Wreckage from from a DUI crash on Highway 154 in 2019 that sent several people to the hospital.
Former Santa Barbara County sheriff’s Lt. Javier Jonathan Antunez of Goleta faces six years in prison after pleading guilty to charges stemming from a DUI crash on Highway 154 in 2019 that sent several people to the hospital. (Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

A decade ago, Noozhawk was a founding member of the Local Independent Online News Publishers Association, which we call LION.

At the time, it felt like there were just a couple of dozen of us rash enough to go all in on the Internet, and it often was desperately reassurring to find anyone else who could understand what we had done and were doing with hyperlocal news.

I like to equate it to the Lewis & Clark Expedition — conceptually, of course. We only had a vague idea of where we were going, there was no map, and no one was coming to save us if we lost our way, ran out of provisions or were attacked by grizzly bears.

Today, LION has more than 200 member sites throughout the United States, we have professional staff, we partner with national foundations and leading journalism schools, and some of the world’s biggest tech companies try to win our favor. One of them ought to try a little harder, but that’s a story for another time.

As of this year, we also have our own honors, the first-ever LION Publishers Awards. I’m pleased to announce that the Noozhawk team is a finalist in three categories:

» Best Breaking News Coverage, for the July 6, 2018, Holiday Fire in Goleta and its aftermath

» Investigative Reporting of the Year, for our post-disaster coverage of the December 2017 Thomas Fire and Montecito’s deadly Jan. 9, 2018, flash flooding and debris flows

» Solutions Journalism Project of the Year, for our ongoing series, Reimagine: Santa Barbara

We’ll find out if my partners — executive editor Tom Bolton and business development vice president Kim Clark — and I will be bringing home any hardware at the awards dinner during next month’s LION Conference in Nashville, Tenn.

I know what our reporters and editors have been up to, and I know you do, too, but I really want them to get the national recognition and accolades they so deserve. It’s my privilege to work with them, and they sure make me look good!

What did not look good this past week was the abundance of serious crashes that left carnage all over Santa Barbara County roadways. Six of the period’s Top 10 most-read stories involved such wreckage.

But my weekly Best of Bill column is only navigating through the Top 5 stories that our Google Analytics says 164,594 of you were reading. We may pass by some of my opinions on the drive, so buckle up.

Just to be clear: This is my opinion column. It is not a news story, nor am I a reporter.

1. Drunken Driving Suspected in 3-Vehicle, Head-On Crash on Highway 154

Seven people were injured — seven — in a three-vehicle head-on collision the evening of Sept. 14 on Highway 154 just east of Lake Cachuma. At this point, is it really any surprise that alcohol may be involved?

According to the California Highway Patrol, the driver of an eastbound BMW slammed into an oncoming Toyota Tacoma around 7:15 p.m. The driver of a second westbound vehicle, a Jeep, was unable to avoid the wreckage, and made it a three-way crash.

The BMW driver, identified by the CHP as Javier Antunez, 44, of Goleta, and his passenger, Esther Emiko Trejo, 48, of Santa Barbara, both suffered major injuries.

The CHP said the Toyota driver — Enrique Calderon-Mendez, 43, of Santa Barbara — escaped with minor injuries, while two passengers — Evelia Dominguez, 48, and Dolores Gutierrez, 60, both of Santa Barbara — had moderate injuries.

A third passenger — Judith Hall, 43, of Santa Barbara — suffered major injuries and had to be airlifted by a Calstar medical helicopter to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

The Jeep’s driver, whose identity was not disclosed, was treated and released at the scene, but American Medical Response ambulances transported the other five to Cottage Hospital.

That’s not the worst of this. Or the most awkward.

As our Janene Scully first reported, the CHP said a preliminary investigation indicated alcohol was a factor in the crash, and Antunez was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving and causing injuries after officers evaluated him for possible impairment.

On Sept. 16, Janene confirmed that Antunez is a Santa Barbara County sheriff’s custody lieutenant at the Main Jail, although he was off-duty at the time of the wreck.

Sheriff’s Lt. Erik Raney said Antunez, who has worked for the department since 1999, has been placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation.

But, wait, there’s more.

Hall, the most severely injured victim, is an investigator in the District Attorney’s Office and is also a board member of the Santa Barbara County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association. Officials say she is hospitalized in stable but guarded condition.

To avoid even a whiff of conflict of interest over its employee’s status as a victim, the DA’s Office has asked the California Attorney General’s Office to handle the case and determine any charges.

The collision remains under investigation by the CHP. Anyone with information about the wreck is asked to contact the agency’s Buellton office at 805.688.5551.

2. First Responders at Conception Disaster Made Valiant Effort Facing ‘Worst Call of Our Careers’

Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol Officers Karl Halamicek, left, and Ryan Kelly

When Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol Officers Karl Halamicek, left, and Ryan Kelly tell you they were “just” doing their jobs, remember this story. (Peter Hartmann / Noozhawk photo)

Peter Hartmann and Stacey Wright are not conventional journalists. Although Peter often provides news photography for Noozhawk, he and Stacey have successful professional careers in real fields. You likely know them as the Urban Hikers who lead our annual New Year’s Eve Noozhawk Walks.

The dynamic duo has a knack for striking up conversations with random people so Peter had my attention when he casually mentioned talking to two Santa Barbara Harbor Patrol officers who helped fight the deadly inferno aboard the Conception dive boat. I immediately told him I wanted the story.

Their account did not disappoint, and I would not do it justice if I were to try to summarize it here. But what they wrote has — at least for a moment — supplanted the enormity of the tragedy, and the loss and the anguish and the helplessness that we still feel.

In this fast-reading story, Peter and Stacey outline the valor, determination and resourcefulness that Officers Karl Halamicek and Ryan Kelly and their fellow first responders demonstrated on that awful morning.

We now know that they raced out of the Santa Barbara Harbor expecting to find survivors when they got to Santa Cruz Island.

Once they realized that would not be the case, they had to set aside every emotion imaginable and tackle only what was in front of them: Putting out the fire, preserving as much of the wrecked vessel as possible, and protecting the precious treasure entombed inside.

We must remember to never forget that that is exactly what they did. To Officers Halamicek and Kelly, and the rest of the response team, thank you.

3. BizHawk: Jeannine’s Restaurant & Bakery Opens New Goleta Location

Alison Hardy

“Meet me at Jeannine’s Goodland,” owner Alison Hardy says. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

It was a long time coming, but Jeannine’s Restaurant & Bakery has finally opened a Goleta location, at 7060 Hollister Ave., Suite 105, in Hollister Village Plaza across from Camino Real Marketplace.

The popular South Coast institution hopes Jeannine’s Goodland will become a community hub, in the same way its three other locations — at 15 E. Figueroa St. and 3607 State Street in Santa Barbara, and 1253 Coast Village Road in Montecito — have developed rituals and reliability from their regulars.

“We’re about creating community through food,” owner Alison Hardy told our Josh Molina. “Jeannine’s is a place where you can take a break from your worries.”

While the customer experience may involve the same high standards, the Goleta restaurant is visually unique, with original glass works, vintage photos and bright magenta flowers.

And the salads and sandwiches are good; I’m talking about you, Chili-Lime Asian Chicken and Nueske’s BLT with Avocado. Perhaps you should “Meet me at Jeannine’s Goodland” for a future #noozhawkeats Lunch with the Publisher. Feel free to reach out, Alison.

4. Fatal Vehicle Crash Reported on Highway 101 in Carpinteria

A 25-year-old Ventura man died early on Sept. 14 when he rolled his pickup truck in Carpinteria’s Highway 101 construction zone.

California Highway Patrol Officer Jonathan Gutierrez told our Giana Magnoli that Justin Ulmer apparently lost control of the truck about 6:35 a.m. while driving through the southbound construction area between the Linden Avenue and Casitas Pass Road exits.

The vehicle overturned in the center divider, he said.

Ulmer was partially ejected from the cab and pronounced dead at the scene.

The CHP has not determined the cause of the crash, but southbound lanes were closed for more than an hour for the investigation.

5. Injuries Reported in Head-On Crash on Highway 154 Near Lake Cachuma

Highway 154 wreck

Apparently, there is no end in sight for the Highway 154 crash course. (Capt. Mike Young / Santa Barbara County Fire Department photo)

Not far away from the scene of the head-on collision at the top of this Best of Bill compilation, another head-on collision left three people injured the day before, including a woman who had to be airlifted to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.

If you’re keeping score, that’s a total of 10 injuries from two wrecks involving five vehicles in a span of less than 36 hours. That’s some data dump, but are authorities keeping track?

According to the California Highway Patrol, this Highway 154 crash occurred just after 8:30 a.m. Sept. 13, about a quarter-mile east of the Lake Cachuma Recreation Area entrance.

Santa Barbara County Fire Department spokesman Mike Eliason told our Tom Bolton that the impact — between a minivan and a pickup truck — trapped a woman in the van with serious injuries.

He said firefighters extricated the woman from the wreckage, and an American Medical Response ambulance drove her to a waiting Calstar medical helicopter.

A girl riding in the minivan was taken to the hospital with moderate injuries, while the pickup driver was treated at the scene for minor injuries.

The circumstances and cause of the crash remains under investigation. Identities and medical conditions were not disclosed.

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Last Year on Noozhawk

What was our most-read story this time last year? Badly Decomposed Body Found Behind Residence on Santa Barbara’s Westside.

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Bill Macfadyen’s Story of the Week

Good ol’ Rocky Top went above and beyond for young fan: Bullied Fourth-Grader’s Getting More Than His Homemade T-shirt Printed — University of Tennessee Just Offered Him a Scholarship.

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Best of Bill’s Instagram

A glorious sunset at the @coralcasinobeachandcabanaclub, #myfavoriteclubinmontecito, explodes in my Instagram feed.

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Watch It

I doubt I’d do this, but how often do you get to frolic with an orca? HT to Alyson Shaw for sending me the link to a whale of a video.

YouTube video

(Wall Street Journal video)

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Yes, I’ll set up a monthly donation today!
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If you value dependable local reporting, will you support Noozhawk today?
Yes, I’ll set up a monthly donation today!
Yes, I’ll set up a monthly donation today!
Yes, I’ll set up a monthly donation today!
Yes, I’ll set up a monthly donation today!
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— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at wmacfadyen@noozhawk.com, follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk and Instagram: @bill.macfadyen, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at wmacfadyen@noozhawk.com, and follow him on Instagram: @bill.macfadyen. The opinions expressed are his own.