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2018 a busy year for Ceres
• Fight over water, senseless murder of mom grabbed headlines
train derail pic1
A 30-car train derailment happened on Feb. 10 along Santa Fe Avenue at Hatch Road northwest of Hughson. - photo by Photo courtesy of the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department

The centennial of Ceres, the senseless murder of a Ceres mother over a video game headset being broken, and the fight over river water highlighted some of the biggest news stories covered by the Courier in 2018.

For this last edition of 2018, the Courier editorial staff looked back over the news made last year and developed this recap.


The new year 2018 had hardly begun when tragedy marred Ceres in the senseless slaying of a Ceres mother by a son upset over a broken video game headset. Matthew Douglas Nicholson of Ceres man was arrested and charged with shooting his mother in the head during a Jan. 11 domestic argument at their River Valley Circle home. He entered a not guilty plea to a murder charge. Ceres Police arrested Nicholson shortly after he allegedly shot and killed his mother, Ceres resident Lydia Suzi Orozco Nicholson, 68, during a dispute over a broken video game headset. 

Matthew Nicholson
Matthew Nicholson, 28, of Ceres, was arrested for shooting and killing his mother during an argument over his video gaming rage on Thursday evening. - photo by Courtesy of Ceres Police Dept.

Ceres Police Department spokesman Sgt. Greg Yotsuya said Nicholson was living with his parents and had been in his bedroom playing video games when he grew upset and began yelling. Lydia Nicholson went to see what was wrong with her son and the two began to argue. Matthew ended up breaking the headset to his video game but blamed his mother and threatened to kill her and Nicholson’s father, Loren Nicholson, 81. Sgt. Yotsuya said Nicholson then fetched a handgun and fired two rounds into a wall inside the home and then shot his mother in the head.

A Jan. 12 ribbon cutting in the Miller Industrial Park celebrated the opening of Ceres’ first-ever craft micro-brewery and tap room. The Lucas family of Turlock broke ground on its 6,000-square-foot Blaker Brewing facility and tap room at 1061 Monteclaire 10 months prior. The brewery was a dream of Tom Lucas, who started making beer on his family’s dairy in rural Turlock in 2012.

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Brewmaster Tyler Klaproth serves up beer samples to those who turned out for the Blaker Brewing ribbon cutting event on Jan. 12. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/The Journal

A completed Fourth Street makeover was celebrated with a Jan. 22 ribbon cutting beneath one of two new “CERES” entryway features attended by city, Chamber, business and community members. The city completed the $3.1 million project in 2017.

On Jan. 26 Becki Barton Nicholes was honored for many years of community service when she was named “Citizen of the Year” at the 49th annual Community Service Awards banquet hosted by the Ceres Chamber of Commerce.

Tom Westbrook, who for 13 years has been planning for the city and is now the city of Ceres’ Community Development Director, was given the “Distinguished Service Award.” “Volunteer of the Year” honors went to Shella Joiner. The Chamber bestowed its “Business of the Year” award to Cost Less Foods. Sam’s Café was bestowed with “Downtown Business of the Year” honors. Wells Fargo Bank was also nominated for the award. Sammantha Hill received “Young Citizen of the Year” honors. Gary M. Condit was also nominated. The Legacy award, designated for individuals and/or businesses that have contributed through service, support or volunteer efforts to the Ceres community for more than 40 years, was given to Bertolotti Disposal.


A freight train derailed along Santa Fe Avenue near Hughson on Feb. 10, scattering crumpled boxcars along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad tracks. The derailment ripped up track, blocked major roads and disrupted service for Amtrak passengers. There also were no injuries when the train, headed northbound from Barstow to Stockton, derailed at around 11:20 p.m. between Hatch and Leedom roads. Approximately 30 cars were either topsy-turvy along the tracks of sitting upright with no tracks beneath them. At least two railcars landed in lanes of Santa Fe Avenue and one of the cars spilled a non-toxic powder along Santa Fe Avenue but no hazardous material was spilled or released.

Two local residents were arrested on Feb. 12 in the 1000 block of Nadine Avenue in connection with the homicide of a 19-year-old woman who was stabbed in the neck and left for dead on a rural road near Livermore. Daniel Gross, 19, and Melissa Leonardo, 25, were arrested at their south Modesto home by detectives of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department in connection with the stabbing death of Lizette Cuesta of Tracy.

Justice was finally served in February when former Ceres resident Mark Edward Mesiti was sentenced to a life behind bars for the 2006 death of his 14-year-old daughter Alycia Mesiti, and a lengthy list of sexual crimes against her and two Los Angeles girls, who were 8 and 16 at the time. Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Dawna Frenchie Reeves ruled on Feb. 2 that Mesiti could not retract guilty pleas he entered on Oct. 16, 2017 and denied a request for a new trial and immediately sentenced him. The aggravated sentence included a life in prison without the possibility of parole for the homicide in the commission of sex crimes, concurrent with a 30-years-to-life sentence for lewd acts with a minor, and a consecutive sentence of 234 years and eight months for repeated sex crimes against the three girls.

Ceres Police found the body of Alycia Mesiti buried in the Mesiti backyard.

Convicted of murder and numerous sex crimes, former Ceres resident Mark Mesiti covers his face as he enters the court for sentencing in early 2018. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo


A grand celebration gala on Friday evening, March 23 marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of the city of Ceres. The event was held at the Ceres Community Center and attracted about 300 persons, including many former elected mayors, councilmembers and city employees.

The centennial marks the 100th anniversary of the incorporation of the city of Ceres although Ceres itself traces its founding back to 1869. The first recorded map of the town of Ceres was filed Feb. 20, 1875. Ceres was incorporated as a city on March 4, 1918 and serving as the first mayor was S.W. Cartwright who served only a month and nine days until the first city election was held on April 8, 1918. 

The celebration continued with a Centennial Stroll at the Clinton Whitmore Mansion in August. Plans are to start a Centennial Plaza in 2019.

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Shelia and Lee Brandt, members of the Ceres Centennial Committee, braved the heat in thick period costume for the Aug. 11 Ceres Historical Stroll at the Clinton Whitmore Mansion. - photo by Contributed


Seventeen students from Central Valley High School faced disciplinary action after walking out of class to participate in the National School Walkout on April 20. They rallied against gun violence and took time to remember victims. The day marked the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado in which 12 students and a teacher were killed by two gunmen.

April 21 was the date of the return of “Love Ceres,” a morning of volunteerism to make Ceres a better place. A much smaller number of volunteers than in years past turned out for Saturday’s “Love Ceres” event but there was high enthusiasm to make Ceres a better place. Grace Community Christian Church Pastor James Burbank said he and pastors Bill Kearney of Ceres Christian Church and James Stochl of Harvest Presbyterian Church felt it was important to bring back the community service day after Brian and Becki Nicholes gave up the leadership of the project in 2017. Some volunteers moved down the Ceres Main Canal between Hatch Road and Whitmore Avenue to pick up trash and dog feces. Another group headed to the Modesto Western Mobile Estates on Faith Home Road to help a disabled woman with yard work.

An April ribbon cutting celebrated the opening of the Rusty Nail cocktail lounge which pitches a different image than Sweet Lu’s at 3014 Fourth Street.

Arbor Day was celebrated in Ceres at the new Community Garden at the southeast corner of Fifth and Lawrence streets. The planting of the peach trees marked the first planting in the garden, which was later seeded to grow vegetables. Lot owner Shane Parson is made king his 6,500-square-foot lot available for the community to grow produce like corn, green beans, carrots, turnips, okra and tomatoes under a community coalition of private and public groups.


The long awaited update of the Ceres General Plan occurred in May.

The general plan encompasses 14,700 acres, including the city limits, Ceres’ sphere of influence, adjacent unincorporated areas and Mancini Park. The boundaries for the updated General Plan are nearly the same of the boundaries of the 1997 plan but are being tweaked largely by future road designs, including the Service/Mitchell freeway interchange.

The new General Plan has the capacity for Ceres to produce about 6,500 new housing units and with it an additional 22,000 residents; and over 12 million to 14 million square feet of new non-residential development, or commercial, industrial and office space.

Mark Bianchi was honored as the Ceres Chamber of Commerce’s Agribusiness Man of the Year at the May 17 annual Agribusiness Luncheon held at Diamond Bar Arena. The Agribusiness Woman of the Year honor went to Stacy Cardoso.

The Chamber bestowed its Grant Lucas Memorial Award to Charlie Fernandes, who has served on the Turlock Irrigation District Board of Directors. The Chamber also honored Berryhill Family Vineyards as its Ag Business of the Year.

The Ceres City Council voted 3-2 on May 14 to amend developer agreements struck last year with three medical cannabis businesses in response to changes in regulations made by state lawmakers. The move opens the door for medical cannabis operations to sell product for adult use to remain successful as the city finds marijuana as a cash cow for its coffers. The city expects to receive a minimum of $130,000 per month from the three cannabis operators in Ceres. That amount could be higher depending on the success of sales.


The school year ended with graduations.

At Ceres High, 344 seniors picked up diplomas on a gusty evening. Salutatorian Alondra Alvarez spoke and included a quote from her favorite movie, Mulan: “A flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.” Harmenjit Bathia, the class valedictorian, opened her speech with a famous quote: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

On June 1 341 Central Valley High School seniors graduated. Valedictorian Bryan Perez talked about the challenges of high school before turning his attention to the future. Approximately 83 percent of Central Valley High’s graduating class planned to attend a four-year university, a junior college or a trade school. Eight percent were off to the workforce. Four percent enlisted in the military.

The City Council met in late June and decided not to close Ceres Fire Station #2 on Pecos Avenue as the city’s budget was finalized to include more personnel for police, fire suppression, code enforcement and parks. Earlier in June talk of closing the Pecos Station in favor of four-man engine companies at the two remaining stations sent fire personnel into a panic. The council chose to pursue three-man engine companies at the three open fire stations and said it wants to explore restructuring of fire services once a new fire chief has been hired. To achieve three-man engine companies the city needs to fill two vacant firefighter positions and add two more firefighters. The move will require reclassifying some captain and three engineers down to firefighters. The result will be nine engineers, nine firefighters and nine captains.

The city’s financial standings improved vastly from the year prior because of increased sales tax receipts as well as an expected $1.6 million in revenue from three development agreements inked with one medical marijuana producer and two cannabis dispensaries. Wells warned that the state is advising an economic slowdown could be coming and that there is no end in sight to upward spiraling pension costs.


The city of Ceres celebrated the opening of its first-ever dog park, located on the north side of Helen Perry Road and east of Boothe Road. It features two shelters and benches and areas for large dogs and another area for small dogs enclosed by chain-link fencing. The parking lot is sized for six vehicles, one of which is reserved solely for handicapped persons with a handicapped placard.

Lawmakers and farmer rallied at the state Capitol on Aug. 27 to oppose a State Water Resources Control Board plan to cut local water use for the benefit of fish and wildlife. The board postponed the decision but approved the  Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan update, which calls for allocation of 40 percent of unimpaired flows along the lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries — the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers — to help rehabilitate the area’s native fish species.


The Ceres City Council took action on Oct. 8 to allow mobile food vendors in Ceres on a limited six-month trial basis. Food trucks will only be allowed in commercial or industrial areas to supplement existing businesses, notably bars, tap rooms or River Oaks Golf Course & Event Center. For decades taco trucks and other types of food trucks have not been allowed in the city of Ceres.


Incumbent Ceres City Councilwoman Linda Ryno easily cruised to re-election Nov. 6 for District 2 while an unopposed Channce Condit was elected to the District 1 seat.

Measure W passed by a margin of 6567 (67.04 percent) to 3,229 (32.96 percent). It was placed on the ballot by the city to ask voters for approval to impose a business license tax of up to 15 percent of gross receipts on cannabis businesses and dispensaries should any court action strike down three developer agreements the city has in place with three cannabis businesses in Ceres.

However, Ceres voters rejected Measure X which sought approval to make the city treasurer an appointed position versus keeping it an elected position. With all of votes counted, Measure X lost 6,205 votes (65.19 percent) to 3,313 votes (34.81 percent).

The Ceres City Council approved the purchase of $2.8 million worth of new firefighting apparatus for the Ceres Fire Department. The equipment, which includes a new $1 million quint ladder truck, two fire engines and an engine to fight brush fires, will be purchased from Rosenbauer Fire Apparatus North America using the Sourcewell consortium for greater purchasing power. The delivery won’t take place until February or March of 2020.


Ken Lane left the Ceres City Council after 13 years of service. Lane decided not to seek a fourth term on council, opening up his District 1 seat for the lone candidacy of Channce Condit. In 2005 Lane was elected to the council and was re-elected in November 2009 and in November 2013. His term was supposed to end 2017 but it was extended – along with those of all the other council members and mayor – to align elections with either gubernatorial or presidential elections because of a state mandate.


The year 2018 also witnessed the passing of some notable Ceres residents including:

• Duryea Warn, 97, a World War II veteran who worked for 33 years in the Ceres Post Office. He passed away on Aug. 24.

• Mildred Deane Lucas, 97, a Ceres historian who wrote a landmark 1976 history research book and whose name is attached to a newer Ceres elementary school along with her husband Grant Lucas, died Nov. 30.

• Donna Jean Reynders, 86, a bookkeeper for the former Bank of Ceres for 16 years and an instructional aide for deaf students in the Ceres Unified School for 16 years. She died Oct. 17.

• Floyd Sneed, a member of the Ceres High School Hall of Fame and retired banker, died in October.

• Ceres businesswoman Tawhida “Sophie” Parnoutsoukian, 78, died August 27.

• Claire Mall Price, a 1928 graduate of Ceres High School and Ceres school teacher in the 1930s, died at the age of 105 on April 3.

• Businessman James “Jim” Sanders, a 1942 graduate of Ceres High School who chronicled his World War II experiences in his book, “Saving Lives, Saving Memories,” died Jan. 11.

• Retired Ceres Police Sgt. Fred Perez, who became a Ceres Police officer in 1977 and worked his way up to sergeant before retiring in 2002, died Feb. 5 at the age of 72.

• Carl Reinhart, a 1940 graduate of Ceres High School who was drafted into World War II and served in New Guinea where he encrypted and decoded messages, died March 10 and the age of 95.