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Top Mid-Columbia stories for March 11, 1997

Tri-City Republican heads helmet law hopes
Tri-Cities a finalist for titanium firm
Search for clues about mysterious pit comes up empty
Plymouth slaying suspect competent
Going out as winners

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Tri-City Republican heads helmet law hopes

Herald Western Washington bureau

OLYMPIA - The hopes of motorcyclists who want Washington's mandatory helmet law repealed now ride solely on the shoulders of Rep. Jerome Delvin, R-Kennewick.

The Senate version of a bill that would allow riders age 21 and older the option of riding without a helmet died Monday in the Ways and Means Committee. Unless Delvin's House bill makes it out of its committee before March 19, it also will die.

Bikers admit the Senate bill's fate is a setback, but they say it's still too early to panic. "At this point, I feel semi-optimistic," said Shelley Yonker, a volunteer lobbyist for the Washington Riders Legislative Task Force.

"We have a lot of bipartisan support in the House and the Senate," said Karen Bolin, the author of Delvin's bill and a member of the Washington chapter of American Bikers Aimed Toward Education.

The Senate bill died in committee Friday by a close margin. The vote was 10-9 in favor of the bill, but it needed 11 to pass. Two members were absent.

Its sponsor, Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, tried to bring the bill up for reconsideration Monday, but Ways and Means Chairman James West, R-Spokane, author of the current helmet law wouldn't allow a second vote.

"We haven't given up on this," Bolin said. "We've made it farther than a lot of bills this year."

Neither has Delvin given up. He's taking a head count of the members of the Rules Committee in hopes of persuading its chairman, House Speaker Clyde Ballard, R-Wenatchee, to bring the bill up for a vote.

"The speaker hasn't said 'no' yet, but he hasn't said 'yes,' either," Delvin said.

Delvin, a Richland police officer, has been criticized for sponsoring the controversial helmet bill, but the measure nevertheless cruised through the House Transportation Committee. He said the issue isn't safety, but rather government rules vs. individual rights.

Bikers - who showed up by the dozens to testify during hearings on the bills - echoed the argument, and many said they would continue wearing helmets voluntarily. Yonker said she suspects as many as 80 percent of motorcyclists would choose to wear a helmet even without a state law.

Where the helmet bill repeal ran into trouble in the Senate was when lawmakers asked for a price tag. According to an analysis by the Department of Social and Human Services, repealing the current law would cost taxpayers almost $4 million per year in additional medical bills.

Without a law on the books, the department estimated, 26 more people would suffer a serious or critical head injury per year -each one costing a little more than $150,000 in Medicaid money.

Yonker disputes the $4 million figure and the number of additional injuries that would occur. She doesn't think the data used to arrive at those numbers is accurate because it doesn't take into account that riders between 18 and 21 years old still would be required to wear helmets, and that rider training has improved significantly in the last few years.

But even using the crash data the state used in its calculations, Yonker contends the repeal would result in 10 additional serious head injuries per year, or about $1.5 million of taxpayer expense.

Compared with the state's $19 billion budget, she said, that is nothing.

"We're not going to say there won't be any more head injuries," Yonker said. "There may be a few more, but we're trying to have some kind of balance between regulation and risk."

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

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Tri-Cities a finalist for titanium firm

Herald staff writer

Richland is one of four finalist sites for a $32 million titanium manufacturing plant to be built this spring by Oregon Metallurgical Corp.

The Albany-based company is to sign a letter of intent this week to start the permit application process for a high-tech "electron beam furnace" on 20 acres at Horn Rapids Industrial Park in north Richland.

"We've already ordered the equipment," Dennis Kelly, Oregon Metallurgical vice president of finance, said Monday. "We would look to break ground this spring so that the building is constructed by late this year so we could move equipment into it around the end of the year.

"Hopefully, we'll be starting it up and debugging it during the first quarter of 1998 and producing in the second quarter."

Oregon Metallurgical - known as Oremet - also is applying for permits in Albany and one of the two other unidentified locations. Needed are permits for the building, air emissions and water discharge. Company officials plan to decide on the final site by the end of April, depending on how the permits and other site negotiations work out.

Titanium is coveted for its strength and lightness - twice the strength per pound of steel. It has a variety of uses, from airplane parts to prosthetic knee and hip joints.

The new plant initially would employ 50 to 80 people, with starting wages at about $15 per hour, plus benefits and stock incentives, said project manager Steve Strecker.

A range of job skills would be needed.

Electron beam furnace operators should have at least two years of technical school and backgrounds in electrical or instrumentation, Strecker said. Some metallurgists, chemists and material processing experts will be needed. And there will be jobs for administrative and maintenance staff. Training projects, such as those at

Columbia Basin College and Washington State University at Tri-Cities, could come into play, he said.

Once up to speed, the electron beam furnace should produce 20 million pounds of titanium each year, mostly as ingots.

Each silvery gray ingot weighs about 20,000 pounds. They are sold to commercial aerospace, industrial, military and golf equipment manufacturers, who fabricate them into their own products.

Kelly said Oremet wouldn't compete with Sandvik Special Metals in Finley, which makes seamless tubing for nuclear and aerospace uses, but Oremet could be a supplier to Sandvik, which uses titanium in some of its products.

The Tri-City Industrial Development Council is working with the Oregon company.

"We've got the right things for this company," said Tom Patton, TRIDEC's senior vice president of commerce and industry. "We're going to expedite the process in every way possible."

Oremet's project would qualify for Battelle-Northwest's offer of three free hours of technical assistance per full-time job. The manufacturing equipment also would be exempt from state sales tax.

Inside the 731-employee company, the project is known by its code name "Top Gun," after the 1980s movie about Navy ace fighter pilots.

"Maybe because it's the biggest and the best around," Strecker said with a laugh about the nickname. The electron beam furnace will be the largest in the world. Three such plants are operating now, all in North America.

The unique process essentially uses laser guns to melt titanium.

Instead of the current production process - like an upside-down candle dripping into a mold - the furnace will be like a liquid metal-filled bathtub overflowing into a crucible. The heavier impurities, which cause weak points in the metal, will sink to the bottom of the bathtub.

Clients are demanding the higher purity, Kelly said. General Electric's aerospace division, for example, requires all critical rotating parts to be made in an electron beam furnace.

"This furnace technology is the wave of the future," Kelly said. "All we need is a place to set up."

Oremet officials said they like the Tri-Cities' availability of land, its skilled labor force, fairly priced electricity and access to the deregulated electricity market, the availability of water and water treatment and nearness to the interstate highway system and railroad lines.

Plus, "We wanted something that was within a reasonable travel distance from the site here in Albany," Kelly said. It's about a 5 1/2-hour drive.

Oremet started in 1956. It has a Pennsylvania wire production plant and service centers in six states, Canada and Europe.

Last year, it did $237 million in net sales. In 1995, the company's net sales were $147 million.

Oremet is traded on the Nasdaq stock market using the symbol OREM. On Monday, it closed at 21 3/8, down 5, after the company announced Friday that it expects its sales to golf club producers to be down in 1997. Its stock performance is printed daily in the Tri-City Herald's box of Northwest stocks.

The Oregon company raised $103 million - part for the high-tech plant - late last summer when it issued 4.6 million new shares.

Matt Slavin, Richland's business and economic development manager, met with Oremet officials Friday.

"We agreed this is an area where they could locate and be highly competitive, and this is a company we'd very much like to see in Richland, in the Tri-Cities," Slavin said. "We intend to accelerate the permitting and the regulatory review process."

Oremet's potential location is next to Precision Castparts' site, where the Portland company is to build a metal castings finishing plant. Some of Precision Castparts' products are made out of titanium and are for the same markets Oremet sells to.

"We see Oremet's furnace as a central feature in what's emerging as a strong, focused industrial cluster in the Horn Rapids Industrial Park," Slavin said.

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

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Search for clues about mysterious pit comes up empty

Herald staff writer

There's an eerie pit, 80,000 feet deep, near Yakima that the Army desperately wants to keep secret.

Don't believe it?

Just ask the folks who are spreading the story.

If you can find them.

The tale first emerged about a month ago, when someone calling himself "Mel Waters" called a national radio talk show that often boasts its affinity with those entirely normal folks who stay up all night.

The story reached the Mid-Columbia last week when a Tri-City disc jockey started talking about the hole.

Other than that, facts about the pit are harder to find than personal decorum at a Star Trek convention.

"What I understand is, this Ellensburg guy said he had some property on Manastash Ridge, and he was going up there to visit it and was stopped by soldiers," said Ken Cooper, spokesman for the Army's Yakima Training Center.

Then comes the good part of the story, a narrative element that echoes back a half-century to the crash of a mysterious saucerlike machine near Roswell, N.M.

"The soldiers said he couldn't go on his land because there was a plane crash up there," Cooper said.

This obviously disappointed Mel - plunging him so deep in despair that he could find solace only with a radio talk show - because he wanted to visit the 80,000-foot-deep sink hole he had found earlier on his land.

And how did he know it was 80,000 feet deep?

"He said he used his fishing pole and got his line down 80,000 feet," Cooper said. That's 15 miles.

"But you got to understand, this is all thirdhand information," Cooper said.

The search for firsthand information led to a Tri-City radio station now called Thunder Country.

The woman who answered the telephone said, yes, disc jockey John Travis had been discussing the hole on the air, but, no, Travis was not available to speak with the Herald on Monday.

She took a message, saying she would ask Travis to return the call.

He didn't.

Nor did Art Bell, the guy who aired Waters' first call. Nightly, Bell broadcasts a strange alchemy of UFO information and conspiracy politics from his isolated outpost in the Nevada desert.

But the closest the Herald got to Bell was a radio marketing company in Central Point, Ore.

The woman who answered the phone Monday said she'd try to get a message to Bell - but didn't sound too confident the Dean of the Dark would return the call.

Even the Time Out Saloon of Kittitas - which had been mentioned as a rich source of information concerning the pit - proved to be a dry hole.

"No one who knows anything is here right now. Better call back later," said the woman who answered the phone at the Time Out.

How much later?

"The end of the week."

With all experts on the paranormal not talking - or perhaps mysteriously abducted - that left the usual cast of experts.

Mel Waters wasn't listed in Kittitas County telephone directories, nor did the county assessor have him on taxpayer rolls.

But was Waters merely lying low in Ellensburg?

"No, sir. He's not here," said Jerry Shuart, a sheriff's detective who has fielded several such requests in the past few weeks.

There hasn't been an airplane crash in the past two months in the area, said Mitch Barker of the Federal Aviation Administration in Seattle.

The Army's not hiding an aviation accident, nor an 80,000-foot-deep pit, Cooper said. "We're just training, just like we always do."

Even the Ellensburg Daily Record newspaper - which milked three stories out of the mystery, announced its disbelief with this headline: "Mel's story full of holes."

But perhaps the most damning evidence against Mel and his pit was found in the Tri-Cities, within the mind of Bill Chambliss of Bill's Fishing Hole.

Chambliss, who bills himself as "The World's Greatest Fisherman," seemed the perfect person to ask about Mel's claim he plumbed the 80,000-foot depths of his pit with a fishing pole.

"The average reel holds only about 600 feet of line," Chambliss sniffed.

And would a fisherman lie?

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

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Plymouth slaying suspect competent

Herald staff writer

In a faltering voice, Ernest Lee Taber told the judge he has difficulty spelling his last name. Nor did he fully understand why he was in court.

But Taber, 70, is competent to stand trial for murder in the deaths of Cindy Lou Eaves, her son, Bernard "B.J." Eaves, 3, both of Plymouth, and Galen Michael, 6, of Hermiston, a Benton County Superior Court judge ruled Monday.

Taber, who has been in jail since September, is expected to enter a plea today.

Judge Vic VanderSchoor made his decision after a 5 1/2-hour competency hearing, during which one of the prosecutor's mental health experts testified Taber had said he killed Eaves, 35, in a fit of jealous rage.

During the hearing, VanderSchoor cited, among other things, past legal decisions that found a man with an IQ of 49 to 59 to be competent. An expert for the prosecution said Taber has an IQ of 74.

"The court doesn't lack empathy in this case," VanderSchoor said. "(But) I don't think that we can ignore case law that has come down from the (state) Supreme Court or the Court of Appeals."

And while Taber may not be capable of devising a defense "strategy," the law only requires he be able to "assist" in his own defense, which Taber can do, VanderSchoor said.

Moments before VanderSchoor's decision, defense attorney Dan Arnold called Taber to the stand.

Speaking to Taber as though he were a child, Arnold rested his arms on the witness box and said to his nervous client: "Just pretend there is nobody else here; it's just you and me."

Taber, gaunt and pale, his thinning silver hair slicked back, nodded gently.

Arnold asked Taber to spell his name.

"I can't spell it real good," said Taber, his voice barely audible. "It would take me a little while to spell it."

The defense attorney then asked Taber about his schooling.

"I went to school a little bit, but not too far," Taber said.

"Why are you here today?" Arnold asked.

"I got a murder rap on me; I might as well say it," Taber responded.

Later, Arnold asked Taber what was the specific purpose of Monday's hearing.

"Seeing if I'm lying, I guess," Taber said. "I don't know."

While defense attorneys sought to portray Taber as a gentle, infantlike man who always tried to please his interrogators, a different picture emerged during testimony from a state witness.

Verne Cressey, a psychiatrist at Eastern State Hospital, said Taber told him jealousy made him kill Eaves in 1991.

"He was mad at her because she had brought a fellow home and entertained him," Cressey said. "It made him mad and jealous."

Cressey went on to say that Taber "took a club and beat on her. He wasn't particularly planning to kill her - he just wanted to hurt her."

Prosecutors allege Taber also killed Eaves' son "B.J." and buried the two bodies in southern Benton County. Taber's sister, Marie Haye, has said her brother had helped Eaves take care of her son while she worked.

Taber is accused of killing Galen Michael last fall. Prosecutors allege Taber lost his temper and killed the boy with a shovel, then made up stories about a kidnapping and a drowning.

But defense attorneys and their mental expert have questioned Taber's alleged role in the 1991 murders. They say Taber may have wrongly accepted responsibility for the crimes because he was severely depressed.

Taber's attorneys also have said he was in poor health in 1991 and it's unlikely he had the strength to kill Eaves and dispose of her body.

While questioning Sheriff's Detective Duane Clarke, who interviewed Taber in September, defense attorney Kevin Holt reminded Clarke that Eaves was a heavy woman and it would have been difficult for Taber to move her body.

Holt also suggested Taber may have had dif ficulty giving Clarke an accurate rendition of what really happened.

But Clarke disagreed.

"You're talking a five-year time-frame," Clarke said. "Some things are going to be left out. ... But the information is there as to what happened, if you just listen to what (Taber's) got to say."

In other testimony, Dr. Mark Mays, a psychologist testifying for the defense, said a battery of intelligence tests showed Taber may suffer from brain damage that occurred at birth.

"His verbal understanding is limited," Mays said. "His capacity to comprehend is limited - so limited, you could call it mentally retarded (on the verbal level)."

One of the prosecution's experts said that while Taber is "functionally illiterate," he does seem to understand what's happening.

"He did have a grasp of the jeopardy and what he could potentially (face) in the way of losing his freedom," said Daniel Lord-Flynn, a clinical psychologist at Eastern.

After Monday's hearing, attorneys on both sides were less than eager to discuss the case.

"I'm not surprised," said Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller. "The judge made a good decision."

Holt criticized the low standard set for legal competency.

"The court has set the standard at a step-over," he said.

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

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Going out as winners

Herald Oregon bureau

UMATILLA - Five seniors played their last game together Saturday as Umatilla Vikings.

But what a game.

The Vikings' 59-54 win over Santiam Christian left the team the state's 2A champions and earned it a berth in Umatilla High School history.

The team not only became the school's first to earn a state basketball title, but it now also ranks as the only sports team in the school's 85-year history ever to win a state title.

As candy and cheerleaders were flung into the air and the students cheered, "Vikings! Vikings! Go! Go! Go!" from the gym bleachers, the high school students and faculty gathered Monday afternoon to celebrate the victory.

"I'm just excited. All these people congratulating me, you know, and it's still like it hasn't sunk in yet," said Francisco Sanguino, a Viking guard who scored eight of his 10 points in the fourth quarter of Saturday's game at the Pendleton Convention Center.

"I feel like I still have another game to play, but I don't," Sanguino said. "As a senior, we went out as winners, and I guess that's the best way to go out."

The 18-year-old said he and his teammates have been playing together since they were fourth-graders. There's been a lot of memories, a lot of losses and some wins - but nothing like this one for the Vikings.

On Saturday, the team, which ended its season with a 26-3 record, trailed at halftime and was down by six points with five minutes left but managed to climb from behind to pick up the win.

For center and team captain Jimmy Kurtz, the game was the last for him but "by far the best way to end the season."

"It's hard to tell what I'm feeling now. I'm still way up in the clouds," said the 6-foot-3 senior. "It's nice to know we're making history and the students and everyone will know about this forever."

Kurtz explained he and his teammates bleached their hair Thursday. The gesture was spontaneous, but he said it seemed to give the already cohesive group more unity.

Team members spoke after Monday's rally while they signed basketballs, gave news media interviews and graciously accepted their celebrity status. One of the basketballs the team signed was a mangy, beat-up thing the Vikings were going to present to their arch rivals, Weston-McEwen.

Vikings forward Tyson Jones had to lean on his crutches while he signed basketballs. During the last four seconds of the game, with his team winning by four points, Jones stepped on someone's foot while scrambling for the ball and tore cartilage in his ankle.

Jones said the injury hurt, but it was the kind of pain that felt good.

"We've been playing together since fourth grade, and it's great that this has finally happened to us," said the 18-year-old senior. "It was the first time I ever cried after a game." Tears also almost came to head coach Scott

Preuninger about 7:30 p.m. Sunday when he found himself alone at home with the team trophy and his thoughts about what his team's win actually meant.

"It hit me, and I almost started crying," said Preuninger, who has been head coach for five years. "I had someone ask me Saturday if I realized we were making history, and I said, 'We didn't even talk about this. Our goal was just to get there.' "

Although he is losing five of his seniors, the coach said he has four strong juniors returning to play next year.

He also said he thinks the win will help the school because everyone will remember something positive about Umatilla High.

"We don't get a lot of positive recognition, and this was long overdue," Preuninger said. "There's been great community support and great fan support."

That support continued Monday, led in part by Viking mascot Joel Hagedorn, who looked particularly victorious dressed in Viking horns and black leather tunic.

"I'm just very excited," he said. "I've been mascot for two years, and I knew we could do it and it's just great to see that they did do it."

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