Hard news coverage largely defined my early years as a reporter. Public safety breaking news in particular.
That's just life as a "general assignment reporter." But it's also important work because those incidents affect people's lives (often in the ultimate way), demand publicly funded emergency response, generate great reader intrigue and truthfully, pique my own curiosity.
I'll always remember moments like walking into a charred living room with the fire chief to document a damaging house fire or photographing the scene of a deadly highway collision where one car came to rest feet away from a large indentation left in an embankment from the wreckage of a triple-fatal crash that happened months before.
So many court cases too: Arraignments, preliminary hearings, civil proceedings, trials, sentencings. You name it, I did it at the Lake County Record-Bee. I once covered a murder trial with two defendants, separate juries and out-of-county judge that spanned 5-1/2 months from jury selections to verdicts.
I learned so much from those on-the-ground reports. Getting to know the victims and/or their families, sheriff's deputies and prosecutors, defendants and their families and attorneys, and witnesses -- it's all instructive about the human aspect of breaking news coverage.
Those memories and professional experiences are etched into my journalism DNA.
You'd need look no further than my sadly ever-expanding list of Tri-Valley cases to "follow up on" -- especially fatal crash investigations (which sometimes can take weeks or months), high-profile criminal cases awaiting trial and unsolved deaths.
It's important to me that we track these cases through to the final outcome. We need to be proactive too because understandably police and prosecutors have so many investigations to balance. And really, it's their job to complete the case; it's our job to inform the public.
Recently, Dublin Police Services respectfully dealt with my tenacity as I checked in on a near-weekly basis for updates on the investigation into the death of school trustee Catherine Kuo.
On May 18, I was able to break the story that the case was closed with prosecutors declining to file criminal charges against the driver who failed to secure her SUV into park before it inadvertently moved forward and pinned Kuo against another car, mortally wounding her during a food distribution event at Fallon Middle School on March 24.
I can tell by the comments on my story and in social media that some readers are having a hard time with that conclusion, a fatal driving miscue that didn't rise to criminal negligence. After all, many "tragic accidents" are preventable.
In this case, we don't have a firm answer. The Alameda County District Attorney's Office confirmed its decision occurred "after a thorough review of all the facts and evidence," but didn't elaborate further on the factors
I avoid speculative conclusions, and accept that we won't always learn why.
But, in a situation like this, I'm also informed by my reporter past.
I covered a fatal crash in Hidden Valley Lake in which a man swerved across the double-yellow of a two-lane highway and crashed into an oncoming vehicle whose driver was killed. The at-fault driver said he lost control because he was choking on a piece of tri-tip.
Prosecutors initially charged him with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter in 2013 but dismissed the count months later. Part of the difficulty was that the distraction wasn't caused by a specifically unlawful act like using a cellphone. The DA also cited a low likelihood of conviction.
"Beyond a reasonable doubt" is a necessary bar, but a high one. And not only from an evidentiary perspective. Also at play in some cases, whether said or unsaid, is whether prosecutors feel confident they can convince 12 jurors and secure a conviction.
That's the often-undervalued significance of the Derek Chauvin murder verdict in Minnesota back in April. Even though this was obvious brutality by the officer, police misconduct convictions in America are just so rare. Prosecutors secured unanimous guilty verdicts from this jury, and in doing so provided some measure of justice and closure for the Memorial Day 2020 murder of George Floyd.
That anniversary last month also reminded me about two suspicious deaths in the Tri-Valley from Memorial Day weekend last year. They were unsolved at the time and just slipped off my radar. So I checked in with investigators in the past week, and here's what I found:
* The case of James Vincent Naples remains an open suspicious-death case, Livermore police told me. Naples, 24, of Livermore was found dead in a room at the SenS Extended-Stay Residence on Airway Boulevard on the afternoon of May 24, 2020, under suspicious circumstances.
The coroner's bureau confirmed Wednesday that Naples' death was deemed accidental and caused by multiple drug toxicity (fentanyl, hydrocodone, ethanol). City police still classify it as an active case, suspicious but not criminal at this point, with no new updates to report.
* The investigation into the death of Robert Jacob Hilker is now complete, Pleasanton police told me.
Hilker, 39, a chef who'd been recently hired by a downtown Pleasanton restaurant, disappeared on Memorial Day 2020. His family said in October that the unidentified human remains found yards off the Marilyn Murphy Kane Trail in early September were Hilker's, but police and the coroner would not publicly confirm at the time.
Police told me that the coroner's final report Jan. 14 positively identified Hilker, and detectives closed the case one month later. Cause and date of death were undetermined due to the level of decomposition, but the coroner found no evidence of external blunt injuries on his body.
It's unfortunate there's no real closure for their loved ones in these cases, but I'm glad we can report these updates publicly.
I think it's time I look back over my case list again.
Editor's note: Jeremy Walsh has been the editor of the Pleasanton Weekly since February 2017. His "What a Week" column runs on the first and third Fridays of the month.