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December 14, 2006

 In the News

Flaming out


Just a few hours ago, one of our readers called up to chat. He didn't have a story tip, as he often does. He didn't have a question that he hoped we could help him with, as other readers do. He just wanted to say, wasn't that a strange weekend in Eureka?

There was the fire that burned down a building in Old Town Friday night -- that was strange. (See this week's "Talk of the Table" column for a rundown of what was lost.) But mostly, he said, it was just odd and off-putting to contemplate the scene of the two-day standoff between the Eureka Police Department and 50-year-old Weaverville fugitive Jonni Honda at the Super 8 Motel, located downtown between Fourth and Fifth streets. Police had cordoned off the block around the Super 8, waiting for an armed Honda to come out of his room and be taken into custody.

Outside, life went on as normal. Traffic flowed up and down Highway 101. One detail particularly struck our reader -- he watched as a mother and her child walked past the motel. This image seemed to puzzle him. He couldn't mentally bridge the gap. How could normal life exist while panic and high-powered lethal weaponry reined just 30 yards away?

Jonni Honda had been on the run from the law since August. He was wanted in Trinity County on several charges of lewd conduct with children under the age of 14. Before showing up in Eureka, he had apparently hid in the woods for several weeks. After 36 hours of patient negotiation, in which the EPD apparently tried everything they could to get Honda to surrender, the police fired tear gas into his hotel room. He came out armed, allegedly aimed his weapon at police officers and was shot dead, right at the same time as the fire raged in Old Town.

The outcome wasn't entirely surprising for some people who knew Honda. Earlier in the week, on Monday, we spoke with Honda's ex-wife. Mifty Honda is a nurse in Eugene. She was married to Honda for about two and a half years, she said. They were divorced in 1986. The couple had a son, who is now in the US Navy, stationed in San Diego. Despite their short marriage, she kept her ex-husband's name -- she said that she kept it because she wanted to have the same name as her son.

Honda said that her ex-husband was a tough man -- he had lived his whole life in Trinity County -- and that toughness manifested itself in many different ways, not all of them positive. He was stubborn and self-centered, she said, and often ended up hurting the people around him. On the other hand, in his career as an EMT and volunteer fireman he was often exceptionally heroic.

"What I want to say is that we're all flawed human beings," she said. "I don't think that anyone can judge him, and no one really can know the truth of the situation -- whether he did that or not."

On the other hand, she had no quibble at all with the way the police handled the situation. She said that she had followed the EPD standoff from afar since it first made the news, and it seemed to her that they had taken every precaution, giving her ex-husband every opportunity they reasonably could.

"He put himself there," she said. "He made those choices. He chose to run. He chose to hole up in a hotel. He chose to stay there for 32 hours, and he chose to come out with a gun in his hand. He chose to die. Police -- they have a tough job. And they have families to go home to. And they gave him every chance to come out. To his credit, he did not shoot any of the police. He worked closely with the police -- he wouldn't have done that.

"But that's all I can say to his credit. He left his family with that final, horrifying picture, and his children and mother will now live with that."

Mifty Honda said that she had necessarily continued to stay in contact with her ex-husband throughout the years, having had a child together. She was acquainted with his current wife, and with the daughter he had from a different marriage. Her thoughts were with them now. She said: "I pray for his children and that they will find peace in the understanding that their dad can stop running now -- from all the demons that pursued him way before the law gave chase."

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Tuesday morning inside the county elections office, moments before the hand recount of ballots in the recent election was to begin. County Elections Manager Lindsey McWilliams stood before a conference room packed with elections volunteers and representatives of the campaigns of Jeff Leonard and Ron Kuhnel, lecturing them on how the recount would proceed. Don Leonard, father of the incumbent Eureka City Councilmember and former chief of the Humboldt County Conventions & Visitors Bureau, resigned himself to the fact that he'd be spending a few days inside the dimly lit county building, standing in for his son while the recount proceeded. He wasn't too happy about it. He felt that it was extremely unlikely that his son's 28-vote lead would be reversed by hand-scrutinizing of the ballots.

As it happened, Ron Kuhnel felt the same way, but he had decided to go ahead and pay for a manual recount anyway. For one, it would put his supporters' suspicions to rest. For another, it would serve as an opportunity to test the county's electronic vote-counting apparatus, which some citizens view with suspicion. Unlike Leonard, Kuhnel, who is retired, was present.

After his lecture, McWilliams divided the counters into three groups, or "panels." Each would tackle a few different city precincts. There were four workers to a panel. One would look at the ballot and call the vote. Another would verify the call. Two others would keep a running tally. One volunteer from each campaign could attend each panel, and challenge votes they thought may have been called in error. High-ranking elections staff members would have the final call on each disputed ballot.

The panels got their first precincts ... and there were problems right away. In one case, the precinct package to be counted contained two fewer ballots than expected. In another, it contained seven ballots fewer. For about 10 minutes, McWilliams and his colleagues were extremely tense as they tried to figure out what had gone wrong. Finally -- hallelujah -- the errant ballots were located. They had been misfiled in a package containing provisional ballots from around the city.

Good news. Too good, in a way. In fact, workers had found not nine ballots but 10 -- one of them extra, that had somehow not been included in the accounting. But the feeling seemed to be that too many ballots was better than too few, and the count got underway.

Everything was resolved, apparently. Reached at his home during the lunch break, Kuhnel, said that things had been going swimmingly all morning. The workers had been flying through the ballots, and it wasn't entirely unreasonable to think that the recount might only take two days, not the three foreseen. Campaign volunteers from one side or another had challenged a small handful of ballots, he believed, but none of the decisions in the votes in the panel he had been attending had been disputed.

The big news, if there was any, was that two new ballots had been found -- that one from the morning and another that voting machines had apparently failed to count on election day because of physical damage. Two new votes. According to Kuhnel, both of them went to Leonard.



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