The departure of Art deWerk as Police Chief/Director of Public Safety Department for the city of Ceres tops the list of Courier news stories of 2014.
Now that the year is over, the Courier reviewed our 53 issues and picked out the top stories of the year 2014, which a week ago.
DeWerk left city employment in June in a shroud of mystery following 15 years of service. DeWerk spent four and a half years toward the end of his tenure serving in the dual capacity of Police Chief and Acting City Manager.
In March the Ceres City Council stripped deWerk of the city manager responsibilities and replaced him with Toby Wells, who had been the city engineer and Public Works Director.
In June deWerk, 60, had returned to duty after two months of medical leave following the removal of a benign mass in his brain at a Bay Area hospital. But days after returning to work, deWerk was again on medical leave. One city official said deWerk was advised not to come back to work without being medically cleared but he refused to do so. DeWerk and the council then met in closed door sessions where his employment ended.
DeWerk was replaced by Acting Police Chief Brent Smith.
DeWerk's employment came to an end after Mike Borges, a 34-year Ceres Police veteran, retired in March as deputy police chief, a position he held since 2005. However, the Ceres resident started working as the police chief of Escalon in San Joaquin County on July 14.
In September officials with the local chapter of the NAACP leveled charges against the city that female city employees were being harassed at work by male employees by spying on them in rooms where they changed clothing. NAACP officials specifically say video cameras were placed under a female worker's desk but City Manager Toby Wells denied the allegation. The city did, however, confirm that the "Ceres Police Department recently conducted, or is in the process of conducting, two separate internal affairs investigations." A city press release indicated that the first case was initiated in October 2013 and the city took corrective action. The second investigation was initiated in May.
Prior to deWerk's departure, the NAACP caused a flap with the City Council when its leader suggested that racism was behind the city's re-evaluation of its role in a program that supplies health-care services to the poor and minorities. The charge was soundly denied by city officials who reiterated the value of the program but concerned about city liability in the event of a malpractice suit. Later the city disassociated itself with the NAACP /Ceres Police Stop Gap Health Services which opened a clinic in January of 2012 in downtown Modesto.
Michael "Mike" Lyions, 71, stepped down from the position of city attorney as of Dec. 10, closing out 44 years of service to the city of Ceres.
Lyions abandoned his private practice in 2002 to solely devote his time to being a full-time city attorney.
Lyions started with the city of Ceres when he was 27 while working for the city attorney Ernie Rushing. Rushing had secured the city contract from Myron Moyle when he retired. Lyions started out just standing by at Planning Commission meetings and substituting for Rushing at council meetings. He later became deputy city attorney and by de facto started covering all the meetings, working with mayors Brian Carlin, Gary Condit, Sal Cannella, Jim Delhart, Louie Arrollo, Richard McBride, Barbara Hinton, Leo Havener, Eric Ingwerson, Delinda Moore, Anthony Cannella and Chris Vierra.
Walmart Supercenter case
The city of Ceres and Walmart prevailed in a November Stanislaus County Superior Court case brought on by a group calling themselves "Citizens for Ceres" which seeks to halt construction of the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center. The group contended that the environmental review of the project was lacking, to which Judge Roger Beauchesne thought was nonsense. The group has until Feb. 2 to decide if they wish to appeal to a higher court and thus drag out their fight against the 26-acre project planned for the northwest corner of Service and Mitchell roads.
Also in September, a Stanislaus County Superior Court jury found former Ceres Police Officer Chris Melton guilty of abusing his powers as an officer when he kicked a surrendered man during an April 13, 2013 call regarding a home invasion robbery in the 1600 block of Evans Road. A subsequent internal investigation questioning the amount of force used by Officer Melton during the incident commenced after Ceres officer Ross Bays reported the suspected misconduct to supervisors. Melton had been placed on paid administrative leave before he was terminated.
The jury found Melton guilty of criminal misdemeanor charges of assault by an officer under color of authority.
Bays testified in court that Melton kicked suspect Daniel Reagan in the groin along Norwood Heights Lane and later seemed to be amused about his action.
Melton has had prior conflicts with the department. He was one of the officers who allegedly inflicted excessive force on party goers during a 2007 loud party call in the 3100 block of Burton Drive. Allegations included that police dragged a woman out of the house by her hair and pepper-sprayed a handcuffed man.
Shortly after Melton's experience during the shooting death of Sgt. Howard Stevenson in January 2005, police officials say he failed probation. Melton was with Officer Sam Ryno the night he was critically wounded when shot at by Andres Raya at George's Liquors the night of Jan. 5, 2005. Melton pulled Ryno to safety before Raya turned on Stevenson and fatally shooting him in the head.
A psychological report noted that Melton exhibits fits of temper and used curse words in the presence of members of the public and coworkers. He regained his job after suing the city of Ceres in 2006.
Christiansen defeats Letras
In June, Ceres native Tom Letras was defeated in his bid to unseat Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christiansen. Christianson was elected to a third term with 22,136 votes, or 65.70 percent, over Letras who garnered 11,486 votes, or 34.09 percent. Letras, a 1990 graduate of Ceres High School and Ceres resident, went into the race understanding that he was the underdog. He spent the past several months suggesting that under Christianson's "bullying" style of leadership that the department suffers from low morale. He also made campaign fodder of the county taxpayers footing the $9.4 million bill to defend harassment lawsuits filed by those under Christianson.
The year 2014 saw an end to Staples on Hatch Road on June 28. In March the chain announced that it would close 225 stores by the middle of 2015, on the heels of closing 40 stores in North America in 2013. The move affected about 20 employees of the Ceres store.
It was also the year that the McDonald's restaurant at the southeast corner of Hatch and Mitchell roads was razed and rebuilt into a newer facility. Vigen, Inc., representatives from Fresno went before the Ceres Planning Commission in May to win approval of a Conditional Use Permit to demolish the building and replace it with a larger 4,977-square-foot eatery. The old restaurant was 3,524 square feet.
It was also the year that Dollar General introduced its second store to Ceres. The new store is located on Whitmore Avenue just west of Malik Avenue. The first store came to the former Richland Market location in the Richland Shopping Center.
WSS opened a new store in Ceres in December after the city compromised on a sign ordinance standard after the shoe store chain insisted it needed the signage package it desire. City officials changed the zoning ordinance section that affects how commercial signs are calculated on the wall of a business. The changes would allow a merchant to propose signs on buildings by calculating their "cutout" area rather than the entire height by width measurement of a sign field. That could result in businesses being able to place larger signs on their buildings.
Excitement over downtown Ceres was generated in 2014 when the city approved a new 8,250-square-foot Leer office and retail building at the southern flank of downtown Ceres. Bill Leer of Modesto's Leer Corporation went before the Ceres Planning Commission in January to seek approval for a Site Plan Approval for the project to be constructed on a 14,375 square foot parcel at the northwest corner of Park and Sixth streets. The project, however, hasn't broke ground in the year since approval.
The year also had a rude interruption for the Jack in the Box restaurant on Hatch Road. An out-of-control tractor-trailer rig barreled into the restaurant on April 30, causing significant damage to the dining room and closing the facility for weeks. Investigating officers blamed the crash on the big-rig's driver, Fidel Navarrete, 51, of Riverbank, who was westbound on Hatch Road and ran a red light. The front of the cab struck a passenger vehicle that was making a left turn from eastbound Hatch Road onto northbound Mitchell Road. The impact sent the big-rig - which was carrying a load of refried beans - out of control into a palm tree in the Kentucky Fried Chicken lot and into Jack in the Box located west of the intersection.
The city transitioned into a cleaner looking community when the city decided to ban feather banners from car lots - while allowing special promotion banners - after deciding to crack down on temporary and A-frame signs. In April the Ceres City Council addressed the proliferation of temporary signs, saying they were detracting from the aesthetics of the community.
Crimes and fires
Unfortunately the sheer number of crimes and fires in Ceres were so great that it becomes difficult picking out the top events of the year.
As far as fires go, the most bizarre crime story hands down is the case of the homicide of Thomas Cervantes, AKA Thomas Kroger, 49, and the discovery of his frozen body stuffed in a freezer in an industrial building on April 14. Jacob Medina Cervantes, a 26-year-old businessman whose abandoned auto shop yielded Kroger's frozen corpse, was charged in the murder. The suspect entered an innocent plea on April 17 in a Stanislaus County Superior Court. Investigators are looking at a romantic link between the victim and suspect. A criminal complaint charged that Cervantes killed Kroger between Dec. 1 and April 10.
In February, the community celebrated the way a 5-foot-3, 120-pound Ceres woman, 34, fought off a male intruder, who just had released from the Stanislaus County men's jail, with a shard of broken glass. Aaron Modisett-Hollie, 18, of Stockton, wandered through the Ceres neighborhood and smashed the woman's window.
A raging June 30 fire destroyed two apartment buildings within the Vineyard Apartments complex in Ceres Monday afternoon, displacing residents of 12 units and taking the lives of two pets. The fire broke out at 3:44 p.m. and spread quickly between one eight-unit building of the Richland Avenue complex south of Hatch Road and the neighboring four-unit building to the west. Departments from Turlock City, Hughson, Modesto and Stanislaus Consolidated responded to assist Ceres Fire in battling the fire. A total of 38 personnel and nine engines were involved in the firefight.
One of the biggest movers and shakers in Ceres proved to be Renee Ledbetter, president of the Ceres Chamber of Commerce. She led the Chamber on a campaign to get Ceres residents to do more business in Ceres. The Chamber also stirred the city to allow use of the billboard along Highway 99 for a forthcoming message reminding locals to "Shop Local." Ledbetter has stressed that by shifting at least 10 percent of all shopping to Ceres merchants, residents can generate an extra $400,000 in revenue for the city, "which would fund a couple of police officers, a couple of firefighters and help improve our roads."
2014 also was the year that city officials breathed a huge sigh of relief when the long-awaited landscaping project put an end to the sight of blight on the Highway 99 Whitmore Avenue interchange. Since 2011, the naked and litter-strewn dirt embankments of the new interchange were a source of embarrassment to city officials who have stepped up an economic development push to attract new business. That embarrassment was over now with a $790,161 landscaping job by Marina Landscaping. Now travelers up and down 99 see an attractive design created by waves of reddish-brown rock and bark, and borders of river rock. Planted are eastern redbud, golden rain, deodar cedar and interior live oak trees. The landscaping area also features wildflowers and creeping rosemary, desert carpet acacia, New Zealand flax ‘dusky chief' and ‘sunset' rockrose shrubs.
With that project checked off, the city announced in November that it wants to go full steam ahead on the planning of a new $125 million Highway 99 interchange project for Service Road that would result in a first-ever diverging diamond road interchange in the state.
Rev. Adrian Condit, 87, was named the 2013 Ceres Citizen of the Year by the Ceres Chamber of Commerce in January. He has spent 47 years ministering to the spiritual needs of residents of Ceres and Modesto region. Other awards given out that night were the: Distinguished Service Award to former Ceres City Councilman Eric Ingwerson; Young Citizen of the Year Award given to Modesto High School student Couper Condit; Volunteer of the Year Award to Jose Saldivar of La Cascada Mexican Restaurant; Business of the Year Award to Casey Moving Systems; Downtown Business of the Year Award to Alfonso's Mexican Bar & Grill; Legacy Award to E.R. Vine & Sons; and Service Club of the Year Award to the Ceres Lions Club.
In May, Ken Moncrief's role in promoting agriculture among the students of Ceres and Central Valley high schools earned him the honor of being named by the Ceres Chamber of Commerce as the Agribusiness Man of the Year on Thursday. Triana Berryhill's role in the family grape operation earned her the Agribusiness Woman of the Year.
The community also celebrated the August opening of Patricia "Kay" Beaver Elementary School. The $22.7 million campus was funded entirely by state funds and built south of Central Valley High School on S. Central Avenue just north of Grayson Road.
During 2014, Ceres said goodbye to some special people. They included:
• Joe Reis Machado, a Korean War veteran who was a Westport area farmer, who died March 15;
• Grant Talmadge Lucas, a long-time Ceres farmer and former Ceres school board trustee, who died April 26;
• Richard "Dick" Ham, World War II cinematographer and son of Ceres constable Will Ham, who died April 10;
• Milana Barragan, an 11-year-old Caswell Elementary School student, died in a May 31 crash in Empire;
• Leroy Topie, a Korean War Purple Heart medal recipient who owned a Chevron station at Mitchell Road and Whitmore Avenue, died July 18;
• Ceres High School soccer coach Koeurn Phe, 38, who succumbed to cancer on Aug. 25;
• Alberta P. "Polly" Noble, wife of former Ceres Courier columnist and Ceres book author Bill Noble, died Sept. 9 in Washington state;
• Joddie Ann Zuroff, a teacher's aide at the Kidz Ministry Foundation day care facility, died from a heart attack on Sept. 28 at age 45;
• Wayne Salter, a longtime Ceres resident and farmer who served on the Ceres School Board in the 1950s, passed away Oct. 20 six days before his 101st birthday. Mr. Salter was very involved in community service, spending 12 years on Ceres High School Board of Trustees ending in 1961. He was named Ceres Agribusiness Man of the Year in 1993.
• Donald E. Fultz, a Ceres High School class of 1953 member who went on to become a worldwide humanitarian, died unexpectedly on Oct. 17 at his home in Nevada City;
• Billy Gean Boyd, a two-time World War II Bronze Star recipient and former commander of Ceres Post #10293 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, died Nov. 16 at age 88;
• Mario Castro, a 17-year-old Hughson student, died in a Dec. 23 crash on Highway 4 in Brentwood.