Paul Avoids Jail, Lara Splits, Cliff’s Fired: Thursday was quite a day, right out of The Front Page.

On the Beat

The Santa Barbara Independent‘s photog Paul Wellman refused to turn over 344 unpublished photos in a murder case to Superior Court Judge Brian Hill. He was found in contempt of court, but not thrown in the hoosegow-yet.

Then News-Press interim copy desk chief Cliff Redding got fired, apparently over who posted that nastygram on Laura Schlessinger‘s Sunday online column. The word is that it was an accident. (You know computers, right?)

In a rare shot of the photographer himself, Paul Wellman puts down his camera to lend a hand in creating The Indy's Summer Solstice float.
Robby Robbins

No one that I talked to believes Cliff did the deed, just that the buck stopped at his cubicle. As best I can learn, copy editor Lara Milton was quitting and as is traditional, her mates made up a joke “page,” a replica of a real one, with fictional comments attributed to her.

Somehow the stuff got on Schlessinger’s column, of all places. Lara’s supposed remarks put down the News-Press and slammed the town as being ruined by the “filthy rich.” Lara, who denies having anything to do with it, has already decamped to the Pacific Northwest, where her dad, Bill, one of the great wits and talents of the copy desk in years past, is living.

Meanwhile, Cliff, who is highly respected and worked like a dog on the short-handed copy desk, is out of the job.

But Indy photographer Wellman (along with The Independent) – though found in contempt for not handing over the photos – is seemingly safe from jail at present, pending a ruling by the California appellate court in Ventura. And if The Indy loses there, by the state Supreme Court.

But if The Indy is rebuffed by the courts, it faces fines and possible jail for Wellman, who, after all, is only following a decision – and a principled one, I might add – by The Indy‘s editors and owners.

Chief of Police Cam Sanchez (leaning on car) during street lineup
Paul Wellman

Here’s the issue: The California Constitution shields journalists from legal fishing expeditions, which The Indy‘s lawyers claim this is. County deputy public defender Karen Atkins has persuaded Judge Hill to order the weekly to turn over all unpublished photos, even though Wellman arrived about two hours after the fatal knifing of a teen boy on State Street.

Without having seen the photos, Atkins has claimed that they might help her defense. Judge Hill, who also has not seen the photos and made clear Thursday that he had no intention of viewing them, found that the defendant’s right to a fair trial trumped the shield law. But Indy lawyers argue that, by law, the court must make a showing to prove that the photos are vital to the defense. So far, there are only vaguely worded demands for them and no such showing has been made, lawyers say.

Hill previously said, “Those photographs might have material significance. Some of the photos may impeach the manner in which the case proceeded.” Might, may.

The danger here is that Hill’s ruling, if not challenged, would stand as a precedent. Any time a crime is committed, all photographers could be ordered to turn over all unpublished photos, regardless of whether they turned out to be relevant or not. What next? Reporters’ desks ransacked for notes?

In court on Thursday, Judge Hill conceded that it could be a precedent, but preferred to deal with the case at hand. The Indy, which will be filing a writ with the appeals court next week, has the initial burden of convincing the court to hear the case. It’s not automatic. If The Indy is successful, it must then convince the judges to find in its favor. If not, the whole thing will likely move to the Supreme Court.

On Thursday, Judge Hill imposed a $1,000 fine on the newspaper (the ultimate fine, if imposed, could be much greater) but stayed his order pending outcome of the appeals. And he allowed Wellman to be free, for now.

Turnover at the San Ysidro: Ty Warner’s San Ysidro Ranch is looking wonderful these days, after a $150 million makeover, but what’s with the turnover in general managers? Duncan Graham left earlier this year after overseeing the major renovation and is now GM at the five-star Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. Marco Perry arrived last May but is now gone, replaced by Seamus McManus (what a great name, eh?). He arrives via the St. Regis at Monarch Beach, Orange County, and comes with a top reputation. Why is Ty, always demanding, having trouble keeping top-flight GMs?

Home Prices UP? It seems counterintuitive due to all the talk of market doldrums, but the California Association of Realtors claims that Santa Barbara median sales prices were up a whopping 24.4 percent in October. But Santa Maria home prices were down 19 percent. CAR listed the Santa Barbara median sales price for October as $1.275 million, compared with $1.025 a year ago. The Santa Maria figures: $359.5 for October compared with $444.5 last year. Do I hear challenges?

Cat Cora’s Restaurant? Food Network “Iron Chef” cuisine queen Cat Cora, now that she’s a Santa Barbaran, may be planning to open a restaurant here, according to rumors circulating among our town’s restaurateurs.

Pep Boys Out of Pep: For months, persistent rumors had the Santa Barbara outlet for Manny, Moe, and Jack closing. Denials were just as persistent. But in the face of red ink, this week Pep Boys announced closure of 31 stores, including Santa Barbara and Santa Maria.

NP Freebies: “Evidently the News-Press isn’t so sure their daily paper is worth 50 cents,” reports a Montecitan. “A friend writes me that each morning a stack of free papers are placed on the vending machines out in front of Pierre Lafond, comp to anyone who wants them. It is suggested this is one desperate way the News-Press can keep their readership up.” (But it can’t be reported as paid circulation, of course.)

Barney Brantingham can be reached at or 805-965-5205. He writes online columns on Tuesdays and Fridays and a print column on Thursdays.


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