Friday, 19 July 2024

News

Editor's note: The following letter is presented in its entirety. Text that is underlined, bold and in capitals represents Hopkins' formatting.


When I recently took over the prosecution of the case involving the collision between a sailboat and a motorboat in 2006 on Clear Lake, I was asking the question: Why do so many people support drunken sailors on the lake at night with their running lights off? It was very disturbing to find out the answer to that question, because it appears people are believing the information out there in the media that is wrong, false and misleading. That is disturbing enough on its own, but even more disturbing is that people have made up their minds based on that information and are not waiting to hear what evidence is presented in court.


The key thing for people to remember in this case is that the evidence in a criminal case is not what others repeat and what the media puts out or what the “Spin Doctor's” have to say; it is what is testified to in court in front of the jury. Once both sides of the case have had a chance to question the witnesses, the facts often change. It is important to keep an open mind and wait to see what the evidence turns out to be.


I have been reviewing the evidence, the photos, the transcripts, the reports, and talking to witnesses. I have been reading the law and the rules regarding water vessels, and reviewing the laws with respect to boating under the influence. I have been going out to the lake and seeing where witnesses were and asking about what they say they saw. I have also spent time carefully looking over the two boats involved.


There are some major areas of the case where the evidence that I have reviewed needs to be stated, so that the community understands the issues in this case. I have waited until the jury panels have all come to court and have been instructed by the court to avoid media about the case, so that this information will not affect them. It is important to remember that all of this is still needs to be heard in court.


WERE THE SAILBOAT RUNNING LIGHTS ON OR OFF?


The defense keeps posting a chart designed to show that more people saw the lights on than off, so I did my own chart and found that TWELVE PEOPLE saw NO RUNNING LIGHTS on the sailboat at the time of the collision. This number includes three people on the sailboat, including the defendant Mr. Dinius. It also includes three people in the motorboat and six people on the shore or in the water who saw the collision occur.


There was ONLY ONE PERSON, Mark Weber, THE SAILBOAT’S OWNER, who claims that the RUNNING LIGHTS WERE ON. There was also ONE PERSON ON SHORE who said he saw THE MOTOR BOAT LIGHTS AND ANOTHER LIGHT CONVERGE, BUT COULD NOT SAY IT WAS ON THE SAILBOAT.


The other people the defense counts as having seen running lights on the sailboat were ON SHORE at least 40 MINUTES BEFORE THE COLLISION. None of these witnesses saw the collision. Then the defense counts the people who saw CABIN LIGHT, which DOES NOT SATISFY THE LEGAL REQUIREMENT FOR RUNNING LIGHTS.


Everyone who saw the collision saw the running lights of the motorboat clearly.


WHEN WERE ALCOHOL TESTINGS DONE?


Three parties were tested for alcohol BY TAKING A BLOOD SAMPLE AT THE HOSPITAL. Nobody was given a Preliminary Alcohol Screening breath test at the scene or anywhere else. The most reliable test for alcohol in the blood is the blood test itself. Mark Weber, the sailboat owner, and Bismarck Dinius, the defendant, were taken to Sutter Lakeside Hospital north of Lakeport. Russell Perdock, the motorboat operator, was taken to Adventist Health Redbud Hospital in Clearlake. The collision occurred shortly after 9 p.m. It takes 25 minutes to get to Sutter and 20 minutes to get to Redbud from Konocti. MARK WEBER was tested at 11:15 P.M., RUSSELL PERDOCK was tested at 11:30 P.M. and BISMARCK DINIUS was tested at 12:05 A.M. Weber and Perdock were tested on April 29, 2006, and Dinius was tested on April 30, 2006. Rumors that Perdock was not tested for over 24 hours are not true. WEBER TESTED .18%, DINIUS TESTED .12% and PERDOCK TESTED .00%. The legal limit is .08%.


The Sergeant who transported Perdock to the hospital put the wrong date on the blood sample taken by the Nurse. The defense has tried to make it sound like the date on the sample was correct and Perdock was delayed in giving a blood sample. The Sergeant in charge of the investigation at the scene will testify that he assigned the other Sergeant to take Perdock to the hospital the night of the collision. The Sergeant who witnessed Perdock’s blood draw took the sample to the Sheriff’s substation in the early morning hours of April 30, 2006. The Detective in charge of evidence will testify that the sample taken to the DOJ lab and tested is the one he picked up early afternoon on April 30, 2006. The hospital medical records confirm that Perdock was treated the night of the collision and remained there at the hospital for treatment for some time. Witnesses observed Perdock still at the hospital, not being transported home by the Sergeant; and Perdock’s ex-wife will testify that she drove him home, not the Sergeant. The defense claim that Perdock did not give blood until 11:30 p.m., the night of April 30, 2006 is physically impossible.


HOW FAST WAS THE MOTORBOAT GOING?


All we have are estimates, guesses and speculation. We cannot prove the speed of the motorboat.


WHAT WAS THE SAILBOAT DOING?


There are rumors that the sailboat was anchored or just sitting in the water. Those are not true. EVERYONE ON THE SAILBOAT SAYS IT WAS UNDER SAIL AND MOVING.


THE CHARGES?


Part of my review was designed to determine what charges I think should be pursued against Bismarck Dinius. Included in my review were the transcripts of the depositions, Insurance Company investigations and the settlement reached in the civil suit. I am satisfied that the civil suit settlement resolved the issue of liability among the parties for the death of Lynn Thornton. The question is whether there is a need to pursue criminal negligence charges in addition to and over and above the civil suit settlement. I have determined that the Manslaughter charge against Mr. Dinius should be dismissed and will make a motion to do that at the next court appearance Tuesday, July 21.


Mr. Dinius is still charged with Boating Under the Influence causing bodily injury or death with a prior conviction of DUI. An issue in that charge is whether his failure to make sure the running lights required by law were displayed while operating the sailboat was a substantial factor in the cause of the death of his passenger. It doesn’t matter that there could be other causes of death unless they were not foreseeable. The Judge who heard the evidence at the Preliminary Hearing has already ruled that the speed the motorboat was traveling was reasonably foreseeable on Clear Lake at night, and the chance of a collision with a sailboat not displaying the running lights required by law would also be reasonably foreseeable. The defense has asked the new Judge to review that ruling twice and the ruling still stands.


We have a serious problem in Lake County with boaters of all types operating while under the influence. We need to avoid the tragedies of serious injury and death that have occurred on Clear Lake. Hopefully, this tragedy will cause boaters to think of the consequences and dangers of boating under the influence and choose to not operate any watercraft while drinking or taking drugs or prescription medicine that affects their ability to handle the watercraft as well as a sober person.


CONFLICT OF INTEREST?


I requested a review of this case by the Attorney General’s office before it was filed. They determined there was no conflict for the District Attorney. They have had two other opportunities to take over the prosecution of this case when the defense filed motions and have not. In the Attorney General’s motion filed with the court, they make it very clear that the law says that a District Attorney can investigate and prosecute a case involving local law enforcement officers.


There are some who think that a law enforcement agency cannot be trusted to pursue the truth in a case involving a fellow officer and are very quick to be critical of anything done in that case. I can speak from personal experience from having reviewed those types of cases, and having looked at the facts involved, and I have found the investigations and perspective of the investigating officers to be very professional. The key is to look at what was done in a particular case and come to conclusions when all the facts are known. Unfortunately, in this case too many conclusions have not been based on the facts, but on rumors and misinformation in the media.


I take my responsibilities as District Attorney seriously. In my 37 years in the criminal justice system as a Public Defender and a Prosecutor, I have formed a healthy respect for our Constitution and a strong belief in a system of justice that does not presume people to be guilty. I work tirelessly to find the truth. It doesn’t matter to me who people are; it matters what we can prove they did. I have authorized the prosecution of four Lake County law enforcement officers charging criminal conduct, and still people think they can just claim that we don’t file against cops. But we cannot convict a person, just because they are an officer, if the facts do not support guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to a unanimous jury of 12. Attempting to convict a motorboat operator of manslaughter, when we cannot prove the speed of his boat and he collides with a sailboat operated by drunken sailors at night without their running lights is not going to succeed. It will not convince a jury to vote for guilt just because the motorboat operator is a law enforcement officer, and that seems to be the suggestion of a lot of people.


I believe that a prosecutor never has to fear the truth. My goal in this case is to get to the truth. As you can see, I have already discovered that the truth is different from what people have been led to believe. When this trial has concluded, the District Attorney’s office will have checked every aspect of the case and its investigation to assure that the evidence presented has met our standards of truthfulness and professionalism. If we reach a different conclusion than another law enforcement agency, then that is what we go with. The final product will be a result of what we independently determine.


Jon E. Hopkins is Lake County's district attorney.

ST. HELENA – A Friday fire destroyed a residence in St. Helena.


Cal Fire Battalion Chief Pete Muñoa said the fire was reported at 5:25 a.m. Friday on St. Helena Highway in the unincorporated area of Napa County.


Firefighters from Cal Fire, Napa County Fire, St. Helena City Fire and Calistoga Fire departments responded to the incident, Muñoa said.


Two people were at home at the time of the fire and safely evacuated prior to the fire departments' arrival. Muñoa said no injuries were reported.


The first firefighters on scene found the home to be fully engulfed, and went into a defensive attack in fighting the fire, according to Muñoa.


He said the fire destroyed the 2,500-square-foot residence and burned a small amount of vegetation.


The total damage estimated to the structure and contents is approximated at $700,000, Muñoa said.


Investigators from the Napa County Fire Marshal’s Office and Cal Fire believe the cause to be accidental but the fires still is under investigation, he added.

LOWER LAKE – Lower Lake resident Victoria Brandon has been named to the California Invasive Species Advisory Committee (CISAC).


State Secretary of Agriculture AG Kawamura, who also chairs the committee, notified Brandon on Tuesday of her selection.


“As a result of the high caliber and qualifications of all the nominees, I can say with certainty that California will be well served by your expertise and diversity,” Kawamura wrote Brandon in her notification letter.


Kawamura explained that the committee was created to assist the Invasive Species Council of California in addressing the threat invasive species pose to the environment, food systems, human health and the state's economy.


Brandon and the rest of the committee members will make recommendations to the Invasive Species Council on the best way to address invasive species' threats.


“Both aquatic and terrestrial invasive species pose enormous threats to the environment and economy of Lake County, and to all of California,” Brandon said.


She noted that she's become very much aware of both the breadth and the severity of these hazards not only through work with the Sierra Club – she's chair of the Sierra Club Lake Group – but in service to the Cache Creek Watershed Forum, Chi Council for the Clear Lake Hitch, and Lake County Fish and Wildlife Advisory Committee.


Brandon said when Sierra Club California needed a representative to the newly formed committee, “the opportunity to bring this accumulated knowledge to bear was too tempting to resist.”


She added, “The breadth of experience and diverse viewpoints of CISAC members give the group the necessary tools to devise management strategies and educational outreach techniques required to cope with the dangers we face, and I look forward to playing a proactive, collaborative role in this process – and also to making sure that Lake County's particular concerns, such as exotic mollusks, are properly addressed.”


Brandon said she anticipates the committee's meetings will include discussion of the quagga mussel, which has started spreading in California, and which local officials and residents are working to keep out of Lake County's water bodies.


The committee is expected to meet for the first time at some point between mid-August and mid-September, according to Kawamura.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

 

LAKE COUNTY – Lake County's unemployment rate in June ticked upward slightly while the state's overall rate remained unchanged.


The Employment Development Department released its monthly report on the state's unemployment numbers on Friday.


In June, Lake County's unemployment rate was 15.7 percent, giving it a statewide rank of 50 among the state's 58 counties. That's up slightly from 15.6 percent in May, when the county ranked No. 48.


California’s unemployment rate was 11.6 percent in June, the same as it was in May.


The state's unemployment measured 9.5 percent in June of 2008, compared to 9.9 percent in Lake County that same month.


The U.S. unemployment rate increased in June, rising to 9.5 percent, officials reported.


Marin County had the lowest unemployment in California in June, with 8 percent.


Lake's neighboring counties had the following ranks and unemployment percentages: Colusa, 53, 17.6 percent; Glenn, 49, 15.6 percent; Mendocino, 9, 10.1 percent; Napa, 3, 8.8 percent; Sonoma, 11, 10.2 percent; Yolo, 17, 11.1 percent.


Statewide, nonfarm payroll jobs declined by 66,500 during the month, according to Employment Development Department data based on two separate sources – a federal survey of 5,500 California households and a larger survey of 42,000 California businesses.


The agency reported that nonfarm jobs in California totaled 14,285,000 in June, a decrease of 66,500 over the month, and a year-over-year change decrease of 766,300 jobs, or 5.1 percent.


The federal survey of households estimated that the number of Californians holding jobs in June was 16,348,000, a decrease of 40,000 from May, and down 737,000 from the employment total in June of last year.


An estimated 2,146,000 Californians were unemployed in June, 7,000 less than the previous month, but up by 850,000 compared with June of last year.


The Employment Development Department estimated that were 14,285,000 jobs in California in June, a net loss of 66,500 jobs since the May survey.


Eleven categories reported job losses in June totaling 66,500 jobs. They included natural resources and mining; construction; manufacturing; trade, transportation and utilities; information; financial activities; professional and business services; educational and health services; leisure and hospitality;

other services; and government.


The largest number of jobs lost in June, 13,700, came in the professional and business services categories.


Educational and health services increased by 1.1 percent, adding 19,500 jobs.


Ten categories showed job declines over the year, totaling 785,800 jobs lost. They included natural resources and mining; construction; manufacturing; trade, transportation and utilities; information; financial activities; professional and business services; leisure and hospitality; other services; and government.


Trade, transportation and utilities employment showed the largest decline on a numerical basis, down by 190,500 jobs, for a decline of 6.6 percent, according to the Employment Development Department.


The largest decline on a percentage basis, 18.6 percent, came in the construction division, which lost 147,100 jobs.


During its June survey, the Employment Development Department found 820,387 people received regular unemployment insurance benefits, down from 839,960 in May and up from 457,193 in June of 2008.


New unemployment insurance claims totaled 86,016 in June, compared with 67,579 in May

and 56,359 in June of last year, according to the report.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

LAKE COUNTY – District Attorney Jon Hopkins said Friday that he intends to drop a felony vehicular manslaughter charge against a Carmichael man who was piloting a sailboat involved in a fatal collision three years ago.


However, Hopkins said he'll still move forward in prosecuting a charge of felony boating under the influence charge causing great bodily injury against Bismarck Dinius, 41, who is facing trial later this month in connection to the April 29, 2006, boat crash that took the life of 51-year-old Willows resident Lynn Thornton.


Dinius' blood alcohol level allegedly was 0.12, according to a blood test result the prosecution will present. The legal limit is 0.08.


“I'm glad that he is moving to dismiss the manslaughter charge. That's the right thing to do,” said Victor Haltom, Dinius' attorney.


Haltom added, however, that the remaining charge still contends that Dinius caused Thornton's death.


Dinius was steering a sailboat belonging to Thornton's boyfriend, Mark Weber of Willows, on that April night when it was hit by a powerboat driven by Russell Perdock, an off-duty sheriff's chief deputy. Perdock was not charged in the case.


The District Attorney's Office charged Dinius with felony vehicular manslaughter with a boat and felony boating under the influence of alcohol.


Dinius also is facing two misdemeanor charges – driving with a blood alcohol level over 0.08 and driving while under the influence. Haltom said those two charges are “lesser included offenses” that appear in prosecutions where there are felony DUI charges.


“Mr. Dinius could only be convicted of those if the jury rejected the felony charges,” he explained.


Hopkins – who last month took over prosecuting the casing himself – said on Friday that next Tuesday he'll enter a motion before visiting Judge J. Michael Byrne to drop the vehicular manslaughter charge.


Jury selection has been under way over the last few weeks, with testimony expected to begin on July 28.


Dropping the manslaughter charge won't change the trial going forward, as the charges haven't yet been read to the jury, said Hopkins.


Haltom is concerned about the felony boating under the influence charge, which he said is essentially the same as manslaughter. Both carry lower and middle terms of 16 months and two years, respectively, while the boating under the influence charge carries a maximum prison term of three years, just one year less than felony manslaughter.


“There remains in this case an absurd and ridiculous and unsupportable felony charge against Mr. Dinius which is being presented to a jury by a man who has clearly not read and digested his own file in the case,” said Haltom.


On Friday, Hopkins issued an open letter explaining his decision in the case. To see the letter in its entirety, click here: District attorney offers open letter to community on sailboat case .


“I'm floored by this letter. I've never seen anything like it,” said Haltom. “We're in jury selection and he's throwing out a letter like this.”


He said he was struck by the hypocrisy of issuing the letter, just a few months after the District Attorney's Office sought a gag order on principals in the case. Byrne denied the motion.


Haltom said Hopkins' Friday letter is riddled with false and incorrect assertions. He further alleged it omits many pieces of important information, with Hopkins not addressing scientific evidence, talking to some witnesses in the case – such as Hans Peter Elmer, a retired law enforcement officer who alleges that he saw Perdock's boat traveling at a high rate of speed – or discussing Perdock's speed or any of the issues about his involvement.


Neither do Hopkins and Haltom agree that a previous driving under the influence conviction against Dinius can be introduced during this prosecution.


In his letter, Hopkins explained that he reviewed the findings of a civil lawsuit regarding Thornton's death. That was was settled before going to a jury; Haltom said the insurance for Dinius, Weber and Perdock paid out nearly $300,000 each, with Weber and Dinius each receiving five-figure settlements.


In civil cases, a jury determines comparative negligence and a percentage of fault, which isn't done in criminal cases, said Hopkins.


He told Lake County News on Friday that he's satisfied that the civil suit resolved the liability issue for Thornton's death.


“I wanted to make sure responsibility was taken, and it was,” he said, adding there's no need to pursue the criminal negligence aspect in the form of the manslaughter charge.


Last month, Hopkins personally took over prosecuting the case from Deputy District Attorney John Langan.


While he said he “can't really say anything” about his reasons for that move, he said he has taken a hands-on approach to investigating the collision.


“It really helps to be able to go out and see where people were, talk to them about what they saw and just get a more complete understanding of what was involved,” he said.


“We're finding things out as we go,” he added, explaining, “You never get the whole picture reading reports.”


Haltom has consistently pointed to Perdock's alleged culpability in the case, accusing him of driving his power boat as fast as 60 miles per hour and having access to evidence in the case – from the boats to his own blood samples to copies of 911 tape that had been reported missing. He's also brought forward witnesses who claim to have seen Perdock at Konocti Harbor Resort & Spa in the hours before the crash.


Dropping the manslaughter charge, Haltom suggested, could be an effort by Hopkins to reduce the evidence produced at trial about Perdock's culpability. “That ain't gonna fly,” Haltom said.


But, in addressing those accusations against Perdock, Hopkins said, “They don't have any proof of anything. They have a bunch of wild speculation.”


He said he's made it a point for his office to investigate those allegations seriously, “and I have to date found no evidence that supports any of those claims.”


Hopkins added, “I've turned over a lot of rocks and there's nothing underneath them.”


He did not indicate any charges would be filed against anyone else in relation to the case.


As testimony gets set to start later this month, Haltom said he intends to file a motion seeking a “jury view.”


He's asking Byrne to consider allowing the jury to be taken out on Clear Lake by pontoon boat at night so they can see a sailboat maneuvering “at various distances and under various lighting conditions.”


His motion notes that lights on other vessels and shore lights can be indistinguishable at night and “it is difficult for people to be made to understand this phenomenon unless they experience it firsthand.”


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

WASHINGTON – On the evening of Monday, July 20, Congressman Mike Thompson (D-CA) will host a live town hall meeting via telephone and he is inviting every resident of the 1st Congressional District to join him.


The town hall will take place from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Pacific Time.


Participants can ask him questions about the issues that are important to them, and the congressman will respond live for everyone to hear.


“Although they don’t replace in person meetings, which I will continue to have, telephone town halls are a great way to bring residents from across Northern California together to share their concerns and opinions,” Thompson said.


“I look forward to responding to your questions about important issues such as the economy, health care, and climate change, and letting you know what Congress is doing to put our great country on the right track. Please take this opportunity to make your voice heard by calling in to participate,” he said.

 

Thompson previously held a telephone town hall in March. At that time, more than 9,100 people from around the district took part, as Lake County News has reported.

 

To join the call, dial 877-229-8493 and enter the passcode 13293.

POTTER VALLEY – A Potter Valley woman was arrested Thursday evening after she allegedly bit her ex-husband.

The Mendocino County Sheriff's Office reported that Tammie Szupello, 31, was arrested for allegedly inflicting injury on her 34-year-old ex-husband, a Lakeport resident.

Just before 7 p.m. Thursday Mendocino County Sheriff's deputies were dispatched to 12090 Eel River Road in Potter Valley on a report of a domestic violence incident.  

Deputies arrived at the Potter Valley area and contacted the victim, who reported he had been assaulted by Szupello after he arrived at her residence to drop off their children.  

Prior to the victim leaving the location, he was contacted by Szupello and during a physical encounter she bit the victim on his arm, the sheriff's office reported.

The victim only received superficial injuries and medical services were not summoned.  

Szupello was arrested for domestic violence and booked at the Mendocino County Jail, according to the sheriff's office.

LAKE COUNTY – Even though gas prices aren’t as steep as they were last year, federal, state and local officials are reporting that gas usage and driving overall are down.


Late last month, the state Board of Equalization released a new report on the first quarter of 2009, which is the 12th consecutive three-month period in which Californians used less gasoline. The report also shows diesel use is down.


The Board of Equalization monitors gallons of gasoline and diesel sold through tax receipts paid by fuel distributors.


“For three full years now consumers have cut down on the amount of fuel they use. High gasoline prices, use of more efficient vehicles and the downturn in the economy are all likely contributors to this trend,” said Board of Equalization Chairwoman Betty T. Yee.


In the first quarter of 2009, Californians used 213 million gallons less than the first quarter of 2008, which is a decline of 5.6 percent, according to the Board of Equalization report.


In addition, the agency reported that, for all of 2008, California gas consumption compared to the previous year declined 4.1 percent, a much larger decrease than the 1.0 percent drop in 2007.


The report also compared gas consumption between March 2008 and March 2009. This March, Californians used 1.3 billion gallons, down 30.2 million gallons compared to the previous March.


The Board of Equalization noted that the average California gasoline price at the pump in March was $2.24 per gallon, a 38-percent decline from the average price the same month last year when it was $3.61. Gasoline sold at the lower price in March 2009 generated approximately $211 million in sales tax during that month, an estimated $137 million less than was generated in March 2008.


Diesel consumption also is down. The Board of Equalization's recent report noted that diesel use was down 11.6 percent in the first quarter of 2009 from the first quarter in 2008.


California diesel consumption decreased 8.3 percent in 2008, which the agency said reflects the impacts of the national recession that is associated with much less freight movement on California roads and highways.


Approximately 619 million gallons of diesel fuel were sold in California in the first quarter of this year, which the Board of Equalization reported is 80.9 million gallons less than the first quarter of 2008.


The year-over changes in diesel consumption in the state were less than those seen with gasoline. Diesel fuel sold in March 2009 declined 0.5 percent over March 2008; the total used was 240 million gallons, which is 1.3 million gallons below the previous March.


The Board of Equalization credited declines in diesel consumption – despite a steep decrease in prices – to the effects of the recession. In March, California diesel prices were $2.14 per gallon, down 47 percent compared to March 2008 when the average diesel price was $4.01 per gallon.


Local gas sales and impacts on travel


Doug Gearhart, Lake County’s pollution control officer, said the Lake County Air Quality Management District gathers information on retail gasoline sales as part of its annual permitting. That information, he noted, doesn’t include agricultural use.


From March 2008 through March 2009, there were 21.6 million gallons of gasoline sold in Lake County. The previous year, March 2007 to March 2008, there were 24 million gallons of gasoline sold locally, Gearhart said.


He said the 21.6 million mark is likely the base usage for Lake County residents.


“With all the summer wildfires our tourist traffic was very low,” he said.


Driving declines in rural areas like Lake are outpacing those seen in urban areas, according to a report by the federal Department of Transportation.


The agency noted that the United States is into its second year of a decline in mileage.


The agency reported that there were seven billion fewer miles traveled this past January than in the same month the previous year, or a 3.1-percent drop. The agency reported that this was the first “ back-to-back“ decline for January since 1981-1982.


That’s part of a much larger trend of declining mileage, which started in December of 2007, the same month, incidentally, as officials reported the US recession began.


From December 2007 through January 2009, there were 122 billion fewer vehicle miles traveled than the period of December 2006 through January 2008, the Department of Transportation reported.


More recent numbers for April show that travel on all roads and streets is estimated to be 249.5 billion vehicle miles, up by 0.6 percent, or 1.4 billion vehicle miles, over April 2008. However, cumulative travel miles for 2009 is expected to be down by 1.1 percent, or 10 billion vehicle miles. The year's cumulative estimate is 933.2 billion vehicle miles.


Cynthia Harris, a spokesperson for AAA of Northern California, said the trend of driving and traveling less has been going on for several years.


Harris said normally there is a 1-percent annual increase in the number of travelers. “For the last year there has been a decrease, and that’s the first time since 9/11,” she said.


The reasons, said Harris, are high gas prices and peoples’ uncertainty over the economy.


She said people are still traveling for holidays, but are going shorter distances. When they do travel, they tend to stay with friends and family or come back the same day. That means less time in hotels, and more people driving instead of flying.


In July 2008, gasoline peaked at nearly $5 a gallon, said Harris. Yet, even though gas prices have gone down, people didn’t return to their previous levels of travel.


She said it’s likely due to caution that people now have, knowing that gas prices can spike. Consumers are savvy, and have caught on to the volatility of gas prices, she said. “People are very leery of that.”


The result, she said, is that the entire spectrum of the travel industry has been affected.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

LAKE COUNTY – For the first time this year West Nile Virus has been detected in Lake County.


On Wednesday, Lake County Vector Control received confirmation of a positive test result on a dead bird, according to District Manager Dr. Jamie Scott.


Scott said the positive finding was made on a dead crow collected in Lucerne on July 1.


“The holiday extended the time it took us to get the results,” said Scott.


Dead birds and tree squirrels are necropsied at the California Animal Health and Safety Laboratory laboratory at University of California, Davis, said Scott. Samples taken during the necropsies are forwarded to the UC Davis Center for Vectorborne Diseases for West Nile virus testing using the singleplex RT-PCR Taqman assay and confirmed with a second primer set.


So far this year, 22 dead birds had been reported around the county, but none had tested positive for West Nile Virus, which first appeared in Lake County in 2004, according to Vector Control records.


Vector Control keeps two sentinel chicken flocks – one in Upper Lake and a second near Anderson Marsh, between Lower Lake and Clearlake.


Those chickens have been sampled seven times this season – once every two weeks – for West Nile Virus antibodies, St. Louis encephalitis and Western equine encephalomyelitis, and have been clear on all counts, Vector Control reported.


In neighboring Yolo County, they've reported their first West Nile Virus positive chicken, said Scott. The only other West Nile Virus activity reported in neighboring areas were two dead birds founds in Colusa County.


As of Wednesday, West Nile Virus had been detected in 31 California counties this year, seven more than this time last year, according to the state's West Nile Virus Web site, www.westnile.ca.gov .


So far, no human cases of the virus have been reported in California, the state reported. Neither have horse cases been reported in 2009 thus far.


State records show there were 445 human West Nile cases last year, including 15 fatalities. The peak year for the virus in the state's human residents was 2005, with 880 cases and 19 deaths.


Equine cases numbered 32 in 2008, with 2004 being the peak year, with 540 cases, the state reported.


Scott said West Nile Virus has been particularly active is the Fresno area. “It's an unusual amount of activity for that part of the valley so early in the season,” she said.


Weather, water and temperatures conditions could account for fewer West Nile numbers in Lake County this year.


Cooler temperatures control virus activity, said Scott. Prime West Nile conditions include a combination of high mosquito numbers and very high temperatures.


Scott said cooler temperatures – specifically, nighttime temperatures cooler than 60 degrees – tend to kill West Nile Virus.


However, she cautioned that West Nile Virus is “still so new” to the United States, with this being the virus' 11th season here. While it's settling into the country's ecology, the only thing scientists have been able to identify as impacting the disease is temperature.


The lake's level is two feet below the 88-year average for this time of year, the district reported, which could affect other mosquito species.


“The low water has helped us out somewhat,” said Scott. She explained that mosquito species that hatch in flood water or shallow pools have been lighter in population this year.


However, the three mosquito species that carry West Nile Virus and are most prevalent locally – Culex tarsalis, Culex stigmatosoma and Culex erythrothorax – are “very opportunistic,” said Scotts.


“They will develop in any water standing for more than five days,” said Scott.


While some areas have no standing water due to lack of rain, irrigation is prevalent in other places, said Scott. The lake's weedy edges also provide good habitat for the mosquitoes.


Scott and a group of colleagues have just published a paper in the Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association on a recently introduced mosquito species, Aedes japonicus japonicus. The mosquito, which carries West Nile Virus, is now in 20 states, but isn't in California, having come as far as Michigan since in appeared in the US in 1998.


Besides West Nile, the district is keeping an eye on other diseases as well.


It collected 530 ticks from 14 sample sites, and have shipped all of them to the California Department of Health Services, and will be forwarded to the Centers for Disease Control and Surveillance so they may be tested for Rickettsia 364D and other tick-borne diseases.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

MENDOCINO COUNTY – Mendocino County health officials are reporting that they've confirmed the first probable case of H1N1 influenza in that area.


Mendocino County Health Officer Dr. Marvin Trotter said Friday that a 25-year-old Mendocino County resident contracted the virus, and was showing a mild illness of influenza-like symptoms.


Trotter said the patient is recovering without any treatment of antiviral therapy.


Lake County's first H1N1 case was reported on June 29.


Dr. Karen Tait, Lake County's health officer, told Lake County News in an interview at that time that the new flu virus' unpredictable aspects include a propensity for spreading during the summer, at a time when the traditional flu usually doesn't appear.


The Centers for Disease Control said there have been 40,617 H1N1 cases in the United States and its territories, with 263 deaths.


California has had 3,161 cases – placing it third nationwide behind Wisconsin and Texas – and 52 deaths, placing second behind New York.


Trotter said the H1N1 influenza virus continues to cause mild illness and sometimes severe illness in persons worldwide. Symptoms include fever (100 degrees Fahrenheit), cough and/or sore throat, body aches, and diarrhea and/or vomiting.


Children and adults with underlying medical conditions such as respiratory, cardiac, HIV, cancer, chronic steroid use or women who are pregnant may be at higher risk to become ill and have severe illness, Trotter said.


Infected persons are assumed to be contagious the day before symptom onset and through seven days after onset of symptoms, according to health officials.


Trotter said if a person experiences any of these symptoms is it is recommended that they contact their doctor, stay home from work, school and social gatherings for approximately seven days.


He urged people to cover their cough, wash their hands with soap and water, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when no hand washing source is available, get rest, reduce stress and eat healthy in order to reduce the risk of contracting the H1N1 flu this summer.

UPPER LAKE – A local marijuana advocate surrendered himself to authorities last week in order to begin serving a 10-year federal prison sentence.


Charles “Eddy” Lepp, 57, of Upper Lake turned himself in on July 6 to federal authorities in Lompoc, according to his wife, Linda Lepp.


In May Lepp was sentenced to two concurrent 10-year terms after having been convicted in September of 2008 of conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute and cultivation of more than 1,000 marijuana plants, as Lake County News has reported.


A federal jury convicted Lepp of growing 24,784 marijuana plants on his 20-acre property in Upper Lake.


Lepp, who was indicted in 2004, has maintained his innocence. He has been a proponent of legalizing marijuana and is a Rastafarian minister who has alleged that authorities have violated his freedom of religion and his ministry.


He was the first person in California to be acquitted in a prosecution under 1996's Compassion Use Act, Proposition 215, which allowed patients to use medical marijuana with a doctor's recommendation.


Linda Lepp said an appellate lawyer has been assigned to her husband's case, and the attorney has estimated that it will take two months to go through the materials and filing an appeal will take another six months. The case could be in court in June of 2010, Linda Lepp said.


Eddy Lepp is being held at the Federal Correctional Institution in Lompoc, which is a low security facility housing male inmates, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.


Now Linda Lepp and her husband's supporters are starting a push to get the attention of President Barack Obama.


“We have already sent over 7,000 letters to the president,” she said, but there's some concern that the messages were faxed to the wrong number, so they're starting over.


They're also responding to thousands of e-mail messages sent to Eddy Lepp's e-mail and working on his MySpace page, www.myspace.com/eddylepp , which Linda Lepp said has had 24,000 hits. They're also planning to post a Facebook page next week.


Linda Lepp said at some point in the future she'll be able to visit her husband. They married last September and then, in light of his conviction, Eddy Lepp had their marriage annulled. However, they remarried March 19.


She said she's received messages of support from all over the world. “It's pretty unreal, the support we're getting from well wishers.”


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

THIS STORY HAS BEEN UPDATED WITH NEWS NUMBERS REGARDING THE TOTAL PLANTS ERADICATED.

 

LAKE COUNTY – On Tuesday local and federal law enforcement officials eradicated a massive illegal marijuana garden in the Mendocino National Forest, encountering armed suspects in the process.


The Lake County Sheriff's SWAT Team and detectives from the US Forest Service seized approximately 130,000 plants and five firearms – including a Tec 9 assault weapon with a makeshift silencer – according to sheriff's Capt. Rob Howe.


Howe said the raid took place at 7 a.m. Tuesday in the Lower Nye/Copper Butte area of the National Forest in Lake County.


Law enforcement personnel surrounded a tent located in the garden and began giving verbal commands, directing any occupants to exit the tent, Howe said.


Three suspects, identified as Hispanic male adults, immediately opened the tent and fled downhill, while one suspect, also described as a Hispanic male adult, remained in the tent and was taken into custody, according to Howe's report.


Deputies and agents found a 9 millimeter semi automatic handgun in a tent, Howe said.


At about 9:30 a.m., as they were walking the suspect out, Howe said detectives encountered two more suspects, described as Hispanic male adults, actively working in the garden, with one of the men holding a gun in his hand.


Howe said that as detectives approached the suspects the one holding the gun dropped it. Both then fled and the team wasn't able to capture them.


While it's early in the marijuana eradication season, Howe said this is the third marijuana cultivation operation so far this year in which sheriff's deputies have encountered armed suspects.


Howe noted, “We are very grateful these suspects have not pointed their weapons or fired at our personnel.”


Concerns over dangers about illegal marijuana growing operations on public and private lands led Sheriff Rod Mitchell to post a public safety message late last week on his Web site. The video presentation can be found in its entirety here: http://lakesheriff.com/weed_warning.asp .


The video explains that violence in connection with marijuana growing is increasing.


Last September, the county saw the first murder associated with a growing operation. In that case, the body of a Santa Rosa man was found in an illegal grow on Socrates Mine Road, where he had been shot to death, as Lake County News has reported.


The sheriff's office reported that 2009 is “already surpassing last year in seizures and violence.”


While eradicating a grow on Socrates Mine Road in June, deputies encountered two armed suspects who fled and evaded capture, according to the report.


In addition to locating firearms and armed growers, deputies have discovered booby traps, such as a rat trip outfitted with a shotgun shell, which they recreated and shot through a human-shaped target.


They've also found rat and mouse poison, litter and other environmental concerns in the grows.


Nearly all of the illegal grows are discovered and eradicated through the use of helicopters, which the county rents from private companies and pays for through a $275,000 Drug Enforcement Administration Grant.


Tuesday's raid brings this year's total for eradications to more than 285,000 plants and 15 arrests, based on various sheriff's reports.


That puts Lake County – which in recent years has led all of California's 58 counties in eradications of illegal marijuana – close to Mendocino County, which so far this year has netted close to 280,000 plants, made close to 60 arrests and seized around 50 firearms at more than 90 sites.


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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