By Alyssa Erdley
Observer Staff Writer 

Top Ten Stories of 2018. Here's our take on the biggest local stories of 2018.

Some spectacular "homeless"-related crime, including a serial killer were overshadowed by Fires

 

January 7, 2019

September Dawn Bottoms

Firemen take a brief break from the Campfire near Paradise, CA in October

For a relatively small metropolis, Santa Monica has more than its fair share of national headlines. We're the little city that can...make news. Here's our take on the biggest local stories of 2018.

1. Woolsey Fire (November)

On November 8, a fire started in Woolsey Canyon in the Santa Susana Mountains. Driven by powerful Santa Ana winds, it swept quickly south and through much of northern Malibu. For two weeks, the fire burned through 97,000 acres, destroyed 1,643 structures, killed 3 people, and forced the evacuation of more than 295,000 people. The people of Santa Monica welcomed many fire refugees, sponsored fundraisers, and gave thanks for the grace that allowed them to celebrate Thanksgiving in their own homes. Possibly the most surprising effect of the fires was that so many cars from Malibu entered the city that the unheard of occurred: SM Parking Enforcement stopped giving tickets.

2. Some spectacular "homeless"-related crime, including a serial killer

The so-called homeless have burgeoned in numbers over the past year and so have the crimes involving them. "Homeless" is a misnomer, however. We aren't talking about people who don't happen to have housing. We're talking about people with serious substance-abuse and mental-health problems.


- Capture of serial killer (September)

A "homeless" citizen of El Salvador allegedly attacked four people in Santa Monica and three in downtown Los Angeles, killing three of his mostly-homeless victims. Santa Monica Police apprehended Ramon Escobar, a 6-time deportee, near 7th and Colorado, where a male victim suffering head trauma had been reported. Escobar, 47, was quickly linked to the other attacks. Using a baseball bat and a bolt cutter, he allegedly smashed the heads of sleeping victims in order to conduct petty theft. Among the three people killed was a young father and marina worker, Steven Cruze Jr, 39, who'd been taking a nap under the Santa Monica pier. Escobar is also wanted in connection with the disappearance of his aunt and uncle in Houston, Texas.

- Tongva Park slashing (August)

Tongva Park, envisioned as a connector between the Santa Monica Place and the Pier, did not take long to become a no-go zone. Santa Monica College student Miles O'Brien was walking through the park in the early morning hours with some friends when they were accosted by a belligerent homeless man. Apparently offended by their presence, he threatened them to the point O'Brien felt he had to protect himself. The homeless man, Javon Patton, 29, retaliated by slashing O'Brien in the head and neck with a broken picture frame that had been fashioned into a weapon. O'Brien recovered from his injuries and Patton was charged with assault with a deadly weapon.



- Tongva Park murder (October)

After a male victim was found stabbed in the abdomen on a park bench, a suspect running from the scene was apprehended by SMPD. The victim, who'd possibly been sleeping before the attack, died at an area hospital. The suspect is identified as Joseph Ramirez Perez, 21.

- St Johns Hospital murder (July)

A man in his 40s was found dead on a bench near St John's Hospital, suffering puncture wounds and blunt force trauma. Police soon arrested Daniel Roy Davis, 26, as a suspect in the murder. Both men appear to have been transients.

3. City employee sex scandals

Sex scandals are part of the human condition, and it would be unusual indeed if Santa Monica didn't have their fair share. It would even be unusual if highly-paid city staff did not have their fair share. Even so, these stories make the news.

In October, Eric Wess Uller, 50, a lead public safety systems analyst for the City of Santa Monica, was arrested and accused of molesting 10 boys. Considered an upstanding citizen who'd even received an award from the Rotary Club, Uller had allegedly perpetrated the molestations while volunteering for the Police Activities League during the 1990s. A month later and on the morning of a scheduled court hearing, Uller was found dead in his Marina del Rey apartment, apparently the victim of suicide.


In December, another highly paid official, Transit Operations Superintendent Larry Jamieson, was arrested on charges of possessing child pornography.

4. City loses voting rights lawsuit (November)

Members of the Santa Monica City Council, the legislative body of the city, are elected via at-large elections. Every citizen of the city votes for all 7 members of the City Council. But in November, a Superior Court judge tentatively ruled against the city in a lawsuit brought by the Pico Neighborhood Association to end at-large elections. The judge ruled the City of Santa Monica is in violation of the California Voter Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the California Constitution by holding at-large elections. Instead, Santa Monica should be divided into districts and residents should vote for one councilmember to represent their district. The sitting City Council, some of whom would not win reelection under these terms, were displeased with the ruling and have plans to appeal.

5. Term limits ballot measure passes (November)

As if losing the Voting Rights lawsuit wasn't bad enough for the current City Councilmembers, city voters decided in the November election that there should be limits to how many terms an individual can serve on the City Council. Measure TL prohibits a person from serving more than three terms, whether consecutive or not. This will drastically change the faces that have appeared in the council chambers, often for decades. In the past, the most common way a councilmember ended their service was through death.

6. Airbnb limitations

Alarmed at the idea ambitious entrepreneurs might eat into the hotel taxes paid to the city - and also possibly concerned that true housing would be taken off the market - the City of Santa Monica took measures to limit the ability of a homeowner or leaseholder to rent their place out as an airbnb vacation pad. Legislation passed by the city now mandates that any owner who wishes to rent space via airbnb or other homesharing app must be living on the premises at the same time.

7. Rampant new development

Millions of square feet of new development continue to be proposed for approval even as Lincoln Boulevard and Wilshire Boulevard become deep canyons between an expanding number of high-rise structures. Meanwhile, city property at 4th and Arizona is given to private developers to turn into a twelve-story megalith instead of turning it into the park everyone wants and this park-poor city needs. Water rate increases continue to get proposed and residents are cautioned to conserve water - even as the city approves these water-thirsty projects. Only God knows where the cars are going to go that will come with this development once it is finished. But that's right. We're supposed to be riding scooters. Next story.

8. Scooter wars

While Bird Scooter dumped their battery-operated vehicles on Santa Monica sidewalks at the end of 2017, the meat of this story really belongs to this year. The city fairly quickly responded to the immense profits Bird was making by filing a criminal complaint against the company for failure to obtain proper business licensing. Until Bird arrived, a business was required to pay for a business license for every location at which their business was transacted. The Breeze bicycles, for example, purchased a business license for every hub location they'd installed. Bird scooters, on the other hand, are dumped wherever the user is through with them.

Bird quickly solved the criminal complaint with a token payoff of about $300,000. (The City is terrible at negotiating - that was the real crime here.) But their problems weren't over. Fairly quickly, competition arrived. Green-emblazoned Lime scooters entered the arena. Yet more scooters littered the sidewalks and blocked driveways. Uber and Lyft joined the fray with Jump and Lyft scooters. Although some city residents embraced the fun and easy-to-dump transportation system, others complained about safety issues and the scooter litter blocking other modes of transportation (like walking).

City officials decided they were going to end this capitalist party and choose the winners of the scooter wars in Santa Monica's traditional communist style. Bird and Lime, the forerunners of the whole thing, enacted a one-day boycott in August, shutting off their scooters. This probably had more perceived than true impact as it's doubtful scooter riders cared all that much which company they were using. In any event, the city became ashamed enough (or perhaps were secretly afraid of a successful lawsuit) to allow all four scooter companies to operate. However, city officials remained true to their bureaucratic gods by insisting on keeping tabs on the whole business and gave themselves the opportunity to 'reevaluate' the situation next September. Translation: they're giving everyone nine more months to come up with the best payoff deal.

9. Crime continues to rise

Though official data is not yet available, the SM Police Department admits on their home webpage that crime is up. Social media applications such as Next Door make it easy for residents to become knowledgeable of and track crime in their neighborhoods. From car break-ins to home invasions, Santa Monica residents are perceiving an upsurge in property crimes. While some continue to praise the local police, others have had experiences of slow-to-no law enforcement response.

Several factors are probably at play. New state law Proposition 57, which went into effect in 2017, allowed "nonviolent" felons to be released early on parole. This is a significant reason for the sudden explosion of "homeless" on the streets, the "homeless" of the burglar- and petty-theft type. In a desperate effort to ease the overcrowding of the state's prisons and avoid a threatened federal takeover (this was before Trump's election), Governor Jerry Brown introduced this bill. It was an easy out. He reduced the prison population - by putting them on public streets.

The other major factor is Proposition 47. This bill, introduced by Kamala Harris, reduces many "nonviolent" crimes that were formerly felonies to misdemeanors. Specifically, property crimes of less than $950 are considered misdemeanors with generally no jail time. For this reason, we are seeing "homeless" walking out of grocery stores without paying for the food they've taken. Retailers and many residents understand the police are not going to come arrest, much less search for, thieves who've stolen less than this amount. Basically, this law decriminalized crime.

The two laws taken together are a double-whammy for people who want to live in safety with the confidence they will be able to hold onto possessions purchased through their own hard work.

10. Ground breaks on SM Early Childhood Lab School (March)

As soon as they possibly could, city officials decided the historic Santa Monica Civic Center was not profitable and therefore they could divvy up the land for more profitable ventures. Salivation occurred on all sides. One of the uses our officials decided on for this land with proximity to downtown, city government, and the ocean, was - inexplicably - a preschool. But not just any preschool. This was to be a teaching preschool that was primarily for the children of city and SMC staff. Only 30 percent of the 110 spots available were to be reserved for Santa Monica residents. This was considered rather odd by some, given the stated raison d'etre for the preschool was that such a use was "a priority based on a survey of residents." Well, the "residents" aren't getting a preschool. They're only getting a third of one. Meanwhile, the athletic field that residents DO want on the Civic Center site is fought via slow-play by foot-dragging city officials.

If there's a theme to be found in these stories, it's that human nature doesn't change. There will always be greed, exhibited by both the lowest echelon of burglar and the highest elected official. Sometimes the greed is uninhibited, in which case it detracts from the value of our society. This is the case when burglars break into garages and steal anything that isn't nailed down. This is the case when city officials take payoffs to allow millions of square feet of development that reduces the quality of life for their constituents. On the other hand, greed that limits itself to legal gain through healthy competition can improve all of our lives.

It's important to remember that part of human nature is also compassion and generosity. When disaster strikes, there are always more helpers than harmers. May the first thought give us appropriate skepticism, and may the second give us some much-needed optimism as we walk into 2019.

2 more companies entered the Scooter fray. JUMP scooters by Uber, in front of St. Paul's Lutheran Church

 

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