Merrick Accused of Murder, DUI in Death of 16-Year-Old McKinleyville Girl, Could Face Life in Prison; Officers Describe the Scene in Court

Rhonda Parker / Tuesday, Feb. 14 @ 3:21 p.m. / Courts

[Warning: Some of the court testimonies described below could be disturbing to some readers.]

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Her two friends were able to jump out of the way when they saw the out-of-control pickup truck coming at them. But Tessa Rae Gingerich didn’t make it.

Gingerich, 16, died after being hit and pinned under the Dodge Ram truck driven by McKinleyville resident James Arthur Merrick II. Today Judge John Feeney held Merrick to answer on charges of murder, drunken driving, hit-and-run and vehicular manslaughter.

Now Merrick, 42, must stand trial on charges that could put him in prison for life. His arraignment was scheduled for Feb. 28.

It was pouring down rain the night of Dec. 14 when Merrick pulled out of the Mill Creek Marketplace shopping center and turned left onto Central Avenue.

“(Merrick) stated there was a heavy rain and a lot of water on the roadway,” California Highway Patrol Officer Jared Traub testified this morning at Merrick’s preliminary hearing.

“Due to the amount of rain on the road, and the fact that his rear tires were bald, he lost control and collided with a telephone pole.”

But before his truck struck the pole it hit and fatally injured Gingerich, who was walking along the sidewalk with her boyfriend and another teen-aged boy. The two boys told officers they were able to get out of the way, but Gingerich wasn’t.

Afterward Merrick reportedly got out of his truck and tried to pull the injured girl out by her arm. When he couldn’t move her, he climbed back into the vehicle and started backing up. Dylan Campbell, Gingerich’s boyfriend, assumed Merrick was trying to escape and grabbed him. He later failed a sobriety test and was arrested.

Officer Traub said Merrick admitted having just one beer about an hour before the crash. But a breathalyzer test showed his blood alcohol level at about  0.16, and three minutes later at 0.15. A blood test administered about an hour later revealed a blood alcohol level of 0.19. The legal limit for driving is 0.08.

Merrick was already on probation for a “wet reckless” conviction just a few months earlier. The prior alcohol-related offense is what allows him to be charged with murder in Gingerich’s death. Today the charge of vehicular manslaughter was added as “an alternate theory,” Deputy District Attorney Brie Bennett told the judge.

Sheriff’s Deputy Dennis Gagnon, who was at the crash scene before the ambulance and firefighters arrived, said he found Gingerich lodged between the truck’s frame and front bumper, midway between the two front tires.

“She was completely unresponsive,” Gagnon testified under questioning by prosecutor Bennett. “She was on her right side in a pseudo fetal-type position.”

Tessa Gingerich

At that point the teen was still breathing and moving about, though apparently unaware of her surroundings. Gagnon said firefighters were able to free Gingerich after using the “Jaws of Life” to pry the truck’s bumper away from the frame.

She was taken by ambulance to Mad River Community Hospital, where she later died from her injuries.

Acting Public Defender Greg Elvine-Kreis argued against holding Merrick to answer for hit-and-run, saying there was no indication he had tried to flee. Elvine-Kreis said Merrick’s reaction was “one of panic.”

“He tried to pull her out from under the truck, and then attempted to back up,” Elvine-Kreis said.

But Feeney said that for the purposes of the preliminary hearing, with the standard of “probable cause,” he was holding Merrick to answer.

Several of Gingerich’s family members attended the hearing this morning, with her mother weeping through much of the testimony.

Merrick is being held on $1 million bail.

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63-Year-Old Man Found Dead Underneath a Myrtle Avenue Bridge, Where He Lived

Hank Sims / Tuesday, Feb. 14 @ 12:29 p.m. / Homelessness

From the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office:

On Saturday, February 11, 2017 at about 4:44 pm, Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office Deputies responded to the area of the Ryan Slough Bridge, Eureka for a report of a body lying in a stream. The body was located by Deputies underneath the Ryan Slough Bridge on the northwest side. The body was later identified as Sam Whitney, age 63 of Eureka. Whitney was known to Law Enforcement to be a transient who lived underneath the bridge. Foul play is not suspected and an autopsy will be scheduled to determine the cause of death.

Anyone with information for the Sheriff’s Office regarding this case or related criminal activity is encouraged to call the Sheriff’s Office at 707-445-7251 or the Sheriff’s Office Crime Tip line at 707-268-2539.



(VIDEO) Local Teacher-Student Tap Dancing Duo Win Second at a Prestigious International Competition; They Show Us Their Skills

Sierra Jenkins / Tuesday, Feb. 14 @ 7:56 a.m. / LoCO Video Reports

Click video to play. Problems on iPhone? Turn your phone sideways.    

Two local dancers recently competed with more than 200 performers from across the world at the Vienna International Ballet Experience in Montana.

Melissa Hinz and Ty Vizenor make up the teacher-student tap dance duo and they won second place with their tap routine, Winter Tapland. It’s a modern spin on the classic Winter Wonderland.

“Finding people who share the passion, who are willing to work hard, and have the ability to tell the story and share emotion, that’s huge,” said Hinz. “And it’s so much more fun for me than dancing by myself.”

Hinz is a well-known dance instructor and choreographer in Humboldt and has worked professionally in New York and Chicago.

Vizenor’s a freshman at Arcata High School but already has more than a decade of singing and acting experience, performing in many Humboldt Light Opera Company productions. However, Vizenor says he wanted to be a “triple threat” in the musical theatre world and knew his potential was limited if he didn’t learn how to dance.

So just a year and half ago, Hinz took Vizenor under her wing and he picked up the skill pretty quick.

“She knows how to make things that look really hard be simple,” said Vizenor. “And that’s one of the things that helped me go from not knowing anything to knowing so much and being able to go on to a competition and hold my weight and do good.”

They’ve been invited to participate and compete in the final round of VIBE in Austria, and Hinz will be a guest instructor at VIBE Vienna. Vizenor will also bring his love for musical theatre right to his own school at the end of March, playing the lead role of “Don Lockwood” in Singin’ in the Rain.

If you want to see the duo in action, they’ll perform their award winning tap routine at the Arkley Center for the “Dancing Stars of Humboldt” on February 25.



OBITUARY: Braxton (Huck) Ellis Casey, 1947-2017

LoCO Staff / Tuesday, Feb. 14 @ 6:45 a.m. / Obits

Braxton (Huck) Ellis Casey passed away Saturday, January 28th in his home.

Huck was born on April 17th, 1947 in Myrtle Point, Oregon. He ­­­­­­­enlisted in the Navy in 1966 and was a helicopter mechanic during the Vietnam War era. Huck later later became a driver, from transit to log trucks, for more than three decades. He also was a truck driving instructor at C.R. for several years. Huck was very into hunting and target practice, and had been a gunsmith for many years. He held memberships to several local gun clubs in the area.

Huck would often be seen with his trusty companions — Roxy (Dachshund) and Diamond (Min-Pin) — at the range, reloading, reading or talking with his many friends.

He survived by his daughter, Shannon Carlton, granddaughters Araya and Mya and son-in-law Tim Carlton, all of Salem, Oregon; his mother, Cleo Casey; brothers Craig and Scott of McKinleyville and David of Escondido; as well as nieces Lisa Casey, Becky Stanbridge and Vanessa Casey, all of McKinleyville.

There will be a celebration of life on Saturday, March 4 at 1 p.m. at the Arcata Veteran’s Hall, located at 1425 J St. Arcata. All of Huck’s many friends and family are welcome.

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The obituary above was submitted on behalf of Huck Casey’s family. The Lost Coast Outpost runs obituaries of Humboldt County residents at no charge. See guidelines here



Humboldt’s Gonna Get Just a Li’l Bit o’ Rain to Start This Week

Andrew Goff / Monday, Feb. 13 @ 11:19 a.m. / How ‘Bout That Weather

It seems like, oh, I don’t know, a whole different year ago since Humboldt had a week where some road or another didn’t spend some time underneath water and/or mud. Will we wear more wet this week?

Some! Eureka’s local National Weather Service crew tells us that light rains will dribble on the North Coast starting Tuesday evening. Precipitation will intensify until Wednesday night. Also, there’s a possibility Wednesday will be “winds-day,” especially along local ridgetops.  



HARDIN: You Call This an ‘Emergency’?

John Hardin / Monday, Feb. 13 @ 9:12 a.m. / Op-Ed

It’s been a little bit rainy lately. I almost forgot what a rainy winter can be like around here. Twice already, the county has declared an emergency and made special funds available to keep the roads open. What’s the big deal? It’s just a little rain. I know people are upset because their road is out and they can’t drive to town without hitting a bunch of potholes. Sure, the rain caused some property damage. So what? Was anybody killed?

We have been asking the Board of Supervisors to declare a shelter emergency in Humboldt County for years, because people are dying out there. The lack of affordable housing is destroying lives, traumatizing children, and killing people in our community. Every day, people, our neighbors, endure impossible conditions, suffer tremendous hardship, and every year the death toll rises, because the Board of Supervisors refuses to admit that we have a shelter crisis.

If you think this Winter was rough on your road, imagine what it must be like in a tent, or under a bridge, or huddled in a doorway. Imagine having your tent slashed, and your medications stolen by vigilantes, knowing that if you report it to the police you’ll probably go to jail. Imagine trying to raise children, in a car, through these storms, while you work a full time job. Too many people in Humboldt County face those realities, and worse. How bad does it have to get?

The Board of Supervisors just turns a blind eye. Life is cheap in Humboldt County and only landowners lives matter, to them, at least. Landlords love the situation. They don’t even have to maintain their rental properties anymore. Around here, landlords expect new tenants to clean up after the old ones, before they move in, maintain all of the amenities, for the duration, and renters know that a single complaint will likely result in eviction. Landlords laugh all the way to the bank, meanwhile the Board of Supervisors concocts new laws to criminalize the people who have been squeezed-out of their homes, for just trying to survive. It’s a fucking crime.

This past Superbowl Sunday I attended a meeting of the Humboldt County Human Rights Commission at the Redwood Playhouse in Garberville. Instead of seeing Lady Gaga’s breathtaking leap from the Superdome, I watched Byrd Lochte scribble down all of our concerns in multi-colored magic marker on a big pad of paper, and instead of the Tom Brady’s thrilling, come from behind, victory, I heard one of Southern Humboldt’s houseless individuals, Okra P Dingle, explain, articulately, in very polite and civil terms, how difficult it is for working people to survive around here, and why it is so important to declare a housing crisis, right now.

Okra wasn’t the only person to speak, but he sure gave them an earful. Everything the Human Rights Commission heard that night related to the lack of housing. Concerns included: untrained vigilante groups who illegally evict people from private and public property, with the Sheriff’s blessing, property damage and theft by vigilantes during those evictions, violent crimes against homeless people on the streets of Garberville, and harassment, by merchants and law-enforcement, of people perceived as “homeless.”

People told their stories about how many months, or years, they lived in their car, or camped-out, while working a local job and hunting for a place to rent, before they ever found a place to look at. People also talked about how they got pushed into the marijuana industry, because pot jobs often include a place to live, and how much more vulnerable workers are, when their boss is also their landlord, and everything is “under-the-table.” I, of course, brought up the impact of the War on Drugs on our local housing situation, and how much of our residential housing has been taken over by marijuana growers, who displace honest working people from the available housing.

The HRC Commissioners themselves were cordial and welcoming. They brought cookies and coffee, but they reminded us, repeatedly, that they have no authority. They can take down our concerns, relay them to the Board of Supervisors, and make recommendations, but they cannot compel anyone to do anything. In fact, the Humboldt County Human Rights Commission has already recommended that the County declare a shelter crisis, but the Board of Supervisors declined to take action.

When asked, on a recent radio interview, about the number of vacancies on the Human Rights Commission, and why they have no budget, 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell pointed out that at least we have a human rights commission. A lot of counties don’t. I think it’s important to remind her, and ourselves, that the reason we have a Human Rights Commission is that we have a long, rich, history, and culture, of human rights abuse here in Humboldt County. We did genocide here. Big time. Not that long ago.

No one was held accountable. The people who committed those atrocities remained pillars of the community. They raised families and passed those beliefs and attitudes on to their progeny. Those attitudes and ideas continue to poison our culture to this day, and we can see those attitudes reflected in our current Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, and in prevailing attitudes towards the poor.

We have a Human Rights Commission to make recommendations about how decent human beings should treat each other, because, and only because, we have demonstrated, violently, repeatedly, and dramatically, a distinct lack of respect for human rights, as a community. We don’t respect human rights here in Humboldt County. We take advantage of people, push them around, and take whatever we want from them, because, who is going to stop us?

That’s just the kind of people we are. We don’t really even understand the concept of human rights, let alone know how to respect them. That’s why we have a Human Rights Commission, and why anyone who does respect human rights, should insist that the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors heed the recommendations of the Humboldt County Human Rights Commission, and declare a shelter emergency in Humboldt County, now.

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John Hardin writes at Like You’ve Got Something Better to Do.



What Would Happen if the Dam at Ruth Lake Failed?

Jack Durham / Monday, Feb. 13 @ 7:47 a.m. / Emergencies

RUTH’S MARCH TO THE SEA This map shows the 80 mile route the river takes from R.W. Matthews Dam to the ocean. The green dots are observation points where emergency personnel would be stationed to report on the wall of water. From HBMWD

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Note: This is a revised version of an article which first appeared in the Union in June 2015. 

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Emergency personnel are planning for a highly unlikely but nightmarish scenario – the failure of the R.W. Matthews Dam, the earthen structure that holds back Ruth Lake.

Should the 150-foot-tall dam fail in an earthquake, major storm or other disaster or terrorist attack, more than 48,000 acre feet of water could come rushing down the Mad River watershed, destroying neighborhoods, wiping out bridges and leaving a massive swath of destruction.

Even though Arcata is about 80 miles downstream from Ruth Lake and in an entirely different county – seemingly a world way – the city wouldn’t escape Ruth’s wrath.

Under the worst-case scenario – the dam bursting during a major rainstorm – the area around Mad River Community Hospital would be under two to four feet of rushing water.

The isolated, rural upstream gorges would encounter a wall of water 20, 30 and even 100 feet high.

Portions of Blue Lake could be washed away. Blue Lake City Hall would be under five to six feet of water, according to computer models from the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District (HBMWD), which owns the dam.

SWATH OF DESTRUCTION The inundation maps show the areas that would be flooded if the dam at Ruth Lake were to fail. This is the map for Blue Lake. The yellow areas show the flooding on a sunny day when river levels are low. Under a worst-case scenario,with river levels similar to the flood of 1964, the areas in both yellow and in red would be flooded. Graphics courtesy HBMWD.

Could this happen?

According to the HBMWD’s Emergency Response Plan, a cataclysmic dam break is “highly unlikely,” but not impossible.

There are several different scenarios that could potentially result in the failure of the R.W. Matthews dam, an earthen structure built in 1962.

One possibility is a giant earthquake. Another is a terrorist attack. Or there could be a massive rain storm that quickly fills the lake beyond the capacity of the spillway to release water downstream.

The water could top the dam and erode the base on the downstream side until the entire dam gives way. Although this is theoretically possible, it’s worth noting that the dam survived the infamous flood of 1964, which was almost biblical in proportions.

Although such a failure is unlikely, the Humboldt County Office of Emergency Services (OES) and HBMWD are working with other agencies and developing plans on how to respond.

Wall of water

The HBMWD has prepared what it calls “enhanced inundation maps” that show where Ruth Lake’s water would go and how high it would be. The maps were created using computer modeling of two different scenarios. One is a “sunny day” scenario. The other is based on a worst-case scenario, with flood levels similar to the great flood of 1964.

Under the worst-case scenario, a massive wall of water would sweep through the Maple Creek area about four hours after the dam failure 50 miles up stream.

About an hour and a half later, a wall of water would wash over Korbel. By the time the water reaches Blue Lake – about five and a half hours after the dam break – the water would be about six feet tall at Blue Lake City Hall. Although this is the worst case scenario, the “sunny day” scenario isn’t much better, with the water about five feet tall.

Valley West would start seeing water about seven hours after the dam break, with the peak flow 11 hours after the failure. The entire area would be covered in two to four feet of fast-moving water filled with logs, snags and other debris that would pose hazards to people and property .

Water levels would go down as the great deluge spread out over the Arcata Bottom, South G Street and other low-lying areas as the water eventually empties into the bay and ocean.

McKinleyville, which sits atop a bluff, would be spared, with only the bottom land along the Mad River inundated.

Among the key facilities that would be destroyed or heavily damaged in the disaster is Mad River Community Hospital, which would be covered in two to four feet of water.

This was noted at a June 18, 2015 district meeting by HBMWD Boardmember Aldaron Laird. “Essentially, we have one hospital that’s going to be shut down, and where are they going to move all those patients? To the other hospital [St. Joseph Hospital in Eureka] And if we have casualties, they’re going to go to that hospital, which is now overwhelmed with patients,” Laird said.

Given the immensity of the potential disaster, planners are focused on getting people away from the wall of water.

SWATH OF DESTRUCTION: The inundation map for Arcata. 

‘Keep them breathing’

Dan Larkin, a retired OES manager who is providing project support, gave a presentation to the HBMWD Board of Directors at its meeting June 18, 2015 about a draft plan on how the county would respond to a dam break.

The plan isn’t ready for public release, but Larkin gave the board main gist of the document – get people out of the way of the water and do so as quickly as possible.

“One of the primary response elements is time. We cannot waste it,” Larkin said. “That wall of water is coming towards us and every second and minute that is wasted hits us on the other end.”

“We must ensure the orderly movement of people. Nothing else matters,” Larkin said.

“During the process, there are a lot of things we don’t care about. I don’t care if people are cold or wet, if they’re hungry or inconvenienced. I don’t care. All I care is getting them out of the way of the water,” Larkin said.

“If you’re caught in  the water, you’re essentially dead,” Larkin said.

Retiring HBMWD Manager Carol Rische pointed out at the meeting that it’s not just water that would be coming downstream. There would also be substantial debris.

The plan, Larkin said, is focused on getting people out of the way of this deadly wall of water. After they’re on safe ground, then other plans could be implemented to take care of people’s needs. “We deal with those other issues later.”

The responsibility for informing people that the dam is failing falls on the dam’s owner, the HBMWD, which is the wholesale water supplier to McKinleyville, Arcata, Blue Lake, Eureka, Manila and the Humboldt Community Services District.

The HBMWD has personnel working at and monitoring the dam. In the event of a dam failure, they would notify various agencies about the problem, including the OES, National Weather Service and others.

The response plan for dealing with a dam break on the Mad River will be used as a template when OES prepares emergency response plans for similar failures on the Klamath, Trinity and Eel rivers.

The draft emergency response plan should be completed and then forwarded to the Board of Supervisors for approval.

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Jack Durham is editor of the Mad River UnionSubscribe here.