In a year punctuated by two murder-suicides that took the lives of young children, other tragedies — fires, drownings, shootings and deadly car wrecks — left local residents with plenty of reasons to mourn.
If 2011 is a year for the record books in Patterson, it’s safe to say most folks won’t remember it too fondly.
January kicked off on a sour note, with the death of City Councilman Sam Cuellar, a fire that leveled much of Joe’s Travel Plaza at the Interstate 5 Westley exit and the loss of a former Patterson resident who caused his own death when he set his house on fire in Gustine.
Then, shock, anger and grief swept through the community Jan. 18, when local resident Jose Esteban Rodriguez, 27, snatched 4-year-old Juliani from his grandmother’s arms and drove into the Delta-Mendota Canal, killing both of them.
“We need to do a better job of being helping people who are feeling disenfranchised and are feeling a disconnect from their families,” Mayor Luis Molina said this week, noting there are public resources to help. “More preventative measures need to be taken.”
Rodriguez drove off with Juliani in a 2003 Toyota Corolla that was pulled from the water of the canal Jan. 28. Juliani’s body was found Feb. 1 in the canal near Santa Nella, while Rodriguez’s body was found in the canal Feb. 12.
However, the whereabouts of both Juliani and Rodriguez were unknown for more than a week, and a worldwide audience became captivated as investigators scoured the canal banks and pulled numerous vehicles out of the Delta-Mendota. A farm worker previously had told investigators he had seen a car like the Corolla plunge into the waterway.
About halfway into the year, shockwaves reverberated through the community again when another child was taken under tragic circumstances. Hussan Williams, 10, and his father, Anthony Williams, were found dead in a car in rural Lathrop on June 3, after Anthony Williams apparently shot and killed both of them. News of the incident arrived the first day of the annual Apricot Fiesta, an event through which many people knew the elder Williams as a prominent volunteer.
Patterson residents gathered for candlelight vigils and prayer services following the deaths of both boys, and Mayor Luis Molina hosted a forum about grief and tragedy after Juliani’s death in an effort to improve the mental health of the community.
In addition, Councilwoman Deborah Novelli helped organize a Child Safety Fair in the city’s North Park in October that featured child-victims advocate Marc Klaas of the Sausalito-based Klaas Kids Foundation. More than 400 children had their fingerprints and vital data recorded.
The community also mourned the loss of a couple of other youthful Pattersonites in 2011, though none so young as Juliani and Hussan. Many were grieved April 11 when Emmanuel Chapparo, 20, lost an extensive battle to cancer. Chaparro had only recently married his fiancée, Cynthia, on Feb. 26. Several months later, Ernesto Ordonez, 19, drowned when the tractor he was driving plunged into the Delta-Mendota Canal near Rogers Road on Sept. 5. Several people at the scene complained that the sheriff’s department did not try to retrieve Ordonez’s body until a private tow company, hired by rancher Jeff Arambel, began to pull the tractor out of the water and noticed the victim. Sheriff’s officials responded that they had held off because of the swift current and because of the incorrect belief that Ordonez was not wearing safety restraints and might have been carried far from the tractor.
It also was a deadly year for auto accidents, mostly on rural roads. Two unrelated crashes on West Main Street, east of Patterson, claimed the lives of Vernalis resident Concepecion Gomez and her unborn child April 2, followed by Patterson resident Dennis Smith on April 30. More recently, Ida Peña Perez of Patterson died in a car wreck Dec. 18 at Highway 33 and Marshall Road after 19-year-old Kendall Schene ran a stop sign and struck her car. Just a little more than a week later, 52-year-old Jose Telles of rural Patterson was found dead after he veered off a canal road on a ranch north of Crows Landing and struck an irrigation standpipe.
Major house fires also made headlines this year, as local families were left without homes following a Jan. 25 fire on Poppy Avenue and a Nov. 27 blaze on Shasta Creek Court. Flames also destroyed a historical barn at Eucalyptus and Elm avenues, a Grayson church meeting room and a barn on Fig Avenue in rural Patterson, killing several chickens.
The year’s tragedies were capped by the death of Ruvalcaba, who was shot to death in an alley in west Modesto on Dec. 16. The out-of-town homicide followed several unrelated shootings in Patterson, some of which left victims with injuries, but none of which resulted in deaths.
Meanwhile, many local residents face potential economic devastation next year, after Patterson Vegetable Co. officials announced this month that its 65-year-old local processing plant may shut down in February. Company representatives asked union members for $2-per-hour pay cuts and slashed benefits earlier this month, but employees overwhelmingly refused.
Despite the myriad challenges facing Patterson residents this past year, the mayor held out hope for a better 2012.
“I think we’re heading in a better direction,” Molina said this week.
• Contact Maddy Houk at 892-6187 or email@example.com.