When you come into a place as a journalist, you check out where the most compelling stories are gonna come from. I was looking at the FBI’s list of California’s most dangerous cities and found a place called Nevada City. I had heard about this town from some folks at the station who seemed to love it. Not in the way you love a dangerous city ‘cause it feels legit, more like in the way that you love a snow globe or a post card.
Online the city’s website also makes it look pretty perfect. Driving in, I saw a hitchhiker who told me “this place is super easy to hitchhike. People are super nice, never had a bad ride."
I asked if he had witnessed a crime or ever been a victim of one.
"No," he told me. "I had a slushie thrown at me once.”
At 60 miles from Sacramento, Nevada City attracts tourist year-round. The streets are lined up with new age stores, cafes with outdoor terraces and live music.
Todd Taylor, the owner of Industrial, a really cool jewelry shop that specializes in body piercings and features some local jewelers told me, “all kinds of walks of life and everyone meshes together really well. So it’s nice to see that, especially coming from oakland.” He said “ There’s a lot of lifestyles there that mesh, but they don’t mesh very well. They don’t interact as much as I feel as up here.”
I walked the streets, checked out some stores and talked to more locals. I was starting to suspect that maybe I had the wrong place. I thought, if there is a dangerous side to this beautiful town, it’s either unknown to the locals or everyone is in on keeping it a secret.
But just as I was starting to get comfortable, something came up that reminded me why I was here.Just as I was coming into the town, I got a press release stating a decomposed body was found. I wasn't sure if the body was of a person who got killed there or it was just the place where they dumped it. So, it was either terrible chance that I was in Nevada City at the same time I got the press release, or this happened a lot more than police like to say it happens.
Captain Paul Schmidt, with the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office told me the owners of the property where the body was found “came home and they noticed that some piles of leaves and stuff had been raked up - at first they didn’t think anything of it -- and a couple of days after they arrived home they went outside and noticed that an animal had most likely disturbed the pile, and that’s when they found the body."
When I asked Schmidt if incidents like the body being found happens a lot, he said “That’s only Murphy’s law. It just so happens that you’re doing your story at the exact time we have one.”
The man who was killed, 51-year-old Donald Ormsby, and the suspect are from neighboring Grass Valley, not Nevada City.
I checked in with the local police to see what a typical day in the life of an officer looks like. The officer I rode with said, “Today I unlocked a car door for someone, a guy called saying that a deer had got hit. I had to call animal control to help him.”
I asked about the gnarliest situation he has been in. He said, “We actually fought a guy who was high on mushrooms dipped in a fluid that gave him a pcp high. We had to get him into control. He started to fight us.”
He said most calls are alcohol-related.
Ashley manages the lively Crazy Horse bar. I asked her about those incidents.
“Of course in every bar you will have FIGHTS, but I don’t see them as often as I thought I would," Ashley said. "Maybe a fight every 3 to 4 months. It’s not often in this area.”I met Nevada City police chief Tim Foley. He agreed with what I found when I ran the numbers from the FBI. After matching up the crimes with addresses, it became clear that most of the incidents reported as violent crime are aggravated assaults, and most happen in or around bars
"There could be a weapon involved or somebody gets overzealous in their attack on somebody,” Foley said.
This would make it an aggravated assault and therefore reported as a violent crime.I decided to stick around and see for myself just how violent the bar scene gets. There was ping pong, leftover bachelors from a wedding and a few drunks. But just as I was ready to call it a night, I spotted a patrol car taking off from a street corner.
Sure enough, I saw some guys getting into it. But, how do a few bar fights earn such a bad rep for a town this pretty?
“I think because we’re such a small community." Foley said. "2,500 to 3,000 people . One thing greatly exaggerates what’s really going on. And let’s take the worst crime, homicide. If we have one homicide here in a year, and what they gage it on is per hundred thousand capita. One homicide here equals about 40 homicides in a major city.”
That’s still a percentage. I asked if the tourists brought in the trouble.
“I don’t think tourists account for that much,’ Foley said. “Again, we’re a county seat, we have a lively night life here, we have restaurants bar activities that occur and so now we draw people from outside that come here. You go to another town that doesn't have the nightlife that is here in Nevada City, that people come to enjoy, and I think that skews it too."
I took a ride along with one police officer while I was in Nevada City, who says working there is like a break from reality.
“I come here and I tell the guys where I used to work at that now I work where I vacation,” he said.
As far as the idea of Nevada City being a violent place, “It really cracks me up, it’s funny.”
We stopped someone for a traffic violation while we were on patrol, but he let her go, because she was nice.
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