Stories That Made a Difference

And some we regret

ONTRAC
"Wrong Side of the Tracks" by Gustavo Arellano, Sept. 26, 2003
For years, Placentia officials threw millions of dollars in city funds into OnTrac, a $440 million plan to redevelop the city's historic downtown, but instead plunged the tiny North County community millions of dollars into debt. A Weeklyinvestigation detailed how Placentia Council Member Scott Brady personally benefited from the project, how the council wanted to appoint Roy D. DePaul—a businessman with a shady past—as OnTrac's main developer, and how the city purchased one property above market rate—a property that belonged to OnTrac board member and former Placentia mayor George Ziegler. Following those articles, DePaul resigned, Brady recused himself forever from OnTrac votes, and the Orange County grand jury launched an investigation into the Ziegler transaction. Last month, city officials killed the OnTrac project. Last stop: oblivion.

SOME COPS
"A Tale of Two Shootings" by Nick Schou, Aug. 1, 2003

On May 20, 2003, Derrick Watkins attended a triple-header classic-rock marathon at LA's Staples Center featuring REO Speedwagon, Journey and Styx. After the show, Watkins carpooled back home to Orange County with several law-enforcement pals. As their SUV raced down the 91 freeway through Compton, Watkins got trigger-happy: he took out his police-issue handgun, aimed it out the window and started firing. Watkins was never charged with a crime. As this story pointed out, Watkins happened to be a Santa Ana cop attached to the department's gang unit. Also in the SUV were two gang-unit prosecutors who worked alongside Watkins in an office at the Santa Ana Police Department. The passengers had recently teamed up in an effort to send Gustavo Orejel, a young Santa Ana resident, to prison for life. His crime? Allegedly shooting a gun in the air after a car full of gangbangers sprayed his house with bullets.

Although no physical evidence tied Orejel to the shooting—and somebody else ultimately confessed to the crime—Orejel faced a life sentence after two neighbors said they thought they saw him with a gun at the scene. The Weekly revealed that those eyewitnesses didn't come forward until a week after the shooting (a shooting in which nobody was injured), and even then failed to say they saw Orejel actually shoot at anybody. His freedom hung in the balance for another year.

This February, Orejel shot himself in the foot. Not literally, though—he was busted by cops who raided his house looking for drugs. Orejel pleaded guilty to drug charges and is now an inmate at Wasco State Prison. His shooting case, meanwhile, quietly disappeared. Instead of spending the rest of his life in prison, Orejel will spend the next three years and four months behind bars.

THE SHACK
"Springboard for Hitler: Anaheim's the Shack has become Nuremberg-rally central for OC racists" by Rich Kane, Sept. 7, 2001

"Clandestine White Power shows aren't unheard of in Orange County. What's weird is that a commercial venue like the Shack would host one—or, rather, several—since the club underwent an ownership change in February 1999. [The owners] have offered evolving responses: (1) they have denied such shows ever took place; (2) they have said they are not sure White Power bands perform at their club because they're not much interested in the politics of their bands and can't understand the lyrics; and (3) they have said the shows have gone on, but hey, it's a free country, even for Nazis. No. 3 is undoubtedly true, but it contradicts Nos. 1 and 2. And the Shack's fear of publicity raises questions about its commitment to No. 3, regarding which, let's say this: for two years, ending around the night of Sept. 2, the Shack's ownership worked assiduously to keep the Nazi shows top secret, staging most of them on unadvertised Sunday afternoons, referring to them as 'private parties.' And until recently, they succeeded in maintaining a low profile." Kane's story helped close the Shack. The space became a Mexican club in April 2003, and remains one of the most popular venues in Orange County.

MARK WERSCHING
"Shot in the Back" by Nick Schou, June 6, 2003
Mark Wersching may be the most expensive cop in Huntington Beach history. On May 5, 2001, he fatally shot Antonio Saldivar, an unarmed 18-year-old Costa Mesa resident, in the back after mistaking him for a gangbanger he'd been chasing moments earlier. His justification—that Saldivar had aimed a rifle at him—evaporated when the rifle was determined to be a toy gun on which Saldivar's fingerprints could not be found. In May 2003, a jury awarded Saldivar's family $2.1 million for its loss.

Jurors reached their verdict without reviewing Wersching's disciplinary record, which was later obtained by the Weekly. That record—more rap sheet than report card—suggested he should have been fired long before he had the chance to shoot an unarmed kid in the back. It included several allegations of excessive force and a couple of incidents that would have landed anyone but a cop in jail.

Take the time Wersching and a fellow officer stole a bundle of confiscated fireworks from an evidence locker at the Huntington Beach Fire Department—and set them off at the HBPD union headquarters. After months of investigating, Wersching was suspended for 30 hours without pay. On another occasion, Wersching and several other off-duty cops and their wives and girlfriends celebrated a victorious softball game by barhopping around the city. Late that night, Wersching took a detour, drove onto the city beach and raced along the shore at speeds of 50 mph—until he crashed into a cement ditch and totaled the car.

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