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Deadly wreck dominated Lodi-area news in 2013

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Posted: Thursday, January 2, 2014 12:00 am

When we asked readers to pick the top local story of 2013, the vast majority chose a deadly crash on Ham Lane that killed six members of one local family. Of the 260 votes cast in an online survey, more than 200 chose the crash story as the biggest story of the year.

Other stories drawing votes included the shooting death of Galt Police Officer Kevin Tonn, the expansion of the Sutter Home winery and a controversy, perhaps reflective of our times, over a proposed social media policy at the Lodi Unified School District.

Here is a summary of the top stories of the year.

The deadliest crash

It was the deadliest crash in Lodi history.

On the evening of Oct. 22, six members of the Miranda family of Lodi died in a multi-vehicle wreck on Ham Lane. Witnesses said the collision sounded like an explosion, was powerful enough to shake nearby buildings and left a smoking field of scattered rubble.

The crash claimed the lives of Luis Miranda Ochoa, 32, his wife, Viviana Rodriguez Saldado, 31, and her unborn child; and three of their children, Irvin, 12, Jose, 6, and Stephanie, 5. The only survivor is Eden Miranda, 9, who is now living with his godparents in Lodi.

Accused of causing the crash is Ryan Morales, 28, a troubled ex-con who faces multiple charges of manslaughter and murder. Lodi police say he had been drinking heavily before the crash and had a blood alcohol level of .20.

In a jailhouse interview with the News-Sentinel, Morales expressed remorse, and said he is haunted by the deaths of the Miranda family. His next court appearance is Jan. 27.

Remembering Galt Police Officer Kevin Tonn

The city of Galt lost its first officer killed in the line of duty Jan. 15 when K-9 Police Officer Kevin Tonn, 35, was shot during a random call.

When he approached Humphrey Gascon II to ask him about a burglary in the area of F and 2nd streets in Galt, Gascon fired one round at Tonn before taking his own life. A week later, Tonn was laid to rest following a funeral in Roseville attended by hundreds, including law enforcement representatives from up and down California and beyond.

Before coming to work in Galt where his cousin is a police detective, Tonn had served in the military and been a firefighter.

A public memorial at City Hall is currently in the works to remember Tonn and future fallen military and public safety personnel.

A monumental winery expansion

In February, Sutter Home Winery announced a massive expansion at its location west of Lodi that is costing an estimated $200 million and could result in 400 new jobs. The construction is now well underway at the winery’s property, just north of the Turner Road exit on Interstate 5 on North Jacob Brack Road.

The winery, part of Trinchero Family Estates, includes warehousing, bottling and shipping operations. Trinchero executives say the new capacity will allow the company to reach its long-range growth production goal of 30 million cases per year in the next 10 years.

Lodi Unified School District’s social media policy

It started out with the best of intentions: Lodi Unified leaders wanted to limit bullying through social media.

But critics, including several students at Bear Creek High School, said the policy infringed on First Amendment rights. Concerns about the policy drew nationwide attention.

In the end, the dustup became a large collective learning moment. Changes were made and a clearer, more focused policy was adopted in September.

More wine flowing

Downtown Lodi attracted new winetasting venues in 2013, underlining its appeal as a sipping and dining destination. One Way Winery, specializing in Cabernets, and Wine Social, featuring the wines of the Sorelle and Six Hands wineries, both opened on School Street. Also opening was The Rusted Mic, a bistro offering food, wine and entertainment, also on School Street.

Housing in Lodi rebounds

After slipping and sliding like a tipsy ice skater for several years, the Lodi real estate market regained its balance and momentum in 2013. Prices appreciated steadily, with the median price of a home in California rising to $433,000, according to the California Association of Realtors.

Another encouraging green shoot: A plan to develop the first subdivision in Lodi in six years. The Rose Gate project, to be built by FCB Homes, will include 232 homes and is planned for property at Lower Sacramento Road and Sargent Road just north of the Raley’s shopping center. The Lodi Planning Commission approved the project in October.

Walmart coming to Galt

On Sept. 5, Walmart broke ground on a new store in Galt after a years long discussion. Once it opens in mid-2014, it will provide the only one-stop shopping outlet within city limits, where customers can purchase everything from food to clothes and toiletries to trees.

The 133,279-square-foot store is being built on just over 11 acres at Twin Cities Road and Fermoy Way. It is expected to net additional sales tax revenue for the city.

Unlike Lodi’s proposed new Walmart store, Galt’s project faced little opposition from community members and elected officials. The biggest issue was potential noise, and the city and Walmart corporation agreed to a number of changes to attempt to reduce them.

Car dealership deals

During 2013, car deals made the news.

In October, the Geweke Toyota dealership on Beckman Road was sold to Lithia Motors based in Medford, Ore. Lithia is the ninth-largest auto retailer in the world.

Geweke Toyota was the last remaining dealership in Lodi to carry the Geweke name. Daryl Geweke launched his first dealership in Lodi in 1966. The Geweke auto body shop on Hansen Drive will remain in operation. Lithia managers renamed the dealership Lodi Toyota Scion and promised to keep the current employees.

On a related front, one idled dealership was purchased with plans to revive it. Lodi entrepreneur Kimberly Mullen and a team that includes her husband Bryan Smith, her father Dr. Ken Mullen, and investor Vince Porter purchased the former Geweke Chrysler dealership, also on Beckman Road, with plans to reopen it within a few months. The 6.5 acre dealership was closed six years ago.

$10 million for Galt Joint Union Elementary School District

In late 2013 came news that a local school district was among a select few in the nation to win major federal Race to the Top money. Based on a record of innovation and academic success, Galt Joint Union Elementary School District was given $10 million to extend and enrich academic programs, many geared to personalizing learning and equipping teachers with new online tools and strategies. A portion of the funds was used to buy laptops for all district teachers.

A looming drought?

A late addition to the list is the prospect of drought. As 2013 ended, days in Lodi were bright, sunny — and very, very dry. The year had seen scant rainfall and foothill reservoirs were well below capacity. In some parts of California, including the city of Folsom, water rationing was imposed.

Lodi in 2013 had only 4.59 inches of rain, nine inches below the rainfall average of 13.67 inches. Regional officials worried about an extended fire season and water managers throughout California wondered if supplies could meet demand.

As 2013 ended, the Lodi forecast was for relatively balmy daytime highs in the 60s, a few clouds — and no rain.

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