As 2018 fades to history, the Antelope Valley Press is looking at a few of the stories that made news over the past 12 months. Events ranging from political upsets to long-awaited spaceflight, changes to the area’s largest hospital and another tragic death of a child all will continue to resonate into 2019.

Political changes

The November election changed the longstanding political landscape in a couple Valley races.

Palmdale has a new mayor for the first time in 26 years after Jim Ledford was ousted in favor of then-Councilman Steve Hofbauer.

Ledford is the city’s longest-serving elected mayor since its founding in 1962. The city did not begin directly electing mayors until 1988, when William J. “Pete” Knight was the first.

Hofbauer, who has served in city government 26 years, won by just over 3,800 votes with 44.33% of the total in a three-way races against Ledford and community activist V. Jesse Smith.

The mayor’s race was shadowed by criminal corruption charges against Ledford, in a case that has been slow to move through the court system.

Ledford pleaded not guilty in August to five fel­ony counts in the criminal cor­rup­tion case in which he and two co-defendants are accused of conspiring to embezzle hundreds of thousands of dollars in NASA funds from a Palmdale-based nonprofit edu­ca­­tional organization the co-defendants ran. The plea came more than a year after the charges were initially filed June 21, 2017, as the ar­raignment was post­poned six times. Ad­diti­onal charges were filed in January 2018.

A preliminary hearing in the case, in which a judge will determine if there is sufficient evidence to proceed with a trial, is sched­uled for Feb. 11, after being postponed from Oct. 3.

At the federal level, the Antelope Valley will be represented by a Democrat for the first time in more than a half century, after newcomer Katie Hill defeated Rep. Steve Knight, who was seeking a third Congressional term.

Hill received 133,209 votes, or 54.4% of the vote, to Knight’s 111,813 votes or 45.6%.

“The voters have spoken,” Knight said. “They wanted a new person.”

Hill, a nonprofit exec­u­tive from Santa Clarita, was one of 40 Demo­cratic candidates who won election, flipping control of the House from the Republican to the Dem­ocratic party.

She found people look­ing for change, “looking for someone who’s really trying to speak to them,” Hill said, noting a lot of independent voters and “a fair amount” of Republicans voted for her to have reached the num­bers she did.

The race drew national attention as one the seats targeted by Democrats in their efforts to regain the House majority. Although historically a Republican stronghold, the 25th Con­gressional District’s demographics have been changing and it narrowly voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential elec­tion. The district includes most of the Antelope Val­ley, as well as the Santa Clar­ita Valley and a portion of Simi Valley.

Space moves closer

The long-sought promise of commercial space travel moved within reach this year, as Virgin Galactic’s Space­Ship­Two rocketed into suborbital space on Dec. 13 after nearly 14 years of development.

The winged spaceplane, dubbed “Unity,” rocketed to 271,268 feet altitude, or 51.4 miles, in the skies above the Mojave Air and Space Port, marking the first time a crewed spacecraft designed specifically to carry commercial space passengers had crossed the 50-mile altitude con­sid­ered by some to be the edge of space.

Pilot Mark “Forger” Stucky earned civilian as­tro­naut wings for the flight, while fellow Virgin Gal­act­ic pilot and former NASA space shuttle astronaut C.J. Sturckow added to his spaceflight tally.

In addition to reaching its highest altitude yet, the spacecraft also reached its fastest speeds, hitting Mach 2.9 during the rocket boost.

“It’s been 14 hard years. We’ve had tears and joy. Today, let’s give everybody a huge cheer,” Virgin Gal­ac­tic founder Richard Bran­son said, adding he shed tears over the flight’s suc­cess. “We’ve got many ex­ci­ting things ahead of us.”

The test flight logged another first: it carried four science ex­per­i­ments for NASA’s Flight Op­por­tu­nities pro­gram as payload for the com­pany’s first revenue-gen­er­a­ting flight. The experiments took advantage of the reduced grav­ity environment of the Space­Ship­Two flight and will contribute to future NASA space missions.

The spaceflight was the latest in a test flight program incrementally increasing the spacecraft’s performance. While no timeline has been given for completing the testing program, officials hope to have commercial passenger flights begin sometime in 2019.

Commercial flights will take place from Spaceport Amer­ica in New Mexico, and Branson confirmed he plans to be on board the first commercial flight.

Executives ousted at Antelope Valley Hospital

The executive management of Antelope Valley Hospital, the region’s largest medical facility and only trauma center, underwent another change this year as CEO Michael Wall and Chief Financial Officer Collette Nichols both resigned in November, nearly a month after both were placed on paid administrative leave by the elected governing board of Antelope Valley Healthcare District and after the district determined it did not intend to ter­min­ate either contract for cause as stipulated in their contracts.

In both contracts, items that would be cause for termination in­clude conviction of felony or misdemeanor, embezzlement of funds, willful failure to provide services and fraud. Wall’s contract also stipulates as cause for termination acts of dishonesty, intentional misrepresentation or other such acts.

The district paid out nearly $1 million in severance packages owed the two executives.

Wall and Nichols were placed on paid ad­min­is­trative leave Oct. 17, while investigations continued into alleged improprieties, the exact nature of which has not been disclosed by either board, either publicly or with Wall and Nichols.

Wall, hired in January 2017, was the fourth chief executive for the hospital in five years.

The hospital is under the management of Interim CEO Paul Brydon, a retired chief financial officer for Antelope Valley Hospital.

Child abuse death

The tragic death of a child from child abuse once again made headlines in 2018, as the death of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos renewed calls for reform in the Los Angeles County Department of Child and Family Services.

Anthony died at a hospital June 21, the day after Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies were called to his Lancaster home and found him unresponsive.

The boy’s mother and her boyfriend, Heather Maxine Barron, 29, and Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 32, have pleaded not guilty to charges that they killed him and tortured him in the days leading up to his death.

Prosecutors allege the couple abused, beat, assaulted and tortured the boy, with more than a dozen allegations of abuse dating back to 2013. Court papers detail abuse that included whipping him with a belt and a looped cord, pouring hot sauce on his face and holding him by his feet and dropping him on his head repeatedly.

Child welfare workers visited the home and the children were regularly interviewed and checked for signs of physical abuse, according to a county report. Reports of physical abuse were deemed unfounded or inconclusive, though social workers found some instances of general neglect.

Anthony’s death, the second in five years of a child abused in their home after having been under investigation by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, prompted a state audit of the department.

The earlier death to bring attention to the department was that of Gabriel Fernandez, an 8-year-old Palmdale boy who died in May 2013 after deadly abuse by his mother, Pearl Fernandez, and her then-boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre. Gabriel was beaten to death by Aguirre, who has been sentenced to death for the crime. Fernandez was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for her role in the abuse.

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