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Top News Stories In Riverside County For 2013

From the killing of a neo-Nazi to fires and weird weather, the year saw plenty of drama.

The Falls Fire that burned west of Lake Elsinore made the top headlines in 2013.  Photo/Patch Staff
The Falls Fire that burned west of Lake Elsinore made the top headlines in 2013. Photo/Patch Staff

A killing spree that claimed a police officer's life, campus assaults, destructive wildfires, the tragic end to a search for a missing boy and the start of a heated political race were just some of the happenings that made headlines in Riverside County during 2013.

The year began with the conviction of a 12-year-old boy for the 2011 murder of his Neo-Nazi father. Joseph Hall was convicted of killing Jeff Russell Hall while the man slumbered on a living room sofa in his Riverside home.

Defense attorneys argued the youth was mentally disturbed after years of neglect and abuse, while the prosecution characterized him as sociopathic and prone to violence whenever challenged by authority. A judge sentenced the boy to 10 years at a juvenile detention camp in Northern California.

In February, fired LAPD Officer Christopher Jordan Dorner went on a killing spree targeting those he blamed for his dismissal from the police force -- and any other law enforcement officer who got in his way.

After engaging in a gun battle with two LAPD officers in Corona on the night of Feb. 7, Dorner fled into Riverside, where he encountered Riverside police Officers Michael Crain and Andrew Tachias at the intersection of Arlington and Magnolia avenues. Dorner opened fire with a rifle, killing Crain and seriously wounding Tachias, neither of whom were looking for him.

Dorner eluded capture for nearly a week, but was cornered while trying to escape from a cabin near Big Bear, where he killed a sheriff's deputy before taking his own life.

In March, veteran prosecutor Mike Hestrin declared his candidacy for District Attorney, setting the stage for a political slugfest between the 42-year-old and his boss, Paul Zellerbach. Hestrin's plank focused on more aggressive prosecutions, fairness in workplace promotions and strengthening partnerships with law enforcement agencies.

Zellerbach pointed to his success in balancing the D.A.'s budget, helping clear the courts' backlog of criminal cases and improving relations with the defense Bar as credits toward his re-election in June 2014.

In May, the county reached an agreement to end litigation that began in February 2012 after the Board of Supervisors approved a policy to impose fees on energy companies seeking to build solar farms between Cabazon and Blythe.

Developers sued, arguing the fees were illegal taxes that could seriously impact their finances. Following out-of-court negotiations, the county agreed to slash the $450-per-acre fees to $150. The board signed off on the settlement in a 4-1 vote.

On July 6, the disappearance of 11-year-old Terry Smith Jr. of Menifee led to a massive volunteer search covering a 55-square-mile area. Less than five days later, the boy's remains were located in a shallow grave behind his mother's Helen Lane home.

His half-brother, 16-year-old Skylor Atilano, was charged with the killing. As the story unfolded, questions arose about claims Terry's mother made regarding his being autistic and the type of supervision, if any, the child had received.

Firestorms raged in central and southwest Riverside County through July and August. The Mountain Fire began on July 15 near Idyllwild, blackening 27,500 acres, destroying seven homes and a dozen other structures before crews got it under control two weeks later.

The Falls Fire erupted in the Cleveland National Forest, just west of Lake Elsinore, on Aug. 5, scorching 1,400 acres and damaging a large segment of the Ortega (74) Highway before it was contained on Aug. 9.

The Silver Fire broke out on Aug. 7 just south of Banning, charring more than 20,000 acres and destroying 26 homes and other structures before it was fully contained five days later.

On Aug. 29, the city of Riverside was walloped by a ferocious thunderstorm that generated 60 mph winds, flooded streets, knocked out power and triggered mudslides. Major intersections were blocked for hours, forcing traffic to a standstill throughout the downtown area. At least two homes sustained significant damage when silt and water flowed out of a canal.

In early September, Riverside mourned the loss of 16-year-old Tyler Lewellen, who collapsed and died while participating in a varsity football scrimmage in Jurupa Valley. The Arlington High School student suffered fatal seizures after he made helmet-to-helmet contact during a defensive play.

Just over two months later, a 16-year-old high school football player in Corona, Jordan Walker, suffered life-threatening spinal injuries when another player landed on his head during a game. The teenager remained hospitalized at year's end.

In September and October, sex scandals rocked campuses in Murrieta and Eastvale. Two Vista Murrieta High School football players were charged with sexually assaulting several girls, while two boys at Roosevelt High School were charged with raping a girl in a bathroom.

Citing public safety concerns, the Board of Supervisors in October approved an ordinance on pit bull sterilization. Under the measure, owners of the breed are required to have their pets spayed or neutered unless they qualify for one of several exemptions specified by the Department of Animal Services. The law only applies to residents in unincorporated communities.

The board closed out the year with a historic vote on the Temecula Valley Wine Country Plan. At the urging of Supervisor Jeff Stone, the board enacted revised zoning and land-use regulations to facilitate expansion of the wine country to 19,000 acres, on which Stone envisions up to 170 vintners doing business one day. The area is currently home to 42. --City News Service


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