The most notable breaking news stories of the year are often a variation on a regular, almost expected theme.

Grisly homicides, tragic drunken driving crashes and, yes, wildfires, make the list.

But this past summer’s deadly Erskine Fire achieved a grim benchmark: It quickly developed into the most devastating conflagration in Kern County history.

As such, it leads this year’s tally of noteworthy crime and disaster stories, taking its place alongside crooked cops, alleged child killers and a wave of shootings that swept through the Bakersfield area.

Deadly, damaging wildfire

Shortly after it was reported the afternoon of June 23, it became apparent a two-acre blaze originating near Erskine Creek Road and Apollo Way in the Lake Isabella area was going to chew up some acreage. Still, the speed at which it progressed proved shocking even to those who have grown accustomed to wildfires in the area.

Hot weather, 40-mile-per-hour winds, drought conditions and low fuel moisture combined for the perfect conditions in which a wildfire could flourish, sending the blaze roaring across thousands of acres in a matter of hours. An estimated 80 structures burned that evening into the following day.

Firefighters scrambled into action and called in resources from across the state, but the blaze continued to march across the county. Social media was flooded with questions asking about containment, the safety of friends and family and what could be done to help.

By the time it was contained 18 days later, it had burned nearly 50,000 acres, destroyed 309 homes and killed two people who tried to flee their home but were overcome by smoke.

Thousands left their homes only to return to scorched piles of debris. Some communities were almost entirely destroyed, and fundraisers continue to be held to benefit victims of the fire.

Before it was even contained the blaze had already been named the most devastating fire in Kern County history, and is ranked 15th out of the 20 most damaging fires in California history. 

In December, Kern County firefighters revealed the blaze was caused by a power line that wore down over time as it rubbed against a tree. The investigation has now been turned over to the Bureau of Land Management, which will decide whether civil penalties or criminal charges will be sought. 

According to a news release sent out by Bakersfield-based attorneys Clifford & Brown, the fire started on land owned by the Bureau of Land Management that contains an archery facility, called Kern River Archers. That group, the release said, leases the facility from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which in turn leases the land from BLM.

Several attorneys based outside of Kern County said they are representing families impacted by the fire and have filed claims against the Department of Fish and Wildlife on their behalf. 

Two cops sentenced for dealing methamphetamine

Henry A. Barrios / The Californian/
In this file photo, former Bakersfield Police Department Detective Damacio Diaz with his wife, Courtney, and other family members are shown leaving U.S. District Court in Fresno after Diaz was sentenced Oct. 3 to five years in federal prison.

The sentencing of former Bakersfield police detectives Damacio Diaz and Patrick Mara drew criticism as being too lenient for men who, having sworn to uphold the law, instead stole methamphetamine and put it back on the streets, pocketing thousands of dollars.

Both men could have received prison terms upward of 20 years, but U.S. District Judge Lawrence O’Neill instead sentenced each to five years.

Both men admitted to using their positions as police officers to steal meth from drug dealers and sell it through a third party for personal gain. The U.S. Attorney’s Office had recommended sentences of 21 to 27 years for Mara and 17 to 22 years for Diaz.

Local prosecutors and a number of residents who wrote to The Californian said the detectives got off easy, and a civil rights attorney representing the families of several men shot and killed by Bakersfield police called for a federal takeover of the BPD.

Bakersfield Police Chief Greg Williamson held a press conference following the detectives’ sentencings in October to reassure the public Diaz, 44, and Mara, 36, acted alone. The detectives claimed widespread corruption at the department in court documents, but Williamson said a federal investigation involving four different agencies showed that was not the case.

Federal officials said they are investigating where the drugs went after a third party sold them for distribution, but prosecutors don’t anticipate filing any additional charges against BPD officers.

Diaz and Mara enlisted the help of patrol officers in pulling over vehicles where they suspected they would find drugs. They then had those officers book just a portion of the evidence while they kept the rest.

The detectives also took drugs out of the evidence room and replaced them with substances that looked similar. The crimes took place from April 2012 to February 2015.

Williamson said evidence checkout procedures were being addressed with assistance from the DEA. Additionally, the Kern County District Attorney’s office sent out 64 letters to local defense attorneys whose clients' criminal cases may have been “tainted” by the involvement of the detectives.

The sentencings of both men marked a stunning fall for the two veteran officers. Diaz was considered a local hero for his accomplishments on McFarland High School’s cross country team in the 1980s.

The team’s success was told in the 2015 film “McFarland, USA.”

Former principal charged with murder in husband’s 2013 slaying

courtesy of KBAK/KBFX
Leslie Jenea Chance has been charged with murder in the 2013 killing of her husband, Todd Chance.

Former elementary school principal Leslie Jenea Chance was charged in December with first-degree murder in the 2013 shooting death of her husband.

Chance, 49, was originally named a suspect and arrested shortly after the August 2013 killing, but was released days later as prosecutors sent the case back to the Kern County Sheriff’s Office for further investigation.

Investigators filed court documents alleging she drove with her husband, Todd Chance, to Noriega Road near Enos Lane the morning of Aug. 25, 2013, shot and killed him and dumped his body. She then left the car at another location before making her way home by taxi and walking, the documents said.

There were rumors Todd Chance was having an affair, and documents said she killed him to collect on his life insurance policies.

She is being held without bail.

Chance was principal of Fairview Elementary School at the time of the killing.

Man charged with murder of mother, stepfather

Felix Adamo / Californian file
Derek Connell, accused of killing his mother and stepfather, hides his face as he stands next to Deputy Public Defender Paul Cadman in court in this file photo.

Less than honorably discharged from the U.S. Army for an incident involving alcohol, Derek Connell’s problems followed him back stateside.

He served a nine-month jail sentence in Colorado, and continued drinking heavily after returning to live in the northwest Bakersfield home of his mother and stepfather.

On April 30, police were dispatched to the house in the 5000 block of Lily Pad Court after a relative called asking them to check the welfare of the couple. Officers found Christopher Tare Higginbotham and Kim Higginbotham, both 48, dead inside. Both had been shot.

Police said in court filings that Connell used FaceTime to send video of the bodies to a relative outside the country, who then contacted police. He told the relative he had found them dead upon entering the home.

During questioning, Connell told police, “I think it was me” when asked who killed the Higginbothams, but said he had no memory of what happened, the filings say. He said he drinks often, sometimes to the point of passing out, and he was inebriated the nights of the killings.

Cadman’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Paul Cadman, has said Connell is a veteran of the Iraq War suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

Connell has pleaded not guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and is scheduled for trial in February.

Mass shooting at house party

BY FELIX ADAMO fadamo@bakersfield.com
Fourteen people were shot following a fight at a party at this house in the 600 block of Stephens Drive in south Bakersfield. File photo. 

Tossed from a house party, three teens returned to a central Bakersfield home seeking revenge.

Two of the teens, described only as black males, opened fire at random on the crowd of more than 100 partygoers in the 600 block of Stephens Drive.

Chaos ensued as partygoers scrambled to get away and the firing continued. By the time it was over, 14 had been injured, with wounds to areas including their legs, arms and chest.

Law enforcement was stretched thin as reports of the mass shooting came in to dispatchers. About 22 Kern County Sheriff’s Office patrol units responded to the scene; Bakersfield police and California Highway Patrol officers were asked to cover the county.

Two days later, the body of Miguel Angel Leon Bravo was found in an apartment near the shooting. Bravo, 21, died of a gunshot wound to the head and is believed to have been struck by a stray bullet, a random victim of the barrage of gunfire that flew through the neighborhood early July 16.

No arrests have been made. The shooting is believed to be gang-related.

Unarmed man, 73, shot dead by police just weeks before Attorney General announces investigation into BPD, KCSO 

Francisco Serna, 73, was shot and killed by a Bakersfield police officer early Dec. 12 after a witness told officers he had accosted her with a gun.

Serna, however, was unarmed. The item he held in his pocket was a faux wooden crucifix, and his family said he suffered from dementia.

The shooting sparked outrage and national media coverage, with some calling for an independent investigation. Officer Reagan Selman, who fired seven rounds at Serna, has been placed on routine administrative leave, along with six officers who witnessed the shooting, pending the outcome of the investigation.

Serna approached a woman around 12:30 a.m. in the 7900 block of Silver Birch Avenue and asked what she was doing there, police said. The woman, who was being dropped off at home, saw what she thought was the handle of a gun protruding from Serna's jacket pocket.

She told police Serna continued acting strangely, demanding she open the car door. The woman ran inside and alerted her husband there was an armed man outside, and he called police.

Officers arrived and, while speaking with the woman, Serna came out of his residence across the street and approached with both hands in his pockets. The woman identified him as the man who approached her, and police ordered Serna to stop and take his hands out of his pockets.

He did not comply, and continued ignoring commands as he walked directly toward Selman, police said. The officer fired when Serna was 15 to 20 feet away. He died at the scene.

No gun was recovered. 

On Dec. 22, California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced she has launched civil rights investigations of the Bakersfield Police Department and Kern County Sheriff’s Office.

A press release from Harris’ office stated both agencies will be investigated for “a pattern and practice of excessive force” and related issues. The investigation will be civil, not criminal.

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood has said his agency will willingly cooperate. 

"We believe we're following the law," he said.

BPD Chief Lyle Martin will meet with the California Department of Justice in January to get details on how the investigation will progress, and will share them with the public, a police news release said. 

Former NFL player hanged himself following Kern County hearing

BY HENRY A. BARRIOS hbarrios@bakersfield.com
Ex-NFL football player Lawrence Phillips is arraigned in Kern County Superior Court for murder in this file photo.

The troubled life of talented athlete Lawrence Phillips, once a college star at Nebraska before using up second, third and more chances in the NFL, came to an end in a prison cell in Kern County.

Phillips, 40, hanged himself at Kern Valley State Prison late Jan. 12. A note taped to his chest read “Do Not Resuscitate.”

Phillips was last seen alive at 11:35 p.m. by correctional officers during a routine security check of his cell, according to autopsy reports. He was found unresponsive a half hour later during another check.

Prison staff began CPR, and Phillips was rushed to Delano Regional Medical Center. He was pronounced dead at 1:26 a.m.

Phillips was serving a sentence of 31 years and four months for separate convictions of running down three teens following a pickup football game in 2005, and choking his roommate.

He continued to find trouble in prison. Prosecutors charged Phillips with first-degree murder in the strangulation death of cellmate Damion Dewayne Soward on April 11, 2015.

Phillips’ suicide came the day after a judge found there was enough evidence to try him in Soward’s death. He became upset during the hearing, cursing at an officer who testified to Phillips’ prior crimes.

A standout college player at Nebraska, Phillips was drafted sixth overall in the 1996 NFL draft by the Saint Louis Rams despite troubling off-field incidents including assaulting an ex-girlfriend. He remained unable to stay out of trouble and was released by the Rams in 1997.

Brief stints with the Miami Dolphins, NFL Europe and San Francisco 49ers followed, as did legal issues.

Oildale gunman triggered standoff after double homicide

An Oildale gunman sparked a seven-hour standoff July 22 after killing an uncle and a family friend.

Unbeknownst to law enforcement, Christopher Dale Gray had already left the area after shooting Michael Kennedy, 58, and Ricky Dale Gray, 60, in the 500 block of El Tejon Avenue. Gray traveled to the Walmart on Rosedale Highway and was spotted shoplifting at 11:15 a.m., authorities said.

He pulled a gun out of his pocket and shot himself in the head as police confronted him in a nearby neighborhood. Gray was not positively identified until 5 p.m., about nine hours after the shootings occurred.

Family of Gray said in search warrants that he sympathized with ISIS and had recently begun threatening relatives. Others alleged he was a member of a white supremacist street gang.

Murder suspect accused of cutting baby out of pregnant girlfriend

FELIX ADAMO / The Californian
Manuel Vela during a court appearance in this file photo.

A 28-year-old Bakersfield man is accused of the year's grisliest crime — strangling his 39-weeks-pregnant girlfriend and then cutting the baby out of her.

Manuel Vela was arrested following a chase through Bakersfield streets Dec. 10 during which he dangled the baby out the car's window, court documents said. 

Vela told investigators he struck his girlfriend, Katrina Rivera, 30, the evening of Dec. 8, then strangled her. He drove around with her body in his car before stopping and cutting the baby out of her with a razor blade, Vela said in court documents. 

He is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and is being held without bail.

County settles David Sal Silva wrongful death lawsuit

Photo courtesy of family of David Sal Silva
David Sal Silva.

In May, the County of Kern settled a lawsuit involving allegations of wrongful death and excessive force in the death of Bakersfield resident David Sal Silva for $3.4 million.

The confrontation between Silva and deputies, which resulted in protests and calls for increased scrutiny of law enforcement, began just before midnight on May 7, 2013, after deputies responded to a report of an intoxicated man outside Kern Medical Center. Silva had been found sleeping across the street from the hospital.

Deputies tried waking him, and an altercation ensued in which Silva fought multiple law enforcement officers and a K9. He was restrained, but became unresponsive shortly afterward and was pronounced dead within an hour of the incident. 

An autopsy determined Silva died as a result of heart disease and had methamphetamine, a muscle relaxant and alcohol in his system at time of death.

Attorneys for the Silva family alleged law enforcement used excessive force, but Sheriff Donny Youngblood said his deputies performed their job as they were supposed to and he was not in favor of the settlement. 

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