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Law Enforcement
Assault suspect killed in Napa police-involved shooting; father says son suffered from brain damage

A 27-year-old man suspected of assault on a female was shot and killed by a Napa Police officer early Wednesday morning after a foot chase and struggle, Chief Robert Plummer reported.

Plummer said events unfolded after the dispatch center got a call at 1:48 a.m. of a male assaulting a female. A Napa Police statement said officers were sent to the Kentwood Apartments on Soscol Avenue and River Glen Drive. The male, later identified by the Napa County Coroner’s Office as David Alejandro Molina of Napa, was reported to be armed with a handgun.

Molina left the apartments and was soon found skateboarding along Soscol, according to the statement. Officers asked him to put his hands up and get on the ground, but instead he ran to the nearby Vineyard Terrace apartments at Soscol and Stonehouse Drive.

An officer continued to chase him and asked him to cooperate for “several minutes,” but Molina kept running, according to the statement.

The chase took the officer and the suspect into a wooded area near the Vineyard Terrace apartments. There was a struggle and “gunfire erupted,” Plummer said.

No residents were in harm’s way, Plummer said.

The officer, who sustained minor unspecified injuries, used his department-issued rifle, according to the statement. Molina was declared dead by emergency medical responders at 2:05 a.m., according to the Coroner’s Office.

Molina’s father, Jorge Molina, said his son was raised in Napa. He was generous with a loud and contagious laugh.

Molina’s life took a turn after he was hit by a car at age 7, the father said. He suffered frontal lobe brain damage, which curbed the development of his reading and writing skills. His son also struggled with bipolar disorder, he said.

Police will release the name of the officer within 48 hours, Plummer said.

Per department policy, the officer will be taken off duty while the investigation continues, Plummer said. Before being returned to duty, the officer would have to be evaluated by a psychologist, he said.

The body remained at the scene of the shooting at daybreak, awaiting a coroner’s investigation, Plummer said.

Plummer said he didn’t know if any weapons had been recovered.

The investigation is being led by the Napa County Major Crimes Task Force, which sits under the Sheriff’s Office, according to the statement.

Father tells of his son’s final hours

Molina’s father said he was on his way to pick up his son at a nearby gas station when he realized something was wrong.

“By the time I got there, he was nowhere to be found,” Jorge said. “All I saw was all the cars and later on, the ambulance and the fire department, and I knew it wasn’t good.”

Molina lived with his parents. Jorge said his son went out with two friends — a man and woman who were dating — earlier that night. They went to look at a lit Christmas tree, ate dinner at Taco Bell and stopped briefly at the Molina home.

The couple even came in the house at one point to say hello to the family, Jorge said.

Molina later got into an altercation with the couple in the car and they kicked him out, Jorge said. Molina returned home and said his phone and wallet were still in the car.

Molina decided to head over to their apartment to get his belongings after calling his cellphone for at least 30 minutes straight, Jorge said. He gave his son a hug for the last time and told him getting his phone back wasn’t worth it.

Jorge eventually got a call from his son, asking for a ride. Molina said an altercation occurred when he arrived at the apartment and the woman slapped him in the face, Jorge said.

Jorge admitted his son had gotten into fights with men, but did not believe that he would put his hands on a woman.

“He did not have a chance,” he said. “If somebody’s running away from you, I don’t think shooting is the way to do it.”

Molina was raised in Napa with two brothers and a sister. “He was pretty much a giver, he wan’t a taker,” Jorge said. “He was always trying to make people happy.”

Jorge admitted his son had run-ins with law enforcement. Court records show arrests for resisting arrest and assaulting a peace officer in 2013. Molina had a mouth sometimes and he was impressionable, and got into trouble when he was younger, he said.

Molina once presented his father with a gun and said he needed it for protection because others wanted to do him harm, Jorge said. Jorge said he told his son that guns were not allowed in his house and he needed to get rid of the firearm, but he doesn’t know what happened to it.

“I miss him tremendously,” Jorge said. “He was a ray of sunshine.”

Police said they will issue a more complete report on Monday once more interviews are conducted and images from an officer’s body camera are reviewed.

Soscol north of Lincoln was shut down much of the night and Wednesday morning while officers looked for evidence.

First officer-involved shooting of 2018

This was the department’s first officer-involved shooting of the year. In 2017, there were two, records show.

In March 2017, Noel Aaron Russell, 23, was killed when he advanced on an officer with a knife in a parking lot north of South Napa Marketplace. The Napa County District Attorney’s Office determined that the shooting was justified.

Russell, who had been living in a tent next to the Napa River, had used meth and consumed alcohol before threatening shoppers with a knife just before the confrontation with police, District Attorney Allison Haley reported.

In April 2017, Stephen Connard Ferry, 64, was killed in a hail of bullets after a shootout with officers from Napa Police and the Napa County Sheriff’s Office. Police were called after Ferry, who was heavily intoxicated, began shooting at his neighbors in west Napa’s Linda Vista neighborhood.

The DA cleared 13 law enforcement officers who used deadly force to stop Ferry.

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Queen of the Valley celebrates Christmas with annual gathering, tree lighting in Napa

A chorus of soft singing rose gently into a cold-for-Napa Tuesday evening at the Queen of the Valley Medical Center, as the Napa High School Chamber Choir began a warm-up of Christmas carols.

“O come, O come, Emmanuel,” they began.

“And ransom captive Israel,” they sang, standing in a circle around new choir director Duncan Cooper.

The more than two dozen singers were at the Queen as part of the annual tree lighting ceremony. The hospital’s signature evergreen was already decked out in ropes of lights, awaiting the official flipping of the switch and grand reveal.

Meanwhile, Santa and Mrs. Claus were making their rounds throughout the hospital, including the emergency department, visiting both staff and patients.

Alane Christensen of Napa brought her great nephew to the tree lighting. Her sister works at the Queen, said Christensen.

“This is awesome,” she said. “I just love all the Christmas holiday” festivities, “and it’s so pretty with the fall leaves” on the trees around the hospital entrance.

“It’s really fun and a great way to start the season,” said Alison Mazzanti of Napa, as she listened to the Christmas carols.

Sandra Rossomando of Napa used to bring her own children to the tree lighting, she said. Now that her daughter has her own family, they accompanied her to the ceremony this year.

“It’s beautiful,” Rossomando said of the tree. “It’s nice to see the tradition continues. It makes it extra special” that they read “The Christmas Story,” she added.

Landon Bates of Queen of the Valley Medical Center read “The Christmas Story” and Jacque Maples, director of patient experience, led a blessing.

Queen engineer Frank Puch was in charge of the wrapping the tree in lights.

“It’s Christmas time. It makes me feel good that I’m doing something good for the hospital, the patients and the community,” Puch said.

The LED lights are re-installed on the 40-foot tree every year, he said. If they left the lights up year-round, the sun would bake the wires and ruin the lights.

During the off season, the several thousand lights are carefully stored in barrels to avoid creating a twisted mess.

“We gotta take care of them,” he said.

Puch and his team were also responsible for setting up a life-sized nativity scene near the Christmas tree.

Napa resident Stella Borzoni, 11, the daughter of Queen employee Jennifer Gosztyla-Borzoni, has had the honor of placing baby Jesus into the manger for the past six years. This year, she was accompanied by Addie Graf, 10, who will be taking over Borzoni’s role.

“I’m glad to pass it on to Addie,” she said. It’s been an “amazing” experience.

The tree will remain lit at night until Epiphany — 12 days after Christmas — or Jan. 6.

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With ALS diagnosis, Napa couple renews wedding vows 41 years later

A large crowd attended the "First Annual Living Memorial of Doug Ernst," held on Saturday in Yountville. Ernst, a former newspaper reporter and editor, was diagnosed with ALS in June. There is no cure.

Almost 41 years to the day after they were first married, Napa residents Doug and Carolyn Ernst renewed their vows on Saturday in the crowded Lakeside Grill at the Vintners Golf Course in Yountville.

It was not the usual renewal of vows, since it came at the end of a three-hour ceremony, the “First Annual Living Memorial of Doug Ernst,” who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in June.

Doug’s voice was soft and probably only a few of the people in the audience could hear his responses to the questions from Rick Majewski, chaplain of Kaiser Hospital in San Rafael. But everyone could see the couple holding hands and their long embrace after their vows. It was a touching moment, the capstone of the ceremony.

Although most people arrived at 3 p.m., Doug Ernst, a former newspaper reporter and editor, was unusually late. When he came into the Lakeside Grill, sitting in a powered wheelchair, breathing with a ventilator, the crowd of family and friends applauded.

On Saturday afternoon, Doug Ernst spoke to a large crowd of people who had gathered in Yountville for the "First Annual Living Memorial of Doug Ernst." Ernst was diagnosed with the fatal disease, ALS, in June.

Ernst called for a microphone and told the crowd no one could leave until after he delivered his speech. After his oldest friend, Dr. Robert Hartwell, came up with the idea of a “living memorial,” he said he had three fears: no one would come, those who did would “complain about the media in general,” and his third and greatest fear “was a roast.”

“So before we get started let me take a minute to apologize for my various typos and misspoken words, ill-advised editorial positions, late newspapers, wet papers and a host of other mistakes for which I may or may not have been responsible,” he said. “I’d like to leave the earth with a clean slate so if any of you have other complaints for which you would like me to apologize, please send them to me in a self addressed envelope in the next 90 days.”

Ernst’s health has deteriorated at an accelerated rate since he received his diagnosis of ALS, a nervous system disease that weakens muscles and impacts physical function. Although the ALS Association estimates 50 percent of people diagnosed can live for three to five years with the disease, it is fatal. As recently as September, Ernst was coordinating press coverage of Napa Valley College programs in his role as public information officer.

A GoFundMe account was set up to help the family pay for his medical bills and to remodel his Napa home. As of Tuesday, $7,680 of $100,000 had been raised.

Master of ceremonies

Hartwell was the master of ceremonies for the “living memorial,” and 11 people spoke of their memories of Ernst, including his wife and three of his four daughters, Becca Stoddard Ware, Shelly Mons and Katherine Beach. Hartwell said he and Ernst developed a deep friendship, one that has lasted a lifetime.

Others who spoke included Paul Moan, Chris Smith, Rich Heintz, Derek Moore, Chad Daniels and David Horobin.

Ernst grew up on Berkeley Avenue in Menlo Park, Hartwell told the crowd. Moan picked up the story, saying he first met Ernst in the summer of 1961, and years later Ernst asked him to be in a band he had named, “The Lavender Ostrich.” Moan added, “It was a happy little name,” although he admitted the band “sucked.” At that time, there were three great rock power trios, Moan joked: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream and The Lavender Ostrich.

San Jose State University

Speaker Chris Smith has been a columnist for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat for the past 41 years. Both he and Ernst attended San Jose State University, studying journalism and working on the student newspaper, the Spartan Daily in 1974.

Smith mentioned classmates that included Tom Stienstra, author, outdoorsman and San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Steve Lopez, journalist and columnist for the Los Angeles Times and others who “went on to big jobs,” Smith said. “Then, there’s me and Doug, who first worked for a weekly that was the size of your thumb.” He said they both “went to the Wine Country and lived a good life,” Ernst at the Napa Valley Register, while Smith has been a columnist, writing about “puppies and rainbows,” he said.

In his office, Smith said he had mounted the entire front page of the Napa Valley Register from the day Ernst started as a reporter in 1978. In his current job, Smith said he has a certain level of “small town frustration,” and on those days he would look at the Register and reflect, “No matter how bad this day is at the PD, thank God, I don’t write for the Napa Valley Register.” Then, looking at Ernst, he added, “This man has lifted up journalism in the Napa Valley.”

Love at first sight

After graduation, Hartwell said Ernst got his first job as a cub reporter in Ione. That was when he set his eyes on Carolyn and he said, “It was love at first sight.”

Carolyn Ernst confirmed the story. “A lot of people don’t believe in love at first sight,” she said, “While he was playing the drums, I kissed him on the back of the neck.” Six months later, they planned their wedding and moved to Napa, where they were “blessed with four beautiful daughters,” she said.

David Stoneberg photos 

Nearly 41 years to the day, Doug and Carolyn Ernst renewed their wedding vows in front of a huge crowd of friends and family on Saturday in Yountville. Doug was diagnosed with ALS in June.

And, since the diagnosis, Carolyn said, “We’ve been blessed with this time given to us. We’ve been overwhelmed by gifts of joy from the community for Doug.”

In his career, Ernst had spent 26 years at the Napa Valley Register and an additional seven years at the St. Helena Star. He started as a reporter in May 1978 and spent 15 years as editor and executive editor at the daily. He was laid off while he was editor and publisher of the Star and The Weekly Calistogan as part of a reorganization plan in September 2011.

After that, he ran his own public relations firm for five years and spent almost three years as the Public Information Officer for Napa Valley College.

‘Doug always had my back’

Rich Heintz was Ernst’s publisher at the Napa Valley Register. “We had a lot of interesting adventures together,” Heintz recalled on Saturday. One time, “Doug sat on my desk and told me he had to go on a helicopter ride to finish a story. I went to the publisher’s office to ask for money. Two weeks later, the story was published,” Heintz said. What does it take to be a good reporter, he asked rhetorically. “Luck, intuition and a good expense report.”

Derek Moore, a freelance journalist who lives in Napa, said he is eternally grateful to Ernst, who hired him as a cub reporter, when he wore an earring and smoked cigarettes. The Napa Valley Register newsroom was one big room and Moore said, “People would call up and yell at Doug all the time. The newsroom would get quiet and we were treated to whatever complaint people had.” Moore looked around the room and added, “Some of those people are in the room today.”

Ernst has “a strong passion for local journalism,” said Moore, who remembers wearing waders while he was working in the newsroom, waiting for the flood waters to rise. Ernst, he said, “never failed to put out a paper.”

Summing up, he said there are three things a reporter wants: pizza on election night, an endless well of bad coffee and “an editor who had your back. Doug always had my back.”

David Stoneberg photos 

Nearly 41 years to the day, Doug and Carolyn Ernst renewed their wedding vows in front of a huge crowd of friends and family on Saturday in Yountville. Doug was diagnosed with ALS in June.

J.L. Sousa, Register 

Law enforcement officials investigate the scene of an officer-involved shooting near Soscol Avenue and Stonehouse Drive on Wednesday morning.

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Napa council approves Vista Grove homes despite price, traffic concerns

Is denser housing necessarily cheaper housing?

Tuesday night, the Napa City Council grappled with that question – then narrowly approved a 27-house development that also will feature 11 junior-size dwellings meant to become a more affordable option in a costly and supply-poor residential market.

Vista Grove passed on a 3-2 council vote despite the reservations of housing advocates who called on Napa to seek stronger assurances that at least some Vista Grove dwellings be affordable to lower-income tenants. Combined with opposition by a variety of neighboring homeowners to Vista Grove – and traffic and safety worries over an extension of Wine Country Avenue to create access to the new houses – the project faced spirited resistance before gaining the minimum three votes needed to move ahead.

While the denser-than-usual construction and second dwellings are meant to produce a less expensive housing option, a firm requirement of lower rents for at least some units is needed to actually put homes within easier reach, according to Councilmember Mary Luros, who voted in opposition along with Liz Alessio.

“At the end of the day, it meets the requirements we’ve imposed. The problem is not with the project; the problem is with the requirements,” Luros said, recommending that two of the accessory dwellings be reserved as affordable units.

Other council members, however, were reluctant to impose more rules on Catherine Okimoto and the development team, giving them credit for trying to place a large number of homes in a district that has languished since being zoned for higher-density housing more than two decades ago.

“If we put in a (zoning) overlay that makes it impossible to build, then we don’t get housing,” said Mayor Jill Techel, who voted in support along with Scott Sedgley and Doris Gentry.

The distinctive feature of Vista Grove will be the inclusion of accessory housing as an integral part of a project otherwise composed of single-family homes, mostly with three bedrooms and in a mix of one- and two-story layouts. Along with the junior units, the development will equip five other houses with plumbing connections to speed the conversion of a bedroom into a separate dwelling.

The inclusion of granny units within Vista Grove stems from the 4.9-acre site’s location in a unique city zone dating to the late 1990s. Within the district on Wine Country Avenue, at least 40 percent of new homes must include accessory dwelling units (ADU) smaller than 1,200 square feet and with less than half the original home’s floor space. The requirement is intended to provide a supply of smaller dwellings likely to be offered at lower rents than in other parts of the city.

Project designer Kirk Geyer described the layout as a response to the increasing number of homes where two or more generations of the same family live under one roof, from about 30 percent of single family homes in the late 1970s to 70 percent today. Homeowners also can use revenue from renting out a second unit to meet their mortgage payments or cover other expenses.

Skeptics, however, questioned whether even the most compact dwellings would truly be offered at low rents when only 1 percent of tenant housing is vacant and housing demand remains unquenchable.

“It’s not the case that ADUs equal affordability,” Joelle Gallagher of the Napa Housing Coalition told the council, saying a junior unit she is building at her own home could command as much as $1,800 a month despite its small size.

While supporting Vista Grove’s higher density and the inclusion of junior dwellings, coalition member Sharon Macklin called an affordability requirement a must for the project’s homes to be truly attainable to working Napans.

Without such a set-aside, “we’re missing the boat in trying to provide affordable housing,” she said. “Restaurant workers make $14, $15, $16 an hour; can they really afford $1,200 or $1,500 a month?”

In response, a lawyer involved in the project argued that Vista Grove is not a substitute for all-affordable apartment complexes but instead provides a diverse range of dwellings to meet different needs – families taking in an aged relative, for example, or accepting a tenant to supplement their income or downsizing after a divorce or job change.

“You could burden this project with all the needs of housing in Napa, and it’ll collapse under the weight,” said Katherine Philippakis, a St. Helena attorney and a member of the Vista Grove development team.

Objections from other Napans stemmed less from new housing than from a related project – the filling of the gap in Wine Country Avenue to link Linda Vista Avenue with Malaga Way to the west. In addition, Winedale Lane would be extended south from Ravenwood Lane to Vindel Lane, and a short northward extension of Wine Press Way would end in a cul-de-sac.

Homeowners told the council such street additions risk worsening traffic congestion and speeding in surrounding neighborhoods and on Linda Vista Avenue and Dry Creek Road, northwest Napa’s primary north-south roadways.

“We’re not opposed; we just want safety for our kids and pets, it’s as simple as that,” said Heidi Grapes, one of several residents to speak out against a Wine Country Avenue extension.

While additional stop signs and other fixes may address safety issues, an increased vehicle count is inevitable if Napa is to build denser housing within its boundaries, replied Councilmember Scott Sedgley. “If you can add housing without adding traffic, tell me how to do that,” he told residents of the north Napa neighborhood.

With the city’s approval in hand, Vista Grove’s planners expect to sell the project to a developer in about four months, according to Randy Gularte, the Realtor involved with the project team. Grading could start as early as the fall of 2019, followed by the start of construction in the spring of 2020 and the first move-ins that summer, he said.