Jurors start deliberations in Leslie Chance trial

Closing arguments wrapped up and the jury began deliberations Wednesday in the murder trial of former school principal Leslie Chance, with the defense questioning the integrity of the investigation and the prosecution acknowledging some detective work was “sloppy” but insisting the facts still pointed to the defendant’s guilt.

“While we can pick apart pieces of evidence, often their value (is) when you take them altogether,” prosecutor Andrea Kohler told the jury.

Wednesday capped a four-and-a-half-week trial in which the prosecution set out to prove Chance committed first-degree murder when she allegedly shot her husband on the morning of Aug. 25, 2013 after previously discovering a texting tryst he had with a former girlfriend. She planned the murder for weeks beforehand, the prosecution alleged, using information learned at a CSI exhibit in Las Vegas to cover her tracks and make it look like someone else killed Todd Chance.

Prosecutors presented evidence that Leslie Chance was seen with her husband in his car pulling out of their driveway in southeast Bakersfield that morning. After shooting her husband and leaving him in an orchard, they say Leslie Chance drove to another location and left his car unlocked with the murder weapon inside in front of a drug house. From there, the prosecution said, she tried to cover her tracks by disguising herself as she made her way home, changing her clothes along the way. Prosecutors presented surveillance footage from that day that showed the person they say was Leslie Chance at various points along the route to the Chance home.

Defense attorney Tony Lidgett used his closing arguments to question assumptions the prosecution made and also asked the jury to consider whether the investigation of the murder was fair. Leslie Chance testified that she couldn’t have committed the murder because she was home that morning, working on her computer, watching TV and waiting for a grocery delivery.

Lidgett raised questions about the work of one particular Kern County Sheriff’s detective on the case. That detective, Kavin Brewer, was shown during trial trial to have conducted interviews with several witnesses that were never entered into evidence before the case went to trial. Several of those witnesses said the person in the surveillance footage investigators had collected was not Leslie Chance.

“When thinking about whether or not (the prosecution) proved their case, take into consideration, was the investigation conducted in what would be a fair manner,” Lidgett said, addressing the jury.

He also said detective Brewer tried to influence witness statements, telling people brought in to view the surveillance footage that others had already said it was Leslie Chance.

“It’s time for (her) to go home,” Lidgett said at the end of his closing arguments. Leslie Chance has been jailed since her arrest in 2016.

Prosecutor Kohler admitted “a fail on the part of the sheriff’s department” regarding how some evidence was handled, including DNA samples that were collected but never submitted for processing.

“There was some pretty sloppy work. Reports weren’t written, interviews weren’t booked,” she said.

While that made the prosecutors “pretty angry,” it didn’t dramatically impact the case, she said.

The interviews not logged into evidence were not consequential, she said. Some people thought it was Chance and others didn’t but there was no positive identification. The evidence still showed, Kohler said, that Leslie Chance became enraged that her husband was having a romantic text exchange with a former girlfriend and plotted to kill him, knowing that divorcing him and paying alimony would interfere with the lifestyle she had created for the family as its primary breadwinner.

Her husband’s unfaithfulness “made her absolutely furious,” Kohler said. “Furious enough that she wanted him dead.”

Street racers, law enforcement discuss solutions on illegal street racing at community forum

The Bakersfield Police Department and local street racers opened a dialogue toward finding a solution to illegal street racing at the first community forum regarding the issue on Tuesday evening at Independence High School.

Local officials, community members and street racers — many who represented the National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers — found a common ground concerning the issue of illegal street racing.

BPD Interim Chief of Police Greg Terry called the meeting “the first of many to come.”

“We know there are significant issues in our community. There are issues with violent crime, gang activity, property crime and other tremendous challenges that we face. We want to address as many of the public safety issues in our community as we can,” Terry said.

Steve Hughes, general manager of Kern County Raceway Park, offered to host street racing activities at his business in the future. Depending on promotional support and community interest, Hughes said the raceway could host weekly street racing events.

City Councilman Chris Parlier said he would commit $1,000 in financial support towards the Kern County Raceway Park or other possible legal solutions. This garnered an enthusiastic applause from members of the street racing community.

Many of the street racers in attendance shared concerns of being “profiled” when they are not committing any crimes, but driving cars commonly associated with the activity. One street racer brought up that he has been pulled over for his National and International Brotherhood of Street Racers sticker he has displayed on his rear window.

“The level of professionalism that we expect our officers to engage in is high and if a member of our community does not have that kind of an experience with a police officer, I want to know about,” Terry said. “The issue of profiling in any way, shape or form is illegal and wrong.”

BPD detective Ken Sporer outlined some components of “illegal street racing,” which included burnouts, drifting, blocking off streets for races, exhibition of speed and reckless driving. Another key point Sporer brought up was the variety of emissions violations and illegal modifications racers sometimes make to their vehicles.

Kern County District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer outlined the misdemeanors that are related to illegal street racing and their penalties. Zimmer addressed a question written anonymously by an audience member that was in favor of heightening street racing offenses to felonies.

“I think in the current climate of (California’s legislative system) — where you have a push to decriminalize things and lower punishments — it would probably be easier to have street racing misdemeanors lowered to infractions rather than raised to felonies,” Zimmer said.

Zimmer also warned of the implications that could occur when an individual is injured as a result of illegal street racing. She even noted that in instances where a death occurs, illegal street racing spectators can be charged with felonies.

The issue of street racing has taken a heightened sense of awareness recently, with things coming to a head in November after a street racer struck a minivan in southwest Bakersfield. The accident sent the minivan into the path of an oncoming crane truck and killed the minivan’s driver Maria Blaney Navarro, 58, of Bakersfield, and seriously injured her two grandchildren.

Parlier said the issue will next be addressed at the Feb. 13 meeting of the Bakersfield City Council’s Neighborhoods and Community Relations committee at 9 a.m.

Tickets for Bakersfield St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway go on sale Friday

Tickets for the 17th Annual Bakersfield St. Jude Dream Home Giveaway will go on sale first thing Friday morning.

Tickets will go on sale at 5 a.m. during a live sell-a-thon on KBAK Eyewitness News, as viewers can call 1-800-385-9134 to purchase tickets. Tickets will also be available at any Kern Schools Federal Credit Union outlet.

The tickets, which cost $100, provide participants with an opportunity to win the Bakersfield St. Jude Dream Home, a three-bedroom, two-bath house worth an estimated $300,000 and located in the Montana Ridge community in southwest Bakersfield. Built by John Balfanz Homes, the 1,750-square-foot home will feature a single story contemporary design, large kitchen with center island and professional appliances, an open dining room tailor made for family gatherings and entertainment, and a master suite with an oversized shower and large walk-in closet.

There will be 11,250 tickets up for sale prior to April 23, which is the day a winner will announced on KBAK Eyewitness News at 6 p.m. All tickets reserved by Jan. 31 will be entered to win a cruise for two courtesy of Carnival Cruise line. Other prizes up for grabs leading up to the house giveaway include a year’s worth of fuel courtesy of Greg’s Petroleum Service; and a seven-day, all-inclusive trip to Jamaica.

Last year, tickets sold out five days before the dream home’s winner was announced, according to St. Jude spokeswoman Amanda Soto.

The St. Jude Dream Giveaway benefits the lifesaving work of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, one of the world’s premier pediatric cancer research centers. Treatments invented at St. Jude have helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20 percent to 80 percent since the hospital opened more than 50 years ago. In a news release, St. Jude said it’s working to drive the overall survival rate for childhood cancer to 90 percent, and won’t stop until no child dies from cancer.

DR. W. GIFFORD-JONES: Pet therapy: unconditionally good for you?

Harry Truman, when elected president of the United States, was well aware of the potential hazards of his job. He famously remarked, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Truman was a good judge of character and knew a dog would always provide him with unconditional loyalty, regardless of cutthroat politics in Washington. But if dogs are suitable companions for presidents, are they also good for the rest of us?

A recent report from the Mayo Clinic asks, “Is medicine going to the dogs?” The answer is: “Yes, but in a good way.” Hospitals and doctors are increasingly aware that dogs bring joy and rehabilitation to patients with a variety of health problems. There are more than a dozen registered therapy dogs and handlers at the Mayo Clinic’s Caring Canines program. They make regular visits to some patients as part of their medical therapy and offer special visits on request to others.

Aging, with the loss of beloved family and friends, can be depressing and lonely. The onset of illness and impersonal hospital settings can make days of looking at four walls seem like an eternity. A visit from a dog can bring sunshine into a patient’s life and do more good than the pharmaceutical drugs being prescribed by medical staff.

Animal assisted therapy makes sense in many circumstances — for instance, with the elderly in long-term care facilities, patients suffering from dementia, or those receiving cancer treatment or fighting anxiety. In fact, few patients say no to a dog wagging its tail at their hospital door.

But some patients and their families may wonder whether there are health risks when dogs enter a hospital room. The Mayo Clinic and other hospitals using pet therapy insist on strict regulations ensuring dogs are clean and healthy.

But patients must also realize they too must follow sound hygiene, whether in a hospital or on other occasions. I recall one occasion of concern when at a friend’s home for dinner. He patted his dog, ran his hands down the dog’s tail and then picked up ice cubes for my drink. And Fido may have pooped, just before my rum and coke!

Years ago I wrote about what I considered another sound way to help older patients at Sunnybrook Veterans Centre in Toronto. At that time a pub allowed veterans one alcoholic drink at noon and another before dinner. I spent several hours witnessing how effective it was in the treatment of depression and loneliness for long-term patients.

A friendly server was part of the therapy. I watched one welcome a veteran in a wheelchair who had lost both legs saying, “Charlie do you want your usual drink?” I’m confident the moderate consumption of alcohol offered healthy benefits. But another advantage was the camaraderie and alternative to a stark hospital room for a period of time.

I also remember the shock from surgical nurses when I allowed my post-operative patients an alcoholic drink on their third recuperative day. It reassured them that they were on the way to recovery. If I’d had access to therapy dogs, I would have encouraged their participation in the recovery process.

I’ve advocated that patient-focused pubs in hospitals would do more good than most of the medicines prescribed, particularly for long-term patients. A policy that supports a bedside drink is a start, but there is no comparison to the social benefits of a cozy pub.

The same is true of Fido or any other well-trained animal. Pet therapy offers a pleasant distraction and an elevation of happiness that can be remarkably healing. I’m partial to dogs. A dog offers unconditional love, which is precisely what so many patients need.

‘Eureka moment’ in valley fever case paves way for new research, treatment options

Hundreds of children and their families cycle in and out of UCLA’s Mattel Children’s Hospital each week, and yet Dr. Manish Butte still remembers the day almost two years ago when he met a young boy who could barely walk or talk and needed a feeding tube to eat.

“We saw these very large lumps on his forehead, and the lumps were full of fungal infection and they were burrowing through the bones of his skull,” Butte said.

Four-year-old Abraham Gonzalez-Martinez was suffering a life-threatening bout of valley fever, a disease caused by inhaling the spores of a fungus that lurks in arid soil in the American Southwest and has been prominent in Bakersfield.

Also known as coccidioidomycosis or cocci, the fungal disease typically infects the lungs but can spread into other organs, the bones and, in the most severe cases, the brain and nervous system.

“He was desperately ill,” Butte said. “He was on multiple antifungal medicines, top doses of everything, and the infection was still spreading.”

Today, Abraham is back home with his family in Santa Maria, with his valley fever under control and his life largely back to normal. But that outcome didn’t always seem likely during his year-long stay in the hospital as doctors searched for a treatment that would return him to health.

Butte is a pediatric immunologist and a founder of the California Center for Rare Diseases at UCLA. The team takes on the hardest-to-solve cases, like those suffering from severe autoimmune diseases and rare genetic mutations, and pours all its energy into figuring them out.

In that way, Butte might resemble Dr. Gregory House, a TV doctor from the early 2000s who, despite a scathing grouchiness and penchant for Vicodin, saves a life in every episode by unraveling the most complicated medical puzzles. Butte, though affable with a candid smile and easy laugh, said he gets the comparison a lot.

“I hope I’m not as abusive and mean as Dr. House is,” he said, laughing. “But yes, in this clinic we only do mystery cases. So in that way, there’s a lot of parallels with the show.”

The young Abraham had originally visited a hospital near Santa Barbara, but the disease was so stubborn and fast-moving that doctors there sent him to the medical sleuths at UCLA. “We were going full-court press to try to save him,” Butte said.

Severe cocci isn’t unheard of, but Abraham didn’t fall into any groups known to be at elevated risk of the disease, like African Americans, Filipinos or pregnant women. As far as health officials knew, no one else had fallen ill in a local outbreak, and none of the child’s family members, who might have been exposed to the same conditions, seemed affected.

Confronted with these puzzling clues, some doctors may have simply diagnosed it as a case of tough luck, but Butte didn’t buy it. Perhaps there was a flaw in Abraham’s genes, or an error in his immune system.

To investigate, he brought in backup: Dr. Maria Garcia-Lloret, another pediatric immunologist at UCLA.

“We always say that we don’t believe in bad luck,” said Garcia-Lloret, a fast-talking Argentine who’ll share her cell phone number with her patients.

She and Butte believe there’s always a reason the immune system breaks.

“That’s the starting point, is to be convinced that there’s got to be something here,” she said, “that bad luck is just a surrogate for lack of knowledge for exactly what’s going on in the immune system.”

Just maybe, they thought, if they could find that knowledge for Abraham, his case could help the thousands of others diagnosed with the disease every year.

“Part of our job as scientists, as discoverers, is to try to peel that apart, understand what broke, and then understand how we can fix it,” Butte said.

For most people, valley fever passes with only mild symptoms or none at all. Sometimes it’s misdiagnosed as pneumonia or bronchitis. In rare cases, however, the disease can spread throughout the body. It kills a few hundred Americans and debilitates many more each year.

Why people respond so differently to the disease has puzzled experts for decades. Abraham’s case, and his intensive level of care, offer some insight into that question — and as more research funding trickles in, it may be the start of even bigger advances.

PIECING THE CLUES TOGETHER

Butte, Garcia-Lloret and their colleagues dove into Abraham’s case not in his hospital room, but outside of his body, in the Butte Lab. Part clinic, part research space in a newly refurbished campus building, the lab has some of the most high-tech tools available anywhere: Flow cytometers to sort cells, atomic force microscopes to manipulate them, and liquid-nitrogen-chilled coolers to store blood and tissue samples.

Armed with these, the team counted, sorted and observed Abraham’s white blood cells, the front lines of the immune system. “We stimulate them and poke and prod them to make sure their function is working the way we think,” Butte said, “and then we sequence the genome to try to understand what genes there are and if they’re broken.”

The doctors didn’t find any genetic defects, so they zeroed in on the T cells, immune cells that fight off infection and disease. The immune system programs T cells into two main classes, each of which battles different families of threats. There, things got interesting: Abraham’s T cells had been programmed to fight the wrong threat, one that wasn’t even in his system.

It resulted in an immune dysregulation that’s akin to sending a SWAT team into an empty building. “The rest of his immune system was telling his T cells, ‘Hey, we’re fighting a fungus today,’ and the T cells weren’t listening,” Butte said. “They were instead focused on fighting a parasite.”

Butte wondered: What if those T cells could be reprogrammed? And that’s when the team began building momentum. Garcia-Lloret, who specializes in allergic diseases, suggested Actimmune, a drug treatment for immune disorders that promotes the T cell Abraham needed. It worked — sort of.

“He was getting better. We were reasonably satisfied,” she said. But still, too many of Abraham’s cells were running the wrong program. “When we kept on looking at the lesions in the head and in the back, nothing was being fully resolved.”

By this time, Abraham had been in a hospital bed for months. Garcia-Lloret’s memory kept returning to an earlier case of a 17-year-old girl whose cocci had landed her in intensive care. “Slowly but surely, she ended up dying in the ICU,” Garcia-Lloret recalled. “I heard about that case 10 years ago or a little bit more, and it never left me.”

She couldn’t bear to let that happen to the 4-year-old boy in front of her. She continued digging around and found another drug, a relatively new one named Dupixent that’s also meant to treat immune disorders.

As far as the doctors know, it had never before been used on valley fever. They tested it first in Abraham’s cells in the lab, then in his body, and bingo: “We saw that his skull bones were all healing, and you could see immediately that all the lumps of a fungal infection in his body were fading away,” Butte said.

Dupixent is just a few years old. It’s indicated for asthma and eczema, two disorders completely unrelated to fungal diseases, but it works by calming the part of the particular immune program that has gone haywire in Abraham’s system. Together, the drugs had simultaneously suppressed Abraham’s dysfunctional T cells and boosted those that could attack the fungus. Seeing them work together in Abraham’s body “turned out to be one of those eureka moments,” Butte said.

Within a few months, Abraham’s lumps and lesions had disappeared. He began eating and playing, and he talked more, singing along to YouTube videos and learning new languages. “Seeing him get better was a joy for all of us,” said Garcia-Lloret.

Finally, after 11 months in a hospital bed, he returned to his mother and older sister in Santa Maria in early 2019.

ABRAHAM TODAY

On a sunny November morning, nearly a year after he was discharged from the hospital, Abraham has returned to UCLA for a checkup. The now-6-year-old’s valley fever isn’t gone from his system, but it’s managed. His mother still injects him with a cocktail of drugs, and one goal today is to measure how his body responds to cocci this many months out. Despite weekly injections, Abraham still melts into panicked tears when a nurse approaches him with a needle.

A tiny boy in Batman socks and a Paw Patrol T-shirt, Abraham is smiley and sweet but painfully shy. During his stay in the hospital, he’d jump out at doctors from behind his curtains, and a video from his birthday shows him hopping from foot to foot while handing out cupcakes to staff. Today, however, pediatric dietitian Danielle Mein can barely get one word out of him at a time.

“What is your favorite food?” she asked. “Pizza,” he answered coyly, to which Mein agreed — pizza’s the best.

The fact Abraham is speaking English at all is a feat. He and his mother arrived at UCLA understanding only Mixteco, an indigenous language of Mexico. Throughout his 11 months in the hospital, however, he picked up bits and pieces of both English and Spanish.

“You know everybody at the hospital misses you?” Mein asked, to which he nodded. “But we’re glad you’re home,” she said.

During his stay, Abraham was practically raised by hospital staff. His mother, Magdalena Gonzalez, is a strawberry picker in Santa Maria. She was lucky if she could take just one day a week to travel the 300 miles roundtrip to visit him.

“Yes, it’s difficult,” said Gonzalez through an interpreter. “Sometimes I can’t find any transportation to come here.”

Gonzalez still isn’t comfortable in English, but the experience taught her enough Spanish to get by with bilingual staff. Garcia-Lloret, who developed a companionship with both Gonzalez and Abraham, said the petite, soft-spoken farmworker transformed right alongside her son, eventually managing his many prescriptions and fielding communication with both pharmacists and doctors.

All this, according to Garcia-Lloret, Gonzalez did without a driver’s license or being able to read or write in any language. “Having a patient like him with a chronic illness and so many medications is a challenge,” Garcia-Lloret said. “She’s gained my respect and my admiration.”

Abraham, meanwhile, seems blissfully unaware of just how ill he once was. He may also be unaware of how important he was to valley fever research.

A BOON FOR DISEASE RESEARCH

Abraham’s hospital experience falls into what’s called precision medicine, in which doctors use each patient’s unique circumstances and genetic code to develop a personalized treatment. For routine care, most patients don’t have access to so many resources.

“It’s an unusual case for anywhere,” said Dr. Royce Johnson, a longtime cocci specialist and medical lead of the Valley Fever Institute at Kern Medical in Bakersfield.

He wasn’t involved in Abraham’s care but is familiar with the young boy’s case. “Very few patients unfortunately get the kind of extraordinary evaluation and care that this child received,” he said.

Having treated hundreds of patients with severe disease, Johnson has long been interested in why people exposed to the same spores can develop such radically different symptoms — and whether the answer could lurk somewhere in the body. In Abraham’s case, the key was in the immune system.

“I’ve wondered about this for years and years, but we didn’t have the technology to really try and answer the question until relatively recently with exome analysis, whole genome analysis,” Johnson said.

Could such resource-intensive care ever be within reach for the thousands of people diagnosed with the disease each year? Yes, believes Johnson, someday.

Dr. Paul Krogstad, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at UCLA, agrees. With decades of valley fever experience behind him, he treated Abraham alongside Butte and Garcia-Lloret.

Krogstad says Abraham was a test case, and later patients should only become easier to treat. “If you improve the science so that you can figure out what the needs are, you often can reduce the amount of the complexity of care that’s required,” he said — and the cost.

To that end, these researchers and others across three University of California campuses and the Valley Fever Institute have launched a new project to study the immune systems of 50 valley fever patients in nearly as much detail as they studied Abraham’s.

Among other goals, Krogstad said, they hope to find additional examples of immune dysregulation “to help a person recover and have a shorter course of valley fever by helping intensify the immune system by refocusing it.” Someday, researchers may even find a way to predict early on whether a patient is likely to develop severe disease.

The project was partially inspired by Abraham, though it had been in the works well before he appeared at UCLA, and it’s made possible by state funding allocated by former Gov. Jerry Brown. After decades of slow research progress, Krogstad said it’s refreshing to see rising interest in the disease.

“We simply haven’t seen sufficient attention paid to this condition,” he said. “I’m afraid it has just looked like a regional problem that didn’t require special attention.”

Abraham’s case also caught the eye of big pharma. Horizon Therapeutics and Sanofi, the manufacturers that produced the immune drugs that saved Abraham’s life, confirmed that they’ve been talking with UCLA about further research and, potentially, clinical trials on more valley fever patients.

As for Abraham himself, his doctors plan to start weaning him off his many drugs in the coming months. They hope someday he’ll be done with them for good. One can imagine the kindergartner himself also wants to be rid of needles, so that maybe he can just focus on normal kid concerns: his favorite animals (flamingoes), his favorite color (red) and, of course, pizza.

Drop in honey prices clouds outlook Kern’s almond industry

A sharp drop in the price of honey threatens new harm to an already battered industry that every year provides an integral service to Kern County’s $1.2 billion almond industry.

U.S. beekeepers say a recent glut of honey imported from Asia and elsewhere has caused prices to plummet during the last 12 months, past the point at which U.S. producers can hope to make a profit. Honey’s flagging popularity as a sweetener has also lowered honey prices.

The situation is not likely to impact the pollination expected to take place next month as almond orchards bloom across the Central Valley. But there is expected to be some effect on the almond industry eventually if low honey prices persist.

Just what that impact would be, and whether it’s good or bad for almond growers, is unclear.

Because beekeepers on average get about a third of their annual income from honey production, according to Rabo AgriFinance, there is some concern the price drop will force some operations out of business.

That could lower the supply of pollinators available to service local almond orchards. It’s also possible, however, that beekeepers leaving the business would sell to others who would simply absorb the extra bee colonies.

On the other hand, some are speculating that beekeepers less focused on honey production would respond by turning their attention more squarely toward the Central Valley’s annual almond pollination, which Rabo AgriFinance said makes up close to half of beekeepers’ income.

“If there’s less reliance on honey as a revenue stream, then that makes the pollination part of the game that much more critical” to beekeepers, said Roland Fumasi, senior analyst at Rabo AgriFinance.

But Montana beekeeper Bill Dahle, who expects to have about 10,000 colonies for rental to local almond growers next month after losing 40 percent of his inventory last year, said lower honey prices will “absolutely” lead to fewer bees available for pollination in the future.

“There’s no way that pollination by itself will pay the bills,” he said. “You just cannot do it on pollination (income) alone.”

Shafter beekeeper and bee broker Mike Mulligan agreed, saying the lower honey prices will remove about a quarter of some beekeepers’ annual income and “that’s going to be enough to knock some guys out.”

“It’s just going to really depress this industry further,” he said.

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, honey prices paid to producers averaged $2.17 per pound in 2018. Although USDA’s official 2019 price report is not yet available, Fumasi said recent price reports show U.S. domestic prices have fallen to between $1.80 to $1.25 per pound, depending on the type and source.

Beekeepers say they do sometimes have to decide between focusing on honey production and preparing for the almond pollination. They say their actions can have implications for the availability and price of rental bee colonies, which for almond growers have increased from $50 or lower as recently as the early 2000s to about $200 this year.

The way this selection generally happens is that beekeepers trying to maximize honey production tend to keep their bee colonies large and intact through summer. But if the desire is to prepare for the almond pollination, where the emphasis is on offering high volumes of colonies for rent, beekeepers often divide their colonies in half and introduce a second queen.

The drop in honey prices has come as beekeepers continue to struggle with massive die-offs believed to be caused by a variety of factors including an insidious parasite called the varroa mite. Pesticides and fungicides are also seen as a threat to bee health.

Adding to beekeepers’ troubles are high trucking costs and a tight market for experienced labor.

At the same time, almond acreage in California — far and away the leader in global production — has risen significantly in recent years, even as international tariffs have limited prices.

The added acreage has put pressure on beekeepers to deliver more and more pollinators. But that has become difficult in light of annual colony losses.

Josette Lewis, director of agricultural affairs at the Almond Board of California, said she was unaware of growers having trouble finding sufficient numbers of bee colonies this year.

The Wonderful Co., one of the world’s largest almond producers, said it expects to have enough bees to pollinate its orchards next month.

“While it’s still a bit early for us to know how well all of our bees have fared,” spokesman Mark Carmel said by email, “initial indications are that this will be an average or better than average year.”

City of Orange beekeeper Steve Wernett envisioned a situation in which Midwestern beekeepers’ lack of income from honey sales keeps them from being able to pay to transport their bees to California for the almond bloom, leading to higher bee rental prices in Kern.

Then, the following year, he said, there could be an overcompensation in which beekeepers try to capitalize on the higher pollination prices, leading to a glut of bees and lower pollination fees.

He blamed the lower prices on major U.S. retailers insisting on lower prices. He said that, in turn, leads to blending of domestic and imported honey, resulting in lower quality.

“I don’t know how it’s going to be rectified,” he said.

Court settlement reached in Supervisor Perez case

A court settlement has been reached in the misdemeanor case against Kern County Supervisor Leticia Perez regarding alleged financial conflicts of interest in her role as supervisor, ending an 18-month ordeal for Perez.

H.A. Sala, Perez’s defense attorney, said a settlement was reached with the Kern County District Attorney’s Office on Thursday morning in Kern County Superior Court that will result in the dismissal of all charges if certain conditions are met.

According to a news release from the DA’s Office, those conditions include:

● Payment of $30,000 in penalties, payable to community charitable organizations focusing on homelessness abatement and/or drug rehabilitation. Payment of $30,000 represents the return of financial benefits conferred to Perez’s husband, Fernando Jara, for his work promoting the cannabis industry prior to Perez’s Oct. 24, 2017 vote, which involved cannabis land-use ordinance revisions.

● Payment of a $4,000 administrative fine to the Fair Political Practices Commission and resolution of the commission’s investigation into Perez’s actions related to the Oct. 24, 2017, vote.

● Performance of 100 hours of community service, to be served through community service providers approved by the Probation Department.

● Completion of an in-person ethics course conducted through the California Institute for Local Government, an organization dedicated to promoting ethics education for local government leaders.

● Amendment of previously filed Form 700 disclosures covering years 2016 and 2017 to reflect all income received from the cannabis industry by Perez and her husband during those years.

Perez’s alleged conflict of interest arose between her role as supervisor and the California marijuana industry. The first count against Perez stated she “did make, participate in making or attempt to use her official position to influence a governmental decision in which she knew or had reason to know she had a financial interest.”

Perez was the lone vote against a motion banning commercial cannabis. Her husband, Jara, owned a consulting firm that had done work on marijuana policy for several clients.

The second count against Perez stated that on April 3, 2017, she failed to file a statement “disclosing her investments, interests in real property, and income during the period of 2016,” also a misdemeanor.

It was believed to be the first time an elected official has been criminally charged in Kern County.

According to a news release from the DA’s Office, the agreed upon stipulation to the facts underlying the charges, signed by both counsel and Perez, provide that Perez acknowledge the following:

● In December 2016, Jara received a $5,000 check from David Abbasi for consulting services. Abbasi operated marijuana dispensaries during that time.

● In a Form 700 submitted on April 3, 2017, by Leticia Perez, which required reporting for calendar year 2016, she did not disclose the payment received from Abbasi.

● In March 2017, Jara was retained pursuant to a written contract by Stephanie Smith and C. Martin Smith — principals of Industrial Partners Group — to represent them and IPG in public affairs and political strategy. IPG’s objective was to seek regulatory approval for cannabis operations in Kern County.

● IPG paid Jara $25,000 for the contracted services. Jara, on behalf of IPG, was to identify viable opportunities for IPG to obtain approval for licensed cannabis operations throughout the Central Valley, which included unincorporated Kern County.

● Jara attended and arranged meetings for IPG principals and agents regarding the potential leasing of property in Kern County for potential cannabis-related operations that would be subject to county jurisdiction.

● In summer 2017, Jara met with IPG principles and agents in Perez’s office related to future cannabis regulations in Kern County.

● On Oct. 24, 2017, in her capacity as a Kern County supervisor, Perez participated in a vote regarding the approval and regulation of the sale of cannabis and cannabis-related products in unincorporated Kern County. The vote presented a foreseeable financial interest to Perez and Jara, and Perez knew and had reason to know of the financial interest of both herself and Jara in the vote.

● The parties agree that discovery has been provided in compliance with People v. Murgia, and, having had the opportunity to review the materials, the defense will not be making further claims of selective prosecution regarding this case. All parties further agree that by entering the stipulation and conditional dismissal, any such claim is waived and will not be raised in any potential future hearings on the case.

In a statement, District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer commented on the resolution:

“When the penalties that may be imposed by the Fair Political Practices Commission are not enough to fully address violations of the public trust, criminal prosecution is appropriate to ensure that there is a strong deterrent for actions that run counter the public’s trust and ethics laws. In this case, the criminal prosecution has successfully achieved our goals of ensuring that Supervisor Perez is not permitted to profit from the conflict of interest she engaged in. Moreover, today’s resolution requires clear admissions to the facts underlying the charges, ensuring that voters can make educated choices about the supervisor’s actions. In addition, the resolution provides both punishment and rehabilitation measures to ensure future compliance with ethics laws.”

Sala also shared his reaction to the settlement.

“The objective we had from the moment the charges were filed was to achieve a dismissal. That mission has been accomplished,” he said. “Upon the satisfaction of the conditions … the charges will be dismissed in 180 days.”

In a news release that followed, Sala’s office characterized the dismissal of charges as “an appropriate and just resolution of the case” that will allow Perez to continue to serve as county supervisor in the 5th District.

In addition, Perez will donate the $30,000 previously paid to her husband to the Bakersfield Homeless Center, and that her community service hours will be served at the center.

Kern’s final groundwater plan approved

After months of fireworks over low-ball pumping numbers and concerns that some groundwater agencies wouldn’t get on board, Kern’s last Groundwater Sustainability Plan was approved Wednesday with barely a murmur.

The Kern Groundwater Authority board of directors voted unanimously to adopt its final GSP with just two weeks to spare before the massive document is due to the State Department of Water Resources.

The KGA’s was the last water plan awaiting formal adoption among Kern’s five valley Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, including Henry Miller, Olcese Water District, Kern River and Buena Vista.

The plans are required under the state’s new groundwater law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which aims to reduce severe groundwater overdrafting and bring the state’s critical subbasins into balance by 2040. The first plans are due to the state Jan. 31 with updates required every five years.

The GSAs must also sign a coordination agreement pledging to use the same data and accounting methods and make sure any actions they take to manage the Kern subbasin’s groundwater shortfall don’t negatively impact the other GSAs.

Accounting for groundwater became a heated topic at the KGA’s October meeting after its 16 members turned in water budgets showing the entire subbasin was only overdrafted by about 85,000 acre feet a year.

Water district managers were called out for using “phony” numbers by the late KGA Chairman Dennis Mullins. Subsequent water budget numbers show that mostly agricultural pumping in the subbasin is being overdrafted — more water is pumped out than is put back — by about 324,000 acre feet a year. (One acre foot is about enough water cover a football field to a depth of one foot.)

Even as that argument was cooling, the Buena Vista Water Storage GSA, which isn’t a KGA member, said it wouldn’t sign a five-year coordination agreement with the other GSAs because the plans continued to allow too much pumping. Buena Vista would only sign a one-year agreement, General Manager Tim Ashlock said.

That refusal brought fears that all the Kern subbasin groundwater plans would be deemed incomplete, which could trigger probation for the entire subbasin under which the state could take over and issue its own pumping restrictions and fees.

But Wednesday morning, the Buena Vista board of directors approved the coordination agreement for the full five years. They still feel there isn’t enough oversight and too much pumping, Ashlock texted. But directors realized they weren’t going to get others to agree to a one-year agreement and didn’t want to push the subbasin into probation.

What all this means is now the Kern GSAs can file their plans with the state with all the required pieces in place.

Whether the state approves the plans is another story.

The DWR has already sent a comment letter on the KGA plan concerned about subsidence that it says is damaging the California Aqueduct, the state’s main water artery supplying 25 million people.

In that letter, sent Dec. 26, the DWR writes about the KGA groundwater plan that it “…contains the following sentence: ‘While it is generally acknowledged that subsidence exists within the Subbasin, there are generally no significant impacts to infrastructure within the Subbasin.’ We disagree with this conclusion, as subsidence has reduced the flow capacity of the Aqueduct by 19% near Highway 46.”

Similar letters were sent to other GSAs that border the Aqueduct.

Days later, a report on Aqueduct subsidence was released Dec. 31. In that report, researchers suggest that heavy agricultural pumping to sustain a massive increase in permanent crops along the Aqueduct is to blame for several areas of subsidence that have sunk the canal by between four and six feet.

KGA consultant Patty Poire mentioned the DWR letter at Wednesday’s meeting and said state staffers have already scheduled a meeting in Bakersfield on Feb. 7 with Poireand KGA members to discuss the subsidence issue.

That meeting will not be open to the public.

Bakersfield College names former Driller, Renegade as interim football coach

R. Todd Littlejohn has been named interim football coach at Bakersfield College, according to a news release sent by the school Wednesday morning.

Littlejohn is a Bakersfield native and a Bakersfield High School and Bakersfield College graduate, who brings NFL and Division I college coaching experience to BC.

“I’d like to thank (BC Athletic Director) Sandi Taylor for this tremendous opportunity to lead a storied program,” Littlejohn said in the release. “What I learned as a college player started here and propelled me into my coaching career. I’m proud to be a member of the BC football legacy and grateful for the opportunity to come home and lead Renegade Nation into a new era.”

Littlejohn returns to Bakersfield after most recently being the safeties coach and special teams coordinator at Prairie View A&M, an NCAA Division I FCS university located in Prairie View, Texas that competes in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). For the past three years he has also been a head coach for the Tropical Bowl FBS All-Star game played in January each year in Daytona Beach, Florida.

After a prep football career at Bakersfield High School, Littlejohn came to BC where he played for both legendary Renegade coaches Gerry Collis and Carl Bowser from 1983-84 before transferring to West Texas State where he was an All-American defensive back. He then transferred to Fresno State where he played baseball for one year while earning his bachelor’s degree in 1989.

Littlejohn’s coaching career began in 1989 at Porterville College where he was a defensive backs coach. In 1990, he moved to Bakersfield College, where he coached the defensive backs in 1990 and 1991. After spending the 1992 and 1993 seasons instructing the defensive backs at Missouri Western State College, Littlejohn served as an assistant coach at Mount San Antonio (Calif.) College in 1994. He would then go on to coaching stints at De Anza College, the San Jose Sabercats (AFL), UCLA, Syracuse, the New York Giants (NFL), UC-Berkley, the Jacksonville Jaguars (NFL), New Mexico State University, Scottsdale Community College and most recently at Prairie View A&M.

“I am thrilled to welcome R. Todd back to his hometown of Bakersfield,” Taylor said. “In this time of transition for Renegade football he brings a wealth of experience to his new duties as the interim head coach. We look forward to coach Littlejohn leading our football program.”

BPD seeks assistance identifying November theft suspect

The Bakersfield Police Department seeks the community’s assistance identifying a suspect responsible for a November theft at 4124 Ardmore Ave.

On Nov. 15 at Lm Yeung DDS Dental, the suspect was caught on surveillance stealing a camera and other items outside of the business. The suspect is described as a white or Hispanic male with a slim build, dark hair, unshaven and was wearing a navy blue long sleeve shirt, blue jeans and a tan camouflage backpack at the time of the incident.

BPD encourages anyone with information regarding this case to call 327-7111 or senior officer Guinn at 326-3273.