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Mother seeks answers in death as state investigates doctor

For more than two years, there’s been a hole in Jennifer Salo Jimenez’s family.

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Her mother said Tabatha Salo was a “day-maker” who always made people happy. COURTESY OF BRANDI SWENSON

Since her 23-year-old daughter, Tabatha Salo, died of a prescription drug overdose in 2011, the family has set a place for her at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.

Last weekend, when Salo’s best friend got married in Costa Mesa, there was another place set for her at the reception. Salo would have been the maid of honor.

“That’s exactly what we’re left with,” Jimenez said. “We’re left with an empty chair, you know, in our family.”

They’ve also been left with painful questions. But now Jimenez hopes to get some answers to how a bubbly young woman who loved helping children and was studying to become a social worker ended up dead.

The state medical board is investigating Dr. John Petraglia, a Newport Beach-based pain management specialist, in the deaths of Salo and another woman, spokeswoman Cassandra Hockenson said. He has not faced criminal charges in the deaths.

The medical board is seeking to suspend or revoke Petraglia’s license, saying he didn’t get enough information about patients’ histories and didn’t investigate when urine tests showed Salo (identified as “T.S.” in medical board documents) was taking higher doses than prescribed and taking one drug no one had prescribed.

No hearings have been scheduled. Petraglia’s lawyer, Raymond J. McMahon, didn’t return a call last week; he has said he’ll file a formal response to the medical board accusation but won’t respond in the media.

The experience of Salo’s family is an increasingly common one. Drug overdoses have overtaken car crashes as the leading cause of “injury death” in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The number of overdose deaths more than doubled between 1999 and 2010, to more than 38,000 a year. Sixty percent were related to prescription or other legal drugs and the rest to illegal drugs.

Almost 80 percent of fatal overdoses were ruled unintentional, while 14 percent were deemed suicide, the CDC says. The intent could not be determined in the remaining cases.

Orange County coroner records for the past four years show that, on average, someone has died in the county of an accidental pain medication overdose every other day.

Behind one of those overdose statistics is the story of Salo.

Born in Mission Viejo in 1988, she spent time in Rancho Santa Margarita and Lake Forest before going to Costa Mesa High School. She sang in choir for years and had roles in musicals such as “Wicked” and “Little Shop of Horrors.”

Jimenez was a single mom, and Salo was her first, so they’d always been close. Jimenez remembered her daughter as a “day-maker” who could always make her feel better. Sometimes, they’d get together to watch “girlie movies,” eat popcorn and giggle.

When Salo was 19, her mom, stepdad and younger siblings moved to San Antonio, but she stayed in California.

“She wasn’t afraid to live on her own,” Jimenez said. “She was excited. She had big plans.”

After high school, she went to cosmetology school but then decided she wanted to work with children instead. She and her grandfather had gone on church mission trips to Mexico to help disadvantaged people.

At the time she died, Salo was living in Mission Viejo and working at an accounting job while going to the University of Phoenix to become a social worker.

Like her mother and grandmother, she had long suffered from back pain, and in 2010, she had breast reduction surgery, Jimenez said. She first went to see Petraglia with complaints of pain in February 2011, less than 10 months before she died, according to the medical board.

In April of that year, her mother visited from Texas and found Salo happy with the results of the surgery and more comfortable with her body than she had been. Jimenez’s husband visited in August and likewise didn’t see anything wrong.

“She was just the same bubbly, beautiful kid she’s always been,” Jimenez said.

They knew Salo was taking pain medication, but it was the same kind Jimenez has taken for her own back problems, so they weren’t worried.

About 11 a.m. on Dec. 20, she got a call from Salo’s sister, Brandi Swenson. (The sisters had different mothers).

“She just said, ‘Jennifer, Tabatha’s gone,’ and I said, ‘Well, where did she go?’” Jimenez remembered.

Hours earlier, Swenson had found Salo dead.

“Here I am, 2½ years later, and still wondering what happened to my child,” Jimenez said recently. “How did this happen?”

Was Salo buying drugs on the street? It doesn’t seem like the daughter who had her first drink on her 21st birthday and never tried illegal drugs. Was she seeing another doctor? Was there some other mix-up?

Jimenez’s lawyer, Rich Collins, said he has filed a request for Salo’s medical records from Petraglia’s office, which he hopes will answer some of those questions. He said he also sent a 90-day notice of intent to sue Petraglia last week.

There are a lot of reasons Jimenez wants to find out what happened to Salo and wants to see Petraglia or others held accountable.

But she said one reason is this: It’s what her daughter would have done for someone she loved.



If you are charged with a crime, contact an experienced Orange County Bail Bondsman to assist you in any bail situation.


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Anaheim couple face embezzlement, grand theft charges

A bookkeeper is facing embezzlement charges after authorities allege she stole $1.4 million from two law firms and used the funds to write unauthorized checks to her husband.

Shawna Renee Barretto, 39, of Anaheim, has been charged with dozens of felonies, including 22 counts of computer access fraud, 21 counts of falsifying records and seven counts of grand theft, according to an Orange County District Attorney’s office statement.

Her husband, Roberto Nilo Barretto, 53, also of Anaheim, has been charged with a felony count of grand theft, authorities said.

According to prosecutors, Shawna Barretto worked as a bookkeeper and an office manager from 2005 to 2012 at two unnamed law firms. Authorities allege she embezzled more than $1.4 million from the two firms through “deceptive record-keeping” and used the money on personal expenses such as private school tuition for her children and golf club memberships.

Prosecutors also allege that Shawna Barretto gave five checks totaling $10,825 to her husband.

An employee at one of the law firms notified the Irvine Police Department after noticing discrepancies in the business’s financial records, authorities said.

If convicted, Shawna Barretto – who is currently free on $1.4 million bail – faces up to 32 years in state prison, while Roberto Barretto – who is currently free on $20,000 bail – faces up to three years in prison.



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Trial to begin May 5 in Santa Ana nightclub beating death

SANTA ANA – A judge declined Tuesday to dismiss murder charges against two women accused in a beating death outside a Santa Ana nightclub, moving the case toward a May 5 trial.

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Defense attorneys for Vanesa Zavala and Candace Brito asked the judge to throw the case out because Santa Ana police delayed turning over evidence that was favorable to the defense.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals said he believed police had some evidence in late January that they failed to turn over until after a preliminary hearing in February.

But Goethals said his review of the additional evidence shows it would not have changed the outcome of that hearing, at which a different judge ruled there was probable cause to send the case to trial.

Brito, 27, and Zavala, 25, both of Santa Ana, are charged with killing Annie Kim Pham, 23, who died after a Jan. 18 fight outside The Crosby, a Santa Ana restaurant and bar. Witnesses have said the fight began after Pham and another woman bumped into each other.

Brito’s lawyer, Michael Molfetta, and Zavala’s lawyer, Kenneth Reed, said Tuesday’s ruling was expected because there’s a very low standard of proof at a preliminary hearing, making it hard to overturn the result.

At trial, the standard of proof is much higher: Prosecutors must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The trial in May is expected to last two or three weeks.

Defense lawyers have argued that Pham, who lived in Huntington Beach, threw the first punch and their clients acted in self-defense. But prosecutors have said Brito and Zavala kicked Pham in the head while she was down, making them guilty of murder even if Pham was the initial aggressor.

Among the evidence the defense said police didn’t turn over before the preliminary hearing was a statement from Alfonso Magana, the boyfriend of a woman in Brito and Zavala’s group that night. Magana told police he was attacked by Asian gang members in Pham’s group and that Pham attacked a friend of Brito and Zavala.

Deputy District Attorney Mark Sacks, who argued in court the evidence was not “material,” said afterward the judge made the correct ruling. His colleague, Deputy District Attorney Troy Pino, said in a court filing that he was not aware of the additional evidence until police gave it to him, at which time he turned it over to the defense.

Goethals said there was technically not a constitutional violation because the evidence was not material. But he reminded prosecutors that evidence should be turned over as soon as they or police have it.

Santa Ana police also didn’t tell the defense for weeks that a detective had posed as an inmate to get statements from Zavala. The defense lawyers said they know that only because Zavala recognized Detective Patricia Navarro in court during February’s preliminary hearing and tapped her lawyer on the shoulder.

Defense lawyers also said Detective Leo Rodriguez, the lead investigator, lied on the stand when he said Zavala hadn’t claimed self-defense.

“If you testify to something that’s not the truth, you’re lying,” Reed said. “If you testify to half the truth, you’re half-lying.”

Goethals said the judge who found probable cause to send the case to trial, Thomas Borris, clearly had been put on notice of self-defense claims.

Goethals pointed to four pieces of evidence Borris heard about: statements from two witnesses that Pham was an aggressor, videotapes showing parts of the fight and a stipulation that Zavala told Navarro, “She hit me first; I acted in self-defense.”

The judge said he had watched the same videos, including cellphone footage, at least five times and found it hard to determine what was happening at many points.

“It is a chaotic situation involving events that might be described as something of a melee,” Goethals said.

In a few weeks, a jury will likely have to watch the same footage before determining whether Brito and Zavala are innocent or guilty.



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Suspect in sex worker killings has violent record

Steven Dean Gordon was desperate.

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After police found the body of Jarrae Nykkole Estepp at an Anaehim recycling plant they say they were able to connect hers and four other killings to Steven Dean Gordon and Franc Cano. FILE PHOTO: KEN STEINHARDT, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Police from two jurisdictions crowded the parking lot outside the Anaheim auto body shop where he worked, urging him on a cellphone Friday night to give himself up.

Gordon handed the phone to a supervisor, cut off his ankle bracelet, jumped on a bicycle and fled, according to his boss.

The suspect barely made it across the street before he was collared on suspicion of killing as many as five women with a younger partner.

The next day, pictures of Gordon, 45, and Franc Cano, 27, flashed across television screens and front pages. The two registered sex offenders had a new label: accused serial killers.

“Neither of the guys I would call rocket scientists,” said Ian Pummell, Gordon’s boss at the body shop.

But Gordon seemed like a nice enough guy, deserving of a second chance after serving almost eight years in prison for kidnapping his estranged wife and 4-year-old child in Riverside County and driving them to Nevada – what Gordon called a misguided attempt to reconcile his family.

Pummell gave Gordon a minimum wage job cleaning the office and washing cars. For 1½ years it seemed a good fit, until Friday.

“You try to help people out, you just don’t think people are capable of” killing, Pummell said. “He served his time in prison. Hopefully he was rehabilitated.”

When Gordon came to Pummell, he was sleeping in a tent in an industrial area of La Palma Avenue, Pummell said.

Gordon had worked for Pummell years earlier, before prison.

Court records show Gordon served about 15 months for lewd acts with a child under 14 in the early 1990s after he was charged with molesting a nephew in Oklahoma. He told his ex-wife he wanted to kill his sister for making the accusation, according to court documents.

In 2002, he went back to prison for the kidnapping case after a jury acquitted him of raping his wife, which could have elevated the sentence to life.

In 2007, a probation officer responded to Gordon’s attempt to get the sentence reduced: “The defendant is viewed as an individual who only thinks of himself, while having little regard for pain and suffering he causes others, even his young daughter.”

A month before the kidnapping, Gordon’s wife filed for divorce and a temporary restraining order. But her attempt failed.

Gordon, according to court records, parked his Toyota truck alongside his wife’s car at church. He lured his daughter to his vehicle with the prospect of candy, say court documents.

Then, the records state, he grabbed his wife, putting a hand over her mouth to stifle her screams and shoved her into the truck.

He drove east, with a stun gun held up to his wife’s face to discourage her from fighting back. They stopped at a Super 8 Motel where he handcuffed his wife and forced her to have sex with him, according to the arrest affidavit.

She eventually persuaded him to return to California and they spent the next night in Laughlin, Nev. His wife was eventually able to contact her family and Las Vegas Metro Police, who arrested Gordon.

His ex-wife filed for another restraining order in 2004.

“To her the nightmare is real now. She knows when (he) gets out, he will come back and get her. Her daughter still talks about the day when daddy wouldn’t let them go to church.” a probation officer wrote.

“She felt by testifying,” the officer wrote, “she signed her own death warrant. She is afraid of him and firmly believes he will try to kill her if ever released.”



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Bell corruption figure Rizzo gets prison term in tax-evasion case

Former Bell chief administrator Robert Rizzo, the central figure in a corruption probe that enveloped more than a half-dozen leaders from the small city, was sentenced today to 33 months in federal prison for tax evasion.

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Former Bell city administrator Robert Rizzo listens during closing arguments by his attorney James Spertusa at a preliminary hearing in the Bell case. FILE: IRFAN KHAN, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

U.S. District Judge George H. King ordered that the sentence be served consecutively – or on top of – whatever sentence Rizzo receives later this week when he is sentenced on 69 corruption counts in Los Angeles Superior Court. Rizzo, who formerly owned a home in Huntington Beach, faces 10 to 12 years in prison in that case, with sentencing set for Wednesday.

Rizzo’s plea to corruption counts in Superior Court had indicated that his state sentence would run concurrently – or at the same time – as the federal sentence.

King also ordered Rizzo to pay nearly $256,000 in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service. The judge also recommended, but did not order, that Rizzo undergo mental health counseling while in prison.

Rizzo, who was paying himself as much as $1.1 million as Bell’s top administrator, pleaded guilty in January to federal counts of conspiracy and filing a false federal income tax return.

Federal prosecutors said that from 2005 through 2010, the year he was fired from his job as Bell’s city manager, Rizzo, 60, claimed more than $770,000 in phantom losses on his tax returns, further inflating take-home pay that had reached $1.18 million a year.

The phony losses “operated to substantially offset the increasing wages defendant received from his employment with the city of Bell,” according to Rizzo’s plea agreement.

Rizzo, who was not immediately taken into custody, declined to make any comment during his sentencing hearing.

Federal prosecutors wrote in court papers that Rizzo’s conduct as Bell’s chief administrator “can only be described as corrupt.”

“Defendant abused his position to fleece the city of Bell of hundreds of thousands of dollars that he paid to himself in excessive salary – monies that could have been spent for the benefit of the people he served,” prosecutors wrote. “But not satisfied with betraying the trust placed in him by the city and its residents, in an extraordinary display of greed, defendant also found it necessary to cheat the IRS.”

Angela Spaccia, Rizzo’s second-in-command in Bell, was convicted of 11 counts of corruption in Superior Court and sentenced to almost 12 years in state prison last week. She has not been charged federally. However, she is referred to in Rizzo’s federal court documents as “A.S.,’ along with her company, Sheffield Management Corp.

Rizzo’s plea agreement says the two of them cost the IRS more than $300,000.

The accountant in the scheme, Robert J. Melcher of Calabasas, pleaded guilty last year to aiding and abetting the filing of a false tax return. He is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court later this year.

Five ex-Bell City Council members were found guilty last year in Superior Court on felony counts of misappropriating public funds through exorbitant salaries.

They accepted plea deals last week in which they pleaded no contest to two felony counts of misappropriation of public funds. They are facing sentences that could range from probation to four years in state prison.



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Felony charges dropped against Newport Beach doctor

A prosecutor moved to dismiss all charges Monday against a Newport Beach doctor who had been accused of performing unnecessary surgery as part of an insurance fraud scheme.

The dismissal came the same day Jay Calvert was scheduled to be arraigned on three felony charges: preparing a false claim, making a false claim and perjury.

“There was no evidence to support any prosecution against Dr. Calvert,” said his lawyer, Arthur Barens.

Deputy District Attorney Shaddi Kamiabipour said she dropped the case because Calvert agreed to pay an undisclosed amount of restitution to patients. He also agreed to change some of his practices to ensure patients consent to all procedures and know what Calvert is billing, the prosecutor said.

“We’re not dealing with a situation of me dismissing the case because he’s innocent,” Kamiabipour said. “The reason it was done is it appeared to be a reasonably isolated situation, and he agreed to make corrections. And he is not necessarily a bad surgeon.”

She said patients supported her decision to drop charges.

Barens said he was relieved but still didn’t understand why the charges were filed in the first place.

“That’s one of those things I don’t think I’ll ever know,” he said. “I find it amazing, to be candid with you.”

Kamiabipour said she would not discuss some details to protect patients’ privacy. But she said evidence showed Calvert performed cosmetic plastic surgeries that were not covered by insurance, but also performed additional procedures to which patients had not fully consented.

He did so, Kamiabipour said, so he could bill both the insurance companies and the patients.

At the time Calvert was charged in November, another lawyer representing him, Pat Caiazza, said all the procedures he performed were medically necessary.

Though the District Attorney’s Office said there were problems with multiple patients, it only filed charges involving one. That man went to Calvert’s office in 2009 for a rhinoplasty, but Calvert performed additional procedures, the District Attorney’s Office said last year.

Calvert then manufactured documents to submit with the claim, overbilling the man’s insurance company by more than $40,000, prosecutors said.

The perjury count charged him with lying under oath in 2010 as part of a lawsuit brought by the same former patient.

Barens said the state Medical Board dismissed the complaint that led to the criminal charges. A check of Medical Board records shows Calvert has never faced any disciplinary action.

Calvert paid a “token” amount to settle the former patient’s lawsuit after at least five experts found his actions proper, Caiazza said.

Kamiabipour said the charges fell into a “gray area” because Calvert was not hurting patients and cooperated with the investigation.

She said she believed he did bill excessively and added, “But is the answer a felony conviction that can jeopardize his license? Under the circumstances, the fact that he met me halfway … I decided to give him a break.”

Barens said Calvert has continued his practice through “an extremely difficult time in his life for him and his family.”



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Man charged with murder of 12-year-old in high-speed crash

WESTMINSTER – Prosecutors on Monday charged a man with murdering a 12-year-old girl and seriously injuring her brother and mother in a high-speed crash while fleeing police.

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Defendant Aleksandar Apostolovic, 26, appears for his arraignment at the West Justice Center in Westminster on charges including murder stemming from a high speed chase that resulted in the death of a 12-year-old girl. EUGENE GARCIA, , EUGENE GARCIA, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Superior Court Judge Thomas Borris appointed the Public Defender’s Office to represent Aleksandar Apostolovic, 26, of Santa Ana, after finding Apostolovic could not afford a lawyer.

A bearded and handcuffed Apostolovic appeared briefly in a mustard-colored Orange County jail outfit at the West Justice Center in Westminster before Borris agreed to continue his arraignment to May 9.

Apostolovic is charged with several felonies, including murder, aggravated assault on a peace officer, and hit-and-run causing death or permanent injury, plus sentencing enhancements for a prior strike conviction for first-degree burglary in 2008 and multiple prison priors.

Vivian Nguyen was killed when authorities say Apostolovic crashed into the mini-van driven by her mother when he fled Thursday afternoon from Westminster officers who tried to pull him over in marked police cars with their lights activated.

Apostolovic is accused of driving a Chevrolet Suburban and crashing into the front of a police car before fleeing. The Suburban later crashed into two vehicles, including one carrying Vivian and her brother, William, 13, who was hospitalized along with their mother, Helen. Both are expected to recover.

Apostolovic fled on foot after the crash and was arrested around midnight Thursday, authorities said.

If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of more than 35 years to life in prison. Bail was set at $1 million.



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