting when anyone directly praised the DA, one of the chamber members said they were "impressed" with the way Gallegos handled the medical marijuana issue.

The discussion turned next to meth. Artist Patricia Sennott wanted to know if Humboldt County was "making a dent" in tackling the drug problem. Gallegos didn't directly address the question, and instead talked about manpower limitations.

The testiest part of the meeting came when Ben Shepherd, who lost to Jill Geist in the 5th District supervisor's race last year, deftly used Gallegos' spiel about limited resources to challenge him about his fraud lawsuit against PL. "You said we have limited resources. Would putting one of our largest employers out of business help that?" Shepherd asked with an air of indignation.

Gallegos' initial response was, "I don't think we're going to put PL out of business." Then he added: "If as a result of their unlawful activities they are put in a position where they can't do business, that's a consequence they created themselves, not us."

A little later he asked, "Should I no longer prosecute marijuana cultivation because it may reduce jobs and money for this county?" To which Shepherd, clearly irritated, said, "I think you've carried that to an extreme far beyond my point."

The meeting soon broke up -- on a cordial note -- and everyone went his or her way. With, one suspects, their minds unchanged.

Rogue landfill
County finds everything from cars to a dead cow
buried near the mouth of the Eel


In June, a woman walking near Crab Park, a county recreation area at the place where the Eel River empties into the Pacific Ocean, stepped on something odd: a camper shell buried in the sand. She called the county, and the next month staffers came out to investigate.

They found a sprawling -- and illegal -- dump site, the extent of which is still being investigated. The owner of the land, dairyman Robert Lee Niles, is facing potential criminal charges for allegedly violating state and county environmental and public health laws.

So large is the rogue landfill that a task force that includes the county, the state Fish and Game Department and the California Coastal Commission has been formed to address the situation.

So far, in 10 shallow pits that evidently were bulldozed with a backhoe, investigators have found the following: two automobiles, a motor home, a toilet, a sink, a shower, a dead cow, automobile parts, two automobile batteries, metal debris, plastic buckets, household garbage.

"There are a lot of sharp edges and metal [just below the surface] and our main concern is that [someone's] skin could be punctured and slashed," said Brian Cox, director of Humboldt County's Division of Environmental Health.

Cox noted that while the dump is located on private property, it's easily accessible from the recreation area and is not fenced off.

Cox said it was possible that toxins from the dump site, located at the end of Cannibal Island Road, have drained into the Eel River. One battery has been found to be leaking, and he said it's not clear whether the automobiles and the various auto parts were drained of hazardous fluids before they were buried.

In addition to possible jail time, Niles could be in for some hefty financial penalties: as much as $25,000 per violation, and the cost of what looks to be a major cleanup job.

On another parcel Niles owns three miles from the dumping ground, trash has been burned in violation of air quality laws. According to Cox, what couldn't be burned was apparently buried at the other site, where several people are living in five trailers and a mobile home.

"This is really egregious," Cox said. "No one should be able to put public health and the environment at risk like this."

Niles was not reached for comment. Cox said investigators will soon forward a report of their findings to the county's code enforcement unit.

SoHum's intrepid reporter
KMUD's Estelle Fennell is more than a journalist


LAST FRIDAY, AS THE FIRES THAT RAVAGED Southern Humboldt over the last month were winding down, the walls of the newsroom at radio station KMUD in Redway were still covered with large maps. Drawn the day before by the California Department of Forestry, they detailed the progress of the blazes.

[photo of Estelle Fennell in her office]News Director Estelle Fennell [photo at right] , still a bit giddy after two weeks of 16-hour days covering the fires, bounced around the room, simultaneously explaining the maps to a visitor and trying to get someone to fix the station's fax machine.

Then the telephone rang, and Fennell dropped these projects to field the call. On the line, it turned out, was a local teenager wanting to know if schools would be open on Monday. Fennell said that she didn't know yet, but she invited the caller to tune in on Sunday, when the information would certainly be broadcast.

In just about any other newsroom, the odd request (why didn't the student call the school?) would likely have caused discontented grumbling, but Fennell seemed happy to be of service. And that, in brief, illustrates the difference between a normal news outlet and KMUD News, between off-the-shelf reporters and Fennell.

Even on a normal news day, Fennell spends a good deal of her time in direct, one-to-one communication with community members seeking basic information. But her extraordinary coverage of the Southern Humboldt fires over the last month demonstrated -- if anyone had doubted it -- that KMUD News is much more than a community bulletin board. Fennell was, quite literally, all over the story.

She went up in CDF helicopters four times, to see the fire's damage and extent for herself. She spent time out in the woods with the more than 2,000 firefighters battling the Canoe Fire, scoring interviews with the rank-and-file (including inmates from the Department of Corrections work camps). She called regular and special updates in via cell phone. Her reports were so timely and precise that the firefighters themselves came to depend on them.

"I used to think about being a war correspondent," she said last week. "This is about as close as I've gotten."

Difficult as it is to imagine, Fennell, who is in her early 50s, hasn't always been a reporter. Born and raised in Ireland -- she retains a touch of the country's lilting accent -- she moved to the United States in 1968 to study graphic art in Washington, D.C. She shuffled around the country for a decade or so, with stints in New York and Los Angeles, before settling in the Southern Humboldt area -- "my favorite place" -- in 1984. She took a job as an illustrator for Music for Little People, a local record label, and volunteered to do a music program for KMUD after the station began broadcasting in 1987.

When Earth First! activists Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney were injured by a bomb that went off in Bari's car in Oakland in 1990, Fennell went over to the KMUD news department and volunteered. She was disturbed and disappointed, she said, by the shoddy reportage of that event by mainstream media, and she wanted to see if she could do better. Later, she helped cover Operation Green Sweep, the anti-marijuana raids of the Mateel area by the military. Then, in 1992, she was hired as KMUD news director.

Peter Childs, a Salmon Creek resident and one of the founders of KMUD, said last week that Fennell embodies the kind of news department that the founders of the station had envisioned -- one that would reflect the unique character of the area.

"It's just a human, straight-ahead presentation of the important aspects of a situation," he said. "She's tremendously skillful, but she brings her own special magic to it as well."

Part of that magic lies in simply allowing people to tell their stories. Unlike the typical National Public Radio news program, an edition of KMUD News -- which airs at 6 p.m. on weekdays and is rebroadcast at 8 a.m. the following morning -- usually runs extended interviews with people in the news, letting people talk for five minutes or more straight. "Sound bites" are extremely rare.

Another aspect is Fennell's frequent role as a go-between for the sometimes-reclusive residents of the Southern Humboldt area and officialdom in all its forms. When the Canoe fire started to bear down on Salmon Creek, for example, the Sheriff's Office, including members of its Drug Enforcement Unit, were sent to the area. Soon, residents listening to their scanners began hearing chatter about marijuana gardens that deputies had sighted from the road. The residents -- who had been told that the sheriffs were there only to help with the fire -- became alarmed, and they called Fennell.

She, in turn, called the Sheriff's Office. "I said, `Don't you know that this sounds just like a bust?'" she recalled. Some might argue that Fennell should have confined herself to reporting on the residents' concerns rather than trying to act as an interlocutor. But the chatter soon stopped, and the Sheriff's Office reiterated that it was not interested in making arrests.

After witnessing this special relationship between Fennell and her listeners in action, CDF Capt. Janet Marshall, who headed up the agency's public outreach efforts during the fire, said she'd like to "clone [Fennell] and put her in every CDF unit up and down the state."

"I've been to a lot of places, and I've never seen media so responsive to the needs of the public," she said. As her unit was preparing to leave the area, Marshall asked Fennell to come to Sacramento and meet with students in a class for new public information officers that she teaches.

Fennell, in turn, praises the CDF fire crew's command structure for their commitment to media outreach. "What I saw with them was a really shining example of how to cooperate with the media," she said.

When one listener called in to say that one of the fires appeared to be spreading toward his home, Fennell called the CDF to ask about it. They didn't know, but they would check it out -- immediately. "It wasn't like, `Wait for the next update 12 hours from now,'" she said. "It was like, `We'll find out right now.'" Fennell said that she hoped that other public safety organizations would do more to follow this example.

But the last word on news coverage of the fires should go to the CDF, who took the unusual step of singling out a non-CDF employee for particular praise in their official wrap-up report on the fires.

"Local resident and reporter Estelle Fennell, news director of radio station KMUD 91.1 FM, has an established credibility with the citizens in the ruggedly individualistic communities of Southern Humboldt County," the report reads. "Her timely, accurate reporting of fire information helped to minimize the fear and anxiety residents were feeling during the fire siege. Her accessibility and intrepid dedication were remarkable, as was the accuracy of her reports."

Fennell's many listeners would surely agree with that assessment. But unlike CDF, it is doubtful they are surprised. They've had 11 years of Estelle Fennell. They know what she can do.



North Coast Journal Weekly

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