12.10.2008

TS - Curtis Huntzinger's remains found after 18 years

☛ TS Missing teen's remains found after 18 years

The remains of Curtis Huntzinger, a 14-year-old teen missing since 1990, were unearthed Monday night from a shallow grave on the outskirts of Blue Lake, just off the old State Route 299.

The discovery came less than a week after Humboldt County District Attorney investigators arrested 53-year-old Blue Lake resident Stephen Daniel Hash on suspicion of voluntary manslaughter in connection with Huntzinger's death. At his Dec. 5 arraignment, Hash admitted guilt before a judge and the Huntzinger family.

On Monday afternoon, around 2 p.m., the boy's skeleton was located, entangled in a ball of roots under less than two feet of soil. The grave, which was dug about 35 yards from the road, was surrounded by a dense stand of young redwoods, and blanketed by a thick mat of leaf litter and poison oak.

But in 1990, when Huntzinger is presumed to have been buried, that grave site looked very different.

Chief DA Investigator Mike Hislop said when Hash allegedly dumped the body, the area looked like a “moonscape,” as a result of heavy logging and burning activity.

Despite those major changes to the landscape, Hash was reportedly able to recall the location of the grave well enough to lead investigators within 25 feet of where the body was found, said DA investigator Wayne Cox.

”It must be a vivid memory that's permanently imbedded in his (Hash's) hard drive,” he said.

The same tract of land was searched in 1999 by teams using cadaver dogs, but authorities came up empty. This time, Cox said investigators deployed new methods.

According to Hislop, the body was found by a volunteer who canvassed the area using a high-end metal detector loaned by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The grave was located when the metal detector picked up a faint signal from a small piece of metal on Huntzinger's remains -- possibly a zipper or a coin.

Members of the Huntzinger family were immediately notified, and brought to the site before the body was exhumed, said District Attorney Paul Gallegos.

As the redwoods grew back after the logging, they lifted nutrients from Huntzinger's grave, entwining the remains in roots. According to Deputy Coroner Roy Horton, the search team excavated the approximately 400-pound root ball, which contains Huntzinger's remains.

Now the Coroner's Office is tasked with the painstaking removal of those remains from the root encasement.

Horton said that while they have not been able to positively identify the remains through DNA or dental records, there are other signs it is Huntzinger. The clothing found around the skeleton -- a black jacket and tennis shoes -- are consistent with the outfit Huntzinger was last seen wearing. And there appear to be signs of blunt force trauma to the skull, Horton said.

Although Gallegos and the DA investigators have declined to release the cause of Huntzinger's death, a criminal complaint in Hash's court file charges him with using a barbell to kill the 14-year-old.

The body was found unbound, and Horton said he believes Huntzinger was dead before he was buried.

Horton said Nancy Huntzinger, Curtis' mother, has called the Coroner's Office frequently over the past 18 years, to inquire about her son whenever there was a new John Doe found in Humboldt County.

”We are just so happy the body was recovered, for her sake,” Horton said. “It finally gives some closure to the family.”

During Hash's Dec. 5 arraignment he asked to plead guilty to charges of voluntary manslaughter with a deadly weapon -- a crime that carries a maximum 12-year sentence. Judge Bruce Watson declined the plea, and advised him to speak with council before deciding to make such an admission in court.

Hash is expected to return to court today to discuss a possible disposition before a judge. That hearing will be closed to the public.

Sean Garmire can be reached at 441-0514 or sgarmire@times-standard.com.

A timeline of the Curtis Huntzinger case


May 19, 1990 -- Huntzinger, an Arcata High School freshman, is last seen walking home from his sister's home and is reported missing later in the month. It is initially believed that Huntzinger, who had some trouble in school and a recent brush with the law, ran away from home. Then Blue Lake Police Chief Don Trumble said at the time he was confident that Huntzinger was not a victim of foul play.

April 1999 -- Thomas Michael Fox, who was serving life in prison for the killing of 11-year old Danny Williams of Eureka, reportedly confesses to having killed Huntzinger. As a part of the confession, Fox reportedly admitted to shooting Huntzinger and fingered the accomplices who he said helped him bury the boy.

April 24, 1999 -- During a confrontation with Huntzinger's mom, Nancy, family acquaintance Stephen Daniel Hash reportedly admits to killing Curtis Huntzinger, even taking Nancy Huntzinger to her son's burial site. Hash, however, refuses to talk to law enforcement about the case.

Over the ensuing weeks, police investigators search Hash's property, even removing the floor boards of his house and sending its carpets to the Department of Justice Crime Lab for testing. The area where Hash claimed to have buried Huntzinger is scoured by dozens of members of the California Conservation Corps, police and the Huntzinger family. Several bones, including a vertebrae, are found, and believed to be those of Curtis Huntzinger. “This could be over in a few weeks,” then Blue Lake Police Chief Floyd Stokes said. The bones are later determined to be animal remains, and the case goes dormant.

May 2008 -- The Blue Lake Police Department is disbanded after the arrest of Police Chief, David Gundersen, and the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office quickly picks up the Huntzinger case.

Dec. 3, 2008 -- Hash is arrested on suspicion of voluntary manslaughter by District Attorney's Office investigators after reportedly giving a “complete confession” and showing them where Huntzinger was buried.

Dec. 9, 2008 -- Investigators find a body believed to be Huntzinger's located off old State Route 299 between Blue Lake and Korbel in the location Hash had led them to. The body is sent to the Humboldt County Coroner for an autopsy.

Sean Garmire/The Times-Standard
Posted: 12/10/2008 01:30:19 AM PST

***

☛ TS Never too late for resolution

In musty filing cabinets up and down the state are the remains of unsolved cases of every variety, including those of young men and women who for years have been lost to their families.

In Humboldt County, we've had more than our fair share of those types of cases -- the most famous being that of Karen Mitchell, followed closely by a case that appears to be nearing some resolution -- that of the long-missing Curtis Huntzinger.

While the conclusion of the Huntzinger investigation is not a happy one, he has finally been found after all these year, which may provide some comfort to a family that has long been wondering about the fate of their lost loved one.

We would encourage law enforcement officials of all stripes to be vigilant with such cases, and to remember their significance in the face of frustration and dead ends.

Each and every one represents a family in pain, and a family in need of closure and relief. When those cases gather dust because of neglect, and remain unsolved because they aren't getting the necessary attention, it only compounds the original crime, and the pain it causes the family.

The case of Curtis Huntzinger shows us that it's never too late to follow a lead, to pursue a suspect, and do the necessary footwork. Such efforts can make all the difference. Our thanks to those who helped bring Curtis home.

The Times-Standard
Posted: 12/10/2008 01:30:20 AM PST

12.05.2008

asje - a cog in the wheel

HWC on PL Bankruptcy
Re: Humboldt Watershed Council reacts to Palco bankruptcy. The Pacific Lumber Company (Palco) filed for bankruptcy protection today, after years of ...
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EarthJustice Client - Humboldt Watershed Council


Ahh, the activist web - the plot does thicken...
Cases
California Logging Clean Water Exemption

In Brief: The Clean Water Act is meant to clean up the nation's waterways. In some areas, however, exemptions have been issued that have hampered the goal. One such is in California, where three water boards have ruled that loggers are exempt. Earthjustice is challenging the exemptions in court.

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Environmental Protection Information Center
Humboldt Watershed Council
Updated: April 20, 2004
Case #11095

12.04.2008

TS - Kesser attempts suicide at Humboldt County jail

☛ TS Kesser attempts suicide at Humboldt County jai
Richard Craig Kesser, a former Fortuna resident who spent more than 17 years behind bars for the murder of his estranged wife in 1991, hanged himself in his jail cell early Tuesday morning.

The 47-year-old inmate was transported to St. Joseph Hospital and placed on life support, where he remained in critical condition throughout the day Tuesday, hospital staff reported.

The Humboldt County Sheriff's Office reported that at around 12:15 a.m. Tuesday, a correctional officer found an inmate hanging in his cell. The officer quickly cut the inmate down and began resuscitation efforts shortly before medical staff responded and began CPR.

The Sheriff's Office has so far declined to disclose the identity of the inmate. However, Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos, who led prosecution against Kesser during the past three years, confirmed the inmate was Kesser.

During an interview in late November, Kesser said he had been taking medication for depression, but was hopeful about his future after accepting a plea agreement offered by the District Attorney's Office.

”I suffer from depression from time to time,” he said. “I have a whole bunch of hopes. I'm trying to go home now, after 17 years ... hopefully someday I can get back to being a productive member of society.”

During that interview, Kesser also spoke about his 1991 plot to murder his wife, which had been schemed with his then-girlfriend Jennifer Leahy, who has since been released from jail.

The couple -- who had been dating for about four months at the time -- hired Stephen Duane Chiara for the hit. According to court documents, the three mapped out plans for the murder over the course of several weeks.

On Nov. 26, 1991, Mary Kesser was stabbed to death in her N Street home.

Authorities long suspected the motive was Mary Kesser's $50,000 life insurance policy. In 1992, a panel of jurors agreed, finding Richard Kesser, Leahy and Chiara guilty of first-degree murder.

The three were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Then, after 14 years behind bars at Pelican Bay State Prison, Richard Kesser and Leahy's verdicts were narrowly overturned by a panel of judges in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, on the grounds that former Humboldt County Deputy District Attorney Worth Dikeman had stricken three American Indians from the jury pool because of their race.

That decision led to Richard Kesser's return to the Humboldt County jail on Dec. 5, 2006.

In 2008, a plea agreement was struck between Richard Kesser and the District Attorney's Office, which compelled Richard Kesser to issue a truthful, polygraphed statement about the events that led to his former wife's murder. That agreement stipulated that if he truthfully completed the polygraph test, he would receive a second degree murder sentence, reducing his possible sentence from 25-years to life to 15-years to life.

Richard Kesser failed his first test in August. But in September, those results were thrown out by a Humboldt County Superior Court judge, who ruled the examiner used inadmissible techniques in the test.

The second test was cut short after Richard Kesser told the examiner he had been taking medication for depression.
A judge allowed Richard Kesser to take a third test in late November, but those results have not yet been disclosed by his attorney Glenn Brown.

Brown was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

”I was hopeful the first time -- I wanted to (pass) the first time,” Richard Kesser said the week before his third test. “Anybody who's lived in this building (the jail) for two years doesn't want to be here that long.”

According to Gallegos, Richard Kesser left a suicide note inside his cell. However, the contents of that note have not been released.


Sean Garmire can be reached at 441-0514 or sgarmire@times-standard.com.

Sean Garmire/The Times-Standard
Posted: 12/03/2008 01:21:18 AM PST

TS - Man convicted of wife's murder dies after hanging himself

☛ TS Man convicted of wife's murder dies after hanging himself

Richard Craig Kesser, an inmate who reportedly hanged himself in his cell at the Humboldt County jail early Tuesday morning, has died.

According to information from the Humboldt County Coroner's Office, the 47-year-old inmate was pronounced dead at 11:06 p.m. Tuesday, after he had been placed on life support more than 20 hours earlier.

The cause of death in the suicide was ruled asphyxiation due to hanging, said Coroner Frank Jager.

Kesser, Jager said, “was mostly dead by the time they got him into the hospital,” but some lifesaving efforts were restricted as Kesser had signed a “Do Not Resuscitate” order.

At 12:15 a.m. Tuesday, a correctional officer found Kesser hanging from a noose made from a bed sheet inside his cell, where he had been housed alone. Kesser was cut down immediately and lifesaving efforts were made, but Jager said Kesser had been deprived of oxygen for too long.

Deputy Coroner Roy Horton said although investigators are not yet certain how long Kesser was hanging in his cell, it must have been “at least three or four minutes.”

An autopsy will be conducted by a forensic pathologist later this week, the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office reported.
Kesser was incarcerated in 1992 after a Humboldt County jury found him guilty of first-degree murder -- the result of a successful plot to murder his estranged wife in 1991. That sentence was later overturned and Kesser was returned to the Humboldt County jail on Dec. 5, 2006.

In 2008, a plea agreement was struck between Kesser and the District Attorney's Office. That agreement stipulated that if he truthfully completed the polygraph test, he would receive a second-degree murder sentence, reducing his possible sentence from 25 years to life to 15 years to life.

According to court documents, Kesser, along with his then-girlfriend Jennifer Leahy, hired hit man Stephen Chiara to murder 30-year-old Mary Kesser.

She was stabbed to death in her Fortuna home on Nov. 26, 1991 -- 17 years and six days before her former husband and the self-proclaimed “mastermind” of her murder committed suicide.

During an interview in late November, just weeks before his death, Richard Kesser admitted he was struggling with depression, for which he was taking medication.

According to the Sheriff's Office, Richard Kesser did leave a letter; however, that has not been made public, and no potential motive for the suicide has been released.

Sean Garmire can be reached at 441-0514 or sgarmire@times-standard.com.
Sean Garmire/The Times-Standard
Posted: 12/04/2008 01:15:37 AM PST

12.01.2008

TS - The ongoing struggle for the right to self-government

Forget the Constitution...

The ongoing struggle for the right to self-government
My Word Op-Ed
Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap/For the Times-Standard
Posted: 12/01/2008 01:27:15 AM PST

”We the People.” Those are hallowed words in this country. They begin the Preamble to the United States Constitution. Those words remind us that in this country, we are supposed to be the government.

That is a staggeringly profound idea. Before this country was founded, kings ruled over subjects by “divine right.” But the American revolutionaries rejected that idea as repugnant to a free and sovereign people. They had the audacity to believe that ordinary people are capable of true self-governance.

The Declaration of Independence asserts that the only legitimate government is government which has the consent of the people. So it is a fair statement to say that the principle of self-government is a core American ideal.

It is against this backdrop that I ask readers to consider the case of Measure T. First, let us remember that Measure T was passed using the citizen's initiative process. In other words, it was not merely elected officials purporting to speak for the people of Humboldt County. We the People spoke for ourselves.

The effort had the support of the local Democratic Party, the Green Party, organized labor, peace and justice groups, elected officials, local business owners, and farmers and ranchers. It truly was an example of people from a wide spectrum coming together to exercise our fundamental right to self-governance.

And “We the People” explicitly and unambiguously stated that corporate money in local elections was undermining our electoral system. Because of the corrupting influence of corporate donations, we stated that we were losing confidence in the integrity of our own democracy.

The law not only forbade non-local corporate contributions in local elections, it also included an intentional and strategic challenge to legal doctrine of “corporate personhood.” The law specifically stated that:

”Courts have illegitimately defined corporations as persons, allegedly vesting corporations with constitutional protections and rights. Corporate Personhood illegitimately denies the people of Humboldt County the ability to exercise our fundamental political rights.”

And Measure T passed by over 55 percent of the vote here in 2006, passing in every single district in Humboldt County!
So when Pacific Legal Foundation sued Humboldt County over Measure T, they were alleging that “We the People” do not have the right to make the decision how to best protect our own elections.

And just who is the Pacific Legal Foundation? A far right-wing group funded by tobacco corporations and oil corporations. They have been at the forefront of efforts to overturn health, safety and environmental laws that attempt to control the abuses of large corporations.

So these corporatists made Measure T not merely about campaign finance reform efforts. It became a fight over whether “We the People” are truly self-governing people.

And so I was so very proud when over 50 citizens appeared at the last meeting of the Board of Supervisors to express their disapproval that the county had decided not to defend Measure T in court. Speaker after speaker spoke not only of the need for campaign finance reform, but of their commitment to be part of a movement to challenge the legal doctrine of “corporate personhood.”

It may seem like a daunting task, but consider this -- where would we be if the American revolutionaries had been unwilling to challenge the “legal authority” of the king?

If women had not challenged laws that prevented them from voting? If trade unionists had not violated unjust laws claiming efforts to organize workers for better conditions and pay were a “criminal conspiracy”? If civil rights activists had not sparked a movement to challenge court-sanctioned Jim Crow segregation laws?

And the issue of corporate personhood is already becoming a local campaign issue. Over half of the candidates for office in Humboldt County in the last election pledged to refuse corporate campaign contributions regardless of the outcome of the court case. Nineteen of those candidates went even further, pledging to oppose corporate personhood if elected. Most of those signing the pledge won their contests!

So we at Democracy Unlimited share the disappointment of our fellow citizens. In an example of “judicial activism” run amok, Pacific Legal Foundation was able to use the court system to overturn the express will of the people.

But we are encouraged that people of Humboldt County are not giving up. We are also encouraged that the Board of Supervisors has expressed a willingness to work with us to pass laws to curb corporate power. We look forward to that prospect.

In addition, we will continue to educate, agitate and organize until we have built a movement powerful enough to overturn the ridiculous legal doctrine that allows a corporation to overturn democratically enacted laws that attempt to control their conduct.

We invite you to join us in that joyful celebration of the power of the “We the People.”

Check us out on the web at www.duhc.org and contact us at 269-0984 or info@duhc.org
Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap is director of Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County. She lives in Eureka and can be reached at kaitlin@duhc.org.


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