By Miriam Raftery
December 31, 2021 (San Diego’s East County) – Lost but never forgotten, these are the prominent East County individuals who passed away in 2021, as well as two who died amid the pandemic in 2020 but were not memorialized until this year, when media was notified.
They came from all walks of life: journalists, educators, teachers, a priest, a tribal healer, a firefighter, a police officer, athletes, a musician, business leaders, students, philanthropists, an air ambulance crew, a veteran who survived the Pearl Harbor attack, and many more. Each left their own indelible mark on our region.
Click the name/title to view the full obituary for each of these local luminaries.
Two flight nurses and two pilots died when a Learjet owned by Aeromedevac Air Ambulance crashed December 7 in the Bostonia neighborhood in El Cajon. According to a company statement, “To both us and their families they are unsung heroes, dedicating their lives for others in need throughout our community.”
Laurie Gentz of Escondido was the local 162 president of the International Association of EMTs and Paramedics. Nurse Tina Ward was also the wife Oceanside Fire Department;s retired deputy chief. A scholarship in her memory to train future first responders has raised over $44,000. Douglas Grande was a captain with Aeromedevac Air Ambulance who had been with the medical transport company since May 2019. Bugaj was a certified flight instructor. A GoFundMe site set up by his family states, “Transporting patients and organs around the country for life-saving procedures, the site states, “He is truly a hero in what he did and loved every second of it.”
Mike Hancock, 59, traffic reporter for several local radio stations and former news director at KNSJ radio, was found dead in his San Diego residence by a friend on November 14 after an illness. His voice has also been heard on the East County Magazine Radio Show, where he was instrumental in mentoring interns and reporting on locations in East County. If you’ve tuned into a rush hour traffic report, you’ve no doubt heard his voice as traffic reporter for many years at KPBS, as well as traffic and weather anchor at IHeartMedia and news/traffic reporter for KOGO radio. He also helped found KNSJ 89.1 FM radio, where he served as the station’s first news director, training interns and aspiring reporters on radio reporting and production.
Billie Faye Owens covered local news as a long-time journalist for the East County Californian. She also wrote for the San Diego Business Journal and other local publications, as well as serving on the board of directors for Society of Professional Journalists’ San Diego chapter. She died October 15 in Rochester, New York of complications from congestive heart failure.
Steve Krueger lost his life on October 11, 2021 when a plane crash in Santee destroyed the UPS truck he was driving while delivering packages. Krueger had been a UPS driver for 30 years and was just months away from retirement when tragedy struck. A statement from UPS read in part, "Those who knew Steve said he took pride in his work, and his positive attitude and joyful laugh made the hardest days a little lighter."
Michael Jon Hart, long-time publisher of the Julian News and past president of the San Diego County Umpires Association, died September 14 after battling brain and lung cancer. Hart and his wife, Michelle Harvey, acquired the independent newspaper on the Fourth of July in 2004. The publication proved a labor of love for Hart, who covered major news stories ranging from the 2007 Witch Creek Fire to controversies over the county’s acquisition of Julian’s formerly all-volunteer fire department. Hart sometimes took heat for his coverage but took pride in covering all sides of community issues, according to Harvey.
A convoy of over 150 truckers paid tribute to Donald “Don” Fain, 77, who died of COVID-19 pneumonia on September 9. Fain owned Don Fain Trucking in Lakeside and was known for helping other truckers in need. His wife, Eileen, said Fain declined vaccination; she urged others to “get vaccinated.
Rex Cole Sr., a PGA golf professional and instructor, passed away on August 25. He served a head golf pro at Carlton Oaks Country Club in Santee for 27 years, hosting PGA chapter and other events. He later became general manager and head golf pro at Cottonwood Golf Couse in Rancho San Diego, also serving as golf instructor at both Grossmont and Cuyamaca Colleges. He returned to Carlton Oaks as a golf instructor until his retirement. His mottos in life were, "Make a friend a day" and "Be nice to everyone.
Former Poway Chamber of Commerce President Vernard “Vern” Marston died with his family at his side on August 24. A community banker, retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonel, and dedicated member of the Poway Chamber of Commerce, he was often referred to as "Mr. Poway." Marston began his involvement with the Poway Chamber in the early 1970s, in conjunction with the opening of the Community First Bank Poway branch, which he managed. His diligent service inspired the creation of the "Vern Marston Volunteer of the Year Award," an award which is presented annually to a deserving Chamber member at the annual Poway Chamber Business Star Awards.
A high-speed crash in Fletcher Hills shortly after 2 a.m. on August 21 claimed the lives of two teens and seriously injured two others. The driver, Gady Cruz, 16, had a history of posting videos on social media of himself racing on local freeways at speeds over 100 miles per hour. The Grossmont High School senior died at the scene. Passenger Jiovanni Solorio Roman, also a 16-year-old Grossmont High student, suffered multiple broken bones and was in a coma until his death on September 11.
Ron Brady was the founder of a high-profile construction company, but it was his practice of philanthropy over the course of many decades that helped him develop some of his closest community ties. A native of Texas, Brady took over his father's firm started in 1946 and turned it into a successful construction business known as the Brady Companies. The Brady companies were instrumental in developing much of San Diego County, Los Angeles County and parts of Northern California. The companies specialize in drywall, plaster and lath that are geared toward major commercial projects. Over the course of his lifetime, he and his wife, Mary Alice, gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars to different organizations, from Sharp Grossmont Hospital to the East County YMCA to the Boys and Girls Clubs of East County. Ronald Perry Brady died at age 83 on Aug. 5, 2021.
East County Magazine’s award-winning multicultural journalist Briana Paul Gomez, 31, died in a rollover vehicle crash Sunday morning, August 1, 2021. She covered many of our region’s most pivotal issues and events, from COVID-19 disparities among Latinos to racial justice protests and the La Mesa riot. ECM editor Miriam Raftery stated, “We are all devastated at this tragic loss of a young reporter passionate about diversity issues. Briana always strived to tell all sides of the issues she covered and had a promising future as a journalist. She was generous, compassionate and a cherished friend as well as a talented writer. Our hearts are with her family, especially her young daughter.”
On December 7,1941, Stu Hedley survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that killed over 100 of his shipmates aboard the USS West Virginia. Determined that American never forget what happened, he spoke to more than 200,000 people over the years and presided over the nation’s last chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association until it disbanded in 2011. On August 4, 2021, Hedley’s life ended at age 99 amid another world crisis, when he died of COVID-19.
Anthony Cano, 27, dreamed of being a firefighter from an early age. For five years, he was living his dream as a firefighter and paramedic with the Lakeside Fire Protection District, while enjoying family time with his two children, ages 7 and 2. But on July 8, he passed away unexpectedly at his home in Temecula of undisclosed causes. The announcement of his tragic death was made “with a heavy heart” by the Lakeside Fire Protection District and Lakeside Firefighters Local 4438. Their statement said of Cano, “His bright presence on his fellow firefighters and the community he served will truly be missed.
Father Joe Carroll, the Catholic priest famed for his leadership to help the homeless, died July 11 at his home in the East Village at age 80. The President of Emeritus of Father Joe’s Villages leaves behind a legacy of compassion and decades of accomplishments to help people in need. Carroll’s pioneering vision of a comprehensive “one-stop-shop” for homeless services led to the founding of Father Joe’s Villages, the largest and most comprehensive homeless services provider in San Diego County. He also once served as parish priest at Our Lady of Grace Church in El Cajon. In his biography, he wrote, “I have lived a joyful and fulfilling life. Within the passages of this book, I pass along some seeds of goodness. Perhaps you will pass seeds of goodness along to others. And so it goes as we help each other grow through life.”
Former Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College school board trustee Greg Barr, an El Cajon resident and retired realtor, passed away after a heart-related illness while vacationing in Oregon on June 19, 2021. Barr was first elected to the GCCCD board in December 2006 and served until his retirement in November 2018. He previously taught American and world history at Fallbrook Union High School from 1985 to 2006, as well as metal working and world cultures.
Thomas B. Day, the sixth president of San Diego State University, died June 16 at age 89. Day began an 18-year-tenure in 1978 and saw the creation of six joint doctoral programs, significantly increased faculty research and led a major expansion of the university. The emergence of SDSU as a major public research university was a main theme of the Day era, as the president stressed quality undergraduate teaching and research, as well as professional and graduate programs.
Trained as a nurse, Diana Pico was a healer, teacher and strong believer in spirituality. The wife of former Viejas Tribal Chairman Anthony Pico, Diana Pico started her career in the medical field and was an oncology nurse, but she later moved into a more comfortable place to help others through alternative and native healing practices. She encouraged and supported her husband of 13 years to help American Indians overcome unhealthy addictions, championing his goals and vision of creating healthy families on the Viejas reservation by reconnecting with traditional values and wisdom. Pico was a survivor who beat breast cancer and liver cancer, but she died on June 3, of complications from brain cancer. Pico was 65.
Edward “Ed” Burr, co-founder of EDCO Disposal Corporation and one of East County’s most generous philanthropists, passed away in Sharp Memorial Hospital on May 31, 2021 at age 89. The hospital named its Burr Heart and Vascular Center after Burr and his wife, Sandy, whose $5 million donation was the largest in the facility’s history. The California Park & Recreation Society honored the Burrs with its 2020 Champion of the Community Service Award of Excellence. As a founding board member of the La Mesa Parks & Recreation Foundation, Ed Burr helped lead fundraising efforts to create the Junior Seau Sports Complex. He was also a key leader in funding a new teen center and clubhouse for the Boys and Girls Club of East County. Burr served on the board of directors for Challenge Center, a nonprofit rehabilitation. EDCO and the Burrs also sponsored many special events held by the City of La Mesa, which honored Ed and Sandy Burr with stars on the city’s downtown walk of fame.
Shon Boney, a leader in the natural grocery store industry with long roots in East County, died March 8, 2021 at age 52 of brain cancer. Grandson of Henry Boney, the founder of Boney’s Marketplace, later known as Henry’s Marketplace, Shon worked in all aspects of the San Diego based business until it was sold to Wild Oats. A native of La Mesa, he later moved to Arizona, where he co-founded and served as CEO of Sprouts Farmers Market, which grew into one of the nation’s preeminent healthy grocery store chains.
Mark Goffeney, the internationally acclaimed armless musician known as “Big Toe,” was found dead on March 2 in his El Cajon apartment along with his wife, Annmaree. Both were 51. An autopsy determined the cause of death was fentanyl addiction. Born without arms in 1969, Goffeney inspired millions with his can-do attitude. He learned to play the guitar and bass with his feet, strumming with his left foot and forming chords with his right. He was nominated in an Emmy award in 1999 for his role in a Fox commercial, “Feet”, which later aired during the Superbowl in 2000 and 2001. He’s performed around the world with many top celebrities, also appearing on an array of TV shows.
Johnny Hake, best known for his leadership to protect Julian during wildfires, passed away on February 1, 2021. He was 71 years old. Hake told the Julian Journal that he met his wife, Diane, in a berry patch. They got married three weeks later, and raised their family which included adopted children as well as their own. During the 2003 Cedar Fire, they lost their home. The Hakes became involved with Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) and also served as instructors for the Julian/Cuyamaca CERT team, TEEN CERT, and Tribal TEEN CERT. Diane Hake posted on Facebook, “I feel so blessed to have been married to Johnny for almost 52 years making amazing memories. I could have enjoyed his company for another half a century.”
A student at Brown University, 21-year-old Max Lenail went missing on January 29 while running on the San Diego River Crossing Trail in Mission Trails Regional Park. His body was found the next day, swept away by floodwaters. To honor his legacy and prevent future such tragedies, his family established a fund that has resulted in dedication of a new pedestrian and bicycle bridge recently dedicated at the spot where their son perished. Fundraising continues to support completion of the bridge.
COVID-19 claimed the life of Bob Kruse, 62, a La Mesa resident who oversaw over 50 local Goodwill sites as Director of Facilities. A graduate of Helix High School, he had worked for Goodwill since 1985 and was dedicated to the nonprofit’s mission of helping others. He passed away in January after being hospitalized for nearly a month.
Gavin McClain, a partner in La Mesa Wine Works and co-owner of Wyatt Oaks Winery, died of cancer in early January, just 12 weeks after being diagnosed. He and his wife, Stacy, operated Wyatt Oaks since 2009, posting their three children’s images on the bottle. Mike and Linda McWilliams, owners of Wine Works, voiced deep sadness at the loss and said they will continue to stock Wyatt Oaks wines. They invited all to “join us in offering a special toast to Gavin's memory the next time you have the opportunity to enjoy a bottle.”
Jeff Marcus, an Alpine resident, was an entertainer for more than four decades. A magician, clown and hypnotist, he performed at the Mother Goose Parade, Del Mar Fair and other popular events, wowing the crowds. Marcus was a longtime member of Hollywood’s Magic Castle and the International Brotherhood of Magicians (IBM) Ring 76. He was also the Territorial Vice President of IBM. His career was stalled starting in the spring of 2020 when he was unable to perform in front crowds during the pandemic. On January 18, 2021, he died of COVID-19 in a Toledo hospital, where he had traveled to visit family members.
THE FOLLOWING DEATHS OCCURRED IN 2020, DURING THE PANDEMIC, BUT WERE NOT REPORTED TO ECM UNTIL 2021 WHEN SERVICES WERE HELD.
Kelly Lynne Cameron died December 31, 2020 of injuries sustained when she was struck by a vehicle while jogging in La Mesa. As an MRI technologist, she was a front-line healthcare worker during the pandemic. She was also a talented athlete known as “Lemon Drop” during her stint as a roller-derby player with the San Diego Derby Dolls. The team posted a tribute remembering Cameron as “an impressive force in not just the Derby Doll world as a San Diego Derby Doll, but in the larger Southern California roller derby community. Throughout her decade-long roller derby career, she touched many lives as a teammate, captain, competitor, mentor, coach and friend.”
A former catcher for the San Diego Padres, Dan Walters became a San Diego police officer until he was shot and left paralyzed while on duty in 2002. A graduate of Santana High School in Santee, he also played professional baseball with the Houston Astros, Colorado Rockies and Oakland Athletics before joining the Padres. He died in April 2020, but his many friends and colleagues were determined that he would not be forgotten. In August 2021, when gatherings were again allowed after COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns were lifted, a memorial service was held at Shadow Mountain Church in El Cajon. San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit stated, “Just as in baseball, Dan excelled in everything he did. He was an outstanding cop…Never forget the sacrifice that Dan Walters made. Never forget what Dan Walters stood for.”