Fairfield may be new ‘Dodge City’

Politicians, police officers and professional bowlers have long debated the cause of Fairfield’s growing crime problem.

As everyone knows, there was no serious crime in Fairfield 25 or so years ago. Former City Manager B. Gale Wilson said so and he shoulda known, right?

There were no drugs and no gangs, just the occasional pair of energetic high school girls vigorously slapping each other silly in front of the roller rink….

When drugs and gangs finally did rear their ugly heads, they were promptly labeled a regional problem. Thugs from places like Lafayette and Hillsborough, police told fearful Fairfidlians, were behind it all. There was no telling when a cocaine-crazed investment banker from Point Reyes would roar into Fairfield and wreak havoc on the otherwise peaceful beer-brewing community. And that, of course, couldn’t really be thought of as a local problem.

People in Fairfield, though, eventually began asking themselves if there might actually be some local source for the criminal activity that seemed to be sweeping the community.

Supervisor-elect Jim Spering recently suggested that the city’s regional shopping mall might be the locus of such activity. Others have blamed an unexpected influx of godless liberals with funny hats for the flood of Fairfield felonies.

Last month, however, the Fairfield Police Department uncovered the awful truth: Gun-wielding automobiles were riding the crest of the community’s latest crime wave.

I’m sure this isn’t the kind of news that Fairfield’s leaders want widely disseminated, but police let the cat out of the bag with a seemingly mundane press release about a drive-by shooting.

According to police, a Fairfield resident was sitting on his car near his apartment one night when he was shot in the foot:”The resident said a late model Dodge Intrepid drove by and, without warning, began firing a handgun at him.”

Our police reporter took one look at the press release and gasped.”This is bad – really bad. Maybe worse…” she muttered, shaking her head and reaching for her bulletproof vest.

Indeed. Everybody knows guns don’t shoot people – Dodge Intrepids with guns shoot people.

We really should have figured this out a long time ago.

Think about it – where do most drive-by shootings occur? On streets and in parking lots.

Where do most Dodge Intrepids hang out? On streets and in parking lots.

This also explains why so many drive-by shooters in Fairfield seem to simply vanish. If you’re a Dodge Intrepid, all you have to do is crank off a few rounds, toss the gun and then pull to the curb. Now you’re just another parked car.

Devilishly clever.

In the news business, we refer to one such incident as a “trend.” Two indicate a “growing threat.” We call three such events an “epidemic.”

We can only hope Fairfield hasn’t discovered this startling trend too late…

Originally published August 27, 2006

Legal advice only 99 cents

Having wandered through Solano County’s courts for more than 30 years in my role as a newspaper reporter, my legal advice is frequently sought by others who periodically wander the same county courts – usually with decidedly puzzled expressions upon their faces.

Although I do not have a law degree, I do have a wealth of arcane knowledge that some people find useful when they become embroiled in a court matter. Myriad legal issues come my way on a daily basis, and although I have yet to open a nonlaw office, I feel it’s time to respond to some of the more pressing questions that come my way as I doze on the comfortably upholstered bench down the hall from Judge Smith’s Fairfield courtroom.

Here are the definitive answers to the most frequently asked legal questions I encounter:

A. There are no courts in the Solano County Courthouse. Although the Texas Street building was originally designed as a courthouse, it soon became dangerously overrun with county bureaucrats and legal matters needed to be moved to the nearby Solano County Hall of Justice and, later, to the Law and Justice Center.

B. The amusing but not particularly effective explanation, “But I went to the courthouse and, like, there was nobody there,” is not accepted as an excuse for not appearing in court.

C. Traffic court is on the second floor at the south end of the Hall of Justice. That’s where you go for legal matters having to do with your driving (or, in some cases, your walking). If you’re charged with murder, kidnapping, bank robbery or train-wrecking, you probably need to go to some other courtroom – or state…

D. Restrooms are on each floor of the Solano County Hall of Justice – at the south end of the first and second floors, and at both the north and south ends of the third floor. There are no restrooms on the fourth floor. Really. If you find yourself on the fourth floor of the Hall of Justice, you’re most likely somewhere else. There’s also a restroom on the second floor of the nearby Law and Justice Center, which also doesn’t have a fourth floor.

E. This brings up another important legal question – the north wing of the Hall of Justice versus the south wing of the Hall of Justice and the south-south wing thereof.

The old, old Hall of Justice’s north wing faces Texas Street (across from the County Non-Courthouse). The south wing of the newer section of the old Hall of Justice faces the Law and Justice Center which, at least technically, is the south-south wing of the Hall of Justice because they’re actually connected by a secret hallway where deputy district attorneys and deputy public defenders sometimes become hopelessly lost and have to be rescued from large, carnivorous rodents.

F. There is no south-south-south wing of the Hall of Justice. If you somehow find yourself in what you believe to be the south-south-south wing of the Hall of Justice, you’re probably in the Solano County Jail.County Jail? In my considered legal opinion, it’s time for you to call a lawyer. Tell ’em I sent you…

Originally published August 13, 2006

Right words are elusive

The great majority of professional journalists – also known as newspaper bums – spend their entire careers unsuccessfully searching for just the right words to begin their stories.

Finding the perfect lead – that first paragraph that inexorably draws even the most jaded reader into a newspaper story – is frequently a disappointing quest.

Even more elusive is the fabled universal lead, a magical combination of words and commas that can be placed at the beginning of any news, sports or feature story and always work.

This paragraph is to journalists what the philosopher’s stone was to medieval alchemists.

Some news dogs have declared that no such lead exists.

(They usually follow their declarations with “Harrrrrumph!”).

Such leads, however, do exist – although they’re as rare as Romanian leprechauns – and I’ve been fortunate enough to discover not one, but two, of these sought-after gems.

The first was penned by Northern California automotive columnist Al Auger, who several years ago unconsciously created a universal lead when he wrote “I’ve been told sharks never sleep. Perhaps that’s why they’re so grumpy.”

If you take these words and slap them on top of any newspaper story, you’ll find they work remarkably well.

I thought I’d found my philosopher’s stone and that would be an end to my personal quest for the universal lead, but I recently discovered that lightning sometimes strikes twice in the same place.

Reading former Reporter publisher Richard Rico’s newspaper column a few Sundays ago, I discovered the second universal lead of my long and chaotic career:

“Every night, a barn door bangs open and all the bats fly out.”

Like many great newspapermen from Ben Franklin to Ernest Hemingway, Rico had buried his lead around the fourth paragraph, but the words gleamed like bits of gold in a clear Sierra stream.

These words could clearly improve just about any newspaper story going (with the possible exception of obituaries).

Take, for example, another everyday crime story from Fairfield:

“Last month’s massive crimefighting operation may be over, but Fairfield police officials say their work’s not done.”

Ho-hum.

Now add the universal lead:

“Every night, a barn door bangs open and all the bats fly out. Last month’s massive crimefighting operation may be over, but Fairfield police officials say their work’s not done.”

See what I mean?

The same goes for humdrum political stories:

“Every night, a barn door bangs open and all the bats fly out. The House voted 349-74 Wednesday to acquire a monumental cross and the park around it from the city of San Diego.”

And, let’s face it, baseball stories positively beg for these words, particularly those dealing with that gadabout Barry Bonds:

“Every night, a barn door bangs open and Barry Bonds flies out.”

Hey, it doesn’t get any better than that, amigos…

Originally published August 6, 2006

Unforgettable? You betcha!

In each of our lives there are a few rare moments we will never forget – reciting our wedding vows, graduating from eight years of high school or, perhaps, the night a substance-challenged neighbor opened fire on our patio wind chimes with his trusty .44 magnum revolver.

I experienced one of these unforgettable moments just a few short weeks ago in downtown Fairfield.

I know what you’re thinking: “Dude, nothing unforgettable ever happens in downtown Fairfield.”

Oh, ye of little faith.

How well I remember that cloudy Fairfield morning. It was 8:07 a.m. Friday, June 2, as I approached the pedestrian crosswalk in front of the Hall of Justice on Union Avenue south of Texas Street. Before I could even set foot on the pavement, a passing motorist stopped to let me cross.

Whoa, amigos. This simply does not happen in the middle of Union Avenue on a weekday with Superior Court about to begin and dozens of attorneys, law enforcement officers and accused felons trying desperately to find a non-existent parking space.

This wasn’t some little old lady in an asthmatic Kia, either. It was a huge, square-headed guy in a jacked-up quad-cab monster truck. You know, the kind that usually sports at least three Oakland Raiders’ bumper stickers and a decal that reads “Drive It Like You Stole It!”

Yeah, that guy.

And he stopped. At the pedestrian crossing. And waited for me to cross. At precisely 8:07 a.m. Friday, June 2.

I know that many readers who live in more civilized, genteel communities like Davis and Richmond might not be able to comprehend my wide-eyed wonderment at this seemingly mundane action by a Fairfield motorist, but anybody who’s ever tried to cross the street in front of the Hall of Justice in Fairfield knows exactly why I’m still somewhat stunned by the incident.

Nobody stops for anybody on Union Avenue in Fairfield.

Never.

Regardless of the fact that the well-marked pedestrian crossing between the Solano County Government Center and the Hall of Justice may at any moment be occupied by a deputy district attorney, superior court judge or uniformed law enforcement officer, there’s an unwritten rule in Fairfield that Union Avenue traffic stops for no man (or woman).

On more than one occasion I’ve seen myopic motorists bearing down on deputy district attorneys with not so much as a tap on the brakes.

Think about it. Deputy district attorneys prosecute people for a living. They do their damnedest to send law breakers to prison. And they’ve been known to be grumpy. Is any sapient human being going to risk running over a deputy district attorney right in front of the building that houses the county’s criminal courtrooms?

Of course they are. We’re talking Fairfield here, amigos, where your future’s just as good as your ability to dodge, weave and broad jump your way to safety.

So, yes, I was more than a little surprised when the guy in the monster truck paused to let me cross the street at precisely 8:07 a.m. Friday, June 2.

Unforgettable? Undoubtedly…

Originally published June 18, 2006

Another icon is fading away…

Sad as it may seem, the pay phone – that great American symbol of convenient and economical communication – is slowly but surely disappearing from our landscape.Once a vital part of daily life from Wenatchee to Wapello, the old phones are being phased out by multinational telephone companies faced with costly pay-phone maintenance while just about everybody is packing inexpensive little cell phones that work pretty good most of the time in some places.

How I’m going to miss those venerable old phone booths and wall-mounted cubicles that at one time seemed to dot every street corner, public building and saloon in the nation.

As a young reporter (shortly after the Spanish-American War), I quickly learned that all I needed to keep the news moving was a pocketful of dimes – later quarters – and a handy pay phone.

In those days, hardworking news dogs all relied on pay phones to file stories, browbeat sources and order Chicken Delight.

We always knew where to find the best pay phones for the job, too. One of my favorites – this is on the level, amigos – was located in a grove of eucalyptus trees beside an abandoned rock quarry about 20 feet off Parrish Road near Cordelia. Apparently long forgotten, the dusty phone booth was always ready for service whenever I had to phone in a story about an overturned poultry truck or wrong-way driver ruining everyone’s daily commute along Interstate 680.

Another great phone was to be found in a smoky corner of the old Peanut Patch Saloon in downtown Fairfield. When the nearby newspaper office for which I worked was undergoing a major – and noisy – renovation, I simply moved my 80-pound manual typewriter to a battered cocktail table conveniently located beneath the tavern’s pay phone and set up my own news bureau. Hey, it doesn’t get any better than that, amigos…

During tense, breaking news situations, even the greenest rookies knew that he who controls the pay phone controls the news. Slower-moving competitors could send smoke signals if they didn’t like it.

This, unfortunately, led some of us to step over the line of journalistic cordiality by removing the speaker diaphragm from the receiver of first pay phone we located at a news scene. Pocketing that little speaker, we could then secure the scoop and stroll masterfully back to “our phone” to file whatever story we’d been chasing, leaving our frustrated competitors in the dust. (“Hey, dis phone’s all screwy. I can hear, but when I talk at the people what is listenin’ to me not say any’ting, the can’t hear. What gives, huh?”)

Those old pay phones were tough, too. If, for example, another reporter took offense at your monopolization of the only pay phone in six blocks, you could firmly smack the offending fellow one upside the head with the receiver and incur virtually no damage to the phone.

Try that with one of today’s flyweight cell phones. You’ll wind up with a handful of shattered plastic and some red-faced Chronicle reporter named Spud choking the life out of you…

Originally published April 23, 2006

Truth, justice and weirdness

It seems like only yesterday that I was lamenting the sadly mundane state of S’lano County’s day-to-day existence.

“Where has all the weirdness gone?” I asked plaintively time and again, only to be met with stony stares and silence.

Happily, the question was answered for me not long ago when I was transferred to the newspaper’s court beat.

Where had all the weirdness gone?

To the Hall of Justice, I soon discovered…

My opinion of the county’s overall weirdness level began improving almost immediately as I prepared to be swept away on a magic carpet ride through the county’s criminal justice system.

Standing patiently in line at the security checkpoint waiting to be screened by the Hall of Justice metal detector, I was met by a harbinger of weirdness-to-come that was not to be ignored.

The woman in front of me turned, poked her index finger repeatedly into my chest and announced in no uncertain terms “It ain’t going to do any good taking my shoes off for that thing. My feet set it off every time. It’s my feet, not my shoes. You’re gonna have to cut my feet off this time! Do what you’ve got to do! Go ahead, saw ’em right off! I’m going to jail anyway!”

Uh-huh.

“I hope that’s not your attorney, man…” commented a cheerful passer-by who’d overheard part of the conversation.

Yes, things were definitely looking up for the relative weirdness level in good ol’ downtown Fairfield.

And it only got better a short time later when I stepped gingerly out of Judge Kinnicutt’s courtroom to be met by an imposing fellow who seemed to be launching a one-man campaign against fly larvae.

“Maggots!” he proclaimed in thunderous breathlessness.

“Maggots! They’re allllll maggots! The Lord shall smite them and smite them again and again! Maaaaaaggots!” (Repeat 15 times without taking a breath to get the full impact of this encounter…)

A kindly court bailiff subsequently told me not to take the maggot man’s diatribe personally.

“He was down in from of Judge Harrison’s courtroom last week – really gets around this time of year,” the bailiff explained.

Better and better…

Then, just a few days ago, one man proudly marching through the Hall of Justice really turned up the excitement.

Rounding a corner, the musical fellow burst into a full-throated rendition of “My Boyfriend’s Back.”

For you younger readers, “My Boyfriend’s Back” was a girl group rock ballad from the mid-60s that told the story of a young woman done wrong by a teenage cad and the inevitable havoc her testosterone-fueled boyfriend would wreak upon the aforementioned cad when the boyfriend got back:

“My boyfriend’s back,

He’s gonna save my reputation!

Hey-la, hey-la

My boyfriend’s back!

If I were youI’d take a permanent vacation!”

No, it just doesn’t get any weirder than that, amigos…

Originally published November 02, 2003

Getting belted at the courthouse

Newspaper reporters who cover the courts are constantly bombarded with hundreds of felony cases – robberies, assaults, drug deals and a profusion of sex offenses that would make the Marquis de Sade blush – and that’s just in the parking lot…

It’s tough to decide which cases to cover immediately and which cases to put on the back burner for awhile.

The toughest decision courthouse reporters have to make on a daily basis, though, is which belt to wear.

You see, these days almost all courthouses in California are equipped with some type of electronic security system to scan visitors for knives, guns and the occasional Stinger missile.

They also warn of car keys, steel-toed boots, wristwatches and, more often than not, metal belt buckles. Not all metal belt buckles, mind you, just some of them.

And you never know which belt buckle is going to set off alarms until you’re halfway through the metal detector.

Let’s face it, there are few things more bothersome that becoming the center of attention because your belt buckle has triggered a terrorist alert.

Depending upon which courthouse you were foolish enough to enter, setting off the alarm usually necessitates a quick about-face for removal of the offending item of clothing as you desperately try to keep your trousers from falling to the floor.

And since everybody’s already staring at you, the last thing you need to do is step into the spotlight with your pants at half mast.

This entire procedure, of course, slows down the line for the metal detector and can seriously annoy your fellow courthouse visitors (particularly the big guy named Sledge who’s standing behind you in line with what appears to be a machete strapped to his waist).

Thus it stands to reason that we courthouse reporters – who may have to enter the building five or six times a day – spend a lot of our free time shopping for just the right belt to wear when we enter the hallowed halls of justice.

It’s a quest of sorts.

A newspaper colleague of mine from the strategically unimportant beer-brewing community of Fairfield recently told me he’s found one belt that never sets off the metal detector, but that he’s always looking for just one more for a little variety. Since he can’t take the courthouse metal detector to the mall with him, though, he’s found himself repeatedly purchasing belts that trigger security systems from Vallejo to Venice.

Being the understanding kind of guy I am, I initially wrote the poor fellow off as a hopeless nitwit.

No longer. I now own a dozen belts myself, of which only two have proven to be non-metallic enough to get past courthouse security. The rest of them I wear with giddy abandon on weekends, holidays and while visiting regional department stores to purchase more belts.

There is, of course, an upside to our dilemma. Eventually, all of the reporters who cover the courthouse on a daily basis will be able to band together and open their own “World O’ Belts” discount store in Cordelia. We should have an outstanding selection for discriminating Solano County belt buyers – as long as they’re not going to court anytime soon…

Originally published February 2, 2003