2013: Year In Review

Stacy Lonnberg enters the courtroom for her sentencing hearing Friday at the Hall of Justice in San Jose.

From tales of generosity and selflessness, to news of tragedy and controversy, to the downright spooky and bizarre, Gilroy Dispatch headlines were speckled with a cache of memorable topics in 2013. Be it the unparalleled generosity of Christopher Ranch owner Don Christopher; the short-lived Internet cafe scandal; or the naked man who gave diners a startle by walking into a restaurant while clinging to his infant son; the Garlic Capital of the World runneth-over with much more than garlic. Here are a few of this year’s memorable stories.
Separation of singers and state?
After decades of hosting public choir performances in various local churches, Superintendent Debbie Flores put a halt on this practice, citing a potential “separation of church and state” issue after receiving some anonymous complaints. The decision did not go over well with hundreds of students, parents and community members.
Fire chiefs sue City
Former Gilroy Fire Division Chief Edward Bozzo and current Fire Division Chief Phillip King sparked their own firestorm after they filed a lawsuit against the City, claiming they were cheated out of $30,000 in overtime pay. A U.S. Federal Court Judge tossed the case out in October, but Koenig appealed in November. The City has spent more than $88,509 in legal fees fighting the lawsuit.
County takes over GUSD finances:
Cash flow issues and an usually high personnel turnover in the business office prompted the Santa Clara County Office of Education to step in Feb. 1 and help the Gilroy Unified School District get its finances in order. Today, with a healthy reserve budget and new management staff, the district could regain its fiscal independence as early as this month.
Mayor pushes for Quality of Life tax
City Council plans on placing a sales tax or bond measure on the November 2014 ballot, after polling data showed “solid support” for a revenue-generating initiative proposed in early 2013 by Mayor Don Gage. The tax is intended to generate funds for projects that improve safety, create recreational opportunities and bolster economic revitalization and recovery, Gage said.
Disability retirees
Too many public safety employees in Gilroy are claiming the tax-free haven of a disability retirement, according to a June report by the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury. Six of 14 retirees from Gilroy’s police and fire department have claimed disability retirement, making half of their pension exempt from income taxes. Multiple requests by the Dispatch to obtain the names of the six disability retirees have been denied since September. The City spent more than $2,700 concocting legal reasons to deny them.
The dangers of technology and social networking among teenagers touched Gilroy when a Christopher High School transfer student was arrested on campus April 11 in connection with the alleged sexual assault and cyberbullying of a Saratoga High School student, Audrie Pott, who committed suicide.
A sign of the wines
Santa Clara Valley wineries continue to make their mark in the wine world in 2013 (with Calera Winery in Hollister gracing the front page of a recent edition of Wine Spectator magazine), but with that comes strife with the County and their tangle of regulations. Still, the County did offer its tacit recognition of the wineries’ economic development potential this winter by modifying its sign ordinance to allow directional signs pointing local and visiting motorists to the vineyards and tasting rooms.
Francisco Dominguez sentenced
Former Gilroy Unified School District trustee Francisco Dominguez was handcuffed and led away holding back tears Nov. 21 as he began serving a nine-month jail sentence. Dominguez was convicted of two felony counts related to swindling thousands of dollars from a Gilroy charity called the South County Collaborative; as well as an international engineering firm; and his 2010 campaign fund for his run as a school board trustee.
City: ‘Internet cafes’ not welcome
One of the Gilroy Police Department’s most intriguing cases of 2013 came with two undercover stings and subsequent raids – in cooperation with the Department of Justice and the Morgan Hill PD – of the now defunct Liberty PCS, whose disguise as a “tele-connect” Internet cafe was a front for an illegal gambling operation out of its storefront on First Street, according to authorities. Police also raided and shut down The Gilroy Bizness Center in downtown for the same reasons.
United Natural Foods coming to Gilroy
Hundreds of new jobs and truckloads of natural and organic foods are coming to Gilroy, as Rhode Island-based United Natural Foods Inc. announced in September it’s building a distribution center in town. The warehouse, run by North America’s largest publicly traded wholesale distributor of specialty food, could be operational by July 2015.
Bizarre, buck (naked) wild incident at Longhouse
The most bizarre news story of 2013 happened Aug. 2 when a naked man holding a baby walked into the Gilroy Longhouse Restaurant and behaved erratically before suddenly collapsing. John Ruiz, 42, of Los Banos, spent a week at a local hospital in critical condition, and was reported dead to the Santa Clara County Coroner’s Office on Aug. 8.
Stacy Lonnberg found guilty and sentenced
Gilroyan Stacy Lonnberg was found guilty of second-degree murder July 30 for killing her daughter, 26, and husband, 57, in an alcohol and drug-fueled car crash. On Nov. 8, she began serving 30 years to life without the possibility of probation. Her sentencing marked the ending chapter of a case that began in 2012.
Sexual harassment allegations at CHS
A Gilroy Unified School District investigation that began in early April revealed the male cafeteria manager at Christopher High School was guilty of sexually harassing his female employees, according to an official report released by GUSD to the Dispatch.
Gilroy resident, veteran police officer accused of routinely molesting daughter
Veteran San Mateo County Sheriff’s deputy and Gilroy resident Galen Underwood was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting his daughter over a period of six years. His oldest of five children apparently told her high school counselor of the alleged abuse. Underwood faces up to 58 years in prison if convicted.
Don Christopher helps make CHS sports complex a reality
The Garlic King of the Garlic Capital – Christopher Ranch founder Don Christopher – poured on the generosity in monetary form with more than $3 million dedicated to a much-needed athletic complex for Christopher High School.
Teen rescues boy from attempted suicide
A 15-year-old Gilroy High School sophomore, Angel Esteban, was retrieving his bike following an after-school culinary class at Rebekah Children’s Services Sept. 9 when he noticed a boy, probably 10 or 11, standing on the train tracks on IOOF Avenue. When Esteban heard staff screaming the boy’s name and the roar of an oncoming train, Esteban pulled a wrestling move on the young boy and moved him off the tracks.
Farewell, Maestro
The iconic choral director Phil Robb retired June 14 after a 30-year career instilling the joy of singing to Gilroy high schoolers. Under Robb’s direction since 1984, the music program at Gilroy High School flourished and grew to a widely revered program among academic and musical communities throughout the state and beyond.
‘A faithful and faith-filled’ legacy
After serving more than 50 years in the priesthood, Father Dan Derry – a beloved community figure whose work in the Catholic Church influenced generations of Gilroy and Morgan Hill residents – retired and left behind a “faithful and faith-filled” legacy in South County.
Haunted tales at the Milias restaurant
Intriguing firsthand accounts from restaurant co-owners Adam Sanchez and Ann Zyburra, who opened up about eerie, unexplainable phenomena that’s taken place at the building since the pair reopened the Milias in 2011, became one of the most popular stories on the Gilroy Dispatch website shortly after it was published. A team of ghost hunters even attempted an investigation, but packed up and left before the evening was through.
Precious cargo
As up to 20,000 people from around the Bay Area gathered at the HP Pavilion in San Jose to mourn the loss of two Santa Cruz police officers killed in the line of duty, officers from the Gilroy Police Department demonstrated their respect and support by picking up a highly symbolic, special piece of cargo at the Mineta San Jose National Airport and transporting it to the memorial service: The U.S. Honor Flag that originally flew over the Capitol Building in Texas.
It’s a (wonderful) dog’s life
When we asked residents to share what makes them love dogs so much, the response was overwhelming. The entire Lifestyles section was filled with the pups of South Valley, as locals gave a shout out to the four-legged creatures who complete their homes and families.
Garlic Festival sets record
The Gilroy Garlic Festival celebrated 35 years of garlicky awesomeness this year by bringing in a record $10,366,251 for local charities, breaking into the eight digit profit range for the first time in history and plowing all the money right back into the community by giving it all to local nonprofits.
Above and beyond
When GHS senior Erica Fields, 17, told her mom she was wondering who could walk her across the football field as part of Senior Night, she didn’t expect a Gilroy firefighter would volunteer. Fields’ father died in a terrible Los Angeles car crash when she was 6 months old and her mother has the paralyzing Lou Gehrig’s disease and is wheelchair bound. Firefighter Michael Pardini volunteered, supported by a three person crew from Engine 61.