The San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol newspaper both opened and closed 2014 with challenging news.
At the start of 2014, a family perished in an early morning fire. The family, which had faced financial problems, was excited to move into a new home — a home, located on Eldridge Street in Sylmar, that was converted from a barn. The family of four, including a mother, father and two children, were killed after a fire broke out about 4:30 a.m. A neighbor reported that smoke was coming from a 800-square foot building. The family was living on the bottom floor of the two-story structure behind a house. Firefighters found the family huddled together “pulseless and non-breathing” inside the makeshift residence. The father was found collapsed near the door entrance.
The owner of the residence was later charged with failing to install smoke detectors. The four family members were identified as Maria Estrada, the mother; Uriel Estrada, the father; son Alejandro, 8; and 12-year-old daughter Isabel. The family were longtime parishioners of Santa Rosa Church in the City of San Fernando, and created a wave of questions about the home’s construction.
Another challenging and tragic death occurred in July during a hazing of 19-year-old Cal State University Northridge student Armando Villa by the college fraternity Pi Kappa Phi, that had Villa and other pledges out on a treacherous hike in Angeles National Forest.
Following an investigation, the fraternity agreed to close its local chapter. A criminal investigation is underway, and after that will come school reviews that could result in some students being disciplined or possibly expelled. Villa’s family wants the practice of “hazing” to stop, not only at CSUN but on all college campuses. The family was also concerned with what appeared to be the slow response by CSUN to take action.
The unrelenting summer heat in 2014 also took the life of Vinnie Quintana, a 3-year-old child, in a tragic accident. The child had climbed into the family car in the summer heat and became trapped.
The family also suffered additional pain, attacks and insults following news reports that inaccurately reported the whole family was taking midday naps and were irresponsible. Multiple officers and news crews converged on the family home, including news helicopters that hovered over the family home taking aerial shots. The Sylmar family has struggled to deal with their painful loss of their much loved child.
Los Angeles Mission College has often been the center of upheaval with an administrative revolving door, and in 2014 there was continued controversy.
The college, under much scrutiny, was cited for several areas of weakness. Students there unleashed a series of protests against the denial of tenure for popular drama teacher, Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez. Those protests were limited to the campus “free speech” area, away from a visiting accreditation committee. In the end, the professor was terminated and the accreditation team gave the college a favorable ruling.
Perhaps the most unnerving story of the year was the early Sunday morning serial shooting spree in San Fernando, Sylmar and Pacoima in August that left three people dead and others injured.
A family on their way to early morning mass at Santa Rosa Church was attacked and a special needs family member, Mariana Franco, was killed. Other victims that same morning included Gloria Tovar, 59, a Eucharist minister, who was shot and killed while picking up a fellow parishioner on her way to Guardian Angel Church in Pacoima; and Michael Planells, 29, who was picking out recyclables at the Sylmar Recreation Center.
The early morning shootings caused much fear among local residents, who stayed indoors and did not allow their children to play outside on a hot summer day. Police personnel and helicopters flew overhead the small community. Police later arrested Sylmar resident Alexander Hernandez, 34. Los Angeles police SWAT officers took Hernandez into custody with a pistol-grip shotgun in his possession that they believe was used in the attacks.
Residents would later find that these random shootings were connected to a shooting spree that began in West Hollywood on Aug. 20, and ended in the Northeast San Fernando Valley on Aug. 24. Prosecutors have charged Hernandez with with four counts of capital murder, seven counts of attempted murder and 11 other related crimes including animal cruelty for allegedly shooting three dogs. He’s scheduled to arraigned on Jan 14, following several postponements, and is likely to face the death penalty if convicted.
The SFV Sun closely covered the indictment of Pearl Fernandez and her boyfriend Isauro Aguirre who were indicted for the murder of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez.
The child — doused with pepper spray, forced to eat his own vomit and locked in a cabinet with a sock stuffed in his mouth to muffle his screams — was tortured to death. Testimony also indicated that Gabriel was beaten with bats, hit with a club which knocked out his teeth, was shot with a BB gun, and was whipped with the metal part of a belt while in his mother’s custody. He had lived previously with his grandparents.
Social workers ignored the concern of the boy’s teachers and according to one family member didn’t believe him. This case has caused public outrage and a demand for reform of the L.A. County foster care system, as social workers failed to remove him from the daily violence. The couple, meanwhile, have been stringing out the court system, indicating they would take a plea deal and then recounting. They are expected to be back in court in January.
Also in 2014, L.A. City Councilmember Richard Alarcon was found guilty and convicted of felony perjury and voter fraud for lying about where he lived and was living outside his district in Sun Valley and claiming residency in a much more modest home in Panorama City within his district’s boundaries. Alarcon, is currently under house arrest and cannot hold public office again. His wife Flora de Oca was also convicted and placed on five years probation.
The Northeast San Fernando Valley is known for it’s strong “art nest” of musicians and artists. The passing of Mariachi icon Natividad “Nati” Cano, who was very closely tied to the City of San Fernando, was a tremendous loss.
Cano, 81 who died in October after a long struggle with colon cancer, was the founder of Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano, one of the most accomplished and noted Mariachi groups in the country. The group played in some of most respected concert halls in the world including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and Disney Concert Hall to name a few. Cano is credited with elevating the Mariachi, altering the perception of what some considered to be “bar music” to a very respected art form. Cano’s demand for respect and musicianship over many years encouraged other groups to follow his lead.
In the City of San Fernando, cultural affairs Director Virginia Diediker, with Cano, developed the national award-winning Mariachi Master Apprentice Program. Members of Los Camperos serve as the Master teachers for young mariachi musicians. In 2013, the talented young performers played at the White House for first lady Michele Obama. Hundreds of mariachi musicians honored Cano last month at the Boyle Heights Santa Cecilia Festival.
The end of the year was met with a stunning surprise for politicos when San Fernando resident Patty Lopez defeated political incumbent Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra and took office.
Following the announcement of her win, provisional and other outstanding ballots were carefully counted and workers from both camps observed the count. While Lopez is still in the process of getting her bearings, many are speculating on her ability to take the large leap from local activist to the state capitol. Several controversial projects will impact her district, most notably the High Speed Rail project, which has been met with much concern and negative response from Northeast valley residents.
It’s expected to be a hot button issue in 2015. Lopez’ 39th District, which includes Sunland, Tujunga, Pacoima, San Fernando, and Sylmar, is on the proposed routes for the High Speed Rail.
The year closed with much scrutiny for police as protests continued locally and many valley residents joined larger protests held throughout Los Angeles. Residents not only protested the officer involved fatalities nationwide, but the controversial shooting of Los Angeles resident Ezell Ford, a mentally challenged African American man. An autopsy released this week showed Ford — who was unarmed — was shot three times on his right side during a struggle with police, twice fatally.
Following a series of local protests after the verdict regarding Michael Brown — a Ferguson, Missouri grand jury decided against indicting policeman Darren Wilson, who fatally shot the unarmed 18-year-old teen — three Cal State University Northridge female students are seeking legal counsel following their arrest and what they consider inappropriate treatment by their nonviolent protest of LAPD.
The year also ended with “DREAMers” celebrating their new right to apply for a drivers license. Previously those “undocumented” who were not licensed, but took their chances driving, had their car impounded. Undocumented immigrants who become eligible for work permits under an Obama administration program can apply for a state driver’s license. Immigrants can use documents they received through the federal program as proof of legal residence to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
In the City of San Fernando, the family of Gabriel Lopez-Gonzalez, 22, of Van Nuys, filed a claim against the city. Lopez-Gonzalez was shot and killed by San Fernando police. The SFPD was responding to a call about a man with a gun and, according to police, they were confronted by Lopez-Gonzales who exited his girlfriend’s house wielding a handgun.
According to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which has joined the investigation, San Fernando police were responding to a call about a man with a gun. Just as officers arrived, a woman ran out of a home with an apparent gunshot wound. Lopez-Gonzalez was pronounced dead at the scene and SFPD said a loaded handgun was recovered next to him.
The family of Lopez-Gonzalez has hired an investigator and is questioning why there are bullet wounds to the palm of his hands, according to a recently released autopsy report. His family, meanwhile, is asking eyewitnesses to come forward and have conferred with police brutality organizations.
Also in the City of San Fernando, council campaigning will begin at the start of 2015, with three open seats. The incumbents — Mayor Sylvia Ballin and council members Antonio Lopez and Jess Avila — are seeking additional terms and plan to wage strong door-to-door campaigns. The lesson taught to politicians, following the election of Patty Lopez, is to not take an election for granted.
More is at stake it seems than in previous elections, with the proposed prospect of a high speed rail barreling through San Fernando and the Northeast San Fernando Valley. Residents are likely to want a more outspoken council, and will be looking for representatives who will actively speak up and fight for them in their opposition to the project, which many residents concur to be “environmental injustice.”
When there appears to be so much bad news, it is a welcome contrast to report good news.
The San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol covered the journey and the outpouring of community’s support for young baseball player Emily Lomeli, who battled a rare form of pediatric cancer. Emily and her family closed the year by celebrating and thanking all those who “Believe in 17,” the number of the Emily’s baseball jersey. They reported that she is now happily in remission. Emily, a popular baseball player known as the “girl” who plays on boy teams, is now where she wants to be most — back on the baseball field, and looking forward to 2015.