2015 year in review: From sea creatures to snowbird bandit

Terror in Southern California would have been the year’s only big story if it wasn’t for the inexplicable, year-long stay of great white sharks off the Orange County coast. Or the emergence of chaos in the county’s judicial system. Or the freak snowstorm in Huntington Beach. Or the former homicide detective who robbed several banks. Or…

You get the idea. A lot happened in 2015. Here’s a look at some of the year’s bigger tales:

1. Syria to San Bernardino to Santa Ana.

How could Syria possibly play out in Orange County?

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About a million Syrian refugees arrived in Euorpe in 2015. They’re fleeing a civil war, and the international response to so many people arriving so quickly is a complex web of politics, money and ethnic tensions. But on Sept. 3, news organizations around the world published an unspeakably sad photograph of the body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi on a beach in Turkey that seemed to highlight the humanity of the crisis.

Then came the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris that claimed the lives of 130 victims and wounded 368. None of the shooters was Syrian, but the attack was inspired by the Islamic State, the terror group that at the time controlled about 40 percent of Syria.

One of those killed in the attack was Cal State Long Beach senior Nohemi Gonzalez, 23, who was in Paris on a foreign studies program.

Soon, terror hit even closer. On Dec. 2, suspected terrorists shot and killed 14 people and wounded 22 others at a workplace holiday party in San Bernardino. Police later killed the shooters, a Redlands couple, both in their late 20s and the parents of a 6-month-old girl. The killers, neither of whom was Syrian, claimed allegiance to ISIS in social media posts that went live about the same time the first shots were fired.

Among the dead in San Bernardino: Santa Ana resident Tin Nguyen, 31, a health inspector who was planning to marry in 2016.

Her funeral, Dec. 12, was in Santa Ana.

2. Mysterious weather

Unusual weather played out in several ways during 2015.

On March 2, a cold snap led to a freak storm in downtown Huntington Beach. Locals even went to the beach to make “snow” angels and “snow” people out of what turned out to be thick, ankle-deep hail.

On April 1, Gov. Jerry Brown stood on a brown, dry patch of the Sierra Nevada — a mountain spot that in a typical year would be under several feet of snow — and ordered the state’s first ever mandatory water rationing program. The goal? Trim water consumption in cities and towns by 25 percent over the next nine months. By October, the state had reduced water use by a shade under 25 percent. And by December, some were talking about reducing the rationing program.

3. Mysterious sea creatures

Another form of odd weather — unusually warm ocean temperatures off Southern California — led to a spate of unusual sea creatures turning up throughout ‘15.

Oar fish, not seen for decades, were spotted at least twice locally, including a 17-footer that on June 1 washed ashore on Catalina. On June 13, tiny red crabs started washing ashore in Orange County. By June 15, a red crab blanket, a few inches thick, essentially covered some beaches from San Clemente to Huntington Beach. The infestation lasted only a few days, but the smell was powerful.

One group of sea creatures that stuck around was a group of juvenile great whites that lingered off Sunset Beach months. Though young great whites typically feed in the area during the winter months, the animals stuck around virtually all year.

On May 21, a group of shark researchers from Cal State Long Beach, tagged seven young sharks off Sunset Beach to track their migration patterns and generally find out more about how the mysterious animals live.

On July 10, part of Hunginton Beach was closed for a few hours after a great white bumped a local surfer, a move that shark experts say can be a precursor to chowing down.

On Oct. 20, a sighting of an 8-foot hammerhead shark, also a rarity in local waters, prompted a beach closure in Newport Beach.

And on Dec. 22, a potentially deadly sea snake washed ashore on Bolsa Chica State Beach. It was just the third sea snake seen in Southern California in the past half century.

4. Informant scandal widens

On March 12, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals tossed the Orange County District Attorney’s Office off the penalty phase in the trial of confessed mass murderer Scott Dekraai.

The ruling was a key event in a series of revelations about the District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriffs Department that in 2015 put Orange County at the center of a national debate over the controversial use of jailhouse snitches by local prosecutors and their investigators.

On Nov. 18, a group of former prosecutors and legal scholars from around the country signed a public letter calling for a federal probe. Just a day later, on Nov. 19, Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard King ruled that Eric Ortiz, a convicted murderer, should get a new trial. King said Ortiz could not receive a fair hearing because four Orange County Sheriffs deputies declined to testify in his case on grounds of possible self-incrimination.

The topic the deputies didn’t want to discuss? Jailhouse informants.

5. That’s the ticket

In early March, a clerk in Orange County Superior Court noticed a single missing document in a DUI case. By June 18, that document led to a formal investigation by local authorities and the FBI into possible ticket fixing in the Orange County courthouse.

To date, more than 1,000 drivers and hundreds of lawyers have been called back into traffic court to discuss cases presumably settled as far back to 2010. The investigation is ongoing.

6. Big passings

Two people who shaped Orange County during the second half of the 20th century left the scene in 2015.

On Feb. 20, Henry Segerstrom died at his Newport Beach home. The man who turned Costa Mesa into one of the cities you see at the bottom of Versace ads (along with places like Milan and Beverly Hills and Tokyo), also led the county’s cultural transition into a vibrant home for dance, theater, art and style.

On April 2, Robert Schuller, founder of the Crystal Cathedral and a pioneer of televangilism, died at a nursing home in Artesia. Though his final years were marked by family strife and financial chaos, Schuller’s TV ministry and the growh of his Garden Grove flock sparked the rise of the megachurch movement.

7. Milestones in sweat

Other key passings in 2015 involved sports.

Newport Coast resident and Lakers star Kobe Bryant announced on Nov. 29 that he’ll retire at the end of the current season. He’s playing out the season with so-so results on the court but huge response from fans. The Lakers, meanwhile, were historically bad. The team finished the 2014-15 season on April 15 with a record of 21 wins and 61 losses, worst in franchise history.

A brighter spot for local sports took place on March 20, when UC Irvine’s mens basketball team lost to the Louisville Cardinal 57-55. How is a loss bright? It was UCI’s first appearance in an NCAA tournament game and Louisville was a double-digit favorite going into the game.

Oh, on Jan. 5, St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke went public with a plan build a stadium in Inglewood, bringing the Los Angeles/Orange County market closer to getting an NFL team than anytime in 21 years. Kroenke’s move sparked another announcement, on Feb. 19, by the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers, that they’d like to to move into a shared stadium they’re building in Carson. On Nov. 11, the Raiders boosted their chanced by announcing that Disney CEO Bob Iger will be a consultant on the Carson project and a potential co-owner of the Raiders if the team moves to Los Angeles.

All three teams can’t play here. But this month the NFL is expected to choose which team, or teams, will.

8. Milestones, non-sweaty versions

On April 30, people in and out of Little Saigon celebrated the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Two generations of Vietnamese-Americans have grown up in Orange County since 1975, and the Little Saigon district is now the biggest Vietanamese enclave outside of Vietnam.

UC Irvine celebrated its 50th year with a series of events and celebrations, including the Oct. 4 commemoration of the first day of classes. Since its opening in 1965, UCI has grown from 1,589 students to become of the nation’s leading universities, with more than 32,000 students and 1,376 faculty members.

Another county milestone was marked July 17, when Disneyland turned 60. Thousands of people lined up to get into the park for the big day, and events surrounding the year-long anniversary celebration pushed attendance and profit at Disneyland to record levels.

9. Deal

In the pre-dawn hours of July 3, Anaheim City Council voted 3-2 to approve a deal in which the city won’t tax tickets at the Disney resort for 30 years in exchange for Disney agreeing to spend more than $1 billion on improvements at Disneyland by 2024.

Many argued Disney would expand without a tax break. Disney and others said business would suffer if the deal wasn’t struck. About 12,000 construction workers will be needed for Disney’s expansion.

And what will that expansion look like? Like “Star Wars,” actually. On Aug. 15, Iger told the D23Expo in Anaheim that a “Star Wars” land will be built at Disneyland over the next two years.

10. Snowbird cooped

On March 20, a white-haired man believed to be in his late 60s or early 70s robbed a Dana Point bank at gunpoint. By July 21, the same man had robbed four other local banks. Police even gave him a nickname: the Snowbird Bandit.

On July 23, the family of Randy Adair looked at news photos of the robber and felt dread. Their father and father-in-law — a retired detective with the Los Angeles Police Department — was the Snowbird.

The family then turned him in.

The family later said Adair, 70, has suffered a series of health events in recent years that impaired his judgment.

On Dec. 22, Adair and prosecutors struck a deal in which he’ll plead guilty to one count of robbery and brandishing a weapon. He could be sentenced to seven years in prison.

Register staff writer Ian Wheeler contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7793 or twalker@ocregister.com

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