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By Miriam Raftery

December 27, 2012 (San Diego’s East County)—East County lost some prominent residents in 2012, from celebrities and pioneers to lesser known individuals who achieved extraordinary accomplishments in their lives or touched our hearts in their passing. 

Scroll down to read about those lost in 2012; click on their names to read more about these remarkable individuals.



Shaima Alawadi – The brutal murder of Shaima Alawadi in her El Cajon home sparked an international outcry and prayer vigils.  A note left by her body suggested that the young Iraqi mother, 32, had been the victim of a hate crime.  But in the end, police arrested her husband for the crime, making clear that authorities believe she had fallen prey to domestic violence.

Dennis Avner - A former Guatay resident  also known by his Native American name, Stalking Cat,  Dennis Avner was found dead on November 5 in Tonopah, Nevada. Avner was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most body modifications to resemble an animal. After a Native American chief inspired him to “follow the ways of the tiger,” he underwent surgeries, piercings and tattoos to resemble the large jungle cat.  His fame brought him appearances on TV shows including Larry King Live and Ripley’s Believe It or Not. He worked for the U.S. Navy as a sonar technician, also working in computer repair and at a local hardware store.

Thomas (Bo Donovan) Becker – A career broadcaster with an illustrious radio career, Becker moved to San Diego in 1976 and joined Tuesday Productions, which grew to become the largest promoter of TV and radio campaigns in the world. He later founded Silvertree, a creative services company based in San Diego, winning numerous awards.  He served as President of the San Diego Ad Club and Founding President of the Association for Independent Radio Producers. Also an avid pilot, he managed the Ramona Airport for the County and headed up marketing for the Ramona Airshow. 

Ryan Carter  - The stabbing death of 12-year-old Ryan Carter at the hands of a 10-year-old playmate shocked the community and raised controversy over whether a child so young could be tried for murder.  A student at Foothills Christian Elementary School in Lakeside and a former resident of La Mesa, Ryan was his parents’ only child.  Yet his mother showed remarkable compassion.  “Please don't make it out that he was this terrible human being," Lisa Carter said of the child who killed her son. "He's not some monster."  The boy  was ultimately found not competent to stand trial and is currently in a facility at an undisclosed location.

Sgt. Nicholas Fredsti –  Sgt. Nicholas C. Fredsti  served  six tours of duty—three in Iraq and three in Afghanistan, before coming home to his final resting place in El Cajon. The U.S. Army paratrooper, who attended West Hills High School in Santee, was killed in Afghanistan’s Ghazni Province on June 15, 2012 while defending his unit under attack by insurgents.   His honors include the Presidential Unit Citation Award, the Valorous Unit Award, the Meritorius Unit Commendation with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Army Achievement Medal.  Promoted posthumously to staff sergeant, Fredsti was also awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and NATO Medal.“We lost one of the best squad leaders I’ve seen in the Army,” said Sgt. Jonathan Daeuber, who served with Fredsti  as a team leader.

Ronald K. Fuller – Former lobbyist and Vice President of governmental affairs for San Diego Gas & Electric, Ronald Fuller also played prominent roles in Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign and Ronald Reagan’s campaign for Governor.  He also served as assistant to the director of the Office of Economic Opportunity and as a policy staffer for the White House Domestic Council. A graduate of Grossmont High School who attended San Diego State University, he also served on the Alpine Fire Protection District Board.

Russell “Gordon” Gastil, Ph.D. --San Diego State University professor emeritus Russell “Gordon” Gastil, PhD gained fame for trekking across and mapping the entire state of Baja, Mexico with a team of graduate students, as well as much of the U.S. southwest.  He was also politically active, running for Congress and later inspiring his son, George Gastil, to successfully run for school board and council in Lemon Grove. Memorialized on the SDSU website as a “geologic visionary,” Gastil made his final journey on September 29, when he passed away at his La Mesa home.

Maria Heimpel – Best known as a language teacher at Helix High School for more than30 years, Maria Heimpel was also an exemplary humanitarian. Born in Mexico, she came to the U.S. as a teen.  In later years, she volunteered to assist an orphanage and medical clinic in Tijuana and served as an interpreter with the Mercy Outreach Surgical Team, doctors performing surgery for poor people in Mexico.  She never married, but inspired countless students and others through the years.  She died peacefully at home in November at age 70.

Pearl “Susie” Johnson Holaday – The last living link with Lemon Grove’s pioneer past, Pearl “Susie” Johnson Holaday died August 29 of congestive heart failure at age 95.  Daughter of Swedish immigrants, she grew up nearly a century ago in a house built in 1894, formerly a stage coach stop, when Lemon Grove had just 800 residents.  A charter member of the Lemon Grove Historical Society, she founded a car towing and repair business with her husband.  Devoted to her community, she and her sister received a Congressional commendation for converting a garage to a “Santa’s Elves” workshop, repairing and donating over 1,000 stuffed toys and dolls to children in Mexico and San Diego each year.

Charles Latimer – Active in the labor movement  as a long-time member of Communications Workers of America and a delegate to the Labor Council for many years, Charles Latimer also founded the Retired Members Club and served as its first President. "His commitment to the movement was unmatched and he will be missed tremendously,” said Lorena Gonzalez, Secretary-Treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.

John Martes - East County Democratic Club co-president John Martes passed away of cancer on December 26.  An accountant/controller at John A. Martes and Associates, Martes twice ran for the Cajon Valley School District Board and was also a candidate for the El Cajon City Council. “John was devoted to the well-being of his family and his community,” said Bonnie Price, Co-president of the ECDC, who praised Martes’ commitment to working toward electing leaders in East County who would “represent ordinary people instead of only the rich and well-connected. His legacy is one of which we can all be proud.”

Jeffrey Marxen, M.D. – A prominent orthopaedic surgeon at Grossmont Hospital, Dr. Jeffrey Marxen also served as President of the San Diego chapter of the Western Orthopaedic Association and President of the La Mesa Rotary club.  Also a talented musician, he played coronet and trumpet with the Acme Rhythm and Blues band and with Soul Purpose, Grossmont Hospital’s band.  Emergency medical personnel could not save Dr. Marxen, 60, after he was thrown from his motorcycle in a fatal accident in February.

Ron Murphy – Grossmont High School head football coach Ron Murphy pass away of skin cancer in February.  In his final season, he led the team to the second round of CIF San Diego playoffs.  Also a special education teacher and a former instructor at Santana High, he was memorialized by former Grossmont principal Theresa Kemper for exemplifying “dedication, hard work, and a drive to make the world a better place.” 

Gloria Penner – A pioneer in local broadcasting and a leading voice at KPBS radio/TV station for over half a century, Gloria Penner aired her last broadcast in July and died of pancreatic cancer in October.  Daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, she taught English and radio production before launching her broadcast career. She created and hosted the Editor’s Roundtable program and numerous other shows, never hesitating to ask tough questions of San Diego’s movers and shakers.  A role model and champion for women, Penner once remarked, “In the 1970s, I was a vigorous believer that women needed better representation in business and society, and I worked hard to make that happen.”

Mark Petix – Former reporter for the La Mesa Scout and ex-managing editor of the Riverside Press Enterprise, his quest for news once led him to Bosnia, where he chronicled a local Army reservist’s experiences in a combat zone.  A graduate of Grossmont High School in 1973 and later, San Diego State University, his prose was both powerful and poetic.  “He travels narrow mountain roads where the brooding faces of war dead stare out from granite memorials, through an alpine landscape littered with millions of undiscovered mines,” wrote Petix while in Bosnia, years before losing his own battle to cancer. “To step off the road here is to dance with eternity.”

Destiny Pierce – Born with her organs on the wrong side of her body, Destiny Pierce defied doctor’s predictions that she would die at birth. She survived three years, galvanizing support from her community in Jacumba, where residents fundraised to help the family afford transportation for medicl care.  But on March 27, her destiny was sealed as she took her last breath in her father’s arms.

Guillermo Pino Jr. – His disappearance while hiking with friends at mud caves in the Anza-Borrego Desert sparked a massive search effort, which officials abandoned after seven days, ignoring the family’s pleas to search a cave where a tapping sound had been heard by searchers.  The family hired a private detective, who found Pino’s body  wedged in a narrow crevasse inside the cave.  The 24-year-oldScripps Ranch resident died of asphyxiation.

Donato “Don” SanFilippo – An Italian immigrant who came to America at age 15 with his family, Donato SanFilippo worked in restaurants and grocery stores before ultimately founding SanFilippo’s Pizza in 1975, one of downtown La Mesa’s most popular restaurants.  Hard work proved his ticket to success, until complications of a stroke ended his life in July.

Tiaina Baul “Junior” Seau – East County residents mourned the loss of the Chargers famed linebacker, Junior Seau, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on May 2.  A 10-time All-Pro and 12-time Pro-Bowl selection, he played 13 seasons for the Chargers before being traded and was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame in 2011.  A former resident of Mt. Helix, he founded the Junior Seau Foundation to help troubled youth and was a frequent visitor to the Junior Seau Sports Complex in La Mesa.  “He was always here for us,” La Mesa Mayor Art Madrid said. “He was part of the family of this town.”

Larry Urdahl –Former president of the Grossmont Union High School District board of trustees, Larry Urdahl also served on the Alpine High School Citizens Committee. He founded businesses in portfolio management and asset recovery, but his true  passion was public education.  His efforts to unify the Alpine Unified School District live on; Sal Cassamissima, current AHSCC president reflected,  “Our best tribute to him will be to meet that goal.” Urdahl retired to Sedona, Arizona and founded a gallery with his wife, Rose, before succumbing to cancer.

Cindy Waddell – Grossmont High School graduate Cindy Waddell, 45, was among the victims gunned down at an Oregon shopping mall. A hospice worker in Oregon at the time of her death, she as described as a “devoted mother, a sweet person” by a neighbor in the Scripps Ranch neighborhood where she used to live.

Frank Yancey – Valhalla’s varsity football coach never had children of his own, but considered all of his players as sons.  , Yancey  coached 18 seasons at West Hills High, five at El Cajon Valley High and his last five at Valhalla.  His East County roots included playing as an offensive lineman at Santana High School and Grossmont College, as well as San Francisco State. He also served as a correctional deputy with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.  A writer for Valhalla’s  newspaper described him as “an inspiration for all those who served under him.”