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Local News

Bill Macfadyen: Noozhawk Giving Readers the Last Word with Free Obituaries

This week's Top 5 looks for answers in death of popular baseball coach, channels KEYT, follows up on a harrowing bridge drama, finds a body and traces of drugs

Although I never had the honor of meeting legendary Santa Barbara publisher Tom Storke, I had the privilege of working for his newspaper. He had departed the scene long before my arrival, but his personality was still very much in evidence inside The House of Storke at De la Guerra Plaza.

At some point in the late 1980s, a decision was made to begin charging readers for obituaries, which previously had been published at no cost. According to the decree, death notices — which are slightly more descriptive than tombstone epitaphs — would remain free, but families must pay the newspaper for the production and real estate required to tell their loved ones’ final stories.

It was a controversial call. Newsroom old-timers recounted a comment that Storke reportedly made years before when some enterprising young executive proposed a pricing plan for obituaries: “Are you kidding?” he boomed incredulously. “Obituaries are why people buy my newspaper! It’s only after they’ve read the obituaries that they turn to the rest of the news.”

The powers that be disregarded Storke’s opinion then, and our old newspaper — and most of the others around here — have been charging “a nominal fee” ever since. Well, God bless them, but this is the Internet, where Storke’s words of wisdom resonate with clarity. I happen to believe that obituaries should be free, as a public service to the community, so Noozhawk is making them so.

We’re announcing free obituaries to families and friends of folks with a connection to our community, and to the mortuaries handling services and interment. There’s no word limit, multiple photos can be submitted for consideration, submissions can be emailed to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), and there is no charge. That’s right: It’s free.

For your convenience, we’ve added an Obituaries tab to our homepage navigation bar, on the second line just below our Noozhawk logo on the left. We’ve also added an Obituaries category to our homepage grid, about midway down that page on the left.

We’ve got a number of cool additional obituaries features in the works, but we wanted to share this immediate news now. I think Tom Storke would approve.

                              •        •        •

What were you reading on Noozhawk this past week?

1. Hit-and-Run Victim Was a Former Santa Barbara High Baseball Coach

Simon Chavez loved baseball. A 2008 graduate of Santa Barbara High School, Chavez played just about every position during his four years as a Don, then returned to the powerhouse program two years ago as coach of the junior varsity team. The 22-year-old recently reduced his coaching commitment so he could increase his course load at Santa Barbara City College.

Simon Chavez, who was struck and killed on Highway 101 on Jan. 15, coached the Santa Barbara High School's junior varsity baseball team last year. (Jennifer Nichoson photo / sbhsdonsbaseball.com)
Simon Chavez, who was struck and killed on Highway 101 on Jan. 15, coached the Santa Barbara High School’s junior varsity baseball team last year. (Jennifer Nichoson photo / sbhsdonsbaseball.com)

Early on the morning of Jan. 15, it all came to a violent and bewildering end.

For unknown reasons, Chavez staggered onto southbound Highway 101 between the Ortega Street footbridge and the Castillo Street offramp, and was struck by a motorist who then sped away without stopping. Santa Barbara police and the California Highway Patrol were on the scene within a few minutes, but Chavez was already dead.

Authorities are searching for a white Hyundai that is believed to have extensive damage to its passenger-side front and side, including a missing mirror. Anyone with information about the suspect vehicle or the case is encouraged to call the CHP at 805.967.1234.

The incident remains under investigation, but Chavez’s family and friends are left to wonder what happened to the cheerful young man with a bright future and a perpetual smile.

“We’re all just shocked,” Santa Barbara High head coach Fred Warrecker told Noozhawk’s Lara Cooper. “I don’t know what in the world he was doing on the freeway.”

Warrecker said Chavez was with the Dons almost every weekend and was always reliable.

Assistant coach Mike Cooney commended Chavez for his determination.

“He was so positive about his own baseball experience that he wanted to stay around and volunteer,” he said.

Warrecker said Chavez was enrolled at SBCC, pursuing his dream of being a teacher and a coach.

“You just couldn’t picture Simon without a smile,” he said. “He always wanted to help in any way he could.”

2. KEYT’s New Owners Plan Station Expansion, Rebranding

Missouri-based News-Press & Gazette Co. purchased KEYT last year for $14.25 million. Since then, speculation has abounded — inside and outside of the company — about the future of the ABC affiliate.

Last week, Noozhawk’s Gina Potthoff caught up with new general manager Mark Danielson for an update. Danielson said NPG is investing more than $1 million in new equipment, including a move to high-definition news production and a new digital transmitter in San Luis Obispo. Also afoot are rebranding changes that are being implemented following market research from last fall.

Meanwhile, KEYT is in the market for two new reporters, a full-time news director and additional sales staff. On-air personality C.J. Ward, who has served as news director for almost two years, is returning full time to anchoring the news.

“C.J. really has been phenomenal,” said Danielson, who noted that the station’s anticipated growth would make it difficult for Ward to continue also directing the news operation. “It’s an exciting stage.”

KEYT has been a great collaborator with Noozhawk and we’re looking forward to an even closer relationship as the station settles in with its new opportunities.

3. Family Injured in Crash Files Lawsuit Against Big-Rig Driver, Trucking Company

A San Juan Capistrano family involved in a dramatic crash with an 18-wheeler that left their car dangling off a bridge last year has filed a lawsuit against the trucking company and the estate of the big-rig driver.

Kelli Groves, 36, and her daughters, Sage, 10, and Mylo, 10 weeks, were rear-ended by the truck on Jan. 12, 2012, while they drove north on Highway 101 just south of Buellton.

The tractor-trailer plunged off the bridge and into a creek 100 feet below, where it burst into flames and killed the driver, Charles Allison, 48, of Grover Beach. Investigators later determined that Allison was under the influence of methamphetamine at the time of his death.

With the Groveses’ car teetering precariously, Navy Seabees stuck in the traffic used a forklift to support the dangling vehicle while Santa Barbara County firefighters freed the family. Groves and her eldest daughter were hospitalized for eight days afterward. Her infant was uninjured.

Michael Penn, the family’s attorney, told Noozhawk’s Lara Cooper that his clients are still suffering physical and emotional repercussions from the incident. Sage Groves will soon undergo another leg surgery to remove glass that is still being expelled from her tissue.

Arroyo Grande-based R&R Auto Wrecking Inc. and Allison’s estate are listed as defendants in the lawsuit. Representatives could not be reached for comment.

4. Transient Found Dead at Makeshift Campsite

A 41-year-old Santa Barbara man was found dead of an apparent drug overdose Jan. 14 at a makeshift campsite near the northbound Arrellaga Street offramp on Highway 101. Santa Barbara police said foul play was not suspected but the Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Office will determine the exact cause of death.

5. Coroner Says Women Struck and Killed on Highway 154 Had Drugs in Systems

Law enforcement officials on Jan. 11 confirmed that two women who were struck and killed in a bizarre incident on Highway 154 near Rancho San Marcos Golf Course did have drugs in their systems — including methadone and amphetamines — at the time of their Dec. 21 deaths.

Sara Ornelas, 54, of Santa Barbara, and Barbara Romero, 49, of Lompoc, had pulled off the highway while driving to Santa Ynez late that night. A small dog jumped out of their vehicle while they were stopped and was run over by a car. One of the women was hit by another car when she chased after the dog, and the other woman was struck as she tried to reach her friend. They were pronounced dead at the scene.

Two of the motorists involved in the collisions stopped immediately, but the California Highway Patrol said a third driver — identified as Martin Macarena, 48, of San Luis Obispo — fled. He was tracked down and arrested at the Chumash Casino in Santa Ynez.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Mark Williams said toxicology tests determined that Ornelas had methadone in her system, as well as metabolites that could be linked to morphine or codeine, as well as cocaine and heroin. He said Romero’s results also revealed she was under the influence of amphetamine, methamphetamine, methadone and metabolites that could be linked to codeine, heroin or morphine.

Williams told Noozhawk’s Lara Cooper that the drugs are not listed as the official cause of the death in the cases, but what was found in their bodies at the time.

The CHP investigation is continuing.

                                                                  •        •        •

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— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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