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Mental health clinics open in Oxnard

December 15, 2014 - 4:30pm

Two new public mental health clinics have opened in south Oxnard.

Operated by the Ventura County Health Care Agency, the clinics are at 2500 C St. on the back side of the Centerpoint Mall.

Officials said the clinics and other programs are boosting the rate at which the county Latino population receives treatment.

The clinics opened early this month and a grand opening was held last week. One clinic serves children and their families, and the other adults.

Hours are from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays; 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays; and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays.

The schedule was extended into the early evening to improve access for working families, said Meloney Roy, chief deputy director for the Health Care Agency.

For an appointment, call 866-998-2243. The clinics are close to bus lines but officials will arrange for rides if needed.

Bellringer donor's dad went all out at holidays

December 15, 2014 - 4:22pm

Brenda Rubright's father was a child of the Depression, a man who "kind of pinched pennies," she said. But at Christmas, he went all out.

Rubright, an only child, remembers that Santa put up the tree in their home and decorated it after she had fallen asleep. He also left a stocking filled with an orange, nuts in their shells, and maybe some ribbon candy.

One year, she got a typewriter for Christmas.

"I think I had asked for it, but I didn't expect to get it," Rubright said. "It seemed like too big a present."

For dinner, her family had a traditional turkey, she said. But she remembers the sweet treats — clear, brightly colored lollipops shaped like reindeer and a tiny box filled with candy that her grandfather, a volunteer firefighter, brought back from the fire station each year.

Rubright and her husband, Dave Rubright, who live in Camarillo, donated to Bellringer this year in memory of their parents.

The Star's annual Julius Gius Bellringer drive will run through Christmas, with a list of new contributions published daily, except Mondays.

Although The Star acknowledges all contributions, donors can remain anonymous if requested. The Salvation Army will receive all the money raised, to serve local people in need.

Checks should include the donor's name, phone number and, if desired, the name of the person, organization, pet or other cause in whose memory it is given.

New donations:

In honor of the Salvation Army for all they do. William L. Allinson: $100.

Richard and Eleanor Renshaw: $100.

Vinson and Karen Gilliam: $200.

In memory of "Andy Archer," who spent his last days in Ojai. Anonymous: $50.

In memory of our relatives and friends who left us much too soon. They are always in our hearts. Ron and Louetta Busick: $100.

Anonymous: $20.

Please accept this small check for your outstanding charity. Sorry it's not more, but I am unemployed. Anonymous: $3.

In memory of Shirley Temple and Shirley Temple doll club members. Shirley Temple Collectors by the Sea: $100.

In loving memory of our parents, Al and Beulah Fisk. We miss you. Greg and Barbara Savard and Bob and Linda Martin: $100.

The staff of Inside Leisure Village, the monthly newspaper of Camarillo's Leisure Village, thanks the Salvation Army for its good work and wishes all a happy and healthy holiday season. Inside Leisure Village: $1,500.

Anonymous: $100.

In loving memory of our parents, Juanita and Taylor Zerkel and Esther and Bill Bailey, and thankfulness for our children and grandchildren. Let us not forget the reason for the season. Howard and Marcia Zerkel: $100.

In loving memory of Marie Kane Stuart and Art Beem. Marie volunteered with the Salvation Army as a young woman in Santa Barbara. Reese Stuart and Nelda Beem Stuart: $100.

In memory of Helena Maria Clay (Dec. 4, 1945 to Dec. 31, 2001). John C. Clay: $500.

In loving memory of Melvina Rodgers and Duane "Chip" Rodgers. Duane Rodgers and Connie Lantrip: $100.

In memory of my parents, Ruth and Charles Hibner. Gary Hibner: $50.

In memory of my dive buddy and husband, Stanley W. Schmidt, who passed away in May 2014. And to remember my aunt Lucille Gisler, who taught me so much about moving on after a spouse's death. Nancy Wheat Schmidt: $200.

In memory of so many friends who have passed on. Anonymous: $100.

In loving memory of my wife of 56 years, Myra, who passed away this year, and for all of our loved ones who have gone on before. Robert Joe: $300.

In loving memory of Dr. Keith V. King, Ruth King, Judy Thrift, Matt Thrift, Bill Bochard and Wyatt. Merry Christmas! Janet and Robert King: $100.

In honor of my family who have devoted their lives serving the Lord in the Salvation Army. Connie Wiens: $100.

In loving memory of our parents, Bill and Marjorie Lowe and C.R. Needham. Rich and Julie Needham: $50.

Over my career in the fire service, the Salvation Army would show up time after time at any large emergency and fill the gap until full field support services were available. God bless the Salvation Army and especially the lady in the old Plymouth station wagon. Merry Christmas. Anonymous: $100.

In memory of our parents. Dave and Brenda Rubright: $200.

With gratitude to the Salvation Army for all they do. Linda Price: $25.

In memory of our daughter, Lisa. John and Virginia: $25.

In loving memory of our wonderful parents, Edward C. and Verla I. Cummings of Greenville, MI, and Wilton H. and Joanne L. Eich of Marysville, CA, to whom we owe so much. Ritch K. Eich and Joan Taylor Cummings Eich: $100.

My 14 grandchildren and I donate in remembrance of my kindergarten sweetheart, Russ, and sister, Shirley. Merry Christmas! Marlene L. Kincaid: $140.

Today's total: $4,663.

Previous total: $20,328.

Total to date: $24,991.

Please make checks out to Bellringer and send them to:


Ventura County Star

P.O. Box 6006

Camarillo, CA 93011

The Star's Athletes of the Week

December 15, 2014 - 4:21pm

Matt Hauser

School: Thousand Oaks

Class: Senior

Sport: Basketball

Comment: The county’s top scorer came up big in the Ventura County Classic. The 6-foot-1 guard tallied a game-high 28 points in Thousand Oaks’ 68-67 victory over arch rival Westlake in the semifinals. He then followed with 14 points in the Lancers’ 70-68 victory over Viewpoint in the championship game.

Quotable: “You always have to do your best for your team.” — Hauser

Taylor Halby

School: Thousand Oaks

Class: Senior

Sport: Basketball

Comment: The 5-foot-10 guard/small forward was named the Most Valuable Player of the Nordhoff Tournament after helping the Lancers capture the title. Halby scored 22 points in the championship game against Royal. She had 14 points and eight rebounds against Villanova, 13 points against Dos Pueblos and 15 points against Channel Islands. It was the second straight tournament title for the Lancers. Halby earned all-tournament honors at the Crescenta Valley Tournament while teammate Alexa Coubal was named MVP.

Quotable: “I think the tournament went really well for me, especially the championship game. I was just really on and the whole team was working together well.” — Halby

One injury, no arrests after fight Sunday

December 15, 2014 - 3:50pm

No arrests were made following a fight at a motorcycle event Sunday in Ventura.

Ventura police officers responded at 11:35 a.m. to reports of a fight involving 10 people at Chopperfest, held at the Ventura County fairgrounds. The California Highway Patrol and Ventura County Sheriff's Office also sent units to the incident.

One person reportedly was taken to a hospital with moderate injuries. No arrests were made, Ventura police Cmdr. Sam Arroyo said Monday.

The event was shut down for a short time while authorities got things under control, Arroyo said.

$1 million winning ticket sold at Oxnard store

December 15, 2014 - 3:49pm

An Oxnard 7-Eleven has sold a $1 million California Lottery scratcher ticket, officials said Monday.

The "Emerald 10's Scratchers" ticket was sold at the convenience store at 2201 E. Channel Islands Blvd. in Oxnard. The store gets a $5,000 bonus for selling the winning ticket.

Wilfredo Raguine had the winning $1 million ticket, lottery officials said. Other information about the winner was not released.

The ticket cost $10, and $1 million is the game's top prize.

Rain prompts easing of campfire, burn rules

December 15, 2014 - 3:40pm

A shift in weather patterns has prompted authorities to lift a ban on issuing burn permits in some areas of the county.

The Ventura County Fire Department and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have made the seasonal change, prompted by rainfall totals and moisture levels in vegetation.

The change affects agricultural burning, controlled burn projects and the level of response to wildland fires. Agricultural burn permits can be obtained at local county fire stations.

The Ventura County Air Pollution Control District must be contacted the evening before a planned burn to find out the current burn status. The district can be contacted at 654-2807.

County fire officials likely will continue the Buena Ventura Burn Project shortly. The controlled burn north of the city of Ventura started in 2013. Officials said they will notify the public before any burning in the area.

Los Padres National Forest officials say rainfall totals have dampened vegetation enough to transition out of "high fire season" on the federal land and reduce fire restrictions.

Under those reduced restrictions, campfires and charcoal barbecues will be allowed, although a California campfire permit is required to build a fire outside a designated campfire-use site. Permits are available to download at

Restrictions on smoking and target shooting in the forest also are being lifted.

Other restrictions remain in place, including those requiring spark arresters on off-highway vehicles, chain saws and other engines; and those requiring a permit for welding, grinding, cutting or use of explosives. Tracer ammunition and fireworks also are prohibited in the forest at all times.

More information on conditions and restrictions is available from local ranger stations. The Ojai ranger station can be reached at 646-4348.

While wildfire danger has decreased, fires can still happen during the winter. Authorities urge residents to clear brush around their properties and roads. For more information, go to

PCH could be closed for a month

December 15, 2014 - 3:29pm

With more rain headed to the county, officials said Monday that a stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway closed since Friday's storm probably won't reopen for three to four weeks.

The closure runs from Las Posas Road in Camarillo to Yerba Buena Road near Malibu.

Mud, rocks and debris slid across the highway in more than a dozen spots, pushing concrete barriers 70 feet across the road. The highway is covered with 4 to 6 feet of mud in some spots, Caltrans officials said.

More slides are expected from the new storms, officials said. A contractor has been hired to remove mud and debris, put the barriers back in place, and repair road shoulders and rip rap that were damaged or washed out, officials said.

Meanwhile, a fast-moving storm was expected to reach the county Monday evening, the National Weather Service reported.

The rain was expected to last only three to six hours before turning into lighter showers, bringing only a half-inch or less to Ventura County.

Radar images of the storm Monday morning north of San Luis Obispo show a gentle rain, said John Dumas, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Oxnard. Rainfall rates were not expected to exceed a quarter-inch per hour, he said.

That's much less than the peak of Friday's storm, which brought close to an inch per hour at times.

The storm brought tons of mud and rocks down steep slopes and into a Camarillo Springs neighborhood.

No injuries were reported, but 16 homes were significantly damaged, including 10 deemed uninhabitable and three others with serious problems.

The neighborhood sits at the bottom of the Conejo Grade, below steep hills burned in the Springs Fire of May 2013.

There's a slight chance of showers Tuesday morning, then another storm was expected to arrive Tuesday night and continue into Wednesday, the Weather Service reported. That storm should have a little more rain — a half-inch in coastal and valley areas and 1 to 1.5 inches in the mountains, forecasters said. Snow levels were expected to drop to 5,000 feet.

"We're not expecting any real severe weather with it," Dumas said.

Showers were expected to follow that storm, too. There also is a chance of thunderstorms.

Two people shot in Oxnard overnight

December 15, 2014 - 3:22pm

Oxnard police Monday were investigating shootings overnight that injured two people, including one man critically.

Authorities said they found a 35-year-old Oxnard man with multiple gunshot wounds when they responded to the 700 block of South Oxnard Boulevard about 1:30 a.m. He was taken to Ventura County Medical Center in Ventura with life-threatening injuries, police said.

Several minutes later, a woman called 911 to report she had been shot. She was at a local restaurant on North Oxnard Boulevard, police said.

She was taken to St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard with what police described as a serious but non-life-threatening gunshot wound to her leg.

Witnesses said a man had walked up to a group of a people in a parking lot in the 700 block of South Oxnard Boulevard and shot the Oxnard man as he talked to friends.

The woman, a 35-year-old from out of state, was shot as she attempted to run away, police said.

Investigators believe the man was the intended victim and the woman was not, police said.

Authorities had not identified a motive and were continuing to investigate.

Anyone with information should call Detective Scott Coe at 385-7796, or the violent crimes hotline at 982-7070. People also can call Crime Stoppers at 800-222-8477.

Quagga concerns alter irrigation plans

December 15, 2014 - 3:06pm

It’s been almost a year since invasive quagga mussels were discovered in Lake Piru, and some farmers are getting worried.

“Pleasant Valley and its growers have invested millions of dollars in pipelines, transmission facilities and irrigation appurtenances and therefore we cannot allow those facilities to be impaired by the quagga,” wrote John Mathews, attorney for the Pleasant Valley County Water District south of Camarillo, in a letter last month to the agency that owns Lake Piru. His letter said Pleasant Valley would be “unwilling to purchase any water that is not quagga free.”

The freshwater, coin-sized mollusks reproduce rapidly and cluster on pumps, pipes, motors and other infrastructure, creating costly maintenance problems. They have proved almost impossible to eradicate.

Click here to read other stories about the quagga mussels.

Lake Piru was created in the 1950s with construction of the Santa Felicia Dam to manage groundwater supplies for downstream users. The United Water Conservation District owns the dam, reservoir and major facilities on the Santa Clara River that replenish groundwater for Oxnard Plain farmers and provide some drinking water to Oxnard, Port Hueneme and Naval Base Ventura County.

Some of the water is piped directly from the Santa Clara River to the Pleasant Valley district — which gets roughly 40 percent of its supply, on average, from United, according to Mathews — and to a nearby irrigation pipeline. That so-called surface water is the source of Pleasant Valley’s concerns. The quaggas’ microscopic young, known as veligers, could travel in the river water and colonize on pipes and other hard surfaces.

The veligers cannot survive in the ground for long periods, however, so experts believe water pumped from groundwater wells would be safe.

Michael Solomon, United’s general manager, said his district has been working with Pleasant Valley on a solution. United plans to put the surface water in the ground and pump it up later. The pumped water might not be available right away because groundwater levels are currently low, but the supply would be quagga free.

“We’re not going to deliver any surface water to farmers,” Solomon said.

The potential threat to agriculture and drinking water systems is also of “great concern” to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, according to a United staff report. Solomon said his district is creating a technical panel to explore options that will have state Fish and Wildlife staff as well as representatives from the National Marine Fisheries Service and other federal, state and local agencies.

The infestation at Lake Piru, discovered Dec. 18 last year, is the first in Ventura County. So far, quagga mussels have also been found below the dam in Lower Piru Creek but not in the Santa Clara River, where little water has flowed this year because of the drought. United is working on plans to deal with further colonization expected downstream.

While quaggas may not have infested — yet — agricultural systems in Southern California, that’s no indication of safety, said Ted Grosholz, a UC Davis professor and Cooperative Extension specialist whose expertise includes invasive mussels. Quaggas and their close relatives, zebra mussels, have affected such systems in many other regions, he said.

“The fact they have not infested these areas does not mean they can’t,” Grosholz said. “There is so much evidence from other areas of zebras and quaggas just spreading all over the place.”

Simply Delicious: Chunky Apple Delight

December 15, 2014 - 2:34pm

“Chunky Apple Delight,” made with fresh, organic apples, nuts, spices, and a touch of Frangelico (or Amaretto), makes a fantastic all-natural dessert.  This recipe also tastes delicious mixed with plain Greek yogurt, and is also simply yummy on top of my “All-Natural Homemade Pancake” recipe.

Serves 4


• 5 medium sweet apples, peeled and diced
• 2 T. lemon juice
• ½ c. walnuts, diced (optional)
• 1 T. brown sugar
• 2 T. ground cinnamon
• 3 T. Frangelico or Amaretto
• Whipped Cream Topping


1. Peel and dice apples and place in a large bowl.
2. Mix in 2 T. fresh squeezed lemon juice.
3. Fill a medium size boiling pot half way with water and place on the stovetop.
4. Bring water to a boil.
5. Add in apples.
6. Boil apples until they are tender (al dente – firm, not too soft).
7. Pour apples and water into a strainer, drain out water.
8. Place cooked apples in a large bowl. With a potato masher, mash apples so they are a bit mushy, but still chunky.
9. Add in walnuts, brown sugar, cinnamon, and Frangelico (or Amaretto). Stir.
10. Serve applesauce in a pretty dish, cup or glass – hot or cold — topped with Whipped Cream.

©Maryann Ridini Spencer,

Maryann Ridini Spencer hosts the award-winning series, “Simply Delicious Living with Maryann®” seen on PBS Television and in First Run TV Syndication. Maryann produces video stories about environmentally friendly and healthy living in Ventura County. Visit Maryann’s popular blog and her Ventura County Star lifestyle columns and VC Style

Christmas Tree Lane celebrates season

December 15, 2014 - 1:51pm

Residents of Oxnard’s Henry T. Oxnard Historic District put their hearts and souls into the holidays.

They spend many hours decorating their homes with elaborate holiday-themed displays for the annual Christmas Tree Lane celebration.

On Sunday, the first day of the annual observance, which runs through Dec. 25, Jeff Simpson, executive director and owner of the Freedom House Residential Sober Living for Men on the corner of F and C streets, said he and the residents of the facility string lights high up on the tree trunks and inscribe “Merry Christmas” in yet more lights on the roof for the children.

“I do it for them all — it’s the kids. That’s what it’s about,” Simpson said, gesturing to the families that crowded on the corner by his home to enjoy the live performance of holiday songs, while fresh popcorn was served and Minnie and Mickey Mouse came out to greet the crowds.

“These people all volunteer. They come to me and offer their services,” Simpson said. “I’m really blessed.”

Farther down F Street, Jose Rodriguez had his grandchildren dress up and depict a nativity scene that featured live sheep the family gets from a farmer in Camarillo during the holiday season.

“It’s very, very important to do this because this time is special to everyone. It’s not just for Christians. It’s for everyone to understand the spirit of the holiday, especially the children,” Rodriguez said.

As she walked down F Street. Melissa Nunes Toland shouted, “This is mommy’s favorite, Wyatt” as she led her 9-month-old son Wyatt Toland to a home where a tableau of hand-painted wooden cutout Peanuts figures moved to music from the annual “A Charlie Brown Christmas” soundtrack.

“I love Charlie Brown,” Nunes Toland said, adding that visiting the annual event is special for her family, which has enjoyed Christmas Tree Lane for years.

Across the street from the Rodriguez family’s live Nativity display was the G-scale model train set that is put up annually by Todd Thierry and his neighbor Curtis Heath.

“It started out as a train around the Christmas tree and we moved it outside and made it a little bigger,” Thierry said with a twinkle in his eye as crowds of people gathered in front of his home to enjoy the incredibly elaborate display.

“We’ve been putting this up for weeks. I take the whole week after Thanksgiving off to put this together. It takes at least 90 hours,” he said.

Over on G Street, which was added to the Christmas Tree Lane display in 2000 by the late Harris Berger, Alice Haskins was hosting a holiday party for friends and neighbors. Haskins said her home, which is decorated with white material covering the lawn and multiple white-light reindeers, is decorated thanks to the work of her sons.

“I do this for the little ones. They always say, ‘how beautiful,’ and ‘look, there’s Rudolph.’” Haskins said.

Christmas Tree Lane hours are 6 to 10 p.m. through Dec. 25 on F and G streets between Fifth and Palm streets.

Ventura County home sales down, prices up

December 15, 2014 - 1:42pm

Home sales took a dramatic tumble across Southern California in November but Ventura County saw the smallest sales decline in the six-county region, according to a CoreLogic DataQuick report released Monday.

The biggest drop in sales was an 11.4 percent decline in San Diego County. At the other end of the downturn was Ventura County, where home sales decreased just 1.3 percent in November with a total of 676 homes sold, down from 685 homes sold in November 2013.

Total home sales across the six-county Southern California region, which also includes Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties, fell 9.5 percent from 17,283 a year ago to 15,643 in November.

Ebbing sales aren’t putting an end to the upward trajectory in pricing.

The highest median sales price in the SoCal region was $585,000 in Orange County. The biggest increase in median sales price was a 16.7 percent jump to $255,000 in San Bernardino County. The median price in Southern California rose 7 percent over the year from $385,000 to $412,000. The median price in Ventura County increased 3.4 percent, to $460,000 from $445,000 in November 2013, but dipped from $474,500 in October.

CoreLogic DataQuick Data Analyst Andrew LePage said Southern California home sales are closing 2014 on a low note.

“Inventory still lags demand in many markets and traditional buyers haven’t filled the void left by the investors who’ve pulled out,” he said. “Among would-be buyers, affordability and mortgage availability remain as hurdles, as do concerns about job security and the direction of the housing market. But there are reasons to expect more housing demand ahead.”

Recent federal data indicates job and income growth has improved and that could lead to more renters buying again, LePage said.

Local real estate agents are still unsure what to make of the federal government’s newly announced program to help first-time home buyers by offering mortgages for a down payment as low as 3 percent.

The program, announced last week, appears to be good although a lot is still unknown, said Realtor Fernando Campos of Oxnard-based Coldwell Banker.

“But anytime the down payment is less it does free up additional monies for the closing costs,” he said.

Campos wants to know what the qualifying standards will be, such as the buyer’s credit history and debt-to-income ratio.

Renee Rector, a Realtor with Troop Real Estate in Simi Valley, calls the program “an excellent move by Fannie/Freddie.” But Rector believes that with little equity going into the home, these will be higher-risk loans for both the bank and the borrower.

“So I’m assuming these aren’t going to be the easiest loans to qualify for,” she said.

Andrew Bon Salle, executive vice president for single-family underwriting, pricing and capital markets at Fannie Mae, said in a news release that the goal is to help additional qualified borrowers gain access to mortgages.

“This option alone will not solve all the challenges around access to credit,” he said.

The new program is one way to remove barriers for creditworthy borrowers, he said. “We are confident that these loans can be good business for lenders, safe and sound for Fannie Mae and an affordable, responsible option for qualified borrowers.”

Dave Lowman, executive vice president, single-family business at Freddie Mac, said the program is Freddie Mac’s latest effort to foster a strong, stable mortgage market.

The program offers qualified low- and moderate-income borrowers a conforming conventional mortgage with a maximum loan-to-value ratio of 97 percent.

The mortgages can be used to buy a single-unit property or for a “no cash out” refinance of an existing mortgage.

First time homebuyers must participate in an acceptable borrower education program, like Freddie Mac’s CreditSmart.

The mortgages are available at 15-, 20- and 30-year fixed rates.

Kiwanis bring Santa to Moorpark children

December 15, 2014 - 12:13pm

Eight-year-old Drew Bojarski picked out a dart toy and proudly showed it off at a special event on Saturday for 300 children and their parents, who were treated to breakfast with Santa and new toys courtesy of the Moorpark Kiwanis Club.

The toy meant a lot to Bojarski and especially his mother Wendy Meyer, who said that this year has been tough since she is a single mom was recently laid off from her job.

“We’re very thankful for this,” said Meyer about the event, which the Moorpark Kiwanis have hosted for 18 years.

Participants were treated to a pancake breakfast from McDonalds in Moorpark. Tables donated by Moorpark Presbyterian Church were decorated with holiday balloons inside the Moorpark Community Room at City Hall.

Moorpark Dental also donated dental kits to all participants.

The toys were collected from throughout the community and distributed to the children, who are registered through the community’s First 5 program.

Rosario Govea took a photo of her 5-year-old son Ivan Govea, who asked Santa for a bike for Christmas.

Destiny Garcia, 4, also had a chance to meet Santa and received a Chutes and Ladders game in return.

Her aunt, Estela De La Cruz said the event was a perfect opportunity for families who didn’t have a chance to meet Santa at the mall.

“It’s a really nice community event,” De La Cruz said.

About 50 people, including members of the Rotary Club of Moorpark, volunteered at the event.

The Moorpark High School Jazz A Band performed holiday music. Students from Moorpark Community High School, the Moorpark High School Kiwanis Key Club and the Kiwanis Builders Club from Campus Canyon School also volunteered before and at the event.

Kiwanis member John Thompson and his English bulldog Lucy, who volunteer with the nonprofit Love on a Leash, visited with the children.

Moorpark High School student Nitin Daswani, 14, performed magic tricks, while Community High School student Jason Pena, 17, did face painting

“We’re a community service organization and this is a perfect way to give back to the community and collaborate with the schools and businesses here to make the holidays brighter for the children in Moorpark,” said Moorpark Kiwanis President Ute Van Dam.

Ute Van Dam also presented First 5 with a $250 donation from the Moorpark Kiwanis.

“It’s just such a joy to help out the families in Moorpark,” said Bryan Lee, a Moorpark Kiwanis member and coordinator of the event.

Local businessman Ken Simons, also a Kiwanis member, said he volunteers every year at the event with his wife, Kim Simons, mainly “just to see the smiles on the kid’s faces.”

Benjamin Conde, 6, had a big smile on his face as he showed his family the Ninja Turtle toy he received at the event.

Benjamin’s mother, Marthe Conde, said the event made her children very happy and she enjoyed seeing that.

“It’s awesome because the kids are having fun. They are really enjoying themselves,” Martha Conde said.

Police say Sydney cafe hostage situation over

December 15, 2014 - 8:02am
SYDNEY (AP) — Police say a hostage situation in Sydney is over after a swarm of heavily armed police stormed a downtown cafe where a gunman had been holding an unknown number of people.   A police spokesman confirmed "the operation is over" early Tuesday but would not release any further details.   Police swooped into the Lindt Chocolat Cafe shortly after five or six hostages were seen running out of the building.   After the police moved in, one weeping woman was helped out by the officers and at least two other people were wheeled out on stretchers.

US marine charged with murder

December 15, 2014 - 5:40am

MANILA - A US marine was charged Monday with the murder of a Philippine transgender woman in October.

Scott Pemberton, 19, is suspected of killing Jeffrey "Jennifer" Laude, 26, found dead in a hotel room in Olongapo City on Oct. 11.

She was last seen with Pemberton whom she reportedly met at a bar.

Pemberton is in US custody within the Philippines' central military base in Manila.

Olongapo City Prosecutor Emilie delos Santos said it was too soon to tell whether Pemberton would be moved to Philippine custody now he has been formally charged.

The case has led to renewed calls for the lifting of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the pact that regulates US forces stationed in the Philippines, whereby US authorities retain a degree of legal jurisdiction over their troops.

"In accordance with the VFA, we look forward to the full cooperation of the US government in ensuring that justice is secured for Jeffrey "Jennifer" Laude," the Department of Foreign Affairs said.

The city prosecutor said there were "aggravating qualifying circumstances" to convinced the panel that there was probable cause to charge Pemberton.


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Visit Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH (Hamburg, Germany) at

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Topics: t000002458,t000027866,t000149877,t000027879,g000362667,g000225784,g000362688

Crunch time again for health insurance sign-ups

December 15, 2014 - 5:15am
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's push to cover America's uninsured faces another big test Monday.   This time, it's not only how the website functions, but how well the program itself works for millions who are starting to count on it.   Midnight Monday, Pacific time, is the deadline for new customers to pick a health plan that will take effect Jan. 1, and for current enrollees to make changes that could reduce premium increases ahead of the new year. and state insurance websites are preparing for heavy online traffic before the deadline, which gives consumers in the East three hours into Tuesday to enroll.   Wait times at the federal call center started creeping up around the middle of last week, mainly due to a surge of current customers with questions about their coverage for next year. Many will face higher premiums, although they could ease the hit by shopping online for a better deal. Counselors reported hold times of 20 minutes or longer for the telephone help line.   About 6.7 million people now have coverage through Obama's signature law, which offers subsidized private insurance. The administration wants to increase that to 9.1 million in 2015. To do that, the program will have to keep most of its current enrollees while signing up more than 2 million new paying customers.   People no longer can be turned down because of health problems, but picking insurance still is daunting for many consumers. They also have to navigate the process of applying for or updating federal subsidies, which can be complex for certain people, including immigrants. Many returning customers are contending with premium increases generally in the mid-to-high single digits, but much more in some cases.   Consumers "understand it's complicated but they appreciate the ability to get health insurance," said Elizabeth Colvin of Foundation Communities, an Austin, Texas, nonprofit that is helping sign up low-income residents. "People who haven't gone through the process don't understand how complicated it is."   Last year's open enrollment season turned into a race to salvage the reputation of the White House by fixing numerous technical bugs that crippled from its first day. With the website now working fairly well, sign-up season this year is a test of whether the program itself is practical for the people it is intended to serve.   New wrinkles have kept popping up, even with seemingly simple features of the Affordable Care Act.   For example, most current customers who do nothing will be automatically renewed Jan. 1 in the plan they now are in. At this point, it looks like that is what a majority intends to do.   While that may sound straightforward, it's not.   By staying in their current plans, people can get locked into a premium increase and miss out on lower-priced plans for 2015. Not only that, they also will keep their 2014 subsidies, which may be less than what they legally would be entitled to for next year.   Doing nothing appears to be a particularly bad idea for people who turned 21 this year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington group that advocates for low-income people.   Researchers at the center estimate that 21-year-olds will see a 58 percent increase in the sticker price for their premiums just because they're a year older. An age-adjustment factor used to compute premiums jumps substantially when a person turns 21. A 20-year-old whose premium was $130 per month in 2014 will see the premium climb to $205 a month in 2015, solely because of that year's difference.   Tax-credit subsidies can cancel out much or even all of the impact. But if consumers default to automatic renewal, their tax credits will not be updated and they will get the same subsidy as this year.   "Even in the best possible scenario of how many people we can expect to come in, we will still see a substantial number of people defaulting," said Judy Solomon, a health care policy expert at the center. She worries that some young adults may get discouraged and drop out.   Reviews of and state health insurance exchanges are mixed.   An Associated Press-GfK poll this month found that 11 percent of Americans said they or someone else in their household tried to sign up since open enrollment began Nov. 15. Overall, 9 percent said the insurance markets are working extremely well or very well. Twenty-six percent said the exchanges are working somewhat well, and 39 percent said they were not working well. The remaining 24 percent said they didn't know enough to rate performance.   So far it has been a frustrating experience for Marie Bagot, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She and her husband are in their 60s, but not yet old enough for Medicare. The husband, who works as a chef, will turn 65 around the middle of next year and qualify for Medicare. Bagot said they were happy with their insurance this year under Obama's law.   "As you get older, you worry about your health," she said. "I was very pleased with the price we got."   But Bagot said she received a notice from her insurer that her current plan will not be available next year in her community. The closest alternative would involve a premium increase of more than $350 a month, even with their tax credit subsidy. After days of trying to find a comparable plan through the federal call center and after visiting a counselor, Bagot said she opted to keep their current coverage, while hoping costs go down after her husband joins Medicare.   "I cannot afford it, but I'm going to try to," she said.   Monday is not the last chance for consumers like Bagot. Open enrollment doesn't end until Feb. 15.