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From tragedy to triumph, here are the top-10 SLO County stories of 2018

Highway 1 reopens at Mud Creek Slide near Big Sur

The first cars drive along the newly opened section of Highway 1 across the Mud Creek Slide near Big Sur Wednesday morning. The road was closed for over a year after the massive landslide wiped out Hwy. 1.
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The first cars drive along the newly opened section of Highway 1 across the Mud Creek Slide near Big Sur Wednesday morning. The road was closed for over a year after the massive landslide wiped out Hwy. 1.

It was an eventful year for SLO County — capped off with the news that Mindbody is being sold to a San Francisco-based private equity firm.

In the span of 365 days, the county saw several instances of senseless tragedy: a California Men’s Colony nurse was killed and her son accused of the crime, a Morro Bay pastor was hit and killed by a car while out walking, and a Cal Poly student was killed at a dangerous Highway 101 intersection.

But there were also many happy stories: the Neptune Pool at Hearst Castle reopened following extensive renovations, new dorms opened at Cal Poly and a new homeless shelter opened up in SLO.

And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface, which is why we have this list.

Here are The Tribune’s top-10 stories of 2018, along with some honorable mentions for good measure:

10. Terminally ill SLO woman chose to fight for her death

The Tribune covered San Luis Obispo resident Christine Whaley’s decision to pursue medical aid-in-dying after five-and-a-half years of battling malignant melanoma.

Medical aid-in-dying is legal in California, though incredibly difficult to pursue in San Luis Obispo County. Whaley had to leave the area to get the care that would allow her to die in peace in her own home.

She had decided that if death was inevitable, she didn’t want it to come the same way it did for her grandparents, who both died of cancer after long, painful battles.

“Now it feels like it can be tidy, and it can be the way I want it to be,” she said of the planned-out date. “It’s not going to happen at the wrong time, and someone’s not quite into town yet and they haven’t had a chance to say goodbye. There’s all kinds of benefits that I haven’t even thought of that I think are there.”

She spoke with The Tribune just days before taking the prescription medications that ended her life.

As she faced her final days, Christine Whaley of San Luis Obispo, who suffered from terminal cancer, discusses her decision to get a prescription to end her life.

9. State Parks promises to reduce dust emissions from Oceano Dunes

After years of residents complaints about poor air quality downwind from the Oceano Dunes off-road vehicle park, an air quality hearing board in April approved a settlement with State Parks to reduce dust emissions by 50 percent in five years.

It’s the largest air-pollution reduction plan in the history of the park and calls for closures and revegetation in the foredunes to return the area to conditions shown in a 1930s aerial photograph.

On bad days, air quality on the Nipomo Mesa causes health risks similar to that of wildfires and nearby air quality monitors measured pollution that violated state health standards 98 days in 2017.

The settlement was reached as a result of a petition filed by outgoing Air Pollution Control District Officer Larry Allen, who alleged State Parks was in violation of numerous health and safety codes and district rules as the dust is “a public nuisance and a health threat ... that needs to be dealt with now.”

New ACPD Officer Gary Wiley initially agreed to settle the complaint with a promise from State Parts to reduce dust by 30 percent over five years, a plan that was rejected by the hearing board for not doing enough for public health.

Once the groups returned with a settlement to cut dust by half, Wiley said, “I don’t think there could be a better plan given the time available and the dynamic situation we have.”

Some members of downwind communities said the plan still doesn’t do enough, while off-road rider groups questioned the science behind the mitigation plan.

Living within sight of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicle Recreation Area, California, Stanley Fisher is battling a terminal lung disease. He and his wife monitor the air on a constant basis in San Luis Obispo County.



8. Frace sisters killed in car crash

Sisters Brynn and Brittni Frace of Paso Robles were on their way to Chico State University in January when they were in a collision with a semi truck after stopping at a gas station. Both died from injuries suffered in the horrific crash.

The sisters, who were both standout distance runners at Atascadero High School, were inseparable and were an integral part of SLO County’s running community.

They were mourned during a standing room-only service at Atascadero Bible Church, where family and friends remembered that they “unleashed joy like nobody’s business,” and were beautiful and vibrant.

Brynn and Brittni Frace died this week after the vehicle they were driving collided with a semi truck. Atascadero High and the church they attended in Paso Robles started memorials to honor their memories.

7. Kristen Marti killing

San Luis Obispo mourned the death of 26-year-old Kristen Marti, whose body was discovered with her throat slashed in Prefumo Canyon in late March after the woman had been missing since January.

Robert William Koehler, 36, is accused of killing Marti after allegedly meeting her for paid sex in a vehicle parked in Prefumo Canyon.

Koehler has pleaded not guilty and has been in custody at San Luis Obispo County Jail without bail since May. He’s scheduled to stand trial in May 2019.

San Luis Obispo police Chief Deanna Cantrell holds a press conference to announce that 36-year old Robert Koehler, a resident of Arroyo Grande, has been arrested and charged with the murder of 26-year old Kristen Marti.

6. Diablo Canyon closure money

In January, the California Public Utilities Commission approved PG&E’s application to shutter Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant by 2025 but struck down its proposed settlement to San Luis Obispo County.

However, in September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that would give the county $85 million to mitigate the impacts of the shutdown.

Still, PG&E needs to collect $1.6 billion from ratepayers by 2025 to pay for the plant’s closure, according to new filings with the state.

For a typical residential customer, this would translate to about $1.98 more on your bill, though the exact amount would vary depending on usage.

In its recently filed Nuclear Decommissioning Cost Triennial Proceedings, the company said it expects the total cost of decommissioning Diablo Canyon to be about $4.8 billion — up from the $3.8 billion it estimated in its last triennial report in 2015.

“Diablo Canyon continues to be an important resource for California in achieving our clean energy goals,” Steve Malnight, PG&E Senior Vice President of Energy Supply and Policy said in a news release

Take a closer look at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near Avila Beach. California's last operating nuclear power plant will close in 2025, owner Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has announced.

5. Allegations against local teachers

Several educators and school staffers were accused of disturbing and brazen abuse of local children in 2018.

The Lucia Mar Unified School District — which was accused in an April lawsuit of attempting to cover up school bus driver David Lamb’s alleged sexual abuse of a special needs student over the course of several months — allowed a Nipomo High School girls wrestling coach to resign in June with a non-disclosure agreement after the Sheriff’s Office recommended sexual assault charges be filed.

A subsequent Tribune investigation found that Justin Magdaleno was accused of sexually assaulting and harassing student athletes, and allegedly made several death threats against his accusers. Despite the findings, the District Attorney’s Office decided not to file charges. Celebrity attorney Gloria Allred filed a lawsuit against the school district in May for allegedly failing to prevent the abuse.

In Atascadero, Chris Berdoll, a teacher at the Fine Arts Academy, was arrested in September after allegedly being caught taking “up-skirt” videos of students in class. Berdoll has pleaded not guilty to 44 felony charges related to child pornography.

In Morro Bay, former football coach David Kelley was fired as coach after allegedly making homophobic statements to a student.

Nipomo Coach
Former Nipomo High School girls wrestling coach Justin Magdaleno talks to his team at the end of a practice in January 2017. Magdaleno, who was not charged following a District Attorney’s Office investigation into alleged sexual assault, received roughly $63,000 in pay while on leave for about nine months. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

4. Cal Poly blackface incident and diversity issues

One of the worst public schools in California for black students, according to a USC report, made national headlines earlier this year after photos surfaced online of a Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity member in blackface and other fraternity members throwing gang signs while dressed as gangster stereotypes.

The incidents caused weeks of turmoil on campus and led to other racially charged incidents. In response, the university is taking steps to create a more inclusive campus climate, and this fall put every incoming student through a mandatory diversity workshop as part of Week of Welcome.

Cal Poly students gathered for an emergency town hall meeting in San Luis Obispo on Monday, April 9, 2018, to speak out against racism after a fraternity posted racially insensitive photos of members in blackface and gang costumes online.

3. Highway 1 reopens

After an 18-month closure of Highway 1 between Ragged Point and Big Sur, the renowned scenic stretch finally reopened on July 18, 2018.

Having the highway open again was a big deal for: Travelers, the businesses who serve them and the people who work at or deliver to those businesses; Hearst Castle; state highway and other road workers; and especially the people who live in or between Cambria and Carmel and, for so long, hadn’t been able to get from one area to the other on the All-American Highway.

A series of landslides in 2016 and 2017 had blocked or destroyed the pavement at Mud Creek and Paul’s Slide (respectively about 9 and 26 miles north of the county line), and damaged the Pfieffer Canyon Bridge so severely, it had to be replaced.

That award-winning bridge construction was completed in 2017. But it took an additional nine months for Caltrans and its contractors to recreate the pavement at Mud Creek and make that stretch of highway safe to traverse again. In the end, they wound up building a new road atop the stabilized slide material.

The Mud Creek openings (a soft opening on July 18 and a more festive ribbon-cutting ceremony two days later) were two months earlier than originally expected, despite the complexity of the job.

Caltrans, John Madonna Construction and other contractors had worked feverishly, dawn to dusk, seven days a week, to create a new roadway atop the slide materials at Mud Creek, where the road was obliterated when the mountainside let go.

The agency knows the land is continuing to move at Mud Creek and Paul’s Slide, which prompted Caltrans to develop a new protocol: Precautionary hard closures at either or both sites anytime the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency predicts a severe rainstorm in the Big Sur area.

Drone footage shows a birds-eye view of the Highway 1 construction across the Mud Creek Slide on the Big Sur Coast in California. Caltrans announced on Tuesday, June 12, 2018, that they expect to open the road by near the end of July.

2. The 2018 election

The November general election saw nearly three-quarters of SLO County voters turn out — the highest in a midterm election since the county began recording voter turnout in 1980.

Notably, SLO County voters rejected Measure G, an initiative to ban fracking and new oil and gas wells in unincorporated areas of San Luis Obispo County, after the oil industry spent $8 million to defeat the citizen effort, and Paso Robles voted most of its incumbents off the school board amid budget woes.

Heidi Harmon was re-elected mayor in San Luis Obispo, Caren Ray is the new mayor of Arroyo Grande, and Paso added a woman, Maria Garcia, to its council for the first time in 34 years.

Meanwhile, a clerical error made during the election could force a special election to fill three seats on the Los Osos Community Services District Board of Directors.

Congressman Salud Carbajal and Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham also tallied convincing re-election victories.

In the June primary election, Supervisor Lynn Compton beat challenger Jimmy Paulding by a slim margin. Voters also returned Supervisor Bruce Gibson, Sheriff Ian Parkinson and District Attorney Dan Dow to office.

Arroyo Grande mayor candidate Caren Ray celebrates an early lead while watching initial election returns Tuesday night, November 6, 2018.

1. Video of Andrew Holland’s death in SLO County Jail

Though Atascadero resident Andrew Holland died in San Luis Obispo County Jail custody in January 2017, The Tribune in March released surveillance video showing how he was held in a restraint chair for more than 46 hours leading up to his death.

The video, which showed that the Sheriff’s Office’s version of events was inaccurate and misleading, garnered national attention and led to calls for Sheriff Ian Parkinson to resign or drop out of his re-election bid in June. Parkinson won the race handily over challenger Greg Clayton.

Though Parkinson and county administrators have implemented reforms in how medical and mental health services are provided, one inmate died in jail custody in 2018 and the county continues to face several lawsuits for alleged mistreatment of inmates.

Andrew Holland died while at the San Luis Obispo County, California jail in 2017. This exclusive jail cell video shows his final days strapped to a restraint chair and left naked in a solitary confinement cell.

Honorable mentions

1. Pismo Pier reopens: The classic California pier was closed for more than a year for refurbishment but was reopened just in time for Pismo Beach’s annual Clam Festival.

2. Morro Bay hikers rescue a woman who survived seven days after driving off Big Sur cliff: Two Morro Bay residents were camping in Big Sur in July when they ended up in the right place and the right time — and saved the life of an Oregon woman who survived for seven days on a rocky beach after her car plunged over a cliff. Chad and Chelsea Moore received a California Emergency Medical Services Award for rescuing the woman.

3. Sexual assault allegations made against former Paso Robles cop: A former Paso Robles police officer was accused of forcibly raping a sexual assault victim in her home, having multiple on-duty sexual encounters with another woman in his patrol car and ordering at least one woman he arrested to expose herself to him or face repercussions, according to an investigative report from a Sheriff’s detective. The allegations surfaced in May, and former Sgt. Christopher McGuire resigned from the Paso Robles Police Department on Oct. 1. District Attorney Dan Dow announced in November that his office wouldn’t file charges.

4. Missing Paso Robles woman found dead and a suspect arrested: Nancy Woodrum of Paso Robles went missing in May. In December, the Sheriff’s Office announced that they found Woodrum’s remains and arrested a house painter they believe killed her and dumped her body. The painter, Carlo Alberto Fuentes Flores, entered no plea when he was arraigned in San Luis Obispo Superior Court. Fuentes Flores is due back in court for a further arraignment on Jan. 3.

5. Alex Bar-B-Q demolished: The historic Alex Bar-B-Q building in Shell Beach was suddenly demolished in September. Questions abounded regarding whether the city of Pismo Beach knew about the demolition beforehand, and the circumstances leading to the demolition are still unknown. About a month after the building was torn down, officials discussed the possibility of having a restaurant on the property.

Tribune reporters Kaytlyn Leslie, Lindsey Holden, Nick Wilson, Monica Vaughan and Kathe Tanner contributed to this story.

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