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Year In Review: Reflecting On 2016
Escalon Community Ambulance stalwarts Tina Van Houten, left, and Mike Pitassi share a smile as they listen to ECA Board President Jerry Emery offer remarks on Sunday, Sept. 11 at the naming of the ambulance building on Ullrey Avenue as the Pitassi/Van Houten Station. Marg Jackson/The Times

Dedication of a newly named ambulance station, elections, Homecoming and more made headlines for the second half of the year in Escalon and surrounding communities. This week, we take a look back at top news stories from The Times, July to December.



In a week that saw temperatures hit the century mark, backing off by just a few degrees for the weekend, it was nonetheless a festive Park Fete celebration for Escalon. With Fete-themed activities earlier in the week, Tuesday through Thursday, the real festival portion of Park Fete kicked off Friday afternoon and continued all day and into the evening on Saturday. Along the way there was plenty of fun, games, music, entertainment, food, competitions, a parade and more.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed H.R. 4582, the Save Our Salmon (SOS) Act, introduced by area Congressman Jeff Denham (R-Turlock). Denham’s bill would remove the fish doubling provision in the 1992 Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) for non-native, predatory striped bass, thereby protecting native salmon and steelhead and reducing nonessential water usage.

After several years in dormancy, the Escalon Police Department’s volunteer program has been revived. Newly trained and uniformed volunteers were on the job for their first official assignment this past weekend, assisting at the city’s Park Fete celebration in a number of capacities, including traffic control and providing assistance as needed to officers.

Some changes in the organizational structure for Escalon’s Public Works Department should help make for a smoother operation. Action taken at the recent Escalon City Council meeting saw the council approve some recommendations made by consultant Dennis Turner, who was hired to conduct an organizational review of the department.



The first day of classes for the 2016-17 school year in the Escalon Unified School District is set for Wednesday, Aug. 10. New teachers are gearing up for their orientation days later this week, with the district welcoming 19 new teachers to the various campuses. Also new this year will be Eric Simoni taking on the role of Escalon High School Principal and Julio Zambrano coming on board as the new Van Allen Elementary Principal. Simoni comes from the Manteca Unified School District while Zambrano was last at Empire Elementary School.

With one last minute cancellation and an accompanying late addition, there were eight different ‘National Night Out’ gatherings scattered throughout Escalon on Tuesday, Aug. 2. The traditional caravan of police, fire, ambulance and city officials – from council members to public works and city hall staff – joined in the fun and made their way to a number of stops. Each included food, beverages, a chance for the adults to talk and a chance for the kids to meet emergency services personnel in a relaxed atmosphere, able to tour the fire and police vehicles.

Almost like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Escalon Youth Center grew out of the ruins of the former Escalon Motel; that building demolished and cleared away, making room for a safe haven for local youths. The grand opening ceremony for the new center on Saturday, Aug. 13 drew a large crowd, including several representatives from Escalon’s Trinity Church, Assembly of God, the driving force behind the center, and many agencies in town that helped with the project. Youth Center manager Todd ‘T.J.’ O’Neill welcomed those in attendance and briefly outlined the process that Trinity went through to bring the center to fruition. He noted that what began as the dream of Pastor Jim Davis is now something that the entire community can enjoy.

A late night collision on Highway 120 at Brennan Road on Saturday, Aug. 20 resulted in the death of one Escalon man and the arrest of another. The victim, identified as Justin Kepler, 28, of Escalon was an officer with the Stockton Police Department. He was riding his personal motorcycle, a 2013 Victory, eastbound on Highway 120 shortly after 10 pm. Saturday when the crash occurred.

After an absence of several months, the Senior Meals program is back in business in Escalon. Serving seniors ages 60 and older two days a week at the Escalon Community Center, the meals offer not only nutritious food but a chance for local senior citizens to socialize. Taking over administrative duties at the site is Karen Corey, who said the lunches are served Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11 a.m.



When they were forced to postpone their normal Presidents’ Day Weekend collection for Fill The Boot, Farmington firefighters weren’t sure when they would be able to do it. But things fell into place and they were able to use the last weekend of summer – Labor Day Weekend – to stand out at the intersection of Highway 4 and Escalon-Bellota Road with their turnout boots.

Saturday, Sept. 10 had it all if you enjoy spending some time strolling among shiny classics. The annual Escalon Lions Club Autumn Cruise saw nearly 350 vehicles entered, filling up the city’s Main Street Park from First to Fourth streets and even some spilling out onto a portion of Main Street.

A special ceremony on Sunday morning, Sept. 11 saw the dedication of and official re-naming of the Escalon Community Ambulance station on Ullrey Avenue – it is now known as the Pitassi/Van Houten Station. The naming comes in honor of longtime ECA leaders, Chief Mike Pitassi and Lead Medic Tina Van Houten, both of whom have served the community for years. ECA Board President Jerry Emery said a “unanimous decision” of the board resulted in the naming of the station.

A love of writing that began when she was a student at Dent Elementary has taken Kathryn Aalto to many places, including the New York Times best-seller list. “I always loved words, I always loved writing,” said the 1986 Escalon High School graduate, who now lives in England but came back to Escalon recently to share her books and her passion with students. She appeared in two assemblies at Dent Elementary and told students that they, too, are capable of achieving their dreams.

Sunny skies, a light breeze, a huge crowd … the stage was set for Escalon’s 2016 Homecoming celebration on Friday, Sept. 23 and by the end of the festivities, senior Lexington ‘Lexi’ Wheeler was the new Homecoming Queen and the varsity football team took a hard-fought loss to rival Patterson.

The Escalon Chamber of Commerce will be hosting a Candidates Forum for the three candidates running for Escalon City Council. The forum will be held at the Escalon Library on Wednesday, Oct. 5. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the forum begins promptly at 7 p.m. Candidates are incumbent Jeff Laugero, former councilmember and past Escalon Police Chief Walter Murken and newcomer Will Smith, who is listed as a superintendent/businessman on the official ballot. Incumbent Gary Haskin did not file for re-election, opting to step down after serving 20 years on the council.



Sunny skies, jam packed streets and plenty of ‘treasures.’ Escalon’s annual citywide yard sale on Saturday had a little bit of everything. One resident was even selling the bathroom sink. A trio of sinks, in fact, was lined up on the lawn along Yosemite Avenue, just in case someone needed an extra. “I come every year,” said Rhea Terpstra from neighboring Ripon, digging through some paperback books. “I found some really nice stuff, well worth coming.”

While quietly going about their work in Escalon, the Healing Arenas, Inc. picked up some recognition. The organization, which offers a variety of programs and services, particularly assisting veterans and working with retired racehorses, was nominated for and received a Community Service Award recently from the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department. Julie Baker of Healing Arenas noted that some of their retired racehorses have gone on to become members of the sheriff’s department equestrian unit. Baker said the recognition was unexpected but appreciated; the award presented to program officials by Lt. Erin Kiely, who serves as chief of the Riverbank Police Services, part of the sheriff’s department.

Reports of a clown threatening to kidnap an El Portal student and an Instagram message that a clown was coming to “kill students at Escalon High School” had both campuses and police on high alert this week. One arrest was made – a 16-year-old male student from Vista High School was booked into Juvenile Hall for making threats in a Thursday, Oct. 6 incident that saw police responding to the high school regarding the threat. Escalon Unified School District Superintendent Ron Costa said the incidents were frightening but there were no injuries and they were determined to be a hoax.

Voters in the Escalon Unified School District will see two candidates on the ballot vying for the Trustee Area 3 seat in November. Challenger Nicholas ‘Nick’ Caton, a Realtor/farmer, is seeking to replace incumbent Amy Bavaro in Trustee Area 3 (Van Allen) on the school board.

The first in a series of local events to observe Halloween is coming up tonight, Wednesday, Oct. 26, at the Escalon Covenant Church on Escalon Avenue. As it has for the past several years, the church will host its annual ‘Trunk or Treat’ event to provide some Halloween trick or treating in a safe environment.



Action at Monday night’s Escalon City Council meeting saw the panel, by a 5-0 vote, adopt an ‘urgency ordinance’ regarding Proposition 64, which was on the ballot on Tuesday, Election Day. If Prop 64 – marijuana legalization – passed, the Interim Urgency Ordinance Banning Recreational Marijuana would give the council time to assess how best to proceed, providing a 45-day window in which to consider its options.

A pair of newcomers ousted a pair of incumbents in voting on Election Day in Escalon, while a current councilman and a former panel member were returned to office. Incumbent Jeff Laugero was returned to the Escalon City Council in voting on Nov. 8, and former council member Walt Murken will be returning to the dais. The two won the available seats on the council over challenger and first-time candidate Will Smith. Results from the San Joaquin County Registrar of Voters also showed challenger Nick Caton winning over incumbent Amy Bavaro for the Trustee Area 3 seat on the Escalon Unified School Board. Newcomer Josh Cummings was the top vote getter in a three-way race for two seats on the Escalon Fire Board, turning out incumbent Jim New. Incumbent Steve Reichmuth did win re-election.

Under a bright, sunny sky and with temperatures soaring close to 80 degrees, there were plenty of flags whipping in the wind along Escalon’s Main Street on Friday.

The flags, placed there by the Escalon American Legion Post, set the stage for a downtown parade to kick off the community’s Veterans’ Day events.

The death of an Escalon man as the result of an early morning altercation behind the Valley Inn on Main Street is being investigated as a homicide and another Escalon man is wanted in connection with the incident. Rocky Overturf, 26, of Escalon was later arrested in connection with the Nov. 20 death of Aaron Messick, 36, also of Escalon after initially fleeing the scene.

Under some new leadership, yet with a dedicated returning group of volunteers, the annual Escalon Community Thanksgiving Dinner went off smoothly, served to hungry diners at the city’s Community Center on Nov. 24. There were also a number of meals delivered around the community to those that couldn’t get in to town, and some people came in to pick up their holiday meals, taking them home to enjoy there. First year coordinator Dianna Dunn couldn’t have been more pleased with the way the event came off. “It was absolutely fantastic,” said Dunn, who helps coordinate the twice-weekly senior meals program at the Community Center.



After waiving the second reading of an ordinance dealing with updating the city’s municipal code, the Escalon City Council unanimously approved amendments to the Housing Element included as part of the city’s General Plan at their Dec. 5 meeting. “The city is currently in the process of updating the Housing Element for the fifth cycle planning period, which address the 2015-2023 planning period,” Development Services Manager Dominique Romo noted. “As part of the Housing Element Update, the City and its consultant have identified a number of programs for implementation that require changes to the Zoning Code.”

It looked more like a scene from the Macy’s parade than small town California, as watchers lined the streets two and three deep in some spots, angling for the best view of the holiday light parade. Escalon’s annual Christmas on Main, hosted by the Escalon Chamber of Commerce, had it all on Saturday. From nearly non-stop entertainment on stage and vendor booths in the park, to fire pits for roasting s’mores and a visit by Santa himself, the day was picture perfect. There was abundant sunshine but just enough of a chill in the air to remind you it was a winter event.

The ‘changing of the guard’ for the Escalon City Council saw recognition given to outgoing Mayor and 20-year council member Gary Haskin while incoming Mayor Jeff Laugero is following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Tom Hagan. In a special Thursday evening session, Dec. 15, members of the council publicly thanked Haskin for 20 years of service to the city, a career that started in April of 1996 when he first took his seat on the council dais.

A total of 70 families, representing some 169 children from birth up to the age of 17, were served through the Escalon Fire Department’s annual holiday toy distribution, hosted at the Coley Avenue firehouse on Friday, Dec. 23. A number of fire department personnel, Escalon American Legion members, Escalon Police Department volunteers and community residents joined forces to help the distribution run smoothly. Despite a steady rain, the crowd was cheerful and appreciative. Coordinator Terry Pinheiro said though the distribution was originally scheduled to start at 10 a.m., they opened the doors early, as the bags were ready and many people were waiting in the rain.