December 29, 2010 (San Diego’s East County) – Some prominent East County residents passed on in 2010, but left their mark indelibly on our region. A few were famous, such as movie star Dennis Hopper, or tribal leader Anna Sandoval. Some were heroes--including a Pearl Harbor survivor. Others made news with the dramatic means of their passing—stories that touched our hearts or served as lessons learned.
Below are some of the most memorable individuals from San Diego's inland region to whom we bade final farewell in 2010.
JOHN MALOU AKO, 22 and MARK PASQUALE GULLACI, 18, lost their lives on Christmas Eve, December 24 in a car accident on Old Highway 80 at Guatray. Both came to San Diego as refugees from the Sudan, where they escaped civil war and poverty. After fleeing their homelands with their families, they sought asylum in Egypt and immigrated to the U.S. several years ago, making a new home in City Heights' Sudanese community. "We came here to restructure our lives, for a better chance at life," Wai John Wai at the Sudanese Community Center said, "so when we lose members of our community, it's very painful."
CLAUDE CASSIRER,89, a Holocaust survivor who survived internment at a prisoner or war camp in Morocco during World War II, died September 25th. Co-founder of the La Mesa Democratic Club and a prominent political activist, he made global headlines when a court granted him standing to sue the Spanish government over a painting seized from his family by the Nazis and later transferred to a Spanish museum, but passed away before he could see his dream of recovering the painting fulfilled.
DEPUTY KENNETH COLLIER, 39, died February 28th when his vehicle rolled over while he was in pursuit of a wrong-way driver on Highway 52 in Santee. The driver was later arrested and charged with drunk driving. A nine-year veteran of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, Collier had also served with the San Diego County Marshal’s office. He was engaged to be married, but never made it to the altar.
AMBER DUBOIS, 14, of Escondido vanished while walking to school on February 13, 2009. An intensive search failed to find her, until John Gardner was arrested for the murder of another teen, Chelsea King, who was slain February 25, 2010. Gardner confessed to killing Dubois as well and led investigators to her body a few days later, bringing closure—and heartache—to her family. Her parents have worked with legislators to enact measures aimed at protecting other children from the fate that befell their daughter, also providing assistance to parents of other missing teens.
JOHN FINN, 100, was a Pearl Harbor survivor and the nation’s oldest living medal of valor recipient. He made his final departure on May 27th in a Chula Vista nursing home. Formerly a resident of El Cajon, Finn was struck 21 times while firing on enemy aircraft during the attack on Pearl Harbor. We salute his service to our nation.
BRIDGETTE HALE, 36, had high hopes for the future. She was engaged to be married, had a new job, and broke company records for sales calls in her first week, according to her family. But while driving to work on the afternoon of January 26th on Highway 67, she was struck head-on and killed by a wrong-way driver. The driver, John Holsheimer, pled guilty to a misdemeanor, but could not be charged with a felony since CHP did not order blood tests. Her family has launched a crusade, mobilizing other victims’ families in hopes of persuading legislators to change the law and mandate blood tests in all fatality crashes.
ROBERT DALE HAMANN, 86, founded the Hamann Companies construction dynasty in El Cajon. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from San Diego State University, he worked in construction projects for his father before forming his own company in 1954. He built homes and industrial buildings throughout San Diego County. By 2002, his various business entities became named Hamann Companies. Also active in Christian ministries and numerous local charities, he passed away on February 11th.
DON HAMER, former pastor of Sonrise Community Church in Santee and Zion Christian Fellowship in San Diego, died March 17 of a heart attack. He founded Better Courts Now, a group that supported judges with conservative values, and drew criticism from some for participating in a video that questioned President Barack Obama’s religious devotion. Hamar was also president of Kuyper Preparatory School, a private Christian institution, and inspired numerous followers.
HOWIE HAWVER, 49, lost his battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease on December 5th. Soccer coach at Grossmont College and Patrick Henry High, he led his teams to many titles and also helped more than 60 players go on to play for university teams. A graduate of Helix High School, Hawver also served as director of the San Diego Spirit Soccer Club and played drums for two local classic rock bands. His illness spurred players, coaches and parents to host fundraisers to help with his medical bills. Kevin Frieberg, vice president of the San Diego Spirit Soccer Club, recalled Hawver as “a true inspiration…Howie battled his disease with courage and dignity.”
DENNIS HOPPER, 74, was a resident of Lemon Grove and graduate of Helix High School long before he gained famed as a Hollywood star and director of the movie Easy Rider. He worked behind the scenes at the Old Globe Theater, moving on to leading roles in movies that included Rebel Without a Cause and Apocalypse Now. Hopper lost his battle with prostate cancer on May 29 at his home in Los Angeles.
ICON and BILLY, search and rescue canines with the El Cajon Fire Department Search and Rescue team, were honored posthumously by the El Cajon City Council. Billy, who died August 16th, assisted in rescue efforts at the World Trade Centers in 911. Icon, who died July 3rd of cancer, was deployed to search for survivors in Hurricanes Ike and Gustav.
CHELSEA KING, 17, a Poway High School honor student and long distance runner, triggered the largest search in San Diego history when she went missing while jogging near Lake Hodges on February 25th. Residents countywide mourned the news when her body was found. Convicted sex offender John Gardner confessed to her murder, as well as to killing missing teen Amber Dubois. The cases led to enactment of Chelsea’s Law, a measure that aims to keep violent sex offenders behind bars.
BRYSON LUKACIK, 22, of Santee, disappeared from a family vacation cabin at Big Bear on November 27th after suffering a head injury while snowboarding, prompting an intensitve search across multiple counties. His body was found December 3rd in a snow drift a short distance away. A graduate of El Capitan High School, Lukacik played baseball with the San Diego Stars, a semi-pro baseball club.
SGT. RAFAEL MARTINEZ JR., 36, of Spring Valley was serving his third tour of duty in Afghanistan when he was killed October 14 by an insurgents’ attack. Previously wounded and awarded a purple heart for service in Iraq, he was remembered by a nephew as “the bravest man I ever knew.” Martinez leaves behind a wife, Christina, and two young children, Davina and Rafael III.
DAVID MOW, 56, vanished on July 22nd, prompting police to issue a missing person alert and a widespread search for Mow, who had recently suffered a medical collapse for undiagnosed reasons. His body was found by hikers in October in his vehicle, which had plunged off I-8 into a ravine.
SPC. KENNETH E. NECOCHEA, JR., 21 was killed along with five other soldiers on December 12th in Afghanistan when insurgents attacked their unit with an improvised explosive device in Kandahar Province, according to the Pentagon. Necochea, a Poway High School graduate, was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
GILBERT PALAST, 89, co-founder of the La Mesa Foothills Democratic Club, military veteran and long-time political activist, died November 7th after an extended illness. He is survived by his wife, Gladys, his daughter, Geri, who served as Undersecretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, and his son, Greg Palast, an investigative journalist who won the George Orwell “Courage in Journalism” award for his reporting with the BBC.
WILLIAM `SKIP’ PRICE, 67, a fisherman conducting a steelhead trout survey, died October 13th after being bitten by a rattlesnake in Boulder Creek west of Lake Cuyamaca. Wearing sandals instead of waders, Price stopped breathing moments after he was struck, fueling fears among some experts that local rattlesnake venom is becoming more toxic.
DAVID NORMAN REID, 50, was killed January 23rd in a head-on collision near Steele Canyon High School. A radiology computer specialist and Navy veteran, he was also an active supporter of the Steele Canyon Players drama club and a drama boosters group raising money for productions and scholarships. A scholarship has been established in his name. He is survived by his wife, Lynn, daughter Katy, and son Garret. The driver, Andrew Bellati, 18, pled guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter. A Steele Canyon alumni and Tampa Ray rookie baseball pitcher with a fastball clocked at 88 mph, Bellati found that speed proved deadly on the roadway. His sentence--five years probation and eight months in custody—reflected the wishes of Reid’s widow, who did not want to ruin the young man’s life, according to the prosecutor.
SADDLETRAMPS: AMY HEATH, 36, AND LANCE HEATH, 43, of Alpine lost their lives on a highway near Ocotillo while on an anniversary ride with the Lakeside Saddle Tramps Club, leaving behind two young sons. A gold Honda crossed the center line at a high speed, smashing into the group. The tragedy also claimed the lives of Lakeside Saddle Tramps members GEORGE "BILL" MILLER, 57, of Ramona and TONYA TRAYER, 37, of Lakeside, as well as ANNA CORRAL GONZALEZ, 31, of Mexicali, Mexico, a passenger in the Honda. The driver fled the scene, and remains wanted by authorities. The tragedy brought out the generosity of East County residents, who held fundraisers for the families of those who died and blood drives to help others who were seriously injured.
ANNA PRIETO SANDOVAL , 76, former chairman of the Sycuan band of the Kumeyaay Nation, died October 28 at her home on the Sycuan reservation from complications of diabetes. She served as Sycuan’s elected chairman from 1972 to 1990 and was a leading voice in bringing Indian gaming to the reservation, helping to create one of the most successful Indian gaming establishments in the nation. Also a historian who advocated for preservation of native traditions, she was inducted into the San Diego Women’s Hall of Fame in March 2010.
JOHNNY L TERRY, 77, served with the Santee Fire Department for nearly three decades, starting before Santee become a city. He rose from the ranks of volunteer firefighters to become Division Chief before retiring in 1986. The first fire house was topped by a washing machine with a bell; volunteer firefighters relied on a bread truck that doubled as an ambulance. Terry, who was active in numerous civic and charitable organizations, died on May 2nd.
CHRIS WILSON, 50, a San Diego Police officer, was shot to death on October 28th while trying to serve a warrant on a suspect. Wilson had repeatedly turned down opportunities for promotion, choosing to remain in a Southeast San Diego neighborhood riddled with crime, gangs and drug activity. Also a U.S. Navy veteran, he became known for helping people—from juveniles in trouble to the homeless. “You know that Officer Wilson always had your back,” Mayor Jerry Sanders said of the slain officer, father of two teens.