Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Year In Review: Winds of change

I couldn’t let this year end without going out on a positive note. Yes 2009 has been a most difficult time and I am glad to see it ending but there have been many reasons to be glad.

Trough all the tragedies and sorrows I have seen this year, through the despair and uncertainty of the economy and even through the veil of hatred and racism I see in the comments section I have still seen members of this community band together to face these hardships. We haven’t given in, we continue to fight for what is right and fair for all in our town.

It has been hard times for sure, lots of uncertainty, lots of tears and heartache. We may bend in the winds of change but we refuse to break.

I have wished for this year to end for some time. 2010 will bring a clean slate to us and a new resolve to not let fear of violence control us, to make the best of the hardships we face in business and to resolve to make Tracy a better place to live for all.

Blue moon

New Year's Eve will see the first blue moon since 1990 when the moon rises shortly after 5:00 pm tonight. I took these photos for a preview on my way to a basketball game at West High. The creepy looking photo above was in the West high quad with a hand held time exposure to illuminate the trees on the campus. The photo below was with my 70-200mm zoom with a 1.4 extender.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Year In Review: The end of the innocence

Waiting in the city council chambers surrounded by dozens of other journalists I waited for the words none of us wanted to hear. Sandra Cantu’s body was found inside a suitcase dumped in a dairy pond north of town. She was dead and our hearts were broken.

I was standing on a soccer field when I saw the helicopter hovering over a section of town up north. Right away I new something bad had happened. That was how the assignment started as search for a missing child. That Saturday morning would lead to probably the biggest story I have covered in my 20 years of being a journalist and certainly my saddest.

Those two weeks the Cantu story dominated my waking hours as I followed the frantic searches, candlelight vigils, press conferences and later on the homicide investigation. But the worst part about covering the story was the grief. The early days fear and suspicion would pass to inconsolable grief as community members and those who felt touched by Sandra’s death would gather at a memorial outside the mobile home park where she disappeared.

News of her death brought the hunt for her killer and assignments outside the Clover Road church photographing FBI investigators. Hoards of media descended on the town and everything seemed so surreal. It did not look like the same town as television trucks rumbled through town along with caravans of police cars and investigators.

Among things that stand out most from those days were the candlelight vigils with strangers standing shoulder to shoulder in the cold as they prayed for a missing little girl. And there were the posters of Sandra posted everywhere. On light poles, store windows cars traveling through town-you would see Sandra’s face everywhere. After the announcement of her death the family asked for them to be taken, as it was too much to see her everywhere.

I think about those two weeks a lot, probably too much. I remember the video of Sandra skipping to her house and I feel sad thinking all the photos I took of the search, all the vigils all the effort we made to find her and she was already gone.

The tears have been shed, the memorials removed and life goes on. Our saddest moment made us stronger in some ways as we banded together in our search, joined together in our grief and remembered one life lost too young.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Year In Review: A year of violence

There are seven days left in this year and it can’t end soon enough for me. It seems I have spent much of my time on assignment this year standing behind crime scene tape watching the various tragedies unfold.

With only a few days left in the year I was called out to the city’s fifth homicide where a man on his 21st birthday was shot in the chest, dying three hours later at a local hospital. It has been a year of violence that has put our community in the grip of fear and anger.

Standing outside the courtroom waiting to enter to photograph the arraignment for the latest murder suspects a woman noticing my press pass and camera gear asked me “Come here often?” “I do this year” I replied. The courtroom scenes have ranged from near circus like to tense drama as the parade of accused passed before me.

In all the crime stories the hardest aspect has been the human suffering. Grieving family and friends gathered at candlelight vigils in hope of finding comfort. Press conferences and public meeting to allay fears, the stories never seem to end. Too many lives have been lost and changed forever. The grief and heartache is a sign of our times and a mark of our violent times.

It has been a year of crime like no other I can remember in this town and hopefully this wave or anger and hate will ebb away in the coming year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

These are the days to remember

The Year In Pictures 2009

Saturday, December 19, 2009


There is a saying “It’s always darkest right before it goes pitch black.” Standing in the darkness behind the crime scene tape for the city’s fifth homicide of the year things do look pretty dark.

I sound like a broken record these days but consider the numbers. There were two shootings Friday night which made five for the week with three people being shot one fatally. If you look at just the month of December there were six shooting with four people being shot. It’s insane.

I walked around on my first two assignments this morning shell shocked. I crawled into bed shortly after 1:00 am Saturday morning after covering the shooting scene on East Street. Five hours later I am up and getting ready for a new day of assignments and while drinking coffee the early local television news reported the shooting victim had died. Five murders. I’ve lost count of just the general acts of violence committed in the city. There were other shootings, stabbings; someone tried to run over a kid with a car, bank robberies-it is getting too much.

So here I am seven days away from Christmas and feeling like I am in the grips of the dead of winter. It is starting to feel like all we do is cover the dark depressing events. How could we go from zero homicides in 2008 to five in 2009? And it seems like we are getting off lucky at just five. Other shooting victims could have easily raised our body count to six or seven.

So what happened to us? No one wants to answer; everyone is too busy pointing fingers. Look at the comments section of the website and you see how scared people really are. Talk of packing guns and threats against anyone crossing their path seem more like talk to hide the fact of how frightened they have become.

What’s worst for me is I have become resigned to my life behind the crime scene tape. It’s not a novelty anymore, it’s not unique, and it’s just another assignment. I wish things hadn’t turned out this way in our town.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Year In Review: The unfriendliest subject I photographed all year

Note to self: Don't tap rattlesnakes with a hiking pole. They have no sense of humor at all.
And that rattling noise and hissing sounds a lot louder in person than it does on the Discovery Channel.

The Year In Review: The dumbest assignment of the year

So I get assigned to cover a PETA protest at McDonald's. I've been to protest before but if the girl in the giant chicken suit wasn't bad enough, or even the guy splattered in fake blood the "re-enactment" of chopping the chicken to bits was pretty lame.

Reminds me of why I like hamburgers so much.

The Year In Review: The Green Man

If you have watched the television show "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" you will sort of have an idea behind the Green Man.

Like a ground hog in February, the Green Man makes an appearance once a year to watch a Tracy High volleyball game against their crosstown rivals West High. It's kind of fun watching the Green Mann lead the student cheering section, reminds me of my college days.

The Year In Review: The luckiest shot of the year

All I did was set the camera on a tripod, pre-focus the camera and leave the shutter open for a few seconds with an electronic shutter release to get rewarded with this shot of fireworks bursting over the Tracy high football stadium. Sometimes I would rather be lucky than good.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The breaking point

I am still trying to figure out what went wrong. Standing behind crime scene tape tonight I still keep asking myself what happened? How did things apparently get so bad? When did it all go wrong? What happened?

I was in the newsroom waiting to leave for a basketball game when a call came across the scanner for a man shot at the Tracy Garden Apartments. Before I had made it out of the building they upgraded the call to ask for an air ambulance to take the victim to the hospital. Halfway to the scene they called off the helicopter and decided to take the victim by ambulance to the nearest trauma center. A 26-year-old man had received two gunshot wounds to the chest. I knew the basics of what happened to the victim but I had no idea what has happened to our city.

I am not naive, I know there is crime in every town big and small. In the past Tracy has had it's share of big city crime from bank robberies to sexual assaults to murders. What I have seen this year is nothing new to this town. It just seems the quantity has overwhelmed us.

I remember last December waiting in the courtroom to watch the arraignment of four suspects accused of torturing a 17-year-old boy and thinking this is the worst this town will ever get. Then a few months later waiting for the announcement that Sandra Cantu's body had been found I thought things couldn't get much worse. And tonight waiting for a press release from the Tracy Police department I wonder how bad it can get in the few remaining days this year.

Three Hispanic males in a dark SUV drove around town this evening shooting in random neighborhoods. At the Tracy Garden Apartments they shot a man twice in the chest then drove to another part of town and fired some more shots. What happened? How did this come to our town? That is the question I keep asking.

Some know-it-all commentors on the Tracy Press website blame our problems on the influx of Bay Area families into our community. Some blame a lack of effort by law enforcement. Others cite the racial makeup of those accused of the crimes. It's a bad economy, our congressman doesn't care, its the aliens over south Tracy. I am sick of it all.

I don't have any idea why there has been such a spike in the violence this year. It bothers me, who wants to drive to the scene of a homicide? Who wants to watch family members grieve at a candlelight vigil? Maybe this is the same level of crime that has always been here and we are just more aware of it now. I am not sure. Sometimes I feel numb to ugliness and hatred I see. I am becoming accustomed to a life behind the crime scene tape. Get the shots of the yellow tape, look for blood stains and head back to the office. I sometimes think I am living in a sewer like Stockton or Modesto, shooting crime scenes through the grates that lead to the sewer's depths.

I know I am bothered more by the crimes of late. I fear for my parents, I worry about friends and the neighborhood I live. It is a terrible thing to live in fear. People living in fear expose their hatred and racism, the ugliness we see in the comments on a daily basis. And that can only lead to more divisiveness in our community, more hatred and even more anger. I saw a comment on the shooting story posting for the Guardian Angels. What's next, vigilantes? Nothing good can come of violence or reaction to it.

I keep wondering how things seem to have gotten so bad. I keep wondering what happened and I am still waiting for my answer.

Another cat-astrophe

So this is a good sign that the pet of the week assignment has taken a turn for the worse. After about three frames the cat jumped out of the cage and took cover under the rows of cages. My suggestion was to use a broom handle to gently "coax" him out of his hiding spot but an animal control officer decided to just crawl under there after him. I showed the photo to staff members around the newsroom who thought I had stumbled across a dead body at the animal shelter but there was no crime scene tape up.

The Year In Review: Burning man

This assignment takes two honors. This had to be the hottest assignment I had all year and definitely the strangest. In a quiet front yard in a secluded home in Banta a seventeen-foot-tall steel pumpkin man belched fire into the night sky.

Built as a decoration for a Halloween party the steel sculpture shot propane flames from it's head arm and chest in a hellish display sure to give nightmares to any trick-or-treaters who dared enter the yard. I can still remember the whoosh of the propane igniting and the blast of heat as the flames cycled from the flaming monster in the tethered to the yard. While I was taking the pictures I kept my scanner locked on to the Tracy Fire Department frequency just in case the Halloween display was mistaken for a structure fire.

The Year In Review: Fastest assignment of the year

Five seconds. That was the total time it took for the peloton to pass me by as I crouched along Linne Road in the rain to photograph the Tour Of California passing through Tracy.

This was the second year the tour's course brought them onto Tracy streets and even in the rain hundreds lined the roads to catch a glimpse of the riders including Lance Armstrong ride through.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Year In Review: Yuck!

This was a tie for the most disgusting assignment of the year. The principal who had cookie ingredients poured over his head or the principal who took about a hundred whipped cream pies in the face. Hard to say which one was more nasty.