2007's Top Stories
By BLEYS W. ROSE AND KERRY BENEFIELD
What made the headlines this past year, from the drop in home prices to the oil spill.
Chaos in the housing market ripped through North Coast communities in 2007, leaving few people untouched. Fall home prices scarred almost every facet of the local economy and took a visceral human toll as houses sat unwanted on the market, mortgage foreclosures skyrocketed and unemployment rose. Even those not buying or selling homes are likely to be touched by the fallout as city halls began warning of impending cuts. Local governments are dependent on the strength of the economy for revenues and the numbers in early 2008 are not looking strong.
Upheaval and uncertainty marked the delivery of health care in Sonoma County. Sutter Health announced it would close its medical center -- the former Community Hospital -- in Santa Rosa and turn over public medical care programs to Memorial Hospital, which immediately launched an accelerated expansion project. The Sutter decision prompted an outcry from some medical activists and then objections from county officials who said the move would violate Sutter's contract to serve the uninsured and underinsured. Negotiations continue behind closed doors.
Smaller hospitals reeled as well. Palm Drive in Sebastopol went into bankruptcy, and officials at Sonoma Valley Hospital struggled for a third time to find a location to replace its aging facility.
Through it all, the Kaiser Permanente juggernaut continued to attract more and more Sonoma County residents -- 6,000 in 10 months -- to its one-of-a-kind blend of hospital and HMO. It swelled to 166,000 members, or 1 out of every 3 residents, and now commands more than half of all Sonoma County patients with workplace medical insurance -- one of the reasons for Sutter's intended pullout.
In the span of barely a month in the spring, three more local families found themselves sharing their grief with friends, neighbors and whole communities when their sons died in the arid landscape of Iraq. Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams, 25, of Santa Rosa was killed April 8 by a sniper in Baqouba; Army Sgt. Mario K. Deleon, 26, of Petaluma was killed April 16 in Baghdad by small-arms fire; and Army Sgt. Anthony J. Schober, 23, was buried in Santa Rosa after he was killed May 12 in an ambush south of Baghdad.
The costs of war appeared in many other forms, too, notably in September when a score of local Army National Guard soldiers joined California's largest combat deployment since the Korean War. These citizen soldiers -- ranging from 20-somethings looking for adventure to a 50-year-old Cloverdale school principal and grandfather answering an inner call to duty -- are serving near Baghdad.
The year began with a groundswell of support for an overhaul in immigration rules, fueled in part by the huge 2006 rallies in Santa Rosa and across the country. The landscape abruptly changed in June when Congress rejected President Bush's immigration policy, signaling a deep nationwide philosophical divide on the issue and ending any serious debate until 2009. The bill had offered legal status to millions of illegal immigrants while appropriating money in an attempt to secure the country's borders. Opponents called it amnesty for lawbreakers while supporters said it was a first step in tackling one of the nation's most complex problems. The most noticeable action on immigration came when the Department of Homeland Security announced new rules cracking down on employers who hired workers whose documents are invalid. The move led to fears of agricultural labor shortages.
VIOLENCE IN OUR TOWNS
Though there were fewer homicides on the North Coast in '07 than the year before, several high-profile slayings and violent acts put communities on edge and focused attention on gang activities. The Oct. 22 shooting death of Luis Roberto Miranda, 17, at the popular Maxwell Farms Regional Park near Sonoma prompted community soul-searching. At a memorial for the slain teen, 150 people gathered to call for peace between rival groups. A month later, there was another shooting at the park, this one not fatal.
Home invasions, usually involving drugs, grew in prevalence. In November more than 300 pounds of processed marijuana was found in the Santa Rosa home where a 20-year-old man was fatally shot during a robbery attempt by him and two friends, all suspected gang members.
Also in November, a Santa Rosa man and his son, both convenience store clerks, were shot during a robbery attempt at their family's Santa Rosa market, killing the father and critically injuring his son. A man with a long history of criminal activity and drug abuse has been accused of the crimes.
And most recently, college student and Analy High School graduate Benjamin Floriani was stabbed to death in west Santa Rosa at a party attended by as many as 50 young adults. Four people have been charged in the case.
HORIZON FLIES INTO SONOMA COUNTY
Commercial air service resumed in March, proving there was pent-up demand from businesses, tourists and casual travelers. Horizon Air's daily flights to Seattle and Los Angeles turned in stunning 80 percent passenger loads, prompting the airline to add flights to Los Angeles and new service to Portland. Success has given rise to an airport development plan that calls for runway extension and even more air service expansion.
HIGHWAY 101 QUAGMIRE
The nightmare of freeway widening became second nature for habitués of Highway 101. The three-year, $111.5 million project through the heart of Santa Rosa passed the halfway mark -- it should be done in spring of '09 -- with barely a notice, though the completion of widening of the undercrossing at Steele Lane significantly eased cross-town commutes.
There's no end in sight to construction snafus, however. Just as the central Santa Rosa leg gets completed, crews will start on the three-year project to widen the freeway from Steele Lane north to Windsor. And at about the same time, work will begin to widen the stretch from Rohnert Park Expressway south through Cotati to Railroad Avenue. Might as well sit back and enjoy it.
The deaths of four people at the hands of law enforcement officers in Sonoma County sparked emotional community debate on the use of force and focused attention on police conduct. In the most controversial case, 16-year-old Jeremiah Chass of Sebastopol was shot to death by sheriff's deputies March 12 in the front yard of his family's home. Deputies said the boy, who was suffering mental health problems, posed a threat to his 6-year-old brother. The youngster was safely at his mother's side when Chass, armed with a Leatherman-style tool, was shot while struggling with deputies in the family van.
Santa Rosa police shot and killed 22-year-old murder suspect Haki Thurston of Oakland on Feb. 23. Richard DeSantis, a 30-year-old unarmed man with bipolar disorder, was shot at his house by Santa Rosa police after his wife called 911 to report he was firing a gun in their home. Luis Felipe Sanchez, 27, was shot by three Sonoma County sheriff's deputies after firing on a deputy May 4 at a Rohnert Park mobile home park.
BARRY AND THE STEROIDS DEBACLE
Baseball fans rode an emotional roller coaster with Barry Bonds. First the bulky San Francisco Giants slugger became baseball's all-time home run king by sending No. 756 into the stands in August. In September, the Giants told Bonds that after 15 seasons in San Francisco, they would not re-sign him and he would have to take his bat elsewhere. In November, after years in the spotlight of a federal investigation, Bonds was indicted on charges of lying to a San Francisco grand jury about using performance-enhancing drugs. Then he became a focal point of the Mitchell Report, an examination of steroid use in Major League Baseball.
COSCO BUSAN OIL SLICK
Miles of Pacific shoreline and the waters of San Francisco Bay were fouled when a container ship struck the Bay Bridge Nov. 7 and hemorrhaged 58,000 gallons of fuel oil. The Justice Department sued Regal Stone Ltd., owner of the Cosco Busan, and the ship's pilot, John Cota of Petaluma, alleging violation of several federal laws and seeking unspecified damages. Cleanup costs are expected to exceed the $61 million federal limit on insurance liability.