Our stories, our town: 2011 in review

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Gilroy Fire Captain Roy Shackel holds the flag during the

Just inside the Dispatch lobby on Monterey Street, a copy of every newspaper printed this year lies fanned in display atop a long shelf.

Bold headlines describe allegations of embezzlement, heartbreaking accounts of lives taken too soon, and the amusing story of a spitfire 98-year-old who decided to celebrate her birthday with a 5K charity walk. Images stand out from high school graduations, families waiting for a hot meal at St. Joseph’s and Friday night football games. 

In the last 12 months, City Council tightened regulations on dancing downtown. Locals rallied in support of the Gilroy Garlic Festival Executive Director, who is battling carcinoid cancer. Despite growing pains, the Interim Center for the Arts continues to blossom as a central hive for theater and creativity. The Gilroy Police Department flushed out more than 100 criminal suspects during Operation Garlic Press. Area farmers and vintners grappled with crop-threatening, unseasonably cool temperatures. Teachers saw their paychecks take a 4 percent hit. Downtown Gilroy gained two restaurants – but lost another. The Occupy Movement made its way from Wall Street to the Garlic Capital. Buildings still sit empty along Monterey Street, while traffic signal boxes became vehicles for downtown beautification. Locals gave one last salute to the city’s first police chief.

As we revisit the stories of 2011, here is a look at the tragic and the lighthearted; the unsavory and the wonderful.

This story made us proud

Dan McCranie donates to save Coe Park, Sept. 15: After 70 state parks were threatened with unprecedented mass closure in 2012, the fate of 87,00 acres of majestic South County backcountry is in the hands of Coe Park Preservation Fund: A private citizens group from the Silicon Valley area who formed to help save Coe; the second largest park in California. One of these advocates is Gilroyan Dan McCranie, co-owner of Ladera Grill in Morgan Hill; hiking/backpacking enthusiast and the CPPF’s principal donor who will provide funds for the maintenance and operation of the park to keep it open and operating from July 1, 2012 through June 30, 2015. With familiar treasures such as China Peak Camp in Marin, Limekiln in Big Sur and Moss Landing in Monterey County transitioning from public domain to off limits for visitors, Coe’s grass-roots lifesavers are nothing short of a miracle.

33rd Gilroy Garlic Festival: The sum of $9,345,322 is a lovely figure – especially when it’s pumped directly into 184 deserving local charities from around South County. G-Fest No. 33 was marked by 109,067 visitors, a newly renovated Christmas Hill Park Amphitheater and the introduction of the Alley Wrap.

Cooper’s Closet clothes teens, Dec. 13: Christopher High School senior Juliana Vanni, 17; junior Phuong Cao, 17; and freshman Macey Mitchell, 14; opened in November their budget-friendly campus clothing cache – called Cooper’s Closet – for CHS students that will stay open year-round. It’s stocked with popular brands for teens and is completely free.

Gilroy Foundation gives back, grows to $8 million: Three-decades-old local philanthropic group Gilroy Foundation celebrated its record $8 million bank account in fitting fashion this past April. The foundation donated more than $350,000 to local nonprofit programs and students – the group’s highest ever single-year giveaway. Each year, the foundation gives to local nonprofits and individuals to help satisfy charitable goals.

GUSD celebrates better API scores, Aug. 31: Results from the California Department of Education 2011 standardized test scores showed across-the-board growth in the projected Academic Performing Index (API) for 13 out of 15 Gilroy schools. Nine out of 15 Gilroy schools scored above California’s 800 API benchmark.

This story was shocking

Murder-suicide of SJ cop, wife, Nov. 27: Gilroy was rocked by the news that Chris Shimek – a San Jose police sergeant of 16 years; a “genuine, standup guy,” shot himself in an apparent murder-suicide that claimed the life of Lynn Shimek; Chris’s wife of 15 years. Friends, family and neighbors depicted Lynn as a “social butterfly;” mother of two and devoted friend. The bodies of Lynn, 43, and Chris, 51, were found by Gilroy police officers around 9:39 p.m.  Nov. 27 inside the couples’ two-story home on the 9400 block of Rodeo Drive. The exact cause of death for Lynn has not yet been released.

Sky-high cost of Christopher High School: What do you get when you combine an aquatic center with two pools, a 57,000-square-foot humanities building and a brand-new parking lot? A price tag of more than $111 million dollars for the brand-new Christopher High School. The $20 million Phase II was completed this summer.

Puppy death: Man could face life in prison: Bud Wally Ruiz, 53, who allegedly killed his wife’s 6-week-old Chihuahua puppy by throwing it across the room during an argument, could spend the rest of his life in prison because of California’s Three Strikes Law. Ruiz, a registered sex offender now charged with felony animal cruelty, has prior convictions for assault with a deadly weapon. His wife later said the dog’s death was an accident.

Sex trafficking victim comes forward, Feb. 17: For the first time in 14 years, sex trafficking victim Emelen Recillo, now 34 and living in Hollister, shared with the Dispatch her nine-month ordeal of enduring sexual extortion at the hands of her former employers at a now-closed restaurant in Morgan Hill.

Man beaten to near death in home invasion, Feb. 6: Six suspects were arrested May 3 following the Feb. 6 home invasion of Gilroyan Gary Wise, who was brutally tortured and robbed inside his home on Rucker Avenue as his assailants allegedly attempted to gain access to Wise’s household safes. Wise suffered terrible injuries; the suspects have not made any pleas.

This story was inspiring

Peter Casey’s courage, Nov. 25: We were more than impressed by the resilience of Peter Casey, the 12-year-old Ascencion Solorsano Middle School sixth-grader who was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease for a second time two years ago. As one of 502 children in the U.S. between the ages of 11 and 17 currently awaiting a kidney transplant, Peter receives treatments three days a week at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Stanford University Medical Center. He deals with a tedious prescription drug regime, a strict diet devoid of all his favorite foods and uncomfortable side effects caused by dialysis – all while attending school and receiving private tutoring sessions. Peter is in the process of becoming activated on the National Kidney Registry. He wants to become a doctor when he grows up.

Casey Johansen needs a new liver (Update: She got one): The Dispatch reported in April that 22-year-old Gilroyan Casey Johansen, who has suffered from a bile duct disease since she was in elementary school, was in need of a new liver. The paper recently learned that Johansen, whose struggles inspired her to become an organ-donation activist, has received a liver transplant. (The Dispatch will feature an update on her story in an upcoming issue).

John Blaettler’s integrity: John Blaettler, a longtime Gilroy accountant whose public allegations of “systematic embezzlement” culminated in the Nov. 9 resignation of Francisco Dominguez from the Gilroy Unified School District board of trustees, has been named “Man of the Year.” The title is one of seven comprising the “Spice of Life” awards; doled annually by the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce.

Compassion Center gets homeless shelter under way: No doubt the financial hurdles were daunting – and still are – but the vision for a permanent, year-round homeless shelter in Gilroy that surfaced more than a year ago is slowly coming to fruition. The Gilroy Compassion Center at 8425 Monterey Road recently established regular hours and continues to amass supplies and volunteers.

A good year for GECA: The small but mighty alternative high school known as GECA (the Dr. TJ Owens Early College Academy) blasted through California’s Academic Performing Index benchmark of 800 with a stellar 926 API. Its up-and-coming paintball team, the Notorious Nerds, placed third in the April 16 National Collegiate Paintball Association’s National Championship.

Return of Milias: Officially opening for business June 14, foodies Adam Sanchez and Ann Zyburra – the proprietors of what used to be Harvest Time Restaurant at 7393 Monterey St. – restored the premiere hospitality destination to its former state of grandiose western glory. It’s now a buzzing Garlic Capital social hotspot.

This story made us weep

Andrel Gaines dies from injuries sustained in car accident, Nov. 18: Few events this year carried as much emotional weight as the death of Andrel Gaines, 19, a revered and vibrant Gavilan College basketball player who succumbed 12 days after a horrifying Nov. 6 car accident left him on life support. First, there was shock. Then immense hope. Then heartache. When word broke that Gaines’ two teammates and two female friends were injured in back-to-back car wrecks heading home after a night in San Francisco, it wasn’t long before friends and family sprinted to his bedside, organized prayer groups and flooded the social media realm with ardent optimism. A prayer chain on Facebook grew to more than 7,000 members, and thousands more took to Twitter, stamping out a phrase that became a brief sensation and captured the breadth of Gaines’ support: “#PrayForAndrel.” It was the most-tweeted phrase in the Bay Area the Tuesday following the early morning wreck. Sadly, Gaines was taken off life support Nov. 18, but almost 1,000 people attended his funeral two weeks later, sharing stories of the beloved, bright-eyed young man.

10th anniversary of 9/11, Sept. 11: San Martin resident Frank Jensen, who moved to Northern California for a fresh start in 2009, caught up with the Dispatch a decade after the loss of his wife, Suzanne Calley. Calley was one of 144 victims who died when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.

City remembers David Vogel: City of Gilroy worker David Vogel died March 14 when he was struck and killed by a van while performing routine street maintenance. It’s believed Vogel, 40, is the only city employee to die while on duty. A replica street sign reading “Never Forget D.V. 3.14.11” remains affixed to a light pole at the city’s corporation yard on Old Gilroy Street.

A loss to remember, June 24: After Gilroyan Melanie Jordahl, then 29, passed away June 7 after a two-year battle with breast and spine cancer, nearly 40 of her husband’s co-workers at the county Sheriff’s office and the City of Santa Clara Fire Department voluntarily erected an organic garden and playground at his home. Melanie left behind a husband and two daughters.

Two funerals, two lives taken too soon, Dec. 3: On Nov. 18, 19-year-old Gavilan College basketball player Andrel Gaines died after suffering major head trauma in a horrific car accident on Highway 101. Nine days later on Nov. 27, Gilroyan Lynn Shimek, a mother of two, died in an alleged murder/suicide alongside her husband, Chris Shimek. Separate memorials were held for Gaines and Shimek on Dec. 3 in Gilroy.

This story made us cringe

Gang crime and GPD’s efforts to stop it: Gilroy and gangs remained synonymous throughout 2011, though local police efforts claimed huge dents in the criminal operations. In January, a home labeled a “haven for known gang members” was declared a public nuisance. In February, police arrested seven suspected Nortenos after a home-invasion-style robbery at a local motel. Several Gilroy neighborhoods were spooked by a string of shootings in March, and numerous other gang-related assaults, stabbings and shootings were reported throughout summer and fall. Some residents told the Dispatch they feared a retaliatory gang war was imminent. Enter “Operation Garlic Press,” a 16-month undercover investigation crafted by the Gilroy Police Department that resulted in more than 100 arrests and the recovery of scores of guns, cars and drugs. “This is not over,” Chief Denise Turner said during a wall-to-wall press conference Nov. 18 attended by state Attorney General Kamala Harris. She was right. Police rounded up three-dozen more suspected gang members Dec. 8 during a series of early morning raids. It’s too early to tell if GPD’s recent efforts will be enough to turn back decades of gang activity in Gilroy.

D’Arrigo arrested for molesting teen boys: San Jose police officer and Gilroy resident Patrick D’Arrigo, 44, was charged in August for sexual activity with two local teen boys. The boys, ages 15 and 17 at the time of the alleged incidents, testified to a secret grand jury D’Arrigo gave them alcohol and engaged in sexual acts with them in his home. Law enforcement officials are still sifting through evidence seized from his home. D’Arrigo is due in court for trial setting Feb. 24.

Barn owl mutilation, June 20: An adult Barn Owl was found on a driveway in Gilroy. X-rays revealed the owl had been rendered permanently incapable of flight by a procedure called “pinioning;” it was taken to the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center in Morgan Hill.

Bus routes cuts in half; GUSD teachers pay cut: The Gilroy Unified School District cut its transportation program in half due to crippling state budget shortfalls. As of November, GUSD teachers saw a 4 percent pay cut that will continue until June. Coupled with rising healthcare costs, the pay dock is actually closer to 10 percent.

This story made us shake our heads

Alvin Harrison arrested, Jack Daley fired: The May removal of Athletic Director Jack Daley – a GUSD employee of 20 years – puzzled community members and outraged others who turned out in droves for a heated string of public protests at district offices.  The former AD’s removal came at the conclusion of a GUSD investigation stemming from an April 7 injury DUI accident involving former GHS track and field coach Alvin Harrison, an incident that cost Daley his AD position and will prevent him from coaching in the future. After the accident, it was discovered Harrison did not have a valid driver’s license while driving a school-rented van on an athletic field trip in Southern California. No students were with Harrison in the rented vehicle. A GUSD investigation revealed Daley rented the vehicle for Harrison to use; although Daley reiterated to the Dispatch that he had no knowledge of Harrison’s invalid license.

Gavilan President given raise, Oct. 30: Beginning Jan. 1, Gavilan College President Steve Kinsella’s $255,090 salary will increase by $42,000 and up to $276,090 in 2015. The raise came on the heels of news that the Child Development Center might close and that student fees may increase.

Former GUSD trustee Dominguez resigns amid two DA investigations: Gilroy school board trustee Francisco Dominguez resigned Nov. 9 after the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office confirmed it had opened two separate investigations: one to determine whether Dominguez embezzled more than $50,000 from nonprofit South County Collaborative, and another following allegations he billed a state-hired firm $120 an hour for high-speed-rail outreach meetings that never happened. The firm suspended Dominguez’s $80,000 contract in light of the allegations.

City’s reserves nears $25 million: What could $25 million buy? Sidewalk repairs? More police officers? New, subsidized businesses in a struggling downtown? For now, Gilroy residents likely won’t find out, as the city’s reserve fund keeps growing – to $24.7 million – and officials are split over what should be done with the money, if anything.

High-speed rail costs increase, project pushed back: As the cost of California’s high-speed rail project balloons, local confidence in the now $100 billion project has all but deflated. The California High-Speed Rail Authority announced in November the project’s price tag had tripled – from approximately $33 billion in 2008 when voters approved the rail line. The system won’t be complete until roughly 2033, too. Gilroy is one of 24 possible station locations.

Council says no to Habitat Plan; then says yes: Now you see us, now you don’t. A fed-up Gilroy City Council voted 4-3 on March 28 to opt out of the Santa Clara Valley Habitat Conservation Plan, some saying the plan would add an unneeded, bureaucratic layer in South County. But by May 16, the Council voted to re-join the plan, the hope being that the Habitat Plan brass would now listen to the city’s concerns. Mayor Al Pinheiro was the swing vote.

MediLeaf legal fight sparks $200K in attorney fees: Nearly two years after shutting down a medical marijuana dispensary, the City of Gilroy finally won a lengthy legal battle – and ran up approximately $212,000 in attorney’s fees in the process. An appellate court ruled in October the city was in the right for closing the nonprofit dispensary – MediLeaf – which opened on First Street without a business license in 2009. Police later raided the homes of MediLeaf’s owners, though to date no charges have been filed.

Admin error; 30 teachers won’t be laid off: GUSD was supposed to adhere to a state-mandated deadline to issue final written layoff notices by May 15. Due to an administrative error in the human resources department, however, the notices were sent late – making invalid 30 pink slips and resulting in no layoffs.

This story made us smile

Boys arrested for rescuing bunnies, Feb. 26: After rescuing a marooned rodent from Uvas Creek on a stormy afternoon, two wetsuit-clad Gilroyans were heroes in the eyes of a shivering bunny rabbit – but got the finger wag from a Gilroy Police officer who ticketed the siblings for illegally entering the rushing waters. Scott Adams, 25 – a graduate of Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash., who lettered on the swim team all four years – and Gregory Adams, 14, “intermittently” hop in Uvas Creek if water levels rise, then scope the scene for animals that might be stranded. The two were outfitted for the occasion with thick wetsuits, booties, helmets, boogie boards with ropes, life vests, fins and gloves. The rescue and GPD’s ensuing response hit a surprising nerve with readers: Some applauded the brothers; some said the GPD’s energy was misplaced; others felt the legal action was necessary for enforcing public safety.

White gopher mystery at Anchorpoint, Aug. 29: Anchorpoint Christian High made the front page in late August after an unusual house guest got cozy in the school’s baseball field on Pacheco Pass Highway. After mulling over the elusive creature’s identity (a rat? a groundhog? a mole?) students and staff agreed it was an albino gopher.

Tourney, Tiger visit a huge success for CordeValle, Oct. 9: South County business and hotels reaped the benefits of a lauded and widely watched Frys.com Open at CordeValle Golf Club in San Martin this past October. It probably didn’t hurt that Tiger Woods, the world’s most famous golfer, was on hand to participate. Restaurants and local lodging saw huge spikes, and Gilroy, Morgan Hill and San Martin had a chance to shine – despite a second year of rainy weather.

Las Animas donates candy to troops overseas, Nov. 14: Following Halloween, 761 Las Animas students pooled 554.5 pounds of Halloween candy collected during the school’s first annual Treats for Troops drive Nov. 1 through to Nov. 14. The sweet stash, along with 761 handwritten letters from Las Animas students, was sent to troops overseas through Operation Interdependence.

This story made us think

Discover Gilroy Survey results released: On Dec. 14, city officials opened an online forum asking residents, business owners and tourists to spill their guts on everything Gilroy: Its weaknesses. Its strengths. Its best features. Its dirty laundry. In doing so they unlocked the flood gates of discourse; returning dialogue encompassing a smorgasbord of topics from gangs to feral cats, wineries to downtown parking.” Love Gilroy Gardens. Love Los Pericos Restaurant on 5th … basically we just love living in Gilroy,” said one surveyor. Another wrote, “I’m tired of Gilroy looking like Tijuana.” The open comment space made available at the end of the survey became a stream of consciousness writing session for some. Many eloquently expressed what they love and support in their hometown. Others seized the anonymity as a hall-pass to candidly touch on sensitive social hot buttons. The efflux of opinions was a source insight, poignant observations and amusement.

GUSD implements zero F policy, April 6: Eligibility standards for extracurricular and co-curricular activities were upped by a “no-F policy” beginning fall 2011. This means students must maintain a minimum 2.0 grade point average with no F’s if they want to participate in sports, prom, band, choir or associated student body activities.

Farmer’s Market: Third time’s a charm?: Early June marked the third attempt to spearhead a weekly Farmer’s Market in Gilroy. The venue was deemed more successful than the first two, but garnered mixed reaction from community members who questioned the market’s viability. After closing for the season, logistics surrounding the 2012 Gilroy Farmer’s Market are nebulous.

Real vulture in this case is? April 21: When local taxidermist Darin Filice received an anonymous phone call inquiring if he could stuff a dead turkey vulture, he wasn’t betting the conversation would merit a visit from the reality TV series “Wild Justice.” Things got really confusing for Filice when the “Wild Justice” camera crew showed up on his doorstep.

State mandates gay ed inclusion; met with local dissent, Sept. 13: A landmark provision, Senate Bill 48, was solidified in July and will see gay history integrated into public schools by 2013. Some Gilroyans view the development as a milestone, while several local pastors openly disagree with the change. California is the first U.S. state to prescribe this mandate.

Gilroy sticks to status quo fire services: Over the last 12 months, the City of Gilroy hasn’t budged when it comes to its fire services. And although the Gilroy City Council requested a services bid from CalFire during its annual goal-setting retreat in January, that’s as far as city officials would go. Two months later, the Council opted not to explore contracting out for third-party fire services, and there are no plans to rekindle the debate in the near future. Councilman Bob Dillon said at the time he just liked seeing “Gilroy” on the sides of fire engines. Morgan Hill contracts out with Santa Clara County for its fire services, but gets to keep the city moniker on its engines. A grand jury report released in June stated countywide fire services were inefficient and out date, but Gilroy’s official stance went unmoved.

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