I started working for the Pajaronian in February 1997. As a news gatherer, that translates to a lot of blank pages being filled over the years with news and photos of what’s going on. Of those 23 years as a journalist, 2020 most assuredly stacks up as the most alarming, hair-raising and daunting year of all—by a lot.
By the time the smoke from the spate of wildland fires blanketed our region—and much of the West Coast—and burned down over 900 homes in the Santa Cruz Mountains in August as coronavirus numbers continued to deal us a mounting death count, 2020 certainly ran away with some of the worst headlines.
But not to overshadow some of the newsmakers of the year, these are a few of the other standouts for me as we chose the words and photos in our newsroom that told the story of 2020:
Terror on the highway
An arrest in January of the very mysterious projectiles case that left dozens of vehicles damaged and scores of people frightened in the Prunedale area. Thanks to the clever work of the California Highway Patrol, they arrested Charles Kenneth Lafferty, 52, on suspicion of striking vehicles with projectiles as far back as February 2019. The CHP said they recorded 69 incidents of vehicles that were struck on Highway 101 and Highway 156 with four adults and one child suffering injuries.
Because I rushed out to the crime scene early on the morning of Oct. 14, 2014, outside the Valley Inn on Main Street where a man and a young girl had been shot and killed, that high-profile story stood out with twice the impact for me when the shooter, Michael Escobar, was sentenced five years later. Escobar, in concert with fellow gang member Marcos Robles, gunned down Ramon Rendon, 33, a known Sureño gang member. A bullet entered the Fish House Restaurant and killed 4-year-old Jaelyn Zavala and wounded the man who was holding her. Four other men working with Escobar have also been convicted.
Though several big names in the Pajaro Valley ended up on the obituary pages, one that stands out was a cattle rancher and firefighting legend, Gene Friend. The former Watsonville Fire Assistant Chief died March 25 at Valley Convalescent. The next time you go by Watsonville Fire Station 1 on Second Street you can get a grasp of how important Mr. Friend was as you spot his name in giant letters set across the top of the Chief Gene Friend Watsonville Fire Museum.
An unbelievable tragedy
On June 6 I joined a pack of reporters from various media in Ben Lomond to cover the fatal shooting of Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller. The impact this incident had on our community was deep and widespread and even spilled into the Bay Area where a federal officer was also shot and killed in a similar ambush-style attack by the same gunman, Steven Carillo of Ben Lomond. I’ve never covered anything even close to this. Taking photos at the memorial at Cabrillo College, hearing his wife, Sheriff Jim Hart, and others pour out their praise for Gutzwiller in addition to the bagpipes, the motorcade and the presence of respect from police around the state certainly left a big mark.
On Wednesday I photographed Watsonville firefighter/paramedic John Stone getting the coronavirus vaccine from Paulette Heitmeyer, senior vice president of clinical operations at Watsonville Community Hospital. Over an eight-day span, about 400 firefighters from around Santa Cruz County were lining up to get the shot. Let’s hope that this is a hopeful beginning to 2021.