A new year brings a chance to reflect as we look back on the people and events that shaped the Yakima Valley in 2019.
It was a year that saw upheaval in Wapato’s city government and at Astria Health. Community members considered the best way to address homelessness. A drought led to water supply limits that could continue into 2020.
The city of Yakima saw the departure of City Manager Cliff Moore and welcomed new Police Chief Matt Murray. The Yakima School District brought on new Superintendent Trevor Greene. Yakima Mayor Kathy Coffey and County Commissioner Mike Leita will step down at the end of the year.
Here are some of the big stories that made the front page of the Yakima Herald-Republic in 2019:
This year was one of unprecedented turmoil for the city of Wapato, which saw the forced resignation of its city administrator and an election cycle that rejected nearly every candidate or incumbent associated with him.
Juan Orozco, who first came to power as the city’s mayor in January 2018 following a controversial election, resigned at a Sept. 4, 2018, council meeting and was immediately appointed to a city administrator position by newly appointed Mayor Dora Alvarez-Roa. Orozco helped engineer the contract, which came with a $95,000 annual salary.
In May, the state Auditor’s Office released an audit report with eight “egregious” findings, including nepotism, ethics and Open Records Act violations and the misappropriation of thousands of dollars of restricted-use funds.
The city faced almost two dozen lawsuits or tort claims filed by citizens and former city employees that have cost the city more than $566,000 in settlements and attorney fees. The city’s insurance carrier has said it will kick the city out of its risk management pool as of Jan. 1, 2020.
Orozco resigned on July 19, 2019, as part of a settlement agreement with the state Attorney General’s Office. The AG filed a lawsuit in June, alleging Orozco had used his position to unlawfully enrich himself.
The City Council took almost immediate action to limit Alvarez-Roa’s power, including passing ordinances compelling her to follow the law and placing nine additional, immediate safeguards on city funds and public records amid allegations of thousands of dollars of unauthorized purchases using city funds by Orozco and the destruction or altering of public records by city employees.
Alvarez-Roa did not make it through the primary. New Mayor Keith Workman, a critic of the previous administration, took office in November.
2. Astria Health bankruptcy
On May 6, Astria Health filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In initial filings, Astria Health blamed its former revenue cycle vendor, stating that its inability to collect outstanding debt caused significant cash-flow issues and crippled operations, especially at its largest hospital, Astria Regional Medical Center in Yakima.
The organization had hoped that a new vendor — along with $36 million in debtor-in-possession financing — would enable it to reorganize and emerge from bankruptcy by year’s end. Toward the end of the year, however, Astria Health, to satisfy creditors, opted to go on a dual-track that included a potential sale of some or all of its assets.
One of Astria’s largest pre-petition creditors, Lapis Advisers LP, will lend the organization funds to pay off the debtor-in-possession financing and provide additional cash while it continues through the bankruptcy process, which will extend into next year.
Astria Health operates three hospitals — Astria Regional in Yakima, Astria Sunnyside Hospital and Astria Toppenish Hospital — and a network of clinics throughout the Yakima Valley.
3. Missing and murdered
Late on the afternoon of July 4, authorities were called to the 64000 block of U.S. Highway 97 after two homeless men found human remains in an unplugged freezer. On July 12, investigators confirmed that the remains were those of Rosenda Sophia Strong, a Native mother of four who had been missing for nearly 300 days. Strong disappeared in early October 2018. Her death has been classified as a homicide and the cause of her death remains under investigation. A citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Strong would have turned 32 on April 16.
Strong’s disappearance and death follows a tragic pattern of missing and murdered indigenous women that stretches back generations. Awareness has been growing. Legislation was introduced on the state and federal level to dedicate more resource to the issue, and President Donald Trump signed an executive order in November to establish a federal task force.
Even as more public and private efforts brought attention to the international crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women, Native women and men continued to disappear and suffer violent deaths on and beyond the 1.3-million-acre Yakama reservation.
Alillia “Lala” Minthorn, 25, also went missing and was found murdered in 2019. Her body was discovered May 29 in a remote location on Ahtanum Ridge north of Brownstown, where a witness had told investigators she was shot May 3, according to federal court documents.
Witnesses told investigators Jordan Everett Stevens killed Minthorn because she “ratted” on him and another suspect by talking to investigators about an April 30 assault they allegedly committed near a homeless camp outside Toppenish. Stevens faces trial in February in U.S. District Court in Yakima.
Another Yakama woman who disappeared in mid-November is still missing. Rachel Lorraine Norris, 38, was last seen on the afternoon of Nov. 14, after an early morning fire destroyed her Wapato apartment building. She lost everything in the fire, relatives said.
Those with information about her whereabouts are asked to call the Yakama Nation Police Department at 509-865-2933.
4. White Swan homicides
On June 8, this rural community deep within the Yakama reservation was rocked by a shooting rampage that left five people dead.
John Cagle, 59, Michelle Starnes, 51, Catherine Eneas, 49, and Thomas Hernandez, 36, were all shot to death along with 61-year-old Dennis Overacker at a trailer in the 5100 block of Medicine Valley Road.
A surviving witness said a small group had gone to Cagle’s home to see a motorcycle he had for sale. Gunmen were there when they arrived. One shot Hernandez in front of Cagle’s trailer and another shot Overacker as he sat in his pickup, said the witness, Lindell LaFollette.
Later, authorities found Cagle, Starnes and Eneas shot to death inside the trailer.
LaFollette was shot in the side of his head as he sped away in Overacker’s truck. A passenger in the truck, Esmerelda Zaragoza, also was shot as LaFollette drove from the area. Her infant son was unharmed.
Four suspects were arrested: James Dean Cloud, 35, Donovan Quinn Carter Cloud, 23, Morris Bruce Jackson and Natasha Mae Jackson.
The Clouds also are accused of holding a gun to a child’s head while ordering the parents to hand over the keys to their vehicle. They are facing carjacking and assault charges in federal court.
Federal prosecutors said they intend to enter evidence linking the Clouds to the murders.
Morris Jackson is facing federal charges for being a felon in possession of a gun. His trial begins in March. Natasha Jackson has yet to be charged.
The Clouds’ trial is set to begin April 27.
5. Homelessness crisis
A growing number of homeless people congregating in downtown Yakima prompted Mayor Kathy Coffey to consider the issue a crisis.
People experiencing homelessness over the summer began taking refuge along the grassy center strip of North Naches Avenue. There were reports of homeless people also gathering on North Front Street, disturbing businesses in the downtown core.
Those concerns even stirred the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce, which urged city officials to devise a solution.
All this came after the city allowed a temporary homeless encampment behind the former Kmart, where more than 100 men, women and children have been living in heated military-style tents.
Service providers said the percentage of homelessness in the area is about average. In Yakima County — population of about 250,000 — 1 out of 400 people is homeless, for a total of about 635 homeless people, according to recent surveys. Some service providers have questioned the accuracy of those statistics.
Yakima County officials are moving forward with a plan to convert the Pacific Avenue jail into a care campus, providing the homeless with substance abuse and mental health services, as well as shelter and eventually longterm housing.
Yakima County commissioners approved a mental health tax expected to generate about $3.5 million a year to help make the care campus become a reality.
6. Strong mayor
Yakima voters might see a possible shift to a strong mayor form of government on the November ballot if the city’s incoming council agrees.
Yakima has had a council-manager form of government since 1959, with a city manager responsible for daily operations and employees. A switch to an elected mayor would place the mayor in the position of overseeing daily operations, while the City Council would remain as the legislative authority.
The change would require voter approval to change the city’s charter. Voters shot down a similar proposal in 2011, with 52% voting no.
Proponents said that voters have the right to decide what form of government they want. They also said that a mayor elected in a city-wide election would be more accountable to voters than a city manager.
Those opposing the proposal said choosing an elected mayor in a city-wide election would disenfranchise Latino voters, and pointed to a lawsuit filed in 2012 that found Voting Rights Act violations in Yakima. The lawsuit cost the city more than $3 million in legal costs.
Bruce Smith, Mike Leita and Dave Edler proposed the change in October. The council agreed to place the issue on the February ballot in a 4-3 vote, then reversed course after lawsuits challenged the date of the special election and the ballot title.
Proponents said they plan to ask the incoming council members to put the measure before voters at the November 2020 general election. Opponents said they’re poised to sue the city again.
City Manager Cliff Moore left the city for a new job in August. Alex Meyerhoff was selected to serve as interim city manager.
7. ICE flights
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement started using Yakima’s airport to move detainees on May 7, after fixed based operators at Seattle’s Boeing Field stopped servicing the flights following an executive order by King County Executive Dow Constantine.
Since then, dozens of flights have transferred or deported several thousand undocumented immigrants from the airport.
The flights have caused fear for Latinos and anger from immigrant advocacy groups, with dozens showing up in opposition at Yakima City Council meetings to demand that the council pass an executive order similar to King County’s. Other cities — including Bellingham, Portland and Everett — turned down ICE’s requests for accommodation when approached, as reported by Washington State University’s Center for Human Rights.
The Yakima City Council nixed the executive order request with a 4-3 vote in July. Cliff Moore, city manager at the time, advised the council that prohibiting the flights might violate federal grant rules for airport improvements.
As winter approached, ICE spokeswoman Paige Hughes noted the shift to using Yakima’s airport had caused an increase in both costs to taxpayers as well as travel time for detainees. Hazardous winter conditions on the passes and possible pass closings also had ICE officials concerned about safety, she said. ICE uses Yakima’s airport to move detainees to and from the Northwest ICE Processing Center in Tacoma.
8. Drought and water
When the water year kicked off in October 2018, the water levels in the Yakima River Basin’s reservoir system were below normal. Mountain runoff and snow in the Cascades through the winter were also below normal.
Combined, this meant junior water rights holders, or those that claimed a right to use water after May 10, 1905, had restricted water allotments through irrigation season.
Roza Irrigation District and Kittitas Reclamation District are largely made up of junior rights holders.
Their projected distribution throughout the year reached lows of 67% of the normal.
Kittitas Reclamation District was forced to shut down delivery early due to the drought, while Roza farmers scraped by through mid-October, just before the end of the water season.
The situation caused some crop quality issues and reduced yields among farmers. Lower than expected temperatures through the summer helped buffer the blow.
With the new water year this October kicking off once again with depleted water levels, experts say the Yakima Valley will need more snow in the Cascades and mountain runoff this year to avoid the same fate next irrigation season.
9. Cosmic Crisp release
On Dec. 1, Cosmic Crisp, an apple that had been in the works for some two decades, launched throughout the U.S. The new apple, developed at Washington State University’s apple breeding program in Wenatchee, garnered national buzz for its crunch, sweet-tart flavor and long shelf life. The apple is a cross of the Honeycrisp and Enterprise varieties.
The buzz — along with an extensive marketing campaign in the months leading to the launch — created strong demand when the apple was finally released. With less than a half-million 40-pound boxes of the apple expected to be packed this season, Cosmic Crisp stock at grocery stores nationwide sold out, and the apple quickly became hard to find. Grocery stores said they hope they’ll be able to restock with any remaining apples come January.
Production volume is expected to increase to 21.5 million boxes by 2026.
10. Winter storm,
Winter storms that swept through the Yakima Valley in early February canceled school, halted travel and led to power outages.
A blizzard Feb. 9 resulted in the death of 1,830 dairy cows across 14 dairy farms. The unprecedented loss was caused in part because shelters for the cattle were laid out based on normal northeast winds. The storm came from the southeast with winds of up to 50 to 60 mph, leaving the cows exposed.
Farmers worked through the cold to save as many animals as possible, keeping roads open for workers to get in to feed the livestock and allow milk trucks to leave.
Shortly after the storm, the state provided $100,000 to haul a portion of the cows that died to an Oregon landfill. Roughly a third of them were disposed of this way, while others turned to rendering plants, on-site composting and local landfills.
The loss to the dairy industry was estimated at $4 million by the Farm Services Agency, according to The Associated Press.