Top 10 stories of 2006 |

Top 10 stories of 2006

Staff reports

Jasmine and David will celebrate their first Christmas surrounded by love.

But for the five years before the 41-pound, 16-year-old Jasmine escaped her confine and was spotted pushing a shopping cart of food near the Carson City Courthouse in January, she and her brother were beaten, starved, humiliated and left to sleep in a cold, dank apartment bathroom.

David, 11, slept under the vanity and Jasmine slept in the bathtub. Both children had not attended school in years, if ever. They were dangerously malnourished and small for their ages. Jasmine stood four feet tall. David, at 31 pounds, was a few inches shorter. His feet were frostbitten and malformed from the cold, cramped living conditions. Jasmine’s teeth were rotted out from regurgitating her minuscule meals and rechewing them or trying to eat the wood around the vanity.

The pediatrician who received the children in the emergency room, and who now heads up the team of doctors needed to care for them in the years to come, did not mince words about what she saw when she first examined them – they looked like victims from a Nazi death camp.

Grandmother Esther Rios, 56, mother Regina Rios, 33, and stepfather Tomas Granados, 33, were arrested and eventually pleaded guilty to charges of child abuse and false imprisonment. Esther Rios received a prison sentence of 70 years before parole, Regina Rios received 55 years and Tomas Granados must serve at least 35 years.

Jasmine amazed onlookers when she took the stand against her parents and grandmother during the preliminary hearing, and again at the sentencing.

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She was articulate and brilliant and strong. The girl who had suffered so much for so long, stared her captors in the face and said aloud the abuse they tried for years to hide behind a bathroom door.

“These were a few of your favorite things,” Jasmine said to her grandmother during the Nov. 29 sentencing. “Hammer, knife, needle, scissors, hair dryer, sticks, broom, mop, heavy metal toys, hot boiling water, plunger, to name a few. These were some of your favorite tortures: not feeding me for up to four days, teasing me with food, teaching my sister to hit me, locking me up for five years in the bathroom and closet and threatening to cut me up into little pieces and throw me into the desert.”

She and her brother are growing now, thanks to the dedication of foster parents, doctors and law enforcement, who did and still do whatever it takes to help them regain their lives.

That generosity isn’t lost on Jasmine.

In an open letter to the community in March she said: “I am very grateful for your thoughtfulness. It meant a lot to me. I hope to meet each and (every) one of you very soon to thank you all in person.”

Donations for Jasmine and David can still be made to the Second Chance Fund – an education, medical and basic needs account for the children set up by the Carson City Deputies Association – at any Bank of America branch, account No. 005011351167.

Election shakes up balance of power in state

The 2006 election brought dramatic change in Nevada. The GOP lost its monopoly on state constitutional officers as Democrats – all in their first political race – won the attorney general, secretary of state, controller and treasurer’s offices. Only the governor and lieutenant governor remain Republican.

Democrat Dina Titus surprised everyone by beating the favorite in the gubernatorial primary. She lost to Jim Gibbons in the general election, but came within a few points of becoming Nevada’s first female governor. She returns as senate minority leader – but a minority by only one vote.

Democrat Barbara Buckley was named the first female speaker of the Assembly in state history with a majority just one vote short of veto-proof.

At the national level, Nevada Democrat Harry Reid will be the U.S. Senate majority leader when Congress reconvenes in January.

Beyond that, Nevada bucked the national trend, retaining Republicans in two congressional seats despite strong opposition and helping Sen. John Ensign coast to an easy victory in his bid for a second term.

Increased gang violence prompts community coalition

Carson City gangs, consisting of more than 650 members, made their presence known this year with high-profile shoot-outs in which they sometimes hit their targets and sometimes didn’t.

At a middle-school Halloween party on Oct. 29, Luis Martin Saavedra-Silva, 20, was shot and killed in an exchange of gunfire between rival gangs on Longridge Drive.

Whoever fired the fatal bullet that killed the father of two has not been found. It’s unclear if Saavedra-Silva, who had loose ties to a gang, was the intended target.

On Dec. 14, five people suspected of participating in the shooting were ordered by the courts to submit their DNA to match against DNA recovered from the scene. No arrests have been made.

The Halloween shooting was the fourth publicized shooting this year, but Sheriff Kenny Furlong said his deputies are responding to report of shots fired on a regular basis.

On Aug. 12, a 19-year-old with gang affiliation was shot in the thigh on Woodside Drive, an area known for gangs.

Shots were fired by Eastwood Tokers at Lima Street members in the busy parking lot of the Carson City Wal-Mart on July 31.

A 16-year-old Eastwood Toker was shot in the face July 17, in front of a home on August Drive.

More than a dozen shots, some of which hit nearby homes, were fired in a gun battle on Condor Circle in March.

The recent spate of gang-related violence prompted city leaders and Latino parents and business owners to organize the Carson City Community Coalition.

The fledgling anti-gang coalition aims to curb gang violence and spread awareness about gang activities.

The meetings, which are open to the public, are scheduled for the second and fourth Thursdays of the month at the Carson City Senior Citizen Center, 911 Beverly Drive.

Husband accused in murder of state controller

State Controller Kathy Augustine died July 11, three days after she was found comatose at her Reno home. The FBI toxicology lab found a paralyzing drug in her system and a needle mark on her body.

Investigators say her husband, Chaz Higgs, a critical-care nurse, told a co-worker the day before Augustine was hospitalized he would use that drug, succinylcholine, if he ever wanted to kill someone.

As a spray, the drug is used as a local anesthetic so a breathing tube can be inserted in a patient. When injected, it paralyzes the muscles needed to breathe.

Augustine, 51, was completing her second term as controller and running for treasurer at the time of her death. It was the fourth marriage for both.

Higgs pleaded not guilty on Friday to first-degree murder charges.

Complex of fires char area

Though most fires pale in comparison to the destructive Waterfall fire of 2004 that destroyed 14 homes, Carson City and its surrounding counties had their share of fire scares in the summer of 2006, beginning with the Corey Canyon fire in Washoe Valley on June 15.

The paltry five acres scorched in the season’s first blaze was an appetizer to the Linehan fire 11 days later in Mound House that threatened dozens of homes and caused people to flee with flames at their heels.

On June 26, the Linehan fire began in Mound House and spread into east Carson City gobbling up 5,863 acres over the course of three days.

It was part of the Sierra-Tahoe Complex fires which consisted of 16 fires from Boomtown to Pyramid Lake to Silver Springs to Carson City and back up the Sierra Front. They were fought by 185 firefighters and cost about $4.5 million.

On July 2, the Flint fire flared up near the Carson City Landfill and charred about 200 acres before being contained.

On July 22, dozens of Storey County homeowners were preparing to evacuate when lightning sparked a fire three miles up-canyon from Mark Twain and two miles down-canyon from Virginia City in Six Mile Canyon. Up to 200 homes and 50 sheds and other outbuildings in Mark Twain and the Virginia Highlands were threatened in the fire’s four days.

A soft landing in the housing market

Trouble came in the area housing market for builders and speculators, but many new home buyers saw decreasing prices during what the Fed characterized as a “soft landing.”

Although national economists predict a continued decline in house prices, local real estate agents have hope that Northern Nevada’s microeconomies will continue to show high returns.

Others see a housing price correction as inevitable. The 30 percent to 35 percent increases that have characterized past years have dwindled to 10 percent to 15 percent increases.

This price correction comes after a housing boom that revved in 2003, fueled by falling interest rates and continued despite rising prices.

The Carson City housing market hit a high in 2005 when the median price of a single-family home jumped 34 percent over a year to $348,500. It has inched down to $310,000 in September, according to the Multiple Listing Service.

Average prices in Carson City are still recording high. By the end of the year the assessor’s office recorded average sales from $343,839 to $357,664.

In response to these prices, many Carson City residents have taken out first and second mortgages and secured new mortgage types that took off with the housing boom. Economists are waiting to see if mortgages tied to rising interest rates will send many of these families from their dream house to the poor house.

Growth in Carson City

Carson City is on the road to higher-density development, residents learned this year following news that a 413-acre ranch in the heart of the city went on the market and that a South Carson casino plans to build farther up the hillside.

The year started with the long-awaited news that Carson City would have its first new state-of-the-art movie theater. Officials with Galaxy Theatres and Casino Fandango announced in February plans to develop the 41,000-square-foot, 10-screen multiplex on the west side of South Curry Street, across from the 3800 S. Carson St. casino. These will be the first movie screens to be built in Carson City in almost nine years.

The project is expected to top Carson Gaming’s estimated $40 million development west and south of the casino. Executives also plan to build an expansion onto the casino, a pedestrian bridge spanning South Curry Street connecting to the theater, a large parking lot and a new motel. Plans for a housing development were announced but have been put on hold.

Carson City’s largest remaining plot of open space went on the market in August for $76.6 million. The Lompa Ranch, located in the heart of the city, off Fifth Street and Saliman Road, represents 65 percent of the total urban residential land still available in Carson City. Residential and commercial development is expected.

Carson City residents said goodbye to Bodine’s restaurant, which has served customers in South Carson City for 20 years. The restaurant was demolished in mid-June to make way for a new Western-themed casino. But the future of the 3.1-acre lot at the gateway to South Carson City became even more clouded in November – when an investor announced plans to purchase the site from owner Kevin Coleman, a Southern California developer. The sale has not yet closed.

One sale that was completed: the empty Kmart building on North Carson Street. The building was purchased for $6.7 million from an out-of-state investment partnership. Vacant for more than three years, locals are waiting on more retail.

Carson Tahoe Regional Healthcare layoffs and successes

Carson City’s second largest employer announced reorganization plans in May, laying off about 50 employees and cutting several programs.

The hospital’s chief executive officer said these cost-cutting measures ensured the financial health of the private organization following its move to the new regional medical center in North Carson City.

Patients and families saved the outpatient Behavioral Health Services program for adolescents, which had been slated for closure. Thanks to budget cuts and a grant, the program’s director said it will continue to operate into 2007.

There are several highlights during the hospital’s first full year of operation in its new location:

Doctors began performing open-heart surgery. It opened the $12 million Carson Tahoe Cancer Center, offering local, full-service care to those suffering from cancer. Construction began on a $8 million to $10 million medical office building. Officials anticipate the 80-acre medical center campus will continue to spur on the North Carson City economy.

Freeway opening

Traffic merged onto the new Carson City freeway for the first time Feb. 16. Local politicians and business owners heralded the opening of the first 3.5-mile section of the bypass around Carson City proper as an economic stimulus for downtown, which is crowded by dense commuter traffic, and a boon for those businesses located off new interchanges.

Total cost of the Carson City freeway: $330 million

Phase 1: From Highway 395 at Lakeview Hill to Highway 50 East, included building the four bridges spanning Arrowhead Drive, Northgate Lane, Emerson Drive and College Parkway. The total cost of phase one was $120 million. The general contractor was Ames Construction.

Phase 2: From Highway 50 to Fairview Drive. The state will soon ask for bids for this phase.

This $51 million section is planned to be completed in 2008. Full interchanges will be constructed at Highway 50 East and at Fairview Drive. Grade separation structures will be built at Fifth Street, Koontz Lane, Clearview Drive and Snyder Avenue. The separations will allow traffic to pass over the freeway with no access provided to the freeway.

Phase 3: The last $110 million section to a full interchange with Highway 50 at the base of Spooner Summit should be completed by 2010. Some rights-of-way have not yet been acquired.

Washoe Valley connection:

The interstate under construction in Washoe Valley will connect with Highway 395 at the valley’s north end. It is scheduled to be completed in 2011. The whole length – from Reno through Carson City – will be called Interstate 580.

Virginia & Truckee Railway

Many believed it never would come. The Nevada Commission for the Reconstruction of the V&T Railways proved doubters wrong. Rail fans climbed aboard the first train to traverse the reconstructed V&T tracks 1.4 miles to American Flat in August.

Though still the first step in a $40 million project, the tri-county residents could see the full 18-mile rail into Carson City become a reality after more than 20 years in the conceptual stage.

Traversing Storey, Lyon counties and Carson City, the V&T is expected to transport 73,000 riders between Virginia City and Carson City by 2010, according to Sierra Railroad, the operator selected to run the V&T.

Contractors also broke through into tunnel No. 2, in Lyon County. Developers announced possible plans for a 30-acre commercial/residential development at the east Carson City terminal, which includes a $50 million museum dedicated to Chinese rail workers.

Increased revenue from tourism and more retail options could also gain the confidence of Carson City consumers, who started shelling out a little bit more in sales tax this year to pay $15 million of the rail project.

The contenders

The Nevada Appeal’s top 10 stories of 2006 were chosen from the following alphabetized list:

• 2006 general election

• Area growth

• Children found starved

• Death of Kathy Augustine

• Freeway opening

• Gang shootings

• Hospital layoffs

• Housing market downturn

• Linehan fire

• Methamphetamine awareness

• Presbyterian Church saved

• Silver City schoolhouse

• Six Mile Canyon toll road

• Wild horses

• V&T contractor chosen