Top Merced County stories of 2013

Mother Teresa once said, “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

Indeed, the year 2013 is gone, and as Merced County enters a new year there is much to look forward to. As the unemployment numbers continues to steadily decrease, new businesses set up shop, new leaders take the helm in local offices and the student population at UC Merced grows, it goes without saying that the stage has been set for 2014 to be a pivotal year for Merced County.

There was certainly no shortage of local news in 2013. Here are a few of the major stories that made headlines:

El Capitan High school opens

Shiny floors and the smell of fresh paint greeted students at Merced’s new El Capitan High School, a $98 million campus at G Street and Farmland Avenue.

Under the theme of “Learn, Love, Lead and Leave a Legacy,” the 53-acre campus opened on Aug. 19 to 750 freshmen and sophomores.

Heavy stacks of textbooks are a thing of the past at El Capitan High. All students learn from electronic devices instead and students are encouraged to bring their personal computers.

El Capitan teachers use the digital version of most textbooks from the state-adopted curriculum. The digital emphasis saves room in backpacks – and there are no lockers.

In many ways, the opening of the school was a half-century in the making. The original El Capitan High was renamed Merced High School 50 years ago. About 25 El Capitan High alumni attended the dedication of the new campus.

Rim fire burns thousands of acres

The massive Rim fire scorched 257,314 acres spanning Tuolumne and Mariposa counties, making it the biggest fire in the recorded history of the Sierra Nevada. It started when a hunter lost control of a campfire on Aug. 17, authorities said, and grew steadily, aided by a continuing drought and ideal wildfire weather.

Tourism, a major economic engine for the area, was heavily affected. Highway 120 was closed for weeks. More than 5,000 firefighters converged on the blaze, which was contained on Oct. 24. Castle Airport served as a base for DC-10 tanker aircraft that fought the blaze. The fire also seared itself into the national consciousness with countless national media reports.

Merced holds mayoral/council election

If voter turnout is any indication, Mercedians were less than excited about municipal elections, but voters did pass a measure partly meant to change that.

Twenty-two percent of registered voters turned up at the polls in November. They overwhelmingly passed Measure J, which amended the city charter to align with state elections. For the most part, officials agreed changing the charter would save the city money and increase the number of people at the polls.

Mayor Stan Thurston and Councilman Josh Pedrozo’s first terms in office got an apparent stamp of approval when they won re-election in November. The council added two new faces: Michael Belluomini and Kevin Blake.

Wal-Mart distribution center wins court victory

Those happy about Wal-Mart’s proposed distribution center in Merced got good news, and then bad news, this year. After a more than three-year court battle, the state Supreme Court decided in March not to hear an appeal from opponents of the project, making way for the project to bring as many as 1,200 jobs Merced’s way.

But construction on the 1.2-million-square-foot distribution center on a 230-acre site will be delayed beyond 2014. Wal-Mart officials said the project is coming to Merced, but they can’t say when.

The project was proposed in 2005, and Wal-Mart officials blamed the long court battle for the delay. As the city fought in court to make sure the project came to fruition, the combination of a difficult economy and an improved transportation system changed Wal-Mart’s plans, officials said.

Tioga tenants take action over living conditions

Residents and the former management of the 85-year-old Tioga Apartments building butted heads publicly a few times this year, so much so the building has new management.

A group of tenants in the building reached a resolution with the former management in April after claiming they were faced with wrongful eviction threats. A letter that month from the former managers, Fresno-based Manco Abbot Real Estate Management, hinted that the confusion was tied to a former employee who is suspected of defrauding the company.

In May, tenants publicly called out the management company by bringing a petition before the Merced City Council. The complaints included a cockroach infestation, overflowing garbage rooms, foul odors and problems with the elevator.

The building is undergoing about $285,000 in upgrades, including new paint and carpets for 30 apartments. A new property management company, Stockton-based BLR Commercial Real Estate, is overseeing the changes.

Barnes and Noble stays, but Merco race calls it quits

About the middle of last year, Barnes & Noble officials had a song for Merced patrons, similar to The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”

Fortunately, it wasn’t long before they were singing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”

In October, Barnes & Noble officials announced they didn’t expect to be in Merced past January due to a landlord/tenant dispute. That news was met with much disappointment from hundreds of residents who’ve grown to know and love the bookseller.

Within a few weeks after making that announcement, however, officials from Barnes & Noble and Decron Properties, a Los Angeles-based property management company, announced an agreement on a month-to-month lease for the 21,714-square-foot West Olive Avenue building.

A few months after Barnes & Noble officials said the bookstore was staying, however, another popular Merced mainstay called it quits. In December, organizers for the Merco Credit Cycling Classic announced they were putting an end to the 20-year tradition for Merced.

Doug Fluetsch, the race’s founder and event director, cited several reasons for discontinuing the popular event, including a drop in riders, the loss of four people on the event’s management committee and the drug-use controversy in the cycling world. Fluetsch said he considered all options to keep the event going, including scaling back races from four days to two, but decided not to compromise its longstanding success.

Sheriff Mark Pazin steps down

To the surprise of many, Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin in December announced he would leave office after more than a decade to accept a position with Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration.

The longtime county sheriff was appointed chief of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services Law Enforcement Branch. Pazin, 57, served as the county’s sheriff-coroner since 2002. Pazin’s last day on the job was Dec. 30. Tom Cavallero, who served as undersheriff under Pazin, was appointed sheriff by the Board of Supervisors. The primary election for sheriff is scheduled for June.

Dead or dying animals found at Last Hope Cat Kingdom

Animal lovers throughout the region were shocked by news that Atwater-based Last Hope Animal Kingdom became the subject of a criminal investigation after Merced County Animal Control officials said they found sick and dead animals there in June. Of the 301 animals seized, there were 295 cats and six dogs. Veterinarians euthanized 200 animals, saying they were “too sick to survive.”

County officials held a public hearing about the troubled animal shelter last month. County officials now must decide whether to revoke the facility’s permit, which allows it to have 125 cats, modify the permit to allow fewer animals, or keep things the same.

It’s unknown whether Renate Schmitz, the shelter’s co-owner, will face criminal charges in the matter.

Couple found guilty in Ana Lila DeCeja murder

A jury in June convicted a couple of killing a Planada woman and kidnapping her 2-month-old baby.

Ana Lila DeCeja, 26, was murdered by Maria Teresa Ceja Robles, 34, and Jose Augustine Velarde, 38, in December 2010.

The case was regarded as one of the most shocking Merced County crimes in recent memory, particularly because the couple killed DeCeja to raise her the baby boy as their own child. “Truth is stranger than fiction,” Judge Brian McCabe said of the case. “The court has never seen or heard such an accumulation of facts in one case so bizarre, twisted, convoluted and inhumane, and is likely never to again.”

Robles was convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping, child endangerment and solicitation to kidnap, and sentenced to life without parole. Velarde was convicted of second-degree murder, kidnapping and child abuse, and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison.

The victim knew Robles because their children went to the same school, and they lived in the same housing camp at one point. Prosecutors believe Robles lured the victim to the couple’s Market Street home, where Velarde strangled her. DeCeja went to the home thinking she was going to look at scarves Robles had made.

DeCeja’s burned body was found by farmworkers in an orchard near Snelling. Authorities said the baby, Anthony, later was found after Robles and Velarde left him on the doorstep of a Le Grand home.

Riggs Ambulance contracting controversy

The Merced County Board of Supervisors in January last year voted unanimously to reopen the bidding process for an exclusive contract to provide emergency ambulance services in the county.

The move canceled the decision to select Denver-based American Medical Response, and gave longtime local provider Riggs Ambulance Service a second chance to bid for the contract.

Riggs officials applauded the unanimous decision, but an AMR representative said it was politics at its worst.

County officials said the Request for Proposal document, which allows ambulance providers to bid for the contract, has been sent to the state’s Emergency Medical Services Authority for approval. Once approved, the bidding documents will be released online and companies can submit proposals. Officials estimate that will happen in mid-January.

Triple shooting remains unsolved

Three teenagers were killed March 30 in a shooting near Atwater, the deadliest Merced County shooting in recent memory.

The shooting happened at a residence in the 9200 block of Westside Boulevard about 11 p.m., killing Matthew Fisher, 19, Samantha Parreira, 16, and Bernabed Hernandez-Canela, 18.

Two other males, ages 16 and 21, were wounded during the shooting and taken to a hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening.

Merced County sheriff’s officials said the shooting happened after a group of people approached a rival gang at a party near the residence. Multiple shots were fired after a confrontation.

Although law enforcement officials say the crime was gang-related, the parents of the victims said their children were not in gangs.

The crime remains unsolved.