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Simi post office renamed for Havens

December 17, 2014 - 8:51am

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama signed legislation Tuesday to rename the Simi Valley post office on Galena Avenue for longtime postmaster Neil Havens.

On the last day of the current two-year Congress, the president signed 31 bills into law, including the Simi Valley post office bill that the House passed in September and the Senate passed Dec. 8 by unanimous consent.

It renames the post office at 2551 Galena Avenue for the late Charles Neil Havens, who served as postmaster for 30 years after his appointment by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958. Havens died in 2004 at age 74.

Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, said Tuesday afternoon that he introduced the bill for the post office in his district at the recommendation of Simi Valley Mayor Bob Huber. It was the first time in his 22 years in Congress that he’d sought to rename a post office, a popular undertaking by most members.

By the time it reached the House floor, it had picked up 52 co-sponsors, a bipartisan collection of California members, including Reps. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, and Julia Brownley, D-Westlake Village, who represent parts of Ventura County.

“Known for his firm handshake, trademark jawline beard and endless desire to serve, Neil Havens left an indelible legacy in his hometown,” McKeon said during September’s floor debate on the measure.

Havens was known for going out of his way to help a friend, according to his 2004 obituary in The Star. He and his wife, Patricia, were 1947 graduates of Simi Valley High School. Patricia has been the official city historian of Simi Valley since 1981, Huber noted in September.

Havens joined the post office where his father was postmaster and where his grandfather had walked the first rural carrier route, beginning in 1912. During the time he was postmaster that ended with his retirement in 1988, the Simi Valley Post Office grew to 170 employees and 60 routes.

Havens was a fourth generation Simi Valley resident. His great-grandparents arrived in 1889.



Tucker picked as new Fillmore mayor

December 17, 2014 - 8:37am

Douglas Tucker, a councilman in the middle of his first term, will be Fillmore’s mayor for the coming year.

Fillmore, like most small cities, does not have a mayor elected by its citizens. Instead, the City Council chooses one of its own members annually to serve as mayor. The mayor presides over council meetings and often represents the city at official functions; otherwise, the mayor has the same powers and duties as the other council members. Day-to-day administration at City Hall is handled by the city manager.

Tucker runs a nursing home and senior center in the San Fernando Valley and has served on the Fillmore City Council since 2012. He has been mayor pro tempore for the past year, meaning he has filled in when the mayor, Manuel Minjares, was unavailable.

The new mayor pro tem is Diane McCall, who was appointed to a council seat in 2013 and elected to another term last month. McCall and Tucker were both chosen by unanimous votes. There was no debate and no other candidates were nominated.

After the meeting, Tucker said he’s looking forward to leading the council as it continues to recover from years of recession and budget deficits. The city is now running a budget surplus, and using the money for overdue upgrades to City Hall’s technology infrastructure.

“There is a lot coming up this year that I think the council is prepared to handle that will be very positive,” Tucker said.

Among those bright spots, he said: the city recently launched a new economic development strategy and is moving toward construction on a new business park; building will resume at the Hearthstone development near the Santa Clara River; and the City Council has greatly improved its relationship with the Fillmore Unified School District board.

Tucker is now the third current council member to serve as mayor, after a turnover of the council majority following the 2012 election. As mayor pro tem, McCall is the next in line to be mayor in 2016; Tucker and Minjares were both elected mayor immediately after serving as mayor pro tem.

Alan Gross freed in Cuba prisoner exchange

December 17, 2014 - 7:34am

American contractor Alan Gross has been released from Cuba after 5 years in prison.

Gross was released in a prisoner swap with Cuba, and Obama is set to overhaul his Cuba policy, according to CNN.

The 65-year-old is en route to U.S. soil.

"This morning, Alan Gross has departed Cuba on a US government plane bound for the United States," an administration official said in a statement to USA Today. "Mr. Gross was released on humanitarian grounds by the Cuban government at the request of the United States."

The groundbreaking prisoner exchange is expected to be announced by President Obama shortly after noon at the White House.

The agreement was reached following more than a year of secret back channel talks at the highest levels of both governments, according to ABC News.

Gross was convicted of espionage by a Cuban court in 2011. He was sentenced to 15 years for bringing telecommunication devices into Cuba while working as a subcontractor for United State Agency for International Development.

Gross’s wife Judy said in a statement released earlier this month: “Enough is enough. My husband has paid a terrible price for serving his country and community.”

Gross had threatened a hunger strike if not released by the end of the year.

His lawyer reported after visiting recently that Gross is nearly toothless, blind in one eye and barely able to walk due to arthritis, according to ABC News.

The United States has agreed to the humanitarian release of three Cuban agents convicted of espionage in a controversial trial that found them guilty of spying on anti-Castro groups in Miami, but not the U.S. government, according to ABC News.

Information from CNN, ABC News and The Associated Press was used in this report.

NFL employees turn over phone, email records

December 17, 2014 - 6:44am

Nearly 500 employees at NFL headquarters in New York turned over phone and email records to investigators looking into how Commissioner Roger Goodell and his staff pursued and handled evidence in the Ray Rice case, two people familiar with the situation told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

The people spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because details of the investigation won't be made public until former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III releases his report. The report is expected to be completed this month, one of the sources said.

Mueller has been investigating whether anyone at the NFL had seen or obtained video of the former Baltimore Ravens running back striking his then-fiancee inside an elevator at an Atlantic City, New Jersey casino before the video was published online.

League employees were instructed to cooperate with Mueller's team of investigators and respond immediately to requests for information, the sources said.

Investigators zeroed in on phone calls made from NFL offices to numbers with a New Jersey area code. Employees also were asked to identify certain numbers in question and investigators even called some of the numbers to verify call recipients.

A representative for Mueller, who led the FBI for 12 years under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, declined comment.

Mueller's team is trying to identify who called a law enforcement official who said he mailed a DVD of the video to league headquarters to the attention of the NFL's security chief. The official played for the AP a 12-second voicemail from an NFL office number dated April 9, where a woman confirms receipt of the video.

Mueller now works in private practice in a Washington law firm. His probe is being overseen by owners John Mara of the New York Giants and Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the league said three months ago that Mueller would have access to all NFL records and would have full cooperation from league personnel.


Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter at


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Rover finds more clues about life on Mars

December 17, 2014 - 6:37am

So the Curiosity rover has detected methane on Mars. Cue scientific freakout. 

For the first time, the rover has seen a spike in the gas in Gale Crater, which means Mars is an active environment. That's why this is newsworthy, despite the fact scientists had already observed methane in the planet's atmosphere from earth. (Video via NASA)

That basically means there's just more stuff happening on the planet and in the planet's atmosphere than previously thought, but that's not why everybody's freaking out. 

No, headlines like these are prompted by one thing, and one thing alone — in our experience here on Earth, more than 90 percent of the time, methane is produced by living things, so people think it could therefore be a sign of life on Mars.

And it could be — scientists say there could be microbial organisms hiding in the rock of the planet, producing this methane. But it could also not be — we really don't know yet, as Curiosity scientists John Grotzinger told the BBC. 

"We also know that it is produced inorganically so a planet like Mars, any place other than earth, we have to first falsify the null hypothesis, that it is abiotic, so there's nothing that we can measure that allows us to do that," Grotzinger said.

So scientists can't prove just yet that living organisms are producing, or ever produced the gas, as the BBC explains, because the samples aren't substantial enough to measure the carbon isotopes in the methane. 

Isotopes, in this case, basically serve as markers of whether something is biological or not. The overwhelming majority of carbon found in living organisms on earth tends to be carbon 12. (Video via RicochetScience)

But compounding everyone's freakout — Curiosity also found organic, well, compounds on the planet's surface.

So organic compounds sound like a dead ringer for proof of life on the surface, but the organic in organic compounds isn't the same thing as the organic in the organic tomatoes you buy at the grocery store — it doesn't mean biological. (Video via Future360)

NASA's Danny Galvin explained, "There are several viable non-biological explanations including this organic material could've come down from space, from meteorites or comets. Or organics can be formed by geological reactions in the rock itself." 

These clues are just clues, they don't prove that there was life on Mars, just that the requisite parts for life to happen were, and that's enough to get any nerd salivating. 

Plus it doesn't help when NASA teases us with renderings like this one, of Gale Crater as a lush, vibrant lake. 

'The Interview' reportedly off Muvico schedule

December 17, 2014 - 4:37am

Concerned about threats to moviegoers, theater owners are starting to pull “The Interview” from their holiday lineups amid a relentless cyberattack that has wreaked havoc on Sony Pictures Entertainment. Carmike Cinemas, which runs the Muvico theater at The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks, is reportedly one of the chains that won’t be showing the film, which is set to open on Christmas Day.

The dropping of the film from the lucrative holiday season delivers yet another blow to Sony Pictures, which Tuesday was hit by a lawsuit on behalf of current and former employees whose confidential information was exposed in the attack. Hackers also released emails sent and received by Sony Pictures Chairman Michael Lynton, the latest in a series of email disclosures aimed at embarrassing top studio executives.

Landmark Theatres said Thursday’s New York premiere of “The Interview” at Sunshine Cinema had been canceled.

The hackers, calling themselves Guardians of Peace, say they are punishing Sony for making a film that depicts the fictional assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Their tactics took a darker turn Tuesday, as they urged moviegoers to steer clear of “The Interview.”



“The world will be full of fear,” the group said in a statement that referenced the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. “Whatever comes in the coming days is called by the greed of Sony Pictures Entertainment. All the world will denounce the SONY.”

Federal law enforcement officials have “no credible intelligence” of a plot to attack movie theaters, according to a Department of Homeland Security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal assessments. The official said local law enforcement authorities are being briefed on developments, and Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck told reporters that his department takes the “threats very seriously and we will take extra precautions during the holidays at theaters.”

Representatives from Carmike Cinemas haven’t commented publicly yet, but a person familiar with the matter confirmed that the chain has decided to pull “The Interview.” Variety and The Hollywood Reporter both published the news last night. Carmike is the fourth-largest national theater chain, with 2,917 screens in 41 states.

The decision followed an emergency meeting of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, where Sony executives told theater owners that they would be free to drop “The Interview” from their holiday schedules without breaching their contractual agreements or jeopardizing future bookings of Sony films, according to people familiar with the meeting.

Representatives of the other major chains — Regal, AMC and Cinemark — have so far declined to comment.

As of early Wednesday morning, most chains with theaters in Ventura County hadn’t posted movie schedules for Dec. 25 on the ticketing website Of those that had, only Regal Entertainment Group’s Edwards Camarillo Palace Stadium 12, at 680 Ventura Blvd. in Camarillo, was showing that it would screen the film.

Even if the hackers are bluffing about a terror attack on moviegoers, they have shown that they can cripple Sony — and might potentially do the same to the theater chains, said Peter Toren, a cybersecurity expert who has worked in the Department of Justice.

“Given the sophisticated nature of this attack, it’s not impossible to believe they would have the capabilities to disrupt the showing of ‘The Interview,’” he said. “They can interfere, for example, with the way movie tickets are sold online. That would be the next logical place they could go and cause a lot of disruption, and that would cost the theaters a lot of money.”

Phil Zacheretti, president and chief executive of Phoenix Big Cinemas Management in Knoxville, Tenn., said he was mulling over whether to show the movie.

“At this moment we have it booked for all of our theaters,” Zacheretti said, but added: “Things could change in a moment’s notice. It’s a very serious issue. Our perspective is we usually show movies and the public can decide what they want to see. But we don’t want to put anyone at risk.”

Other theater owners said they were not intimidated by the threat.

“We have an absolute right to play it,” said Tom Stephenson, a partner in Dallas-based Look Cinemas. “We’ll take every appropriate precaution.”

Along with fewer theaters releasing the film, Sony is apparently scaling down its marketing campaign. Last Thursday’s premiere in Los Angeles was an unusually quiet affair, and on Tuesday the movie’s stars, Seth Rogen and James Franco, canceled upcoming media appearances.

As the crisis widened, politicians who have until now been largely quiet on the Sony attack began speaking out.

“Today’s threat against moviegoers is unconscionable and the perpetrators must be brought to justice,” U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “Law enforcement is investigating these threats and will do everything possible to keep the public safe.”

Sony declined to comment on the threat.

At an all-hands meeting at the studio Monday, Lynton vowed that the hackers would not “take us down. You should not be worried about the future of this studio.” That did not seem to damp a growing sense of dread among the more than 6,000 employees at the Culver City studio, according to company insiders, especially as more confidential documents were released.

Hackers on Tuesday released about 32,000 of Lynton’s emails that date from November 2008 to November 2014.

The emails offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how Lynton and other executives responded to the burgeoning crisis over “The Interview.”

In September, Rogen emailed Lynton thanking him for “helping us resolve this issue with the movie.… I’m so happy that it looks like it’s finally behind us.” It wasn’t clear what Rogen was referring to by “this issue.”

Other emails reflect the unease of several executives over the film.

Nicole Seligman, president of Sony Corp. of America, emailed Lynton on Oct. 8 with a link to a Business Insider article with the subject line “Possible Coup In North Korea.”

Red flags over North Korea were raised far earlier. Keith Weaver, Sony’s executive vice president of worldwide government affairs, emailed Lynton, Sony Pictures co-Chairman Amy Pascal and other executives July 9 to notify them that North Korea had brought its concerns about “The Interview” to the U.N. General Assembly Security Council.

Shiro Kambe, a spokesman for Sony Corp., also notified Seligman and former Sony public relations chief Charles Sipkins of his concerns.

“We understand that several US media recently reported about North Korea’s decision to put two detained American tourists on trial,” Kambe wrote July 2.

Compounding matters for Sony, the studio was hit with two lawsuits over the massive computer breach that exposed the personal information, including medical records, of thousands of current and former employees.

Lawyers representing two former Sony Pictures employees on Monday night filed a lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles. It seeks class-action status.

The complaint on behalf of former and current employees alleges the Culver City studio was negligent by ignoring warnings that its computer system was prone to attack. A similar suit was filed Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Sony declined to comment on the lawsuits.

Times staff writers Daniel Miller, Yvonne Villarreal, Meg James, Brian Bennett, Saba Hamedy, Josh Rottenberg and Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.

Thousand Oaks class targets teens' parents

December 17, 2014 - 1:56am

The Thousand Oaks Police Department says it urges parents with difficult, defiant or problematic children to attend a 10-week class the agency will offer starting in January.

Police said the Parent Project course will focus on ways to address drugs, sex, gangs, poor grades, runaways and violence. It also will offer guidance on getting obedience with house rules, not arguing with teens and using other parents for support. In addition to parents of troublesome teens, all parents of middle and high school students will also benefit from the course, police said.

The class will meet from 6-9 p.m. Thursdays from Jan. 8 to March 12 at Horizon Hills School, 33 Greta St.

Police urge parents to call 371-8351 to reserve a space early due to limited seating. Visit for more information on the curriculum.


Thousand Oaks approves day labor site funding

December 16, 2014 - 10:19pm

During its last meeting of the year, the Thousand Oaks City Council extended its contract with a nonprofit agency that provides services for the day labor site on Royal Oaks Drive.

With the unanimous approval on Tuesday, the city will spend $18,000 for Cyrus Urban Inter-Church Sustainability Network to continue operating the day labor site for the next six months. The total cost of the one-year agreement that started in July is $54,000.

Councilman Andy Fox said the day labor site has been a “total success” since the city hired the nonprofit.

“This problem is not going away,” Fox said. “You can’t eliminate it, you have to manage it.”

The meeting started with public comment from 14 speakers, half of them were residents in the Dos Vientos neighborhood of Newbury Park who wanted the city to help following the mudslides last week.

“Please help us feel safe again on our street,” said Erin Bell, whose house on Via Santana was covered by two to five feet of mud.

City Manager Scott Mitnick said staff members will work with residents and the homeowners association on the mudslide issues.

Camarillo menorah marks start of Hanukah

December 16, 2014 - 9:42pm

Perched atop a cherry picker, Rabbi Aryeh Lang, executive director of Chabad of Camarillo, lit the first candle of what he said was the tallest menorah in Ventura County, in a joyous celebration of the first evening of Hanukkah — the festival of lights — at Camarillo’s Constitution Park on Tuesday night.

With the steadying hand of Camarillo’ chief of police, Sheriff’s Comdr. Guy Stewart, who was also in the cherry picker, Lang sang the traditional blessing that begins the annual celebration. Hanukkah runs this year Dec. 16-24.

“The king tried to eradicate all Jewish study and culture,” Lang said before the 19-foot menorah was lit. “A small group of people called the Maccabees refused and fought back. When they reclaimed the temple, they found one flask of oil with the seal of the high priest, which meant it hadn’t been fouled. And by a miracle, that oil lasted eight days.”

Helping to celebrate the seventh annual menorah lighting ceremony was newly selected Camarillo Mayor Bill Little, who said all celebrations at the end of the year — from Hanukkah to Christmas — have a common theme.

“It’s part of the whole holiday season. This is a time to think about what happened in the past year and what we will do better in the new one,” Little said.

Little was joined by Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long, who helped hand out chocolate gelt candy to the many children who were at the celebration.

As part of the annual celebration, girls from the Lamplighters Jewish Academy in Camarillo introduced Project Flame, a program of good deeds — or mitzvahs — that each person at the menorah lighting was invited to adopt.

Racheli Muchnik, principal of the academy, explained that Project Flame is a way to “focus on spreading the light of God.” People are asked to sign their names to the lighted signs signifying each pledge — light, pray, home, give, nourish, love and inspire — and wear yellow badges with those pledges, she said.

“Menus” were handed out describing in detail how to accomplish each pledge. Muchnik said she plans to take Project Flame around Ventura County.

“By the end of Hanukkah, we want each sign to be packed with signatures,” she said.

Her brother-in-law Rabbi Yosef Muchnik organized the menorah lighting and led the music, which included a joyous dance by all the men in attendance, including Stewart, Little and Camarillo Councilman Mike Morgan.

Yosef Muchnik explained that the menorah lighting event is designed to offer all of the best elements of the eight-day Hanukkah festival. Foods fried in oil — specifically doughnuts and latkes — were served along with hot chocolate while handmade goods were sold.

“It’s a wonderful time of year. People are in a joyous spirit and there is the message that light triumphs over darkness,” Yosef Muchnik said.

After the menorah lighting, the winners of the most creative menorah were announced. Chanie Davidson, 11, of Thousand Oaks, won the grand prize with her menorah made to resemble the “Western Wall” also known as the “Wailing Wall.”

Chanie said she would probably donate the mountain bicycle she won “to someone who needs it.”

Joey Lewis, of Camarillo, won the second place prize of a longboard skateboard for his menorah made of a motorized vehicle he made as part of a robotics class.

Authorities make arrest in vehicle crimes

December 16, 2014 - 9:20pm

From staff reports

The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office said deputies have arrested three men they believe were responsible for more than 100 vehicle thefts and burglaries or other crimes related to stolen vehicles.

Authorities said they believe many of the crimes were committed while the suspects were out on bail after previous arrests.

The agency said the arrests grew out of an investigation in August of several criminal groups suspected of committing thefts throughout the county. Authorities said they identified at least three members of those groups as Aaron Phillips, 23, of Camarillo; Jose Chavez, 34, of Camarillo; and Andrew Coombes, 25, of Oxnard.

The agency said Phillips was arrested after they conducted an Oct. 6 probation search on his wife. Authorities said they found him with altered keys commonly used to steal vehicles and arrested him on allegations including possession of burglary tools and being under the influence of narcotics. He posted $10,000 bail two days later and was released from county jail, authorities said.

Authorities said he was arrested again, as were Chavez and Coombes, on Oct. 24 in connection with auto theft and vehicle burglaries in Camarillo and the Santa Rosa Valley. Phillips was arrested on suspicion of burglary, Chavez on suspicion of auto theft and Coombes on suspicion of auto theft and burglary, authorities said. Coombes was arrested while already in custody, authorities said.

Chavez posted $40,000 bail Oct. 25 and was released, while Phillips posted $20,000 bail Nov. 2 and was released, authorities said.

Authorities said Phillips was arrested again after they began an investigation Dec. 9 into a vehicle stolen in Thousand Oaks and later found abandoned in Oxnard and containing property stolen in an Oxnard commercial burglary. They said they believed he was responsible and arrested him when they stopped a vehicle in which he was a passenger. Authorities said the driver was on probation and had two active warrants, and a search of the car revealed methamphetamine, stolen property and items used to commit identity theft. Phillips was arrested on suspicion of auto theft and remains in custody on $500,000 bail, authorities said. The driver was arrested on his outstanding warrants and suspicion of possession of methamphetamine, authorities said.

2 cited in undercover DUI court operation

December 16, 2014 - 7:46pm

The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office conducted an undercover operation at the Ventura courthouse, targeting suspected DUI drivers whose licenses had been suspended or revoked, authorities said.

The operation took place from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday at the Ventura County Hall of Justice, authorities said.

Officers followed offenders from the courtroom to the parking lot to make sure those who were told by a judge not to drive or whose driver’s license had been suspended or revoked did not get behind the wheel, authorities said.

A 22-year-old Camarillo man and a 39-year-old Oxnard man both had been in court on allegations of driving under the influence and were cited with attempting to drive away without a valid driver’s license, authorities said. Their cars were towed, authorities said.

This operation was funded by a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, authorities said.

Police search for Ventura robbery suspect

December 16, 2014 - 7:35pm

From staff reports

Police were looking for a man in connection with a robbery Tuesday in Ventura, authorities said.

The crime was reported at 3 a.m. at an Arco gas station and AM/PM convenience store at 5669 Valentine Road.

The robber entered the store and took some items, but when he approached the register simulated a weapon in his waistband and demanded money, police said. The cashier gave him an undisclosed amount of cash before the robber fled south through the store's parking lot, authorities said.

The robber was described as 18 to 25 years old and wearing a black beanie, black hooded sweatshirt, dark jeans and dark tennis shoes, authorities said.

No one was injured in the crime.

Crops cleared but farm losses total $1M in blast

December 16, 2014 - 7:24pm

Crops planted near the site of a chemical explosion outside Santa Paula have been found safe to sell, but preliminary figures show growers facing $1 million in losses, a county official said Tuesday.

“It is my professional opinion that the produce from the area is safe to harvest and consume,” Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales told the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.

Gonzales said no detectable levels of pesticides or metals were found in voluminous tests conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which examined samples of lemons, lettuce, celery and raspberries growing near the site of the explosion and chemical spill.

The exact chemical that exploded Nov. 18 in a truck, spilled and then spontaneously ignited as it dried has not been determined. County environmental officials doubt it ever will be because the substance would have been transformed into a different material when it burned. Tests of the byproducts have all come back negative for hazardous material, officials said.

The FDA has not ordered the destruction of any crops as a result of its investigation. Gonzales said he was also basing his opinion in favor of harvesting on the passage of time since the blast and the repeated rainfall.

But that doesn’t help raspberry producer Marz Farms. The company is facing $734,000 in losses, Chief Financial Officer David Martinez said.

The company sacrificed 30 acres of raspberries growing near the site of the explosion at Santa Clara Waste Water Co.

“We didn’t harvest anything,” he said.

Martinez said he was almost sure the tests would come back negative, but he didn’t want to take a chance that the fruit could be unsafe to sell.

“It’s not responsible to run the risk to public safety,” he said. “Even from a financial perspective, you don’t know if it’s going to be recalled.”

Martinez said he did not know how he would cover the losses.

It was a different call for the chief of the Limoneira Co., the county’s largest lemon producer.

President and CEO Harold Edwards said the crop tests have confirmed that the company’s lemons growing half a mile west of the plant are safe.

“We plan to harvest probably in February or March,” he said.

Edwards tied his confidence to a data-based system the company uses to monitor any problems. Lemons also have the additional protection of needing to be peeled to be eaten, he said.

Gonzales appeared at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting along with public safety, planning and environmental health officials who updated the board on costs and cleanup of the spill.

“We have made a great deal of progress,” said Chris Stephens, director of the Ventura County Resource Management Agency.

Stephens said the site has been neutralized and cleaned up with the exception of a pool of material in the center of the facility where the explosion occurred. That area is expected to be neutralized, solidified and removed in the next three weeks, he said.

The cost of the response to the incident is estimated at $1 million to date, but could grow to $2 million if two contaminated fire engines cannot be returned to duty, county officials said.

The Ventura County Planning Division has suspended the plant’s permit to operate until regulators deem the facility cleaned and safe. A third condition is that the city of Oxnard must again agree to accept waste from the plant. Santa Clara sent waste via a pipeline to Oxnard’s sewage plant, but Oxnard officials cut off access after seeing repeated unacceptable levels of radioactivity in the waste.

Stephens said tests of materials at the site did not show evidence of radioactive elements.

'Clifford The Big Red Dog' creator dies

December 16, 2014 - 6:43pm

Norman Bridwell, who created the childhood staple "Clifford The Big Red Dog" has died at 86.

He died Dec. 12 in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, CNN reports.

Bridwell began his career as a freelance artist in 1962. The Clifford series sprung from a piece of art he drew for his daughter, Emily, who became a character in the books.

"Clifford The Big Red Dog" went on to sell 60 million copies over 40 titles, according to the Martha's Vineyard Times.

Gavin Stern is a national digital producer for the Scripps National Desk. Follow him on twitter at @GavinStern.

Return of OC basketball creates buzz

December 16, 2014 - 6:27pm

First and foremost, the return of Oxnard College basketball has been met with excitement.

The Condor Center was packed for the first men’s and women’s home games in nearly three years last month and despite the team combining for a 1-13 record through the first five weeks of the season, the welcome back continues to surprise longtime coach Ron McClurkin.

“The gym was filled with people at 2 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon,” McClurkin said. “You’d think people would be out doing Christmas shopping. But they were there and they were loud, encouraging the girls to play hard.”

Which makes the Condors even more driven to give the community something about which to cheer.

“Kids were screaming for the girls to play hard,” McClurkin said. “Even being down 20 points, they never quit playing. It’s almost like the fans wouldn’t let them.

“I think that set the stage. That let the players know that they had good support that was going to be there all year long.”

McClurkin said that he hadn’t witnessed this type of excitement since his men’s team that reached the regional final in 2003 behind state co-Player of the Year Jeremiah Massey.

“I hadn’t seen that in a while,” said McClurkin, who coached the men’s team from 1993 to 2007 before being rehired to coach both teams earlier this year. “They’ve been waiting for us to do something on a consistent basis. That’s what we’ve been trying to do.”

It’s going to take time for both teams to work through issues related to being first-year programs. Oxnard cut both programs over budget issues.

The OC women (0-7) have been carried by the backcourt of shooting guard Juliette Marquez, who has averaged 17.7 points per game and point guard Tabitha Cunanan.

“She has a really quick shot,” assistant coach Christina Torres said about Marquez. “She’s like a pistol out there.”

The St. Bonaventure High product scored 30 points on 6-of-10 3-point shooting in the season opener against Los Angeles Trade-Tech and followed it up with 25 and 21 points, respectively, against Southwestern on Nov. 21 and L.A. Harbor on Dec. 3.

“She came out really strong and I think that gave her a lot of confidence,” Torres said. “With that she feels the pressure with all the teams that have already scouted her.”

The Condors have been working on spreading the ball around.

“We need to make some adjustments and get some other people going,” Torres said.

Without a player taller than 5-foot-10, the real issue may be inside, where the Condors have been outrebounded by 13.2 per game. Cassandra Luna, a 5-9 freshman from Pacifica High, leads the team with 5.7 rebounds per game.

“Size is a little bit of a problem,” McClurkin said. “Playing hard, that’s what’s kept us in ballgames.

The Condors shouldn’t be winless. But the all-freshman team has had trouble finishing off games.

“We lack experience playing at the college level,” McClurkin said. “But they love to play, love to compete and they want to play. We have to work with them as much we can. We’ve changed our lineup. We’ve played as many as 15 girls in a game. ... That’s kept us close.”

Collegiate experience has also been an issue with the Oxnard men (1-6), who only have a single sophomore, former Moorpark College forward Matt Ramon, on the roster.

“These guys have been playing PAL (Police Athletic League) and park and rec for the past couple years,” McClurkin said. “Whether you’ve win or lose, those games haven’t been too big of a deal for them. The college game is a lot different.”

But the Condors do have talent. Three different players — forwards Terrence Nunnery, Daniel Crocker and DeSean Scott — have already scored more than 20 points in a game and another, Ramon, put up 19.

“We’ve got seven, eight guys who can flat out play,” McClurkin said. “There’s about four who can give you 20 or better any given night.”

Ramon has given Oxnard stability inside. Giving away more than half-foot in height at times, the Oxnard High product pulled down 40 rebounds over two games last weekend at the L.A. Southwest tournament.

“That’s a lot of heart, a lot of toughness from the young man,” McClurkin said.

The Oxnard men have also had trouble finishing close games. Three of its six losses have come in overtime.

“The guys are very talented,” McClurkin said. “They just have to learn how to win, that’s what we’re there for coaching. ... We have to do a much better job defending.”

Despite the won-loss records, the Condors are back on the court competing, which is a (re)start.

“That’s all I’m asking for right now,” McClurkin said. “Just compete.”


Nickname: Condors.
Coach: Ron McClurkin (1st year, 2nd tenure).
Assistant coaches: Major Whitlock, Mike Anderson, Dorian Guerrero.
2014-15 start: 1-6.
2013-14 record, division finish: Did not field a team.
2013-14 playoffs: Did not qualify.
Pos.    Name    Year    Ht.    High school
PG     Deondre Edwards     Fr.     5-6     Lancaster
SG     Terrance Nunnery     Fr.     6-3    Ventura
SF     DeShaun Nixon     Fr.     6-5     Hueneme
F     Matt Ramon     So.     6-3     Oxnard
PF     Daniel Crocker    Fr.     6-4     Oxnard
Pos.    Name    Year    Ht.    High school
PG     Robert Martinez    Fr.     6-0    Santa Clara
PG     Joshua Munoz    Fr.    5-9    Hueneme
SG     Michael Brown    Fr.    6-0    Hueneme
SG     Erick Zambrano    Fr.    6-2    Rio Mesa
G     Isiah Morales     Fr.    6-2     Garfield
G     Carlos Gomez    Fr.    6-1    Norwalk (Conn.)
SF    DeSean Scott    Fr.    6-6    Arroyo Grande
C    Juan Valdez    Fr.    6-8    Hueneme
2014    No team    2009     14-15
2013    No team    2008    17-14^
2012    10-16   2007    6-20      
2011    16-11   2006    5-20
2010    12-15   2005    8-15
^ School forfeited season
Nickname: Condors.
Coach: Ron McClurkin (1st year).
Assistant coaches: Major Whitlock, Christina Torres, Dorian Guerrero.
2014-15 start: 0-7.
2013-14 record, division finish: Did not field a team.
2013-14 playoffs: Did not qualify.
Pos.    Name    Year    Ht.    High school
PG    Tabitha Cunanan     Fr.     5-6     Channel Islands
SG    Juliette Marquez     Fr.     5-5     St. Bonaventure
G     Cindy Galvan     Fr.     5-3     Camarillo
PF     Simone Tobin    Fr.    5-8    Ventura
C    Cassandra Luna     Fr.    5-9    Pacifica
Pos.    Name    Year    Ht.    High school
PG     Juliana Estrada     Fr.    5-3     Oxnard
PG     Minniya Wilson    Fr.     5-4     Brandon Valley, S.D.
G     Tatyana Brown     Fr.     5-6     Centennial
G     Miranda Cevantes    Fr.    5-4     Pacifica
G     Kendall Gott     Fr.     5-6     Oxnard
F     Jailyn Lave     Fr.     5-9     Camarillo
F     Nicoellette Manangan     Fr.     5-8     Rio Mesa
F     Regine Powell     Fr.     5-7     Hueneme
PF     Jenny Lopez     Fr.     5-8     St. Bonaventure
PF     Kayla Stockton     Fr.     5-7     Santa Paula
C     Marlene Resendiz     Fr.     5-10     Oxnard
C     Catherine Singh     Fr.     5-9     St. Bonaventure
2014    No team    2009    8-20
2013    No team    2008    11-14
2012    6-16     2007    11-14
2011    5-18     2006    0-25
2010    14-11   2005    4-21

Toy drive has special meaning for firefighter

December 16, 2014 - 5:37pm

Oxnard firefighter Bryan Andrews knows exactly the kind of difference an unexpected Christmas gift can make in the life of a child.

As program coordinator in Oxnard for this year’s annual Spark of Love toy drive, Andrews is spearheading the collection of Christmas gifts for the county’s neediest children. His zeal for the effort isn’t just one of goodwill. This drive is personal for Andrews because one of those needy children once was him.

Andrews grew up in Escondido in a family with five children. When he was 9, his father left, rendering the family destitute and distraught, he said. Still raw from the loss of his father, Andrews dreamed of getting a bike that Christmas, he said. But with his mother struggling to make ends meet, surviving on food stamps and other government aid, he thought getting his wish was out of the question.

That’s when two Marines with the Toys for Tots program showed up at his house with toys. Among them was a glistening new bike.

“I just remember looking at (the Marines) and thinking, ‘I can’t believe that they’re there.’ It just had a profound effect on me to think that people really cared,” Andrews said. “I started crying. I was super excited because that’s all I wanted, and I couldn’t believe it. It’s nearly 25 years ago, and it still has an effect on me.”

Andrews now is married with three children and financially secure. But he’s never forgotten what it was like to be an impoverished child buffeted by the forces of events beyond his control. He seeks ways to give back by contributing to Christmas toy drives such as Toys for Tots. When he heard there was a need for someone to coordinate the Spark of Love program in Oxnard, he jumped at the chance, he said.

Spark of Love is supported by the Oxnard, city of Ventura and Ventura County fire departments in conjunction with the Children’s Services Auxiliary of Ventura County. The auxiliary each year hosts a huge holiday store where parents, foster parents, legal guardians and children’s group homes can pick up free donated Christmas gifts for the children in their care. About 2,000 families will receive help this year, Andrews said.

Community members can drop off gift donations at any Oxnard, city of Ventura or Ventura County fire station before Dec. 24. Items can be toys, books or sporting equipment for children up to age 12, and should be unwrapped.

Andrews said the drive is still in need of donations, particularly bikes. He urged people to remember others who are less fortunate during the holidays.

“I want to hopefully inspire some people to reach out and give more. A lot of times, people in the holidays are caught up in ‘I’ve got to buy and get all this stuff,’ and they forget to give to others in need,” Andrews said. “I was given hope as a kid, and I want to give that back to other kids.”

Crews respond to medical call on Highway 101

December 16, 2014 - 5:30pm

County fire crews responded to a medical call on Highway 101 after a person complained of chest pains Tuesday in Newbury Park, officials said.

The medical call was reported at 5 p.m. on northbound Highway 101 near the Conejo Scales.

At least two units with the Ventura County Fire Department responded to the scene, officials said.

Ventura bans massage parlors for up to two years

December 16, 2014 - 4:46pm

Between 2008 and 2014, the number of massage establishments in Ventura increased 44 percent, according to city officials.

In the past four years, there have been 100 administrative and criminal actions taken against the businesses. Their presence has long bothered some city officials and police, who have investigated them on suspicion of prostitution, human trafficking and other illegal activities.

So when the 2008 state law that cleared the way for so many establishments to open is repealed Jan. 1, Ventura will be ready to exert the land-use controls it had lost — or rather, it will stop new businesses from opening while it hammers out those details.

The city will start with a 45-day ban on both new massage businesses and the expansion of existing ones, effective the first of the year. If after 45 days city staff hasn't finished crafting the ordinance, the ban could be extended by 10 months and 15 days.

Documents provided to the public and the council incorrectly indicated the first extension could be 22 months, Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Lee told the City Council on Monday night.

It could be extended one more time for a year, for a total of roughly two years.

The council approved the moratorium 7-0.

The city had long wanted to rein in the establishments and placed restrictions on them: banning window coverings, limiting their hours and requiring businesses to keep the front door unlocked, with no buzzers.

But there was little else the city could do. Any action taken to limit the location or density of massage businesses also applied to doctor, dentist and other professional service businesses.

Assembly Bill 1147, signed into law in September, changed that. It returned land-use decisions to cities, giving them the ability to determine how close massage businesses can be to a school, for example, or how many can be concentrated in an area.

Since 2008, police have made two arrests for prostitution at massage businesses, Assistant Chief Brock Avery said.

"Entering into an operation with the intent of trying to prove prostitution is a difficult operation to undergo, time consuming and dedicates a lot of work hours and resources," he said.

Police aren't ignoring the issue though, he said.

Another difficulty in investigating criminal activity is that massage businesses have "a lot of tentacles," Avery said. Businesses change ownership overnight, and employees could be different every night of the week.

The majority of the actions taken against them are administrative, based on zoning or code violations.

As the ordinance is written, staff will include input from the community.

Having members from the massage industry "would be an important voice in any discussion," Council member Erik Nasarenko said, reiterating a concern Council member Carl Morehouse had earlier made.

Nasarenko asked how the city's business office would monitor the process. For example, if a business license application didn't include the word "massage," how would the office know to block its opening, he asked.

Community Development Director Jeff Lambert said the business license staff would do its own verification.

"We are pretty aware of the gamesmanship that might happen in this process and would be very careful," Lambert said.

The approval doesn't need to happen on the spot, he added.

Additionally, the state was looking into creating a database of offenders. Cities could file complaints to a single place so there's a record of who violates the law, Lee said.

Bush says he'll 'explore' candidacy

December 16, 2014 - 4:41pm

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Jeb Bush answered the biggest question looming over the Republican Party's next campaign for the White House on Tuesday, all but declaring his candidacy for president more than a year before the first primaries.

Bush, the son and brother of Republican presidents, is the first potential candidate to step this far into the 2016 contest, and his early announcement could deeply affect the race for the GOP nomination.

He is the early favorite of the GOP's establishment wing, and his move puts immediate pressure on other establishment-minded GOP contenders to start competing with him for donors, campaign staff and national attention.

The 61-year old former two-term governor of Florida declared on Facebook he would "actively explore the possibility of running for president of the United States."

While his statement doesn't commit Bush to running, veterans of presidential politics described it as "a de facto announcement" that ends months of speculation about his intentions.

"This is news," said Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa, where the first votes will be cast in January 2016 caucuses.

Bush's announcement raises more clearly the possibility of a dynastic presidential contest pitting him against Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton. The former first lady will be her party's overwhelming front-runner should she decide to run.

Assessing the Bush family legacy, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said, "It may well be a huge benefit or it could also be a liability."

"The question is whether people will tire of having one family in charge of things," said Paul, himself a likely candidate.

In a holiday message posted a day after an appearance in South Carolina, another early voting state, Bush said he discussed the "future of our nation" and a potential bid for the White House with family members over the Thanksgiving holiday.

"In the coming months, I hope to visit with many of you and have a conversation about restoring the promise of America," he wrote.

He has long been a favorite of establishment Republicans who care less about conservative ideology than reclaiming the White House.

In a race likely to include fiery conservatives such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Bush will occupy the middle ground despite his overwhelmingly conservative record as Florida's chief executive from 1999 to 2007. The potential field grew further Tuesday with word that Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and former New York Gov. George Pataki might run. Both would be longshots.

Bush also gives his party a powerful tool for courting the nation's surging Hispanic population. Bush is married to a Mexican-American, speaks Spanish and has been among the GOP's most outspoken advocates for an immigration overhaul — including a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who are living in the country illegally.

"This is a de facto announcement," said veteran Republican operative and former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber. "When a Bush gets into the race, he's assured of grabbing a bunch of the money and the talent and taking it off the table. It makes it more difficult for others."

Still, his path to his party's nomination is all but sure to require dispatching a collection of formidable political leaders, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio among them.

None were scared off Tuesday, with Walker saying Bush's action "doesn't affect me one way or another." Said Paul, "The more the merrier." Added Christie, "I've got nothing to say about it."

But prominent Christie supporter and Wall Street financier, Ken Langone, suggested that Bush's entrance might be helpful for the New Jersey governor. "I think the American Republican Party's going to be energized, so when we go on to the big fight, we're going to have a much broader base with a lot more money," Langone said.

Unlike many of his potential rivals, Bush has not been a candidate for any office in more than a decade. He won his second term as Florida's governor in 2002, years before social media and trackers hired by opposing campaigns to record a candidate's every move on video transformed American politics.

And in recent months, Bush has shown little willingness to pander to a tea party movement that didn't exist in 2002 and now opposes his signature policies on education and immigration.

Within hours of Bush's Tuesday announcement, the head of the Conservative Action Fund launched a petition against him.

"Together, we can stop a Jeb Bush run and give America a real chance to elect a true conservative president," wrote Shaun McCutcheon. He said his organization would "do everything possible to get the right candidate for the White House in 2016 — and Jeb Bush isn't it."

Bush has continued to encourage changes to the nation's immigration laws that include developing a pathway to citizenship. The approach, backed by most Democrats, is aggressively dismissed as "amnesty" by tea party conservatives. He has also refused to back off his support for the Common Core education standards, which were developed by governors in both parties but have become demonized by conservative activists in recent years.

"That's the one issue that they're talking about when it comes to Jeb Bush at this point," said Greg Moore, New Hampshire director of Americans for Prosperity, part of the billionaire Koch brothers' political machine. "Certainly, it's going to be up to Gov. Bush to come here and fill out the rest of the picture."

Wildwood Park damaged in water main break

December 16, 2014 - 4:26pm

The weekend events planned for Wildwood Park in Thousand Oaks have been canceled following a water main break that damaged some facilities.

A break in a 39-inch pipe on Monday caused water to shoot up into the air for about an hour. After assessing the damages, officials from the Conejo Recreation and Park District on Tuesday decided to close Indian Creek Trail and the trail between Wildwood Neighborhood Park and Wildwood Regional Park. It is not known when the trails will reopen.

“It has washed quite a bit of the hillside away,” said Matt Kouba, parks superintendent.

Weekend events, including the S’mores hike, Saturday Outdoor Adventure Club, Hike ‘n’ a Movie featuring “The Polar Express” and archery class, are all canceled.

Kouba said the restroom and storage facilities have been inundated with more than 4 feet of mud.

“There’s no easy way to get in there with a bulldozer,” Kouba said. “The area is extremely muddy.”