I didn’t know that the police beat was one of the tests normally applied to newcomers until the San Diego Evening Tribune editors released me from it after six months and, to my surprise, had me cover the County Board of Supervisors.
Developers had been pumping out two-story stuccoes amidst the chapparaled and original Spanish land grants to the east and the north of the city. The collapse of C. Arnholt Smith’s US National Bank was at this time the largest bank failure in US history, so I was a bit surprised to be assigned to cover the Board of Supervisors; after having been in town only 12 months or so I figured I didn’t know f-all about the county.
The Union had a former Associated Press guy covering the Supervisors, a veteran not easily excited or cowed by the job, and he helped me out, as if I were his kid brother, maybe 15 years younger.
Don’t worry, he’d tell me, nothing really happens here. You’ll be fine. Something like that.
Nothing Really Happens Here
I was running to County Public Health for flu stories, to the Recorder’s office trying to find out who’d loaned money to C. Arnholt Smith (after all, he was the richest man in the county), to Agriculture to see how the avocados were doing …. I’d visit Planning Commission offices to see what development they were about to encourage the Board to approve or deny in Bonsall, or Del Dios, or Hidden Meadows and other places so well outside the vast city limits their names meant nothing to me.
One proposal up north interested me: a really big subdivision at a time when traffic was already building along I-5 and SR 163, the inland highway that would become I-805. To approve the proposal, the Board had to ignore its own general plan, which was supposed to provide open space and animal preserves. The general plan forbade rezoning for developments the size of this one.
I called up the Trib‘s city desk hoping to give the ACE (assistant city editor) a heads up about what was coming. Instead, I got the Acting ACE, who’d been the beat reporter at the County before me and was not known for his sensitivity to stories like this one.
After I told him the Board had exploded its own general plan, he asked me, “So, what’s the story.” Gob-struck, I tried to argue that plenty of people were actively opposed to the approval, and started naming the organizations. He cut me off and said, “This happens all the time.”
As I recall, the story ran down low on B-1, the local front page, or maybe even below that, in the interior, buried.
It’s Still Happening
Today’s stories about county government reflect an even greater tendency of its leaders to listen to money and ignore people.
Late last month (September 2018) all local news outlets were filled with the current Board’s unanimous approval, of Newland Sierra: 2,135 homes that will defeat the most recent general plan’s rules on how to protect animal corridors, keep car traffic to the present jams-up, and to provide affordable housing.
The Supervisors had approved in 2011 the general plan they found so easy to destroy last month.
Newland Sierra assured interviewers of its awareness San Diego’s housing values were soaring out of reach and so they told KPBS their project would include some 700 sensibly priced houses, “under $500,000.” But Newland Communities vice president Rita Brandin admitted they’d be priced “nowhere near” the $300,000 widely considered to be affordable.
Anyone out there know somebody with $80,000 cash in the bank toward a down payment on “something affordable?”
All that’s changed is, the government now recommends an increase in affordable housing but approves the unaffordable.
Sometime after the Trib employed me the paper unleashed a wave of relatively new and young hires that was called The Enterprise Desk. We wouldn’t have to write obits or “feature stories” on boy scout reunions. We were encouraged to chase hidden stuff that might take more than a few days to research and compose. It would be called The Enterprise Desk.
I took three or four days to write a piece critical of mail order insurance companies (one of which advertised in the Trib) while the editor of the little crew I was part of was on vacation. It reviewed lawsuits from Pennsylvania and Maryland and I interviewed a few victims of fraud.
When the editor returned from his two weeks off he said, “That was a good story on insurance fraud.” I thanked him, and he answered: “It would never have run if I’d been here.”
One story that did get support concerned a disguised ownership interest held by one of the Supervisors in a Solana Beach apartment development the Board approved, including his own yes vote. The story was illustrated by maps that showed the beach access path he’d pressured the Planning Commission to move from his property to a neighboring one. He lost his next election and was sued by a local George Soros named Harvey Furgatch.
He was one of the few Democrats ever to hold down a seat on the Board, and I often wondered if the Trib would have run the story if a Republican had committed the conflict of interest.
The Really, Really Big Deal …
… came when I was more than halfway into my time working for the Copleys.
It had all the elements Max Miller couldn’t have known about when he wrote I Cover the Waterfront: snarling German Shepherds tearing at the company car, a double-barreled shotgun broken at the breech revealing the shells within it, the CIA, and its then-director, George H.W. Bush.
A friend of mine — Newsweek’s stringer in town — called me up one day with a tip; the magazine was set to bring out for its next issue a story that would identify a local man living in Rancho Santa Fe who was being investigated for having executed Jews, Gypsies and others deemed undesirable by the Nazis. She had no idea where he lived, but she had his name: Edgars Laipenieks and that he was living somewhere in North County.
I looked the name up in every directory, cross directory and clippings. But this was 1976, and we were pre-Lexus-Nexus and GPS. It was a Latvian name and I’d been a history major so I figured I could get hold of something about the Nazis in the Baltic countries… but there was no time for that if we were to beat Newsweek to the story. The desk assigned a former Chicago Sun-Times guy, Martin Gerchen, to join me in a door-to-door search, starting somewhere east of Solana Beach.
A man at the third house door we knocked on offered a North County neighborhood directory. I laughed at the idea, but … be damned … there was the name and an address. We found the address in our Thomas Brothers guide and lit out for the house.
It was ranch-style, modest for Rancho Santa Fe and before we could get out of the company’s Ford Pinto the dogs suddenly appeared and hit the car on both sides, spittling the side windows and looking for a way in until they were called off by an older guy eyeing us from his front door.
Once inside, he seemed to trust us a little, given the company we worked for, and we took up positions far from the shotgun on the floor beside the upholstered rocker Laipenieks was in.
He told us he was aware that Newsweek had found him. The lawyer he’d engaged told him to gather all materials that could establish his life’s work. He’d finished third in the 10,000 meters in Hitler’s Berlin. He’d been in America since the early ’50s, and was a part-time coach of distance runners at a prep school in Rancho Santa Fe.
Gerchen took the notes while Laipenieks, now sitting next to me, peeled the pile of clippings and memorabilia he’d prepared for the lawyer he was meeting the next day until he reached three 8-and-1/2-inch pristine white sheets letterheaded CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY. Impossible good luck.
I slapped my hand on top of the pages before Laipenieks could turn them over, and motioned to Martin to copy the top page. I suppose Laipenieks didn’t want to risk pulling them out of my grip and ripping them. Gerchen scribbled.
We lit out from there, breathless, nearly pissing our pants. The top letter from the assistant director of the agency signed off thanking Laipenieks “for your past service” to the agency.
I took the overnight shift researching Latvia for what I could learn about its occupation during WWII and waiting for the early morning when the CIA would open for press inquiries. The first number I dialed was picked up by someone who simply said, “Yes.”
I started to tell him my name and who I was working for but before I could get the words out, he said, “You have the wrong number” and hung up. I apparently didn’t have a code.
At the next number, the CIA guy asked me to read the letter to him. I couldn’t read Martin’s scribbled text and didn’t even get to the parting line about his former service. “Mr. Dorn, you do not have a copy of a CIA letter,” the agent said.
I called Laipenieks, with a white lie in mind, and asked him to meet me with a copy of the letters.
“What you want with them?”
I saved the story with the white lie that the CIA was denying his existence and that his best chance to avoid extradition was to prove he’d been an agent by giving a conservative paper copies of the letter. He met me with the copies he’d made.
When I called back the CIA representative he wouldn’t even let me read one of the letters before cutting me off and offering only that Laipenieks had done “some work for the agency.” The man himself said he’d crossed the Latvian border and entered Soviet Russia a number of times.
It was the first time anyone had proved the CIA had brought former Nazis into the U.S. The Trib‘s editors had made it the eighth best story of the year. Damn, I wondered, what does a person have to do?
Part One: Pain and Suffering at the SDPD
Next: The Ups and The Downs