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Economic growth, gun violence, new leaders top news of 2012
2012 review pic1
Blue Diamond employees, elected officials, and local dignitaries break ground in April on what is said to be the largest investment in the history of the almond industry. - photo by Journal file photo

A long-awaited economic recovery began to take shape in 2012, with major businesses breaking ground throughout the year.

Blue Diamond’s decision to site a massive new almond processing plant in Turlock was just the biggest sign of this rebound.  The multi-million dollar plant – termed the largest capital investment in the history of Blue Diamond – will employ as many as 100 when it  opens in May.

A second phase will see additional almond processing capabilities – and more workers. Though build-out was projected to take 15 years, strong demand for almonds could lead to expansion in as few as two years.

Monte Vista Crossings saw new tenants for long vacant spaces. Old Navy replaced the long-shuttered Borders, while Ulta Beauty replaced Fashion Bug.

And MVC began to expand as well, finally kicking off construction on a long-awaited southern expansion with the opening of the Olive Garden. Combined, the three businesses added hundreds of jobs to Turlock.

Downtown, too, bounced back strongly, with only a 12 percent vacancy rate as of November. That’s down sharply from March 2009, when downtown had a 25 percent vacancy rate after 15 businesses either closed or relocated.

“It’s just quite obvious, the changes that are happening downtown,” said Turlock Downtown Property Owners Association administrator Dana McGarry said to the Turlock City Council in November. “I can barely keep my database up to date in adding new businesses.”

Many of those new businesses are restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues, like the bustling La Mo and Dust Bowl Tap Room. The growth is expected to continue in 2013, as Red Brick relocates to Main Street from Broadway.

The economy wasn’t quite so kind to farmers, who faced one of the worst rain years on record in 2012. But strong early rainfall for next season looks promising.

And it remains to be seen how Emanuel Medical Center will survive the shifting economy; the hospital has seen revenues dwindle in recent years.

But in September, Emanuel announced it was in discussions with investor-owned hospital operator Tenet Healthcare Corporation, which operates Doctors Medical Center in Modesto and Doctors Hospital in Manteca.

Though a partnership has yet to be finalized, an agreement could see Tenet operate Turlock’s hospital and all healthcare services it offers. An announcement is expected in the coming weeks, after the due diligence process is completed.



Gun violence on the rise

The recent tragedies in Newtown, Conn. and Rochester, NY. have prompted new national conversations about gun control and the violence that can ensue when someone pulls the trigger.

Sadly, local residents didn’t have to look across the country to see the results of gun violence, as 2012 recorded a number of fatalities involving firearms.

A grim reminder about the dangers law enforcement face on a daily basis was served to the community in April when Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Paris, 53, and locksmith Glendon Engert, 35, were shot to death while serving an eviction notice in Modesto.

The ambush prompted a 12-hour standoff between law enforcement and the gunman, Jim Richard Ferrario, 45, who barricaded himself inside the apartment. The standoff came to a fiery end when flames engulfed the apartment. It was later discovered Ferrario used one of the guns in his considerably large arsenal to take his own life.

Just a few weeks later law enforcement from two agencies were dealing with unstable individuals in two separate incidences that both resulted in fatalities.

On the morning of April 16, Turlock police officers were called to a neighborhood on Nikki Ann Way for the report of suspicious individuals in the area, possibly burglarizing a home. Several officers responded to the scene and located the subjects, all of whom were ordered to stop.

Alejandro Hernandez, 19, of Turlock was one of the suspects at the scene and according to the police department, Hernandez was armed with a handgun. Hernandez reportedly aimed his gun at one of the officers and was fired upon in response. Hernandez sustained a gunshot wound to his torso and died at a hospital a short time later.

Hours later law enforcement was reporting a second deadly officer-involved shooting, this time at a Keyes residence.

The Ramirez family had contacted the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department to request help with their depressed son, 32-year-old Jorge Ramirez Jr.

The deputy who arrived at the scene, six-year veteran Art Parra, had been talking with Ramirez and was attempting to place him in handcuffs when Ramirez began demanding to see Parra’s credentials. During the confrontation Parra used his Taser on Ramirez. Ramirez stumbled to the floor, but got up again. It was at this point that the family says Parra shot Ramirez several times. Ramirez suffered gunshot wounds to the chest, abdomen and thigh. He was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Ramirez was not armed during the encounter.

The Ramirez family has filed a claim against the county for $61 million. The claim is likely a precursor to a lawsuit.

In July the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department was facing a Turlock man seemingly bent on “suicide by cop.”

The confrontation began on the afternoon of July 4 when the family of William Nazar, 43, contacted the sheriff’s department and reported him as suicidal and armed.

The deputies who came to the Verduga Road residence were fired upon by Nazar. One deputy returned gunfire and Nazar ran back into the home. The deputies were able to retreat to a safe point unharmed. The deputies put in a call for assistance and before long the house and neighborhood were surrounded by law enforcement from multiple agencies and counties.

As a Special Weapons and Tactics team approached the home they found Nazar outside the residence, dead from a gunshot wound. An autopsy later revealed Nazar had been fatally shot by the deputy.

The end of July saw another deadly officer involved shooting that resulted in the death of the suspect, Joseph Davis, 29, of Winton and the wounding of Turlock Police Cpl. Dave Shaw.

Davis was wanted by the police department for a previous pursuit. He was spotted outside a Turlock motel on the morning of July 30. Before officers could apprehend him, Davis brandished a firearm and jumped into a vehicle, fleeing with officers chasing after him.

The pursuit continued for several miles on Highway 99 to the Bradbury off ramp. Davis jumped from his vehicle and ran to a truck that had pulled off to the side of the road. According to the police department, Davis shot into the truck and officers opened fire to protect the individual in the truck.

It’s unknown how many times Davis was hit. According to the police department he died at the scene.

Shaw was struck in the leg during the shooting and has since made a complete recovery.

The losses from gunfire were not limited to those encounters involving law enforcement, as several outbursts of violence claimed the lives of  area individuals.

In April, 70-year-old Hilmar resident Roberto Solorio was gunned down inside his own home when two armed men mistakenly believed he had marijuana hidden in the house. The two suspects in Solorio’s murder have yet to be identified.

In May, Hells Angel member Simon White, 24, was fatally shot during a drive-by shooting on Vermont Avenue in Turlock. The suspected shooter, Gabriel Miranda, a documented Norteno gang member, was apprehended a few weeks later in Idaho and has been extradited back to Stanislaus County, where he is currently awaiting trial for White’s murder.

A lapse in good judgment at a Fourth of July party led to the tragic shooting death of 20-year-old Hilmar resident Mirisa Dinwiddie by her fiancé Fabio Mendonca of Hilmar. Surrounded by friends and family, the pair were playing with a shotgun when it suddenly went off, striking Dinwiddie in the face and killing her instantly. Initially thought to be an accident, investigators changed course and arrested Mendonca. He is currently awaiting trial in Merced County on a charge of involuntary manslaughter.

An ongoing dispute between two Hughson men erupted into gun violence at the end of July and resulted in both of their deaths. Leading Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputies on a slow speed pursuit, an armed John Szuggar, 52, drove to the home of 45-year-old Nick Kounias. Szuggar ran into the home and within seconds there was an exchange of gunfire. A SWAT team entered the home and found both men dead from gunshot wounds. It’s believed Kounias was acting in self-defense when he fired his weapon.



New leaders

One of the only constants in 2012, it seemed, was change at the top.

The faces of Turlock’s leaders changed significantly over the past year, in city government, education, and the media alike.

Change started early in the year, with former Police Capt. Rob Jackson ascending to the post of Turlock Police Chief in January. It was a position almost fated for Jackson, who has worked in law enforcement since he was just 15 years old, after a junior high aptitude test suggested the career.

“It was an aptitude test taken in eighth grade that said I should become either a police officer or a park ranger that got me thinking about law enforcement,” Jackson said during a Journal interview in January.

Jackson replaced interim chief Dave Young, who filled in following the July 2011 departure of former chief Gary Hampton.

California State University, Stanislaus welcomed a new leader on June 11 in interim president Joseph Sheley. Sheley faced the tough task of restoring relationships with professors left shattered by outgoing president Hamid Shirvani, who now runs the North Dakota State University system.

But Sheley has proved up to the task so far, building bridges while serving as a tireless advocate for CSU Stanislaus.

Following the November elections, the face of the Turlock City Council changed as well. Steven Nascimento, a former Parks, Recreation, and Community commissioner and district director for State Sen. Anthony Cannella (R), won a seat away from incumbent councilwoman Mary Jackson.

And, lastly, the Journal itself has seen change at the top. Hank Vander Veen, a former publisher of the Merced Sun-Star, joined the Journal as its general manager in April, with a focus on building stronger relationships with the community.



Education in transition

The year began with a fire on Jan. 17 at Crowell Elementary School, that, thankfully, saw no injuries.

Construction for a modernization project at Crowell Elementary School ignited a fire inside an empty classroom wing, prompting a school-wide exodus onto the adjacent ball field and track.  The fire was believed to have originated in the attic space above the classrooms. All the children and the campus staff were accounted for and no injuries were reported.

The classroom was in the process of undergoing a modernization project to turn it into a library lab.

Turlock's youngest students were given the gift of time this school year by getting a head start on their education before they reach kindergarten.  2012 was the first year of a two-year transitional kindergarten program created by the Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2010.

The Turlock Unified School District enacted TK at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year at Wakefield, Dennis Earl, and Medeiros elementary school sites. 

The news wasn't as bright at the Denair Unified School District. Denair Unified reached insolvency for the current school year as the district was unable to meets its financial obligations, forcing the district to make its first cuts and teacher layoffs for the 2013-14 school year.

At a December board meeting, trustees voted to layoff one high school math teacher, one drama teacher, a middle school physical-education teacher and a half-time kindergarten teacher.  The board also unanimously voted to lay off one full-time supervisor of maintenance.  In addition, trustees voted to convert Denair Charter Academy to an alternative school for 2013-14.

The district’s cuts and teacher layoffs were a result of continued deficit spending, low reserve levels, and declining enrollment. The district has also issued varying types of debt over the past several years. Because of its troubles, the Stanislaus County Office of Education appointed a fiscal expert to review the district's budgetary situation and informed the state about the situation.


Developing Turlock

2012 was a year of breaking ground and charting paths for Turlock’s future.

In September, the Turlock City Council approved a new, smaller General Plan – one of the most important documents any city produces. That plan will guide Turlock’s growth – in size, density, and direction – for the next 20 to 25 years.

Turlock will grow only to three new master planned neighborhoods in the southeast, hosting 105,000 residents at build-out. That’s much smaller than initial plans, which called for five southeastern neighborhoods and one northwest of Highway 99, housing 126,800 residents.

The decision to embrace the smaller growth plan came as council members listened to Planning Commission and citizen feedback after years spent developing the larger plan, choosing to preserve farmland rather than add homes.

That’s not to say Turlock saw no new homes in 2012 – the City of Turlock broke ground on a $19 million, 80-unit low-income housing development at 500 W. Linwood Ave. in March. The development, called Avena Bella, should open in summer 2013.

The green, low-income restricted housing development was years in the planning, but almost fell through because of the State Legislatures’ decision to eliminate redevelopment agencies in a budget-balancing maneuver last summer.

“We dodged the loss of redevelopment by one whisker,” said Mary Murtaugh, president and CEO of Avena Bella builders EAH Housing, at the groundbreaking ceremony. “If it (Avena Bella) had been delayed even three or four months, it wouldn’t have happened.”

The shuttering of redevelopment agencies statewide will likely have serious detrimental impacts on Turlock’s ability to fund major projects in the future. In Turlock, redevelopment has funded road repairs, senior housing, the Carnegie Arts Center, and artificial turf at Joe Debely Stadium, among other expenses.

Redevelopment also paid for Turlock’s under-construction Public Safety Facility, a $33.6 million new home for Turlock’s police and fire departments. Workers lifted the final beam into place in January, with the facility expected to open in July 2013.

One other major project opened in Turlock in 2012 – the $1.65 million Regional Transit Center, the first bus hub in the city and the second in the county. The new transit hub, located in the triangle of land bordered by Del’s Lane, Golden State Boulevard and Hawkeye Avenue and funded entirely by federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus funds and state Prop 1B transportation funds, provides riders a safe place to connect between Stanislaus County, Turlock and Merced County busses.




Expanding services

Outreach and support services in Turlock expanded during 2012 with the opening of the city's first homeless day center, a grief support center for children and families, a crisis intervention organization for women and children, and the return of a parenting resource center.

Since its opening on Feb. 27, the Turlock Gospel Mission Homeless Assistance Ministry has provided the homeless a safe place to go during the day and a variety of social services.

Each day an estimated 20 to 30 visitors are stop by to use the day center’s computers, check out a book, connect with a social service agency, or simply to have a cup of coffee away from the hustle and bustle of the streets.

“I thought there would be more bumps in the beginning, but that hasn’t been the case,” said the Rev. Tim Guerino, who directs the day center for the Turlock Gospel Mission. “We’ve been working with other agencies and bringing in new resources. It’s all coming together really well.”

Located inside a former youth center on East Avenue, the day center offers its visitors a bevy of resources, including the tools needed to research and apply for jobs. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the center also offers visitors a respite away from their daily struggles.

In April, Emanuel Medical Center opened Jessica’s House – a grief support center for children and families, the first of its kind in the area.

Jessica’s House has its roots in the personal experiences of Erin Nelson, the house’s director, and Danielle and Michael Everett, all of whom know a bit too much about dealing with grief.

“This is Turlock,” John Sigsbury, Emanuel Medical Center CEO said. “Groups of people see a need very close to their hearts, and they do something about it.”

When Nelson’s husband passed away, leaving her to care for two young children, it was only the support of friends and family that got her through, she said. The experience led Nelson to become a certified grief counselor – and to ask why there wasn’t a place to help children work through this challenging time.

Nelson later met the Everett’s, whose daughter Jessica – the House’s namesake – passed in 2004, when the nine-year-old lost a nearly three-year battle with leukemia.

The Everetts and Nelson worked with Emanuel Medical Center to make Jessica’s House a reality – and a testament to the memory of Jessica Everett, who left a mark on Emanuel’s workers and patients.

“They knew her spirit and her affection. She was special,” Michael Everett said.

Now, Jessica’s art hangs throughout the house, along with a plaque explaining telling her story. And all who enter speak of a certain warmth they feel throughout the house, Michael Everett said.

After having to shut its doors in October 2011 due to loss of funding, the Turlock Family Network offices reopened in June.

The Turlock Family Network is a resource for young mothers and fathers — many of whom have come from abusive backgrounds or are recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. The network provides parenting skills through a variety of programs including prenatal classes, weekly parenting classes and an in-home mentoring program.

In October 2011, those young families were told to find somewhere else to get the parenting skills needed to stop the abuse cycle.

“Community members recognized the need was still high in the community and pulled together funds,” said TFN Director Beverly Spielman about the program’s comeback.

TFN is the only parenting program in the Turlock area, and the number of families the network helped has been on the rise over the past three years. In 2009, 64 adults and 94 children were served by TFN; in 2010, those numbers increased to 138 adults and 223 children. As of August 2011, 128 adults and 193 children participated in TFN classes.

“There was a lot of cry for the program to come back,” Spielman said. “I received quite a few calls from other agencies after our closing. People were calling and saying, ‘I need a parenting class and I don’t have the money to get to Modesto.’”

In October, the Turlock City Council unanimously approved a five-year lease agreement with Haven Women’s Center of Stanislaus County for the building which formerly housed Turlock Parks and Recreation, 301 Starr Ave.

“This is such a great thing for Haven and for Turlock,” said Haven Executive Director Belinda Rolicheck. “We are just so excited we can’t even tell you.”

The center offers support groups, legal services, crisis intervention, and referral services to survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, women, children, and teens alike – just like the center’s Modesto sites.

The new Haven Women’s Center was termed a win by the City of Turlock too, redeveloping a building which may have otherwise sat empty for some time while providing a needed service in Turlock.

“It's a quiet need at times, and it's a desperate need,” former councilwoman Mary Jackson said.

The City’s Redevelopment Agency purchased the building from the City of Turlock when Parks and Recreation moved to 144 S. Broadway in 2011, intending to redevelop the site into affordable housing. But when the state shut down RDAs statewide in 2011, Turlock was left holding “an empty building,” with no funds available to build housing.



Losses of 2012

The closing of another year is always a time of reflection and to recall the changes of the past year, especially when those changes include the loss of a loved one.

In 2012 the Turlock said a sad farewell to several individuals who had found a place in the community’s heart.

Dying from adrenocortical cancer, 26-year-old Brandon Koch had one wish — to not be forgotten. An avid skateboarder, Koch’s family and friends took his final request to heart and embarked on a quest to have the skate park named in his honor. In August their efforts were rewarded when the skate park was officially named the Brandon Koch Memorial Skate Park.

“Skateboarding was not just a pastime for Brandon,” said Koch’s aunt Judith Suliman. “It was a major part of his life. I can still remember his excitement when the Turlock Skate Park was built (and) the number of hours he spent with his board.”

Koch’s family is currently raising funds to pay for the expense of changing the park name.

Turlock was once again reminded of the sacrifices paid by those in the armed services when 25-year-old Turlock resident Benjamin Pleitez was killed on July 27 while serving as a combat medic with the California National Guard in Afghanistan.

Among his family and friends, Pleitez will be remembered as a man of steadfast character with an easy laugh, a quick smile, and a bit of a daredevil streak.

The need to challenge himself was what inspired Pleitez to join the military. He enlisted with the California Army National Guard on Sept. 26, 2006 as a heavy vehicle driver. His enlistment ended on Oct. 3, 2007, but Pleitez still felt that call to duty, so on Dec. 1, 2009, he reenlisted in the California Army National Guard as a health care specialist.

Pleitez’ awards and decorations include the Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal (w/Bronze Service Star), Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Bar, NATO Medal, and California Enlisted Trainer’s Excellence Ribbon.

While serving in Afghanistan, Pleitez was struck by the lack of education available to the populace and got involved with the Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes literacy and education, especially among girls, in Central Asia communities.

“He had a conversation with our mother about how no matter what they did in Afghanistan the people would still be reliant on the Taliban if they didn’t get educated,” said his brother Jon Pleitez. “He felt a real difference could be made if the people could be educated.”

Billy Wallen, who served the Turlock community as a member of the Turlock Police Department and later as a city councilman, died in October at the age of 68.

A lifelong resident of Turlock, Wallen joined the police department in 1969 and rose to the rank of police commander. He retired in 1998, the same year he was elected to the city council. He served two terms on the council, winning reelection in 2002 and championed the economic development of the city along with public safety. 



Personalities of the year

Turlockers weren’t limited to making an impact within city limits in 2012.

Many Turlock residents and natives made their mark on a much larger stage, both good and bad.

Perhaps most notable was Turlock-bred Colin Kaepernick. A year after the San Francisco 49ers selected Kaepernick in the second round of the National Football League draft, Kap was thrust into the national spotlight in 2012.

Former 49ers quarterback Alex Smith suffered a concussion in a game against the St. Louis Rams, and Kap performed so well in relief that he held onto the job. The town has rallied behind the new QB, buying jerseys and even naming hot dogs after Kaepernick.

But just as impressive is Kap’s continuing support for Turlock, offering assistance to Camp Taylor. The camp helps northern Californian children who are born with congenital heart defects – an illness which claimed the lives of two of Kaepernick’s brothers.

Not every Turlocker was in the news for the right reasons. Denise Helms made nationwide news after she posted a racial slur to Facebook following the November reelection of President Barack Obama.

“And another 4 years of the n*****…maybe he will get assassinated this term…!!” Helms posted.

The post earned Helms the attention of the United States Secret Service, which investigates all real or perceived threats against the President. And the statement cost Helms her job with Cold Stone Creamery, which terminated her employment after receiving numerous complaints about her statement.

Turlocker Erin Nelson made a mark around the world, after embarking on a two-year bicycle trip around the globe. Nelson visited over 21 countries, and spoke at a youth bike summit along the way.

And one local dog made a mark on two women’s faces.

The Alaskan Malamute Bolt was slated to be put down after biting two Turlock women this fall. Some allege that the victims provoked Bolt in some way, while the women claim innocence.

But members of the community united behind the dog, forming Facebook groups and signing petitions to save the dog. The movement has gone nationwide, attracting supporters from as far away as Brooklyn, N.Y.

A final decision on Bolt’s fate awaits an appeal in the new year.

— Journal reporters Alex Cantatore, Sabra Stafford, Nancy Angel and Kristina Hacker contributed to this report.