Top stories of 2020 in SLO County


It is without doubt, the pandemic was the top story of 2020, locally, nationally and globally. The first case in San Luis Obispo County was confirmed on March 13, and quickly the numbers exploded.

A week later, SLO County issued a one-month shelter-at-home executive order that took power from the Board of Supervisors and placed it in the hands of SLO County Administrator Wade Horton and Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein. Prior to the pandemic, county officials had been scrutinizing Borenstein’s handling of several health issues.

Then on April 3, the first SLO County resident died from the coronavirus.

SLO County allowed several business sectors to reopen on April 20, including pet grooming, construction, recreational fishing and elective surgery centers.

By May 22, SLO County’s unemployment rate had more than tripled.

Following a surge of cases in mid-July, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered bars and dine-in restaurants to close statewide. SLO County was also required to close worship services, beauty and barber shops, and indoor protests. Since then, Newsom allowed businesses to reopen, and then shut them down again.

As scores of business owners refuse to abide by the state’s strict coronavirus rules, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Ian Parkinson and District Attorney Dan Dow said that enforcing coronavirus lockdown orders is not their jobs.

FBI raids the county building and at least three local residences

In early 2020, FBI agents raided the home of Grover Beach Mayor Jeff Lee. For years, public officials and a handful of people in the cannabis industry accused Lee and former mayor John Shoals of accepting bribes in exchange for votes for coveted retail pot shop permits.

Then on March 11, FBI agents entered the San Luis Obispo County Government Center, serving a sealed search warrant. Agents reportedly focused their search on then Supervisor Adam Hill’s fourth-floor office.

While a group of FBI agents raided the county building, agents also raided Hill’s Shell Beach home and the home of marijuana mogul Helios Dayspring.

Two months later, FBI agents interviewed the remaining four SLO County supervisors at their homes, asking about process, harassment and corruption. The focus of the FBI investigation is not yet public.

SLO County Supervisor Adam Hill

SLO County Supervisor accused of wrongdoing, kills himself

Battling accusations of sexual misconduct, bullying and corruption — SLO County Supervisor Adam Hill killed himself.

Hill’s troubles began on Feb. 2, when CalCoastNews exclusively reported that someone at Hill’s home sent emails to KVEC radio icon Dave Congalton, mocking Congalton over the suicide of one of his friends and his divorce. The emails also made sexual comments about two CalCoastNews reporters and an activist who has also been critical of Hill. They were made under a fictitious name.

Then on March 11, FBI agents tossed Hill’s county office and his Shell Beach home. Shortly after agents left his home, Hill overdosed on drugs in an alleged suicide attempt.

Two days later, Hill was released from Arroyo Grande Hospital after being placed on a psychiatric hold.

For the third time in less than three years, on July 7, Hill announced he was taking time off work to deal with mental health issues.

Three weeks later, Hill returned to work to find his administrative assistant had accused him of sexual misconduct, including groping, slapping and “gross things.”

On Aug. 6, Hill died from a drug overdose, which was deemed a suicide.

In November, SLO County settled the sexual harassment complaint from Hill’s former legislative assistant Nicole Nix, agreeing to pay Nix $39,288, equivalent to six-months salary.

Tianna Arata, in the center, stomping on a burnt flag

Black Lives Matter protests wreak havoc, were the protests successful?

While dozens of protests in SLO County over the death of George Floyd have been primarily peaceful, some protesters stopped traffic, sought reparations from business owners and attempted to block reporters from covering protests.

On July 21, BLM protest leader Tianna Arata allegedly led approximately 300 protesters onto Highway 101, blocking all lanes in both directions for nearly an hour. While on the highway, protesters ran after vehicles attempting to drive off the freeway, blocked vehicles, and yelled profanities at some of the drivers.

San Luis Obispo police officers arrested Arata following the protest. During Arata’s arrest, Elias Bautista yelled at an officer and kicked him in the crotch. Officers also arrested Bautista,

Arata was booked and released, but during dozens of protests that followed, her supporters chanted for her release. On social media, protesters asked those who support equality to contact prosecutors and order them to drop the charges.

A group of protesters, including Arata and her mother, allegedly demanded that SLO businesses pay reparations for boarding up their windows before a protest, according to multiple downtown business owners. The New Times, however, claimed the business owners were being less than truthful.

Civil rights attorney Lee Merritt threatened in early August to bombard SLO with protesters if District Attorney Dan Dow did not drop charges against Arata. Dow had not yet filed any charges. Protesters rode buses from Los Angeles to SLO on Aug. 26 in an attempt to dissuade prosecutors from filing charges against Arata.

Prosecutors filed 13 misdemeanor charges against Arata on Sept. 2: one count of unlawful assembly, one count of disturbing the peace, six counts of obstruction of a thoroughfare and five counts of false imprisonment.

In early October, CHP officers arrested an Atascadero man who allegedly smashed a car window onto a 4-year-old boy during the July 21 protests. Prosecutors also charged six additional protesters for a variety of alleged criminal acts.

Arata’s attorneys then accused Dow of violating his legal duties while attempting to promote his political career, according to a motion to disqualify his office from prosecuting their client.

In their motions, Arata’s attorneys Patrick Fisher and Curtis Briggs argued that law enforcement officers targeted Arata because she is black, and that prosecutors have demonstrated a racially discriminatory application of the law.

On Dec. 11, the court disqualified the entire SLO County District Attorney’s Office from prosecuting seven defendants charged with crimes allegedly committed during the July 21 protest. Instead, the California Attorney General’s Office is to take over the prosecution.

Photo by Richard Bastian

Two people dead and four officers shot during Paso Robles shooting spree

Before going on a shooting spree in Paso Robles, Mason Lira threatened to shoot a bus driver in the head while exiting a Regional Transit Authority bus, and then burglarized a San Luis Obispo attorney’s office taking several firearms and a stash of ammunition.

Three days later, Lira’s shooting spree began. On June 10, Lira ambushed the Paso Robles Police Department, firing shots at officers and leading staff to request backup. While two deputies searched the downtown area, Lira shot Deputy Nicholas Dreyfus in the face. Lira then shot and killed a 59-year-old homeless man.

Following several more gun battles with police, at about 2 p.m. on June 11, Lira shot Arroyo Grande Police Sergeant Michael Smiley in the calf.

As officers closed in on Lira, he shot CHP officer Tim Maxwell in the bullet proof vest. Lira then shot Kings County Sheriff’s Deputy Blake Bursiaga in the knee as the deputy dragged the injured CHP officer to safety.

At about 4 p.m., Lira tried to flee the riverbed heading toward Highway 101, where officers shot and killed him.

Multiple agencies investigating San Simeon officials for all kinds of wrongdoing

Since early April,  when the SLO County District Attorney’s office ordered the San Simeon Community Services District to correct a Brown Act violation or face litigation, the district has been under fire from multiple government agencies.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) in April initiated a conflict of interest investigation into district Manager Charles Grace. Since then, the FPPC has opened conflict of interest investigations into current board members Gwen Kellas and William Maurer, and former board members John Russell and Mary Margaret McGuire.

The District Attorney’s Office is also investigating allegations of conflicts of interest at the district.

In late September it was discovered that San Simeon built their water facility partially on the Hearst Ranch, without getting an easement.

In early November,  The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Ocean Protection Council both rescinded $125,000 grants after learning about Hearst Ranch and conflict of interest issues.

The California Department of Water Resources asked several agencies to investigate the district’s procurement and distribution of three state grants, suspecting the district failed to follow bidding requirements, instead sole-sourcing jobs to favored contractors.

The investigations are ongoing, with more than a million dollars in grant money on the line.

Coronavirus shutdown at the Oceano Dunes shows dust on the Nipomo Mesa science is flawed

Excessive dust days more than doubled since RVs and off-road vehicles were banned from the Oceano Dunes. California State Parks closed the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area to all off-road and recreational vehicles on March 28 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Monitoring data called into question the SLO County Air Pollution Control District’s (APCD) theory, disputed by California state scientists, that off-road riding activities cause high dust levels detected on the Nipomo Mesa.

For more than a decade, the APCD warned that silica dust blowing inland from the Oceano Dunes causes cancers, and lung and kidney disease. And that the silica dust was the result of off-roading at the dunes.

It was made up. Studies of air quality samples taken by both the APCD and State Parks consistently failed to find detectable levels of the dust.

In 2018, State Parks entered into a stipulated order of abatement with the APCD. The order mandates that the state reduce wind-blown dust on the Nipomo Mesa by 50 percent. However, APCD Administrator Gary Willey recently admitted that the abatement goal could not be achieved.

A preliminary report from the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography in October casts additional doubt about the need to reduce dust blowing from the Oceano Dunes onto the Nipomo Mesa. Analyses of airborne particulate samples show that blowing sand from the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area does not pose a health risk to people living on the Mesa.


Parishioners win battle over Grover Beach Church

Parishioners won an expensive legal battle over ownership of the Bethel Baptist Church in Grover Beach in September, saving their church through a private settlement agreement.

In 2018, then-pastor Ronald Kennedy, a long-time employee of the Christian & Missionary Alliance (C&MA), filed a grant deed transferring the property from Bethel Baptist Church to the C&MA. At that time, Kennedy was in negotiations to sell the church and the 3.1-acre lot valued at between $2.4 million to $2.9 million to the 5 Cities Homeless Coalition, in what the parishioners dubbed a hostile takeover of a paid-for property.

On May 5, 2019, representatives of the C&MA told parishioners the church property and all its assets belonged to the CM&A. The representatives then changed the locks and told the parishioners they were not allowed to worship on the property.

Church elders fought back, transferring the property back, changing the locks and engaging in a legal battle with the C&MA. Since their win, the parishioners have begun upgra