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Looking Back At Top News Stories Of 2016
First Half Headlines
Public Works crew members from San Joaquin County converged at the intersection of McHenry Avenue and River Road, measuring, painting and preparing for the new roundabout. After the road was closed for striping work on Saturday, the new traffic control system went into effect. - photo by Marg Jackson/The Times

From retirements to graduations, roundabouts to city issues, there were plenty of news making events in and around Escalon during 2016. This week, we review the first half of the year, the top stories from January to June. Next week, look for the July to December review in The Times.



Weather forecasters got it right when they predicted an El Nino for this winter – as the region is already well ahead of the normal rainfall totals as well as surpassing the total amount received all of last winter. Pounding rain and high winds pelted Escalon and the surrounding area late Monday on in to Tuesday, and weather watchers had reported over an inch and a half of rain in the area on Monday, Jan. 18 and over an inch and a quarter more accumulating by noontime Tuesday.

A packed house got their money’s worth on Friday night – with three hard-fought basketball games and the crowning of new Escalon High School Homecoming royalty. Chosen as the Homecoming King was senior Logan Widmer, who took the crown over four classmates, Hunter Calton, Wyatt Cockrell, Caleb Hansen and Sam Lattig. The crowning came at halftime of the varsity boys basketball contest on Jan. 15.

Back for a sixth year, the American Cancer Society’s signature fundraising event, Relay For Life, will be hosted again in Escalon for 2016. The first of the season fundraisers for the Relay was hosted Monday night, Jan. 25 at D’Boni’s Pizza, with a portion of proceeds from the night benefitting the local event.

School district residents will have the opportunity next month to learn more about the accountability plan being put in place for Escalon Unified.

It wasn’t received with applause – but the Escalon City Council took a step that no other council has taken in more than 20 years. They approved a plan that will see wastewater (sewer) rates for the city’s domestic and industrial users jump, some significantly, over the next several years. The action came at the Tuesday, Jan. 19 city council meeting, after a roughly half-hour long discussion and review of an updated Wastewater Rate Study performed by Hansford Economic Consulting.



After nearly three decades in law enforcement, Terry Pinheiro has turned in his badge. The longtime reserve – and former fulltime – officer for the Escalon Police Department retired as of Dec. 31, 2015 and a retirement dinner was hosted for him on Saturday evening at the Escalon Community Center. Tables of memorabilia, commendations, photos, newspaper clippings and more were set up around the facility, chronicling a career that has kept Pinheiro busy for years. He also currently works fulltime as an Escalon Consolidated Fire Protection District Battalion Chief, but still managed to serve as an Escalon reserve officer over the years as well.

A fourth grade class at Dent Elementary School is going to be celebrating Valentine’s Day a little differently this year. But it’s still all about heart. The students in Whitney Turner’s class are bringing in items that will be turned over to representatives of a couple area human services organizations on Feb. 11, with the items helping out those in need. “We sent a letter home and it started out as a class project,” said co-organizer Tracey Miller. “It’s called ‘Expressions of Love’ and now we have opened it up to anybody that wants to donate.”

A temporary roundabout could be showing up in the future at McHenry Avenue and River Road – which currently is controlled by a four-way stop. The San Joaquin County Public Works Department is scheduled to make a presentation later this month to outline the possibility of a temporary roundabout at McHenry Avenue and River Road to assist with traffic flow.

More than two dozen people attended the first of two meetings designed to give residents a say in forming the future of education in the Escalon Unified School District. “It went well, we probably had close to 25 people there,” EUSD Assistant Superintendent Joel Johannsen said of the Feb. 3 session at Dent Elementary School.

On a chilly Sunday morning – well before settling in for some Super Bowl viewing and snacking – dozens gathered at El Portal Middle School for the annual Panther Fun Run, lacing up the running shoes for either the one-mile or 5k event. Both took off at the same time from the First Street school campus, the one-mile going out and back on First Street and the 5k veering out into the country for a bit before coming back along the main route to end at the school.

A portion of Escalon-Bellota Road was shut down and a nearby preschool sent into lockdown mode when a man barricaded himself in a home on Escalon Avenue early Thursday afternoon, Feb. 11. The man, identified as 31-year-old Eric Cummings, was subsequently arrested without incident and taken into custody on multiple charges. He is due in Manteca Court on Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 17, for his first court appearance and remains in the San Joaquin County Jail on $173,000 bail. Cummings was arrested and booked on Thursday afternoon, Feb. 11 after being taken into custody, charged with felony terrorists threats, felony vandalism (damage totaling more than $400) and misdemeanor exhibition of a deadly weapon other than a firearm.

An early morning hay fire on Friday prompted an air advisory and kept Escalon firefighters busy at the scene for a few hours, making sure the fire didn’t spread to any buildings on the property. Battalion Chief Chris Johnson said the fire, near the Lone Tree and Steinegul roads intersection, was in the 15000 block of Steinegul at a local dairy. The call came in about 4:30 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 12.

Input from several sources is being considered and a draft design is being developed for future expansion at Escalon’s Hogan-Ennis Park. With additional acreage purchased by the city for the expansion, the park is expected to one day include a skate park area and residents interested in learning more about the proposal will get a chance to look at the design next month.



Escalon will be getting a roundabout, with San Joaquin County Public Works officials outlining the plan for a sparse crowd Tuesday night, Feb. 23 at the city’s Community Center. The meeting had originally been planned at City Hall but pre-meeting buzz about the prospect of a roundabout replacing the four-way stop sign at River Road and McHenry Avenue prompted officials to move it to the larger venue.

Quick work by police and help from citizens resulted in four suspects being arrested in connection with a burglary spree on Monday morning, Feb. 29 in Escalon. Arrested on multiple charges were Andrew Rodriguez, 19, of Ceres; Enrique DeLeon, 18, of Oakdale; Adrianno Gutierrez, 18, of Atwater and Sumit Bajwa, 18, of Ceres. All were booked at San Joaquin County Jail and remained in custody at press time on Tuesday.

For Lilliana Koller, it was the moment she has been waiting for the last few years. The Escalon High School senior set her sights on bringing home a medal from this year’s Academic Decathlon and she met that goal. Her efforts produced two medals, taking third place honors in both Speech and Math. Senior Kaylee Weible earned medals for first place, in Speech and Math, and earning a third place medal in Interview was senior Mitzy Saucedo.

The phrase “It was a dark and stormy night” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Saturday evening arrived with heavy winds, intermittent downpours … and the perfect setting for a murder mystery dinner theatre in a barn along Enterprise Road.

‘Grandpa’s Barn’ – which has served as the setting for many special events hosted by Lorina’s Edible Garden – was instead turned into a stage and dining area for the production. Escalon High School alum Taylor Carnes and several of her friends and colleagues from the In Motion Theatre Company staged a drama to remember for the ages, the hilarious yet devious mystery playing out as attendees enjoyed dinner, compared notes, were ‘interviewed’ by a couple of investigators working the case and trying to figure out ‘whodunit.”

Named as a ‘Star of Life’ through the California Ambulance Association, Tina Van Houten was recognized recently at the State Capitol for her dedication and service. She began her EMS career as a volunteer with Escalon Community Ambulance in 1985, when she volunteered for 12-hour shifts several times a week. In 1987 the ECA Board of Directors asked if she would volunteer to enroll in the Paramedic program hosted in San Joaquin County.

A proposed expansion at Hogan-Ennis Park, on a little over 19 acres purchased by the city, primarily to the north of the existing park footprint, will include added parking in two different areas. Both are situated a fair distance from the Community Center, but as officials noted at a mid-March public meeting, this was just a draft concept master plan, not the finished product.

Escalon High School has been included in a prestigious group, named to the Gaston Caperton Honor Roll, one of just 130 districts across the country to earn the recognition. District Superintendent Ron Costa said the inclusion of the school on the honor roll “speaks to the hard work and dedication” of the staff and administration in helping meet student needs, as well as efforts of student themselves.



It doesn’t happen every day. And it’s not something Escalon Community Ambulance Paramedics Vanessa Herrero and Leah Robinson are going to forget anytime soon. Now, in addition to the long list of medical calls and auto accidents they have responded to, the two paramedics can add the experience of delivering a baby to their résumé.

His emotions, he said, were doing ‘backflips’ as he listened to the chaos going on around him. Escalon High School senior Wyatt Cockrell, one of two students who ‘died’ as the result of an alcohol-related crash staged Thursday for the Every 15 Minutes program for Escalon and Vista high schools, said it was a surreal experience that felt all too real.

The second phase of improvements along First Street in Escalon won’t start until school lets out for the summer. But Escalon City Council members awarded the contract for the work at their Monday night council meeting, giving the nod to Ross F. Carroll, Inc. of Oakdale for a $383,803 bid. Next lowest bidder was George Reed, coming in at $396,165.

After a Saturday closure for final striping work, the new – though temporary – roundabout has gone into effect at the intersection of McHenry Avenue and River Road in Escalon. Eventually, the area is expected to get an actual traffic signal, but that isn’t anticipated until replacement of the McHenry Avenue bridge that spans the Stanislaus River and links San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.

A pair of bank robbers made off with an undisclosed amount of cash following a noontime robbery at the BBVA Compass Bank at 3380 McHenry Ave. in Escalon on Monday, April 18. A few hours later, a subject matching roughly the same description also robbed the Valley First Credit Union bank on West F Street in nearby Oakdale. Escalon Police Chief Mike Borges said the incident in Escalon occurred about 12:05 p.m. Monday, April 18 when an unknown suspect walked into the local bank.

For the third time in four years, Escalon High School has received national recognition from US News and World Report. Escalon Unified School District officials were notified this past week that EHS has been awarded a Silver ranking and is among not only the best high schools in the state, but also has been recognized nationwide.



Escalon’s Presbyterian Church on First Street is growing … so much so that it has basically outgrown its current ‘footprint’ and has to expand. Congregation members and church leaders gathered on Sunday for a groundbreaking ceremony to officially get that expansion underway.

Escalon has seemed to become part of a flight path … and some city council members have voiced their concerns about it. During discussion at the recent Escalon City Council session, councilman Ed Alves questioned why there seems to have been a preponderance of low-flying commercial-type airplanes over the city in recent weeks. “Amazon has cargo planes that are coming in daily to the (Stockton) airport,” City Manager Tammy Alcantor explained.

In what was described as the largest crowd in years – and perhaps ever – there was plenty of sipping, strolling, visiting and eating along Escalon’s Main Street on Friday night. The annual Chamber of Commerce-sponsored Wine Stroll brought in a huge crowd and they kept the wine pourers busy throughout the evening. Businesses along the Main Street corridor between First and Second streets kept their doors open and many of the owners were stationed outside, serving up hors d’oeuvres while wines were enjoyed. Other booths featured olive oils, food, fruits and nuts and there was music provided for the evening as well.

Only a couple of city residents were in attendance – along with the Escalon City Council and a variety of city staffers – at a budget workshop on Tuesday, May 17. The relatively brief session was hosted at the council chambers, 2060 McHenry Ave., and featured a presentation on the proposed spending plan along with a chance for council and public comments and questions.

The weather cooperated, the volunteers turned out, traffic was heavy – and motorists were generous. All that added up to a hugely successful Fill The Boot drive this past weekend in Escalon, with firefighters stationed at the main intersection for several hours both Saturday, May 21 and Sunday, May 22. Proceeds of the annual event benefit the Firefighters Burn Institute in Sacramento. “We wrote a check for $23,765,” said firefighter Jennifer Cannon, this year’s Fill The Boot coordinator for the Escalon Fire Department. “I am so excited.”



Members of the Escalon American Legion Post 263 and the American Legion Riders hosted a series of four Memorial Day services scattered throughout the region, providing ample opportunity for residents to pay their respects to those service men and women who have given the ultimate sacrifice to preserve our freedoms.

Under bright sunny skies that had nearly everyone in the audience fanning themselves with their graduation programs, the Class of 2016 at Escalon High school took to their seats on the football field on Friday night. Festivities included several speeches, recognition for the employee of the year, student recognition, the awarding of diplomas and the traditional tossing of caps skyward.

Dave Lattig and Talmage Allen are headed off to new challenges. Both are completing their tenure with the Escalon Unified School District, leaving to pursue new opportunities, Lattig in Turlock and Allen in Oakdale.

With few questions from the public and just a couple minor clarifications asked for by council members, the Escalon City Council on Monday night unanimously approved the 2016-17 city budget, which will take effect on Friday, July 1. The fiscal year spending plan, which runs from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017 came in at $14,858,537 – though roughly half of that is in a Capital Improvements budget and the other half in the actual operating budget for day to day operations.

With many taking to the track with heavy hearts this year, the sixth annual Relay For Life of Escalon nonetheless raised more than $44,000 in the fight against cancer. Locals were mourning two recent losses, that of six-year-old Jacob ‘Jake’ Castellanos and Sandy Anderson, 39, a longtime teacher and Escalon resident. Both passed away within the last couple of weeks after battling cancer. Their loss and the memory of others that have been lost to the disease are what drove the nearly 200 participants on a dozen teams to rally for the cause despite the triple digit heat.


Sheriff’s detectives are continuing to investigate the case of a man found stabbed to death in the 9000 block of Sawyer Road, just outside the city limits of Oakdale on Thursday, June 23. When deputies arrived they found a 30-year-old man on the ground with apparent stab wounds to various parts of his body. Emergency medical crews attempted lifesaving efforts for the victim, however, he was pronounced dead at the scene. Detectives and crime scene personnel were then notified to respond to the residence. Responding deputies detained Ren Arnell Bellido, 42, of Escalon on the property.