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Etna stands by one of its own

Residents say they still believe in the outspoken editor of the Pioneer Press as he goes to trial on sex-abuse charges

ETNA, Calif. ' In this mountain town of fewer than 800 residents, visitors likely won't meet anyone who doesn't know Daniel Webster.

He's the owner and editor of the area's weekly newspaper, the Pioneer Press, published in the neighboring community of Fort Jones.

He's the former manager of a local bed and breakfast. He's openly gay, and he's a heck of a nice guy, residents say.

And he's standing trial this week on felony charges of having sex with a minor.

Neither Webster's sexual orientation nor the fact that the alleged victim is a local teen seems to bother residents who say they just hope the truth comes out.

The consensus of opinion is that it's all blown out of proportion, and everyone wishes it would just go away, said Corky Gussmann,longtime Etna resident and owner of Marble Mountain Properties.

Residents have known Webster, 38, since he was a teenager in Etna. He no longer runs Alderbrook Manor bed and breakfast but still lives in town with his parents, residents said.

Webster's attorneys were laying out his defense Tuesday after jurors last week heard the prosecution's evidence that he sexually assaulted a 17-year-old boy that he had hired to work at the bed and breakfast. Prosecutor Jo Graves said she would prove that Webster also smoked marijuana with the teen and gave him Viagra, reported the Siskiyou Daily News in Yreka.

Siskiyou County Sheriff's deputies searched Alderbrook Manor on June 27 last year and seized pornography, a prescription bottle of Viagra, marijuana and other items. Two months later, Webster was charged with several sex crimes, including sodomizing a person under 18 years of age, oral copulation with a person under 18 years of age and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

In a two-page treatise published in the July 9, 2003, edition of his newspaper, Webster denied all allegations and claimed he was the victim of an elaborate setup designed to punish him for his crusade against the county's law enforcement officials and radical environmentalist Felice Pace.

I think he's been railroaded, said Fort Jones resident Ginger Haack, who discussed her and her husband's friendship with Webster Friday in the town's drug store.

The Siskiyou County District Attorney's Office filed the charges against Webster in the midst of an ongoing citizen's effort to recall District Attorney Pete Knoll.

However, the recall failed last month because petitioners did not gather enough signatures, according to editions of the Siskiyou Daily News and Pioneer Press.

Knoll and other attorneys in his office passed prosecution of Webster's case to the California Attorney General's Office. One Siskiyou County Superior Court judge recused himself from the case. A retired Del Norte County judge is presiding over the trial.

In addition to publishing news stories about the recall effort, Webster wrote editorials mocking Knoll. Petitions for Knoll's recall were inserted in the Feb. 4 edition of the Pioneer Press, which also contained a paid advertisement listing instructions for the petition's completion.

They sure would like to shut him up, said Marty Russell, who runs Etna's barbershop and contributes to the Pioneer Press as an unpaid columnist.

But with two months to go until his trial date, Webster continued to harangue Knoll in a column calling him the county's great comedian and caped fabricator of falsehoods. The editorial asked citizens to notify the FBI immediately if they heard Webster had committed suicide.

From day one, his paper's been like the National Enquirer of one conspiracy theory after another, said Andy Martin, publisher of the Siskiyou Daily News.

It's not surprising that Etna residents would support Webster after digesting a steady diet of his tirades against local officials, Martin said. Webster worked for the Daily News for about a year between 1997 and 1998 before buying the Pioneer Press.

Pioneer Press Assistant Editor Liz Bowen is reporting on her boss's trial, which is expected to last through the week. But Webster continues to be closely involved with the weekly paper's weekend production, she said. He has spent no time in jail, Bowen said.

Despite his outspokenness, Webster refused a interview on the advice of his attorney.

While some Etna residents said they find such public disclosure of Webster's personal life in poor taste, they continue to subscribe to the newspaper and advertise their local businesses. They said Webster's sexual orientation has no bearing on their opinion of him.

It's his problem, and it hasn't affected anyone else, Gussmann said as he strolled Etna's block-long Main Street Friday.

He doesn't flaunt it.

Everyone knows Daniel's gay, Russell said. You don't judge people by that kind of stuff anymore.

Dawn Smith said she never would have taken her 13-year-old son to live with Webster if she believed he was capable of molesting children. Before he closed Alderbrook Manor several months ago, Webster gave Smith and her son a temporary home because he has such a good heart, Smith said. But at the bidding of his attorney, Webster took care to never be alone with the boy, Smith added as she leaned against the doorway of Russell's barbershop.

Smith, who has since found a home in Etna, said she knows other residents who are on the fence when it comes to Webster, but none who believe the charges are strictly true. Although Smith and others said they believe Webster will be vindicated, the possibility that he could be convicted will not sour their friendships with this hometown boy who has become a major figure in their community.

You might get someone who would say something off the wall, some redneck comment, Gussmann said.

A lot of people would say, 'Daniel, you're an idiot, but I like you anyway.'

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Etna?s bucolic look runs counter to the strong feelings stirred by Daniel Webster?s case. Webster, editor of the Pioneer Press, is accused of having sex with a minor. He argues that his criticism of law-enforcement officials led to the charges. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven