Share of pain and tears
Tortured children, looted estates and health-care woes marred the year for many Inland residents.
It was a year of children and tragedy. Rave parties became an all-night headache for Inland-area governments. Schools got more crowded; a major medical provider went bankrupt.
And judgment day came for a Riverside County conservator who preyed on the sick and elderly.
The year 2000 was a struggle to do the right thing and to somehow make sense of unthinkable tragedy. Here are some of the stories that grabbed our attention and, in some cases, broke our hearts:
Child abuse nightmares
The charges were shocking: allegations of abuse, neglect, torture and murder. And all involved children. The year 2000 saw some major child-abuse cases:
· A Riverside mother pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison after providing her 9-year-old son with methamphetamine. Investigators said Anna Mae Urrutia, 36, started giving drugs to her son when he was 7. Their house had no food, no heat and no running water and was littered with drug paraphernalia.
· Three Wonder Valley residents were charged with murder in the death of one boy and with the torture, child abuse and false imprisonment of two others. The two surviving boys, ages 17 and 12, told San Bernardino County investigators they had been beaten and kept in chains most of their lives, and that their brother was battered to death. John Davis and Carrie Davis, the parents, and family friend Faye Potts have pleaded not guilty and face trial on Jan. 16.
· Andrew Ibarra, a 23-month-old foster child living with a Riverside woman, was beaten and starved until he died on July 19, authorities allege. Cynthia Marie Jackson, 37, pleaded not guilty Friday to seven felony counts that also involve five other children previously in her care.
· Anjulette Levy, 18 months when she died, also had been beaten and starved before her death June 10 at a Riverside hospital. Prosecutors allege that the girl's parents, Rosalyn Washington, 27, and Steven J. Levy, 32, both of Riverside, bound their daughter's eyes, mouth and possibly her body with duct tape. The two are charged with murder and assault on a child resulting in death, and face a Jan. 12 preliminary hearing.
· Damion Stiffler, 3, was suffocated Aug. 13 with a pillow in a Blythe back yard at the hands of his 6-year-old sister and 5-year-old cousin, officials said. Investigators said interviews with the girls indicated they intended to kill the boy.
Officials could not explain Damion's slaying, but said an answer could lie in a foot-tall stack of criminal cases involving family members that includes battery and drug charges, vehicle violations and, in the case of Damion's parents, George and Sophia Stiffler, numerous domestic-violence charges.
An expert on the topic of child-abuse said what happened to Damion is emblematic of what can happen to children brought up in violent households and violent societies.
Perhaps the most important catalyst in the Stiffler case was the violence the children witnessed between their parents, said Dr. Astrid Heger, director of the Suspected Child Neglect and Abuse Program at the University of Southern California.
"Kids who are exposed to violence between their family in a household are more seriously impacted by that violence," Heger said. "We know that kids who see their parents beating each other are as affected as kids who are sexually abused."
Concerns about the quality of foster care have prompted officials in San Bernardino and Riverside counties to consider establishing professionally run institutions to temporarily house battered children.
Riverside County is proceeding with a plan to create a new department that would oversee all of the county's youth services. The county also has enhanced training and assistance for social workers who investigate allegations of abuse and neglect involving children age 5 and younger and established a central information system to improve communication between social workers.
Rave on, rave off
San Bernardino and Riverside counties took steps this past year to rein in raves and other all-night concerts that have drawn complaints about noise, traffic congestion and drug use.
In November, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance prohibiting the parties from going past 2 a.m. It also requires promoters to give 30- to 60-day notice of the events.
Riverside County Supervisor Jim Venable said he has not seen any applications for rave parties since the ordinance was passed and thinks that while it applies only to events on county property, it has served to make cities and others, including area Indian tribes, aware of the problems the parties can pose.
Supervisor Roy Wilson said he doesn't think the ordinance will make much of a difference in his east county district, where illegal raves are sometimes held.
"The illegal rave parties will go on anyway," he said.
In San Bernardino, the National Orange Show Events Center agreed not to allow raves or any other concert events to go past 2 a.m.
San Bernardino Police Chief Lee Dean said he thinks the agreement with the Orange Show management, which had routinely held large rave parties, has been helpful in promoting public safety.
"I think it makes a difference because it is responsive to concerns from the public that have been raised as far as whether these things should continue."
But another San Bernardino business, the Masterdome, still allows all-night concerts, Police Chief Dean said. City officials are examining an ordinance that would set time limits on concerts throughout the city, Councilwoman Susan Lien said.
Meanwhile, a lawyer for the families of five San Bernardino County teens killed in a 1999 rave in the Angeles National Forest said any effort is helpful.
"It's got to help," Brian Witzer of Beverly Hills said. "These are still out-of-control parties, but at least its a major step."
Witzer is representing the families of Carissa Castaneda and Leah Feldhaus in a lawsuit against the promoter of an August, 1999 rave. The girls and three of their friends died when their car veered off the road and plunged 1,200 feet down a cliff.
No trial date has been set in the case, but a court appearance is set for Feb. 2 in Lancaster, Witzer said.
Fighting for school money
Many Inland school leaders are pinning their hopes in 2001 on a lawsuit designed to reverse a state decision that changes the way school-construction funds are awarded.
The lawsuit, which was filed by the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, seeks to stop the switch to a system designed to give an advantage to districts with the most need.
Several Inland districts, including Corona-Norco, Nuview Union, Fontana and Yucaipa-Calimesa, have joined in the lawsuit.
The state changed the system in October in answer to claims made in another suit, this one filed by parents and students in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
They claimed awarding funds first-come, first-served penalized urban districts, which often have more difficulty finding land and complying with environmental regulations.
But that system favored many Riverside and San Bernardino county school districts.
"We have to believe that L.A. Unified won't be allowed to bully their way into changing the whole system so that it favors them," said David MacEwen, assistant superintendent of business services for the Nuview Union School District. "There has to be a fair conclusion to this."
A number of school districts given low priority under the new system probably won't see another dime of a $9.2 billion bond measure approved by California voters in 1998. About $1.3 billion remains from that bond.
Officials in several low-priority districts, including Moreno Valley, Yucaipa-Calimesa and Fontana, are struggling to find other ways to build new schools to house students now attending class in portable buildings or spaces originally designed to serve as closets or storage rooms.
A year of health-care turmoil
Medical care for thousands of Inland patients was disrupted this year by the financial instability roiling California's health-care system.
KPC Medical Management, one of Southern California's largest medical groups, went bankrupt in November after struggling for months with chronic financial and management problems. And Inland seniors begin the new year facing higher costs and fewer Medicare health maintenance organizations to choose from.
By the time it collapsed, KPC Medical Management of Anaheim provided care to about 250,000 Southern Californians, including about 50,000 Inland patients. KPC Medical is one of a number of medical companies owned by Hemet surgeon Dr. Kali Chaudhuri. Chaudhuri's other companies, including KPC Global Care in Riverside, were not part of the bankruptcy.
The company received two bailouts worth more than $40 million from about a half-dozen health plans. Yet by mid-November, health plans concluded their members' care was being jeopardized by KPC's financial woes, so they decided to move the patients to other medical groups.
KPC closed its clinics so swiftly that patients were left without doctors, medical records or the results of just-completed medical tests. Although health plans moved quickly to connect patients to new doctors, some patients found themselves in limbo.
Suzanne Alexander of Anza lost her Temecula family physician of two years, Dr. Gordon Skeoch. Her health plan initially assigned her a physician in Upland, but she switched to a doctor closer to home.
"That was just for emergency purposes until we could find Skeoch," she said. "We knew he just couldn't disappear."
After checking with Rancho Springs Medical Center, where Skeoch had admitting privileges, Armstrong found Skeoch had landed at another medical group in Temecula.
Alexander said she cannot switch back to Skeoch until after the start of the new year, when she'll be certain that Skeoch can accept the health-insurance coverage she and her husband have.
Alexander considers herself luckier than others with more pressing medical needs. Still, she said, "it's a big mess."
The past year has been a mess for Inland seniors enrolled in Medicare HMOs. Two health plans, CIGNA and Maxicare, decided to pull out of the Inland region, saying the federal government wasn't reimbursing them enough to cover rising medical costs. Two others, Secure Horizons and Inter Valley Health Plan, announced they would limit enrollment for similar reasons. Still others, like Kaiser Permanente, Aetna and Blue Shield, imposed monthly premiums or office-visit fees or limited prescription drug benefits.
The changes mean seniors face higher out-of-pocket costs and fewer health plan choices in 2001. Moreover, HMO contracts with some Inland medical groups are being canceled, forcing seniors to change doctors or change their health plan.
"Our seniors are really up in arms over all of this," said Sharron Marsh, outreach coordinator for the Health Insurance Counseling and Advocacy Program. HICAP helps seniors untangle problems with their Medicare health insurance coverage.
Howard Ellis is among those fretting about his health insurance. Ellis, 76, a Moreno Valley retiree, is a member of Secure Horizons. But he wonders how long his HMO will remain in the Inland region, or what he will do if it pulls out.
"If they do drop us, we're in the same position of those who've been dropped (by other HMOs) and don't know where to go," he said.
An abuse of trust
In a single year, Bonnie Cambalik, who was indicted on charges of stealing from vulnerable, mostly elderly people under her care, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 26 years in prison.
But Riverside County officials and others say the damage caused by her fraudulent schemes, including lost public confidence in the court's probate system, could take many years to repair.
The 53-year-old woman owned West Coast Conservatorships Inc., a Riverside firm that was appointed by the court more than 300 times from 1986 to 1999 to watch the assets and monitor the well-being of incapacitated people.
Criminal investigators focused on less than 10 percent of those cases, mostly from 1995 on, to determine that Cambalik stole millions of dollars along with family heirlooms.
As the year closed, the criminal case against that attorney, Michael J. Molloy, was still in progress with evidence presented that he allegedly had coached a bookkeeper at West Coast to juggle financial figures and took more than $200,000 in unauthorized legal fees.
Cambalik admitted her crimes to avert a trial but was sentenced in December to the 26-year maximum term. She will have to serve half that sentence before she is released.
County Counsel William Katzenstein said more than 20 civil cases have been filed against Riverside County in connection with the embezzlements.
"It may take years to resolve the issues raised in these cases," he said.
Cambalik looted from the estates the court had assigned her to protect as a conservator. Those abuses, Katzenstein said, have eroded the public's faith in the judicial system, particularly the probate process.
While a Riverside resident, Cambalik was involved in the local art community and hobnobbed with the country-club set. She moved to Tennessee, still keeping track of her Riverside business and lived with her husband in a resort community.
"She was self-promoting, self-aggrandizing and entirely at the expense of those she was appointed to protect," Katzenstein said.
Deputy District Attorney Edward Kotkin, who prosecuted Cambalik, said it may never be known how much money Cambalik embezzled over the years or if any of that money is hidden somewhere.
Amwest Surety Insurance Co., which bonded Cambalik in the conservatorships, has agreed to pay nearly $3 million to some of the looted estates to cover a large portion of the losses, according to Amwest lawyer William R. Moore.