Saturday, 13 July 2024


LAKEPORT – The case of a man accused of stabbing to death a young girl and seriously injuring her sister took an unusual turn on Monday afternoon, when he entered two new pleas – both of them guilty.

As his family looked on, James Roland Pagan, 32, stated “guilty” when Judge Arthur Mann asked him how he would plead to the charges of first-degree murder, with a special allegation of using a knife, and assault with a deadly weapon other than a firearm.

He had previously pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, according to statements in court on Monday.

His defense attorney, Ken Roush, did not return calls from Lake County News seeking comment.

Pagan was accused of attacking Tessa Faith Walker, 10, and her sister, Kristen, 14, as the two girls walked through their Hidden Valley Lake neighborhood after getting home from school on March 21, 2008.

Tessa Walker died later the same day of of numerous stab wounds, while Kristen Walker was treated for a moderate stab wound, as Lake County News has reported.

Last September, following a preliminary hearing, Pagan had been ordered to stand trial on five felony counts, including the two he pleaded guilty to on Monday. No trial date had been set.

The other original counts – mayhem, attempted murder and inflicting injury on a child – were dismissed on Monday as part of the agreement reached between Roush and Chief Deputy District Attorney Richard Hinchcliff.

Pagan, was led into the courtroom wearing a red and white jail uniform with his hands secured by handcuffs to his waist.

“Do we have a disposition?” asked Mann, who presided at the preliminary hearing last fall.

Roush said yes, and asked permission to approach the bench, handing Mann a document several pages long.

Hinchcliff told the court that the evidence in the case was “overwhelming.”

“There's no evidence that the defendant wasn't the perpetrator of the crimes that he is admitting to,” said Hinchcliff.

Three doctors evaluated Pagan, Hinchcliff said, with all of them concluding he was sane at the time of the girls' stabbings.

Mann asked Pagan if he had gone over the plea agreement with his attorney. “Yes, sir,” Pagan responded.

The judge the proceeded to ask Pagan for his pleas on the homicide and assault with a deadly weapon counts, receiving guilty pleas to both, with Pagan also admitting to the special allegation of using a knife.

Mann then asked Roush if he was withdrawing the previous pleas of not guilty by reason of insanity. Roush said he was going to submit them.

During the hearing, Pagan also waived his right to have a jury determine his sanity at the time of the alleged stabbings. Roush and Hinchcliff also waived a jury determination on the subject.

Based on the findings of each of the three doctors who evaluated Pagan, Mann found that Pagan was not insane at the time of the offenses. “I'll accept the defendant's pleas,” he said.

Mann added that the court found that the first-degree murder of Tessa Walker was willful and premeditated.

He ordered a probation report to be prepared before the sentencing, which will take place on May 11 at 1:30 p.m.

Hinchcliff said after the brief court session that he and Roush had been working for several months on the plea agreement, but it wasn't until Monday morning that he received word that the defense planned to offer the guilty pleas.

Pagan is looking at a potential maximum of 30 years to life, said Hinchcliff. The best case scenario for Pagan is that he could receive parole in 28 years.

Hinchcliff said it's “very unusual” to have a guilty plea entered in a first-degree murder case.

“This just happened to be a case where the evidence of guilt was overwhelming,” he said, adding there wasn't anywhere for the defense to go with the case.

Tessa Walker's family has been invited to give victim impact statements at Pagan's sentencing next month, but Hinchcliff said he doesn't know if they'll attend. The Walker family issued a statement after the attacks last year, offering their forgiveness to Pagan.

Pagan, a student who had lived with his parents in Hidden Valley Lake near to the Walker family, had no previous local criminal cases except a May 2007 traffic ticket, as Lake County News has reported.

Hinchcliff said Pagan has never stated why he stabbed the two young girls. He added that Pagan was not found to be on drugs or alcohol at the time of his arrest.

Asked about a theory for the motivation behind the stabbings, Hinchcliff said he had his own ideas, based on his experience as a prosecutor.

“My theory would be that he did it to get attention,” Hinchcliff said.

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

SACRAMENTO – Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee Chairman Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata) has asked the California Water Quality Control Board to report on progress the agency has made on revising proposed rules to regulate septic systems at a Committee hearing scheduled for Tuesday, April 14.

Earlier this year the Water Board proposed new regulations under AB 885 (2000) that, among several new requirements, would have made regular inspections of septic systems mandatory.

After encountering severe opposition from septic system owners at a dozen workshops across the state, the Water Board decided to withdraw its proposals and start over. New proposed regulations are expected to be announced later this year.

The Committee will also take action on three proposed bills related to AB 885 at Tuesday’s hearing.

The Committee hearing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. in Room 444 at the Capitol Building.

LAKE COUNTY – Lake County's health officer says the community has a number of health challenges, but she says people have power to make positive choices and improve their lives.

This year National Public Health Week is being observed April 6 through 12.

For officials like Dr. Karen Tait, MD, Lake County's health officer and head of the Public Health Division, it's a good time to talk with the community about its health issues and ways to be healthier.

Tait – whose first anniversary on the job coincided with the April 6 beginning of National Health Week – has a small staff to do a big job, covering a wide range of activities.

The Public Health Division is within the Department of Health Services, overseen by Health Services Director Jim Brown. Tait said her division is funded by a mix of federal and state funding, with some local realignment funds.

Public Health has 29 full-time employees, with 1.25 full-time positions – divided among three nurses – dedicated to communicable disease control activities, she said. There's no epidemiologist on staff, and Tait herself analyzes local health statistics.

Division activities include working to prevent communicable diseases, ensuring vaccinations are completed on schedule, promoting nutrition and dental care, providing screenings for various types of diseases, and inspecting food and sanitation systems. They also cooperate with the community, hospitals and emergency responders to prepare for public health emergencies.

Everyone multi-tasks to the extreme, she said.

“We're very interested and motivated, and we have very few resources,” she said.

Looking at the county's current health challenges, Tait lists among her concerns the rise in births to adolescent mothers, and the 17.2-percent rise in accidents resulting in significant injuries.

She said people in rural environments do have more accidents, with farm accidents raising that overall number, besides the area's regular number of roadway collisions.

There is some longterm planning officials can do to change some of those factors, but Tait adds, “You can't make the deer use crosswalks. There are just some things beyond our control.”

One big issue for Lake County is smoking and the resulting coronary heart disease and lung cancer. “Clearly we know that smoking is linked to these diseases,” she said, adding that asthma also is a resulting condition.

Smoking continues to be a public health concern all over the country. Tait said smoking rates seem to hover around 20 percent locally, and it's hard to get below that level.

She said California Department of Public Health findings regarding tobacco use show that, in 2008, statewide rates for smokers had a significant reduction of 13.3 percent among adults.

Numbers available in the California Department of Public Health's online database still show 2005 numbers, which showed an adult smokers rate of 17.9 percent in Lake County, compared to the mean rate of 23.3 percent reported the same year by California Breathing.

Both statistics, said Tait, put Lake County above the state's average, which is a concern.

Also above the state average is the number of local young people who smoke, rated at 17.4 percent as of 2006 statistics, compared to the statewide average of 15.4 percent. More dramatic, said Tait, is that 44.9 percent of Lake County's young people report smoking at some time, which she said indicates how much experimentation takes place with cigarettes.

She believes many young people smoke because of a still-glamorous image. Tait said so much is known about the harm that smoking does that it defies logic that anyone would choose to do it.

Public health officials also reported that statistics from the 2004-08 reporting period shows that Lake County ranks between 53 and 57 statewide for a number of health-related issues, including death from all causes, chronic lower respiratory disease, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, suicide and drug-induced deaths.

Cancer: A “complex” issue

Then there's the issue of cancer itself and its impact on Lake County's population.

Various reports have shown high cancer rates for the county.

A 2008 health status profile under the Healthy People 2010 program ranked Lake County as No. 2 statewide for the number of deaths per capita for all cancers, or 208.4 persons per 100,000, which was a 5.5 percent reduction from the 2001-2003 rate of 220.6.

That same report also ranked Lake County No. 4 for lung cancer deaths, or 66.3 per 100,000, down 8.6 percent from the 72.5 per 100,000 recorded in the 2001-2003 cycle. All numbers are age-adjusted.

Breast cancer and prostate cancer numbers ranked the county No. 13 in the state, and colorectal cancers ranked it No. 9.

Cancer is a tricky topic, and Tait points to the difficulty in understanding it.

“I think the safest thing to say about it is it's a complex issue,” she said.

There are many factors that impact cancer rates, she said.

“I think you have to look at what is the origin of cancer,” she said.

Cancer has both a genetic factor as well as a long time line. For that reason, she said it's really impossible to draw a connection between where someone lives now and the causes of their cancer.

In Lake County, many people come from other areas to retire. For that reason, Tait said it's hard to know how the reported cancer rates were influenced by environment, or where on the time line a person's cancer is when they come here.

“People do die from cancer at a higher rate here than they die of some other things that might kill them,” she said. “It becomes a very complex issue.”

Other influence on the cancer rates may be access to health care and socioeconomic factors that might affect a person's state of health. “We have a fairly high poverty rate here in Lake County,” Tait said.

She emphasizes that the public shouldn't draw the wrong conclusion that they're going to die from cancer because they live in Lake County.

“That would be a big leap,” she said, pointing to Lake County's positive environmental factors, including its very clean air.

Get out and exercise

In many areas, Tait said, the county is showing public health improvements. Those include showing better comparisons with other areas on such issues as incidences of diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, influenza/pneumonia and infant mortality.

Improving access to health care is one of Tait's goals for this geographically isolated area. “We have to

find creative ways to make sure people do have access to health care,” she said.

That means not just the basics but also the ability to get specialty care such as is provided by cardiologists, oncologists and other specialists.

Tait emphasizes healthy lifestyles as a means of preventing disease.

“So much of our progress in public health is making the right lifestyle choices,” she said. “In the case of lifestyle, getting enough exercise and not smoking are my two favorite topics.”

Exercise, she points out, “is probably the best thing a person can do for their health in so many ways it's impossible to list them all.”

Some of the notable benefits include preventing obesity, fighting depression, preventing dementia and bringing down the number of lipids – which include cholesterol – in the blood. She notes that it's all speculation why exercise works.

Tait recommends 20 to 30 minutes of exercise a day. She particularly likes exercise videos, which she said help people pace themselves while pushing them to do more than they thought they could.

“The key is to do it regularly, at least five times a week,” she said, and to look at exercise like medication, taking it in prescribed amounts.

Tait is encouraged by a health attitude she sees here in Lake County.

She said she recently attended a community blueprint workshop and was impressed by the mindset of local residents, which she said was very much in sync with building a healthy community.

Tait said she considers it a ray of hope that Lake County's residents value their lifestyle and environment so much.

And, she added, it means she won't have to sell them on the concept of living healthy lifestyles.

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

Lakeport Fire personnel examine Stephan Brooks (behind motorcycle) following his collision with a pickup in Lakeport on Monday, April 13, 2009. Photo by Harold LaBonte.




LAKEPORT – A 69-year-old motorcycle rider from Nice escaped serious injury after being involved in a collision with a pickup truck Monday afternoon in Lakeport.

Stephan M. Brooks was riding his 2001 BMW motorcycle southbound on Main Street just after 3 p.m. Monday, with Mike Maitland, also of Nice, traveling behind him in a 1999 Chevy Silverado pickup.

Maitland told Lakeport Police that Brooks suddenly applied his brakes and stopped just short of the intersection at Main and C Streets, which resulted in the pickup colliding with the back of bike.

Lakeport Police Lieutenant Brad Rasmussen told Lake County News that Brooks believed that he had seen a woman getting ready to cross the street at the west side corner of Main and C streets. Brooks did not see the woman actually step off the curb but he decided to stop to allow her to cross just before the truck struck him.

Traffic was diverted around the scene for 20 minutes while Lakeport Fire medical personnel examined the rider and police officials removed the downed motorcycle.

Brooks was able to stand and with some assistance and walked to the nearby sidewalk where the initial investigation continued.

Both parties were found to be in legal compliance of the law and no citations were issued on scene.

Brooks' bright yellow motorcycle suffered very minor damage, while the pickup had noticeable damage to the front grill and headlights.

Brooks was reluctant at first to accept the medic’s suggestion to have him transported to Sutter Lakeside for closer examination. After he was assured of the security of his newly acquired motorcycle he agreed.

Sutter Lakeside personnel told Lake County News that Brooks had been examined and released but would not release any other information regarding his condition.

Police were still on scene more than an hour later looking for witnesses and hoping to find the woman preparing to cross the street.

Rasmussen said that until all possible witnesses have been contacted and interviewed no immediate determination of fault could be made.

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

The Konocti Project raffle will raise funds towards the preservation and purchase of lands on top of Mt. Konocti. Courtesy photo.

LAKE COUNTY – Travel around Clear Lake and one towering view commands center of attention – Mt. Konocti.

While visible to so many people, few have actually experienced the spectacular views from the top – wide panoramas of Clear Lake and the Mayacamas, distant glimpses of Lake Berryessa and the Sutter Buttes. On a clear day, one can even see Mt. Lassen.

Lake County now has the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire 1,520 acres, putting much of the mountain top into public hands for perpetuity.

The ultimate goal – to link the County and Bureau of Land Management-owned land with Clear Lake State Park, making it possible to develop access from Clear Lake to the top of Mt. Konocti. Public donations through September will benefit the acquisition and allow the future purchase of additional properties.

Efforts to raise funds to assist with the purchase of Mt. Konocti are gaining momentum.

To assist in the fundraising effort, the Konocti Project Inc., a nonprofit organization devoted to the “preservation, exploration and protection of Mt. Konocti,” is sponsoring a raffle drawing to be held at the upcoming Heron Festival at Clear Lake State Park in Kelseyville

Kevin Kealey, currently managing the Konocti Project, and a group of volunteers have assembled a wonderful collection of prizes from local businesses and organizations.

“A number of people and businesses really stepped forward to help in our fundraising efforts,” said Kealey. “The prizes donated truly showcase the unique qualities that make Lake County special, from local award-winning wines to mini-ecotours and a winemaker’s dinner.”

Prize drawings will be held during the annual Heron Festival on April 26, 3 p.m. at the Mt. Konocti Acquisition Booth. Raffle tickets will be available for sale both days of the festival, with a donation of $10 for a book of five tickets.

Prizes include:

– Top of Mt. Konocti vehicle-guided tour with brown-bag lunch for four, sponsored by Lake County Department of Public Services.

– Winemaker dinner for eight people at the Rolling Knolls Vineyard in Lower Lake, from Shannon Ridge Vineyards.

– Lake County Winery Association (LCWA) Wine Cellar Collection of fine wines from Six Sigma, Gregory Graham, Tulip Hill, Wildhurst, Brassfield, Rosa d'Oro, Jeff Smith of Dusinberre Cellars and Langtry Estates.

– Lake County wine picnic basket with an assorted collection of Lake County wines provided by the Lake County Winegrape Commission.

– Tasting sampler of fine Lake County wines for four persons at Lake County Wine Studio in Upper Lake.

– Free one-day rental of a pontoon boat that holds eight people from the General Store at Clear Lake State Park.

– Guided kayak trip for two persons into either Anderson Marsh or down to Cache Creek Dam, provided by Herb Gura.

– Top-of-Mt. St. Helena vehicle-guided tour with brown-bag deli lunch for two person, sponsored by Pete McGee.

– Guided bird-watching eco-hike in Clear Lake State Park or Rodman Slough with Brad Barnwell.

– Inflatable Advanced Elements two-person kayak system from AirKayaks.

The public is encouraged to support the fundraising effort. Raffle tickets are available at the following locations:

  • Wild About Books, 14290 Olympic Drive, Suite A, Clearlake.

  • PennySaver, 14913 Lakeshore Blvd., Clearlake.

  • Shannon Ridge Tasting Room, 12599 East Highway 20, Clearlake Oaks.

  • Wildhurst Tasting Room, 3855 Main St., Kelseyville.

  • Watershed Books, 305 N. Main St., Lakeport.

  • Six Sigma Winery, 13372 Spruce Grove Road, Lower Lake.

  • Lake County Visitor's Center, 6110 E. Highway 20, Lucerne.

  • Lake County Wine Studio, 9505 Main St., No. 1, Upper Lake.

Raffle tickets can also be purchased online at or mail a check to Konocti Project, Inc. P.O. Box 3369, Clearlake, CA 95422. Please include your name, mailing address and phone number and $10 for each raffle book of 5. The tickets will be mailed to you. Deadline for tickets to be sent out by mail is 4/20. Details on the prizes can also be seen on the website.

All proceeds benefit the Mt. Konocti Acquisition Fund. Ticket holders do not need to be present to win, but must be 21 years or older to participate. The raffle drawing is sponsored by The Konocti Project, Inc. a 501c-3 nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and protection of Mt. Konocti.

For more info on the organization or raffle, contact Kevin Kealey at 707-994-1967 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Details on the Heron Festival and weekend events can be found at

CLEARLAKE OAKS – What a difference eight months makes.

Eight months ago, the Clearlake Oaks County Water District Board faced a hostile crowd over a proposed rate increase. On Thursday, it had a meeting to present much-anticipated audits of the district's finances, and the small crowd that did appear was both supportive and responsive.

Beginning last summer, the district's meetings had been crowded with ratepayers concerned over the district's shaky finances and the potential for big rate increases.

The district board had anticipated a big crowd Thursday, so they moved it from the small meeting room at the district office on Highway 20 a few miles down the road to the Lake Village Estates Clubhouse, provided by Board member Dena Barron.

But an audience of only 10 people came to hear about the audits for financial years ending 2006, 2007 and 2008.

“This is too easy,” said Board President Mike Benjamin at one point during the hour-long meeting.

El Dorado Hills-based auditor Larry Bain made the trip to offer an outline of his findings and answer questions from ratepayers.

“My responsibility on the financial statements is to provide an opinion,” said Bain.

His opinion on the district's finances and bookkeeping procedures for the three years in question was an adverse one for a variety of reasons.

Bain said capital assets weren't maintained, which had been an error going back to a previous auditor who hadn't offered an adverse opinion. But Bain felt it was a significant enough issue to warrant the adverse ruling.

Governmental Accounting Standards Board guidelines require that major funds, like sewer and water, be separated, which wasn't done by the district in the time frame Bain audited.

In the June 30, 2008, audit, Bain said the district's capital was overstated by a material amount. When he did the fieldwork, the district was not in a positive cash position, with more liabilities than assets, which required them to work out payment plans with contractors.

Bain said there were some red flags in the district's finances, including multiple bounced checks and Internal Revenue Service levies.

Iris Hudson, a former water district employee for 26 years, asked about a figure in the 2008 audit that indicated the district was $300,000 in the red, and had been in the red in previous years as well. Bain said much of that negative number was due to depreciations, and he estimated the district had spent about $240,000 more than it had during the auditing period.

Community member Richard Kuehn asked Board member Harry Chase – the only board member remaining who had served through all three of the auditing years – if it was the previous board's general recollection that the district was doing all right during that period.

“I knew that we had personnel problems,” said Chase. “That was one of the things I hadn't anticipated when I ran for the board, that we would have such a big turnover in at-will employee.”

Another community member, Bill Rett, asked why the previous board hadn't done the required yearly audits, the last one of which had been for the period ending 2005, Bain reported during the meeting.

Chase said he had had no idea what was required.

“What failsafe measures do we have in place now to ensure audits will be taken care of?” asked audience member Chuck Lamb.

Noting the yearly auditing requirement, Lamb added, “For me it's unfathomable that we didn't have audits every single year.”

Chase – who has worked in government at various levels – said no one flagged the board or made them aware of it, and there appeared to be no regulatory oversight.

Lamb asked if it would normally be the general manager's position to make the board aware of such requirements. “I would think so,” said Chase.

The general manager during most of the audit period was Ellen Pearson, who left the district in March 2008, as Lake County News has reported.

Pearson, however, was not directly mentioned during the Thursday meeting.

Board looks ahead

Benjamin said the board is now working to prove its transparency in the wake of its challenging recent history.

“Continued public involvement in these meetings and the ongoing business of the water district is gong to prevent these kinds of things from happening again,” he said.

The district has learned from its past mistakes, is doing the best they can with what they have and is now moving in a completely different direction, said Benjamin.

Next is another audit that will begin this summer once the 2008-09 fiscal year ends and the crafting of a “livable” budget, said Benjamin. The board also will present and finalize responses to Bain's audit at its next meeting.

“The majority of these are going to have a positive response,” said Benjamin, explaining that many of Bain's recommendations and findings already have been addressed by the district over the last six months.

Community member Judy Barnes wanted to know if there were findings of criminal negligence.

“We aren't going to respond to requests about criminal negligence,” said Benjamin. “It is no secret that the grand jury has investigated this and has an ongoing investigation.”

Benjamin said the district ahas sought assistance from County Counsel Anita Grant.

He said there's no doubt that there were irregularities in how some financial matters were handled. “We have already taken preventative measures so these don't happen again.”

Rett asked if the district's insurance will cover any financial losses. Benjamin said it depends on whether there are findings of fraud or malfeasance, and that would be up to the insurance company.

Holly Harris commended the board for getting the audits done. She asked about Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) money that had been widely discussed in the community as having disappeared.

General Manager Darin McCosker said the district received FEMA money for a storm event on New Year's Day of 2006. At the time he was working for another district. “That's my alibi,” he quipped.

He said the district does have that capital back in place but the work hasn't been done yet.

Benjamin said the district has experienced a major turnaround since last year.

“Last summer the district was several hundred thousand dollars in debt, and today we're in the black,” he said, noting they've paid off nearly all of their debts.

Last November the district implemented a minor rate increase of $9.95 per month per single-family household.

However, Benjamin said, “That didn't make the difference. The difference is the way business has been conducted.”

He said they're scrutinizing spending on everything, from saving $1 per paper towel roll to working to reduce the district's phone bill from close to $1,000 a month down to about $250 a month. They're also looking at employee benefits.

Benjamin credited McCosker for doing an outstanding job.

McCosker said he fully intends to have operating and capital budget by when we're required to this summer.

He noted that he's hampered by an outdated accounting system that could cost as much as $60,000 to replace. Benjamin said the district is trying to live within its means and isn't yet ready to spend the money for a new system.

“This is the greatest recovery that I've ever seen for a small entity,” said Benjamin.

There's much more to do, including major capital projects – among them replacement of the High Valley water tank and work on the waste treatment plant. Benjamin said everyone is contributing to the effort to continue moving forward; employees haven't received wage increases and they're down four and a half positions, two less than when they implemented a hiring freeze.

Hudson told the board that she doubts the district has employees qualified to do internal audit checks, which Benjamin agreed was an issue raised in the audits. He said the auditor position hasn't worked well in a number of years. Hudson responded that during a six-year period they had seven auditors.

Barnes asked about future rate increases. Benjamin said they're not even discussing any.

McCosker reported that the district is requesting a US Department of Agriculture grant for $4 million. The USDA is waiting on the audits as it considers the application.

Kuehn asked if the board was considering special assessments – not rate increases – for certain projects like the wastewater plant. Benjamin said after the next audit they'll know more about their financial situation to be able to answer about what the district needs to do next.

“Our goal is to keep our district in the black and to serve all customers,” said Board member Judy Heeszel.

She said she thinks it's inevitable that eventually there will be another rate increase, and she understands people's financial concerns. The district is trying to work in everyone's best interests, Heeszel added.

The board also was asked about a list of priorities, which Benjamin said they plan to have staff present. “It will be part of the budget process, absolutely.”

Barron said it's good to know the district board can work together, and that they hadn't had any real “head-butting moments.”

Benjamin said sometimes people on boards and commissions aren't given the information they need and they have to do the best job they can with what they know at the time. He said Chase has been instrumental in helping straighten out the district's finances, and he didn't want to see him criticized because of his presence on the previous board.

He said the board will continue addressing the recommendations in Bain's audits, which must be sent to the county auditor and state controller. They'll start looking at the next audit toward the end of June.

New levels of control have been instituted, he said. “You won't find credit card abuse in this district now,” nor can an employee do what they want with their own payroll. All taxes are being paid and McCosker added that they've not had a bounced check since March of 2008.

Harris said she hoped if there is wrongdoing that it will be addressed to prevent it happening elsewhere. Because the district is a public entity, Benjamin said they have to protect the public interest, and they will do what's required by law.

Barnes said she wants to see the district remain a public entity and not be owned by a private company, such as is the case in Lucerne. Benjamin said the board is there to do just that.

“It's not for the pay,” quipped McCosker.

Bain said when he accepts a client he looks at integrity. He said the board chose to make public some aspects of the audit which could have been kept private. “I view that as a positive sign of strong integrity,” Bain said.

Benjamin pointed out that the special meeting required only 24 hours notice beforehand, but the district released the audits and gave notice for the meeting 10 days ahead of time in order to give the community time to look at the information.

Lamb asked if they would pursue a forensic audit. Benjamin said they will look at it if it's needed, but it could be extremely expensive. Bain noted it would be charged hourly. Benjamin said their decision to do one would depend on the budget and have to be balanced against other district needs.

McCosker said he also is being as transparent as possible, and is getting information to the board quickly. Ninety-five percent of the things on his to do list have been accomplished.

Benjamin said the board will do everything they can to make sure past mistakes aren't repeated and to be honest with ratepayers. “And there's nothing else we can do beyond that.”

Lamb noted the difference between where the district is now and where it was six months ago is “unbelievable.”

Benjamin thanked community members for their work to change things.

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

SANTA ROSA – A Kelseyville teenager will be tried as an adult in a homicide case filed against him in Sonoma County.

Marco Antonio Meza, 17, is facing a murder charge for the April 6 shooting death of 18-year-old Luis Suarez of Santa Rosa, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Spencer Brady of the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office.

It's alleged that Meza shot Suarez in a driveby shooting, Brady said.

Meza was arrested by the Santa Rosa Police Department April 8 after being taken in for questioning with another man, 20-year-old Santa Rosa resident Fernando Mendoza. Mendoza was arrested on a parole violation.

A suspected Sureno gang member, Meza entered no plea during an appearance in Sonoma County Superior Court on Friday, Brady said.

The teenager, who Brady said will continue to be housed at Sonoma County's juvenile detention center despite being tried as an adult, is scheduled to return to court on Friday, April 17.

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




Researching this week’s column has given me a change of heart about the direction of my life, and I would like to announce my turn to a life of crime.

After all, my entire life has been spent as a law-abiding citizen, with the occasional speeding ticket being my biggest peek into the dark side of the law. Throughout my short existence I have saved more lives than I can even remember, and worked with many charities and community organizations in any way I can.

Why do I bring this up? Because evidently a life of crime will make you more infamous and, in a way immortal, than being an altruistic person.

Benmore Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is named after Benjamin Logan Moore, a resident of Lake County in the mid-1800s. His claim to fame was being a cattle rustler and horse thief, but he also was so cruel to his wife that she finally ran away from him in the middle of winter with their infant son and reached her destination with bloody frostbitten bare feet. His wife was from one of the Lake County tribes, and to this day the Moore name continues down to their tribal ancestors here in the county.

Moore spent the better part of his life as a criminal and eventually left the US for South America to escape prosecution. He allegedly died down there but the details are sketchy as to how or when.

He used what is now the Benmore AVA as a hideout and grazing land for his ill-gotten herd, which was an ideal location. Due to its remoteness and altitude, he could see anyone approaching the land long before they were a danger and he could slip away.

This lifestyle has benefited him to the score of nine Lake County landmarks that are or were once named after him, not including places that were named in conjunction with him. For example, Ben Moore was one of the three bachelors that lived in Bachelor Valley for a time.

The Benmore Valley AVA was established in 1991 by Vinmark Inc. The only vineyard in the valley was owned by the Trione family of Geyser Peak Winery. They grew Chardonnay vines on the valley floor and sides.

The Benmore Valley AVA is a small valley in western Lake County just north of Highway 175. The entire valley itself is only 1,440 acres in size. Many descriptions state that it lies on the southwestern corner of Lake County, but as most local people can confirm it is the western edge but more in the center of the county. With the unusual way our county is laid out both descriptions could be considered accurate.

It is not only a unique micro-climate from the rest of the county, it sits at 2,400 feet elevation with the mountains surrounding it averaging 2,800 feet.

Some descriptions represent it as being more of a depression in the mountains than as an actual valley. The valley is unique from other valleys of Lake County by having ample water from run off, groundwater, a creek and three manmade lakes. The valley floor was once a lake itself and contains alluvial soils.

This ample water and deeper soil is good for commercial agriculture, which seems to be an exact opposite environment of the other Lake County official AVAs, which sit on top of dryer, thinner soils that are the home to most vineyards. However the sides of the valley need to be irrigated and a massive irrigation system was installed at one time.

The unique environment of Benmore Valley is compounded by fact that the growing season starts later than the rest of the region. For instance, while the average last frost date in Napa is in March, the Benmore Valley’s is late May. I spoke to several people about the valley and growing grapes there, but listening to them talk was like listening to a veteran talk about being in a war.

Growing grapes in the Benmore AVA is very much like a war, and turning the valley into a vineyard would be like turning Clear Lake into a prime shark fishing destination. Sure, it could be done, but it shouldn’t be done.

Frost is such a problem in Benmore Valley that there have been years when it has occurred on the forth of July. Just in case it needs to be said, grapes absolutely hate frost and need to be protected from it. If you are a winery or vineyard that has to worry about frost year round, you can understand why a farmer in that situation would sound like he’s suffering from shell-shock.

The growing season in Benmore is so short that sometimes harvests would have to take place as late as November, and the grapes sometimes wouldn’t reach their peak in flavor. Only Chardonnay grapes were grown there and they didn’t like the climate at all. It’s thought that there may be some European grape varietals that might like the climate and do well in the AVA, but California varietals don’t. It may be possible to grow Sauvignon Blanc grapes on the hillsides, but results would be iffy at best.

The soil is described as “fair to good, at best,” so although the property is beautiful it isn’t good vineyard land. My personal opinion about putting a vineyard in the Benmore Valley is that it was a case of falling love with the idea of having a vineyard on a property before putting in the necessary research to see if it could work as a vineyard. Ah! How many of us have tried to change something that couldn’t be changed? I know my wife is still trying!

Geyser Peak used the grapes from the Benmore AVA for a while, and some even went to Korbel and Kendall Jackson, but in the end the work to raise the vines in the valley was too difficult. The valley floor is just too cold and the soil doesn’t have anything remarkable for the vines to survive in it.

The Triones sold the property a few years ago, most of the vines have been pulled out, and though there are some recreational facilities in the valley for vacation rental and hunting facilities, the purpose that Benjamin Moore originally used the area for is its purpose now: cattle grazing land; and according to some of the people I spoke to, that is all that it is really good for.

There are only about 10 acres of chardonnay vines still left on the property, and those are used by individuals for personal winemaking. While grapes are still growing in the valley, they are slowly but surely being removed or dying off and won’t be replanted. Essentially, Benmore Valley AVA as a commercial grape growing region is effectively dead.

I have high hopes for the cattle grown there and would love to see the Benmore Valley supply prime cattle from a cattle rustler’s infamous valley. Excuse the obsequiousness but I’m just trying to promote the cattle from the valley of my compatriot in crime. We criminals have to stick together.

So I am off on my life as a womanizing, drunken, sinful criminal, and hopefully if I have the follow-though to become the new Snidely Whiplash your grandchildren will be going to Ross A. Christensen High School, or your wine will made in the Ross AVA. Maybe I could take a short cut and not actually live a life of crime, but instead run for senator …

Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community.

SACRAMENTO – The California Highway Patrol (CHP) has begun its transitional, nine-month “Comprehensive Approach to Reducing Speed” (CARS) project on roadways throughout the state.

Funding for this project is provided by a $3.5 million grant from the state Office of Traffic Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

CARS focuses on reducing the number of fatal and injury collisions on both state highways and county roads, thereby reducing the number of victims killed and injured in such collisions.

Another focus for the program is reducing the number of fatal and injury motorcycle-involved collisions within CHP jurisdiction and the number of victims killed and injured in such collisions.

Using project-funded overtime, the eight CHP field Divisions will deploy officers on state highways and county roads to enforce traffic violations that most commonly cause collisions.

Officers also will be watching for traffic violations that most commonly cause collisions involving motorcycles. These violations will include speeding, right of way, following too close, improper turning, and driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs.

The CHP urges motorists to prevent fatal and injury collisions by reducing their speed, being watchful for motorcyclists, reducing distractions and buckling their safety belts.

From left, paid call Engineer Bob Cummesky, Fire Marshal Dave Miinch, paid call Firefighter Dave Watkins and Battalion Chief Jim Wright. Courtesy photo.


MIDDLETOWN – The South Lake County Fire Protection District has a new piece of equipment in its arsenal.

On April 8, the district took delivery of a new Office of Emergency Services engine identified as OES-359.

This new engine was provided to the South Lake County Fire Protection District to utilize in response to California’s ever-increasing threat of fire and earthquake related emergencies.

The Office of Emergency Services provides the engine free of charge with the agreed upon understanding that should a catastrophic emergency arise within the State of California the South Lake County Fire Protection District will provide the staffing needed to respond.

The fire district can use the engine to augment its existing apparatus inventory in an effort to quell the threat of fire and other related emergencies locally.

“Our Fire District has been providing this needed staffing since 1971 upon signing our first agreement with Office of Emergency Services,” said Fire Marshal Dave Miinch. “Much appreciation goes out to our paid call fire staff who answer the call of duty when an emergency arises in the state of California. Several times each year this engine will be called upon to respond to emergencies and without the help of our Paid Call Fire Staff that wouldn’t be possible.”

This most recent delivery provided what is known as a Type I Fire Engine and a Type III Urban Search and Rescue Unit.

The new unit has the capability of delivering 1,250 gallons a minute with a tank capacity of 850 gallons of water. It carries specialized equipment, which can be utilized in the search and rescue of victims during earthquake emergencies and other related disasters.

“It’s one of the finest pieces of rescue apparatus I’ve seen in my fire service career of 22 years,” said Miinch. “The California Office of Emergency Services should be commended for providing such a quality piece of fire apparatus to protect the people of California from the threat of fire and other related disasters.”

T. Watts at the KPFZ microphone. Courtesy photo.


Don’t drive drunk …”

Stevie Wonder, circa 1984

A few season’s ago when my son was a senior in high school, his school partnered with local law enforcement and emergency agencies and presented a great public awareness program around the hazards of drunk driving.

We simulated (I say we because I was a parent volunteer) a fatal drunk driving accident complete with a wrecked car, student actors and real props including a Medvac helicopter, fire trucks, California Highway Patrol and Lake County Sheriff's personnel. It was a quite impressive dramatic presentation – so powerful that real tears were shed in its wake.

Later during graduation week, great pains were taken by the school and booster club to insure that Sober Grad night was indeed a sober affair. Again, I was a parent volunteer, and stayed up all night long chaperoning and supervising as our senior teens frolicked in ritual celebration without the social lubrication of alcohol and drugs at a local business that was equipped to handle the affair.

Nonetheless, since that class has graduated there have been at least a couple of alcohol- or drug-related real fatalities involving teenaged peers of that same class. Again, real tears were shed. Memorial flowers are still left at the scene of one of the fatalities that occurred at least three years ago.

Thrust into the role of investigative journalist through simple dialogue with students and parents alike, I was astounded and perplexed to learn of some incongruous allegations involving students, parents and, dare I say, law enforcement as well.

The first thing I learned was that the teens of today are pretty hip when it comes to circumventing the law around intoxication. They know how to use the designated driver concept to the max.

The second thing I learned was that there seemed to be private parties every weekend that were chaperoned by parents who allowed underage drinking at these events. Frequently the revelers would simply crash all night long at the party site which diminished the probability that these young’uns would be out behind the wheels of automobiles.

The third piece of information that was laid upon me was the assertion of the unwritten, look-the-other-way code by law enforcement. My sources implied that if an officer made a stop of a vehicle that contained inebriated minors, they would be cut loose as long as the driver was not under the influence. Hmm … These are deep allegations that permeate the very social order or lack thereof in the county of Lake. Part of the problem is the lack of activities for young folks here.

There certainly is talk and money being bandied about for the revitalization of Lake County. Catchphrases like county plan and redevelopment corridor of Lucerne and other neighborhood projects costing millions of dollars. Strange that it seems with all these monied, revitalization talks, there is not much evidence of jobs for young people here. There has been heavy resistance to drug and alcohol rehabilitation and education in this county. The old NIMBY routine. You know, not in my backyard!

Meanwhile, the crank that has been cooked here through generations continues to be cooked. Ganja farms possibly legal and hugely illegal proliferate. Seems like our priorities are pretty skewed.

This piece kinda started out as a dialogue about the hazards of underage drunkenness. Seems as though the issue(s) are much larger and more interrelated than just that. Where have all the Mothers Against Drunk Driving gone? Or the parents against drunken societal decisions? Or the connected societal big ol’ boys who skirt the law and laugh all the way to the … can I say bank? They shoot banks, don’t they? With apologies to Elvis and Otis Blackwell, we are all shook up here.

Goin’ out with a little Curtis Mayfield. Why don’t you check out your mind? Been with you all the time

Have a blessed Easter.

Keep prayin’, Keep thinkin’ those kind thoughts!


Upcoming cool event:

Tallman Hotel/Blue Wing Saloon “Concert with Conversation” Boogie Woogie Queen Wendy DeWitt, Friday April 24, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., 9520 Main St., Upper Lake. 707-275-2233.

T. Watts is a writer, radio host and music critic. Visit his Web site at

SANTA ROSA – A Kelseyville teenager has been arrested on a murder charge for the death of a young Santa Rosa resident.

The Santa Rosa Police Department reported that they arrested the 17-year-old male – whose name was not released due to his age – on Wednesday. He is alleged to have murdered Luis Suarez, 18, on Monday.

Police are continuing their investigation of the shooting and the motivations behind it, including the possibility that it's gang-related.

However, Sgt. Lisa Banayat told Lake County News, “I cannot say for sure that it's a gang crime.”

Just after 9:30 p.m. Monday Santa Rosa Police received a call of shots fired in the area of Grand and Pressley avenues. Callers also advised 911 dispatchers that a person had been shot and was on the ground.

Officers located Suarez with gunshot wounds in the 1000 block of Grand Avenue. Ambulance personnel had also been summoned, and determined Suarez already was deceased.

Detectives from the Violent Crime and Gang Crime Investigations Teams have been interviewing suspects and witnesses, as well as following leads from the public regarding this case.

On Wednesday, officers stopped a car they believed to be connected to the case at Santa Rosa Avenue and Court Street.

Two subjects in the car – the 17-year-old Kelseyville resident and Fernando Mendoza, 20, of Santa Rosa – were detained for questioning.

Police later arrested the Kelseyville teen for murder and transported him to the Juvenile Justice Center.

Mendoza was arrested on a parole violation and booked at the Sonoma County Jail.

Banayat said Suarez knew some gang members, but she didn't yet have verification on whether or not the Kelseyville teenager is himself a gang member.

She said the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office is deciding this week if it will prosecute the teen as an adult. If it does his name will be released.

Banayat added that she had no information about the teenager's criminal history, and wouldn't be able to release that information if she did.

The Sonoma County Alliance’s “Take Back Our Community” program has offered a $2,500 reward for anyone who provides information to the Santa Rosa Police that facilitates the arrest of the involved suspect(s).

Anyone with information regarding this investigation is encouraged to contact Detective Bradley Conners of the Santa Rosa Police Department’s Violent Crimes Team at 707-543-3590.

Upcoming Calendar

07.16.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at Library Park
07.17.2024 5:30 pm - 7:00 pm
Free veterans dinner
07.20.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at the Mercantile
07.23.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at Library Park
07.27.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at the Mercantile
07.30.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at Library Park
08.03.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at the Mercantile
08.06.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at Library Park
08.10.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at the Mercantile
08.13.2024 10:00 am - 1:00 pm
Farmers' Market at Library Park

Mini Calendar



Award winning journalism on the shores of Clear Lake. 



Enter your email here to make sure you get the daily headlines.

You'll receive one daily headline email and breaking news alerts.
No spam.