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The year began with a tragedy that fueled Humboldt County's ongoing debate about crime, drug abuse, mental health care and homelessness. (This week's cover image was drawn by Joel Mielke as a response to Father Eric Freed's New Year's Day killing.) A local music promoter began a long recovery from a devastating injury, an incident that prompted a fight promoter to adopt some safety measures. A Eureka councilman died, leaving behind a pointed message about fractured relations in city hall. The North Coast's only FDA-approved slaughterhouse received a series of rebukes from inspectors, causing concern among Humboldt's many small farmers. Two prominent members of the environmental world were sentenced for crimes; one, a birder, for embezzling hundreds of thousands federal dollars; and another, a Harbor District board member, for poaching.

The Journal selected this year's top news stories based on their immediate and lasting impacts — some positive, some negative. New Year's Day is a time for reflection and enterprise, so we hope this inspires you, reader, to make 2015 wonderful.

Father Killed

Early in the morning of New Year's Day, St. Bernard's Pastor Eric Freed, loved by the community and widely regarded as thoughtful, intellectual, worldly and kind, was killed in his home in the church rectory.

Freed had studied in Italy and Japan, translated a volume of Japanese haiku, taught religious courses at Humboldt State University and served the church in the Bay Area and locally, beginning at St. Bernard's in 2011.

Eureka was in shock. H Street was closed as mourners and reporters gathered in front of the church awaiting news of the investigation. Eureka's new chief of police said that someone had broken into the rectory, assaulted and killed Freed, then stolen his car and belongings.

The next day, police arrested Gary Lee Bullock. The Redway man had been arrested in Southern Humboldt on Dec. 31, transported to the Humboldt County jail and released after midnight when staff determined he was sober enough to care for himself. Police say he wandered to the church, where he was asked to leave at least once by security and another time by Eureka police. Bullock is accused of killing Freed and is awaiting trial on additional charges and special allegations of torture.

— Grant Scott-Goforth

Aftermath of a Crime

Father Freed's gruesome killing sparked more than mourning. The community's fears grew into outrage as people asked why Gary Lee Bullock, Freed's accused killer, was allowed to leave the Humboldt County jail and wander the streets of downtown Eureka in the early morning hours. It led the Journal to seek more information about Bullock — and others accused of heinous crimes on the North Coast — and resulted in a courthouse policy change.

Freed's killing and the still-unsolved slaying of a released inmate months prior highlighted the problems associated with letting people out of jail during hours when there's little in the way of transportation, shelter or services.

Sheriff Mike Downey, whose office is in charge of the jail, defended the release policy to the Journal, saying it would be unconstitutional for the jail to hold people arrested for being publicly intoxicated past sobriety (despite policies in other California counties that prevent pre-dawn release). Eventually the sheriff, joined by other county public safety leaders, held a town hall meeting, where the public overwhelmingly (and angrily, at times) condemned the jail's practice.

In March, the jail tweaked its policy — people could now stay in jail 'til dawn, if they so pleased. By the time a grand jury report condemning the policy was released in August, 717 people had been released between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and Downey reiterated that the jail would not cease its release practice. The grand jury also noted that the jail may be out of compliance with state law that requires transportation for released inmates who were arrested far from the jail. The sheriff's office is coordinating with the Humboldt Transit Authority to provide bus vouchers or other options.

Meanwhile, the Journal pressed the courts for the alleged killer's pre-sentencing probation reports, documents prepared by probation investigators during previous criminal proceedings that showed his family, criminal and mental health histories as well as guidance for his incarceration and rehabilitation.

Initially refusing, the court eventually released Bullock's report, which showed a history of erratic behavior and drug use.

When the court changed its policy to accommodate the Journal's request, it opened the door for past pre-sentencing reports on several people accused of recent high profile crimes: Bodhi Tree, William "Wild Bill" Nelson and Vincent Sanchez. Since then, Tree and Nelson have been convicted, and Sanchez reached a plea deal with the DA's office, while Bullock's trial is expected to begin soon. These probation reports — called the "single most important document in the criminal justice system" by one expert — offer a glimpse into defendants' histories and their paths through the criminal justice system.

— Grant Scott-Goforth

A Bloody Record

When history looks back on 2014, one grisly statistic will likely stand out: 16. That's the number of people who — as this issue went to press — had died violently last year at the hands of another within Humboldt's borders. That's 16 lives cut short, with impacts ripping across families and communities. It's also the most homicides in Humboldt County since at least 1985, when the Humboldt County Coroner's Office began compiling that grim statistic. In fact, since 1986, the county has seen double-digit homicide totals just 11 times, with the previous high being 15 back in 1988.

There were 11 homicides documented in the county in 2013, a jump from the five recorded in each of 2011 and 2012. So what's the reason for the jump? It's hard to pinpoint, but Humboldt County Coroner Dave Parris pointed out that, looking over the county's historic data, the total seems to spike and fall every couple of years. "Why? I don't know," he said, adding that there are a host of potential reasons. But Parris said, if you look through case files, some trends will emerge: Domestic violence, the marijuana industry and lifestyles and behaviors saturated in risk.

Another startling trend jumps out: Of the 16 people killed in Humboldt in 2014, six were under 25 years, including a 14-year-old stabbed to death in Eureka and a 17-year-old shot by a California Highway Patrol officer near Willow Creek.

The Dec. 18 shooting in Willow Creek — which came after the teenager allegedly attacked the officer with a machete — was the second officer-involved fatality in Humboldt this year. On Sept. 17 a Eureka police officer shot and killed 22-year-old Thomas "Tommy" McClain in the front yard of his Allard Avenue home. McClain, who reportedly had a hearing disability and had been out celebrating a relative's birthday, had a real-looking BB gun in his waistband, according to police. McClain was shot after reaching for the weapon, which turned out to be unloaded, police said. Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills said he felt the shooting was justified and, following a multi-agency investigation into the shooting, the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office announced that the evidence did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any of the officers involved had committed a crime.

After the county set it's previous high homicide mark in 1988, it recorded just four killings the following year. Here's hoping, Humboldt.

— Thadeus Greenson

Renewing the World

In March, a critical, long-broken piece of the Wiyot world was restored. After a 154-year pause — a terrible pause in which Wiyot people and Wiyot land suffered near-extinction and severe abuse — the tribe resumed holding its World Renewal ceremony, at Tuluwat, site of a former village and ceremonial grounds on Indian Island. The last time the tribe had held its World Renewal ceremony, which had been an annual event, was in 1860 — in the midst of which white settlers crept silently upon celebrants and murdered most of them in their sleep. Other Wiyot in other villages also were killed. The tribe survived and eventually began rebuilding some of its shattered traditions that had been lost along with so many of its people — in many cases having to reimagine songs and dances with help from other local tribes with similar traditions. It also began regaining, and cleaning up, some of its land, most of which had been converted to industrial uses. In February, the tribe held its final vigil on Woodley Island, a ceremony that was started in 1992 to mourn and remember the people killed in 1860. And then, a month later, the tribe once again danced and sang at Tuluwat, renewing the world.

— Heidi Walters

Pulp Purge

The Samoa Pulp Mill gasped its last breath in 2010 and sat untouched for four years while millions of gallons of caustic pulping liquors, the chemicals used to process wood into pulp, sat in increasingly feeble tanks, threatening the bay's health and the people and industries that rely on it.

When the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District took ownership of the mill site in 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took an interest and quickly realized the gravity of the situation. By the time spring rains were falling, many of the liquor tanks were nearly overflowing. A multiagency effort sent 200 truckloads of liquors north, beginning in March, to a facility where the chemicals were to be refined and used by a Washington pulp mill. The shipments ended in September.

Cleanup isn't done — there are gobs of solid waste to get rid of, and the harbor district is in negotiations to sell the massive boiler to a company in the Philippines. The Harbor District is luring businesses with offices, warehouses and a revamped dock, and expects a full revitalization of the mill site in coming years.

— Grant Scott-Goforth

Spring Sorrow

Tragedy struck Humboldt State University in April when, for reasons still unknown, a FedEx truck crossed over the center divide of Interstate 5 north of Sacramento and barreled into a charter bus.

While the crash occurred hundreds of miles away from HSU's Arcata campus, the impacts were immediate and deep. The charter bus was one of two carrying Southern California high school students to HSU's Spring Preview event. Many of the students on board were the first members of their families to be attending a university, and many had already agreed to attend Humboldt.

A total of 10 people died in the fiery crash: both drivers, five prospective students and three adult chaperones, including HSU alumni Michael Myvett and Mattison Haywood, as well as school staffer Arthur Arzola, who'd personally recruited many of the students on board.

With the nation watching, HSU administrators and staffers pushed aside their grief and led the disaster response, working to figure out exactly who was on the bus, as well as the condition and whereabouts of each of the 50 or so students who were scattered throughout six Sacramento area hospitals. The school set up a call center that kept families informed and connected.

Months later, retiring HSU President Rollin Richmond would tear up when talking about the crash. "This is the worst tragedy I've experienced in my career in higher education of 44 years," he said.

— Thadeus Greenson

Year of the Woman

Big chunks of Humboldt County's glass ceiling came crashing down in 2014.

First, the California State University Board of Trustees announced in March that it was tapping geologist Lisa Rossbacher to become Humboldt State University's president, making her the first woman to fill the role in the school's 100-year history. Not to be outdone by those progressive trustees, the Humboldt County electorate in June took a historic step by electing its first female District Attorney, Maggie Fleming, who will take office this week. With the widespread support of local law enforcement unions and officials, as well as large swaths of the Humboldt Bar Association, Fleming cruised to victory, taking more than 60 percent of the vote despite facing three challengers.

Finally, in November, Eurekans scrawled their own note in the gender equality section of local history books, electing challengers Natalie Arroyo and Kim Bergel to the city council. Not only did the election shift the balance of power on the council, it also left the city under the governance of five women for the first time in its more than 150-year history. (In Eureka, the mayor is not technically a member of the city council.)

Whether history will look back on 2014 as a big step in furthering gender equality in Humboldt remains to be seen. But what is clear is that these women in positions of power have some outsized expectations and hopes to live up to, as HSU continues to be an institution in transition, the district attorney's office founders, understaffed and underfunded, and Eureka faces a whole host of entrenched challenges.

— Thadeus Greenson

Health Potpourri

Confusion, chaos, hope, relief — it was a momentous and complex year for health care here in Humboldt. The refrain "our doctors are leaving" persisted. And yet more people went looking for health care following the launch in late 2013 of Obamacare, which requires everyone to get insurance. No longer could patients with pre-existing conditions be refused insurance, and some folks started dealing with long-deferred problems. And, with eligibility for Medicaid (Medi-Cal) expanded, the number of Humboldt Medi-Cal cases surged. Others, however, discovered that their Covered California insurance wasn't accepted by many local docs because the two main insurers, Blue Shield and Anthem Blue Cross, offered providers pitifully small reimbursements compared with traditional insurance.

So the strain on a reduced medical provider workforce increased, and not everyone was getting access. But local providers strove for new ways to improve patient care. A group of local cancer docs swung into action with a group of their counterparts at Stanford as part of a new collaboration to bring the best cancer care to Humboldt. In another collaboration, local medical, social and other care providers worked together to better coordinate, and focus, the care of folks who use the emergency room excessively, thereby helping the patients and reducing emergency room costs. And, in another initiative, local palliative care doc Michael Fratkin launched a successful crowdfunding effort to finance the building of Resolution Care, a new palliative care center he hopes will improve, expand and personalize care for the dying here on the North Coast.

— Heidi Walters

A High-Stakes Ballot

A passel of taxes, a big wage raise in Eureka and a ban on the growing of genetically modified organisms in the county — local voters faced a particularly feisty ballot this year. With the word "broke" thumping a scary backbeat, Eureka, Blue Lake, Rio Dell and Humboldt County voters sang "yay" to new (or renewed) taxes, while Fortuna hollered "heck, no." Meanwhile, in Eureka, voters rejected the Fair Wage Act, which proposed raising the minimum wage from $9 an hour to $12 an hour and would have affected some of the city's largest employers. Meanwhile, similar wage-hiking initiatives throughout the country passed easily, making Eureka the outlier. The defeat left proponents, the Fair Wage Folks, fired up: possibly to seek some wage-raise action from the new city council, and maybe to vie for a countywide minimum wage increase. The proposed countywide ban on GMOs, meanwhile, passed. Now the ag commissioner has the unenviable job of devising a plan to deal with future complaints about suspected GMO corn farms (cuz that's what we're likely talking about). As for you folks growing GMOs at the time the ban passed ... you've got a year to rip 'em out.

— Heidi Walters

Dry Pot

Ah, Humboldt, land of torrential downpours and gushing rivers. Right? Well, in 2014, not so much. The 2013-2014 water year (which runs July 1 through June 30) was one of the driest ever recorded in Humboldt, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Woodley Island station recording just 21.11 inches of rainfall, or 52 percent of the 30-year average. That makes it the third-driest on record.

Folks eyeing Humboldt's watersheds found more to be concerned about: an explosion of unpermitted water diversions from Humboldt's creeks, streams and rivers to irrigate large-scale marijuana grows. Those grow operations became larger and more pervasive in 2014, with officials estimating more than 5,000 large-scale outdoor operations dotted the county.

The combination of the drought and the water-sucking green rush left folks devoted to the restoration of salmon habitats on the North Coast to watch helplessly as streams went dry and water levels dipped perilously low. But, due to Coho salmon's three-year lifecycle, the true impacts of the summer of 2014 won't be felt for some time, making it difficult to figure how much damage has been done. "That's the thing that keeps me up at night," said California Department of Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist Scott Bauer. "At what point do we reach that critical mass? At what point do we reach the point of no return?"

The evolving storyline is almost sure to reappear in these pages next year, as the Hoopa Valley Tribe is already warning its members to store water and prepare for unprecedented conditions next year, noting that Trinity Lake is only at 28 percent of capacity. This time last year, it was at 53 percent. Meanwhile, a political action committee, California Cannabis Voice Humboldt, is working on an initiative ordinance it hopes will regulate large-scale marijuana grows and nudge them toward compliance with water diversion laws, but which environmnetal groups fear will open the flood gates to even more thirsty grow operations.

— Thadeus Greenson

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About The Authors

Grant Scott-Goforth

Grant Scott-Goforth

Grant Scott-Goforth was an assistant editor and staff writer for The Journal from 2013 to 2017.

Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

Heidi Walters

Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

More by Heidi Walters

More by Grant Scott-Goforth

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