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Convicted killer Phillip Watts denied parole

SOLEDAD — Phillip Watts, who was convicted of the first-degree murder of Lawrence “Hoss” Harrison in 1992, was denied parole Thursday during a parole hearing, said a press release from the Kings County District Attorney’s Office.

On Thursday at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, a California parole board denied parole for 50-year-old Watts for seven years. He will not be eligible for another parole hearing until 2024.

“We’re happy he was denied,” said Cynthia Craddock Biletnikoff, Harrison’s great-granddaughter. “But there are no winners in this. We lost our grandfather and many lost a friend, and his family lost a son and a brother.”

In August of 1992, Watts brutally beat and stabbed the 82-year-old Harrison more than 60 times, leaving him to die on the floor of his Hanford home.

According to the DA’s office, Watts was found guilty of first degree murder with use of a deadly weapon following a jury trial in Kings County. Watts received a sentence of 26 years to life in the state prison for the crime.

Watts had his first parole board hearing in 2011, where he was denied parole for seven years. For that first hearing, Biletnikoff collected stacks of letters and petitions from across the country urging the parole board to not set him free.

The parole hearing on Thursday was attended by Biletnikoff and another granddaughter, both of whom spoke at the hearing. Family members again gathered and submitted thousands of petition signatures opposing Watts’ release.

Biletnikoff said over 4,000 online signatures came in on the petition and almost 500 comments were made on the website against granting parole.

The Kings County District Attorney’s Office press release said members routinely attend every lifer parole hearing for crimes committed in Kings County.

District Attorney Keith Fagundes and Deputy District Attorney Phil Esbenshade attended the hearing and argued that Watts posed an unreasonable risk to public safety and objected to his release.

Despite having insurmountable evidence against him, including bite mark matches and fingerprints, Biletnikoff said Watts had always denied committing the crime.

She said Watts finally admitted to the murder at the hearing, using details that she believes only the killer would know. She said when he was asked why he murdered Harrison, he said there was really no reason and that Harrison was actually always nice to him.

“That was a really heartbreaking moment, but we deserved to hear the truth” Biletnikoff said. “It was bittersweet.”

She said attending the hearing and reliving the crime brought back post-traumatic stress and she felt happy and sad at the same time.

Advocates from the Kings County Victim-Witness Assistance Program and the I-CAN Crime Victim’s Assistance Network also attended the hearing, and Biletnikoff said she appreciated all of the support.

As long as Watts is alive and as long as he is offered parole hearings, Biletnikoff said she will “always and forever” fight to keep him in jail and seek justice for her great-grandfather.

Larry Spikes retires from Kings County after 36 years

HANFORD — Larry Spikes talks like he works for the government.

One question about how Kings County has changed over the years leads him to talking about state policies, taxes, Gov. Jerry Brown and the local court system. It’s intimidating and fascinating at the same time.

But what more can you expect from someone who has worked as the county administrative officer for over two decades, has reviewed approximately 20,000 agenda items and has attended roughly 1,200 board meetings.

Friday, however, was Spikes last day on the job. In the summer he announced he would retire after 36 years with the county.

Spikes grew up in Fresno and attended California State University, Fresno, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting in 1981 and his master’s degree in public administration in 1992.

He said he started his career with the county in 1981 as an accountant in the auditor-controller’s office, where he worked for five years. He then worked as an analyst in the administration office and eventually became a deputy county administrative officer.

In November 1993, Spikes became county administrative officer. While at that position, he recently had the distinction of being the longest-running active CAO in the state at 24 years, something he didn’t give much thought to.

“I never set out to do it, you know, it just happened,” Spikes said with a shrug and a chuckle.

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Rebecca Campbell, assistant county administrative officer and Spikes’ successor. “Larry has done a lot for the state and he’s very well respected up and down the state.”

Looking back, Spikes said Kings County has definitely changed and grown over the years.

“When you see incremental change over 24 years, you don’t see it year in and year out,” Spikes said. “But we’ve seen a lot of changes to the physical plant of the Government Center and the outlying areas as well.”

Along with being involved with the establishment of the California Public Finance Authority, Spikes said one of the greatest achievements of his career was getting the four-story Kings County Superior Court built.

“Kings County’s project was possibly going to be shelved and delayed,” Spikes said, adding he was in the right place at the right time on the Court Facilities Advisory Committee to be able to advocate on behalf of the county. “The result was it got built. We were fortunate in that regard.”

Spikes said he has high expectations for the growth and future of the county, citing Kelly Slater’s Wave Pool and the growing Naval Air Station Lemoore.

While Campbell considers Spikes’ retirement as a “big loss” to the county, Spikes remains humble and said he knows the county will be just fine in her hands.

“Rebecca’s going to take over and they won’t miss a beat,” Spikes said.

When asked what he will miss most about his job, Spikes doesn’t even hesitate before he answers with, “the people.”

“I’ll miss the camaraderie with everybody,” Spikes said. “To me, Kings County has a culture where we’re all on the same team, pulling in the same direction.”

Spikes has worked with 16 different supervisors on the county board of supervisors, and said they all have established a common goal with the department heads and employees to do well on behalf of Kings County residents.

Something he won’t miss?

“Having to figure out how to make budget cuts,” he said. “That’s never pleasant.”

Spikes has been a part of numerous boards and committees during his tenure and leaving them will give him a lot of extra time. He said he won’t completely disappear, though; he plans to sit on the judicial council’s Court Facilities Advisory Committee for another year.

Spikes has been married to his wife, Kristi, for 35 years and they have three grown children: a son, Austin, and twin daughters, Madison and Taylor.

He said he has a few things planned with his kids after he retires, including trips to the Sundance Film Festival, watching NASCAR in Las Vegas and watching spring training in March. From there, not even he knows what will come next.

“It’s been a good run,” Spikes said. “I appreciate all the help everybody gave me over my 36 years at the county.”

A year after a tamale disaster left hundreds of customers steamed, California store seeks redemption

DOWNEY — The tamale disaster unfolded with impeccably bad timing.

The week before Christmas last year, people had stood in line for hours for the store’s famous masa, the ground cornmeal for tamales.

Soon, hundreds of angry customers lay siege to the Amapola Deli and Market in Downey, demanding refunds after their tamales were ruined by funky masa.

Some people tried to save Christmas by serving spaghetti and nachos — a combination that any family of Mexican descent will tell you would definitely not save Christmas.

Amapola had itself a public relations nightmare.

So, the question this year is: How do you recover from a tamale apocalypse?

If you’re the owners of Amapola, you get a new corn supplier and launch a public relations campaign.

You measure success by how many customers come back. And you wait for the Super Bowl of tamales — Christmas — to return.

“Usually you have to do something major to break into the 5 o’clock news,” said Carlos Galván Jr., vice president of Amapola. “We led off the local channels.”

For many Mexican American families, tamales are as central to Christmas — or Christmas Eve — as turkey is to Thanksgiving.

Tamales being ripped from the menu of family celebrations because of bad masa was sort of like the Grinch riding down to Whoville and taking away all the presents.

Irma Guillen, 41, of Bell Gardens was among those whose Christmas tamales were ruined one year ago . But just before Thanksgiving this year, she returned to the store to buy two large bags of masa.

On the sliding doors of Amapola, a hashtag in Spanish read: Better Than Ever.

“Nobody is perfect, you know? It happens,” she said. “Just because it happened once is no reason to stop giving them my business. It would be unfair to the business and workers.”

For all the public relations efforts and changes in protocol and supplier, Galván Jr., said a big test of how well the store bounces back will be on Christmas Eve and Christmas.

“We know that we’re going to have some very tough judges this Christmas and customers are going to expect the same quality and consistency as before,” he said. “We have to make sure of that.”

Galván Jr. said the debacle happened “at the absolute worst time.”

“December 21st through the 24th are our absolute busiest days of the year,” he said. “We have people waiting in line for hours to get into our store — all of our stores — just to buy masa.”

Last year’s problem appeared to stem from a 120,000-pound supply of raw corn purchased from a longtime California vendor. The genetically modified corn produced solely for fuel had made its way into the supply and eventually into the homes of the market’s customers, Galván Jr. said.

“Once we identified the problem, one of the first things we had to do is change the vendor that supplied us our corn,” Galván Jr. said.

Additionally, new protocols were put into place to test the quality of the masa, such as cooking with it beforehand and making champurrado, a hot thick Mexican drink made of masa and chocolate.

If the hot drink does not thicken, Galván Jr. said, then they know there’s something wrong.

“So we don’t produce and sell the masa until we know for sure that it comes out right,” he said.

To regain the trust of its customers, Amapola launched a social media campaign using the hashtag #MejorQueNunca — Better Than Ever. In September, the company sponsored a tamale festival that they said was successful.

Galván Jr. said the reaction against the store was so passionate because of its past success. With such a large and loyal following, the fiasco was bound to upset a lot of people.

“We took the biggest hit because we were the biggest seller of tamales during that time period,” he said.

One year later, some customers have returned, while others have decided the experience was too bitter.

Ana Gonzalez of East Los Angeles said she had fond memories involving her mother and making tamales.

“I grew up with my mom taking me at 3 a.m. to purchase masa from Amapola,” she said. “I grew up seeing my mom in the kitchen, cooking the tamales, and my mom taught me how to make tamales so I could cook them for my children.”

One year ago, her mother was visiting for Christmas after being away for seven years.

“We were together, cooking the tamales and for me, it was something I wanted my children to experience since I haven’t done that with my mom for years,” Gonzalez said. “For us, waiting hours to have dinner and then to see the faces on the children when we told them they couldn’t eat them… It was hurtful.”

For that reason, Gonzalez said she looked for another place to buy her masa.

Still, others decided to give the store another chance.

Adrian Gonzalez, 21, of Long Beach, said his mother wanted to try the masa before Christmas Eve. They didn’t buy too much, just in case, he said.

Gonzalez said his family was deeply disappointed by what happened a year ago.

“I was mad,” he said. “ I was looking forward to tamales.”

Instead, his family made do on Christmas Eve with carne asada.

Galván Jr. said Amapola was doing everything it could to get back its customers.

“Are we going to please 100 percent of the people? Probably not, but that’s what we’re aiming for,” he said. “We want the customer to … say, ‘Yes, Amapola is back!’”

FBI: Man wanted to attack San Francisco's Pier 39 on holiday

SACRAMENTO (AP) — The FBI said Friday that it found a martyrdom letter and several guns in the home of a former Marine who said he wanted to carry out a Christmas Day attack on San Francisco's Pier 39, a popular tourist destination.

Everitt Aaron Jameson, 26, a Modesto tow-truck driver, was charged Friday with attempting to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization.

Jameson told an undercover agent he believed to be associated with senior leadership of the Islamic State group that he wanted to conduct a violent attack on Pier 39, which is packed with restaurants, bars and souvenir shops, because it is heavily crowded, according to an FBI affidavit.

He told the undercover agent that Christmas Day would be "the perfect day to commit the attack" and that he "did not need an escape plan because he was ready to die," the affidavit said.

He asked for help obtaining a fully automatic military assault rifle, either an M-16 or an AK-47, along with ammunition and materials to make explosives, including nails, timers and remote detonators, the affidavit said.

However, Jameson told the undercover agent Monday that he had reconsidered and felt he could not carry out the attack after all, the affidavit says. He denied the allegations during a hearing in federal court Friday.

His father, Gordon Jameson, said he believes the FBI has the facts wrong.

"He wouldn't do that to innocent people," the elder Jameson told the Merced Sun-Star . "He's a loving, kind person that would never hurt nobody."

Everitt Jameson was under surveillance and "the public was never in imminent danger," FBI spokeswoman Katherine Zackel said in a statement.

She and San Francisco Acting Mayor London Breed both said there are no other known threats, though police increased their presence throughout the city after being notified of the FBI investigation several days ago.

"San Francisco is a city that proudly champions democracy, freedom and liberty. Sadly, that makes our home a target," Breed said in a statement. "We will not allow the thwarted attempts of one dangerous individual to disrupt our way of life. We will remain vigilant and continue to protect our city from any threat."

Jameson had posted radical jihadist messages online, including expressing support for the Halloween terror attack in New York City in which a driver used his truck to kill eight people, the FBI said.

"I'm glad to know we Muslims are finally hitting back," Jameson told an agency informant. He offered to use his tow truck to support the cause, the affidavit says.

The FBI began investigating in mid-September when it learned that Jameson was expressing support for posts that favored terrorism or the Islamic State group. He "loved" an online post that showed Santa Claus threatening an attack in New York with a box of dynamite.

Agents raided his home Wednesday, finding a martyr's letter signed with an Islamic variation of his name, along with his last will and testament updated in November. They also found fireworks, two rifles and a 9mm handgun.

During the search, Jameson "stated his support of ISIS and terrorism and discussed aspects of the plan to carry out an attack, noting that he would be happy if an attack was carried out," the affidavit says.

He was arrested Friday and faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted. At a court hearing, he was ordered held for a Dec. 28 detention hearing.

The federal defender representing Jameson, Eric Kersten, did not return telephone and email messages seeking comment.

Jameson had attended Marine basic recruit training in 2009 and earned a sharpshooter rifle qualification. He was discharged for failing to disclose a history of asthma, the affidavit said.

He referred to his military service in comments to undercover agents.

"I have been trained in combat and things of war," Jameson told one agent.

Jameson made a pledge to the Muslim faith two years ago at an Islamic center in Merced, according to the affidavit. A message left at the Islamic Center of Merced was not immediately returned.

"The threat from radical Islamic terrorism is real — and it is serious," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement, but federal agents are protecting the nation from what he called "an alleged plot to kill Americans."