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Riverbank Review
A start to digging up streets and redeveloping Riverbank's downtown, a local law to punish adults who host underage drinking parties, a lockdown of local schools while sheriff's deputies besieged an apartment building holding an attempted murder suspect, an official visit to a Mexican sister city, and a suspected car thief who crashed and killed three people - these and many other stories made top headlines between July and December of 2007. For a quick look at news that reached the front page in the last six months of last year, read on.


Firework sales for the Fourth of July celebrations peaked that same evening at the non-profit group booths that had a permit to sell fireworks as a fundraiser. Once again this year, churches headed the list of eight permit holders, which also included a food for the poor distribution group, Riverbank High athletics and music booster groups, a youth baseball and softball association and a newcomer, the Central Valley Raiders. A gigantic red box measuring five by four feet and priced at $499.99 was the biggest item offered at the Community Praise Tabernacle's booth. The most popular box, containing fountain type fireworks, was going for $49.99 and the smallest pack cost $9.99.

Crossroads Elementary School constructed for $14.5 million and housing 800 children of the Riverbank Crossroads area finally opened after several years of planning and construction. A Sylvan Union School District year-round school set at Saxon Way and Prospectors Parkway, it hosted parents at a meet and greet event a few days before holding a grand opening ceremony for school officials. Most of the students are Riverbank area children withdrawn from other Sylvan schools in Modesto, said Crosssroads principal Marti Reed but they also included 65 students new to the district. In the same way, the school has only one "brand new" teacher but three coming from other districts that all have at least five years teaching experience.

Riverbank officials opened the new Harold B. Harless Park and named it in honor of a fallen city police officer, the only Riverbank officer ever to die in the line of duty. Harless was killed on Oct. 17 of 1965 when his patrol car that he was placing to block the road was hit and set on fire by a suspected drunken driver fleeing from several California Highway Patrol cars. The accident happened at what was called "the Hub Corner" near what is now the Patterson Road and Callander Avenue intersection. The park is located east of Roselle Avenue at Litt Road and Pocket Avenue next to the railroad tracks in the Sterling Ridge subdivision built by JKB Homes.

Oh what a beautiful day it will be when Riverbank Community Theater's summer musical "Oklahoma!" comes to the Del Rio Theater Building in Riverbank. Far from being strictly a Riverbank oriented organization, participants also include residents of Escalon and Oakdale, making it truly a 'community' effort for the tri-city area. RCT is kicking off the restoration process of the famed Del Rio, at the corner of Third and Atchison in Riverbank with performances on Fridays, Aug. 10 and 17 at 7 p.m.; Saturdays, Aug. 11 and 18 at 1 p.m. and Sundays, Aug. 12 and 19 at 1 p.m.

A downtown Riverbank designed for walkers rather than drivers, with wide sidewalks, canopies of shade trees, landscaped roundabouts and street lights, banners and brickwork of a unifying pattern was envisioned at a joint meeting of the City Council and Planning Commission, landscape architect Tom Holloway presented the plan being prepared by citizens volunteers serving on the downtown beautification committee, his own KLA Company and Associated Engineering Group. Engineers planned to prevent future flooding by reconstructing storm water and other underground piping this fall and move on to streetscape beautification in the spring of 2008. Construction of a new park, the Plaza Del Rio at the northeast corner of Santa Fe and Third streets was set for the spring of 2008.


Dashing around clutching yellow pamphlets, children at the Riverbank Kids Health & Safety Fair seemed more intent on getting their "passports" stamped for a chance at winning a bicycle than actually looking at exhibits. But there were an extraordinary variety of things to see at the show held in conjunction with the weekly Farmer's Market. Sheriff's Deputy Scot Croswell of the Special Weapons and Tactics Team was showing Boy Scouts a 12-gauge shotgun, M-4 assault rifle and .308 caliber sniper's rifle as used by SWAT. Nearby Barry Ballance of the Sheriff's Bomb Squad was explaining grenades, bombs and shells and Riverbank motorcycle cop Gary Vernon was hauling small children onto the saddle and letting them try out the lights and siren.

Four years after leaving Riverbank High School with a full ride scholarship to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Calvin Vernon graduated from the Academy, was commissioned as an officer and assigned to a base in Japan. He also carried with him a degree in systems engineering. Vernon was a cadet commander of the RHS Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps in his senior year. He was awarded the scholarship to Annapolis, reckoned to be worth $350,000, on the recommendation of Congressman Gary Condit. The son of Sheriff's Deputy Gary Vernon and his wife Cheryl, Calvin is now a weapons officer of the Marines training ship U.S.S. Juneau based in Sasebo, Japan.

Heralded by flashing lights and wailing sirens, local police officers, firefighters and city representatives toured selected parts of the city to seek community cooperation in fighting crime and making the city a safer and friendlier place. Riverbank's first official National Night Out proved a great success. As the group approached, curious small boys ran to meet them while some adults initially hurried indoors. But as city workers unloaded portable barbecues and police officers went door to door inviting residents to share a meal, people flooded outdoors to eat, accept gifts for the children, inspect the emergency vehicles and chat with the officers. At Castleberg Park. Sheriff Adam Christianson and County Supervisor Jeff Grover dropped in by helicopter.

Riverbank planned to deter underage drinking parties on private property by fining the adult hosts who permit them and charging them the cost of the police response. Calling for a clampdown on minors use of alcohol and holding the "social host" (homeowner or tenant) liable for the consequences, the ordinance was introduced in a city council session. Besides other remedies including criminal prosecution, the city proposed fines of $500 for a first offense and $1,000 and $1,500 for repeat offenses plus the actual cost of the police response. The ordinance does not apply to "a family gathering" where parents or guardians are supervising their children. Police Chief Tim Beck argued such drinking parties cause ill health and death among minors, waste police, fire and other agency resources and disturb the health, safety and welfare of neighbors.

Build the high school gymnasium without changes and at the same time start construction of the elementary school, but build that in phases with three classrooms first and the administration and multipurpose buildings to come later - that was the decision of the Riverbank Unified School District Board at a packed public meeting. Faced with higher costs than their local bond money and other financing can cover, trustees tried to satisfy demands for both the gym and the school while they look for more financial resources. "We must try to do both and at the same time. We're committed to the community," said Trustee Ron Peterson, who helped organize the $15 million bond election that succeeded in passing at the third try.


A citizens group called Riverbank Watch and several farming representatives criticized the city's general plan draft when it came before the Planning Commission for recommendation to the city council. Community Development Director J.D. Hightower noted the Commission has discussed the plan, staged workshops and held public meetings for over two years on elements such as land use, circulation, open space conservation, public services and community character. Riverbank Watch speakers, however, said they are still opposed to a plan feature to extend the sphere of influence by 6,000 acres on the west and east sides of town and strongly oppose plans to develop a designated reserve area to the northwest. "Farming is highly cyclical," said Don Barton of Barton Farms. "We need flexibility to handle the economy. These specific designations can threaten our livelihood."

California Avenue Elementary and Cardozo Middle schools went on full lockdown on Sept. 6 when police surrounded a nearby apartment complex housing a man suspected of attempted murder. Robert Michael Cortez, 28, of Riverbank was taken into custody following a four-hour standoff with the Stanislaus County Sheriff's SWAT team that ended after officers lobbed a tear gas canister through the window of the ground floor apartment. According to police representatives, Cortez was suspected of shooting another Riverbank man Jason Lee, 35, in the abdomen and critically wounding him the day before. The argument apparently was over a woman and occurred at a home in the 3600 block of Virginia Avenue less than a block east from where the standoff occurred. Although police cancelled their school lockdown earlier in the standoff, school officials decided to release students to parents who came to the campus but not release students who had to walk past the scene on their way home.

Emily Herrera of the Stanislaus County Probation Department began work for Riverbank High and other local schools. She replaced a school resource officer for whom the Riverbank Unified School District used to contract with the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department. The school resource officer had a patrol deputy's duties and responded to a local campus for specific incidents and problem students after the incident. Herrera was hired to provide full-time service, get to know the students, counsel them and their families and concentrate on prevention and intervention before students get into serious trouble. The School District pays half her salary and the Probation Department the other half on the theory tackling youthful offenders on campus will save the Department a lot of work later.

Riverbank residents and officials who had recently visited their Mexican sister city of Tamazula told stories of their experiences at a council meeting. One highlight was sliding on a cable across a canyon in an adventure park, their experience enhanced by rain, thunder and lightning of a sudden storm. Tamazula's mayor Julio Gonzalez, known as "El Presidente" joined Riverbank's Vice Mayor Virginia Madueno, Councilmember Sandra Benitez and City Manager Rich Holmer in a signing of the sister city proclamation to coincide with Tamazula's annual festival for Mexico's Declaration of Independence on Sept 15. Other Riverbank residents on the trip included Chamber of Commerce President Vicki Peters, Riverbank Unified School District trustee Pamela Floyd, City Clerk Linda Abid-Cummings, Personnel Officer Al Zamora, local schoolteacher Rosie Ramos and her husband Jorge and a photographer Dean Camara and his wife Rocio.


Riverbank Oakdale Transit Authority, better known as ROTA, voted to hire Storer Transit System to manager and operate the local public bus service. Storer replaced the previous contractor MV Transportation and started service on Oct. 1. Transportation Concepts of Irvine also bid around $800,000 for the job but the ROTA board felt Storer was more qualified to maintain its fleet of compressed natural gas vehicles. MV Transportation based in Fairfield had served ROTA for seven years but ROTA staff about a year ago began alleging deterioration in service and recommended the search for a new provider. ROTA will continue its Dial-A-Ride (door to door) and fixed route trolley services with improved punctuality and extra travel time to increase passenger service, said staff.

Facing an audience of mobile home park renters hard hit by heavy rent increases, Riverbank City Council members promised to do whatever they can to help in a fight against the company Equity LifeStyles (ELS) which owns some 350 mobile home parks across the country including Quail Meadows in Riverbank. Following Modesto's lead, the council will prepare a rent stabilization ordinance and memorandum of understanding between park owners and space renters. At the same time, the city will provide a subsidy for low-income renters from the Riverbank Redevelopment Agency's 20 percent set-aside for affordable housing. For the long term, city officials promised to look into purchasing its own land for mobile home parks and selling lots to qualified buyers. Officials also repeated an offer to help renters refinance their mortgages with low or no interest loans from the city.

Money was discovered to be missing - or at least unaccounted for -from the Parent Teacher Association's funds at Rio Altura Elementary School. Police were investigating and about to forward their findings to the District Attorney's office, said Detective Priscilla Woods who confirmed Police Chief Tim Beck would address the subject at a school board meeting. Paula Jaramillo, the current Rio Altura PTA president, asked for an investigation by state PTA auditors who found discrepancies in the financial records two months ago. The sum missing was not revealed. But Jaramillo has filed an insurance claim of $14,000.

Following complaints about a local massage business, Riverbank council passed an ordinance to stop issuing more permits for such establishments until staff has reviewed the current law. The city needs to determine "if it is viable in protecting the public from unqualified or improperly trained practitioners," said Police Chief Tim Beck in addressing the council. Vice Mayor Virginia Madueno acknowledged establishments "with less than desirable activities have opened up" and a study was needed to ensure such places "operate with the good of the community at heart."

A Riverbank woman charged with using a hammer to kill an elderly man with whom she lived claimed the victim made unwanted sexual advances and then attacked her, according to police. Kathy Bronzini, 47, was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder after she allegedly beat Joe Garcia, 82, about the neck and head at their home. He died in an area hospital raising the charge to murder. The attack reportedly started within the house in the 3600 block of Dakota Avenue on the east side of Terminal Avenue. It finished on the porch where sheriff's deputies found Garcia lying in his own blood and Bronzini standing on the sidewalk. At least three neighbors witnessed the beating and Garcia told him before he died that Bronzini attacked him, said Detective Mark Copeland.


City officials, construction leaders and citizens broke ground - with a jackhammer - for the project which will start with infrastructure replacement this fall and continue next spring with beautification which will change the face of the city's downtown. They met on a paved parking lot which is slated to become a grassy park at the center of an area reworked to attract pedestrians and shoppers with wider sidewalks, overarching trees and entertainment opportunities. "I look forward to this area becoming the heart and soul of the community," said Mayor Chris Crifasi. "The Crossroads is OK. But Riverbank should be known for its downtown."

U.S. Marine George Bates was only 22 years old when he was killed at Guadalcanal in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. "He died during the storming of the beaches. They never found his body," said his brother Sam Bates. The Riverbank resident and two sisters attended a Veterans Day ceremony to mark the dedication of six brass plaques honoring local servicemen killed in action during World War II or the Vietnam War. The six servicemen commemorated on the wall outside the Community Center include George Bates, PFC Marines and Homer Damirgian, Ensign USNR who died in World War II and Kenneth L. Breshears, SPC Army; Donald Laney, SPC Army; Mario Cisneros, PFC Army; and Jimmy D. Jordan, PFC Marines who all perished in the Vietnam War.

To set the scene for a December production of "Miracle on 34th Street," Rio Arts artistic director Joey Huestis was running a number of stagecraft workshops and encouraging everyone to come and help. The Christmas classic was slated to be staged at the Del Rio Theater in Riverbank just before Christmas. The workshops were aimed at designing and building scenery that would transform the former Bingo Hall at the back of the theater into a 1940s New York City streetscape.

Closing out the final sprint of the 2007 State Cross Country Championships in Fresno may have been the final glimpse of greatness that some of the few thousand German Fernandez fans may ever see. The Riverbank High senior ended his personal chase to finish his high school record on top of all the distance runners in the State of California with the best race the 20-year old meet has ever witnessed. Fernandez set a new course record along with a new State meet mark as well. The Bruin squad closed the meet with a 13th overall finish just five points behind the Section runner-up Christian Brothers High.


The festering housing crisis facing communities across the country, most notably in the Central Valley of California, was the focus of a recent summit in Washington and the forecast was grim. State and local governments may have to raise taxes or make deep budget cuts to maintain services and balance ledgers if the housing crisis continues. Local mayors Farrell Jackson of Oakdale, Chris Crifasi of Riverbank and Gary Haskin of Escalon did not attend the Washington meeting but admitted they were familiar with the findings and each had a different perspective. Both Riverbank and Oakdale have experienced significant growth with master-planned communities featuring multiple builders and are now top heavy with housing. But Escalon is in a different position since it has advocated a slow growth pattern that may help to stem the tide of foreclosures for the small community.

A car thief suspect trying to outrun sheriff's deputies killed his own passenger and the other driver outright in a Claribel Road crash, while the other car's passenger died of her injuries later in the hospital. Francisco T. Martinez, 26, of Modesto, escaped with minor injuries and is in custody. He faces three counts of murder, two counts of possessing a stolen vehicle and a felony count of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. His passenger was identified as Brandon Ellis, 20, of the Riverbank-Escalon area. The driver of the other vehicle that he hit head-on while trying to pass between the Coffee and Oakdale road intersections was Steve Jackson, 53, of Modesto and his passenger Heather Miller, 40, of San Leandro.

Police station lobby hours would be extended and other benefits accrue to Riverbank residents, according to draft plans to decentralize the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department. Riverbank Police Services might keep its Third Street office open to the public as late as 11 p.m. or midnight and open earlier in the morning, Undersheriff William Heyne told the Riverbank City Council.

Riverbank merchants were generally complimentary about the current downtown construction work despite a few comments about blowing dust followed by messy mud when city officials updated them on progress to date. One local businessman said he'd worked in construction for 30 years and was impressed how the crews complete their work and restore the street almost to normal each night. Business is down in the city's core but the housing industry is down too and a lot of people are out of work. "It's not all because of this project," said A. J. Meyer who owns a shoe shop and saddlery on Santa Fe Street just west of Third Street.