In the course of 15 months and in the space of one city block, Milwaukee police twice encountered two suspects they believed were armed.
One was black; one was white.
One was in fact unarmed; one had a gun.
One was shot; one was not.
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That the black man was the one who was shot — though he had no weapon — might come as little surprise at a time when police shootings involving black men seem commonplace nationally.
Milwaukee has been an epicenter. In 2014, Dontre Hamilton , a mentally ill man, was shot 14 times by police. In August 2016, 23-year-old Sylville Smith was killed by an officer . After the first, the city equipped police with bodycams; after the second, there were riots.
The shooting of 19-year-old Jerry Smith Jr. in 2017 did not set off similar convulsions. And the blood-free resolution of the standoff involving 20-year-old Brandon Baker this past November drew little notice. But taken together, they prompt a difficult and unanswerable question:
If their races were reversed — if Smith were white, and Baker were black — would Baker have been the one who was left bleeding and writhing in pain?
In the darkness on Nov. 6, Election Day, Baker took to the roof of his apartment building and started firing guns. His neighbors, alarmed, called police.
Until then, his criminal record consisted of minor traffic violations, pot possession, and carrying a concealed weapon in September.
He’d created his Twitter account a few days prior and started writing about running for governor, promising money for underfunded schools, pledging to legalize marijuana. He would pardon all felons so they could regain their right to bear arms.
Just after 5 a.m., two police officers sent to the scene encountered Baker on Michigan Avenue, in front of the entrance to the building.
He refused to drop the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle he was holding. He admitted that he had fired the shots earlier, and said he had posted a video of it on Twitter. He told the officers he was running for governor, that he was going to the polls to “air it out,” that he was going to start a militia. He had a right to bear arms, he said.
As they talked, other officers approached him quietly from behind, and tackled him.
“I’m not moving, don’t shoot me!” Baker screamed in the video he was broadcasting, which WISN-TV obtained before its removal from Twitter.
Not a shot was fired.
In addition to the rifle he was holding, Baker had three loaded handguns — one in his backpack, another in his waistband, and a third in his jacket, prosecutors said. In his apartment, they said officers found 232 grams of THC, the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana; 14 stamps saturated with LSD; and 73 jars of what were believed to be psilocybin mushrooms.
Baker faces numerous charges, including recklessly endangering safety and “maintaining a drug trafficking place.” His public defender, who did not respond to requests to comment, has ordered a second doctor’s evaluation to determine whether he’s competent to stand trial.
On Aug. 31, 2017, officers Melvin Finkley and Adam Stahl were on patrol when they received a call about a man with a gun in the predominantly black neighborhood west of downtown Milwaukee. Finkley is black; Stahl is white.
It was around 1 p.m. when they got to the parking garage at North 29th Street and West Wisconsin Avenue. Jerry Smith was on the roof.
That afternoon, he and a friend had gone to a house in the neighborhood to confront someone with whom Smith had a problem. Police later said Smith and his friend were looking for a fight, and after a brawl ensued with several others, Smith left to get a gun. When an officer approached him to ask about the fight, he ran away and took to the roof.
A handful of officers below were yelling commands, telling him to put his hands up because they had him surrounded.
Two officers stood on the stairs leading up to the garage’s roof. When Finkley and Stahl approached, Finkley asked: “He got the gun in his hand?”
“He doesn’t have a gun in his hand, but he was hiding behind the AC unit,” an officer responded.
The tip that Smith had a gun came from the people he’d been fighting.
Finkley and Stahl climbed to the roof with their guns trained on Smith and joined the chorus of officers yelling commands. Smith briefly extended his arms just above his waist to show his empty hands, palms out, then began crouching slowly to the ground. That’s when the two officers fired three shots, with one bullet grazing Smith’s head and the others striking his abdomen.
“I’m going to die!” Smith wailed in agony, on the ground. “I didn’t do nothing.”
The encounter lasted about 10 seconds. No gun was found.
Smith survived, but his right leg is partially paralyzed and he needs a cane to walk. He wasn’t charged with a crime and has a pending federal lawsuit against the police, alleging officers acted “with deliberate indifference.”
“I had my hands up. It’s on them,” Smith said at a recent news conference.
“Everybody scared of the police, every black man that’s from around” the neighborhood where the shooting occurred, he said.
But the Milwaukee district attorney’s office reviewed Smith’s shooting and concluded the officers’ actions were justified because they “reasonably believed” Smith was armed, based on information from dispatch, and they thought he might reach for a gun behind the air conditioning unit.
Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales said people need to consider “the totality of the circumstances” when an officer is involved in a shooting. He said officers are under stress and taking in a lot of information — from what they are told while responding to a call to their own observations — and they have to make sense of it all in seconds.
“I’ve been involved in these things. And I can tell you, in the incidents I’ve been involved in more than once, when it happened, my body just did it. … There are things that are instinctual after you do it over and over again,” Morales said, at a Dec. 6 meeting of the Milwaukee Common Council.
This shooting was recorded in its entirety by Stahl’s body camera. Experts who viewed the video at the request of The Associated Press were not in agreement on what it revealed, though they acknowledged that there was little in it that justified the shooting.
Jeff Noble, an officer for 30 years who’s now a law enforcement consultant, said he saw no “immediate threat” posed by Smith but echoed Morales’ wariness of criticizing the officers’ reactions, if only because the camera did not capture everything the officers saw: “I have the luxury of sitting here in my office watching this and playing it back multiple times.”
Kevin Cokley, a psychology professor and director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin, was unequivocal: “This was not a justified shooting.”
Smith didn’t exactly follow the officers’ commands to keep his hands up, Cokley said, but he also didn’t make a move toward his pocket or waistband and police already had a tactical advantage with their guns pointed at him.
Cokley, who has written op-eds about police shootings of unarmed black men, said, “Reactions based on fear within the context of policing are often driven by implicit bias. Black males are viewed as more dangerous, even in instances when they pose no danger.”
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett declined to comment on Smith’s shooting because there’s pending litigation, but in a statement he cautioned against comparing the Smith and Baker cases.
“Comparing two separate incidents is inevitably problematic because circumstances police officers face and observations they make are different in every situation,” he said.
Others, though, are troubled by two encounters with very different outcomes.
Alderman Khalif Rainey, who is black, contrasted Smith’s shooting with how police apprehended Baker “without having to harm him at all.”
Rainey said he’s stopped believing he’ll never find himself in a situation like Smith’s.
“It’s real serious. At one point in time I thought, ‘Not me,'” he said. “But now it’s like, something goes wrong, you make the wrong move, you make the wrong gesture … and now I’m shot. Now I’m paralyzed. Now I’m dead.”
Day after day Nabil al-Hakimi, a humanitarian official in Taiz, one of Yemen’s largest cities, went to work feeling he had a “mountain” on his shoulders. Billions of dollars in food and other foreign aid was coming into his war-ravaged homeland, but millions of Yemenis were still living a step away from famine.
Reports of organizational disarray and out-and-out thievery streamed in to him this spring and summer from around Taiz — 5,000 sacks of rice doled out without record of where they’d gone . . . 705 food baskets looted from a welfare agency’s warehouses . . . 110 sacks of grain pillaged from trucks trying to make their way through the craggy northern highlands overlooking the city.
Food donations, it was clear, were being snatched from the starving.
Documents reviewed by The Associated Press and interviews with al-Hakimi and other officials and aid workers show that thousands of families in Taiz are not getting international food aid intended for them — often because it has been seized by armed units that are allied with the Saudi-led, American-backed military coalition fighting in Yemen.
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“The army that should protect the aid is looting the aid,” al-Hakimi told the AP.
Across Yemen, factions and militias on all sides of the conflict have blocked food aid from going to groups suspected of disloyalty, diverted it to front-line combat units or sold it for profit on the black market, according to public records and confidential documents obtained by the AP and interviews with more than 70 aid workers, government officials and average citizens from six different provinces.
The problem of lost and stolen aid is common in Taiz and other areas controlled by Yemen’s internationally recognized government, which is supported by the Saudi-led military coalition. It is even more widespread in territories controlled by the Houthi rebels, the struggling government’s main enemy during the nearly four years of warfare that has spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Some observers have attributed the near-famine conditions in much of the country to the coalition’s blockade of ports that supply Houthi-controlled areas. AP’s investigation found that large amounts of food are making it into the country, but once there, the food often isn’t getting to people who need it most — raising questions about the ability of United Nations agencies and other big aid organizations to operate effectively in Yemen.
After the release of the AP’s investigation on Monday, the United Nations’ World Food Program issued a statement demanding “an immediate end to the diversion of humanitarian food relief in Yemen.” The agency said its own investigation had found “evidence of trucks illicitly removing food from designated food distribution centers” in areas controlled by the Houthi rebels. It said it also has evidence of “fraud being perpetrated by at least one local partner organization” connected to the Houthis’ Education Ministry and responsible for distributing U.N. food aid.
The statement said the agency has learned that many people in the Houthi-controlled capital, Sanaa, have not been getting food rations they’re entitled to and that in other areas “hungry people have been denied full rations.”
The World Food Program has 5,000 distribution sites across the country targeting 10 million people a month with food baskets but says it can monitor just 20 percent of the deliveries.
This year the U.N., the United States, Saudi Arabia and others have poured more than $4 billion in food, shelter, medical and other aid into Yemen. That figure has been growing and is expected to keep climbing in 2019.
Despite the surge in help, hunger — and, in some pockets of the country, famine-level starvation — have continued to grow.
An analysis this month by a coalition of global relief groups found that even with the food aid that is coming in, more than half of the population is not getting enough to eat — 15.9 million of Yemen’s 29 million people. They include 10.8 million who are in an “emergency” phase of food insecurity, roughly 5 million who are in a deeper “crisis” phase and 63,500 who are facing “catastrophe,” a synonym for famine.
Counting the number of people who have starved to death in Yemen is difficult, because of the challenges of getting into areas shaken by violence and because starving people often officially die from diseases that prey on their weakened conditions. The nonprofit group Save the Children estimates that 85,000 children under the age of 5 have died from starvation or disease since the start of the war.
In some parts of the country, fighting, roadblocks and bureaucratic obstacles have reduced the amount of aid getting in. In other areas, aid gets in but still doesn’t get to the hungriest families.
In the northern province of Saada, a Houthi stronghold, international aid groups estimate that 445,000 people need food assistance. Some months the U.N. has sent enough food to feed twice that many people. Yet the latest figures from the U.N. and other relief organizations show that 65 percent of residents are facing severe food shortages, including at least 7,000 people who are in pockets of outright famine.
Three officials with the coalition-backed government told the AP that they would provide replies to questions about the theft of food aid, but then didn’t provide answers.
Officials at the agency that oversees aid work in Houthi territory — the National Authority for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs — did not return repeated phone calls from the AP.
U.N. officials have generally been cautious in public statements about the Houthis, based in part on worries that the rebels might respond by blocking U.N. agencies from access to starving people. But in interviews with the AP, two top U.N. relief officials used strong language in reference to both the Houthis and their battlefield adversaries.
Geert Cappelaere, Middle East director for UNICEF, the U.N.’s emergency fund for children, said authorities on “all sides” of the conflict are impeding aid groups — and increasing the risk that the country will descend into widespread famine.
“This has nothing to do with nature,” Cappelaere told the AP. “There is no drought here in Yemen. All of this is man-made. All of this has to do with poor political leadership which doesn’t put the people’s interest at the core of their actions.”
David Beasley, executive director of the U.N.’s food program, said “certain elements of the Houthis” are denying the agency access to some parts of rebel territory — and appear to be diverting food aid.
“It’s a disgrace, criminal, it’s wrong, and it needs to end,” Beasley said in an interview Sunday with the AP. “Innocent people are suffering.”
The rebels and the coalition forces have begun peace talks in recent weeks, a process that has led to a reduction in fighting and eased the challenges of getting food aid into and out of Hodeida, the port city that is a gateway to the Houthi-controlled north. But even if donors are able to get more food in, the problem of what happens to food aid once it makes landfall remains.
‘THE POOR GET NOTHING’
The war in Yemen began in March 2015 after Houthi rebels swept out of the mountains and occupied northern Yemen, forcing the government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi into exile.
After the rebels began pushing farther south, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states formed a coalition to take on the Houthis, describing their involvement as an effort to stop Iran, which has ties to the Houthis, from gaining sway over Yemen.
The coalition launched a rolling campaign of airstrikes and imposed an air, land and sea embargo on the rebel-held north. The Houthis, in turn, have blocked a key access route to Taiz, making it difficult for aid groups to get food and other supplies into the city.
The Houthis, a Zaidi-Shiite religious movement turned rebel militia, control an expanse of northern and western Yemen that is home to more than 70 percent of the country’s population. In these areas, officials and relief workers say, Houthi rebels have moved aggressively to control the flow of food aid, putting pressure on international relief workers with threats of arrest or exile and setting up checkpoints that demand payments of “customs taxes” as trucks carrying aid try to move across rebel territory.
“Since the Houthis came to power, looting has been on a large scale,” said Abdullah al-Hamidi, who served as acting education minister in the Houthi-run government in the north before defecting to the coalition side earlier this year. “This is why the poor get nothing. What really arrives to people is very little.”
Each month in Sanaa, he said, at least 15,000 food baskets that the education ministry was supposed to provide to hungry families were instead diverted to the black market or used to feed Houthi militiamen serving on the front lines.
Half of the food baskets that the U.N. food program provides to Houthi-controlled areas are stored and distributed by the ministry, which is chaired by the brother of the rebels’ top leader.
Moain al-Nagri, a managing editor at the Houthi-controlled daily newspaper, al-Thawra, told the AP that the paper learned last week that hundreds of its staffers had been falsely listed for more than a year as receiving food baskets from the education ministry. It’s not clear where those food baskets went, he said, but it’s clear that few of his employees received them.
Three other people with knowledge of relief programs in Houthi territory confirmed that they had knowledge of food baskets being improperly diverted from the education ministry. The three individuals and many others interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity, because of the risks that the rebels might block aid programs or deny visas.
A senior U.N. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue, told the AP that enough aid is coming into the country to meet the demands of the hunger crisis, but much of it is stolen.
“If there is no corruption,” he said, “there is no famine.”
Throughout Yemen, food that is supposed to be given for free to starving families ends up for sale in markets.
The Houthis’ ministry of industry has documented hundreds of sacks of World Food Program flour being sold commercially after being repackaged by merchants, according to Abdu Bishr, who previously served as head of the ministry. Bishr, now a member of rebel-controlled parliament, says both sides in the war are to blame for failing to prevent the diversion of food aid.
Video shot in 2017 and obtained by the AP shows busy markets in the cities of Taiz and Aden not bothering to repackage pilfered food aid — selling cooking oil and flour displaying the U.N. food program’s WFP logo. AP journalists reporting in Yemen this spring and summer spotted other examples of food with the logos of the WFP and other global relief groups being sold in markets in both Houthi and coalition areas.
“We have found entire stores packed with U.N. aid,” said Fadl Moqbl, head of an independent advocacy group, the Yemeni Association for Consumers’ Protection.
Because the war has wrecked the country’s economy, many Yemenis don’t have jobs or enough money to buy food in stores. Al-Hakimi, who worked for much of this year as the executive manager of the coalition-backed government’s local relief committee in Taiz, said Yemenis will need more than short-term handouts. They need help to rebuild the country’s economy and create jobs that will allow families to buy their own food.
When officials in Taiz asked al-Hakimi to take over as the relief committee’s manager, he hoped he could help turn around the hunger crisis that has been building in the city since the war began. He soon discovered the scale of challenges facing him.
Political power in Taiz is divided among militias that have been folded into Yemen’s national armed forces but continue to compete with each other to maintain their grips on the sectors of the city they control.
“Here the only means to achieve anyone’s goals is through weapons,” he said. “Who gets on the beneficiaries’ lists? Those who have weapons. The poor, the most miserable, and the weak can’t get their names on the lists of beneficiaries, so the aid goes to the powerful.”
Coalition bombing campaigns and guerrilla fighting on the ground have demolished homes, factories, water works and power plants and killed more than 60,000 combatants and civilians. More than 3 million people have been displaced, increasing the demand for food and other help from outside the country.
In a 2017 survey funded by the European Union, two-thirds of displaced Yemenis who responded said they hadn’t received any humanitarian aid, even though people forced from their homes are supposed to be key targets of U.N. relief efforts.
In displacement camps in the Houthi-controlled northern district of Aslam, barefoot children and mothers whose bodies have been reduced to skin and bone live in tents and huts made of sticks and sackcloth. The camps are not far from villages where the AP reported in September that families were trying to stave off famine by eating boiled tree leaves.
The U.N. and other global aid organizations estimate that 1.5 million Yemeni children are malnourished, including 400,000 to 500,000 who suffer life-threatening “severe acute malnutrition.”
One-year-old Nasser Hafez, who lived with his family in a camp called al-Motayhara, died Dec.12 from malnutrition and other complications at a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders. He was in a coma for five days before his tiny body gave up.
His father and 16 members of his family have moved at least six times since the start of the war. Before, the father said, he had been a tailor, earning enough to feed his family meat, chicken and vegetables. He said he hasn’t received a single food basket from the U.N.’s World Food Program.
“They register us every month, maybe up to five times, but we never get food,” he said.
He said the family has gotten cash transfers every few months equal to $50 from the relief group Oxfam. It costs almost half that amount, he said, to buy 50 kilograms of World Food Program wheat from a market, which lasts his family only a week or two.
The Houthi rebels maintain tight control on how much food goes to which districts and who gets it. They manipulate the official lists of beneficiaries by giving preferential treatment to Houthi supporters and families of slain and wounded soldiers, according to relief workers and officials.
“Some areas in Yemen take the lion’s share and other areas receive a trickle,” said Bishr, the member of the Houthi-controlled parliament.
Five relief workers told the AP that they believe the U.N. and other international groups have been forced to sacrifice their independence in order to maintain access as they try to deliver aid to as many people as possible.
The Houthis “threaten decision-makers and international employees through permits and visa renewals,” a senior aid official told the AP. “Those who don’t comply will have their visas rejected.”
He said that he discovered his employees were tipping off the Houthis about the contents of his conversations and emails. When he complained about the spying, he said, the rebels pulled his visa and forced him to leave the country.
Beasley, the top official at the U.N. food program, said he believes some of the rebels in key positions do care about the welfare of struggling families and have worked well with his agency, but there are others “who don’t care about the people.”
“Anytime you are in a war zone, it’s a difficult situation and obviously when it comes to the United Nations we are neutral,” he said. But when it comes to making sure that food aid gets to the people who need it, “we can’t be neutral. We need to speak out in strongest voice, condemn it in every way.”
STRUGGLE IN TAIZ
Even before al-Hakimi took over as manager of Taiz’s relief committee, officials and activists complained about intrigues and outrages relating to donated food.
In September 2017, the relief committee sent a warning to the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center, a charity run by the Saudi government and one of the key donors in Yemen. The letter said many of the 871,000 food baskets that the King Salman Center claims it has provided to Taiz and surrounding areas had been “lost and unaccounted for.” It said local groups that were supposed distribute the food were refusing to answer questions from the committee, apparently because they wanted to make sure “the truth never comes out” about where the food goes.
In the spring of 2018, the government in Taiz turned to al-Hakimi, who holds a doctorate in strategic development planning and has years of experience in training aid workers. Three relief workers in Taiz told the AP that al-Hakimi is known for being a principled person who won’t go along with corrupt deals.
He took the job after providing the committee a list of 14 conditions aimed at addressing the flaws in the aid distribution system, including a requirement that the committee approve and coordinate all aid deliveries in Taiz.
One problem al-Hakimi and other relief workers faced was the Houthis’ partial blockade of the city. The Houthis — who had taken over Taiz in the spring of 2015 but were pushed out by coalition forces in late 2016 — still control a key highway leading into the city. This slows the transport of aid into the city and limits how much can get in.
Despite the challenges, he won some victories after he started his new job. In one instance, he reached out to a military commander and secured the return of 110 sacks of flour that had been snatched from trucks in the highlands north of the city.
But in most cases, once the aid was gone, it was gone for good.
In early June, al-Hakimi and a local official demanded, to no avail, that an army unit known as Brigade 17 return 705 food baskets that had been lifted from a warehouse — as well as the “personal weapon” of the guard who had been trying to protect the goods.
“I talked to everyone but there was no action,” al-Hakimi said. “The commander acted as if he wasn’t in charge.”
Brig. Gen. Abdel-Rahman al-Shamsani, the commander of Brigade 17, denies that his unit took the food baskets. He told the AP that recipients who had grown tired of waiting had “raided” the warehouse and taken food that was intended for them anyway.
As problems piled up, al-Hakimi aimed a flurry of complaints at bureaucrats and military officers. In a letter to a top army commander and an internal security chief, he wrote: “This is about your negligence in failing to take the necessary measures to bring back looted World Food Program aid.”
If they did not quickly arrest the culprits and bring back the stolen items within 24 hours, he said, he would hold them “fully responsible for depriving Taiz of aid” and for “any humanitarian disaster in Taiz” that followed.
There was no response, al-Hakimi said.
By September he’d had enough.
“It’s very important to do this work — but also important to have the power and authority to do it,” al-Hakimi told the AP.
He tried to resign, but a top city leader talked him out of it, promising that officials would address the problems.
Nothing changed, al-Hakimi said. So in October he quit for good.
Two months later, an analysis from the U.N. and its aid partners estimated that 57 percent of Taiz’s residents face emergency- or crisis-level food insecurity. The group’s year-end breakdown says as many as 10,500 people in and around Taiz are living and dying in areas overtaken by full-blown famine.
Vicente Ward had trouble finding work after leaving the Air Force — until California’s bullet-train project came along. Now he’s helping build a bridge that some day will carry rail passengers across the San Joaquin River between Madera and Fresno.
“It’s a sense of accomplishment; my kids can see this 20 years from now,” said Ward, 52, a carpenter from Clovis, during a break at the job site. “It’s providing jobs for the community. We help stimulate the economy. … Now my family has medical, has dental.”
Phase One of the state’s high-speed rail line is being assembled, piece by painstaking piece, along a 119-mile stretch between Madera and northern Kern County. A decade after getting approval from California voters, and nearly four years after breaking ground, one of the largest public works projects in California history is taking on a life of its own: Bridges, viaducts and overpasses have sprouted on fertile San Joaquin Valley soil. A section of Highway 99 has been relocated. Work has begun on an enormous trench in Fresno where trains will run beneath an irrigation canal.
More than 2,300 workers have been put to work at more than 20 different sites around the Valley. Eventually $10.6 billion will be spent on the Valley portion of the project, fueling dreams of an economic bounty in one of the poorest regions of California. Community leaders envision Fresno, with its relatively low cost of living, becoming a bedroom community for Silicon Valley — which will be less than an hour’s ride away once the train is running.
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“We’ve got a lot of things to sell that Silicon Valley can’t provide,” said Tom Richards, a Fresno developer and vice chairman of the rail project’s governing authority.
Yet for all the dollars and dreams chugging into the Valley, the high-speed rail project is notoriously unpopular around here. A Los Angeles Times/USC poll earlier this year showed that 64 percent of Valley residents want the bullet train halted in its tracks. Statewide, 49 percent want to pull the plug.
The opposition in the Valley is partly philosophical. Many in this hotbed of conservatism see the bullet train – beset with lengthy delays, substantial cost overruns and serious questions about future funding – as big government run amok.
But for many Valley residents, it’s also intensely personal. They resent how construction has carved up their farms and scrambled their highways. Completion of just a partial segment through the Valley is still years away, and residents doubt the project will ever get finished. They question the promises that high-speed rail will lift the Valley out of its economic doldrums.
“Let’s fix our roads and bridges – anything but high-speed rail,” said John Tos, a Kings County farmer who’s tried unsuccessfully to keep the California High-Speed Rail Authority from taking a portion of his walnut orchard. “It’s unbelievable the cost we’re going to have to pay.”
Meanwhile, advocates for low-income residents warn that the very thing train boosters are promising — trainloads of Bay Area techies moving to the Valley — will lead to gentrification and a nightmarish spike in housing prices. The Central Valley is already facing a long list of issues, including poor air quality, a lack of affordable housing and contaminated water, and social justice advocates are worried Valley residents will be left behind by any progress created by the bullet train.
“We’re concerned that one of high speed rail’s major goals is to address a lack of affordable housing in the Bay Area,” said Veronica Garibay, a co-founder and co-director of the Fresno-based Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability. “How are families already living in the Valley today going to benefit from all of this? (High speed rail) is just one small component of the pressures that are facing and are going to face this region.”
Billions in overruns
As much as any other criticism, the project’s finances feed the narrative that the project is off the rails. The estimated cost to construct the main line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, pegged at $35 billion in 2009, has ballooned to $77.3 billion, according to the latest business plan by the High-Speed Rail Authority. The figure includes the initial segment through the Valley, which is estimated at $10.6 billion.
That leaves a funding gap in the billions of dollars. Although the authority says it has money identified to build most of the segment in the Central Valley, there is not enough solid funding to extend the line to the San Francisco Bay Area or Los Angeles. The authority also hasn’t established a budget for constructing a spur that would connect the Valley segment with Sacramento, Modesto and Stockton.
During a town hall forum in Fresno earlier this month, Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom expressed frustration with the project and said he was “assessing the stewardship of the High Speed Rail Authority.” He said he was also reviewing a recent report by State Auditor Elaine Howle saying the rail authority created $600 million in cost overruns by beginning construction in the Valley before it had finished some vital planning.
Funding has always been an issue. Voters authorized less than $10 billion in bond proceeds for the project nearly a decade ago. Along with federal grants and revenues from the state’s cap-and-trade carbon program, the authority thinks it will have $28 billion at its disposal over the next 30 years. That includes more than $4 billion already spent.
HIGH SPEED RAIL’S PHASE ONE
The 119-mile first phase of California’s high-speed rail line is being built between Madera and Shafter.
Map: Fresno Bee • Source: California High Speed Rail Authority
“We haven’t been shy about the fact that this project was never fully funded,” said authority spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley.
The authority’s plan is to get the train operating on a limited basis sometime over the next decade – a milestone that it believes will convince private investors to jump in and bankroll the rest of the project. Alley said the High-Speed Rail Authority has always known it would have to get private dollars to finish the job; similar financing models have been used to build bullet trains around the world.
But authority officials recognize there’s cause for skepticism from the public.
“Funding isn’t fully defined, and people have justifiable concerns,” said Richards, the rail authority vice chairman.
A series of stumbles by the High-Speed Rail Authority hasn’t helped its case with Valley residents. The cost of building the Valley segment jumped by a third, or $2.8 billion, earlier this year. The land acquisition costs alone in the Valley have risen by $700 million.
Fix the roads instead?
It was a glorious day in downtown Fresno. On Jan. 6, 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown and his wife Anne Gust Brown, accompanied by federal officials and city leaders, held a ceremonial groundbreaking at the site of the planned high-speed rail station.
The governor acknowledged the project faced enormous challenges, including the question of funding.
“Don’t worry about it,” he told about 1,000 dignitaries. “We’re going to get it.”
High-speed rail was sold to California voters as a technological dream – a means of traveling from San Francisco to L.A. in less than three hours. California would have a modern, electrified transportation conveyance on par with the bullet trains that have been zipping across Europe for years.
There was something else: High-speed rail would bring the Valley, in particular, into the modern age, connecting its downtrodden residents with jobs and economic opportunity that until now could only be found in California’s coastal cities.
Construction foreman Elmer Garcia walks along the deck of a bridge that will stretch across the San Joaquin River for the California high-speed rail near Highway 99 and Union Pacific railway on the boarder between Madera and Fresno Counties in this drone image made on October 31, 2018.
CRAIG KOHLRUSS firstname.lastname@example.org
“From the very beginning, for me it was about connectivity for the Valley,” said Lee Ann Eager, president and CEO of the Fresno County Economic Development Corporation. “It’s always been an issue for people doing business.” Fresno’s unemployment rate, at 6.3 percent, is considerably higher than the statewide rate of 4.1 percent.
But there have been critics, and problems, from the start. As Brown spoke at the groundbreaking, the jeers of a small cluster of protestors were clearly audible: “We don’t want your train!”
Opposition to high-speed rail springs from many sources. Many Valley residents say the bullet train’s funds would be better spent fixing Highway 99 and other crumbling roads. Better yet, the money could be used building more reservoirs to store water for the region’s parched farms; billboards sporting the slogan “Dams not Trains” abound.
Former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin – a long-time supporter of the rail project – called pitting high-speed rail against other needs in the Valley a “false narrative.”
“As mayor, my interest was that in one of the most economically devastated regions of the state, you cannot say, ‘We just want more water,’ or ‘We just want more roads’ or ‘We just want more education,’” she said. “It’s a false choice, and it’s intellectually dishonest. We need all of the above.”
Delays have been considerable. Richards said the project probably spent a year dealing with lawsuits filed by opponents under California’s onerous environmental law. The authority has also had to fend off litigation challenging the constitutionality of its funding mechanism, and lawsuits over the route itself. A church in Bakersfield sued to prevent the rail line from going right past its property; the state agreed to mitigate noise impacts.
Some low-income residents living near the bullet train’s path doubt they’ll benefit from the project.
About 30 residents of the Three Palms Mobile Home and RV Park gathered in the neighborhood’s parking lot on an autumn evening to talk about their disdain for the rail line, which will one day run about 200 feet from where they snacked on chips and drank bottled water.
A row of rundown motels nearby was torn down to make way for the rail project, but the mobile home park remains. While high-speed rail is seen as a way to connect the Valley with the rest of California, it will have the opposite impact on the residents of Three Palms: they will be surrounded on one side by bullet trains and on the other by Highway 99. Some residents already walk across freight train tracks to get to the closest grocery store, a journey that will be even more dangerous when high-speed trains are rolling through the area.
“What about us?” said Wendy Monge, who’s lived in the mobile home park for 13 years. “All this stuff around is getting renewed, but we’re here being left behind.”
‘Run right over us’
Some opponents believe the Valley is being taken advantage of by the project.
The train started in the Valley “because it’s the easiest place to run right over us, spend money as they want, fall short of completion and say they’ve done us a favor,” said Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno. “We’re in the middle of it, we know the details of it, we see what’s going on, we get concerned that this is not going to be a completed project. Sooner or later they’re going to run out of money.”
Fans of high-speed rail in the Valley are getting a little anxious. They want it to succeed, but they fear that progress has been too slow.
“I clearly see the benefits of it but I get where people are worried,” said Jim Ford, chief executive of Central Valley Community Bank in Fresno. He said the High-Speed Rail Authority needs “to get something done and get some sort of train moving … to get people to understand why there’s some benefit.”
But there are no quick solutions. Six years ago, the authority said it would have trains running in the Valley by 2020. Now the best-case scenario calls for operations to begin in 2026 or 2027 – and that’s only if the agency can show that the trains can run without a cash subsidy. Under the terms of Proposition 1A, the operation must pay for itself.
Opening by 2026 or 2027 “is an aspirational goal,” Alley said.
The authority’s approach to construction isn’t helping tamp down the skepticism. Instead of building road beds and laying tracks first, it’s tackling the hardest parts of the project up front: the overpasses, bridges and viaducts, each of which take months to complete.
“You’ve got to take care of the most complex construction areas first,” Richards said, adding that the project would “probably make a bigger splash” with the public if it had laid tracks already.
In rural areas, where orchards are being cleared to make way for the rail line, opposition continues to simmer. Farmers are finding their farms getting carved up, their irrigation lines disrupted.
“There are all these triangular pieces (of land) left over,” said Mark Wasser, a Sacramento lawyer who represents several dozen Valley farmers fighting the state in court over land acquisitions.
The state has the power under eminent domain laws to take property for a public works project, but the process has played out more slowly than state officials expected and has left considerable rancor.
Tos, the farmer in Kings County, remembers getting the initial notice in 2010 from the state warning that he could lose some property to the rail line. Since then he’s become one of the most active opponents of the project, attending scores of community meetings and lending his name to a pair of lawsuits challenging the funding for the project (Both lawsuits failed).
In the last year or so, the fight has turned intensely personal. In May 2017, two years after eminent domain proceeds began, the state was granted possession of a two-acre swath of one of Tos’ walnut orchards outside of Hanford.
Although Tos hasn’t agreed to the state’s offer of $153,000 and the case is continuing, the land has been taken. About six months ago the trees were removed.
“They’re killing our trees, something that you’ve strived for,” said Tos, who was present when the trees were pulled out of the ground.
All told, he said the state is trying to take about 80 acres of land he farms in Kings and Fresno counties.
Although the deck is stacked against him legally, he’s vowed to fight the state for every inch.
“My grandparents came here in 1906,” he said. “Our fourth generation is farming it right now. We’re not in this for the money. We’re in this to keep our land.”
The funding is spearheaded by the philanthropic efforts of the Central Valley Latino Giving Circle — a 65-member group started in 2016 by the Latino Community Foundation and other local leaders. Each member gives $1,000 to join the giving circle and the funds are then distributed to Latino-led organizations based on need.
“It’s less about the money that we are giving, but more about changing the narrative of how Latinos can help their communities through philanthropy,” said Tim Rios, a co-founder of the Central Valley Giving Circle and senior vice president and community relations senior manager at Wells Fargo Bank
Central Valley Latino giving circle founders, from left, Yuliana Franco, Lazaro Salazar, Jose Antonio Ramirez, Maggie Navarro, Dora Westerlund, Angela Vega Hiyama, Tim Rios, Sandra Reyes Herrera Flores and Margarita Rocha want to raise $100,000 by April 2017 for Latino organizations trying to make a difference in the Valley.
SILVIA FLORES email@example.com
Rios underscored the impact of the funds that go to each organization. He said the membership of the Giving Circle decides how much of the funds will go to each group. The grants will help the organizations strengthen community resources for Latinos.
The Central Valley’s Latino Giving Circle has the largest membership, according to Rios. More than 500 people in the state belong to such Latino giving circles. Rios said the philanthropy by the giving circles should serve as an example of ways Latinos can collectively give back to their communities. He said prospective members don’t need be millionaires to join.
“Everybody should feel empowered to be able to support the community in some way. You don’t have to be wealthy to make a difference in the lives of others,” Rios added.
The Latino Community Foundation, as well as other donors and groups, has matched the giving circle’s funds in the past to increase the amount of grant funding. A $1 million community investment is planned by the foundation for 2019.
The grants to the Latino-led organizations were awarded Saturday during an event at Arte Americas. Last year, the Latino Giving Circle provided $115,000 in grants to organizations.
Hundreds of sex abuse allegations found in fundamental Baptist churches across U.S.
Joy Evans Ryder was 15 years old when she says her church youth director pinned her to his office floor and raped her.
“It’s OK. It’s OK,” he told her. “You don’t have to be afraid of anything.”
He straddled her with his knees, and she looked off into the corner, crying and thinking, “This isn’t how my mom said it was supposed to be.”
The youth director, Dave Hyles, was the son of the charismatic pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, considered at the time the flagship for thousands of loosely affiliated independent fundamental Baptist churches and universities.
Joy Evans Ryder, pictured in this image from a yearbook.
Courtesy Joy Evans Ryder
At least three other teen girls would accuse Hyles of sexual misconduct, but he never faced charges or even sat for a police interview related to the accusations. When he got in trouble, Hyles was able to simply move on, from one church assignment to the next.
Hyles’ flight to safety has become a well-worn path for ministers in the independent fundamental Baptist movement.
For decades, women and children have faced rampant sexual abuse while worshiping at independent fundamental Baptist churches around the country. The network of churches and schools has often covered up the crimes and helped relocate the offenders, an eight-month Star-Telegram investigation has found.
More than 200 people — current or former church members, across generations — shared their stories of rape, assault, humiliation and fear in churches where male leadership cannot be questioned.
“It’s a philosophy — it’s flawed,” said Stacey Shiflett, an independent fundamental Baptist pastor in Dundalk, Maryland. “The philosophy is you don’t air your dirty laundry in front of everyone. Pastors think if they keep it on the down-low, it won’t impact anyone. And then the other philosophy is it’s wrong to say anything bad about another preacher.”
The Star-Telegram discovered at least 412 allegations of sexual misconduct in 187 independent fundamental Baptist churches and their affiliated institutions, spanning 40 states and Canada.
Twenty-one abuse allegations were uncovered exclusively by the Star-Telegram, and others were documented in criminal cases, lawsuits and news reports. But victims said the number of abused is far greater because few victims ever come forward.
One hundred and sixty-eight church leaders were accused or convicted of committing sexual crimes against children, the investigation found. At least 45 of the alleged abusers continued in ministry after accusations came to the attention of church authorities or law enforcement.
Compounding the problem is the legal statute of limitations. For many alleged offenders, the statutes on the crimes have expired.
Many of the allegations involve men whose misconduct has long been suspected in the independent fundamental Baptist community. But most of their victims have not publicly come forward, on the record, until now. Even pastors have for the first time — in interviews with the Star-Telegram — acknowledged they moved alleged abusers out of their churches rather than call law enforcement.
From Connecticut to California, the stories are tragically similar:
A music minister molested a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina and moved to another church in Florida. Another girl’s parents stood in front of their Connecticut congregation to acknowledge their daughter’s “sin” after she was abused by her youth pastor, beginning at 16. This year, four women accused a pastor in California of covering up sexual misconduct and shielding the abusers over almost 25 years.
To understand how this systemic, widespread abuse could happen again and again, some former members say it is necessary to understand the cult-like power of many independent fundamental Baptist churches and the constant pressure not to question pastors — or ever leave the church.
“We didn’t have a compound like those other places, but it may as well have been,” said one former member who says she was abused. She requested anonymity because, like many others, she is still intimidated by the church.
“Our mind was the compound.”
They were terrorized, trapped and even sexually abused. Now, these former members of independent fundamental Baptist churches share how their experiences will affect the rest of their lives. Click to hear their stories.
‘Men of God’
Current and formers members say many independent fundamental Baptist churches rule by fear.
Pastor Jim Vineyard was an expert in the tactic.
Vineyard had a tattoo snaking around his forearm and liked to talk about the days he said he was a Green Beret. He began his preaching career under Dave Hyles’ father, Jack, in Indiana and left to begin his own church, Windsor Hills Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.
Former members in Oklahoma City remember the story about a photo of a dead man Vineyard kept in his desk. It was a favorite of Vineyard’s to tell from the pulpit.
In one version of the story, the picture was of a man who voted against Vineyard coming into the church to pastor. The man subsequently got into a car crash and broke his neck.
Or there was this version: The photo was of the son of a Windsor Hills family who told Vineyard they were going to leave the church. Vineyard warned them: If they did, God would punish them. They left, and the son died in a car crash.
Defy Jim Vineyard, the message went, and God would punish you.
To go against the advice of the pastor of an independent fundamental Baptist church is almost unthinkable. The “man of God” is chosen by God and is the church’s direct link to him. To question the pastor is to question God.
“I see a culture where pastoral authority is taken to a level that’s beyond what the Scripture teaches,” said Tim Heck, who was a deacon at Faith Baptist Church in Wildomar, California, and whose daughter said she had been abused by the youth pastor there. “I think the independent fundamental Baptists have lost their way.”
Many pastors build authority through fear and interpretation of Bible verses. Children learn the story of Elisha and the she-bears: As the prophet Elisha walks up the path toward Bethel, a group of children surrounds him and makes fun of his baldness. Two she-bears emerge from the woods and maul 42 of the children. The lesson: Don’t challenge the man of God.
Even if they leave, some ex-members wonder for years whether bad events in their lives were caused by an angry God. Jennifer McCune, who came forward this year to allege that Dave Hyles raped her when she was a 14-year-old in Texas, still wonders 36 years later if God punished her by giving her late husband cancer.
Other ex-members said they believed that if they disobeyed the pastor or left the church, God would kill them or their loved ones.
The authority of the men of God extends far beyond the church. Pastors often have a heavy hand in who church members can date. Pastors are asked by members for their advice on where to vacation or whether to take a new job. When one congregant wanted to buy a new house, he had the pastor drive by first and approve it.
Independent fundamental Baptist churches preach separation: Stay separate from the world, separate from non-believers and separate from Christians who do not believe as they do. That includes Southern Baptists, who are deemed by the strict sect as too liberal.
Members instinctively go to the pastor first with problems, including those of a criminal nature.
“Any issues, even legal issues, go to the pastor first, not the police. Especially about another member of the church,” said Josh Elliott, a former member of Vineyard’s Oklahoma City church. “The person should go to the pastor, and the pastor will talk to the offender. You don’t report to police because the pastor is the ultimate authority, not the government.”
Stuart Hardy was a youth and music pastor at an independent fundamental Baptist church in Michigan. He witnessed the same authoritarian approach.
“You can’t question your leaders,” Hardy said. “And when you can’t question your leaders, we’ve seen it in politics, you know what happens. It’s not a good thing.”
Hardy left in 2014 and now describes the experience using one four-letter word.
“Those of us that have gotten out definitely know it as a cult,” he said.
The independent fundamental Baptist movement began to grow in the 1950s and ’60s as the churches positioned themselves as the true way to Christ in contrast to less conservative churches and a godless secular world.
While there’s no official count, an online directory assembled by a pastor in Maine lists more than 6,000 independent fundamental Baptist churches in the United States, as well as churches in countries from Germany to Nicaragua.
The churches operate independently. But many pastors are linked by the church-affiliated colleges they attended: Bob Jones University, Hyles-Anderson College, Pensacola Christian College and Golden State Baptist College, to name a few. Friendships are forged at preaching conferences — and, just as often, alliances are rearranged when there’s a rift.
Pastors use their connections in this informal network to help abusers find new churches, the Star-Telegram found.
Many of the churches identified by the Star-Telegram that have faced abuse allegations are in the Southeast and Midwest, with the most being in North Carolina (17) and Ohio (12).
Nine of the churches are in Texas, including Open Door Baptist Church in Mesquite. In April, police arrested pastor Bob Ross on charges that he failed to report the alleged sexual abuse of a minor. A month earlier, one of his ministers and a youth volunteer were jailed on suspicion of sexually abusing children at the church.
While many abusers in the ministry are never caught, there’s a collection of church officials in prison for their crimes. Carlton Hammonds, who pastored Willows Baptist Church in Willows, California, served three years for molesting four girls from his congregation in the mid-2000s. In 2012, Joshua Gardner was sentenced to six years for sexually abusing two boys at his parents’ church on an American base in Okinawa, Japan. (His Minnesota church stood behind him.) Two officials at Kettle Moraine Baptist Church in Wisconsin were sentenced to prison for sexually assaulting children at the church’s Camp Joy. One of the Camp Joy workers already had a sexual offense conviction.
Jim Vineyard would also face misconduct allegations when his leadership-by-fear style was finally challenged in 2004.
Multiple women say the Oklahoma City pastor made sexual comments to them from the 1990s to 2000s when they were teenagers during one-on-one counseling sessions. The allegations went public when the brother of one of the girls put together a packet of letters and sworn affidavits describing the comments and sent it to the church’s deacons.
Vineyard, who died in October 2017, denied he’d done anything wrong and led Windsor Hills until 2007.
Vineyard’s son Tom took his place as head of the church. Ross, the pastor from Mesquite who was arrested in April, had worked for Jim Vineyard in Oklahoma before coming to Texas, and has found refuge back in Vineyard’s church as he awaits trial.
Tom Vineyard and Ross did not respond to requests for comment.
Ex-members of Windsor Hills say they’ve been contacted by Mesquite officers as part of the investigation into Ross. They said police also asked them about allegations that Ross had failed to report abuse when he worked at Windsor Hills.
‘He does that with everyone’
In Joy Evans Ryder’s mid-1970s church-driven world, skirts had to go past knees, men and women had to be separated by six inches, and a good daughter’s gift to her father was to save her first kiss for the altar.
A father himself, Jack Hyles was nicknamed the “Baptist Pope” for the sway he held over the nationwide independent fundamental Baptist movement from his power base in small-town Indiana.
His son Dave was tall, skinny and already balding by his mid-20s. He had his father’s eyes that pulled down at the corners. No one would have called him traditionally handsome, but he had his father’s ability to make you feel a part of the in-crowd with a compliment or sarcastic joke. And he could just as easily push you out with a cutting insult.
Dave Hyles had taken an interest in Ryder when she was 14, and it scared her.
One Sunday morning after service, she stood in line to speak to Jack Hyles — the most important person in her world — about his son’s repeated calls to her house. The attention made her uncomfortable, she said.
The pastor sat at his desk and took her in for a moment.
“Joy, you’re not special,” he said. “He does that with everyone. So don’t think he’s trying to do anything with you.”
Not long after, she was raped by Dave Hyles. It continued for two years.
Reached by phone, Dave Hyles declined to comment. The Star-Telegram followed up by sending him a list of written questions. He did not respond. Jack Hyles died in 2001.
At 16, Ryder thought about suicide, fearing she might be pregnant with Dave Hyles’ child. She imagined ramming her car into a telephone pole or a tree, killing her and the baby.
She didn’t think about going to police.
“I went to somebody I thought would be my protector,” Ryder said. “Not my dad, because this shows you how we were taught to think about our pastor, Dr. Hyles.”
Dave Hyles had warned her to stay quiet or he’d get her parents fired. Her father was president of Hyles-Anderson College, a school started by and run from First Baptist Church. Her mother was the school’s dean of women.
To her friends, Ryder looked happy. She was popular, secure in her social status, and had a spot in the church school’s coveted choir, called Strength and Beauty. She liked to run off to the mall with friends every chance she got and had her light-brown hair feathered, Farrah Fawcett-style.
But she was also angry and ready to rebel against the system that entrapped her. She sneaked to movies, wore pants and swiped cigarette packs, all verboten in the church.
At 17, Ryder snapped. She called her parents from a payphone at the church school and told them to meet her at home. She told them everything.
The next time she met Hyles, her father would follow.
He drove behind her to a Holiday Inn, and waited in his car as he watched Ryder walk into a first-floor room and shut the door.
Joy Evans Ryder says Dave Hyles raped her when he was her youth director. Her father followed her to this hotel room in Illinois, then a Holiday Inn, when she told Hyles they were done. Hyles has never been charged with a crime.
Courtesy Joy Evans Ryder
“I’m leaving,” Ryder told Hyles.
He asked what she meant.
“I’m leaving,” she repeated. “I told my parents, and my dad is outside.”
Hyles pulled back the curtain and saw her father’s car. She says he shoved her against the wall, his forearm pressed on her throat.
“What have you done to me? You’ve ruined my ministry. How could you do this to me?’”
He let her go and paced the room. Ryder walked out, got in her car and drove home. Her father followed her. He didn’t confront Hyles.
He did, however, go to Jack Hyles, who dismissed the report about his son because Ryder’s father didn’t record Dave Hyles’ license plate number.
Her father dropped the subject.
Ryder’s father, Wendell Evans, wished he could do it over, he said 35 years later in a notarized statement provided to the Star-Telegram, taken because Ryder was seeking evidence to take to the church.
At the time of the abuse, Evans’ career was blossoming in the church. Pushing Hyles, his boss, on the allegations would have been difficult, he said.
“I mean, Hyles and I were still good friends,” he said. “We marveled sometimes that our friendship survived this situation.”
But in an interview with the Star-Telegram, Evans was not so forgiving of Dave Hyles. He regrets not calling the police on him.
“I think it’s remarkable that in 40 years, Dave didn’t find time to ask forgiveness from his victims and their parents,” said Evans, now 83.
It was not the first time Jack Hyles heard allegations against his son, nor would it be the last. One woman alleged Dave Hyles raped her at 14 when she attended the church’s high school, years before Ryder. The woman’s 10th-grade teacher also confronted Jack Hyles about his son, only to be brushed off.
Dave Hyles’ ministry wasn’t ruined. Instead, he got promoted.
A few months after Evans and Jack Hyles spoke about the encounter at the Holiday Inn, Dave Hyles became the pastor at Miller Road Baptist Church in Garland, Texas — the church his father led before moving to Indiana. Jack Hyles would later say he never recommended his son to any church, but deacons and staffers at Miller Road said their search committee called Jack Hyles about Dave. No one heard any warnings.
Two more women would accuse Dave Hyles of molesting them in Texas. One woman, who went to Hyles-Anderson for college, said she tried to tell Jack Hyles what had happened. He told her not to tell anyone else.
Then, she said, he kicked her out of his office.
Four women have accused Dave Hyles, seen here in an image a yearbook photo, of sexual misconduct when they were teenagers. He has never been charged with a crime and now runs a ministry for people who have fallen into sin.
Courtesy Joy Evans Ryder
‘The M.O. in fundamentalism’
It was a Friday in May 2018 when one of Stacey Shiflett’s associate pastors pulled him aside after a staff meeting and said they needed to talk — and that it was urgent.
Shiflett, a native Georgian with close-cropped hair who hasn’t lost his Southern accent or his penchant for the Bulldogs, was in his fourth year of pastoring Calvary Baptist Church in Dundalk, Maryland. His predecessor, Cameron Giovanelli, had recommended him for the post and was president of the prestigious Golden State Baptist College in Santa Clara, California, where Shiflett’s daughter attended.
Shiflett liked Giovanelli. He was a funny man with a young family. He’d beaten cancer and written a book about how his faith — and family — got him through it.
But it was Cameron Giovanelli whom the associate pastor had come to talk to Shiflett about. Giovanelli had allegedly molested the associate pastor’s granddaughter, Sarah Jackson, when she was 16, in 2006.
Shiflett called Sarah Jackson, now 29. Jackson told him of kisses in Giovanelli’s office, the secret phone he bought for her on the church plan so they could text, of gifts of diamond hoop earrings (he didn’t like studs) and how Giovanelli said his wife would never give him oral sex, so it was something special for the two of them.
A few hours after her conversation with Shiflett, Sarah Jackson posted her story on Facebook, naming Giovanelli. She logged off immediately, shaking. But she felt free. For the first time in years, she wouldn’t have to lie.
“I was raised in a way where you respect your elders and your leaders,” she wrote on Facebook. “Your Pastor in the Baptist faith, is pretty much right under God. You trust him. With everything.”
She then accused Giovanelli of abusing his power to instigate a physical and emotional relationship with her. “Why now? Well, now I am a mother. I will do whatever I can in my power to not allow something to happen to my son that happened to me as a 16-year-old girl. So this is my story, and with this, I let go.”
Stacey Shiflett, a 45-year-old with 25 years of ministry behind him, hoped the allegations weren’t true. But the more he investigated, the more credible Jackson’s story became.
When Giovanelli resigned from Golden State Baptist College after the abuse allegation went viral, the chancellor of the college and the pastor of its affiliated church asked the congregation to pray for the church, the college, and the Giovanelli family.
The pastor, Jack Trieber, dressed in a yellow tie and matching pocket square, reached into his pocket to put on his glasses before reading a statement that “allegations of inappropriate conduct” had been made against Giovanelli.
Trieber took his glasses off. The video posted on the church website ends. Then, say people who were in attendance, he proceeded to praise Giovanelli.
Trieber did not respond to interview requests. Reached by phone, Giovanelli said he had no comment and hung up. He did not respond to specific questions that were sent to him.
Jackson filed a police report. The investigation is ongoing. Still, Giovanelli found a soft landing at Immanuel Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, where he is an associate pastor and head of the church’s book publication arm. He is supported by the pastor, Greg Neal, and his Twitter feed shows him traveling around the country, welcomed at churches.
Neal has had his own brush with the law.
In 2011, police investigated Neal over allegations that he videotaped unsuspecting women as they changed their clothes in his church office a decade earlier. By then, the one-year statute of limitations on the allegations had run out.
Neal did not respond to requests for comment.
Stacey Shiflett saw the video by Jack Trieber, the chancellor of Golden State Baptist College. He decided to speak out because he felt Trieber downplayed the allegations against Giovanelli. He put up an 18-minute YouTube video, recorded in his office — the same office in which Sarah Jackson said Cameron Giovanelli molested her.
For Shiflett, the issue was personal. He’d twice been a victim of attempted sexual misconduct in the church world. Both times, people knew about his would-be abusers’ behavior and did nothing to stop it. One alleged abuser went on to serve as an administrator in a Christian school in a different state, even after Shiflett warned the school’s pastor.
“It’s been the M.O. in fundamentalism for pastors and churches and ministries to just gloss over and sweep under the rug things of absolute epic proportion,” he said in the video. “The reason why I’m so fervent, so passionate about it this morning is because I relived all of those feelings of what it’s like to be abused — and the one that does the abuse is the one that always comes out the other side smelling like a rose and goes down the road to another church so he can do it again to somebody else.”
The reaction in the movement was predictable, not that Shiflett cares.
“Your Pastor in the Baptist faith, is pretty much right under God. You trust him. With everything.”
The father of the man who pastors the Jacksonville church that took Giovanelli in retaliated by publishing a piece on his personal website titled “An Expose on Stacey Shiflett” that called him “self-aggrandizing” and a “little man” and accused him of automatically taking Sarah Jackson’s side.
As for Jackson, he wrote, he studied her “sordid FB page” and found her to be “godless, narcissistic and self-promoting.”
At Calvary Baptist Church, Shiflett said, he’s been open with the congregation. They haven’t lost a single member since Jackson went public with her allegations, he said. She even went to a church service once with her husband and baby boy. Everyone lined up to give her a hug.
“It bothers me that men of God will stand up in the pulpit all over this country who say, ‘We’re going to stand up for the truth and stand for what’s right,’ they duck and they run and they hide when stuff like this comes out,” Shiflett said in the video, holding up his Bible.
“And that’s why people have given independent Baptists a bad name. It happens all the time. But it’s not going to happen this time.”
On July 4, Cameron Giovanelli put up a YouTube video (now deleted) denying Sarah Jackson’s accusations that he began a sexual relationship with her when she was 16 in her Maryland church. He stood in a red Georgia Bulldogs polo in front of palm leaves with his wife. Birds chirped in the background.
“With these false allegations, God has now brought us to Jacksonville, Florida,” he said. “Who’d have ever thought? Jacksonville, Florida.”
He resigned from Golden State for the good of the college, he said, and was excited to start down the new path God set out for him.
Giovanelli’s wife stood behind him in a striped T-shirt, eyes on her husband through the three-minute video, nodding. She said nothing.
A forced apology
Consequences are rare for pastors who cover up abusive behavior. In some cases, the abused are even forced to apologize in front of the congregation.
Lisa Meister’s pastor listened when she told him that her youth pastor, Mark Chappell, had abused her in Wallingford, Connecticut, in the 1980s.
Then he let Chappell move to another church.
Mark Chappell’s alleged misconduct has long been a topic of speculation in the independent fundamental Baptist community. Ex-fundamentalist message boards had stories about him, but were posted anonymously.
Meister, 48 now and speaking publicly for the first time, met Chappell when she was 15. He was stocky and handsome, with yellow-red hair and a mustache. He complimented her lip gloss, her dresses, her perfume — and at the time, she liked the attention.
When she was 16, she said, he took her to his apartment and kissed her. Eventually, they did everything but penetrative sex, she said, and she cried after. He told her that if she told anyone, she would ruin his life.
At 17, feeling like she had no other way to get out of the situation, Lisa Meister tried to kill herself.
Sitting in the hospital room, she told her pastor, Stephen Baker, why she did it.
Ultimately, Meister’s parents and Chappell were asked to appear before the church to repent for their sins.
“It wasn’t said, ‘This man preyed on this girl,’ ‘This man violated this girl,’” Meister said. “It was put out before the church as two people who sinned together. Like I was just as guilty as he was in the eyes of the church.”
When Chappell moved to a new church, Baker said he made the leadership in the new church aware of the allegations.
“I worked very closely with our leadership, and we felt we had tried to do what was in the very best interest of really, two situations,” Baker said. “The church and both parties.”
Nothing in his schooling had prepared Baker for the situation with Meister and Chappell. He’d never heard the term “mandatory reporter,” referring to laws that require people in certain professions to report suspected abuse to authorities. In retrospect, he said, he should have taken more time to decide what to do and let Lisa Meister’s parents know that there were options besides church discipline.
Chappell now pastors Freeway Baptist Church in Phoenix, Arizona. He is part of one of the most prominent families in the movement: His brother, Paul Chappell, is a pastor and is the president of West Coast Baptist College in Lancaster, California. Mark Chappell did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Meister is married to a Southern Baptist pastor. She’s in treatment for depression and has had thoughts of suicide since her first attempt. She wishes she had talked more to her parents about what happened before they died. For a while she hated religion, but after hearing sermons, she realized it wasn’t God who hurt her, it was a man.
“It made me very distrustful of men,” she said. “It made me very distrustful of the pastor.”
Joy Evans Ryder was a teenager at First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, where she says the youth director raped her. She’s pictured here with her Sunday school class.
Courtesy Joy Evans Ryder
‘Continue to pray’
Dave Hyles left victims across the country. They are still in recovery.
In the 1970s and ’80s, with his dad’s church among the biggest in the country, Hyles cut a celebrity-like figure in the movement — and took advantage of it.
Rhonda Cox Lee felt special when Hyles noticed her out of the hundreds of kids who attended his dad’s church.
The first time anything sexual happened, she said, they were in his office. He sat at his desk, she sat across from him on a chair. He walked around the desk and placed her hand on his groin.
“Do you feel that?” he asked.
At first she thought it was some sort of spiritual test. He was a man of God, after all, and even though it felt wrong, he wouldn’t ask her to do anything wrong. Several meetings later, their clothing came off. She was 14. It felt wrong, she said, but she knew it had to be what God wanted.
“He compared himself to David in the Bible and how he was anointed, and said this is what I was supposed to do,” Lee said. “I was supposed to take care of him because he was the man of God.”
Hyles, she said, alternately promised her that they would be together once she turned 18 and warned her not to tell anyone in the church because if she did, the church would split, America would go to hell, and the blood of the unsaved would be on her hands.
Brandy Eckright went to Hyles for counseling at his church in Garland, Texas, when she was 18, after being molested as a child. She said he soon took advantage of her, and they had sex for the first time in 1982.
“Dave, I thought he was a God,” said Eckright, who like Lee had never gone public with her allegations against Hyles. “I thought if I got pregnant by Dave Hyles, it would be like having God’s baby.”
At 54, Eckright can barely talk about what happened. She’s survived three suicide attempts. She works as a cashier and said she can barely hold down the job.
In 1984, Hyles left Miller Road Baptist Church in Garland after a janitor found a briefcase stashed with pornography featuring Hyles and married female members of the congregation, ex-members said. He and his new wife went back to live near First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, and then moved again.
Dave Hyles has managed to stay out of handcuffs.
Today, he runs a ministry for pastors who have fallen into sin, supported by Family Baptist Church in Columbia, Tennessee, pastored by David Baker.
In 2017, Joy Evans Ryder’s brother emailed Baker, outlining Hyles’ alleged crimes against his sister. Baker took five words to reply: “Thank you for your concern.”
Baker, a Hyles-Anderson College graduate and a military veteran, said he thinks Dave Hyles has been unfairly blamed. Hyles, Baker said, is a good man, with a strong marriage who has helped many people through his ministry.
“He’s someone who made mistakes years ago, and through that brokenness and God restoring him, wants to use what he’s been through to help others,” Baker said. “I’m not going to debate anybody about those issues.”
Dave Hyles, with gray hair and a beard, is pictured on his Facebook page in a red polo shirt and square-rimmed glasses similar to the ones his father so iconically wore. He sends posts in his private Facebook group, Fallen in Grace Ministries, contemplating the nature of sin and restoration.
In a September missive forwarded to the Star-Telegram, Hyles wrote that he had enemies, people who harassed him and slandered him. “In fact, I have come to realize that there is nothing we could do to satisfy them. The more we tried the less we would satisfy them,” he wrote. “So, what exactly do they want?”
Joy Evans Ryder just wants acknowledgment.
Joy Evans Ryder still lives in Indiana. She says she was molested as a teenager by Dave Hyles, her youth group director at First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana. Hyles was never charged. She now has a nonprofit to help victims of sexual abuse.
Rob Hart Special to the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram
In March 2014, Ryder approached the new pastor of First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana, and asked for an independent investigation into alleged abuses at the church. John Wilkerson had become the pastor the year before, after Jack Hyles’ successor and son-in-law went to federal prison for sexual abuse of a 16-year-old congregant.
Wilkerson is a tall man with a long face and gray hair parted neatly to the side. His sermons are more even in tone than either of his predecessors, who preferred to pace and shout.
Ryder and Wilkerson spoke on Friday, March 7, 2014. Ryder told him everything that had happened with Dave Hyles, and said she knew stories of other women.
Wilkerson suggested Ryder line them up to tell their stories. The next day, he texted Ryder to thank her.
“Your spirit was Christlike but your pain obviously deep,” he wrote. “I am also saddened by the way Jesus’ name has been shamed. Please continue to pray that The Lord gives direction.”
Ryder hasn’t heard from the church in four years. Wilkerson, the church’s pastor, did not respond to requests for comment.
Ryder started Out of the Shadows with other church abuse victims in 2013. It’s a nonprofit dedicated to helping sexual abuse survivors, particularly from the independent fundamental Baptist movement.
Out of the Shadows has no physical headquarters, but one day Ryder hopes it will. She spends hours talking to people on Facebook and email, mostly women, who are still in the church or have just left.
Ryder is undaunted. She swears and drinks, and every photo of her on social media shows her smiling, wavy hair in place to frame high cheekbones.
Thirty-nine years after that day at the Holiday Inn, Ryder and her father have a good relationship. She’s tried to make it that way and to enjoy her father for who he is. He learned in October he has beginning-stage Alzheimer’s. They don’t talk much about what happened.
She lives in Indiana still, after years of missionary work in Papua New Guinea and raising three children. Ryder has found the anger she couldn’t access when she was a teenager about what happened to her, and about how Hyles was allowed to move across the country.
“Like, how could I ever let myself feel special about that? That’s another bit of blame you heap on yourself,” she said. “And then it’s a whole other amount of shame. Because if they can shuffle them on and not help you, again, that reinforces that you are not worth it.”
At first, Lucy Reynolds was unnerved by the non-renewal notice from the insurance company two years ago.
Mortgaged homes must have coverage so Reynolds and her husband needed to find a replacement, quick. She was turned down by her neighbor’s carrier and an insurance agent spent a week looking for ways to cover their ranch-style home in the foothills of El Dorado County.
They landed with the Hartford Insurance Company, only their premium was 17 percent higher after receiving a discount through AARP.
“When we bought the house we had no trouble getting insurance,” Reynolds said. “I’ve heard anecdotal stories of people having to pay twice as much as they had before so I felt fortunate that we only had a (17 percent) increase.”
More and more, insurance companies are casting a wary eye on Californians who live in wildfire-prone areas, choosing not to renew policies or drop some homeowners’ coverage altogether.
Researchers have found that as wildfires become less predictable and more potent, the industry that relies on spreading out risk is in retreat in some parts of California. Some homeowners now buy more expensive insurance products that offer fewer protections and less coverage in case of a catastrophe.
Consumer advocates and industry groups say the state’s property insurance market is not yet in a crisis, but the recent spate of intense wildfires will portend lasting change. The Camp Fire that burned through the town of Paradise was only the latest in a string of blazes experts say are growing larger, moving faster and causing more destruction than fires in previous years.
The buildup of foothill communities in the last two decades means many now live in harm’s way — and that risk will come with a price.
“I think consumers are going to have to get used to paying more for their homeowners’ insurance,” said Amy Bach, executive director of the insurance advocacy group United Policyholders.
“The days of your annual premium being under $1,000 are coming to an end here in California. The question is how much more are they (premiums) going to jump.”
Wildfires are already reshaping the homeowners’ insurance market. Some insurance sellers have already noticed the difference. A half-dozen brokers and agents interviewed by The Bee said finding coverage has become more challenging in the last five years.
“All these major companies started pulling out quietly. People got non-renewals; people got flat-out canceled. There are companies that are still doing that today,” said Joyce Howard, a broker in Auburn who specialized in high-risk properties until she sold her book of clients in November.
If a homeowner is denied coverage by an insurer three times, they can buy fire insurance through the FAIR Plan — the state’s insurer of last resort. Since 2011, the organization has seen enrollment fall by 5 percent but policyholders in counties that border wildlands now account for a greater share than before.
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FAIR PLAN PARTICIPATION
Homeowners in certain counties have flocked to the state’s insurer of last resort for fire coverage. Consumer advocates say the shift is troubling since those policies offer less protection than mainstream insurers.
In a state-funded study, researchers found that between 2007 and 2015, insurers renewed fewer policies in ZIP codes in and around the city of San Bernardino and the Sierra foothills of Placer, Nevada and El Dorado counties.
While insurers pulled back from the places with a higher concentration of risky properties, the FAIR Plan saw a distinct increase in market share, according to the study published by the RAND Corporation in September. FAIR Plan officials, when reached, said the increase does not pose a challenge and the organization can adjust.
“The question is how fast are premiums changing. We’ve found that between 2007 and 2014 the premiums in the high-risk areas that we identified rose by about 12 percent. The premiums in the low-risk areas actually fell by the same amount,” said Lloyd Dixon, a RAND economist and co-author of the study.
“You have this situation where overall in the low-risk areas of the state premiums are actually trending downward but you’re seeing in those high-risk ZIP codes where premiums are actually decreasing.”
Still, Lloyd said companies argue that even though the cost of homeowners’ insurance has climbed in hazardous areas, the price many pay still does not reflect the full risk because of state regulations.
The state limits rate increases to 6.9 percent, and anything over that can be challenged. Losses paid out from wildfires and other calamities are factored into a 20-year average. As larger and larger claims are paid from the onslaught of fires, experts say premiums will inevitably rise.
That could have some bearing on the state’s real estate market if consumers find it too difficult to obtain affordable coverage when buying or selling a house. But Bach and others do not foresee an exodus from those places where wildlands blend into small cities.
Bach said California regulators and industry insiders are clinging to a gambling analogy.
“Insurers are (like) gamblers. If they get spooked, they will fold their hand and leave,” Bach said. “And so even just calling something a crisis can cause a crisis because perception, when you’re a gambler, can be powerful.”
ESTIMATING THE THREAT OF WILDFIRES
Many homes in the Sierra Nevada foothills face a wildfire risk similar to the Redding neighborhoods that burned in the Carr Fire. These hazard levels were developed by Cal Fire in 2007, and are being updated by the department.
Graphic: Nathaniel Levine • Sources: Cal Fire, local hazard mitigation plans
Such actions are rare and industry groups say it’s another reason to be leery of the shift to alternative forms of insurance. The so-called non-admitted market is not regulated by the state and there is no guarantee fund if a company collapses.
“That’s one of the reasons we should see it as a concerning development. There are some downsides for that move. That‘s why the (regulated) market is most secure,” said Rex Frasier, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California.
The changes have stirred some anxiety in homeowners like Reynolds who expects her policy with the Hartford to be renewed in January. The 61-year-old former fire inspector watched from a distance as the King Fire burned in Pollock Pines and then the Tubbs, Carr and Camp fires — the most destructive blaze in state history.
Reynolds knows their home — surrounded by mostly woods and brush — could be next.
So every year, she and her husband try to clear some of the 10½ acres they own. They have an RV in storage off-site so they have someplace to live in case of a fire. “Go-bags” are packed all summer for themselves and their dogs. Copies of important documents are stored online.
“You have to start thinking a different way,” she said. “I’m starting to think of all of that stuff as self-insurance.”
But the actual insurance business is less predictable and consumers often do not have a say. Their insurance premium cost $2,128 this year — up 15 percent from when they first bought with the Hartford. After the barrage of wildfires this year, Reynolds knows another rate hike is in store.
“I just don’t know what the end of the story is here,” Reynolds said. “Insurance companies aren’t going to want to insure us after these catastrophic fires. Where does that leave all of us?”
A 16-month investigation has found New Jersey’s system for reporting police use-of-force incidents is broken and ineffective and hides some alarming trends.
The probe by NJ Advance Media for NJ.com pulled data from 468 police departments and the state police from 2012 to 2016. It found use-of-force reporting by local police departments was inconsistent, incomplete and, in many cases, missing altogether.
Some of the reports showed some officers used force at a frequency many times the state average. Blacks were disproportionately on the receiving end of force used by police.
The investigation found the state hasn’t followed through on its own directive from nearly 20 years ago to establish a database to study trends and identify potential problem officers.
The sun had not yet crested the Sierra Nevada range in Butte County on Nov. 8 when a Cal Fire radio channel crackled to life.
A fire was burning under high-voltage power lines near the Poe Dam, part of a hydroelectric network owned by PG&E along the Feather River in Northern California.
At 6:46 a.m., a firefighter who was one of the first to spot the blaze radioed that it was small: “Probably 10 acres from what I can see,” he said. Pushed by wind gusts topping 50 mph, it tore across the rugged, brushy Plumas National Forest. The fire grew to thousands of acres within hours.
Flames ate through the secluded communities of Pulga and Concow of before reaching the larger towns of Paradise and Magalia. By the end of the day, it was an inferno that would be seared into record books as the Camp Fire: California’s most destructive and deadliest wildfire.
Now nearly contained, it has killed at least 87 people and destroyed more than 13,000 homes. More than 50,000 people were evacuated in a twelve-hour stretch of terror, bravery, confusion and turmoil that overwhelmed a public-safety plan designed for a fire that would gradually progress across the pine-covered communities. The Camp Fire moved at speeds no one – not residents, firefighters nor public officials – could handle.
Brandon Hill was six miles away in Concow when the fire started, driving four of his kids to school. At around 7 a.m., he saw a plume of smoke billowing up from the northeast. He wasn’t alarmed.
Every summer, red Cal Fire engines race to stomp out fires in the river canyon on Concow’s eastern edge. Hill, 38, said he’s seen a dozen fires there the last decade.
“It looked like it was way off in the canyon, like what’s happened 100 times before,” Hill said.
He drove only a few miles when he realized the fire had raged through miles of trees and brush and was barreling toward Camelot, his Concow subdivision. His wife, Sara, was still there with their 8-year-old son, Nathan.
“I literally hit my (emergency) brake and flipped a big old power turn in the middle of the highway,” he said. By the time he got back minutes later, his neighbors’ homes were burning. Embers flew sideways in the heavy winds “like the worst snowstorm you’ve ever been in,” he said.
Sara Hill was inside packing, oblivious of the threat.
“’What’s wrong?”’ Hill said she asked him when he blew through the door.
“I said, ‘We need to go now.’ She tried to grab more things, and I screamed at her at the top of my lungs. I still won’t forgive myself how I talked to my wife. God, I told her to ‘Get the f— in the truck because it is here. It’s already here.’”
Three roads out
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea was sipping coffee at home in Chico when the fire started. His wife, a sheriff’s dispatcher, called to tell him Pulga, 10 miles from Paradise, was burning.
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Honea wasn’t yet concerned Paradise was at risk.
But by 7:45, about 45 minutes after Hill saw the plume, firefighters were reporting much of Concow, three miles west of Pulga toward Paradise, was on fire, according to audio files archived online and reviewed by The Sacramento Bee. Officials began evacuating eastern Paradise.
Honea headed up Skyway, the main road between Paradise and Chico. The traffic heading toward Chico was crawling but the lanes going into Paradise were empty. He grabbed his flashlight and directed drivers to use the inbound lanes as well.
Later, California Highway Patrol officer Logan Callahan discovered downed power lines and a tree had fallen across two of Skyway’s lanes, blocking traffic. Flames closed in on both sides of the road as motorists sat trapped. Escape routes became so congested first responders couldn’t get into town.
“Turn around!” a firefighter shouted over his radio near Concow Road and Highway 70, the route out of mountain towns east of Paradise, at 7:54 a.m.
“They’re just plugging up the roadway, and making it hard for first responders to get through,” he yelled.
Around the time Honea was headed up Skyway, Butte County Supervisor Doug Teeter received an alert on his cell phone in Paradise telling him an evacuation order was underway.
Like the Hill family in Concow, Teeter was acquainted with wildfire, having evacuated his home in the eastern side of town at least three times. Teeter’s wife Pamela had just dropped their two kids at school. Faced with leaving again, the couple gathered important belongings – tax records, computers, clothes – and took separate cars. Pamela Teeter left first to get the children, heading down Pearson Road, a meandering two-lane route that cuts between Skyway and Pentz Road, two of only three arteries going south out of Paradise.
Teeter was a few minutes behind her — enough to make a difference with traffic. He found himself inching along, embers landing all around as he headed into a wooded canyon.
“That canyon’s a death trap,” Teeter thought.
A few miles away, CHP officer Nick Powell was ferrying three evacuees, two of them disabled, when a panicked driver smashed into his SUV hard enough the airbags popped.
Powell abandoned the SUV, loaded his passengers into passing vehicles and ran on foot, eventually hitching a ride to safety with firefighters, said Callahan, a fellow CHP officer.
Powell was just one of dozens of local emergency personnel who lost homes to the fires while they were frantically trying to save their neighbors’ lives, and who found themselves fighting for their own survival.
Stuck in the same traffic, Teeter ditched his car in a driveway and tried to make it home to get his motorcycle, but he was too late to get out. As the fire blew near, he crammed onto a mowed field about 300 yards wide with about 20 others.
The fire roared past.
Later, rescue workers would find the burned-out hulls of cars on nearby Edgewood Lane, bodies inside, aluminum rims melted onto the asphalt.
Infrastructure is burning
Unlike Teeter, Dorthy Burns, 94, never received an evacuation alert, she said.
Burns lived alone alone with her black miniature poodle, Smokey, in a mobile home in the Camelot subdivision not far from Hill.
She was getting dressed when her phone rang. It was a neighbor telling her she needed to evacuate. Another neighbor called with more urgency.
Dorthy Burns and her dog Smokey were rescued by Brandon Hill.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to get out right now. The fire is in the back yard,’” she said.
Butte County contracts with a private company, Florida-based OnSolve, for an opt-in emergency alert system called CodeRed that can call landlines, as well as send texts, emails and smartphone messages, according to county officials.
The county has held drives to get Butte residents to enroll in CodeRed. OnSolve said it made 75,000 phone calls to people in the path of the Camp Fire, and “tens of thousands of additional emails and text messages” on Nov. 8, according company spokesman Brian Lustig.
It’s unclear how many of those alerts went through. Multiple people interviewed by The Bee said they did not receive an alert.
The initial notification — aimed at 10,000 phone numbers — reached only about 60 percent of its intended recipients, said Troy Harper, an OnSolve general manager. Too many people were on the cellular network and it was overloaded by traffic, Harper said.
“Neighborhoods are burning, friends are calling friends,” Harper said. “Infrastructure is burning.”
After her neighbors’ warnings, Burns loaded Smokey into her Mazda.
“The wind was so strong, the embers were blowing horizontally,” Burns said. “I thought, ‘This is no place for me.’”
Driving through impenetrable smoke, she lost the road and went through a lawn before driving over a retaining wall. Her car became stuck on top of it.
Dorothy Burns’ car became stuck on the side of the road near the Camelot subdivision in Concow as she tried to flee the Camp Fire.
Gabrielle Lurie The San Francisco Chronicle
Hill was heading out of Camelot with two neighbors in his Ford Focus when he saw Burns. He had already sent his wife and kids ahead, but had tried to save his home before realizing it was hopeless.
He jumped out to help.
“She must have weighed 90 pounds soaking wet,” said Hill, who stands nearly 6 feet tall and weighs 270 pounds. “I grabbed her by her purple puffy jacket, and I just lifted her up off that wall and put her down.”
The men loaded Burns and Smokey into the Focus and drove to Hill’s mother’s house nearby in Concow. There, Hill and about 12 neighbors spent the day using garden hoses to douse spot fires, wet handkerchiefs covering their faces to filter out the choking smoke. Hill cut fire lines with a tractor as embers pockmarked his shirt with burns.
Soon after, a man ran up, soaking wet. The drenched stranger said he and others jumped into nearby Concow Reservoir to escape flames. There were still people trapped on an island, including a 90-year-old man, he said.
Hill’s 14-year-old son, Daniel, grabbed an old canoe from a nearby workshop with some other people. They headed to the reservoir and paddled out to rescue the shivering survivors.
The 90-year-old, whom Brandon Hill knew only as Bruno, was in bad shape, he said.
“He had hypothermia bad. He was barely conscious, and he could barely communicate,” Hill said. “I didn’t have much hope for him.“
They stripped Bruno of his wet clothes and put him in a warm bath in Hill’s mom’s house. Hill said the man survived.
Some Concow residents took refuge on an island in the Concow Reservoir, later rescued by other survivors with a canoe.
Gabrielle Lurie The San Francisco Chronicle
Across the ridge from Concow at Feather River Hospital on the eastern edge of Paradise, surgeon Ruth McLarty started her morning in the emergency room. She was finishing a gall bladder surgery when fire alarms howled.
Her patient was loaded into ambulance. McLarty headed down the hill in her car.
“Fire was coming all around us, and it was obvious we weren’t going to make it out,” she said.
Traffic wasn’t moving as the flames touched her doors. A woman whose car caught fire jumped in with her. McLarty called her 16-year-old daughter and started to pray.
“I’m sitting there imagining burning to death,” McLarty said. “And I’m going into this wide awake.”
A bulldozer rumbled past McLarty’s car just then and through the flames, clearing a path wide enough for her to turn around and head back to the hospital. There, she found 20 or so patients who hadn’t evacuated. They had been pushed outside on gurneys and in wheelchairs. When a hospital outbuilding caught fire, the group retreated to an asphalt helipad.
Josh Wilkins with Cal Fire removes belongings from a Feather River Hospital outbuilding that was fully engulfed in flames when the Camp Fire raged through Paradise on Nov. 8.
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“We just watched everything burning,” McLarty said.
The main hospital building survived the fire, but 13 other buildings burned down or were severely damaged.
Teeter, the county supervisor, had made his way to the hospital by then, he said. He didn’t know if his wife and kids were safe.
He watched as sheriff’s deputies brought more people, many of them elderly, to the parking lot. Hospital workers brought bedside toilets outside.
“All the people in hospital gowns,” he said. “They’re confused. They’ve got pets. It was just insane.”
Send me an angel
Just up Pentz Road from the hospital, Sheila Craft had been up before sunrise, making sure backup generators would kick in if needed at Cypress Meadows, a skilled-nursing and rehabilitation home. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. had warned two days earlier that it might shut off the power that morning as a fire-prevention precaution.
A little after 7 a.m., Craft drove home to take her children to school. Like Hill, she saw smoke but paid little attention.
“We live in the mountains, so when we see a plume of smoke, we don’t think it’s imminent,” said Craft, Cypress Meadows’ director of admissions and marketing.
Before long, she realized flames were going to reach the nursing home. She went back. Nurses and assistants were bundling clothing, medicine and supplies for the 91 patients. Craft and others started making calls to find a place to take them.
“It was raining ash,” she said. “Charred bark was landing in our parking lot.”
Craft found a facility in Chico, Roseleaf Senior Care, with vacancies. She herded three patients into her Chevy Suburban — a stroke victim and two people with dementia — and headed out. It was not quite 10 a.m.
Joe Zarate, a Cypress Meadows maintenance worker, put four patients in his Ford F350 pickup. An amputee rode shotgun, a bed-bound patient lay in the back seat and two elderly women in wheelchairs were placed in the truck bed, along with a nurse. Following a sheriff’s van, Zarate’s truck crawled through flames and gridlock.
Lawn furniture remains outside Cypress Meadows, a skilled-nursing and rehabilitation home that was destroyed by Camp Fire on Nov. 8. All its patients were evacuated safely.
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About a mile later, Zarate heard the women in the truck bed praying. He grabbed rosary beads hanging from his rear-view mirror and passed them back. Zarate’s truck approached a barricade of flames across Neal Road on the southwest edge of Paradise.
“Put it to the floor, baby. Let’s go,” said the amputee next to him. Zarate said he sped through, then turned to tell the woman laying in the back, who seemed to have passed out at one point, they’d made it.
She spoke her first words of the morning: “I knew we would,” he recalls her saying.
In her Chevy Suburban, Craft was panicking in a Safeway parking lot. The SUV had a flat tire. She asked a man in a PG&E truck to help her fix it. He said he couldn’t.
Her husband Jeremy was on the phone, in tears, “asking God to send me an angel,” she said. Moments later, a Safeway employee named Nate Reich pulled up in his Ford sedan. He loaded everyone into his car.
They made it to Chico.
30 extinguishers and a hose
Fire planning paid off at the Paradise Alliance Church, designated by town officials as one of two assembly points to shelter in place. During the Camp Fire, it became a last stand.
Dave Roberts, the head of maintenance at the church for 10 years, showed up at the facility on Clark Road around 7:30 a.m. He could see smoke in the distance, but began setting up tables for a fundraiser the church was hosting that night for young pregnant women.
A half hour later, flames were behind the church, he said.
Roberts and others grabbed hoses and began spraying spot fires. A group of teachers from a neighboring middle school joined in, as a mobile home behind the church went up in flames.
Almost every building in the Pine Springs Mobile Home Park, right behind the Paradise Alliance Church, was destroyed by the Camp Fire. The walker is one of the few remaining objects that remained on Nov. 15.
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Tim Bolin, the church pastor, drove up and told Roberts to lock the church and evacuate. Roberts started to leave, but Clark Road was gridlocked. He went back to the church, where about 100 people were seeking refuge in the large open space between the pines. Many in the lot were elderly, including a parishioner who had just turned 100. One woman was barefoot, with a nearly empty oxygen tank, he said.
Embers hit the church lawn. Roberts and others rolled out a line of sprinklers. The water pressure began to fade, so Roberts passed out 30 fire extinguishers, and they began spraying the foamy retardant.
“It was like fighting a fire with a squirt gun,” he said.
Two redwood trees and a juniper burst into flames.
“I remember just praying, ‘God, I can’t do anymore; it’s up to you,’” Roberts said.
A fire truck pulled up and the crew “extinguished everything,” Roberts said. But there was no place to go. The survivors stayed in the field as others joined. Hours passed. Propane tanks kept exploding in the distance.
Around 4:45 p.m. a fire crew arrived to take the group out. Their caravan arrived safely at Butte College in Oroville a few minutes after 5 p.m.
A lost race
“The Ridge,” as locals call the Paradise area, has been through big fires before.
In 2008, two fires burned down more than 200 buildings. After those fires, a Butte County grand jury issued a report finding the region’s roads weren’t adequate for a fast evacuation.
“Additional evacuation routes are necessary,” the grand jury wrote. “All roads out of Paradise and the Upper Ridge, with the exception of Skyway below Paradise, have significant constraints, limiting their use as evacuation routes during a major event.”
The town responded with a new evacuation system. Paradise, population 27,000, was divided into zones, which would be evacuated as needed to keep roads clear. In 2016, officials turned all four lanes of traffic on Skyway to one-way traffic during the morning rush hour to practice a mass evacuation.
The area added other fire safety measures. Crews cut fire breaks through timber and brush to protect portions of Concow, home to about 800. Officials created safety zones in Paradise such as the Alliance church where people could shelter in place, and determined staging areas for fire personnel and rescue workers.
As the Camp Fire drew near, radio dispatches show evacuation orders were being issued every few minutes according to plan. But quickly the orders covered larger and larger swaths of Paradise. Finally, at 9:03 a.m., about two-and-a-half hours after the fire started 12 miles away, the call went out to empty out the entire town.
“Mandatory evacuations, all of Paradise,” an unidentified fire battalion chief said in radio transmissions.
As Concow burned and Paradise evacuated, Honea, the sheriff, was directing traffic on Skyway. His radio brought troubling news. His deputies were calling for fire engines and begging for planes to drop retardant.
“The response is, ‘There are no more resources,’” Honea recalled. “I honestly believed that we were going to have dead law enforcement officers.”
Honea spotted his daughter, Kassidy Honea, 23, a Paradise police officer, directing traffic on the other side of Skyway. A call came in: Deputies and residents were trapped in a hardware store. The sheriff had to go, wondering if he would see her again.
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea and his daughter Kassidy Honea, a Paradise police officer, direct traffic the morning of the Camp Fire.
Michael Zuccolillo Special to The Bee
“I gave her a hug and told her ‘bye’ and off I went,” Honea said.
Honea said he hasn’t looked into the events of Nov. 8 deeply enough to know if the zone system was the right way to evacuate Paradise, or if anything could have prepared the town for a fire moving as quickly as this blaze. But he believes a single, mass evacuation probably would have created “even more pandemonium.
“The rapid rate of progression of the fire outpaced the plan,” he said. “This fire was outrunning us before we realized we were in a race.”
Frozen in fear
Hill and his band of survivors had a restless night in Concow. They tried to sleep in shifts on spare beds, couches and bare floors so there was always someone awake to watch for spot fires.
“All night long people were waking each other up because there were flare-ups behind my mom’s house in the woods,” he said.
The next morning, Hill took a chainsaw and went with another man to look around on an ATV. The man wanted to check on his godmother.
“He just knew she was there,” Hill said.
They sawed through downed trees and power poles blocking a road and found the woman, Stephanie Rowe, 75. She was frozen in the driver’s seat of her car, her hands clutching the steering wheel.
Hill thought she was dead.
“I will never forget the look on her face when I opened up the door,” Hill said. “She kind of tilted her head to the side, completely expressionless with blank eyes, and just stared at us.”
The men ran into a sheriff’s deputy who escorted Rowe to safety. The deputy told Hill he should leave what had now become the Camp Fire evacuation area, or he could face arrest.
Hill said he doesn’t hold any hard feelings for the threat. He knows the deputy had a rough 24 hours.
He did, too.
Escaping the Camp Fire
Stories of surviving the explosive Camp Fire come from all over the area it devastated in Butte County, including most of Paradise and the small community of Concow. The maps below show damage near the Paradise Alliance Church and to the Camelot subdivision of Concow.
In East Sacramento, youth soccer was called off and outdoor cafes sat empty. Sacramento State canceled its Saturday night football game. Sunday’s Veteran’s Day parade in Sacramento is canceled.
Although the Camp Fire started in Paradise – a town roughly 80 miles north of Sacramento – wind has blown smoke and a reddish din into the region, causing air quality to reach dangerous levels for everyone.
The Air Quality Index for Sacramento was in the very unhealthy range at 3 p.m. on Saturday, which means there are significant pollutants in the air, according to the Spare The Air website. Everyone should avoid prolonged heavy outdoor exertion.
TODAY’S AIR QUALITY
This live-updating map shows the combined readings for particulate matter and ozone.
The National Weather Service Center in Sacramento issued a dense smoke advisory in the Central Valley and the Delta through 4 a.m. Sunday, “basically when the wind dies down,” said spokesman Johnnie Powell.
“You can’t see when you’re driving a car,” Powell said. “The smoke is like fog.”
What to do if smoke is creating unhealthy conditions
Do not rely on simple masks for protection. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports paper “comfort” or “dust” masks commonly found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks will not protect your lungs from the small particles found in wildfire smoke.
Instead, choose a “particulate respirator” that has been tested and approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safetly and Health (NIOSH). It will have the words “NIOSH” and either “N95” or “P100” on it.
Stay indoors and shut doors and windows. Keep indoor air as clean as possible. You may run an air conditioner but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside. Keep bathroom fans and window units turned off. Bathroom fans and window box fans can pull outside air into your home.
Canceled events in the Sacramento area
Several events were called off Saturday evening and Sunday, including Sacramento State football game against Northern Arizona University at Hornet Stadium.
The City of Sacramento is planning to distribute face masks that properly protect against the small particles found in wildfire smoke, according to Daniel Bowers, the Director of Emergency Management for the City of Sacramento.
Browers said that the city is planning to distribute N-95 masks to anyone who needs it, as soon as plans are approved.
“We are working through a plan to open distribution points,” Browers said. “Once we get the authorization to enact this plan we’ll put out a press release about where to pick them up.”
Mariposa County Sheriff’s Deputy attempts to remove a plastic cup from a skunk’s head Wednesday night. After multiple failed attempts with a baton, the deputy used his bare hands to remove it from from the critter’s head, authorities said.