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Roundtable: SeaWorld owes millions in unpaid rent to city of San Diego

 April 1, 2022 at 12:00 PM PDT

S1: This week on Roundtable. The rent is due , but SeaWorld's not paying. That theme park fights the city over costs that have piled up during pandemic shutdowns. Also , a privately run jail scheduled to close is still open. Criminal justice advocates want to know why. And a dreamer found dead inside of a parked car. His family says San Diego police should have done more to find out what happened. I'm Matt Hoffman and this is KPBS roundtable.
S2: The pandemic , the deep divisions , the lingering problems. But for all of the challenges that surround us , we also see signs of real progress , of real hope. It began with our community coming together to mount one of the most effective COVID 19 responses in the nation.
S1: That's the chair of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors , Nathan Fletcher , delivering the annual state of the county speech this week. While much of the address was forward looking , the two plus years of the COVID 19 pandemic and our collective response are still hanging over our current challenges. One example is the ongoing recovery for local tourism and a dispute over back rent that's owed to the City of San Diego by one of our biggest theme parks. Lori Weissberg has the story this week for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Welcome back to Roundtable.
S3: Laurie , thanks for having me.
S1: Good to have you here. So this is all about the journey that SeaWorld has been through over the past couple of years.
S3: When the pandemic hit in March of 2020 , the theme park , like all theme parks , were immediately shut down and they were shut down for quite an extended period of time. So SeaWorld , like many other theme parks , didn't really start to fully reopen until the beginning and mid middle of summer of 2021. So you can imagine they took a big hit. SeaWorld is parent company , is a publicly traded company. So we don't know the breakdown of attendance and revenue for individual theme parks. But the company as a whole , which has a dozen theme parks , they saw their attendance for a period of time plummet by 80%. Later , it came back a little bit , but clearly in San Diego was a big hit because it was shut down for so long.
S1: And once we started reopening things last year , there was a deal in place to pay that back rent , that deferred rent.
S3: And I should point out , and you did to extend that rent for them and the 800 losses for the city of San Diego , has they got to defer their rent for some time ? But that deferral ended in the middle of last year. And everybody was offered this idea of where you could pay it over time or kind of a 24 month repayment plan. Most lessees just paid it back. There's a few tenants , like three hotels. They opted for the 24 month repayment plan. SeaWorld did not. And they argued that they should have some special treatment , whether it was a steep discount or or rent waiver altogether , because they said unlike other leases , they were shut down completely for a long time. They had no options. But but SeaWorld , as you know , has a lot of animals. So they said , you know , we still have to pay for the upkeep of those animals. We have pretty expensive rides and we can't just let them not operate. So they had to periodically run them for maintenance reasons and they continue to do their marine animal rescues that they do. So they said that they have expenses that others did not. So San Diego , there was they negotiated for quite some time in the city of San Diego , looked at some financials. They reviewed this , and they ultimately came to the conclusion last week that , you know what ? Yeah , you did have some some financial burdens , but not proportionately more than anybody else. We're saying , you know , take the deal , pay it back over 24 months.
S1: I'm talking with San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Laurie Weisberg. And Laurie , so what are the consequences here if that debt isn't paid to the city ? Right.
S3: So we don't we don't know how SeaWorld's responded yet. I checked today and they still haven't responded. But basically the city said that , you know , if you do take advantage of this repayment plan , will waive the various penalties and late fees. And the amount you owe will be about 8.9 million instead of the 10 million. However , if you don't do this , we're going to start tacking on late fees and penalties and your debt will grow. We don't know what other repercussions there will be if there continues to be a standoff , but at least will be some financial repercussions if they don't take this latest offer.
S3: They are paying their rent. Now , I was told that there were a couple months last year that they even beyond this that they underpaid. So but in general , no , they are paying their percentage rent now. So that's not a problem is this back rent several months that that they have underpaid.
S1: You mentioned during good times this rent money isn't an issue at all and we are in much better times right now with almost no pandemic restrictions. How is SeaWorld's record ? Robbery going right. Now.
S3: Now. Right. It's actually going very well. And again , again , I can't see how SeaWorld San Diego is doing , but the company recently reported earnings for the end of the year. They were recording for their fourth quarters from record record revenues that exceeded what they were taking in in 2019 before the pandemic. And SeaWorld San Diego now has they finally debuted this new roller coaster. The emperor roller coaster , which was supposed to debut in during 2020 , during the pandemic , wasn't supposed to debut during the pandemic , but so that was put off for two years. So they're bringing out more people and they've got this new theme park in Chula Vista. So I'm sure they will continue to do well as we see COVID infections recede and people feel more comfortable being out and about.
S1: I've been speaking with Lori Weisberg. She covers tourism for the San Diego Union-Tribune. And Lori , thanks so much for your time today.
S3: Oh , thank you.
S1: An update now on a story that we featured a few weeks ago. A privately operated federal jail in downtown San Diego was supposed to be closed by now , but this week it was granted a reprieve. The extension allows the Western Region Detention Center to stay in business through the spring. A new source , investigative reporter Jill Castellano , is back to tell us about this sudden change of plans. So can you remind us the role that this facility plays and why it's still being open is considered controversial here ? Sure.
S3: So western region is in downtown San Diego. It's a pretty big jail. It can hold up to 770 people. And it houses people who are facing federal charges for federal crimes in the San Diego region while they're waiting for their court cases to be heard. So you could be at this jail and have yet to be convicted of anything. Another thing is a lot of folks there are charged with nonviolent offenses , most of them actually , such as drug trafficking charges. The operation of the jail is considered controversial because of this executive order by President Joe Biden , which went into effect last year. And the purpose is to phase out private prisons and jails. And this jail is run by a private prison company called Geo Group. So the argument is that , you know , private companies are incentivized to cut costs and ultimately that can lead to worse conditions in jails. One thing we know about Western region is it's facing three class action lawsuits for living and working conditions. So there is definitely a push to shut this down.
S1: So part of this reprieve that keeps them open , your reporting says that Western region will get to operate for another 90 days here.
S3: The GEO Group is not really answering any questions and the contract that they get is through the U.S. Marshal Service , and the Marshal Service is also not answering any questions. So it's been a frustrating , you know , time to report on this facility when you feel like you're not getting a lot of information. In fact , the ACLU has even sued the U.S. Marshal Service about this because they have not been able to get good information about how these decisions are being made , about the jail and what they expect to happen in another 90 days.
S1: Well , you did get some information from employees that work there. There was a news conference that you were at this week where people who argued to keep the jail open were at.
S3: There are 300 local employees and their union , the National Federation of Federal Employees. They are making a big deal out of the potential closure of this San Diego jail. They flew people out from D.C. headquarters even to attend this press conference. And they're saying this is definitely a victory , it's a good first step , but they are looking for a long term solution. They would like to see some sort of exception for the executive order that would allow Western region to stay open.
S1: And I know in your story you had written that they were laying off employees as they were scaling down , preparing to close.
S3: Their final day was supposed to be March 31st. As of last week , they suddenly got the news , hey , you've got 90 more days of work. So it's been a little bit like whiplash for the employees to keep hearing you're not going to have your jobs anymore. And then , oh , by the way , you've got it for another 90 days.
S1: We are getting some information from the U.S. Marshals Service. They say that this is a logistical necessity and that there's just not enough space to hold the number of incarcerated people.
S3: There was an internal memo they released not long after the executive order came out , and they're basically saying we don't have places to put people. If we closed down all these private detention centers , we're going to start sending people far away from the courthouses where their cases are being heard , which means far away from their attorneys , far away from their families. And we are actually seeing some of that in San Diego. What has been happening is the Marshals Service has been transferring people away from the San Diego jail and sending them to a facility in El Centro , Imperial County and in San Bernardino County because those are the next best options.
S3: I wish I did have more information. It seems like a lot of people have been transferred out. That's one thing we know that in the weeks leading up to the closure , only a couple hundred inmates were left inside the facility at that point. So I think the big question now is what ? Happens to those people in the next 90 days , will they be transferred back ? And that's another question that the marshal service has yet to answer.
S1: Joe Castellano is an investigative reporter for I news source , a nonprofit news partner of KPBS. And , Jill , thanks so much for your time today. Sure.
S3: Sure. Thanks.
S1: Now to a story about painful , unexplained loss for a family who came to San Diego dreaming for a better life. In May of last year , Luis Alberto Antonio Armenta was found dead inside of his car. It was parked on a street in Hillcrest. San Diego police quickly moved on , declaring yet another overdose death in our community. His family , though , is not so sure. They point to questions about the condition of the 31 year old's body at the time of his death and video evidence that shows someone else driving his car during his final hours. So why aren't police doing more here ? Luis's family shared their story with our guest , Andrea Lopez , via Fania. She's the managing editor for Voice of San Diego. And Andrea , welcome back to Roundtable.
S3: Matt , Thanks for having me.
S1: Good to have you here. So this story is really told through the eyes of Luis's family. Tell us a bit about how they ended up in San Diego about 20 years ago.
S3: Yeah , so Luis and his family were originally from across Mexico. His parents , Feliciano and Alan , felt that they raised their first children there and they lived a good life. You know , they have family there. They were devout members of a Christian church. And Feliciano overall had a good job. He worked for Coca-Cola , so he delivered sodas to local stores and would often be involved in picking up money related to those orders. But it was actually during one of those deliveries where he was robbed at gunpoint. Feliciano was very brave , and he filed a police report and attempted to aid police officers in identifying the individuals who did this to him. But after a while , nothing happened. The people who robbed him were not arrested , and he grew increasingly concerned for his safety , as many crime victims do in many countries. So he fled. He fled the country. He had to leave his family behind and chose to move to San Diego. Albert , of course , didn't want to be away from her husband for very long , so she followed shortly with Luis and the rest of their daughters , and the family settled in southern San Diego.
S1: Okay , so fast forwarding to 2021. Luis had gone to college but dropped out of UC Riverside. He was back in San Diego working with a family business.
S3: He had spoken to his oldest sister. He worked with her in her maintenance , kind of like clean up company. So they had exchanged a couple of text messages about a work meeting that was going to happen the next day , Thursday , about later that same day. On Wednesday , he spoke to a really close friend who he was like in constant contact with this person , which face time her all the time. And he mentioned that he was going to Balboa Park. You know , that was common for Luis. He often went to the park , as many as , you know , San Diego and is due to walk his dog or just kind of hang out. But for him , it was a really special place because it was one of the first places he visited after arriving in the United States. So friends just knew of Luis. He'd often go to a ballpark , and that was the last time that anyone spoke with him.
S1: So May 26 was the last that anyone ever heard of him.
S3: He was lying face down with his head on the floorboard and his feet on the headrest. This car was parked in your church where the DMV is , and Hillcrest and his friend called 911. Obviously , she was very distraught and she told them that she believed he was dead because he was called to the touch. She was instructed to get him out of the car , but she kind of struggled because he was heavy at that point. An officer arrived at seat on scene and helped her get Luis out of the car , according to the police report.
S1: For your story , you talked with San Diego police and they wouldn't say much , only that the case is now closed. They'll reopen it if more evidence emerges or witnesses do come forward. But you also had a retired detective look at this.
S3: Now , I spoke with a retired detective who worked for APD for 32 years , Carl Hershman , and he reviewed documents of this case. And while that's true that there are odd circumstances and a lot of cases he thought that that position that Luis was found in and the fact that there was a shoe missing and it wasn't on the scene was a huge red flag. And he thought it was enough of a red flag that officers should have. You know , whoever was on the scene should have thought some things aren't really feeling right here. And so he thought that. It would have been enough of a red flag for police to at least impound the vehicle and maybe even review his phone and try to determine how it was that he got there and why.
S1: The family also has a lot of questions over how this case is being handled. That includes not even being interviewed by police as they processed the scene.
S3: I mean , the family knew Luis smoked weed. They are not aware of any other drug use. So as you might imagine , you know , finding out that their loved one died from an overdose of meth use was concerning. But more than that , it was just the odd circumstances of how he ended up , where he ended up. But as I discovered in my reporting , Lewis was known to smoke meth , but it was described to me as more of a periodic use. Maybe it could be something from like once a month to once every two months. But naturally , the family still has questions. I mean , even if if Luis did use drugs , that doesn't explain why he didn't communicate with his family. Since Wednesday , he was known to keep in constant contact , specially with this mom. He texted her every day in the morning and at night. That also doesn't explain why he was found in the position that he was in or why his shoe was missing and a couple of other personal belongings that his family knew he carried with them at all times. So , you know , the family feels that for whatever reason , whatever happened , whoever was there at the scene that day , police just felt that this case was just not worth their time.
S1: Luis , his family , they found a receipt in the car for Jack in the Box and they went to that restaurant and they got some drive through video from them. What did that video show ? Yeah.
S3: So the family actually , you know , they that day , they they felt so confused and they didn't know what happened. So they ended up doing their own kind of little investigation. And so the video from the Jack in the Box shows an unidentified man driving Louis's car. He kind of starts to pull into the drive through window , you know , where you might pay or get your food. But before he's entirely in the shot , he kind of covers something in the passenger seat with like a blanket or a newspaper. It's kind of hard to tell , but seconds later , whatever is under it kind of moves. And then he covers it again. Then he pulls up a little closer to the window. He pays in cash , kind of waits for his order , as like anyone would who's at a drive through. He looks in the car , but it's hard to tell if he's speaking with someone or just looking in the backseat. And yeah , so there's no evidence that this man in the video was involved in Melissa's death. But he certainly is caught on camera driving Luisa's car in the early hours of Thursday , which would have been , you know , the Wednesday night that he didn't talk to anyone else leading into early Thursday morning.
S1: I'm speaking with voice of San Diego's managing editor , Andre Lopez via Fania. Luis , his identity not just as a doctor recipient , but also as a member of the LGBTQ community is essential to who he was.
S3: Everyone says that he was very himself. A lot of his friends described him as flamboyant , and he just loved to make people smile. He loved to make people feel loved. He had big dreams for what he wanted to do with life , as many people do. And before he got darker , which is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals , the program that provides children who are brought to this country at an early age with a Social Security and work permit. Before he got that , he had goals of going to school and becoming a mechanical engineer. But the fact that he would be considered in his mom's words that that he used , quote , illegal , it really enraged him feeling that he would be someone who's educated but can't actually get a job or is kind of looked down upon. So that was a huge burden for him. But luckily , when Dad came around and he was able to apply for that , that just was a huge lift off the shoulders. But yeah , he was also he was gay and he never fully opened up to his family , though , you know , the way that everyone describes him , like everybody knew that he was gay and it was a huge part of his life , but it was not something that he was necessarily open about. And , you know , to be honest , I think he really struggled with that and eventually kind of stepped away from from the church that his family was really involved in.
S1: You write that the family visits Louis's grave daily.
S3: It's only mourning. He was the only son in the family. He was the constant theme. I don't know how to say that in English , but he was , you know , not the favorite for certainly the person who had like the biggest presence in their household. And like I said , he was in constant contact with his mom every single day. He had a big presence in his household. And , you know , to find him the way that they did and to not have answers or feel heard or acknowledged by CPD , I think is something from what I learned from them that's felt very strongly in their home every single day. And Alberta and Feliciano , you know , the family lives just a couple of blocks from where he's buried. So they visit his grave every day. And Alberta told me that she dreams about him all the time. And she dreams about him telling her that he's not at peace. So they're definitely hurting. And they're also afraid that someone , you know , did hurt their son or didn't help their son when he was overdosing. And so they're afraid that maybe they're in danger for speaking out about this case or possibly that someone dangerous is just in the community.
S1: Well , they're feeling definitely is one that other families share because we know that there's many unsolved and suspicious deaths here in San Diego.
S3: But I was just instantly drawn to the mystery of it. Things just didn't add up in my mind from the reporting I had done. But what really did it for me was , was the family , especially Louise's mom , and the idea that she's such a sweet woman and you can tell she's got a lot of strength , but she really , truly , her son was her heart and soul. And so , you know , she could be my mom , she could be yours. And to see that much pain in someone is really heavy. I can't imagine the pain that she feels and the heartbreak she deals with every day. So it really stuck out to me.
S3: Louis's parents only speak Spanish , and it's really up to the younger daughters to kind of help their parents navigate the system , and they don't really know where to start. So they're in the process of , you know , just trying to find someone who will help them.
S1: I've been speaking with Voice of San Diego managing editor Andrea Lopez via phone. And Andrea , thanks so much for sharing this story.
S3: Thank you for having me , Matt.
S1: At the start of the program , we heard from county supervisor Nathan Fletcher during his state of the county speech. He mentioned that the county could get up to $100 million , part of a recent settlement with Purdue Pharma for its role in the opioid crisis. Plans are in the works to determine how that money might be spent.
S2: Together with supervisor Joel Anderson , whose East County district has been hit hardest by the opioid crisis. We will launch a series of convenience across San Diego County. Our goal is simple Bring these ideas and any other ideas. Bring them all to the table. Let's identify the best usage for the opioid settlement funds and develop a comprehensive plan before we have the funds. These actions will not bring back a life. But if we do it right , it could save one.
S1: That's all for this week's edition of KPBS Roundtable. And I'd like to thank everyone that we've had on the show today , Laurie Weisberg from the San Diego Union-Tribune , Jill Castellano from a news source , and Andrea Lopez Villafana from Voice of San Diego. If you missed any part of our show , you can listen anytime on the KPBS Roundtable podcast. I'm Matt Hoffman. Join us next week on Roundtable.

SeaWorld San Diego's Electric Eal roller coaster is being used again for the first time in more than a year, April 12, 2021.
Guillermo Sevilla
SeaWorld San Diego's Electric Eal roller coaster on April 12, 2021.
SeaWorld is negotiating past-due rent tied to the pandemic shutdown in San Diego, a privately operated federal jail will be allowed to stay open, and a local family wants to know why San Diego police didn't investigate a relative's suspicious death.

KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman hosts a discussion with San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Lori Weisberg on the millions of dollars in unpaid rent charges that SeaWorld owes the city of San Diego dating back to pandemic closures. Jill Castellano, an investigative reporter from inewsource, updates us on a decision this week to allow a privately operated federal prison to remain open. Voice of San Diego managing editor Andrea Lopez-Villafaña has the story of a local DACA recipient who was found dead under suspicious circumstances and why his family wants the San Diego Police Department to reopen its investigation.