Heartbreak, humor was published in the Merced Sun-Star in 2011

County faced tough times in 2011, but there were light moments too

bbowers@mecedsunstar.comJanuary 2, 2012 

The Merced Sun-Star covered a lot of news in 2011. Some of it was heartbreaking, such as the numerous deaths that occurred in Yosemite National Park during the spring and summer months. Some of it had a harsh local impact, such as the steep budget cuts endured by Merced County school districts and other local agencies. And some of the stories we broke gained national attention. The following list shows some of the top stories of the year, as determined by input from the Sun-Star's newsroom staff, votes from readers, and page views on MercedSunStar.com.

Starbucks employee vents in song

A Starbucks employee fired for his musical rant made national headlines and became the Merced Sun-Star's top-read story of 2011. Back in September, Christopher Cristwell, 25, posted a video of himself to YouTube, singing about his job at the Chowchilla Starbucks. The video quickly gained popularity, going viral after it was posted to a prominent Starbucks blog. That's when it caught the attention of management, who said they couldn't allow Cristwell to continue working at the Chowchilla shop after making "disparaging" remarks about customers. The video has had nearly 1 million views in the three months since it first went online, and a version of the song is now available for sale on iTunes.

And Cristwell? It appears he's working again.

A Dec. 6 comment on his Facebook profile says he's now working at the Shell gas station in Chowchilla -- across the street from the coffee shop he loved to hate.

Livingston teacher accused

The news seemed to keep getting worse for Livingston High School teacher Japhia Huhndorf, who back in May was accused by police of helping several of her students inhale chloroform, a chemical that can be used as an anesthetic. Not long after she was arrested, police evacuated the high school campus after getting reports of explosive materials being kept in a classroom.

They eventually found a vial containing 4 milliliters of nitroglycerin in Huhn- dorf's chemistry lab. She was accused of storing explosive and dangerous chemicals in her classroom.

Her ordeal came to an end in December, when she was sentenced to four years of probation and was forced to surrender her teaching license.

UC Merced student's death shakes campus

The suicide of Adam Wood sent shock waves through the close-knit UC Merced community. The 19-year-old sophomore was found hanging from a 75-foot utility tower.

Friends and acquaintances remembered Wood as witty, intelligent and charismatic, but said he had been dealing with personal demons.

The campus, which hit an attendance mark of 5,000 students for the first time in 2011, memorialized Wood with several public gatherings.

County's budget woes

Merced sent out 36 layoff notices to city employees in June, including a number of police officers and firefighters, as a result of the $278 million 2011-12 budget. Likewise, Merced County's managers were scrambling to shrink their budgets by 20 percent prior to June's budget vote. As a result, several longtime cultural institutions were being threatened with cuts or closure, including the Merced County Courthouse Museum and Merced County Library. Ultimately, Merced County's 2011-12 budget passed with 79 layoffs included. However, the library and museum survived the cuts.

Yosemite deaths

Yosemite National Park had already reported an unusually high number of deaths by the time three young people were swept over Vernal Fall in July. Hormiz David, 22, of Modesto, Ninos Yacoub, 27, of Turlock and Ramina Badal, 21, of Manteca were hiking Yosemite's famed Mist Trail when they walked out into the stream above the waterfall. They lost balance, fell into the water and were quickly swept over the 300-foot waterfall. The tragedy made the most headlines, but there were nearly 20 deaths in Yosemite in 2011, including Merced doctor Greg Meyer and physician assistant Richard Fox, both 53, who were swept to their deaths while trying to cross a bridge at Wapama Falls. Meyer had been trying to save Fox, who'd lost his footing. Also killed in Yosemite was Hayley LaFlamme, a 25-year-old hiker from San Ramon, who in July fell 600 feet from the Half Dome summit while trying to climb down the cables.

Police shooting

Family and friends were outraged after Merced police shot and killed Merced College student Vang Thao, 21, at a Buckingham Court residence in December. Police were responding to a call about a man with a gun at a party.

Officers saw a man, later identified as Kong Xiong, 18, a validated gang member, holding a loaded gun. Xiong stood at the front of the house with his back partially toward officers, according to police. He suddenly turned toward officers with a handgun in his right hand and began running parallel to the house. The officers responded by firing at Xiong, and subsequently through a fence behind him. Thao and a 17-year-old boy, who were standing behind the fence, were shot. According to police, Thao died at a hospital. The teen survived with a leg wound.

The shooting prompted several protests and calls for answers. Merced police say video taken during the shooting clears officers of any wrongdoing. Even so, Thao's family members say they're preparing a lawsuit against the police department.

Bad behavior by Merced's tax collector

Karen Adams, Merced County's treasurer-tax collector, was censured by the Merced County Board of Supervisors and relieved of her appointed duty as registrar of voters after claims of harassment against her were substantiated by an independent investigation. The county spent about $13,000 to conduct the investigation, which said Adams had created a hostile working environment and made employees feel uncomfortable with odd behavior. Adams, who also serves as the county clerk, said the accusations were exaggerated and said she didn't plan to resign from her elected roles.

Changes on the Merced City Council

Voters wanted change, mostly, when they headed to the polls in November to vote for mayor and three City Council seats. After months of expensive and exhaustive campaigning, political newcomers Mike Murphy and Tony Dossetti were chosen for the seven-member council, as was incumbent Noah Lor. And Mercedians chose to oust Mayor Bill Spriggs in favor of Stan Thurston, a former councilman. The four winning candidates each said they wanted to work to bring jobs to Merced -- a notion that clearly resonated in an area that has seen many employers wither away in recent years and is suffering from near 20 percent unemployment. The race also featured an unusual -- and pricey -- battle between council incumbent John Carlisle and a group calling themselves Workers Opposing John Carlisle for Council 2011. The group, whose donors were mostly out-of-town businessmen, showed about $12,000 in funds just before the Nov. 8 election. As a result, Carlisle enjoyed a last-minute surge of campaign cash from labor unions.

Flash Buy

In the midst of a souring economy, a group of Mercedians over the summer joined together on Facebook in a novel effort to support local businesses. Merced Flash Buy was started by Michael Abarca, a 26-year-old Merced resident who said he got the idea after watching videos of flash mobs -- those groups of people who gather in public places for seemingly spontaneous performances. Group members pledge to patronize a specific, locally owned business each Friday. They determine which business to support via a Facebook poll. Joe on the Go, a coffee and sandwich shop at Bear Creek Galleria, was the first business the group visited. More than 50 people participated. The group is still going strong, with nearly 1,400 members.

Online Editor Brandon Bowers can be reached at (209) 385-2462 or bbowers@mercedsunstar.com.

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