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Strange Days

Local news took odd turns in 2001

By Paula Harris

Crisis has been the rule on the national and international scenes during this past year, but local events also took more than a few unusual twists. Forget bungled ballot boxes or the bewildering bin Laden--things got very strange right here in the North Bay. Let's look back.

Puppet Government

Argyle Sox didn't make it into office, but he had a surprising number of supporters in his failed bid for a seat on the San Rafael City Council in November. The fact that Sox is a floppy-eared dog with mismatched eyes--and a sock puppet to boot--did not deter some voters from tossing him their support. Assisted by his trusty "campaign manager," actor-artist Robert Cooper, Argyle Sox wowed supporters with stump speeches along the lines of: "Hi, I'm running for city council. I heard there are already four puppets on the council, so I thought I'd fit right in." Incumbents were supremely unamused.


Neighbors on a Petaluma street knew something was amiss with one house on the block. Maybe it was the stench. Later, after vandals broke some windows, authorities discovered the place was overrun with some 200 freely breeding neglected cats.

In May, police arrested Marilyn Barletta, 62, on two counts of animal cruelty charges in the bizarre cat-hoarding case, the largest ever of its kind in Sonoma County, according to authorities.

Barletta lives in San Francisco but apparently bought the Baker Street property to house the stray cats. She denies neglecting the animals, but prosecutors say the dilapidated place was overrun with feral felines living in filthy conditions. Animal control officers euthanized 160 of the cats, saying they were too sick or too wild to be given up for adoption.

Barletta was charged with one count alleging the cats were tortured and another alleging the animals were deprived of food, water, and shelter. She has been free on $10,000 bail. However, the sorry tale may not yet be over. Barletta faces additional criminal charges after police and animal control officers this month discovered what they fear could be the makings of a replacement collection: several more cats at the Baker Street home.

Authorities later issued a $50,000 arrest warrant for Barletta who last week was due for an arraignment on the additional charges but skipped court. Prosecutors say Barletta told her attorney she was going to the bathroom--but never came back. Police later arrested Barletta on a neighbor's tip. At press time she was awaiting release.

Keeping Pace

USA Track & Field, the national governing body for running sports, has named Frank Ruona of Novato the country's top runner in the 55-59 age group. That recognition was news in itself and a great coup for Marin County, but what really gives the honor a strange twist is that Ruona, 56, has persisted in running despite suffering seven cardiac arrests last year.

Ruona first became aware that he had a heart problem in 1996 while running the California 10-Miler. Doctors diagnosed him with atrial fibrillation, an arrhythmia disorder. But frequent bouts of heartbeat irregularities that had Ruona ending up as a regular in the emergency room for shock treatments did not deter the intrepid runner. He did finally decide that it was time to have a pacemaker implanted; the operation took place last July.

Ruona hasn't suffered a cardiac episode since the operation. He continues to train hard and has not been beaten by anyone in his age group this year.

Taliban Man

He's been dubbed a parents' worst nightmare. John Walker, a 20-year-old former San Anselmo resident (yes, San Anselmo, land of the hot tub and caffe latte), was catapulted into infamy in early December when he was found--long-haired and grubby--fighting alongside Taliban forces in Afghanistan. He clambered out of a sooty basement in Mazar-e Sharif and landed in plenty of legal hot water. Although his lawyer is pushing a public relations strategy in the hopes that Walker will ultimately face charges resulting in a few years' prison time, Walker may face treason charges, which could carry the death penalty. At press time, the Marin man was being held aboard a U.S. vessel in the Arabian Sea.

Green Town

The active city of Sebastopol has never been one to be lulled into complacency: Just look at the collection of signs at city limits welcoming visitors to the city. The West County community is a nuclear-free zone, and there's a voluntary ban on the use of pesticides in place. Several years ago, a sign also proclaimed Sebastopol a rape-free zone. Now the city could be going partially car-free as city residents are being asked to refrain from driving on the first Sunday of every month.

When the Sebastopol City Council, comprised of many Green Party members, recently brought up the highly controversial suggestion to encourage cleaner air and less traffic snarls, some folks, particularly local merchants, consumers, and car dealership owners, were aghast at the thought of folks actually using their legs. The council meeting rapidly deteriorated and actually erupted into fisticuffs between supporters and opponents. Two men had to be physically separated by the chief of police. Talk about driving a wedge.

DA Days

Sonoma County District Attorney Mike Mullins was back in the news this year after high-ranking female investigator April Chapman accused him of retaliating after she filed a sexual harassment complaint against a former colleague. Chapman, a former sheriff's deputy with a reputation as a top criminal fraud investigator, was sent back to the front desk to handle paperwork after blowing the whistle on prosecutor Bruce Enos, whom she alleged had sexually harassed her.

Mullins, a longtime subject of criticism by women's rights advocates who claim he's failed to aggressively prosecute cases of rape, spousal abuse, and sexual harassment, denied that he transferred Chapman to the lower post out of vindictiveness. A jury cleared Mullins in November but released a statement criticizing all sides in their handling of the matter. Officials say the cost of defending the DA suit could cost Sonoma County taxpayers as much as $300,000.

This latest jury verdict comes less than a month after county supervisors agreed to pay former prosecutor Donna Ryan more than $123,000 to drop a discrimination lawsuit against Mullins and the county.

Mullins this month faced another problem when the high-profile Dr. Louis Pelfini murder case collapsed after prosecutors said videotaped rehearsals undermined the credibility of a key witness. The dismissal of this case has caused some to believe Mullins has lost his edge over opponent Stephan Passalacqua in Mullins' bid for a third term in office.

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From the December 27, 2001-January 2, 2002 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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