In January 2011, we were inundated with a surprise snowstorm that closed the Grapevine and turned the Santa Clarita Valley into a winter wonderland under a blanket of white that lasted less than 24 hours – enough time to make snow angels and take next year’s Christmas card picture.
Good thing, because in December 2011, the temperature on Christmas Day was 80 degrees.
Likewise, the news from our valley during 2011 was all over the spectrum. Headlines were filled with things like murder-suicides, busting grow houses, sex scandals from Valencia to Virginia and nuns filling the City Council chambers to saying it would be a sin to save old buildings.
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There was good news, too; Councilman Frank Ferry recovered from a life-threatening (and changing, given his recent council activity) health issue; the Hart District got a few steps closer to building Castaic High School; a new library is rising at the corner of Lyons and Main in Newhall and veterans are getting a helping hand from hundreds of volunteers through the new Habitat For Heroes program.
By far, the incident that made us open our hearts the most was the tragic loss of Army Pfc. Rudy Acosta, who was killed in March by an insurgent in Afghanistan. His death brought us up short, and prompted a response that surrounded his family with support and comfort. We lived up to our patriotic best, holding candlelight vigils and turning out for the young soldier’s funeral, lining the motorcade route with thousands of flags, banners, pictures and tributes. Our community’s grief included other families who had already experienced the loss of their loved ones; dedicating a gazebo at the city’s sports complex to those who died in the recent wars as well as naming part of the cross-valley connector “Fallen Warriors Bridge” and paying tribute during the annual Veteran’s Day ceremonies.
We lost some other notable citizens – Val Verde pioneer Elijah Canty was with us for a century, sharing his wisdom and helping community organizations; former SCV Woman of the Year Ruth Clark, music scholar Daniel Catan; car dealer Doug Swaim; gibbon expert Allan Mootnick and Way Station maven Jeri Bronstrup all moved on.
Not all shuffled off this mortal coil, some retired willingly, including popular sheriff’s Deputy Pat Rissler, who organized community events. Others vacated their corner offices after management changes, such as Ian Lamont at The Signal.
The US Census noted that the population of the SCV went up about 17 percent since the turn of the century, and despite some interesting arrests, the sheriff’s department said that the crime rate stayed relatively low. Some people who became guests of the county included martial arts instructor Dante Lusica, arrested in January for suspected inappropriate behavior with a young girl, but later in the year, on the lam from deputies who suspect him of fraud and grand theft; Jeffrey Stenroos, who forced a lockdown of a 10-square-mile section of the San Fernando Valley after he reported being shot by an unknown assailant, which turned out to be a complete lie; Canyon High instructor Ashraf Hindi, busted for narcotics possession and internet sex; former Chamber of Commerce Membership Services director Traci Ponticorvo arrested with nine other people in a Valencia condo filled with stolen property and drugs; Samuel Hernandez after a three-day episode of domestic violence that escalated to sexual assault, kidnapping and attempted murder; attorney Leslie McAffee, arrested for allegedly stealing $300,000 worth of art, guns and jewelry from a deceased client (it’s more serious to steal from the dead, btw); and former Santa Clarita City building inspector Craig Allen Ingraham was jailed on seven counts of bribery and will have to pay $32,000 in restitution.
Sex crimes seemed to be more prolific in 2011, as two prostitution stings in Castaic netted 34 total offenders (and the Santa Clarita city council made sure to pass strong massage parlor regulations in the spring, in response to a sweep of more than 40 “establishments” in town); a former Pitchess deputy was arrested and charged with two counts of sex with a minor in May; Casey Crockett allegedly molested a young boy in a mall restroom and found himself on the receiving end of the victim’s father’s wrath before turning himself in at the sheriff’s station; Hart High freshman football coach Nick Ovendale was arrested for sex with a minor in November; Alexander Boswell was arrested on suspicion of 12 counts of sexual abuse and pedophile (with creepy website photo, at left) Michael Downs allegedly molested more than a dozen girls between the ages of 12 and 16, was charged with 29 counts of sex with a minor, with additional victims coming forward after our story was published.
It was a violent year, as well, with accidents, assaults and murders chronicled on our webpages and airwaves. A noted stuntwoman was injured when a car ran over her at Santa Clarita Studios; a security guard died when a van driver lost control of his vehicle on the set of ‘NCIS’ shooting at the old Daily News facility; Valencia High student David Duncan was found dead in Frazier Park, most likely the victim of a fall and the elements; Renata and Dusan Klein disappeared from their Canyon Country home with their dog; Renata’s body was found days later in the Angeles National Forest; Dusan’s in the desert outside Las Vegas, determined to be a murder-suicide; Brittany Stark of Sand Canyon was killed in a boating accident on the Colorado River; dentist Martin Strassner shot and killed his in-laws, then himself in the driveway of his Bridgeport home while his wife worked inside the house; alleged drunk driver Dennis Keane hit and killed Lori Lindlief as she walked her dogs on Maband Street in Agua Dulce; Canyon Country resident Anthony Davis was shot and killed by his neighbor, Lenny Tracey after a dispute over surveillance lights in his front yard; a Good Samaritan trying to stop a robbery near the Canyon Country post office was gunned down in front of his 6-year old son; a state park ranger fired on a couple suspected of stealing a car who ran from him and took his state-issued vehicle, dragging him and nearly running him over as they escaped. They were caught shortly thereafter a few miles away.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, either. Senator Barbara Boxer picked up the cause of fighting the mining development proposed by Cemex in Soledad Canyon; the city’s takeover of the three local libraries proved to be seamless and a positive move for the community; the community rallied around young Austin Jones, helping him find a life-saving kidney transplant; two horses from the Castaic shelter found new lives with a reserve deputy sheriff, who found out he actually had three horses, when one of his rescues gave birth a few months later to a colt with a “star” on its forehead; community gardens that benefit both green-thumbed residents and the SCV Food Pantry opened in Central Park; the Castaic animal shelter received a massive makeover on Big Sunday; Carmageddon was a big nothing that taught us to calm down for a weekend; the city kicked off a monthly themed celebration in downtown Newhall called “Senses” that has resulted in more than 10,000 visitors to the redevelopment area since July; Six Flags welcomed its newest ride, “Green Lantern” to enthusiastic response by coaster fans; the sheriff’s station revamped its quarters for a new and improved Crime Prevention Unit, with state-of-the-art technology and a snappy new jaguar mascot; schools in the Newhall district will receive much-needed renovations and repairs after voters approved continuing a bond to fund current projects and Dancing With The Priests became the newest “fun”d-raiser that kicked off a renewal for Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Newhall.
One of the best things about working in the news business is that we never know what we’re going to be covering when we walk into the office every morning. 2011 definitely kept us on our toes. Here’s to another year of adventure, growth and inspiration. Let the games begin.