Year in review: Most read stories of 2023

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At the close of another year packed with unpredictable and varied local news, the Independent takes a look back at what residents considered the most important stories of 2023. The Indy delivered updates on local issues, including a murder that stunned the community, conflicts between Laguna Beach Company CEO Mohammed Honarkar and investor group MOM entities, the plight of Emerald Bay Sanctuary and much more. 

Here’s a round-up of several of our most-read stories from the past year.

Murder Suspect Arrested in Laguna Hills

In mid-November, Laguna Beach detectives arrested Dino Rojas-Moreno, 26, in connection with the murder of Laguna Beach restaurant employee Tatum Goodwin.

“This arrest was the result of outstanding police work by our investigations team that worked tirelessly with our law enforcement partners to bring justice to Tatum Goodwin and her family,” Laguna Beach Police Chief Jeff Calvert said.

Rojas-Moreno was arrested in Laguna Hills on the evening of Nov. 15, the same night around 300 of Goodwin’s friends and family mourned the loss of 27-year-old Goodwin at a rainy candlelight vigil on San Clemente pier.

A construction worker found Goodwin’s body on Sunday, Nov. 12 at approximately 8:20 a.m. behind South Coast Theater, which was undergoing renovations at the time, near the 200 block of Ocean Avenue. 

A police report released Nov. 15 said detectives acquired enough information and evidence to identify a suspect responsible for Goodwin’s death, and Laguna Beach Detectives, with help from the Newport Beach and Anaheim Police Departments, arrested Rojas-Moreno.

Rojas-Moreno’s bail was set at $1,000,000.

Laguna Beach Doctor Dies After Fatal Collision, Knife Assault on PCH

Hundreds of Laguna Beach community members gathered at the Festival of the Arts on Feb. 16 for a public memorial service honoring Laguna Beach Doctor Michael John Mammone. Michael’s wife Julie Mammone spoke at her late husband’s memorial. Mammone’s family, including his two sons, siblings and parents, were also in attendance. Photo courtesy of the City of Laguna Beach

A Laguna Beach cyclist died Feb. 1 after being struck from behind by a vehicle, then stabbed at the Pacific Coast Highway and Crown Valley Parkway intersection in Dana Point.

Orange County Sheriff’s deputies found Laguna Beach doctor Michael John Mammone, 58, lying in the intersection and suffering from severe injuries when they arrived on the scene at 3:02 p.m. Mammone was transported to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead, according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

Mammone was on a mountain bike facing northbound on PCH when he was struck from behind by the suspect’s vehicle. The driver, Vanroy Evan Smith, 39, from Long Beach, exited his car and assaulted Mammone with a knife, according to authorities. When deputies arrived on the scene, local bystanders had Smith detained. The suspect was taken into custody and later booked into the Orange County Jail on suspicion of murder. A knife believed to be used in the assault was recovered at the scene, officials said in a release.

The incident and subsequent investigation caused all southbound traffic on Coast Highway, from Vista Del Sol to Crown Valley, to close at around 3:30 p.m. Authorities later closed the portions of Crown Valley Parkway in Dana Point. All lanes of PCH remained closed until early Thursday morning, causing heavy traffic in Laguna Beach.

“The Laguna Beach community is heartbroken by yesterday’s incident in our neighboring city, Dana Point,” Laguna Beach Police Chief Jeff Calvert said after the incident. “We stand in solidarity with those affected and pray for healing during this difficult time.”

Who Owns Hotel Laguna?

According to recent reports, at least some of Laguna Beach Company’s tenants, which includes Hotel Laguna, were sent letters indicating a change in ownership and property management.

One such letter, sent to tenants of the Hive and obtained by the Independent, stated, “Effective as of the date of this letter, Mohammed Honarkar is no longer acting on behalf of the aforementioned company,” the March 29 letter said. “You should no longer have contact with him or his office, including but not limited to paying rent to Mr. Honarkar.”

The Hive, located on Laguna Canyon Road, includes tenants such as Laguna Beach Beer Company, Kitchen in the Canyon, Flashman Designs, Prevail, Silver Jeans, McClain Cellars and LCAD’s Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Departments.

However, as of April 5, a representative from the Laguna Beach Company claimed Honarkar still owns Hotel Laguna and other Laguna Beach properties.

“Contrary to some recent claims, Mo Honarkar and the Laguna Beach Company are fully retaining their ownership positions of Hotel Laguna and other local properties,” the Laguna Beach Company wrote in an email to the Independent on Wednesday. “Day-to-day food and beverage management of Hotel Laguna has been temporarily transferred while a business dispute is resolved. In the meantime, Hotel Laguna and the company’s other properties are operating normally and remain open for business to serve the Laguna Beach community.”

Sources say Michael Kluchin, director of operations at Continuum Analytics, a partner of the Hotel Laguna LLC, had requested meetings with the city council and staff to discuss the changes. According to Kluchin’s LinkedIn profile, Continuum Analytics specializes in distressed debt real estate investments.

Laguna Beach Bartender Pleads Not Guilty in Tatum Goodwin Murder Case

 Tatum Goodwin’s family and friends packed the front rows of a small Orange County Superior Courtroom early Monday morning, Nov. 20 to watch as Laguna Beach bartender Dino Fabrizio Rojas-Moreno, accused of killing Goodwin, 27, with a fire extinguisher, entered a not guilty plea to a special circumstances murder charge through one of his defense lawyers, Chris Bou Saeed.

Defense attorney Chris Bou Saeed stands in front of Dino Rojas-Moreno (right, seated) during the 26-year-old’s arraignment on Nov. 20 at the Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana. Clara Beard/LB Indy

Rojas-Moreno, 26, has been charged with one felony count of murder, as well as enhancements of special circumstances of murdering the commission of a kidnapping and personal use of a weapon – a fire extinguisher, related to the slaying of Goodwin on Nov. 12.

During the 26-year-old’s arraignment hearing, Orange County Superior Court Judge Andre Manssourian addressed Rojas-Moreno only to verify his name, birth date and set his next pre-trial hearing date for Jan. 30.

The judge then ordered Rojas-Moreno to stay in jail with no chance of bail before dismissing him. Rojas-Moreno briefly looked around the gallery, then exited the courtroom.

Because of the special circumstances murder charge, Rojas-Moreno faces the death penalty or life in prison without parole if convicted.

On Friday, Nov. 17, the Orange County District Attorney’s Office released a statement saying Rojas-Moreno, who worked at the Royal Hawaiian on Coast Highway, approached Goodwin in a nearby parking lot on Ocean Avenue around 1 a.m. and assaulted her near her parked car.

“Rojas-Moreno then forcefully dragged her to the rear of the parking lot, down a short alley, and to a secluded area behind a movie theatre that was under construction,” the DA said in the release. “Rojas-Moreno is then accused of beating Goodwin to death with a fire extinguisher.”

At about 8:20 a.m. the same day, a construction worker found Goodwin’s body at a construction site behind the South Coast Theatre.

Authorities said Goodwin’s body was found under a chain link fence at the construction site, with a sandbag on her head.

Prosecutors said that it’s still unknown whether Goodwin had any previous connection with Rojas-Moreno.

On the day of the murder, Rojas-Moreno didn’t show up to his shift at the Royal Hawaiian, claiming several men in Santa Ana had jumped him, authorities said.

Civil Disputes at Hotel Laguna and 14 West Prompt Forced Closure by City

The City of Laguna Beach ordered Hotel Laguna and 14 West to close on May 2 after three separate altercations between two different armed security guard teams broke out on the hotels’ premises. The conflicts were related to an ongoing civil dispute over the control of operations and management at the hotel properties between well-known Laguna Beach real estate investor Mohammad Honarkar and a group of investors who claim to have bailed out Honarkar from foreclosure two years ago.

A physical altercation at Hotel Laguna on May 2 between separate security guard groups led to one arrest by Laguna Beach police. Photo/Clara Beard

As part of the bailout, Honarkar contributed all his assets to a group of investors represented by Cohen Law Group, which includes properties such as Hotel Laguna, the Art-A-Fair building, Cliff Village LLC, Terra Laguna Beach, several vacation homes and the 14West hotel. 

However, on May 2, the Laguna Beach Police Department responded to claims of trespassing and physical altercations between two armed security guard teams at 14 West (formally the Holiday Inn). The police responded to another disturbance at Hotel Laguna in the afternoon and again later at 14 West that evening. 

Laguna Beach City Manager Shohreh Dupuis issued the nuisance abatement order late that evening, citing unsafe conditions for the public and Laguna Beach police. 

“Although this is a civil matter, the presence of armed security and these types of altercations require City intervention for the protection of the public and all concerned,” Dupuis said. “We started working with the attorneys on both sides to come up with a resolution in the early afternoon and had urged the attorneys to have their clients voluntarily close the buildings while claims and lawsuits are resolved. Both parties had agreed by 6 p.m. to unarm their security guards at both locations but did not agree to close the buildings.” 

During the morning incident at 14 West, Police responded to armed security guards causing a disturbance. The parties were separated and told officers they would remain civil. However, a few hours later, police responded to a 20-person physical altercation between the same parties and others in the lobby of Hotel Laguna, where police arrested a security guard who hit another guard from the opposite group, according to authorities.

That evening, police officers were called in again twice to 14 West to respond to more disturbances from the two parties. Police discovered armed guards still present at that location and Hotel Laguna, according to a release from the City.

“This is a civil issue that has resulted in both parties hiring armed security and attempting to force the other from the businesses,” said Police Chief Jeff Calvert. “Both sides have been warned, but unfortunately, neither side will relent and take the appropriate actions through the civil judicial process. Immediate closure of the businesses will allow a cooling off period for both parties and protect the public from inadvertently being caught up in the middle of a civil issue that has the potential to become more violent.”

The properties remained closed until public health and safety threats are over.

In March, at least some of Honarker’s Laguna Beach Company tenants, which includes Hotel Laguna, were sent letters indicating a change in ownership and property management.

One such letter, sent to tenants of the Hive and obtained by the Independent, stated, “Effective as of the date of this letter, Mohammed Honarkar is no longer acting on behalf of the aforementioned company,” the March 29 letter said. “You should no longer have contact with him or his office, including but not limited to paying rent to Mr. Honarkar.”

Despite those letters indicating a change in ownership, a Laguna Beach Company representative told the Independent that Mo Honarkar and Laguna Beach Company were “fully retaining their ownership positions of Hotel Laguna and other local properties.” 

“Day-to-day food and beverage management of Hotel Laguna has been temporarily transferred while a business dispute is resolved,” a Laguna Beach Company representative said in a March email to the Independent. “In the meantime, Hotel Laguna and the company’s other properties are operating normally and remain open for business to serve the Laguna Beach community.”

According to the Cohen Law Group, the counsel behind the group of investors taking over Honarker’s properties, removing Honarker from the properties has been complicated.

“Since his removal as administrative manager, Honarkar has engaged in the sabotage of the business operations of the properties,” a statement from Cohen Law Group said. “And as of May 2, resorted to rash tactics of using armed guards to attempt to hastily take over some of the properties that are under the control of his business partners.”

The Cohen Law Group stated the police were called to the properties several times, which led to Honarkar making written promises to the City he would remove his armed security. 

“Honarkar breached his commitment to the City only hours after making it by continuing to have armed security at the properties, which resulted in, and provided an excuse for, the City to shut down these properties, lockout the owners who operate the properties, hotel guests, and patrons of Hotel Laguna,” the Cohen Law Group’s release stated. “It is a strange time when property owners are locked out of their own property while the City refuses to eject trespassers with guns.”

However, Isaac Zfaty, counsel to Honarkar and the Laguna Beach Company, told the Independent in a statement Wednesday that Honarkar continues to maintain ownership in Hotel Laguna, 14 West and various other local properties.

“Mr. Honarkar is in a business dispute with some of his affiliates,” Zfaty’s statement said. “Unfortunately, several individuals forcibly trespassed onto two of the company’s properties and attempted to change their locks without legal authorization. In the process, a member of the group assaulted members of Mr. Honarkar’s staff and security team and was subsequently arrested. We appreciate the prompt response by the Laguna Beach Police Department to arrest this assailant and protect public safety. We condemn this outrageous and unlawful conduct and hope to resume normal operations as soon as possible at both establishments.”

Emerald Sanctuary faces threat of closure

For more than 50 years, Emerald Sanctuary has been a quiet refuge for animals in need from all over Orange County. 

Emerald Sanctuary volunteer Joness Jones (left) and owner Kris Spitaleri (right) feed Nibbles and her two sisters on the sanctuary grounds. Clara Beard/LB Indy

From peacocks to llamas, snakes to pigeons, wild or domestic, Laguna Beach local and animal advocate Kris Spitaleri has nursed and cared for virtually countless animals otherwise destined for euthanasia or homelessness, giving them a second chance at life when their futures looked bleak. You name it, Spitaleri has probably cared for it at his family’s spacious property atop Emerald Bay, backed against Crystal Cove State Park.

“We never say no,” Spitaleri said. “We meet in parking lots, all hours of the night. We’ll always accept an animal, no matter the circumstances. If there is any reason we can’t take an animal, we find another place that can do it. We also follow up to make sure. We always find a way.”

Now, the sanctuary’s own future is uncertain despite its previously grandfathered-in land use by the County of Orange. Spitaleri, who operates the refuge with a handful of volunteers, was given until early 2024 by OC Parks to evacuate his animals from the property and close operations due to permitting complications. 

“We’re optimistic about the outcome being positive,” Spitaleri said. “We have to be. The benefit to the park system and the county is pretty big. Right now, there are a lot of euthanizations going on, and there doesn’t have to be. We’re hopeful we can get this sorted out.”

Sanctuary volunteer Joness Jones, who helped generate substantial visibility around the sanctuary’s push to stay open and operational, started an online petition that has amassed more than 87 thousand signatures. 

“Kris has been doing this since the 70s, but he doesn’t like a lot of fanfare or attention. He just wants to help animals,” she said. “My phone is just going off constantly with letters of support. My inbox is flooded.”

Spitaleri’s parents, Vernon and Cherry, were well-known local business owners and philanthropists. Laguna Beach even decreed Jan. 22 as Vernon Spitaleri Day after his considerable contributions to the city. Vernon played a role in the 1968 acquisition of the city’s Main Beach park, developing what is now Providence Mission Hospital Laguna Beach. He helped establish the James Dilley Greenbelt Preserve and was involved with stopping the Laguna Art Museum’s controversial merger with the Newport Harbor Art Museum. The Spitaleris also owned and published The Laguna News-Post until 1981.

“Kris just wants to continue the community service his parents started,” Jones said.

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