Click on the blue portal below to download an electronic replica of the April 29 edition of the San Bernardino County Sentinel.
By Mark Gutglueck
Colton City Manager Bill Smith and detectives with the Colton Police Department are trying to untangle a set of intertwined facts that pertain to a dubious circumstance involving municipal operations in the Hub City.
Unknown at this point is just how deep the matter goes and whether Smith and other city officials, including the mayor and city council, dare go much further in uncovering it, lest it mushroom into a full-blown scandal that revives the disrepute Colton was subjected to in the early 2000s when a former mayor and no fewer than four councilmen were charged and convicted of felonious activity involving the misuse and abuse of their power and positions of public trust.
At the very least, the current contretemps in Colton definitely entails the questionable routing of money. Further, it possibly involves embezzlement or misappropriation of funds and potentially is linked to timecard and overtime fraud of a prodigious proportion.
What is known is that on Tuesday March 22, Mike Cory, who is the superintendent in the City of Colton’s water/wastewater division, and Steve Contreras, a senior water treatment operator in the water/wastewater division, were placed on administrative leave and remain on leave.
Intrinsic to what occurred is Colton’s status as one of the few cities in San Bernardino County that approximates a full service municipality. Despite currently being the 15th largest of the county’s 24 cities and incorporated towns populationwise, Colton is the second-oldest, having been incorporated in 1887. A railroad town, as a consequence of its age it matured early, and at one time was a full-service municipality, with its own police department, fire department, water utility, electrical utility, sanitation division and cemetery operations. In 1996, the city privatized its sanitation department, contracting with what was then Taormina Industries and what is now known as Republic Industries for refuse handling. The remainder of the city’s municipal service departments remain intact.
The Sentinel is informed that roughly ten years ago, the city’s water utility replaced most of Colton’s domestic and business water meters, leaving the old ones that had been removed from city residences and businesses on truck trailers in the police department’s impound yard proximate to the police department headquarters/City Hall complex. On at least one occasion since then, vandals or thieves managed to scale or otherwise defeat the barrier around the periphery of the yard and make off with a relatively small number of the obsolescent meters. The remaining meters languished there for nearly a decade until November 2021, at which point Cory instructed Contreras and another employee to take them to a scrap dealer. Three loads of the meters were carried over to the scrap metal recycler, who paid for them in three installments of $10,000 apiece. Two of the checks were made out to Contreras, who turned all of the money over to Cory. This apparently occurred on November 29, 2021.
The Sentinel is informed that the City of Colton’s policy with regard to the handling of money generated by the liquidation, sale or disposition of surplus equipment is not specific, but that line employees generally pass the proceeds from surplus equipment and property along to supervisors or department heads and that the money thereafter makes its way into the city’s general fund.
The assumption of Contreras and the other employee was that the $30,000 entrusted to Mike Cory made its way to City Hall. While that appears to have been the case with regard to the check made out to the city, the money represented by the two checks made out to Contreras was not initially sent to City Hall and was left unaccounted for.
When it was brought to the attention of city management that the sale of the obsolescent water meters had produced a return of $10,000, an amount deemed less than their actual scrap value, an inquiry was begun. At some point, city higher-ups learned that the scrap company had issued not a single check for $10,000 as payment for the meters but three such checks. When it was discovered that two of the checks had been made out to Contreras and that Contreras had converted both to cash, city officials proceeded upon the presumption that Cory and Contreras were complicit in the theft of public funds. It was at that point, the Sentinel has been told, that both were put on leave.
The matter was handed over the police department to investigate. Detectives learned from the water division employee who had assisted Contreras in collecting and transporting the water meters to the scrap dealer that the meters had been transported in three separate and equal loads, that he and Contreras had been paid three installments of $10,000 for each of those loads in the form of a single check made out as payable to the city and two checks payable to Contreras and that after the checks to Contreras had been cashed, the money – $20,000 – and the remaining check for $10,000 had been turned over to Cory. The water division employee said he witnessed the cash transfer between Contreras and Cory while they were in Cory’s office.
Detectives obtained a search warrant for Cory’s workplace and desk as well as his home in Fontana. Upon serving the search warrant at Cory’s residence, members of the Colton Police Department insisted upon Cory opening the safe he had on his premises. Inside they found $15,000 in cash. The Sentinel is told that Cory upon being questioned by different detectives about what had occurred, gave conflicting explanations of why the $20,000 in cash had not been immediately provided to the finance department at City Hall as well as the origin of the $15,000 in his home safe.
Thereafter, according to information provided to the Sentinel, detectives initiated inquiries directed at Cory’s and Contreras’s personal back accounts to see if there were any apparent irregularities in the amount of money deposited therein and whether they might thereby ascertain if their personal finances reflected possible embezzlements or misappropriation of city funds.
While the two checks for the scrapped water meters made out to Contreras initially cast suspicion on him, the Sentinel is told, the police department’s theory of his involvement has reportedly run into difficulty as no evidence has been churned up to demonstrate Contreras ever received funds to which he was not entitled.
The vetting of Contreras, a Colton native and the son of Korean War Hero, indicated that he had no motive to steal money from the city. His stepmother has substantial wealth – quantified as several million dollars. Contreras himself has bank accounts and holdings to indicate he is comfortably fixed. Moreover, it was learned, Contreras has proven to be a soft touch, as he has made several loans to his colleagues at the city, including money provided to one who was going through a divorce and another to assist him in a child custody legal battle. Investigators learned that Contreras had loaned $20,000 to Cory, a figure which garnered attention for several reasons, including because it matched the amount of money in the checks made out to him for two of the loads of scrap metal he recycled in November and because Cory was his supervisor.
The investigation led to an examination of time cards and overtime pay practices in the Colton water division. According to available information, at one point an employee had been paid for 135.5 hours of work in what was, or was supposed to be, a standard two-week period that normally entailed 80 hours, including 18.5 hours on one Sunday. The overtime list for that employee’s pay period, the Sentinel was told, showed the employee double-charging hours for the same job on August 4, 2019, which included not listing an “end time” for his work.
During the same time period, ending on August 9, 2019, another employee had one 24-hour period where he was paid for 27 hours and a third Colton water division employee claimed to have worked 20.5 hours on a single Sunday. That employee claimed to have worked 144.5 hours during a normal 80-hour two-week pay period. The overtime record for that third employee showed that on August 4, 2019, he triple-charged for being “on call” and “waiting for others,” and double-charged for a “brown water” call in the same neighborhood relating to the same incident based upon two different people calling in on the same issue.
A fourth employee’s timecards beginning around July 1, 2019 show he claimed to work 16-to-17 hours per day for almost 2 weeks straight, working well into the dark at the wastewater treatment plant. When video footage was reviewed, it was discovered he was not on duty during much of the time he claimed on his timecard, which was approved by Cory. In that case, this fourth employee was allowed to “pay back” the overtime money he had been paid during that time period, with no discipline being applied for what one city consultant knowledgeable about the case said was a clear example of “timecard fraud.”
No one, including City Manager Bill Smith, was available at City Hall this morning or this afternoon to comment on the reports relating to the investigation.
Rumors abound that the matter, which is still developing, carries with it the possibility of maiming Colton with an indelible black eye similar to that which came about with the 2001 bribery indictments and convictions of Colton Mayor Karl Gaytan and Colton councilmen Donald Sanders, James Grimsby and Abe Beltran as well as Councilman Ramon Hernandez’s 2006 arrest and 2008 conviction on 24 misappropriation of public funds charges.
An employee who had witnessed Contreras hand over the $20,000 in cash to Cory said that what might appear to have been overtime pay made to Contreras could possibly be explained by an intense round of work Contreras had been engaged in that related to repairs of the city water system’s Rialto Reservoir, which he said at one point remained inoperative despite extensive work by an outside consulting firm which had cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. Contreras, he said, doggedly and virtually single-handedly worked on the reservoir, including after hours on weekdays and during week-ends, at last completing the corrections that allowed the reservoir to be brought back on line.
The City of Redlands will apply $30 million in state and federal grants to convert the Good Nite Inn into a full-dimensional shelter for the community’s chronically homeless.
Redlands is the second San Bernardino County city to obtain sufficient funding through the State of California Homekey program to establish and operate a large scale homeless facility. The award, which allows for the retrofitting of the hotel located at 1675 Industrial Park Avenue, comes less than two months after the City of Victorville accepted $28 million to construct a 170-bed facility, essentially from scratch.
In Redlands’s case it is to receive $24,142,000 in federal American Rescue Plan money with which the hotel is to be purchased, renovated and augmented with the support facilities to house, support and educate those to be welcomed there and another $5,858,000 from the State of California to operate for what is anticipated to be seven years. Upon conversion, the hotel will have 98 permanent supportive housing units, each with a kitchenette. The grant money will also be used by the city to fund the hiring of David Rabindranath as Redlands’ homeless services coordinator, a staff position.
As of this week, the Good Nite Inn was yet operating as a hotel. It entails roughly 100 guest rooms, none of which have cooking facilities or kitchens.
Under the terms of the grant application that was accepted by the California Department of Housing & Community Development, the conversion must be underway in three months and the facility must be fully operational within one year of the March 14 conferring of the grant on Redlands by the California Department of Housing and Community Development. The city has said the project should be up and running by December.
The Homekey program directs available grant money to projects deemed responsive to the goal of providing permanent housing to the homeless. Under the terms of the application, in keeping with the application for the grant, the facility is to be managed and the program it offers administered by Step Up, a Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to providing housing and social reconstruction to the homeless. Step Up is coordinating with Shangri-La Construction, which is to reconfigure and remodel the units, including installing stoves, ovens refrigerators and cupboards. It is not clear how many of the existing amenities of the Good Nite Inn, such as its swimming pool, will be retained in the makeover. Elements of the hotel, such as its computer room and common areas, will likely be converted to a classroom or educational lab to fit with the goal of offering residents training, counseling, recovery and metal health services.
The city is working with representatives from several Redlands charities, including Inherit the Earth Outreach and the Redlands Charitable Resources Coalition to compile a list of local unhoused individuals who will be eligible to move into the facility. Those involved include the Reverend Raymond Morehouse and Lorrie Hinkleman and Rick Ferguson, who have been involved in lesser or greater degrees in running the city’s only emergency homeless shelter, which is set to close at the end of the month.
Shannon O’Brien has challenged Mayor Acquanetta Warren and the Fontana City Council to redress issues relating to the veterans memorial that was built within easy visual distance of City Hall five years ago.
O’Brien commended the city for the effort to honor those who have fought for the United States in its wars and military actions around the globe, but noted that there are design flaws and vandalism issues at the memorial that should be addressed earlier rather than later to prevent those who have properly been honored from being overlooked again and ultimately forgotten.
“Our veterans are not being treated well in this city, after their contributions making it possible for us to be free and be able to have all the advantages and privileges that we have,” O’Brien said. “I am glad the City and the people of Fontana built this memorial, but I think we as citizens should take pride in it and go just a little bit further to see that it is not only maintained but tweaked to show the proper respect for what our brave soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen did for all of us.”
One shortcoming that should be redressed, O’Brien said, was “some people’s names do not have the appropriate years of service. That is important. I also agree with our veterans that the bricks honoring them should not be on the ground but on the wall.”
O’Brien noted, “The sponsors are on the wall, but you notice that the bricks commemorating the veterans are on the ground. That should have been reversed. Students and children in the area tend to ride bikes and skateboards over these bricks and not really pay attention. That is scuffing them and over time, I am afraid we won’t be able to read them. We should move the bricks honoring the veterans up onto the wall. Maybe the bricks could be a different type of material, so they can stand out. Education is important for our youth. This wall is a way for them to learn about the contributions of our community’s veterans to our national causes. If those bricks are up on the wall, it would force everyone who comes by here to look up, take notice and have respect for our veterans.”
O’Brien also said that a large plaque summarizing the spirit of sacrifice could be added to the recognition wall. And she echoed the suggestion of many of the veterans that the names that are enshrined should be distinguished and grouped together by which service they were in, which would make it easier for family members who come to the shrine to find the individual memorialized they are looking for.
The memorial already exists, O’Brien said, and just a bit more effort is needed to make it worthy of those it honors. “There is still something we can do to fix this problem,” she said, and it can be done at relatively little cost, she suggested.
The honorarium was accomplished through a joint effort involving a few prime movers, veterans and their family members, City Hall, some volunteers, veterans’ legions and donors. The cost was roughly $300,000. Nowhere near that amount is required now, O’Brien said, but action, activism and volunteerism are called for.
“If you are a professional and you know about things like this, inbox me and tell me your recommendations and also any contacts we might want to reach out to,” she said. Her email address is email@example.com.
She said, “Something that disturbs me is the veterans were asked to pay for their own bricks They risked their lives, yet they have to write a check, too. I would like to call on the city or the county or whoever wants to take up this cause and make things right by our veterans.”
O’Brien said, “We don’t have to start from scratch. We can build on what we have, but we should make these corrections.”
Recently, she visited the memorial with about a dozen local veterans. She noted that both time and vandalism are taking a toll. “The flags are getting eaten up by the high winds we have here in Fontana,” she said. “We need replacements for those and to do something to maintain the quality of the flags.”
She surveyed broken lights, vandalism and graffiti that marred the memorial.
“This is really upsetting to us,” one of the veterans said.
“Something needs to be done,” said another.
O’Brien suggested the city go to the expense of installing “a Ring System or something similar to what people have on their doorsteps with motion sensors and cameras, to video monitor the site and ward off graffiti and vandalism. Something like that would allow us to see and identify those who are blatantly disrespectful of our veterans so we can catch them and see that they are punished by assigning them at their own expense to repair the damage they have caused.”
She listened to one veteran who said that the city had removed a staff member from the role of overseeing the city’s banner program, which celebrated the contributions of the city’s currently serving servicemen and servicewoman. Since that staff member was removed, the veteran said, the program had languished.
“That shouldn’t be,” O’Brien, who is running against Warren for mayor in this year’s election, said. “The mayor and council should be looking at doing these things the right way.”
O’Brien said she hoped her effort to bring attention to the issues involving veterans in Fontana was not perceived as a political stunt. “This is something that needs to be done,” she said. “I am a citizen here and the granddaughter of a veteran and the niece of a veteran. Our local veterans have been in the struggle to get this fixed and it’s not happening. Now that Memorial Day is coming up, this is a perfect opportunity to do something about it.”
Virtually no one knows about it, but the county has a program intended to cover the costs of residents who want to isolate themselves from their families and others while they are ill with the coronavirus.
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors this week approved a third amendment, effective July 1, 2022, to a contract with Aviah Hospitality, Inc. which does business as Motel 6, for continued provision of rooms to county residents for isolation capacity as a response to COVID-19 as part of the state’s Project Roomkey. The action updating the contract terms extended the contract one year and increased the contract amount by $990,000, from $1,163,540 to an amount not to exceed $2,153,540, for the total contract period of January 1, 2021 through June 30, 2023.
The board also approved a fourth amendment to a contract with Prime Hospitality, Inc., which does business as Woody’s Classic Grill, for the continued provision of meals to county residents currently in an emergency, non-congregate shelter due to COVID-19 as part of Project Roomkey, updating the contract and increasing the contract amount by $650,000, from $1,297,366 to an amount not to exceed $1,947,366, for the total contract period of July 6, 2020 through June 30, 2023.
Supriya Barrows, the deputy executive officer for the county’s community revitalization division who presented the contact amendments to the supervisors this week, did not offer information with regard to the program, how residents can assess it, or which Motel 6 ill residents can check into.
Woody’s Grill is located at 22400 Barton Road in Grand Terrace. The closest Motel 6 to Woody’s Grill is the Motel 6 at 111 East Redlands Boulevard in San Bernardino, which is owned by Aviah Hospitality. The desk there, however, said no beds are available for COVID isolation patients.
Those ill with COVID-19 in need of isolation might try contacting Barrows at (909) 387-4717.
There have been at least two spottings and maybe as many as five of mountain lions in San Bernardino County in the last five weeks.
In late March, what was reported to be a mature mountain lion was seen, at what was estimated to be an eighth of a mile distance, in Chino Hills State Park.
This week, there was photographic confirmation of what was at least a single and maybe actually two fully grown mountain lions some seven miles apart in Apple Valley on Sunday April 24 and Tuesday, April 26. The following day, there was another sighting of a mountain lion slightly more than a half mile away from where the second sighting in the town occurred.
Sightings of mountain lions in metropolitan settings are extremely rare. Less uncommon is the migration of the big cats into out-of-the-way sites at the periphery of urbanized places and more rustic districts.
Chino Hills State Park, which embodies an undeveloped swathe of land at the confluence of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, lies at the southwesternmost tip of San Bernardino County in the Chino Hills, and involves Santa Ana Canyon within the foothills of the Santa Ana Mountains. It is not unheard of for mountain lions to come into that area. The cat seen in March was at an elevation slightly above the hikers that spotted it while they were hiking on Bobcat Ridge Trail.
On or around April 15, a Mountain Lion was struck and killed on the 60 Freeway near Diamond Bar, which is contiguous with Chino Hills but lies across the Los Angeles County Line.
On Sunday, April 24, a photo was snapped of a mountain lion in the yard of a home on Chiwi Road in Apple Valley.
More than seven miles away, on early Tuesday morning, April 26, a doorstep Ring camera caught the image of a large adult mountain lion in the front yard of a home near Kiowa and Bear Valley roads in Apple Valley. The evening of the following day, Wednesday April 27, the Apple Valley station of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department received a call at 11:29 p.m. which reported a “full-grown” mountain lion had ventured into the front yard of a residence in the 12000 block of Tamiani Road, which is roughly 0.55 miles from where the previous sighting occurred.
Unknown is whether the mountain lions seen were the same cat, perhaps two or even three. Sleek and agile, the average mountain lion is roughly 8 feet from nose tip to tail end. They weigh, on average, between 125 to 150 pounds.
Mountain lions are most likely to appear in areas inhabited by humans, if indeed they do show, in the spring. In the winter, they are in their element in wildlands because winter conditions give them an even greater advantage over their natural prey than in other seasons. They come into areas inhabited by humans in spring because the animals they normally eat become scarce in their natural habitat during that season. At such times, they will victimize domesticated animals that are available and vulnerable. Appearances in summer come about, usually, because water sources where they live – mountainous areas and rugged deserts – have dried up.
Mountain lions do not have a strong sense of smell and rely upon keen eyesight, in particular their acute night vision, and their extraordinary hearing to hunt. This makes them most active at night and in the early morning. Known as ambush hunters, mountain lions are adept at concealing themselves in dense vegetation or available crevices such as those between boulders in nature or in hiding places of opportunity in areas built up by man. After patient and silent stalking, they will engage in a lightning fast surprise attack in which their sharp claws and powerful jaws play a prominent role.
A federal jury yesterday made a determination that San Bernardino County must pay $4.5 million to the family of Juan Ramos, formerly of Highland, who was fatally shot by Sheriff’s Sergeant Gary Wheeler on July 22, 2018.
That afternoon, a Sunday, the temperature in Highland in mid-afternoon had reached or exceeded 96 degrees Fahrenheit.
According to the sheriff’s department, at 3:52 pm, the sheriff’s dispatch center received a call for service regarding a report of a reckless driver speeding through neighborhood streets in the vicinity of Olive Street and 13th Street in Highland. Deputies responded and located a white Ford Crown Victoria being driven by a male subject, later identified as Juan Ramon Ramos, 32. In a release after the shooting, the department maintained Ramos was “driving without regard for the public’s safety, endangering himself and other motorists by running red lights and nearly hitting other vehicles. A deputy attempted a traffic stop on the suspect vehicle at a gas station [and] the suspect drove away when asked to exit the vehicle. The deputy witnessed Ramos hold up a box cutter prior to fleeing the gas station. Ramos refused to yield and led deputies on a pursuit after he narrowly missed colliding with other motorists. Eventually the pursuit ended back near Olive Street/13th Street.”
According to the department’s version of events put out in the immediate aftermath of the incident, “Deputies attempted to de-escalate the situation” but “Ramos did not comply with commands and refused to exit the vehicle. After a brief standoff, Ramos exited the vehicle armed with the box cutter and ran from deputies.”
Ramos had returned to a residence in the the 26700 block of 13th Street owned by his aunt and uncle.
According to the department’s narrative, “Ramos continued to ignore deputies’ commands and did not comply with their orders to peacefully surrender. Deputies deployed less than lethal bean bags, striking the suspect. Deputies also deployed a Taser, striking the suspect; the less than lethal and de-escalation techniques proved ineffective in getting the suspect to comply. Ramos jumped a fence approaching a group of people with the box cutter in his hand.”
At that point, Sergeant Wheeler discharged his service sidearm, hitting Ramos in the back.
“Fearing for the safety of the citizens, a deputy involved shooting occurred,” according to the department.
Ramos was transported to St. Bernardine’s Medical Center where he was pronounced deceased at 5:24 p.m.
The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, which routinely clears law enforcement officers of wrongdoing with regard to shootings of civilians that take place within its jurisdiction, reviewed the circumstances of Ramos’s death. The district attorney’s office generated a report of that review, released in 2020, in which it was concluded that Wheeler’s action was a justifiable and legal use of deadly force.
Ramos’s family was represented by attorney Dale Galipo.
Galipo was able to call upon multiple witnesses – members of Ramos’s family including his cousins – who testified that Ramos was not attempting to attack anyone, was not showing hostile intent and was not close enough to use the box cutter on anyone when Wheeler felled him with the fatal shots. At trail there was testimony to the effect that Ramos’s cousins told deputies that he was not dangerous or violent and represented no threat to them.
The department maintains that the shooting was entirely justified.
Under the verdict, Ramos’s family will receive $4.5 million for his wrongful death.
The office of San Bernardino County Counsel had no comment on the verdict.