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Bill Macfadyen: Ex-DA Tom Sneddon Was Much More Than Michael Jackson’s Prosecutor

NoozWeek’s Top 5 finds Halloween in Isla Vista to be a washout this year, counts votes, lets it rain, and relates the sad story of Gary Holmes

There were 110,234 people who read Noozhawk this past week. What’s my take on your top stories? I’m glad you asked.

1. Michael Jackson Prosecutor Tom Sneddon Dies of Cancer at Age 73

Tom Sneddon spent 26 years as Santa Barbara County’s top prosecutor, but it was one of his later cases that came to define his career: The prosecution of pop superstar Michael Jackson on child-molestation charges.

As district attorney, Sneddon first began investigating Jackson in 1993, following accusations of certain “activities” involving young boys at his Neverland Ranch in Los Olivos. No charges were filed, but additional allegations surfaced a few years later.

Tom Sneddon, 1941-2014.
Tom Sneddon, 1941-2014.

In 2005, Sneddon took his case to court, charging Jackson with four counts of molesting a minor, four counts of intoxicating a minor in order to molest him, one count of attempted child molestation and another for conspiracy to hold a boy and his family captive at the 2,800-acre ranch on Figueroa Mountain Road.

Sneddon, a father of nine, led the prosecution himself during a Santa Maria trial that drew journalists from around the world, along with mobs of MJ fanatics.

Jackson maintained his innocence and, on June 13, 2005, a Superior Court jury acquitted him on all charges. He died of cardiac arrest four years later at age 50.

As our Tom Bolton first reported in a Noozhawk exclusive, Sneddon died of cancer Nov. 1 at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, with his devoted family at his side. He was 73, and had only been retired for eight years.

Sneddon wasn’t the easiest DA to work with, no question, and his hard-nosed instincts didn’t win him any extra friends. It also can be debated whether he had the goods to go after Jackson in court. He was unapologetic about the move, however, believing all along that he had the right guy.

As those of you who got sucked into the comments on our story can attest, Jackson’s defenders vehemently — and viciously and even violently — disagreed, hijacking our reader forum to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that more than a few of them are just plain cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.

As we’ve done before when the comments have spiraled into troll territory, we took down those from the worst offenders. Sneddon was a public figure, however, and I’m not going to ban all criticism of him or turn off the comments altogether. I would hope that, as a lawyer and a prosecutor, he of all people would have appreciated the constitutional circumstances.

Sneddon did have legions of fans locally. District Attorney Joyce Dudley hailed him as “a pioneer in many areas of prosecution, especially crimes against vulnerable victims,” and pointed out that he founded the county’s Sexual Assault Response Team.

“He was also a mentor to most of the deputy district attorneys in our county, as well as many DAs throughout our country,” she added.

Beyond his day job, however, Sneddon was devoted to his wife of 47 years, Pamela, and their children and grandchildren. He was a stalwart member of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, a huge Notre Dame football fan dating from his years as an undergrad at the school, a lifelong first-class athlete, and a remarkable youth football coach for several decades.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that donations be made in his name to one of his favorite charities: Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Santa Barbara County, the Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse or the United Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Barbara County.

When’s the last time you saw Del Playa Drive this empty on a Friday night? At Halloween? (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)
When’s the last time you saw Del Playa Drive this empty on a Friday night? At Halloween? (Mike Eliason / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

2. Rain Washes Out Isla Vista’s Halloween Celebration

A few days before Oct. 31, Team Noozhawk stopped by UC Santa Barbara to hear from top campus officials about preventative preparations for the always scary Isla Vista Halloween Street Party & Bacchanalia.

UCSB thought it was ready for any eventuality, but one senior administrator joked that the school might have been better off cloud-seeding for rain over Isla Vista. We thought he was kidding. Now we’re not so sure.

As it turns out, the weather did what UCSB and a massive deployment of law-enforcement personnel could not: Throw a wet blanket on the debauchery. The rain arrived that Friday night at just about the time when revelers would have been gathering along Del Playa Drive. The storm was intense enough to keep all but the hardiest of fools inside.

Although the rain had moved on by the next day, apparently so did the party crowd. As our Tom Bolton reported, public-safety agencies began releasing their staff by early evening because there was nothing for them to do.

3. Election Results Roundup for Santa Barbara County, State Races

Voters defeated two high-profile local initiatives in the Nov. 4 election: Measure P, which would have restricted oil production in Santa Barbara County, and Measure S, a $288 million bond measure sought by Santa Barbara City College to upgrade campus facilities.

The SBCC bond measure actually won a majority of votes but fell short of the 55 percent required for approval. Measure P was flat-out clobbered, losing 63 percent to 37 percent.

Voters also rejected a proposed increase in the countywide transient-occupancy tax, better known as a bed tax on hotel customers, and a $27 million school bond for the single-school Montecito Union School District. In Carpinteria, however, voters overwhelmingly backed the Carpinteria Unified School District’s $90 million facilities bond.

Meanwhile, Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, squeaked past Republican challenger Chris Mitchum, while Assemblymen Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, and Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, breezed past the opposition.

One of the more interesting races was in Lompoc, where City Councilman Bob Lingl trounced embattled Mayor John Linn.

Click here for more of Noozhawk’s 2014 elections coverage.

Now that’s something we don’t see every day — or ever. (Paul Cook photo)
Now that’s something we don’t see every day — or ever. (Paul Cook photo)

4. Santa Barbara County Soaks In Significant Rainfall From Halloween Storm

It was relatively brief, but at this point we’re in no position to gripe. It was wet, and that’s all the matters.

On Halloween night, the first major storm of the season rolled into Santa Barbara County, dropping as much as 1½ inches of rain in some areas.

No major problems were reported, although a clogged drain sent water inside the Isla Vista Theater and a roof partially collapsed at a Santa Maria commercial building.

By the next day, the rain was gone. We can all hope there’s more where that came from — and I don’t even like rain.

Before being struck by a vehicle near Los Olivos in 2012, Gary Holmes had competed in hundreds of triathlons and Ironman events, and was a fixture at Solvang Triathlon Camps. (Holmes family photo)
Before being struck by a vehicle near Los Olivos in 2012, Gary Holmes had competed in hundreds of triathlons and Ironman events, and was a fixture at Solvang Triathlon Camps. (Holmes family photo)

5. 2½ Years after Brutal Collision with DUI Driver Near Los Olivos, Cyclist Succumbs to Injuries​

Gary Holmes, a dedicated triathlete and Ironman competitor, was severely injured when he and a companion were run over by an SUV while training near Los Olivos in March 2012.

The driver — Alicia Ann Gilbert, then 32, of Los Olivos — was found to be under the influence of anti-anxiety medication, and even had her 8-month-old child with her when she hit the runners on Foxen Canyon Road. She pleaded no contest to driving under the influence causing great bodily injury and was sentenced to more than four years in state prison.

Holmes’ sentence was much worse.

The 59-year-old Cordova, Tenn., resident and eight-time veteran of Solvang Triathlon Camps, suffered a traumatic brain injury, broken legs and arms with multiple bones protruding through his skin, and 11 broken ribs that punctured both lungs, among other injuries.

The collision left his running buddy, Su Chang of Woodinville, Wash., with a broken arm and leg.

Holmes was confined to a wheelchair afterward and never fully recovered. He died Oct. 15 in Arkansas, where the local coroner determined his injuries were to blame.

Deputy District Attorney Wesley Meyer told our Janene Scully that he considered filing new charges against Gilbert in connection with Holmes’ death.

“He was such a fit individual and strong healthy person, there’s no doubt that’s why he passed,” he said.

But Meyer concluded that Gilbert’s plea agreement and current sentence means she’d actually spend more time behind bars than if he charged her with vehicular manslaughter.

Gilbert must serve 85 percent of the four years and four months of her current sentence. A gross vehicular manslaughter conviction means she would serve 50 percent of the sentence, which for a midterm of six years would add up to less than her current punishment.

Somehow that just doesn’t seem fair.

R.I.P.

                                                                 •        •        •

Kimberly Perry and The Band Perry did a masterful job with Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind” at the CMA Awards on Nov. 5 in Nashville, Tenn. Best one yet.

(Texas Teen Music Network video)

                                                                  •        •        •

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— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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