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Top Mid-Columbia stories for Nov. 19, 1997

Kennewick police laser aims to stop speeders
Ex-Pasco pastor pleads guilty to child molestation
River users fight against Snake River drawdown
Mold to displace Kennewick students
Mom found dead with toddler tests positive for drugs

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Kennewick police laser aims to stop speeders

Herald staff writer

The Kennewick police are playing laser tag in traffic.

And the roads actually might be safer as a result.

The police department's five-member traffic unit has obtained a new laser gun capable of clocking the speed of passing cars with high-tech precision, measuring distances at accident scenes and helping police with crime-scene diagrams.

Police are delighted with the new device, but it should give pause to heavy-footed drivers.

Laser guns, one of the latest weapons in the war on speeders, are more precise than traditional radar guns and can be more difficult to detect.

"It's working excellent," said Sgt. Tim Harris, who heads the department's relatively new traffic unit. "It opens up a lot of possibilities."

The Washington State Patrol already uses the guns, Harris said, but Kennewick is the first of the Tri-Cities to add one to its arsenal.

At about $4,000, the laser gun from Portland-based Laser Tech is more expensive than a $1,300 radar gun. But it does a better job of finding speeders in heavy traffic, Harris said, so the tickets officers write using the new gun should hold up better in court.

The problem with using radar on busy roads, he said, is that it can be hard to know which vehicle is being clocked. If a motorist challenges a ticket in court, officers may be hard-pressed to prove they know which car the radar was reading.

"You have to say, 'I could see with my eyes you were going faster than the other cars,' " Harris said.

The laser removes all doubt. When an officer wants to see how fast a particular car is going, he aims a red laser beam at the side of the car.

"You can pinpoint it on a car and then radio to someone ahead, 'A brown Ford Bronco with one passenger,' " he said.

Harris said the new gun, which was paid for by a state grant, will be used mostly in school zones and congested areas, such as Columbia Center Boulevard and the intersection of Canal Drive and Edison Street.

Drivers who don't want to back off the gas aren't completely defenseless. Many newer models of radar detectors are capable of detecting the laser but face a difficult task.

Unlike most radar guns, which emit a continuous impulse as long as they're turned on, the laser gun only sends out its signal when an officer squeezes a trigger.

As soon as the officer releases the trigger, the signal disappears, leaving nothing to detect.

And drivers, in turn, are left wondering whether their car will be the next one "tagged" by a traffic officer.

Skies the limit for enforcers

By the Herald staff

A Washington State Patrol aircraft stalking Highway 240 near Columbia Park bagged 28 speeders Tuesday.

And, it'll be back Thursday.

The top speed recorded was 75 mph in a 55 zone - and that was worth a $114 fine, said Lt. Dave Trunkey.

Four patrol cars worked about 2H hours with the plane, sliding down the Edison Street ramp, illuminating their roof lights and hauling cars off the side.

The number of cars pulled over was limited only by the time it took to write individual tickets.

The state patrol has three Cessna 182 aircraft based in Yakima that cover all of Eastern Washington.

One of the aircraft flies over the Tri-Cities at least three times a month, depending on weather.

Copyright 1997 Tri-City Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Ex-Pasco pastor pleads guilty to child molestation

Herald staff writer

A former Pasco pastor pleaded guilty Tuesday in Franklin County Superior Court to second-degree molestation of a girl who was a member of his congregation.

With his wife, children and other supporters seated in the courtroom, a stony-faced Michael V. Miranda apologized for fondling a 14-year-old girl who was a member of his tiny Protestant church, Templo Bethel Apostolico.

"I'm terribly, terribly sorry," said the 52-year-old as he stood before Judge Carolyn Brown. "I understand I did very wrong, and I'm willing to do better."

Miranda made his plea almost one year after Pasco police arrested him and the day before he was to go to trial. By agreeing to plead guilty, it's likely Miranda will avoid a state prison term.

As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors plan to recommend six months in jail and a two-year outpatient treatment program for sex offenders. Sentencing is set for Jan. 6.

Miranda, who has no criminal history, faced a standard sentencing range of 15 to 20 months in prison if found guilty by a jury.

But the victim's family has told prosecutors in no uncertain terms they want Miranda kept behind bars for the rest of his life.

Prosecutor Steve Lowe said his office does the best it can to work with victims and their families.

But he said, "We can't always do what the family wants. Sometimes a family wants a person executed for killing their child, and the reality is you can't do that. The reality in this case is that Mr. Miranda can't go to prison for the rest of his life."

Miranda may be better off in a treatment program, which probably wouldn't be available in prison, Lowe said.

"The theory ... is that if we don't get treatment for these individuals, they will continue to conduct themselves in a manner not appropriate in society," Lowe said.

As part of the plea agreement, Miranda also would not be allowed to have contact with minors for two years.

According to court documents, the victim began attending church school at age 11, and it was during her third year at the school when Miranda molested her in 1994.

Prosecutors said the girl, then 13, was cleaning the church's nursery when Miranda walked in, closed the door behind him, exposed himself and reached under her skirt. The girl told investigators she hit Miranda and ran from the room.

But Tuesday outside the courtroom, Miranda's attorney, Kevin Holt, said the relationship between Miranda and the girl wasn't as cut and dried as court documents suggest.

"She made the first overtures to him," Holt said. "She put her arms around his neck, and he should have pushed her away."

Told about Holt's comments, Lowe responded: "Fourteen-year-old girls are not adults and are not responsible for what they do or say as far as relationships with adults."

Meanwhile, Miranda's relationship with the church - at least as the man in the pulpit - appears permanently severed.

"The problem with sex (abuse) cases is that they impact everybody," Holt said. "The little girl had some major impacts, and we acknowledge that, but this has also basically destroyed (Miranda's) life as it was. He will never be in a position of responsibility in a church like that."

Holt said his client still lives in Pasco but now works as a laborer.

Copyright 1997 Tri-City Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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River users fight against Snake River drawdown

Herald staff writer

Breaching the four lower Snake River dams would suffocate inland Northwest agriculture and cause millions of dollars in economic damage, river users told the Army Corps of Engineers on Tuesday afternoon.

At the corps' request, navigators, port managers and irrigators assembled in Richland and marched their concerns past agency officials who are trying to quantify the cost of proposed river drawdowns to save Snake River salmon.

What the corps heard was that it needs to expand its analysis - and that a dollar amount probably won't fully describe the hit on industry if the river is returned to its natural level.

Although putting the river back to its pre-dam state by carving channels around the dams isn't the only option the corps is evaluating, it has become the flash point of debate.

Some salmon advocates say drawdowns are the only way to restore fish habitat and revive seriously depleted runs.

But most of the people at Tuesday's meeting said it would also hamper barging, port operations and farming.

Currently, about 43 percent of the nation's wheat goes through the Port of Portland, and about 40 percent of that comes down the Columbia-Snake system, said David Doeringsfeld of the Port of Lewiston.

"If we lose the river system," said Rick Davis, "it will devastate the whole region."

Davis, terminal operations manager at the Port of Clarkston, said Lewiston and Clarkston ports have worked for the last 50 years to get businesses to ship from their terminals.

Without dams for navigation, the region's "I-5 corridor to the ocean" is reduced to a trickle - and business isn't any better.

"We're out of business," predicted Doeringsfeld.

According to an economic impact study by the ports, 4,800 people in Asotin, Nez Perce and Whitman counties depend on the ports for their livelihood.

"Not all 4,800 of those people will lose their jobs, but most of the people will be impacted," he said.

Whitman County, said port manager Randy Bostrum, is the largest grain exporter in the state and just about all of its product is taken down the Snake.

If the Snake can't take it any more, the freight will be put on the region's roads and railways.

"If they do breach the dams, the roads are not going to be able to handle the traffic," Davis said. "You're looking at rural counties who don't have the budget to maintain the roads."

Besides, said Doeringsfeld, the Port of Portland couldn't handle all the rail traffic if products are taken off the river.

But that's not the worst of it, river users said.

If Snake navigation is shut down, farmers probably can't get their product to market at competitive rates, and the Northwest would lose to other countries.

The region's terminals, grain elevators, container facilities and barges potentially would be worth a lot less, said Kim Puzey, manager of the Port of Umatilla.

"If we fall out of the international market ... you have an entire region with a stranded investment."

Include farms in that investment. A drawdown is not expected to destroy farms - but it would make it harder for them to get water from the Snake, irrigators told the corps.

Initial corps estimates peg the cost of modifying pump operations at about $40 million. But irrigators said the cost should be much higher to account for risk that comes with having less water in the river.

Fred Ziari of IRZ Consulting in Hermiston said increased sediment loads of the natural river could cause big problems for people drawing water.

He predicted sediment will increase repair costs and could temporarily shut down pumps, he said.

"If you have a pump that is out for four or five days, you lose your crops," he said.

Ralph L. Thomsen of T&R Farms in Pasco said the corps' study already has hurt farmers because they can't plan for the future.

The draft economic impact study is due in May 1998, and the final version is supposed to be ready five months later.

The corps also is evaluating the effects of drawdowns on power, fish, recreation and the tribes, among other factors.1

But if the corps took Bostrum's advice, there wouldn't be any more study. "Let's keep the dams where they are and do everything else we can to make salmon happen."

Copyright 1997 Tri-City Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Mold to displace Kennewick students

Herald staff writer

A newly discovered mold outbreak at Kennewick's Lincoln Elementary School means some third-, fourth- and fifth-graders will get a sneak preview of high school.

Consultants hired to upgrade the ventilation systems of Lincoln and the district's other "cookie cutter" schools discovered a strain of mold, Stachybotrys atra, growing behind the vinyl wallpaper in a Lincoln third-grade classroom late last week.

A district official said there are no indications so far that anyone was sickened by the mold, and a public health official said the health threat is minimal.

"It can be one of those toxic things if the right conditions exist, but the conditions don't exist," said Dr. Larry Jecha, medical director for the Benton-Franklin District Health Department.

The discovery forced the closure of teacher Randy Jensen's third-grade classroom along with three others in the same pod.

Teachers and staff removed equipment from the area during a planning session Monday, and a wall will be built to seal it from the rest of the building. The mold lies dormant in a cement block wall but could become airborne as workers move in to clean it up or if conditions cause it to bloom.

The 100 students affected and their four teachers will move to an unused wing of Southridge High School until the classroom is cleaned and tested - a process that could take six to eight weeks, according to Superintendent Paul Rosier.

At a well-attended meeting for parents Tuesday night, one speaker earned a round of applause when she urged the superintendent to consider relocating the entire school to Southridge while district crews clean the affected section of the building as well as other rooms. Mold is present elsewhere in Lincoln, but Jensen's room is the only one where the potentially toxic mold was detected.

Rosier said Southridge probably doesn't have enough room for the entire Lincoln student body, and the building isn't set up for elementary programs. Under the busing plan, the Southridge students will return to Lincoln daily for gym, music and other classes.

Still another mother was skeptical that its presence has caused no ill effects. Renée Muñoz's daughter spent last year in the classroom in question and complained regularly of an array of symptoms that her doctor could not explain. The girl will be in the Southridge delegation - another source of concern for her mother, who said she wants to see the D Wing before students move over Friday.

Rosier said the Lincoln students will be isolated from high school students in an unused wing of Southridge, where they will have their own classrooms and their own bathrooms.

"These kids will have very little interaction with the high school kids," he said. He said the students will be bused the half-mile from one school to the other.

Linda Cameron, the district's spokeswoman, said the mold was discovered when SCM Consultants evaluated the building as part of the district's plan to upgrade the ventilation systems of the "cookie cutter" schools. The schools were built with similar designs in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The schools have cement block walls that draw in moisture. A layer of cellulose wallboard also provides a food source, and vinyl wallpaper prevents moisture from escaping - creating an environment in which mold can flourish.

The repair plan was implemented after a failing ventilation system sickened staff and students at Cascade Elementary. That school was found to have both mold and bacteria because air wasn't circulating properly in the building.

Since then, the district has cleaned up Cascade and Sunset View elementaries. Rosier estimates the problem has cost upwards of $250,000 to date.

Lincoln's upgraded ventilation system appears to be functioning properly, according to SCM tests, which found fewer mold spores in the air inside the building than outside.

The district also was recently hit with another mold outbreak at Neil F. Lampson Stadium. That problem developed in September when a leaky roof dripped water into the drywall and insulation of a concession kitchen on the home team side of the stadium, which is owned and operated by the district.

One dad complained the district should have tested all of the cookie cutter schools for mold once the problem presented itself at Cascade over a year ago.

"We would have known this a year and a half ago," said Gregory Long, an engineer who would have preferred that the district deal with the mold problem over the summer recess.

Copyright 1997 Tri-City Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Mom found dead with toddler tests positive for drugs

By The Associated Press and Tri-City Herald staff

Toxicology tests turned up methamphetamine and cocaine in the blood of a young Richland mother found dead with her baby earlier this month in Oregon.

The bodies of Jessica Dawn Wilson, 19, and her 16-month-old baby, Ashantae Johnson, were found about 20 feet apart Nov. 11 in a remote area northwest of Redmond. They had traveled from Richland to the Redmond area in central Oregon on Oct. 23 or 24 to visit relatives.

The two were last seen Oct. 24 by motorists who reported the two walking along a road, the baby wearing just a diaper and the mother wearing shorts and a halter top.

Dr. Ed Wilson, deputy state medical examiner who performed toxicology tests on the woman and her daughter, said exposure still is being examined as a possible cause of death.

They were in an area where overnight temperatures had dipped to 19 degrees.

Autopsies found no signs of trauma that would indicate foul play or suicide.

Wilson said further tests are being done to determine the exact quantity of drugs in Jessica Wilson's body.

No drugs were present in the baby.

Wilson and her baby were reported missing Nov. 3 by the baby's paternal grandmother, Michelle Alexander of Kennewick, after the two failed to return to the Tri-Cities several days after they were expected.

The same day, hikers in Deschutes County found Wilson's car stuck in deep, soft dirt.

Her purse was later found along an intersecting road. On Nov. 11, officers found the bodies among sage and juniper brush two miles from the car.

Wilson had been walking toward Highway 126 when she was last seen, and her body was found within a mile of the highway and less than a mile from a farm house.

Wilson had worked as a nurse's aide at Life Care Center of Richland.

Friends said she had broken up with the baby's father, LaShunne Johnson, 20, of Kennewick.

Copyright 1997 The Associated Press and Tri-City Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.