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Officials: Design flaw enabled inmate escape

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
February 20, 2008

A design oversight at the county Youth Services Center, from which 17-year-old murder suspect Josue Orozco escaped last week, allowed the young fugitive to flee the San Mateo facility, authorities revealed Tuesday.

Orozco scaled a 15-foot wall near a basketball court at the facility after two inmates boosted him high enough to reach halogen lights installed only 12 feet up the wall, according to officials. He used the lights as grappling mounts to climb over, then slipped through a hole in a fence and made his getaway.

The escape has highlighted a few security and protocol issues since Orozco fled sometime between 6:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. Thursday.

The youngest person charged with murder in San Mateo County, Orozco was only 14 when he was charged with the murder of Francisco “Pancho” Rodriguez, of Redwood City, in 2005. Orozco faces life without parole.

In addition to the placement of the lights, authorities were not alerted until after close to three hours after the escape.

“Orozco has had ample time to plan his escape,” said San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Mark Alcantara.

The halogen lights have now been raised to 15 feet and the recreation yard where the inmates were playing basketball has been closed, Probation Department Supervisor Loren Buddress said Tuesday.

The Youth Services Center, at 222 Paul Scannell Drive, is considering a number of long-term changes, Buddress said, such as the setup of an emergency notification phone service that will notify neighbors in the event of another escape.

Authorities also plan to revamp the process of notifying state law enforcement agencies and securing arrest warrants, Buddress said.

The probation department, which is responsible for the Youth Services Department, aims to finish its investigation this week and recommend any security upgrades, Buddress said.

The probation department continues to review surveillance tapes, which show two inmates, Martin Villa Patino and Vanher Cho, both 18, boosting Orozco high enough to grab onto the lights, Buddress said.

Authorities do not know who might have cut the hole in the fence, Alcantara said. The tapes also show a midsize black sedan with chrome wheels pulling to the fence around 7 p.m., he said.

Authorities are “not positive that the car was part of the escape,” but can’t discount that it might have been involved, he said.

A manhunt is currently under way, with county sheriff’s deputies, FBI, state law enforcement and border patrol working together to find Orozco.

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors expects to hold its own separate investigation into the incident next Tuesday, said Bill Chiang, aide to Supervisor Adrienne Tissier.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

February 20, 2008 at 9:50 PM

Bay Area-born pop culture icon dies at 82

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Beth Winegarner
San Francisco Examiner
August 13, 2007

Merv Griffin, the San Mateo native who went from big-band-era crooner to successful television host and game-show creator, died Sunday of prostate cancer. He was 82.

Griffin was born and raised in the city of San Mateo, where he launched a neighborhood newspaper, The Whispering Winds, when he was 7.

He graduated from San Mateo High School, and returned in 2006 for the opening of the high school’s new theater, which was named in his honor.

Although Griffin became one of the most popular and successful entertainers of the 20th century, he never forgot his roots, according to many locals who reflected on his life Sunday.

“I always look at San Mateo as a great place, and it gave him a great foundation,” said Supervisor Jerry Hill, a San Mateo resident. “He excelled in everything he touched, and he had a gift of entertaining people and making them smile.”

Griffin was initially diagnosed with prostate cancer in the 1990s, and was successfully treated for the disease more than 10 years ago, according to a family statement. He was recently hospitalized for a recurrence of the disease, which strikes one man in six and kills one in 35, according to the American CancerSociety.

“His death proves that this disease doesn’t respect any class status or occupation,” said state Assemblyman Gene Mullin, D-South San Francisco, who has publicized his own battle with prostate cancer in order to encourage men to seek regular screenings for the disease.

Griffin’s entertainment career arguably began at 4, when he began learning to play piano and performed recitals on the back porch of his family’s San Mateo home. Griffin left the University of San Francisco to work at San Francisco radio station KFRC, and then recorded a hit version of “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” which went on to sell 3 million copies.

By the numbers
» Born July 6, 1925, in San Mateo
» Began working for radio station KFRC in 1944
» Recorded “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts” in 1950, which sold 3 million copies
» Launched “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1962
» Created first game show, “Word for Word,” in 1963
» Created “Jeopardy!” in 1964
» Created “Wheel of Fortune” in 1975
» Won 17 Emmys

Source: Official biography from the Griffin Group

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

August 13, 2007 at 10:05 PM

Posted in Celebrities, San Mateo

Peninsula man fights seizure of antique one-armed bandits

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
August 13, 2007

The owner of a company that rents antique slot machines for parties and fundraisers will seek an injunction to retrieve more than 60 machines that were confiscated by the Department of Justice this month.

Stephen Squires has until Sept. 1 to file his appeal before the machines are destroyed, according to Marty Horan, special agent in charge of the Department of Justice’s division of gambling control.

The devices were seized from locations in San Carlos, San Mateo and South San Francisco on Aug. 2.

The California penal code forbids any use of slot machines, even by collectors who are using them in their own homes, according to Horan.

As long as those machines remain off-limits, 4S Casino Party Suppliers, located at 1449 Bayport Ave., is losing “tens and tens and tens of thousands of dollars,” Squires said.

Last month’s raid wasn’t the first time state officials confiscated machines from the business. The Department of Justice confiscated 10 of Squires’ machines in October 2006 after undercover agents went to an event where his slots were being used, and witnessed “people playing the machines in an illegal gambling fashion to earn credits or tokens for raffle prizes,” Horan said.

However, the 10 machines seized were not the 10 used at the event. A petition from attorney Richard Keyes in Redwood City, who represented Squiresin the case, allowed Squires to successfully regain his machines.

At that time, Squires was warned that if he continued to rent out the machines for events, the Department of Justice would confiscate all of them, according to Horan.

Keyes would not say whether Squires has retained his services a second time.

Squires doesn’t believe that what he’s doing — renting the machines to events at which people get free tokens to play — is against the law.

“Gambling means you wager something of value to win something of value,” he said. “Here, people are getting tokens for free, and maybe they get three matches and win a coffee mug.”

The San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges at the Department of Justice’s request in 2006, according to Horan. The department will spend the next 30 days gathering information to send to the DA’s office a second time.

Whether or not the District Attorney files charges, Squires’s slot machines would be destroyed after Sept. 1 unless he receives an injunction, according to Horan.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

August 13, 2007 at 10:02 PM

Study pinpoints Bay Area cancer risk hot spots

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by Beth Winegarner
Staff Writer
May 26, 2007

Bay Area residents will soon be able to see where diesel-related air pollution is the worst — and understand the health risks associated with living in those areas.

In the Bay Area, 80 percent of air-pollution cancer risk comes from diesel fumes; freight trucks, ships and trains are significant sources of diesel emissions, according to the BayArea Air Quality Management District.

The district is currently studying where those emissions are worst, and plans to study the health risks — from cancer to asthma — of constant exposure.

Preliminary maps show hot spots — places with elevated levels of diesel fumes and acrolein, a pollutant that comes from burning fossil fuels — in northeastern San Francisco, western Alameda County and parts of Santa Clara County. Two spots along Highway 101 in San Mateo County — one in San Mateo and one in Redwood City — show high levels of diesel-related air pollution.

“This kind of particulate matter exacerbates heart and lung conditions,” said John Millett, spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency. “We’ve seen a correlation between [these emissions] and things like emergency-room visits and heart attacks.”

While the district’s Community Air Risk Evaluation study, released this month, ultimately aims to zero in on the health risks associated with living in a diesel-polluted environment, the district only has regulatory control over stationary sources, such as industrial sites, according to spokeswoman Karen Schkolnick.

However, the EPA has enacted new rules under the Clean Air Act that have converted all of California’s diesel fuels to low-emissions varieties as of this year. Nationwide, all diesel engines must be low emission and use low-emission fuels by 2010, according to Margo Perez-Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the agency.

That’s good news for residents — particularly children and seniors — living in high-pollution areas, said Andy Katz, director of air quality for Breathe California.

“In southeast San Francisco or West Oakland, asthma rates are double what they are in the general population,” Katz said.

Reducing highway diesel alone is expected to eliminate 8,300 premature deaths, 9,500 hospitalizations and1.5 million lost workdays by 2030, Millett said. More could be spared by reducing emissions from trains and ships.

The new rules have been costly for the freight industry, adding an additional $10,000 to $15,000 to the cost of a $200,000 engine, according to Joe Sucheecki, spokesman with the Engine Manufacturers Association.

“We’ve always been supportive of new standards as long as they’re reasonable and we have enough time to meet them,” Sucheecki said. “We believe we can make these standards.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

May 26, 2007 at 5:03 PM

Burger joint to open Menlo Park location

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Beth Winegarner
San Francisco Examiner
March 8, 2007

Jeffrey’s Hamburgers, the popular burger joint that has held steady while San Mateo’s downtown came to life, is now opening a second diner in Menlo Park on El Camino Real at a time when city leaders hope to boost downtown activity.

After 10 years of feeding San Mateo locals, owner Serge Karanov plans to open the new Jeffrey’s at 888 El Camino, just south of Santa Cruz Avenue, in three months.

That came as good news to fans who crowded into the red-and-chrome diner Sunday afternoon for heaping platters of fries, salads and fresh-grilled burgers.

“The food’s always good, and very consistent,” said San Mateo native Greg Roth, who has eaten at Jeffrey’s about once a week for the last eight years. “They serve my kind of food.”

Karanov bought the restaurant at the corner of First and B streets in San Mateo nearly 10 years ago. Jeffrey’s was named for the son of the original owner, who went on to run George’s Burgers in Walnut Creek.

Since then, downtown San Mateo has undergone radical changes, with the addition of a movie theater and new shops that draw hungry shoppers into the city.

Jeffrey’s grinds its chuck fresh every morning and makes everything in-house, a standard that has won its food numerous awards from local newspapers and the American Automobile Association, which named it one of the best hamburger restaurants on the West Coast.

“The only secret is a good day of honest work,” Karanov said. “It’s not hard to make a good hamburger. The only trick is making it all yourself.”

Before purchasing the Menlo Park site — once home to Henry’s Prime — Karanov investigated a number of storefronts in Redwood City, but said he had his doubts about the success of that city’s downtown.

Now, he’s hard at work designing the new site to make it look like a classic diner.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

March 8, 2007 at 6:43 AM

Pet store banned from selling animals

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
December 19, 2006

A pet store owner accused of housing animals in filthy, unhealthy conditions has been ordered not to sell any pets through December 2008.

A San Mateo County Superior Court decision Thursday forbids Mohammed Olfat, the owner of Laurelwood Pet Store in San Mateo, from selling any animals at his Hillsdale Road store until Dec. 13, 2008. In August, 289 animals were seized from the store after they werefound living in soiled cages, eating from food dishes containing feces and living in fish tanks without enough water, according to Peninsula Humane Society/SPCA officials.

This isn’t Olfat’s first offense — he served 14 days in jail after pleading guilty in March to charges that he mistreated and sold sick cats and dogs. He also spent five days in jail in 2004 on similar charges.

“There are people who need to go to jail and there are people who just need not to be around this number of living animals,” PHS director Ken White said. “This is a situation where you need to make sure no more animals get caught up in it.”

Olfat, reached at the pet store Monday, said the ban won’t hurt his business, which is primarily based on pet supply sales and an educational newsletter. He argued that taking the issue to court was unnecessary.

“If they had come to us in a nice way and told us, ‘Don’t sell that,’ it would have been fine,” Olfat said. “We didn’t really have to go to court — they just attacked us.”

Ongoing problems at the pet store have not stirred controversy among neighbors, according to Georgette Sarles, president of the Laurelwood Homeowners Association, who was relieved to hear the court’s decision.

“If they’re doing such a bad job of taking care of the animals, the best thing for the situation is that they’re prohibited from selling them,” Sarles said.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 19, 2006 at 10:28 PM

Posted in animals, Crime, San Mateo

Judge’s ruling places some constraints on raucous household

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
December 18, 2006

San Mateo won a partial victory in its fight to set limits on a local homeowner after a judge agreed that ongoing noise and alleged criminal activity coming from the house violated neighbors’ quality of life.

San Mateo Superior Court Judge Beth Freeman ruled Friday to place a civil injunction on Ohaiha Fonua Sr. and his home at 107 N. Grant St., but stopped short of evicting Fonua and his extensive family from living in the home, as San Mateo city officials had requested.

The injunction’s details will be finalized over the next 15 days and may include a curfew, along with a condition holding Fonua responsible for any criminal activity on the property, according to attorney Lance Bayer, who represented San Mateo in the four-day triallast week.

“We are pleased with … the recognition that a property owner has responsibility to maintain the property in a way that prevents public-nuisance activity,” Bayer said.

John Hartford, the attorney representing Fonua, did not return calls for comment Sunday.

Bayer called 14 witnesses who testified about ongoing activity at the North Grant Street home, including what were described as almost-nightly street parties, public drinking and drug use, heckling of police officers and multiple shootings and assaults. Hartford called two witnesses, including Olaiha Fonua Sr. and another member of the family.

One of Bayer’s witnesses, Tyrone Gadson, described an encounter in February 2004 with a crowd gathered in front of the house in which he was chased down the block and shot in the side. Two residents of the house, Jared Fonua and John Tonga, were arrested for Gadson’s shooting; Tonga was convicted of attempted murder, while Fonua was acquitted.

Freeman’s ruling is a relief to many San Mateo residents, including those in the North Central neighborhood where the Fonuas live, according to neighborhood representative and planning commissioner Bertha Sanchez. Residents there often tried to intervene, but failed to stem the problems on North Grant Street.

“I hope the city can continue to monitor areas and make sure they don’t get to this point again — or put pressure on landlords to consider the problems a particular tenant might have,” Sanchez said.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 18, 2006 at 9:37 PM

Posted in Courts, Crime, San Mateo

Family painted as criminally disruptive as hearing begins

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
December 12, 2006

Olaiha Fonua Sr.’s San Mateo home was not only ground zero for loud parties that bothered neighbors, but it also served as a “safe house” for criminal and gang activity, according to opening statements in San Mateo County Superior Court Monday.

Attorney Lance Bayer is representing the City of San Mateo in its effort to evict Fonua and up to 50 others for one year from a house at 107 North Grant St. — a last-ditch effort by the city to curb what police say are ongoing problems at the home. Neither Fonua nor any of the members of his extended family were present in the courtroom as Bayer called witnesses to the stand.

Among those witnesses was San Mateo Police Lt. Alan Parisian, who ran the police department’s street-crimes team in 2004 and has led the city’s effort to gather evidence against the house’s residents.

Parisian described loud parties in front of the house that could be heard up to a block away, and showed photos from MySpace in which members of the household stood in front of the house and made hand signs allegedly associated with the West Side Tongans gang. He also described short-term visits he said were consistent with narcotics sales.

“We’re dealing with a nuisance that stems from the property owner allowing this to be a party house in the worst sense,” Bayer said.

Attorney John Hartford, representing the Fonuas, has consistently declined to comment on the case, as have the Fonuas.

One of Bayer’s witnesses, Tyrone Gadson, described an encounter in February 2004 with a crowd gathered in front of the house in which he was chased down the block and shot in the side.

Two residents of the house, Jared Fonua and John Tonga, were arrested for Gadson’s shooting; Tonga was convicted of attempted murder, while Fonua was acquitted.

“The family feels that it can rule that area of San Mateo,” Gadson said. “I have friends who have been threatened, but I’m the only one who will not let someone push me off the block where I was raised.”

The court trial is expected to continue through Thursday or Friday, and will be decided by San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Beth Freeman rather than a jury.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 12, 2006 at 9:40 PM

Posted in Courts, Crime, San Mateo

City’s case against Fonua family heads to trial

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
December 8, 2006

A court trial begins Monday in the city’s bid to oust a Tongan patriarch and his family from their North Grant Street home after family members were accused of “terrorizing” their neighbors and local police.

The City of San Mateo is seeking an injunction that would displace owner Olaiha Fonua Sr. and up to 50 people affiliated with his household for a year, and would require court approval before Fonua could lease or sell the single-family home at 107 N. Grant St., according to Lance Bayer, the attorney representing the city’s case. The move follows several years of ongoing reports of problems at the house, including large numbers of people living there and recurring problems with noise, trash and obscenities near the house, according to court documents filed by the city.

“The area was being terrorized, and they had neighbors … who wanted something to happen, but couldn’t come forward, out of fear,” according to Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe. Wagstaffe said some members of the family had lengthy rap sheets.

Some residents living near the house said the neighborhood has enjoyed a relative measure of peace since six members of the Fonua family have been arrested in recent years. Some are serving prison sentences for violations ranging from cocaine sales to attempted murder.

“It’s been quiet,” said Margie Perez, who has lived in an apartment across the street from the Fonuas for the past two years. “They stay on the property. They have friends over, but those don’t stay too long.”

Members of the family contacted Thursday declined to comment on the impending trial. Their lawyer, San Francisco-based John Hartford, did not return calls for comment.

When the trial begins Monday, Bayer expects to call a number of witnesses, particularly those from the San Mateo Police Department, who will provide evidence of the Fonuas’ alleged public nuisance activities.

“We expect to present evidence … based on the types of conduct, which involve violent behavior and quality-of-life concerns affecting the neighborhood andthe community,” Bayer said. The trial is expected to continue through the week.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 8, 2006 at 9:35 PM

Posted in Courts, Crime, San Mateo

City to commemorate bridges

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
November 8, 2006

San Mateo — Four 103-year-old train bridges that fostered some of the city’s busiest neighborhoods and withstood two major earthquakes will soon be replaced, prompting questions about how the hard-working structures should be commemorated.

These bridges elevate the Caltrain corridor above East Poplar Avenue, Santa Inez Avenue, Monte Diablo Avenue and Tilton Avenue in San Mateo’s North Central neighborhood. All four have deteriorated with time and regular use — and many are too low to accommodate tall commercial trucks — prompting a $40 million Caltrain plan to replace them between July 2007 and July 2008.

The city’s Public Works Commission will examine three ways to memorialize the bridges in a workshop Wednesday. The options include submitting photos, architectural drawings and a narrative to the National Register of Historic Places and similar organizations; offering artifacts to the California State and Golden Gate Railroad museums; and installing informational plaques or displays at the sites or on structures nearby.

“There’s no architectural beauty to them, but they’re interesting,” said Mitch Postel, head of the San Mateo County Museum, which surveyed the bridges in 1989.

The American Bridge Company of New York built the bridges in 1903, 40 years after the tracks were laid, to keep cars safe from passing trains and connect new residents living on either side of the tracks. Within five years, new neighborhoods near those bridges were bursting with homes, according to Postel.

Although such bridges were common at the time, very few were built in San Francisco or on the Peninsula, Postel said.

Caltrain’s bridge-replacement plan includes raising the tracks and bridges so that trucks could pass underneath them, modifying the roads and constructing retaining walls to protect the embankments. Designs for the project are 20 percent complete, so it’s unclear what the new structures will look like, according to acting Deputy Public Works Director Susanna Chan.

“These bridges are part of the historic fabric,” said Bertha Sanchez, a city planning commissioner who lives in the North Central neighborhood. “Whatever they could do to make them safe while at the same time keeping them historic would be best.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

November 8, 2006 at 2:21 AM

Posted in History, San Mateo