From all outward appearances, Newport Coast—the prized real-estate development project of Orange County's wealthiest, most powerful man, Irvine Co. billionaire Don Bren—looks to be a slice of heaven on Earth. Elaborate gates and private guards protect hillside neighborhoods with sweeping, Pacific Ocean views. Mediterranean-style houses, some accurately called "palatial estates" in real-estate guides, can fetch $20 million or more. Even the palm tree-, succulent- and flower-lined, litter-free public roads suggest paradise.
It's the perfect setting for a crime or, at least, a bizarre mystery.
Just as Bren hails himself as the perfect, proud capitalist even though his private, cash-cow project is (cleverly) publicly subsidized, Newport Coast is built on a contradiction. Next to all those gorgeous estates is one of OC's largest toxic dumps: Beside Newport Coast Road, the 395-acre Coyote Canyon Landfill contains 60 million cubic yards of municipal solid waste generated from household, commercial, industrial, recreational and agricultural trash sources during a 30-year period.
But the waste—so extensive it goes 200 feet deep—hasn't just been sitting there. County officials and Bren have allowed a gas-recovery company to burn the trash to generate power. Incinerating trash can have negative consequences for nearby humans through the release of dioxins and arsenic into the atmosphere. In January 2010, a decision to burn Coyote Canyon trash around the clock seven days a week doubled the cancer-risk threshold, requiring government air-quality officials to alert 200 Newport Coast households to the danger.
This is where our crime mystery begins.
After the decision to keep Coyote Canyon incinerators burning nonstop, Anna D. Steiner—a practicing medical doctor, single mother of three children and well-to-do Newport Coast resident—noticed that her children (ages 14, 12 and 11) began suffering unusual symptoms, including bloody noses and chronic abdominal pain. Concerned, Steiner took them for urinalysis testing. Arsenic—a lethal poison in large doses—was detected, but in levels considered normal. The kids continued to exhibit signs of sickness, and Steiner continued to test. In May 2010, her youngest child twice tested positive for above-normal levels of arsenic in her system.
The findings were understandably alarming. Steiner wondered if Coyote Canyon landfill activities caused the poisoning, or if a sneaky, would-be killer was loose. On the advice of a social worker and with the hope of solving the mystery, she went to the local police in Bren's home city for help.
According to Shawn A. McMillan, Steiner's San Diego-based attorney, "Instead of seriously considering [Steiner's] claim, the Newport Beach Police Department failed to conduct a good-faith, unbiased investigation into the source of the arsenic." Rather, reports McMillan, detectives Don Prouty and Penny Freeman quickly decided that Steiner's worries were imaginary. He says the police mistakes didn't end with indifference. In response to her complaint, the cops made his client a target for hostile government action, McMillan tells me. The woman had unwittingly entered The Twilight Zone.
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On May 26, 2010, Steiner and her three kids awoke around 6 a.m., ate a breakfast of organic eggs and spinach, and then practiced piano lessons before getting ready for school. Steiner dropped off her youngest child at Newport Coast Elementary School and the two older ones at the Orange County High School of the Arts in Santa Ana. She then went to a Garden Grove medical clinic where she worked as an anesthesiologist.
Just before noon, Steiner received frantic telephone calls from her kids. Newport Beach police had seized them from their classes without notice. Government agents told Steiner her kids would be safer living at Orangewood Children's Home, a county-run facility, according to McMillan. At Orangewood, social workers stripped her children, conducted invasive exams and ordered vaccinations without Steiner's knowledge or permission.
"This was a case of the government using its heavy hand," says McMillan. "And it's not an infrequent problem at the Social Services Agency [SSA]. They are known to be abusive to parents. They'll make up trumped-up charges to take kids away."
Justices inside the California Court of Appeal based in Santa Ana have shared McMillan's view. For example, in an August 2010 decision, the appellate court berated SSA bureaucrats for an ugly history of concocting blatantly disingenuous excuses to rob parents of their kids.
"It damages the reputation of the Social Services Agency and causes parents to suspect the system is prejudiced against them, and social workers will use any excuse they can think of—whether credible or not—to deprive them of the custody of their children," wrote Justice William W. Bedsworth on behalf of a three-justice panel that included justices Eileen C. Moore and William F. Rylaarsdam.
To underscore the court's frustration with SSA, Bedsworth—a former county prosecutor, Governor Pete Wilson appointee and, in my view, the most brilliant member of the court—wrote in italics: "It has to stop."
While Bedsworth crafted that stinging opinion, county social workers wrote a court petition to justify taking Steiner's children by suggesting she might be the arsenic villain and was mentally ill—two assertions McMillan describes as "concocted" perjury. Never mind, he says, that SSA had no legitimate supportive evidence and that an examining doctor had determined Steiner "was, in fact, not mentally ill." Still, the agency refused to give back her kids.
"I don't think the social workers liked that she fought them and didn't show them the respect they wanted," says McMillan. "So they used their power against her. It was BS."
Ten months into the fight, Orange County bureaucrats offered the emotionally drained Steiner a deal: If she signed a statement affirming the social workers had been justified in their hostility, she could have two of her kids back immediately.
"It was a Hobson's choice," says McMillan. "It was, 'Tell us what we want to hear, and we'll give you your kids.' What was she supposed to do?"
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Steiner reluctantly signed the deal. She never regained custody of her oldest child, who eventually was given to his father. In January, she filed a civil-rights lawsuit against Newport Beach police, Orange County, Orangewood and the SSA. Superior Court Judge Steven Perk will handle the case. Government officials have not yet responded to the allegations, but in the past, county lawyers have argued that, as with criminal prosecutors, social workers enjoy legal immunity.
"What happened was so offensive," McMillan says. "Think about this: If these social workers really believed that my client had tried to poison her own kids, would they have returned them to her custody? Of course not. They made false charges against this parent to gain control over her. It's a tactic, and it's scandalous."
This column appeared in print as "Newport Coast Offers Stunning Ocean Views and an Arsenic Mystery: A wealthy mother who complained about the poisoning of her children finds herself in a police-state nightmare."