San Francisco Bay Area Friday Midday News Roundup

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Chez Panisse Founder Says It Could Reopen Next Weekend

Berkeley's famous Chez Panisse restaurant could reopen as soon as next weekend after being damaged in a fire early this morning, according to its equally famous founder, Alice Waters.

Waters sent a message out on Twitter around 10 a.m. that said, "Luckily no one hurt and the main structure of Chez Panisse intact. Hope to reopen the Cafe next weekend. Thank you for your love + support." 

The fire at the 1517 Shattuck Ave. restaurant was reported just after 3 a.m., fire officials said.

A working sprinkler system inside the building helped stop the fire from spreading to the entire structure, fire officials said.

The fire was brought under control shortly before 4:30 a.m.

San Jose Man Pleads Not Guilty To Bank Bombing Plot Charge

A San Jose man pleaded not guilty in federal court today to a charge alleging that he attempted to detonate a car bomb at an Oakland bank last month in order to spark a civil war.

Matthew Aaron Llaneza, 28, is charged with the attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction against property used in an activity that affects interstate or foreign commerce for allegedly trying to bomb a Bank of America branch at 303 Hegenberger Road on Feb. 8.

The U.S. Attorney's Office filed a criminal complaint against Llaneza on Feb. 8, but on Thursday a federal grand jury issued an indictment against him on the same charge that replaces the complaint.

Defense attorney Jerome Matthews told Magistrate Judge Kandis Westmore at a brief hearing today that Llaneza has "significant mental illness" but is still competent to stand trial.

Llaneza, who has black curly hair and a goatee and wore a red jail jumpsuit at his hearing, is scheduled to return to court on April 11 for a pretrial hearing.

If he is convicted, Llaneza faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said authorities arrested Llaneza as he was preparing to bomb the Bank of America office. They said his arrest was the culmination of an undercover operation during which Llaneza was closely monitored by the FBI's South Bay Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Prosecutors said Llaneza didn't realize that the explosive device that he allegedly attempted to use had been rendered inoperable by law enforcement and posed no threat to the public.

According to the affidavit filed with the criminal complaint, on Nov. 30 Llaneza met with a man who led him to believe he was connected with the Taliban and the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, although in reality the man was an undercover FBI agent.

At the initial meeting, Llaneza proposed conducting a car bomb attack against a bank in the Bay Area, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Authorities said Llaneza proposed structuring the attack to make it appear that the responsible party was an umbrella organization for a loose collection of anti-government militias and their sympathizers.

They said Llaneza's stated goal was to trigger a governmental crackdown, which he expected would trigger a right-wing counter-response against the government followed by, he hoped, civil war.

Prosecutors allege that Llaneza subsequently selected the Bank of America branch at 303 Hegenberger Road as the target for the attack and ultimately specified a spot next to a support column of the bank building as a good location for the bomb.

Once he was there, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Llaneza attempted to detonate the bomb by using a cellphone he had bought to place two calls to the trigger device attached to the car bomb. Federal agents then arrested him.

Abuse Charges Dropped Against Redwood City Teacher After Aides Change Statements

Child cruelty and battery charges against a Redwood City special education teacher were dropped Thursday after the aides who had originally accused her changed their statements, according to San Mateo County prosecutors.

Alexia Alika Bogdis, 44, a teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School, was arrested in February 2012 after aides accused her of slapping a student, twisting a student's wrist and kicking the back of a chair, causing it to hit a student.

Bogdis, a Millbrae resident, was also accused of depriving a child of food. The two children in question were 4-year-old autistic boys, according to police and prosecutors.

District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe said the charges were dropped Thursday due to insufficient evidence after the aides, who had been given immunity, backed off their original statements. The children, due to their age and condition, were considered unable to make statements in the case. Bogdis had been out of custody on $15,000 bail at the time the charges were dismissed.

She was placed on paid administrative leave along with six other employees at the Redwood City School District after the allegations came to light on Feb. 1, 2012.

Eight employees were initially put on leave, but in a letter to parents in the district, Superintendent Jan Christensen later wrote that a review of the case indicated "six people knew of possible abuse and did not meet their legal obligation to report it."

Vigil And Car Wash Planned In Honor Of Slain Richmond Volunteer

Community members will show their support for a 20-year-old man who was shot and killed in Richmond Monday at a candlelight vigil in his honor tonight and a car wash fundraiser Saturday.

Lincoln Plair was gunned down around 3:40 p.m. Monday in the 600 block of Sixth Street, according to police.

Officers responded and found him suffering from multiple gunshot wounds. He was pronounced dead at the scene and is the city's second homicide victim of the year.

Plair was murdered just a couple of blocks from the Elm Playlot, a city park in Richmond's Iron Triangle where he volunteered daily for local non-profit group Pogo Park.

The Richmond-based organization is working to rebuild the playground to provide a place for children to play in the impoverished neighborhood, according to its website.

Pogo Park founder Toody Maher said Plair could be found at the playlot at 8 a.m. each morning cleaning out the sandboxes, sprucing up equipment or working on other park projects.

The young man brought his gentle, kind spirit to the organization when he began volunteering there over a year ago, Maher said.

In addition to helping maintain the playlot, Plair would play with the neighborhood children who made their way there in the afternoon.

"When the kids are here, he's like a big kid himself," Maher said. 

He also loved to ride his bicycle and wash cars, she said.

Plair's peaceful nature made the news of his killing on Monday all the more shocking to those who knew him.

"His killing was totally senseless, he didn't have a quarrel with anybody -- and everybody knows that," Maher said.

She said tonight's vigil at the park and a march to the spot where he was killed should be a chance for friends, family, fellow Pogo Park associates and the neighborhood kids who knew him to honor his life.

On Saturday, Pogo Park and other community members will hold a car wash to help raise money for Plair's family, which is now faced with mounting funeral costs. U.S. Congressman George Miller, D-Martinez, is expected to attend.

The young man's father, who raised him and is now in his 70s and disabled, is "catatonic with grief" in the aftermath of his son's killing, Maher said.

Plair was his primary caretaker, she said.

Tonight's vigil will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Elm Playlot in the 600 block of Eighth Street. The fundraiser car wash is set to run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the same location.

Police, City Officials Begin Removing Homeless From Encampment In Downtown San Jose

A planned cleanup of a homeless encampment in downtown San Jose got started this morning and will evict people who remained there after the city issued a 72-hour vacation notice on Monday.

San Jose police and animal rescue officers stood by as volunteers from non-profit groups removed tents, tarps, mattresses, clothing, cooking equipment and other debris from makeshift camps in the fields west of the Guadalupe River.

Only about 20 or 30 people were still residing in the widespread, grassy parkland, down from around 100 who were there last weekend before the San Jose Housing Department posted vacation notices on tents and trees, said Ray Bramson, a department spokesman.

San Jose has limited emergency shelter facilities with about 50 beds available for overnight housing for those who are evicted today and still have no place to live.

"Everyone remaining here, we could provide shelter for them tonight," said Bramson as a Southwest Airlines plane flew loudly overhead toward Mineta San Jose International Airport, which claims use of the parkland as an emergency landing site.

No one was arrested this morning and Bramson said he does he not expect anyone will be today since people are complying with police.

The city, which funds non-profit homeless assistance groups Destination Home and EHC Lifebuilders, is in the midst of a program to identify 1,000 of San Jose's most vulnerable homeless people for extended stays in shelters by 2015, Bramson said.

In the middle of the expansive parkland, a large garbage truck left Spring Street and backed up onto a muddy road near some encampments.

Workers from the San Jose Conservation Corps, in yellow hats and vests, put trash into clear plastic bags and flung them into the rear of the truck.

Possessions claimed as property by the homeless were tagged and stuffed into bags to be stored at a facility in San Jose for free for up to 90 days, Bramson said.

Michael Stephens, 56, a San Jose native, looked bewildered as a uniformed police officer watched him clear things from his improvised tent and drop them into four old shopping carts.

Stephens, who lived in the tent with his cat, Missy, said he suffers from untreated mental illness and is not sure where he will go.

"It's hard to get help because everyone is trying to get help," Stephens said. "After I pack up, I'll go look around. I might just camp out.

"I've been here for six months," he said. "It's been nice not being told to move."

Kristina Erbenich, 38, was removing her property from a small, curved tent she shares with her boyfriend, David Venn, 50.

Erbenich said she is a retired chef from Philadelphia who came to San Jose to be treated for a serious illness at Stanford Medical Center in Palo Alto but now receives treatment at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose.

She has a job but after paying health insurance, she does not have enough money to afford housing and Venn, a motorcycle repairman, cannot work because his driver's license was suspended and he does not have the $500 to pay his fine.

"You're broke by the time of your next paycheck," she said. "I guess we'll go along and find a place to camp out around 'No Trespassing' signs.

"I don't know where to go," Erbenich said. "I have an income but I don't have enough to make it."

Alleged Drunken Driver Pleads Not Guilty To Charges In Girl's Death Near Stern Grove

An alleged drunken driver accused of striking and killing a 17-year-old girl as she crossed a street near San Francisco's Stern Grove last weekend pleaded not guilty to felony vehicular manslaughter and DUI charges today, prosecutors said.

Kieran Brewer, 28, is charged for the death of Hanren Chang, who was struck as she crossed Sloat Boulevard at Vale Avenue at about 11:20 p.m. Saturday.

Chang was celebrating her 17th birthday on the day she was struck, prosecutors said.

Deputy Public Defender Kwixuan Maloof said at Brewer's initial court appearance earlier this week that his blood-alcohol content was .09, barely above the .08 limit, when he was booked into custody.

However, prosecutors noted that the testing was done hours after the crash and that Brewer admitted to drinking prior to driving.

Brewer remains in custody on $300,000 bail and will return to court for a pre-hearing conference on March 27, district attorney's office spokesman Alex Bastian said.

Oakland Police Make Several Arrests In Crime Sweep This Morning

Oakland police joined forces with state and federal agencies to arrest several suspected violent offenders in a crime sweep this morning, a police spokeswoman said.

Police officers working with the U.S. Marshals Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies served several search and arrest warrants in Oakland and other neighboring cities early this morning, police spokeswoman Officer Johnna Watson said.

Several people have been arrested and several firearms have been recovered, Watson said.

She said the suspects arrested are accused of violent crimes and that the operation was still ongoing as of 8 a.m.

The arrests are part of "Operation Ceasefire," a multi-disciplinary approach to fighting violence that was launched by the Police Department last October.

Police officials held a news conference later this morning to provide more information about today's operation.

All-Electronic Tolling On Golden Gate Bridge Slated For March 27

All-electronic tolling on the Golden Gate Bridge will take effect by the morning commute on March 27, Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District officials announced Thursday.

The switch to all-electronic toll collection will save the district $16 million over eight years, bridge district spokeswoman Mary Currie said.

The electronic toll collection options include the current FasTrak and three pay-by-plate options; opening a license plate account, making a one-time payment or paying a toll invoice.

For two-axle vehicles, the pay-by-plate toll will be $6. The FasTrak toll will still be $5 and the carpool toll remains at $3.

Of the 28 full-time toll collectors who were employed in January 2011 when the decision to collect tolls electronically was made, all but nine have transitioned to another job at the district or are retiring, Currie said.

An advertising campaign about the electronic tolling that is tied to the 1960s began Wednesday, Currie said. Its tagline is, "Drive on through to the other side. All-Electronic Tolling on the Golden Gate Bridge. No Stopping, Ever. Trippy."

The Golden Gate Bridge was the first to develop and institute one-way toll collection on Oct. 19, 1968, Currie noted. All lanes on the bridge will accommodate all electronic toll collection options, she said.

The second toll lane from the right on the western side of the bridge will be dedicated as the "Carpool Only" lane for southbound vehicles with three or more persons and motorcyclists who use FasTrak between 5-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. on weekdays except holidays.

FasTrak will be required to use the carpool lane, Currie said. 

The district will also hold a public hearing on March 21 on a proposal to raise the speed limit through the toll plaza from 5 mph to 25 mph, which is the current speed limit in FasTrak lanes at other CalTrans-operated toll bridges in the Bay Area.

Reality TV Show 'Amazing Race' Holding Casting Call In San Francisco On Saturday

Those seeking adventure have the opportunity to try out for the competitive travel reality TV show, "The Amazing Race," on Saturday in San Francisco.

Auditions will be held at the Marmot clothing and equipment store at 165 Post St. between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday.

Applicants will vie to become one of as many as 11 pairs competing in the 23rd installment of the CBS game show that sends teams around the world while tackling physical and mental challenges. 

Prospective competitors must be 21 years old and both teammates must be at the audition, casting organizers said.

Applicants are advised to be prepared to answer a series of questions, including why they should be considered for the show.

The team to outlast the other pairs and first reach the final destination is declared the winner, and in past seasons has received a $1 million prize.

San Mateo Authorities Warn Of Man Claiming To Be With Sheriff's Office

San Mateo County sheriff's deputies are warning residents in San Carlos about a man who was going door-to-door earlier this week claiming to be from the sheriff's office.

The incident was reported at about 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the 1100 block of Woodland Avenue.

The suspect said he was with the sheriff's office, displayed some type of badge and was also carrying candy canes. He said he wanted to meet neighbors after recently moving to a residence on nearby Laurel Street, sheriff's officials said.

Authorities said no one from the sheriff's office was going door-to-door at that time.

The suspect was described as a Hispanic man in his early 30s who is about 6 feet tall and heavy-set. He was last seen wearing a red ball cap, possibly with a Mexican flag insignia, and a black or dark-colored sweat suit, according to the sheriff's office.

He was last seen walking south on Cedar Street and has not been found.

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