Top ten stories of 2015

January 1, 2016


The year 2015 drew to a close with Atascadero’s former citizen of the year in federal prison and Arroyo Grande’s most recent citizen of the year in the San Luis Obispo County Jail.

In a wild year for local news, both stories made the cut for CCN’s top 10 stories of the year. Neither was Number 1, though. The top story of 2015 includes a familiar face, but with a new twist and a new job.


Lacey Fowler10. Cuesta College bureaucrat goes rogue

On the final day of May, a Cuesta College human resources analyst allegedly embarked on an ambitious crime spree.

Lacey Fowler, who had been on sick leave for several weeks, allegedly breached the campus data system remotely and emailed employee names, home addresses, email addresses, phone numbers and Social Security numbers to her private email account.

Over the six weeks that followed, Fowler skipped court, was arrested four times and allegedly tried to punch a Paso Robles police officer. She also allegedly battered her husband, burglarized a commercial vehicle and cashed a forged check at the Paso Robles Walmart. Fowler also faced charges of possession of methamphetamine and cocaine for sale.

Cuesta College hired Fowler in 2008, even though at the time, she had a criminal history that included multiple DUIs, reckless driving, a drug paraphernalia conviction and an arrest for burglary and forgery. Fowler has remained in jail since July 13, despite pleading with a judge for her release.


Lenny Jones

Lenny Jones

9. Lenny Jones goes to jail

2014 was a tumultuous year for Arroyo Grande. A city hall sex scandal led to the unseating of a 16-year incumbent mayor and eventually the resignation of the city manager.

In Jan. 2015, the Arroyo Grande Chamber of Commerce honored realtor Lenny Jones as the city’s 2014 Citizen of the Year. A safe selection for a year of political upheaval?

No, it was not. Sheriff’s detectives arrested Jones in March on charges of kidnapping, child molestation and penetration with a foreign object. He is accused of molesting multiple girls and a 3-year-old boy at a birthday party he held at his home in March.

A background check reveals Jones was charged with child molestation in 1995, but prosecutors dropped the charges after he completed two years of counseling.


water money8. Water district woes continue

San Luis Obispo County officials moved ahead plans last year to create a water district to manage the Paso Robles groundwater basin. But ultimately, the voters will decide whether the water district becomes a reality.

CCN senior correspondent Dan Blackburn revealed in September that property owners wrote more than 1,000 letters opposing the creation of the district. County officials brushed over the letters, opting to exclude them from a staff report.

Blackburn is authoring an ongoing series of articles on the water war being fought over the Paso Robles basin. The series dates back to Jan. 2014, and it has exposed ties between local activists and wealthy, water banking interests.

Voters will decide on March 8 whether to create the water district and whether to approve a tax to fund it.


Oceano Dunes 47. Dust rule unravels but Gibson settles score with state geologist

The Air Pollution Control District’s (APCD) controversial Oceano Dunes dust rule returned to the news in 2015.

In April, an appellate court ruled against the regulation, saying the APCD cannot force state parks to obtain a permit to operate the the off-road area at the dunes. In June, state geologist Will Harris told the APCD board the dust rule is pointless because natural background levels of dust are actually higher than current levels.

County Supervisor Adam Hill responded to Harris, saying, “Perhaps someone will talk to your bosses in Sacramento about your appearance here today.” Supervisor Bruce Gibson followed through on the threat, and the California Geological Survey demoted Harris.

The APCD board remains divided on what to do about its troubled regulation that the air district is still defending in court.


Dee Torres-Hill speaking on behalf of CAPSLO.

Dee Torres-Hill speaking on behalf of CAPSLO.

6. Torres-Hill competes and settles with CAPSLO; Hill walks away

In 2015, the Community Action Partnership completed a messy separation from its former homeless services manager Dee Torres-Hill and her husband, Supervisor Adam Hill.

Torres-Hill sued CAPLSO in 2014 after management demoted her and cut her pay.

Last year, CCN revealed Torres-Hill was soliciting donations for her own homeless services nonprofit while still on CAPSLO’s payroll and months before the organization demoted her. Torres-Hill received a $50,000 donation from developer Gary Grossman, for whom Hill lobbied the San Luis Obispo City Council over a proposed development.

In October, CAPSLO quietly settled the Torres-Hill lawsuit.

In December, CAPSLO staffers packed the board of supervisors chambers to receive an honor recognizing the agency’s 50th anniversary. As CAPSLO management approached the dais, Hill walked out of the board meeting. He returned about 30 minutes later without explaining his sudden departure.


crime tape5. Illegal immigrants attack locals, stir national debate

Donald Trump’s bid for the United States presidency made illegal immigration a hot topic in 2015. It also placed national focus on the Central Coast.

Shortly after he announced his candidacy, Trump condemned the the July 1 murder of Kathryn Steinle, a 2009 graduate of Cal Poly. Steinle was allegedly gunned down on a San Francisco pier by an illegal immigrant who had been let out of jail earlier in the year due to sanctuary city policies.

Later in July, illegal immigrants were arrested for two violent assaults on the Central Coast. In one case, a 64-year-old Santa Maria woman died after an illegal immigrant allegedly broke into her house while she was sleeping, raped her and beat her with a hammer.

Days later, Mexican national Francisco Javier Chavez brutally attacked a 2-year-old Paso Robles girl, sending her to a special treatment facility in Madera. Police arrested Chavez and ICE issued a detainer request, but the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office let him out of jail.

Chavez then skipped court, and there have since been no reports of his whereabouts. Sheriff Ian Parkinson appeared on Fox news and defended the decision to release Chavez, saying the ACLU would have sued him had he honored the ICE detainer request.


Steve Gesell

Steve Gesell

4. Steve Gesell family loses its travel plan

Last year, SLO City Manager Katie Lichtig cut ties with Steve Gesell, the police chief she hired in 2012. Licttig never gave a reason for Gesell’s resignation other than “irreconcilable differences” between the two.

Some speculated Gesell’s ouster was connected to a story CCN broke in January. CCN reported Gesell violated city travel reimbursement policies on several occasions, often making the city foot the bill for conferences that turned into family trips. In one such occasion, he turned a police chiefs conference in Orlando into a family trip to Florida.

As Gesell was on his way out of the top cop job in SLO, CCN also reported the chief’s command staff had initiated an illegal ticket quota scheme. A pizza party was the incentive for officers writing more tickets, police department emails showed.

After walking away with a $120,000 settlement, Gesell sought work in Arizona and North Dakota. Last month, Gesell was hired as the chief of police in Cottonwood, Arizona.


The Carroll family before the court terminated Richard and Elizabeth Carroll’s parental rights.

3. Alleged rapist trumps real parents

In a CPS case gone brutally wrong, San Luis Obispo County officials took three children away from the parents and placed them in the Nipomo home of Robert John Bergner, 51.

Bergner allegedly raped and sodomized one of the kids — now an 18-year-old woman — for more than six years. In July, the county district attorney’s office charged Bergner with 126 counts of sexual abuse.

A CCN exclusive revealed the birth parents allege the county took custody of the children after then-CAPSLO Homeless Services Director Dee Torres-Hill made false allegations. For instance, Torres-Hill claimed the mother had punched her 5-year-old in the nose. The family said Torres-Hill reported the false allegations after the parents refused to turn over 70 percent of their income to CAPSLO.

In another bizarre twist, social workers ordered the parents to have a psychological exam administered by a psychologist who was on probation. The psychologist had his license revoked after he was accused of having sex with patients, smoking marijuana with patients and performing exorcisms.

CCN concluded a three-part series on the the case with a report on the financial incentives involved in adoptions. The county expects $21 million in revenue in 2015-2016 for foster parenting and adoption programs.


Kelly22. Kelly Gearhart goes to prison

Seven years after reporting a distinguished local developer was defrauding investors, CCN publisher Karen Velie was in a Los Angeles courtroom to see a federal judge sentence Kelly Gearhart.

On July 2, U.S. District Court Judge Otis Wright II sentenced Gearhart to 14 years in prison. The former Atascadero Citizen of the Year was then stripped of his eyeglasses, wedding ring and other belongings, handcuffed and led away by two federal marshals.

CCN shined a light on Gearhart’s questionable financial dealings in a lengthy, ongoing series of articles beginning in 2008. The series revealed Gearhart and James Miller, the former president of Hurst Financial Inc., defrauded more than 1,200 investors of more than $100 million in an alleged Ponzi scheme involving Central Coast real estate projects.

In response, local media initially ignored the story, Atascadero officials heaped praise on Gearhart and the developer threatened to sue CCN.

A federal grand jury indicted Gearhart in 2012 on 16 charges of mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. The developer accepted a plea deal in 2014.

At his sentencing hearing, Gearhart cried intermittently through an approximately five-minute statement he made. Gearhart’s statement included apologies to his victims.


Adam Hill speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony for a PB Companies project.

Adam Hill speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony for a PB Companies project.

1. Supervisor Adam Hill and his PB Companies buddies

2015’s top story is that of another questionable developer, or two, and a sitting county supervisor who happens to work for them.

John Belsher, 61, and Ryan Petetit, 28, created PB Companies in 2012. Just a few years later, they valued the development firm’s projects at more than $300 million.

But, legal troubles are mounting for the pair. Last year, CCN revealed Belsher and Petetit have been in and out of court for failure to pay contractors and lenders, violating building codes and not paying subsequent fines. The city of San Luis Obispo also ordered them to tear down a construction project.

Also, Petetit has made a fair share of appearances in criminal court. Prosecutors have charged Petetit with five felonies and six misdemeanors since 2012.

In a November incident, Petetit allegedly choked his girlfriend, shoved her head through a bathroom window, held her captive in a closet and slammed her head into a tile floor. After the arrest, Petetit stepped down from the role of PB Companies CEO and the company changed its name to Central Coast Developers.

So where does the county supervisor fit in?

Supervisor Adam Hill has openly lobbied on behalf of PB Companies projects, particularly a planned development in downtown San Luis Obispo. Hill also makes money from a company tied to the development firm.

San Luis Consulting paid Hill between $10,001 and $100,000 in 2014, according to Hill’s own reports. In documents procured by CCN, San Luis Consulting is listed as one of PB Companies’ holdings.

When asked by CCN exactly how much the consulting firm paid him, Hill changed the mailing and work address for the company. He also took to Facebook to say he is not a “‘paid lobbyist’ or consultant or whatever,” and CCN is worth “nothing.” He has refused to answer questions about his affiliation with PB Companies.

By December, Hill told media he was getting death threats and sheriff’s deputies were ordered to protect him because of media reports.

Hill then emailed photos of sheriff’s vehicles as evidence of the protection order, but the sheriff’s office says it has no protective order for Hill.

This is a developing story. More to come in 2016.



  1. Willow says:

    As to Parkinson …. FIRE HIM!!

    If he’s too chicken-shit to stand up for what’s right, to do what’s right for the people in his county, he has no business being top ‘law enforcement officer’ for the county.

    So he lets a baby beater escape because somebody might sue him?
    Total chicken-shit.

    I seriously doubt he knows for a fact that the ACLU will sue him. Who would defend a baby beater?

    Parkinson lost my trust & confidence years ago. What’s up with the rest of SLO County? Why are you giving the job of ‘top law enforcement officer’ to such a shady coward?

    Stupid, lazy-ass people inhabit SLO County.

    (6) 20 Total Votes - 13 up - 7 down
  2. Willow says:

    Wow! The people of SLO County should be ashamed! So much blatant corruption goin’ on right in their own FRONT YARD and it looks like maybe a handful of people are actually trying DO SOMETHING to end it. What about the other THOUSANDS of people living in SLO County?

    Sorry, but posting comments online really isn’t DOING SOMETHING TO CLEAN UP THE DO-DO YOU’RE PAYING FOR.

    The reason ALL the do-do is even happening is because the people with the real authority … THE TAXPAYERS … AREN’T DOING THEIR JOB & HOLDING THEIR EMPLOYEES ACCOUNTABLE!!


    If you’re stupid enough to pay people to screw you over, and KEEP PAYING THEM, then I guess you like getting screwed and have nothing to complain about.

    If you don’t like getting screwed … when are you going to get off your b-hind and stop it?

    Not a single person on LAFCO is elected by The People. They don’t “represent” anyone but themselves and their own self-righteous ideologies, that usually have nothing to do with FACT, but are about arrogance, lust for power and control. Since LAFCO is not ‘representative’ of you and your wishes, it shouldn’t have any authority over you, and you certainly don’t owe them a ‘nice livelihood’ (salaries are over-the-top & why are you choosing to spend your days working so hard to support people who couldn’t care less about you, who don’t serve you, and who consider you nothing but their ignorant, powerless fool to do with what they wish?). So why does everyone cower to LAFCO?

    The same could be said for a multitude of ‘governing bodies’, that don’t really ‘govern’ anything because they were NEVER ELECTED by the ‘electorate’ (that’s you) to do so. And if you say they were ‘appointed’, I say, ‘my ass’. They weren’t ‘appointed’ by the governed. They were ‘appointed’ by their cohorts.

    This is how ‘big government’ is created…
    This is how ‘corrupt government’ is formed…

    when The People are too stupid and lazy to stick up for themselves and end the abuse of privilege they give to others.

    (26) 30 Total Votes - 28 up - 2 down
  3. Skip Tracer says:

    Look what popped up on YouTube after the Fire Adam Hill video. This has got to be the funniest thing I have ever seen. Thank you Adam, for the constant entertainment.

    (25) 39 Total Votes - 32 up - 7 down
  4. mej says:

    That the pervert’s charges were dropped after two years of counseling is outrageous. Pedophiles never change. Wonder if the judge was a pedo too.

    (13) 21 Total Votes - 17 up - 4 down
  5. Julie says:

    Happy New Year Adam and friends.

    (8) 30 Total Votes - 19 up - 11 down
  6. Thomas A says:

    Quite a year in news. Looks like Adam Hill and his wife own 4 out of 10 of the year’s top ten stories. Let’s be active and spread the word using social media and fliers to clean up San Luis Obispo county government and “Fire Adam Hill in 2016!”

    (24) 44 Total Votes - 34 up - 10 down
  7. Pelican1 says:

    New Years party at Adam’s tonight! (OK, so it’s a day late)
    In honor of his political career, Oingo Boingo will be performing….

    (7) 21 Total Votes - 14 up - 7 down
  8. what the says:

    Happy New Years Everyone!

    (14) 24 Total Votes - 19 up - 5 down
  9. jonhartz says:

    For a moment there I thought I was reading the Fresno Bee…

    (4) 20 Total Votes - 12 up - 8 down

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