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Utility re-energized power line before new fire erupted

LOS ANGELES — Southern California Edison said Friday that it re-energized a 16,000-volt power line minutes before a nearby hilltop exploded into a blaze that is threatening thousands of homes.

SCE and other utilities cut off power this week to hundreds of thousands of Californians to prevent windstorms from knocking down or fouling lines and sparking devastating fires.

As the winds eased in most locations, SCE began restoring power. It was re-energizing a circuit 13 minutes before a fire erupted nearby on a hilltop northeast of Los Angeles, the utility told state regulators.

Erratic winds continued to bedevil firefighting efforts Friday at the Maria Fire, which has burned some 13 ½ square miles, threatens about 1,800 homes and other buildings, and prompted evacuation orders for nearly 11,000 people.

Eastern Ventura, Camarillo, Somis and Santa Paula were at risk, Ventura County fire officials said.

SCE said it had no information about the actual cause of the fire but will cooperate with investigators.

The fire began during what had been expected to be the tail end of a siege of Santa Ana winds that fanned destructively across the region, but a tug-of-war developed between those offshore gusts and the return of some onshore flow from the ocean.

Noah Berger/AP  

Flames from a backfire consume a hillside Friday as firefighters battle the Maria Fire in Santa Paula, Calif.

“It has been an uphill battle ever since,” Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen told a midday news conference. “We are finding that the winds are starting to change and that presents its own challenges all by itself.”

Wind shifts expose new areas of fuel to the fire, bringing “a pretty significant firefight,” he said.

The fire burned down the sides of a mountain bordered by agricultural land, the small city of Santa Paula and other communities. Airplanes tried to flank it with long drops of retardant while helicopters dropped loads of water.

Red Flag warnings for gusts and very low humidity levels had been expected to expire Friday evening but forecasters extended them to 6 p.m. Saturday for valleys and interior mountains of Ventura and Los Angeles counties, citing the withering conditions.

“As recent fire activity has shown, this remains a dangerous environment for fire growth, even with weaker winds than earlier this week,” the National Weather Service wrote.

Noah Berger 

An air tanker drops retardant as the Maria Fire approaches Santa Paula, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. According to Ventura County Fire Department, the blaze has scorched more than 8,000 acres and destroyed at least two structures.

Elsewhere, the state was free of fire weather warnings and only a few hundred utility customers were awaiting restoration of power that was shut off to wide areas in an attempt to prevent blazes involving electrical equipment and strong winds.

In Northern California, more people were allowed to return to areas evacuated due to the huge Kincade Fire burning for days in the Sonoma County wine country.

The 121-square-mile fire was 67% contained, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

The tally of destroyed homes reached 167 and there were 33 more damaged, Cal Fire said. Many other structures also burned.

Historic, dry winds prompted the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., to initiate four rounds of widespread pre-emptive shut-offs in Northern California this month to prevent wildfires.

But the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District pegged the utility’s equipment as the cause of three smaller fires that cropped up Sunday in the San Francisco Bay Area suburbs of Martinez and Lafayette.

And while the cause of the Kincade Fire hasn’t been determined, PG&E reported a problem with a transmission tower near the spot where the fire started.

Utility spokesperson Ari Vanrenen said Friday they are “cooperating with the investigations into the recent fires and will continue to respond to requests for documents and other information related to those investigations.”

Noah Berger 

An inmate firefighter creates a fire break as the Maria Fire approaches in Santa Paula, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 1, 2019. According to Ventura County Fire Department, the blaze has scorched more than 8,000 acres and destroyed at least two structures.

In Los Angeles, the last remaining evacuations were lifted in Brentwood, where a fire that erupted near The Getty Center arts complex roared into ridgetop and canyon neighborhoods and destroyed eight expensive homes.

In eastern Ventura County, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library reopened to the public after being forced to shut down Wednesday as a wind-driven wildfire swirled around the hilltop facility.

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AP staff writer Janie Har contributed from San Francisco.


Clay County publisher joins journalism hall of fame

Longtime newspaperman Ted Gill of Arapahoe was recognized last week for his long and distinguished career in journalism that embraced small-town newspapers as indispensable in communities across Nebraska.

Gill, who owned, operated, and bailed out several small newspapers beginning in the 1970s with his late wife, Cherridah, was inducted into the Nebraska Journalism Hall of Fame at a ceremony Oct. 25 at the Nebraska Club in Lincoln. He continues to hold the title of publisher of the Clay County News, which has its offices in Sutton.

Also inducted were Les Mann of Wayne and Joe Starita of Lincoln.

In remarks at the induction ceremony, Gill said the honor he was receiving “makes me feel like I am standing on the shoulders of giants.”

“This is the great state of Nebraska,” Gill said at the induction ceremony. “Only here could a little squirt from a small Kansas High school and town receive this type of recognition in his second career.”

He mentioned the good times and bad times he and Cherridah and their family had experienced over the years, personally and in the newspaper business, and acknowledged many of his colleagues and counterparts from whom they have learned, including Don Antrobus of Arapahoe, Everett Walters of Bertrand, Doug Duncan of Shelton, Don Russell of Sutton, Ted Huettman of Wisner, Ken Rhoades of Blair, and Allen Beermann, longtime executive director of the Nebraska Press Association. He also paid tribute to his late wife, who died in May 2018, calling her a “super wife.”

“Our family over the years has survived 15 presidents, nine Nebraska governors, three major floods, one major tornado, many major snowstorms, two careers, six different houses, four children and a number of deaths,” Gill said. “ ... We tried to support, help and further journalism in Nebraska. In the words of the late Gene Morris of McCook (a true friend): ‘In my opinion, community newspaper work is the most noble of crafts. Think about what we do as newspaper people. We have the responsibility and privilege of uplifting our communities by gathering information, providing entertainment and offering inspiration to those we serve. At our best we are the difference makers.’”

Gill said accuracy, fairness and honesty have been the three guiding principles he and his family have tried to stand for in their newspaper work, and that subscribers, advertisers, customers, suppliers, and newsmakers at the local and state level have helped them along the way.

“In closing, let me say, ‘Continue your loyalty of good clean newspaper journalism as we must be the savior of democracy. Thank you. May God bless this USA, NPA and honest journalism, you and yours. Thank you. And remember, you can never say enough thank yous.”

It was after launching a J.M. McDonald Department store location in Lexington in 1967 that the Gills entered what friends called their “second career,” opening the Lexington office of the Tri-City Tribune in the early 1970s. Before they were done, the stable of publications they oversaw included the Arapahoe Public Mirror, Holbrook Observer, Elwood Bulletin, Ravenna News, Elgin Review and Clay County News. He holds the title of publisher at the Clay County newspaper, which has its office in Sutton.

Tory Duncan of Sutton was among the notables in attendance at Gills’ HOF induction. He was recruited by Gill more than 11 years ago to run the Clay County News and has known him since childhood. Gill and Duncan’s parents, who also operated Nebraska community newspapers, were close friends.

Though he had a lengthy journalism career prior to joining Gill at the Clay County News as managing partner, Duncan said he considered him both a role model in the business and father figure in life.

“His biggest thing in life — especially since his senior years — is that he didn’t want to see small-town community newspapers go away because there was nobody there to operate them,” Duncan said. “My father and mother both passed away at a young age, so after we reconnected, I think Ted and I started looking at each other as a father-son duo. We communicate almost every day.

“He gives us a lot of feedback, good and bad, and he’s still very sharp and very involved. And not just with our newspaper. He gives advice to other newspapers in the southwest part of the state. People still call on him. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, which is something I’ve always appreciated, whether I like it or not.”

A dedicated member of the Nebraska Press Association and Nebraska Press Advertising Service, Gill served on both organizations’ boards and was president of each. His service earned him NPA’s highest honor, the Master Editor-Publisher designation, in 2013.

Don Russell and his wife, Linda, also attended Gill’s Hall of Fame induction last week. The Russells owned the Clay County News from 1981-2005 and are longtime friends of Gill’s.

“Ted deserved that,” Don said of Gill’s induction into the Hall of Fame. “He’s done a lot for young aspiring newspaper people all over the state for years. He’s a solid newspaper person always eager to help young journalists get into the field.”

In addition to attending several Husker football games together, the two newspaper couples also vacationed together, including on a trip to China. Though serious much of the time, Russell said, Gill is easy to get along with and full of compliments for those around him.

“He was just friendly and willing to help all the time,” he said.

It was Gill’s ability to tell both sides of the story that Russell admired most about his journalistic skillset, he said.

“He was fair … and logical,” he said. “He was well respected in the newspaper industry in the state of Nebraska.”


Closing statements made in murder trial

Jurors heard closing arguments Friday to cap seven days of testimony in the murder trial of Daniel B. Harden in Adams County District Court.

Corey O’Brien with the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office gave the closing statement for the prosecution.

“Over the last seven days of testimony, you’ve heard a tragic tale of a drug transaction that went wrong,” he said.

Prosecutors say the 23-year-old Harden was among a group who conspired to rob 19-year-old Jose “Joey” Hansen in the early morning hours on Sept. 11, 2017. Harden, Deante Mullen and Deonte Hayes allegedly agreed to participate, but Hayes became ill from excess drugs and alcohol and stayed behind. Mullen and Harden allegedly drove to meet Hansen in a white Chevy Tahoe owned by Mullen’s girlfriend, Katherine Creigh.

Mullen testified he was driving the vehicle, which was spotted traveling down G Street by security cameras at 2:21 a.m. and 2:23 a.m., as he circled the 700 block of West G Street. He said Hansen got into the back seat and handed him the drugs mentioned in their agreement. Then Mullen says Harden pulled a gun on Hansen, who jumped out of the vehicle and ran. Mullen claims Harden shot the weapon as Hansen fled but didn’t know if he had been hit.

But defense attorney Clarence Mock pointed out that Mullen cut a deal with prosecutors to offer testimony and pointed the finger at Harden to avoid the possibility of spending life in prison himself. Prosecutors made a similar deal with Creigh, who has been charged as an accessory to the crime. He said the deals give them motivation to implicate Harden in their testimony.

“You have two chief witnesses bought and paid for by the state,” he said.

O’Brien said the plea agreements are conditional on Mullen and Creigh telling the truth. If caught in a lie, they would break the deal and the original charges would continue.

“The purpose of any officer of the court is to seek the truth,” he said. “The truth is what we’re after.”

O’Brien said the timeline suggested by the state is supported by the text messages and cellphone calls made through the time in question.

Creigh testified she called Mullen’s cellphone after he told her he couldn’t find it upon returning to the residence. Mullen said he got out of the vehicle to shut the back door and must have dropped the cellphone at the time.

Creigh had called him at 2:37 a.m. and 2:45 a.m., and neither call was answered. She said one call was before Mullen and Harden returned and the second was to try to locate the phone.

She then said she drove back to the crime scene to retrieve the cellphone and a pack of cigarettes that Mullen also had dropped. Video captured that trip at 2:51 a.m.

But Mock said this is the first time Mullen or Creigh mentioned calling the cellphone while at the house. Both had opportunities to tell authorities about what they were doing when the calls were made, but failed to do so. He said they have had access to the discovery materials in the case and would have easily been able to tailor their stories to fit the facts.

He told the jury that it is more likely that the reason Creigh was calling was that Mullen hadn’t returned.

He said the 2:51 a.m. sighting of the Tahoe most likely is Mullen returning from the scene of the crime. He said it could be that Mullen lost sight of Hansen and circled the block to make sure he couldn’t survive to go to police. Maybe, Mock said, Mullen picked up any shell casings dropped to clean up the evidence linking him to the crime.

Mock pointed out that officers found a mark on the street believed to be the ricochet of a bullet, which then traveled through a nearby drain spout, porch screen and porch roof. He said the angle needed to make that shot indicates the shooter would have had to be east of the area where the first blood spatter was located. Given the angle of the ricochet compared to the blood spatter, he said it is more likely that two shots were fired — possibly a warning shot and the fatal shot.

O’Brien disputed the angle of the ricochet offered by Mock and reminded jurors that the only shell casing found was inside the Tahoe, reinforcing Mullen’s account.

Mock said the shell casing found isn’t actually proof of anything since officers were unable to recover Mullen’s weapon.

“The presence of that shell casing doesn’t prove anything without a match to the firearm that fired it,” he said.

If Mullen didn’t return to the residence until after 2:51 a.m. when the Tahoe was seen on video, Mock said it is impossible for Harden to have been involved.

Harden was at his residence by 3:04 a.m., which is the time he logged into Facebook at his residence, as supported by electronic records.

Harden testified that sometime between midnight and 1 a.m., Hayes had gotten sick and threw up and he decided to walk home. He estimated it took about 30 minutes to walk home and his roommate, Errich Holston, had to let him inside the house. Harden said that he noted a time of 2:15 a.m. when he logged into his game console to play games while chatting with Holston.

Dustie Martin testified that she had gotten to the apartment between 2:20 and 2:30 a.m. She said she is good friends with Harden and stayed there about a half hour before leaving.

But O’Brien said that in Martin’s initial conversation with police, she told officers that she saw Harden between 3-3:30 a.m.

O’Brien asked the jury to consider what Harden did after the day in question. He refused to talk to police, saying he didn’t want to be a snitch.

Officers talked to Harden twice. The first time was about a month after the shooting, and Harden denied being with Mullen that night. Harden said he lied because he had previous bad incidents with police and didn’t trust them.

O’Brien pointed out the circumstances around Harden’s arrest, as well. He said Harden was at Martin’s residence at the time. Martin first told officers that Harden wasn’t there. When officers came in to search, Martin’s 14-year-old daughter, Laikyn Willison, told officers no one was in her bedroom and blocked their path.

Meanwhile, Harden climbed out the girl’s bedroom window and was apprehended by police.

After his arrest, officers spoke to Harden about the murder charge.

O’Brien said this was the perfect opportunity to tell officers about his alibi, even though Harden testified he didn’t want to be a snitch.

“The state would suggest that to give an alibi would not point the finger at anybody else,” O’Brien said. “I guess it’s worse to be a snitch than to face life in prison.”

Mock reminded the jury that Harden admitted that was a mistake.

“He said he was sorry about that and he should have never done that,” Mock said.

After closing statements, the case was submitted to the jury for about an hour before the jury postponed further deliberations until Monday.

Harden faces charges of first-degree murder, use of a firearm to commit a felony, and conspiracy to commit robbery.

First-degree murder is a Class 1A felony punishable by life in prison. Use of a firearm to commit a felony is a Class 1C felony punishable by five to 50 years in prison. Conspiracy to commit robbery is a Class 2 felony punishable by up to 50 years in prison.