A look back at year’s biggest local stories | TahoeDailyTribune.com

A look back at year’s biggest local stories

Tribune staff byline
Dan Thrift/Tahoe Daily TribuneSouth Shore's top story of 2001: The Park Avenue Redevelopemtn project is beginning to take shape.

Choosing our local Top 10 stories was not easy. We did so in the shadow of Sept. 11, a day of horror that changed our lives forever.

In the aftermath, we saw air travel disrupted and near panic over a new threat from anthrax. Our nation began a war on terror and plunged into a recession that has hurt our tourism-based economy.

We think it’s important to remember the hardships we have endured on the South Shore, and our outpouring of compassion for the victims and their families, are part of a much larger picture. We live in the United States of America; we remember 9-11 as Americans. This story belongs to us all, and it will be covered in greater detail in Monday’s edition.

On the local front, we take hope in the early snow that has started to draw tourists back to Tahoe. We look forward to January, when the Olympic torch will pass through town and revive in us a spirit of unity. We pray, as we do every year, that things will get better.

We also look back at 2001, and the people and events that shaped the South Shore. The rankings are subjective and reflect the results of a year-end poll of Tribune editorial staff.

1. Redevelopment takes off

After years of planning, redevelopment efforts in South Lake Tahoe started to bear fruit in the form of concrete and steel.

Under the auspices of the city’s Park Avenue Redevelopment Project, two hotel projects got off the ground during the year. Tired, old buildings were razed to make way for the new and improved.

The $100 million condominium complex under construction at Park Avenue and U.S. Highway 50 was formerly known as the Grand Summit and is now called the Marriott Grand Residence Club. Marriott acquired the development rights in May in an $11 million transaction with American Skiing Co.

The project includes condos offered in quarter, half or whole ownerships with hotel amenities.

With the help of general contractor Perini Building Co. and an army of subcontractors, Marriott is also building a $125 million timeshare hotel — the Timber Lodge.

Retail shops, restaurants, an ice rink and swimming pool are also scheduled within the dual projects located under the Heavenly Gondola. Completion is expected in November 2002.

The $20 million gondola, which opened shortly before the year started, is another key component to the redevelopment project. It links Heavenly Ski Resort with the casino district and whisks skiers, snowboarders and sightseers from lake level to 9,100 feet.

2. Harrah’s, Harveys merge

A fierce casino competition at Stateline that lasted nearly 50 years came to an end July 31, when Harrah’s Entertainment bought Harveys Casino Resorts.

Harrah’s, a Las Vegas-based firm founded by Bill Harrah, took over Harvey Gross’ South Lake Tahoe casino for $675 million in cash and liabilities.

Harrah’s and Harveys announced plans to merge in April. The deal was closed less than two weeks after the Federal Trade Commission approved the merger. Harrah’s Lake Tahoe General Manager Joe Hasson took over the helm of both casinos.

The move marked an end of an era. Gross started his Harveys Wagon Wheel Saloon & Gambling Hall at Lake Tahoe in 1944. Harrah’s hit the scene in 1955.

Together, the two casinos employ about 4,000 people. Approximately 250 to 300 people have been laid off since the merger. Harveys’ corporate division closed, and other departments including the sports books, transportation and food service have been consolidated.

3. Campground murder

Rebbeca Aramburo was the focus of a bitter child custody dispute in Alaska and an August kidnapping in Washington state. Just 9 years old, her life ended violently Sept. 21 at Campground by the Lake during a police standoff.

Rebbeca’s body was found inside a tent with her mother, Lisa Ann Platz, and Platz’s boyfriend, James Csucsai. Both adults were bleeding from wrist wounds; Csucsai’s neck also was cut. An autopsy showed Rebbeca died after suffering two deep neck lacerations.

Csucsai allegedly told police he was armed and would not be taken alive; a witness heard Platz tell officers to leave them alone. Nearby campers were evacuated throughout the early morning darkness.

Officers finally rushed the tent after hearing Csucsai say he was losing consciousness. They found knives inside the tent and guns inside the suspects’ car.

Csucsai and Platz survived their injuries and were booked into El Dorado County jail on suspicion of murder with special circumstances. The district attorney’s office is considering whether to seek the death penalty but no decision has been made. They are due in court Jan. 3 to set a date for a preliminary hearing.

4. Jail suicide

At 5 a.m. Jan. 28, 2001, deputies at the Douglas County Jail discovered Thomas Soria Sr.’s lifeless body.

Toxicology reports later revealed Soria, 40, died from an overdose of medication prescribed for depression and to help him sleep. The accused child killer apparently hoarded his medication and saved enough to make his last dose fatal, officials said.

Soria was arrested in March 2000 for the kidnap, rape and murder of 9-year-old Krystal Steadman. His body was discovered just days after his death penalty trial began.

His son, Thomas “T.J.” Soria Jr., was sentenced in July 2000 to life in prison without the possibility of parole for his role in Krystal’s death. He avoided the death penalty by agreeing to testify against his father.

T.J. Soria said his father began having sex with him when he was 6 or 7 years old. The younger man admitted to luring Krystal to his father’s Stateline apartment and later dumping her naked body alongside Highway 50, several miles west of Carson City.

Before Thomas Soria Sr.’s death, prosecutors also planned to try him for the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl from South Lake Tahoe.

5. Operation Clean Sheets

A 4-year-old FBI probe dubbed Operation Clean Sheets culminated last January with three businessmen pleading guilty to federal tax evasion charges. They were sentenced to one year in prison.

Tradewinds Motel owner Mark Patel, real estate agent Pembroke Gochnauer and Scott MacDonald, who formerly owned the Chateau Suites motel, were accused of conspiring to conceal almost $700,000 in cash from the sale of Patel’s Secrets Motel at Stateline. On Sept. 29, 1999, the scam abruptly ended with a chain-reaction bust and seizure.

The charges cited a plan among the longtime South Lake Tahoe residents to profit from the sale of motel properties around town.

The sting involved an FBI informant who posed as a drug dealer. FBI documents outlined a plan spearheaded by MacDonald for the informant to purchase motels in the city’s redevelopment zone once values were inflated.

MacDonald also pleaded guilty to three counts of money laundering. He publicly denounced the investigation, which he considered a setup. Some members of the community also questioned what they thought was an overzealous effort by the FBI.

6. Tahoe Rim Trail completed

The Tahoe Rim Trail officially was completed Sept. 22, capping a 20-year effort by 10,000 volunteers who turned a nebulous idea into reality.

Hundreds of volunteers, officials and members of the Tahoe Rim Trail Association attended the opening ceremony for the trail, which traverses nearly 165 miles along the ridges circling Lake Tahoe.

The idea originated with Glenn Hampton, a former recreation officer for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the U.S. Forest Service. The idea caught on and the Tahoe Rim Trail Association was formed in 1981.

Work began in 1984, with two to 10 miles constructed every year. It took more than 200,000 hours of work and $5 million in donated funds to complete the trail, considered one of the largest volunteer projects in America.

The trail, which ranges in elevation between 6,300 and 10,300 feet, winds through two states, six counties, three national parks, state park land and three wilderness areas. About 3,000 people use the trail every week during peak summer and fall months.

7. Kingsbury Grade shooting

Road rage came to the lake last year when Donald Lawson shot Jimmy McGeehan 11 times following a traffic incident.

McGeehan passed Lawson on Kingsbury Grade on Super Bowl Sunday. Lawson then followed McGeehan to his home and confronted him. Words were exchanged, and the two went their separate ways.

The men had no further contact until the early morning hours of Feb. 6, when McGeehan found Lawson slashing the tires of his truck. McGeehan confronted Lawson, who turned, brandished a gun and fired 15 times.

Lawson was sentenced to 50 years in prison for attempted murder.

Nearly a year later, McGeehan continues a long recovery process from his parent’s home in Glenside, Pa. Two of his fingers were amputated and he still has difficulty moving his arms, but he is up and walking with the help of a cane.

8. Dreyfus Estate land swap

The U.S. Forest Service paid $575,000 in June to regain control of the Dreyfus estate in Zephyr Cove, ending a four-year ownership battle with Park Cattle Co. and ensuring the public will have access to the property.

The saga stems from a $38 million land swap the government made with Olympic Group LLC, a Nevada-based land brokerage firm. The 46-acre Zephyr Cove property was exchanged for 1,350 acres of public land around Las Vegas.

Because the federal government didn’t have use for the 10,000-square-foot Dreyfus mansion, it allowed Olympic to sell the building and other structures to Park Cattle, which intended to run the estate as a business.

But the Forest Service refused to issue a permit for the business. Park Cattle responded by placing “no trespassing” signs on the property and blocking road access to the lake shore. Years of negotiations proved futile.

An investigation into the transaction by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found no wrongdoing by the Forest Service. However, the agency was ordered to regain control of the property, which includes 3,000 feet of sandy beach.

Park Cattle paid $70,000 in rent as part of the settlement. The company donated the net proceeds, more than $500,000, to the Boys and Girls Club of Lake Tahoe to build a new multipurpose facility.

9. Barr murder/suicide

A group of young boys found Robert Barr’s body floating in a Tahoe Keys lagoon in April. Their canoe trip discovery helped investigators solve a month-old murder mystery.

An autopsy report confirmed Barr died from a gunshot wound in the back of his head. Ballistics tests showed the pistol found near his body was the weapon used to kill his wife, Rebecca.

Rebecca Barr’s body was found March 26 near Fallen Leaf Lake. She had been shot at close range in the back of the head after being dragged some 50 yards into the woods.

Police determined the couple came to the lake from Portland, Ore., leaving behind foreclosures on their house and car. None of their relatives knew they were planning a trip to Lake Tahoe.

Investigations revealed Robert Barr pawned construction equipment in town and paid a visit to Rebecca’s brother in Missouri in the days following her death. Their rented car was found parked at a vacation rental home in the Tahoe Keys about two weeks before his body was discovered.

The El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department closed the case after the autopsy report confirmed their suspicions that Robert Barr committed suicide.

10. Fatal watercraft accident

A late-night ride on a personal watercraft turned fatal when two young men struck a pier on Lake Tahoe at the Nevada 4-H Camp near Stateline.

On July 26, Charles Allan Williams of South Lake Tahoe was last seen alive staggering on the beach. He collapsed before rescue personnel reached him and attempts to revive him failed.

Williams’ friend Gregory Westbrook was found dead in the water around 20 feet from shore. Westbrook died instantly, while Williams survived for up to 12 hours after the accident. Both men died from blunt force trauma to the head.

Investigators believe the two took the watercraft from Lakeside Marina and didn’t see the low-lying pier in the darkness. The Sea-Doo was found floating in Marla Bay.

Williams and Westbrook were seen the night before at a local bar, and authorities believe alcohol was a factor. The accident was originally investigated as a double homicide because a high-speed car chase began in South Lake Tahoe shortly after the two men were found. The incidents turned out to be unrelated.

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