Arachnophobia 

Creepy-crawly things are biting folks, but they ain't brown recluse spiders; East Bay media mogul got funding from what seems an unlikely source.

Mystery Bites: In journalism, there's a saying: "If it happens to the editor, it's news." In this case it happened both to the editor's neighbor and to an Express freelance photographer, so it's probably news, too. "It" is life-threatening bites by unknown culprits: possibly spiders, maybe scorpions — the victims never saw what got them. Sure, sure. But still, mightn't this be ... some sort of trend?

The neighbor in question, 46-year-old landscaper Eric Cotton, was clearing blackberry overgrowth in an Alameda backyard in early August. Cotton usually wraps elastic straps around his lower pant legs as a precaution against insects, but says he'd forgotten that morning. Whatever the bastard was, it crawled up there and bit him on both knees and his left calf. "I got home that evening and found these little plugs out of my legs the size of a green pea," Cotton says. The wounded gardener applied hot compacts and later ice to reduce the swelling. The next day he felt okay, he recalls, but "the following day I couldn't even get out of bed."

Long story short, he dragged himself down to the Highland Hospital ER, by which time the swelling had spread to his groin. Doctors speculated he'd been bitten by a brown recluse spider (more on that later), and prescribed painkillers and antibiotics — which helped. Even so, Cotton ended up walking with a cane for a week. "They told me if I'd have waited another day, I'd probably have been dead," he says. "Man, I was in serious pain. I had plenty of infection. White pus bumps on my knees. When the doctor saw what it was, they took me straight in the back and put me on an IV."

Cotton adds that he overheard a group of Highland nurses saying they'd seen several similar cases that same week, but this could not be confirmed. Neither Highland's ER manager nor a spokeswoman from Children's Hospital returned phone calls seeking information. Meanwhile, an ER charge nurse at Summit-Alta Bates said they hadn't seen any spike in insect or spider bites.

There was, however, the case of forty-year-old freelance photographer Claudia Ward, who was helping friends landscape their Montclair yard one morning in late June. "It was, like, 117 degrees in the shade that week, and we were landscaping an area that's not been touched for years," she recalls.

While pruning a rosebush, something pricked her calf, causing her to yelp. Ward's buddy thought it was a thorn, but that afternoon near the same spot, the home gardeners cornered a scorpion. By the next day Ward's leg was starting to itch, and she pulled up her pant leg to discover what looked like a reddish-brown golf ball about two inches in diameter protruding from her calf. "It changed colors daily," she says. "It was almost a joke. It would go through this whole array of purple, black, green, yellow. It was like that for six weeks."

Ward visited her dermatologist roughly ten to twelve hours after being pricked and mentioned the scorpion. A nurse practitioner called poison control, whose experts recommended antibiotics, and that Ward go home and rest and elevate the leg. A week later, she went back to see her doctor. The swelling was worse. "It had grown," Ward says. "The venom starts to drain down your leg inside, so it almost doubled in size within a week. ... My dermatologist said I was a very lucky lady. What that meant I don't know."

On her doctor's advice, Ward took it easy for weeks, laying off work and keeping her leg elevated. "When you rest and elevate your leg, the inflammation goes down," the mother of three explains. "When you do anything excessive, it flares up again. ... I have to say, it was a nightmare."

Scorpion bite? Ward'll never truly know, but her kids are now familiar with the local species Uroctonus mordax mordax. Another friend, she says, was bitten by a brown recluse in Palo Alto earlier this year. But Ward's doc thinks her assailant could have been a black widow. "It's really hard to find someone who's an expert in this," Ward says.

And when you do, she'll tell you to not believe the hype. Sara Crews, a Ph.D student of Cal arachnophile Rosemary Gillespie, studies spider populations and their biogeography, among other things, such as spider genitalia. "I am certainly keenly aware of spiders," Crews notes in an e-mail. "I haven't noticed any more than usual this summer."

The young researcher nixes speculation that brown recluses bit any of these people. She cites Rick Vetter, a UC Riverside colleague whose online tirade on the subject bashes sensationalist media and lists numerous experts and state agencies that agree with his conclusion: "There are no populations of brown recluse spiders living in California. In case this upsets your applecart, I repeat, there are no populations of brown recluse spiders living in California" (his emphasis). Vetter explains in a footnote that his rants are not the opinions of UC Riverside, but rather "the opinions of a highly volatile arachnologist who is bloody tired of everybody claiming that every little mark on their body is the result of a brown-recluse bite."

As for scorpions, Crews says they are pretty rare in these parts, and those that do live here aren't deadly, so far as she knows. Black widows are all over, she says, but bites are pretty rare. "If people claim to be bitten by a spider, I often ask them to produce the spider," she says. "Often they can't. Lots of other things bite; lots of things that look like bites aren't." — Michael Mechanic

Dean Singleton, Charity Case: What does it say about the East Bay's new daily newspaper monopoly that the world's richest man is investing in it? According to an August 8 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, MediaNews Group Inc., the new owner of The Contra Costa Times and the San Jose Mercury News, has a $597.3 million line of credit from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other members of a lending consortium to finance its purchase of the papers. The filing does not specify exact amounts invested by the foundation or other consortium members, which include banks and insurance companies.

Headed by Denver businessman Dean Singleton, MediaNews already publishes the Oakland Tribune, Daily Review, The Argus, and the Tri-Valley Herald, and recently bought four papers from the McClatchy Company for $1 billion. The deal was part of McClatchy's larger takeover of the now-defunct Knight-Ridder chain, buying 32 papers and selling off eleven of them.

The Hearst Corporation, owner of the San Francisco Chronicle, also jumped into the deal. It now has a $299 million equity investment in MediaNews, according to the SEC, in return for a 30 percent stake in the company. It's an unusual alliance among publishers who compete on the same turf. But for the Gates Foundation, it's just another day at the bank. It currently has $4 billion in holdings, according to a separate SEC filing it made last week. They include a $312 million stake in petroleum giant BP (and $217 million in Exxon), $259 million in Costco, $222 million in Waste Management, and a new $32 million stake in Wal-Mart. — Rick Anderson

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