Let’s take a walk down memory lane and relive the news that made our top stories of the year. There is never a shortage of stories in our newsroom and we expected this year to be a little bit busier as we were still reporting on the impacts of COVID-19 on San Benito County, local government, education and transportation. On top of that, we had election coverage of the June primary and November general election. In addition, our team organized two free election forums for our community. But before we planned our forums we held our first-ever speaker series in which we brought together community members with foreign correspondents and career journalists Ralph Jennings and Cindy Sui, who spoke about their experiences reporting on China and Taiwan for major news organizations.
With that, let’s look at what caught our readers’ attention in 2022.
The year began with one of the biggest projects in our county. A 1 million-square-foot fulfillment center that was approved by Hollister planners. To this day, neither the city nor developer have disclosed the tenant of the new building, which is eight times larger than the neighboring Amazon delivery hub.
The years-long court case of Jose Antonio Barajas came to an end after a second jury convicted him of murder, attempted murder and kidnapping in the killing of 19-year-old Ariana Zendejas and kidnapping of Denay Gutierrez during a car chase in August 2014. Jose Antonio Barajas was later sentenced to 47 years to life.
Two contrasting stories caught the attention of our readers during this month. The first was the tragic death of a Hollister woman and her 4-year-old daughter who died in an apparent drowning at a Bay Area country club.
The second story was about Mohammad Huweih’s journey from selling flowers as a middle and high school student in downtown Hollister to going to college and eventually settling in Georgia.
BenitoLink readers also learned of Hollister School District’s $6 million budget shortfall. Our reporting followed the district’s process in resolving its financial situation which included cutting 33 staff positions, and later laying off another 26 employees; the superintendent taking a $4,000 pay cut from her $210,000 salary; and hiring a new chief business officer in August. In that month’s meeting, the district also extended the superintendent’s contract and approved a 1% retroactive salary increase for unrepresented employees.
Transportation and road safety have been a major concern for the community as shown in our top stories for March. Readers took interest in the Fairview Road accident that resulted in the death of a Los Banos man. Two Salinas residents also died in a car accident on Highway 156 mid-month.
Hollister resident Mia Casey, who went on to be elected Hollister mayor in November, accused then-Mayor Ignacio Velazquez of violating the Brown Act. She also accused him, along with Councilmember Rolan Resendiz, of violating the council’s code of ethics. The following month the District Attorney’s Office concluded, though it did not say directly, that Velazquez had violated the Brown Act by not allowing residents to speak on any issue during the public comment portion of the meeting. A First Amendment legal expert brought in by BenitoLink also said Velazquez violated Casey’s First Amendment rights.
On April 1, Hollister Police held a press conference to announce they had detained a San Jose man suspected of conducting a drive-by shooting on March 26 that killed two and wounded three others. Police said the suspect was a former gang member who might have been carrying out a personal vendetta when he mistakenly identified one of the victims as his target.
That same day, about 200 community members gathered to honor the two victims, Jaime Jesus Gomez, 23, and Daniel Eli Gonzales, 21.
As the Hollister City Council debated the possibilities of re-establishing the Fourth of July motorcycle rally and placing a non-binding measure on the ballot, Hollister’s Police Chief warned he was unable to recruit enough law enforcement from outside the county to provide sufficient security. And though voters said in the November elections they want Hollister to host the rally, Police Chief Carlos Reynoso reminded the City Council, who ultimately makes the decision, that it is a big liability for the city not having enough law enforcement overseeing the event.
Our readers love positive San Benito articles and Santiago Contreras’ story captured their attention. Contreras’ life is coming full circle as he is building his home through a self-housing project after being raised in a home that his father built through another self-housing project. A total of 24 families are involved in the Riverview Estates project that is expected to be completed in early 2023. BenitoLink is dedicated to following families through the whole process. So far, we have produced seven articles, including Contreras’ story, on the project, the construction process and the families working to build their homes.
Hollister School District was not only dealing with a budget shortfall, but was experiencing a wave of teacher resignations. The departing educators cited stress over added responsibilities and having to wear multiple hats.
After five years of legal recreational cannabis, only the city of Hollister had attracted cannabis businesses. While the unincorporated county and San Juan Bautista had drafted their own cannabis policies, no enterprises were up and running in those jurisdictions. BenitoLink revealed annual cannabis revenue ranged between 33% and 58% of what was originally projected by the city of Hollister.
Hollister resident George Nava is very active in the community through the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9242, including participating in annual events for Memorial Day, Veterans Day, 9/11 and Wreaths Across America. He opened up to BenitoLink about his experience in combat during the Vietnam War and recalled the many “close calls” he had while serving, including just missing setting off two grenades.
With COVID-19 vaccines available and information being updated almost daily, BenitoLink continued providing crucial information to the community, such as when vaccine boosters were expanded to everyone 5 years and older. According to the county, 40% of the eligible population has received a booster as of Dec. 28.
Yet another Hollister City Council meeting turned contentious when then-mayor Ignacio Velazquez sought to change the city’s campaign finance ordinance. The proposed changes to require candidates and public officials to report contributions as low as $1 and impose stricter contribution limits ultimately failed.
Two business stories were among the most read in July. Sweet Cheeks in San Juan Bautista held its ribbon-cutting ceremony in June. Owners spoke to BenitoLink about the different business ideas they explored before settling on a candy shop. Paine’s Restaurant, a long-standing business in Hollister, changed ownership after owner John Kouretas decided to sell it after 42 years. He said after dealing with the challenges of COVID-19 regulations, he was ready to move on.
Hollister resident Ruben Joshua Flores III, 20, died in a vehicle crash near Ridgemark. BenitoLink followed up on the investigation and CHP said the investigating officer found Flores made an unsafe turning movement that led him to veer off the highway and crash into a tree.
One of our most-read stories of the year analyzed the impact of Measure R and Q and the proposed Strada Verde project on San Benito County. BenitoLink reported that 27 parcels surrounding the proposed Strada Verde Innovation Park acreage had been transferred to a Delaware-based company in one day. The Strada Verde site had at one time been proposed for housing development called Rancho San Benito.
Three men were arrested by the Sheriff’s Department on multiple charges including possession of drugs, weapons, ammunition, and child endangerment.
BenitoLink followed from start to finish yet another tragic case in which Manuel Martinez pleaded guilty in the second degree murder of Sarah Villar. Though he tried to back out of the plea agreement, he was sentenced to 19 years to life.
Violence at high school football games occurred at Hollister High School as the Sheriff’s Office reported several separate incidents inside and outside the stadium. Hollister High School responded by updating its rules for entry to Andy Hardin Stadium, which included limiting the purchase of tickets online, metal detector inspections, and requiring non-student attendees to obtain a guest pass.
A 70-year-old woman was fatally struck by a vehicle on Fourth Street where there are no sidewalks for pedestrians.
For history lovers, we took a look back at the 1930 Watsonville race riots and how law enforcement in San Benito County prevented violence against Filipinos, who provided farm labor at that time.
BenitoLink reported on a suicide that occurred in the San Benito County Jail. Just two months prior the Sheriff Department reported that it uses a suicide early-warning system to prevent such cases. The Sheriff’s Department told BenitoLink there had been nine suicide attempts in the jail since 2009 and none in the first six months the program was implemented.
Hazel Hawkins announced the termination of its CEO Steve Hannah, a move that was followed by the board of directors declaring a state of fiscal emergency and looking at potentially filing for bankruptcy. Since then, the hospital has been the target of criticism from staff and community leaders for its apparent lack of transparency in relation to its financial condition.
Taylor Farms announced it was going to install microgrids at its San Juan Bautista processing facility. The move aimed to remove the facility from the traditional power grid and the company said it would have electricity to power the plant 24 hours a day.
Another high-interest story of the year was the opening of the Baler Restaurant at the old Pendergrass Building. It was a highly anticipated addition to the downtown dining experience after the Hollister Bar and Grill did not reopen following COVID-19 shutdowns.
While voters decided several key San Benito County Board of Supervisors positions in the June primary election, the November general election still impacted important positions throughout the county including three in the Hollister and San Juan Bautista city councils and the last supervisor seat. Voters also weighed-in on measures R and Q.
A San Benito County sheriff’s deputy was charged with a felony in a false imprisonment case. The victim alleges Matthew O’Keefe harassed her for months, put her in a “body lock” and punched her in the face. O’Keefe pleaded not guilty and denied the accusations. He was placed on administrative leave.
BenitoLink reported on a Hollister woman who was fatally struck by a vehicle in Fresno County. We followed-up by informing the community that a minor had accepted a plea deal which included a sentence of 60 days in a juvenile facility and a year of probation. Police say the 16-year-old struck Devan Nicole Elayda in November 2021 when she was walking near the center divider on State Route 180 around 2:45 a.m.
In an attempt to come up with the $25 million it needs to avoid bankruptcy, Hazel Hawkins Memorial Hospital requested a $10 million loan from the San Benito County Board of Supervisors. The board officially approved a $2.2 million advance from property taxes that is due to the hospital. Technically, it was $1.1 million as the hospital historically receives 50% of its property tax revenue in December.
Shortly after receiving the advancement from the county, Hazel Hawkins announced it had sent its employees the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act notice Dec. 19. In it, the hospital notified employees of a possible mass layoff and that it estimated it had funds to operate through Feb. 18.
As you can see from the list of our top stories, our reporters invested thousands of hours on issues that impact our community. That means attending countless government and school meetings, making dozens of calls every day, reading hundreds of documents, and countless hours of research. We need our community to invest in our work so that we can continue to provide vital information that impacts our everyday life. Join the many residents who are making a difference by donating to BenitoLink, your local, nonprofit newsroom here.