One Murder, Four Deaths
by Bruce Anderson
Two days after the September 11th everyone will always remember, a lithe 39-year-old ex-Marine named Donald Perez took $200 out of his savings and headed north for Mendocino County. Perez was on the road in anticipation of another sexual romp with an 18-year-old Fort Bragg man child named August Stuckey.
By 10am Friday, September 14th, Perez was dead, his slumped remains sagging from an alder in a brushy margin separating the Noyo River from the A&W logging road. What was left of him was very near the first bridge over the river before the road gradually climbs east into the forested hills separating the Mendocino Coast from Willits and Highway 101 some 30 miles away.
The dead man was 525 miles from his rented room in Santa Ana, one mile from the Fort Bragg Police Department, and 19 feet from the rutted pavement of the heavily traveled recreation and logging road.
Donald Perez would be pinioned to his last tree between the road and river for more than three weeks, and he might still be there if August Stuckey hadn't talked about it in front of another young Fort Bragg man named Michael Johnson.
It was an implausibly beautiful place to die that perfect early fall morning, at a junction of river and forest on a day made for life, not death. It was also an implausible place for all that happened there because even in bad weather that section of the road and its old bridge is humming with traffic, much of it on foot or by bicycle with kayakers, a frequent sight on the adjacent Noyo. There's almost always someone around day and night, the area also being a convenient nocturnal party site. It's not a place that rational criminals would choose to do all they did to Donald Perez.
But somehow, in a prolonged series of murderous events mostly occurring on the bridge itself, Perez had been carjacked, robbed, hit over the head with a rock, dragged down off the bridge and along the road west towards Fort Bragg, then forced east back into the brush, duct-taped to a tree, and probably stabbed in the throat.
And not a soul saw or heard any part of this death dance.
The pathology report from UC Davis indicates that the "larval infestation" discovered in the area of Perez's throat was most likely attracted to the "purge of fluids" that drain from the nose upon death. But, the report cautions, "Trauma to the neck is not supported. Degree of decomposition in these areas does not confirm the presence of such trauma. Arms overhead and binding of wrists offers the possibility of asphyxiation through respiratory fatigue. Entirely conceivable that the death may not have involved any form of trauma whatsoever but was caused by abandonment. Conclusion, cause of death unknown."
If Perez had simply been duct-taped to the tree, he was near enough to the road that his grunts and moans would soon have been heard by one of the innumerable persons who pass by at all hours. But, it seems likely, Perez didn't have time to either be discovered alive or suffocate because one of his three abductors likely drove a K-bar knife into his throat soon after he was taped to the tree.
Three young Fort Bragg men, August Stuckey, 18, Aaron Channel, 20, and Tai Abreu, 19, were arrested three weeks later when August Stuckey led police to Perez's remains after telling the police that he, Channel and Abreu caused Perez to be where he was — duct-taped dead.
None of the three alleged murderers had criminal records, none were known to be violent. The one common denominator they did have was their general estrangement from the society they'd inherited. Their school days had been difficult, and they were now adrift as young adults. All three had been bullied and harassed by schoolmates, all three did poorly in formal school settings, but all three tested at the gifted and talented level of natural intelligence. Stuckey had always been a special ed case, Tai Abreu, at the urging of Fort Bragg school officials, had been declared unmanageable by the schools and packed off to a children's institution by age 12, and Aaron Channel had dropped out on his own after bouncing from Fort Bragg's educational banquet to Mendocino's, at one point leaving school as a 16-year-old to make his way to Oklahoma to meet a girl he'd met on-line.
When the three young men were arrested, Stuckey told multiple stories about what had happened. Abreu told two versions of Perez's last hour. Channel said nothing at all. Both Stuckey's and Abreu's stories exempted themselves from the murder part of Perez's abduction and robbery.
Although only one of these improbable thugs cut Perez's throat, it is fair to say that none of the three were overly concerned with their victim's welfare before, during or after his death.
The murder began on August 28th of 2001 when August Stuckey, stranded in Sacramento, e-mailed Perez asking Perez for money to get back to Fort Bragg. Stuckey would later say he'd fled to Sacramento because another uneven young Fort Bragg man named Shane Merritt was threatening to kill him because Merritt believed Stuckey had stolen sound equipment from him.
It seems that Perez wired Stuckey the bus fare back to Fort Bragg because the next day Perez was in Fort Bragg where he and Stuckey spent a presumably priapic three days at the Seabird Motel. A few days before their Seabird interlude, Stuckey and Perez had exchanged steamy e-mails featuring photos of Perez with his penis at present arms. Stuckey e-mailed Perez his phone number and directions to Fort Bragg.
Stuckey would later claim that he and Perez had often met at the College of the Redwoods where Stuckey, a talented artist, drew chaste portraits of Perez for small amounts of money. However, the only renderings of Perez found among Stuckey's belongs were internet photos of Perez in the nude that Perez had taken of himself. That Perez required directions to Fort Bragg to meet Stuckey means Perez was unfamiliar with the Mendocino Coast prior to the fateful August of 2001.
Perez was murdered because he made the fatal mistake of returning to Fort Bragg for what he anticipated as another round of sex with Stuckey, but Stuckey had already decided to rob Perez and then kill him. Abreu and Channel apparently became involved in Stuckey's insane scheme out of a wildly misplaced but affectionate loyalty to Stuckey. Abreu would tell investigators that Channel feared Stuckey would "fuck it up" on his own.
As it turned out, it took all three of them to "fuck it up."
The three conspirators devised a hazy plan for Stuckey to persuade Perez to drive out the A&W road on the pretext that the A&W road was a shortcut from the coast to inland Willits and Highway 101. Once Perez was three or four miles out in the woods, Channel and Abreu would jump out of the bushes and help Stuckey rob Perez. Perez had told his roommate and his landlady back in Santa Ana that he was headed for Washington State, hence his desire to get back on 101 to proceed north. Always a secretive man, Perez didn't say why he was going to Washington, if indeed he was going there.
Once Perez and Stuckey were out in the woods east of town, the three amigos plotted, Stuckey would feign car sickness to get Perez to stop his truck, but Stuckey and Perez were late arriving, not getting to the A&W road until around 9am. Victim and escort had been expected earlier. Channel and Abreu had tired of waiting and were walking back towards Fort Bragg when Perez and Stuckey drove up.
Perez was dead twenty minutes later.
Abreu now says his modified story about what happened is untrue, but it does tend to corroborate Stuckey's fluid versions of Perez's death. It also buttresses the account of Michael Johnson, the Fort Bragg youth who eventually went to the police to say he'd heard his three friends talking about the murder while the four of them were smoking pot in Johnson's backyard.
Johnson told police that August Stuckey had told Johnson, "We killed a guy," and that the "guy deserved to die." Johnson said he asked Aaron Channel why he did it. Channel, Johnson said, replied that he was just helping a friend who was going to do it anyway and would probably mess it up. Johnson recalled that Channel thought murder had occurred "around September 18th." He said his three friends told him that they poured alcohol on the floor of the truck to make the cops think Perez had gotten drunk and had wandered out in the woods and gotten lost. Johnson claimed that August Stuckey had asked him about how he might cook up some home made napalm and go back out to Perez's body to completely destroy it. Johnson told police he remembered Tai Abreu borrowing a shovel from Johnson's house on Livingston Street that Johnson shared with his mother to "bury something," speculating that the "something" was cameras stolen from Perez. And, Johnson told the police, when he asked his three pot pals how they knew "the guy" was dead, Channel reportedly said, "He gurgled, that's how we knew he was dead."
The same day Johnson came to the police with the news that his three friends had murdered someone, Stuckey, before leading police to Perez's corpse, was telling investigators that Channel and Abreu had forced him into a scheme to rob Perez or they'd harm Stuckey's sister. Stuckey said he'd only been involved out of fear for his sister's welfare, and he certainly wasn't down in the bushes when Perez died.
Investigators immediately went to Stuckey's sister, Candace, then a student at Mendocino High School, to see if Candace might confirm the most important element of her brother's story — his involvement.
Candace said she'd "rather be taking her chemistry test," but, yes, her brother August had told her how a couple of friends of his had taken a man out into the woods, robbed him and cut his throat. Candace tearfully said her brother often lied to her but she was sure he was telling the truth this time. Candace told the police that the two friends of her brother's who had done the killing were Tai Abreu and Aaron Channel. Candace said Abreu and Channel had threatened to rape and kill her if August didn't help them rob Perez. Candace said her brother had been tortured by Channel and Abreu into going along with the scheme.
Both Abreu's and Stuckey's accounts always exempted themselves from responsibility for the murder. They both said they were up on the road when Perez got it in the throat with the K-bar knife. They both admitted that they were part of the plan to rob Perez and that Aaron Channel was the third person involved.
Abreu would later claim that his confession to detective Kevin Bailey was not only untrue but falsely obtained because his request for an attorney had been ignored. Channel would subsequently admit that he was involved well after Perez was dead, and Stuckey would say he was involved but hadn't used the K-bar military knife he wore on his belt to stab anyone.
In all the three weeks Perez's corpse was wrapped to the tree by the Noyo, nobody saw his remains, nobody smelled his remains, no dog barked at his remains, when all anybody had to do was look off the side of the road and there he was, sagging to earth between the road and the river.
The police, finally directed to what was left of Perez by Stuckey, seemed as surprised at the body's proximity to the busy road as they were at the improbability of the site as a murder scene.
"We responded out the A&W Logging Road approximately one mile where we met deputies and search and rescue personnel. Lt. Miller directed us to a location just west of the first bridge on the logging road. We looked off the road and observed a male adult hanging by his hands, which were tied around a tree."
Perez's wallet, containing his driver's license, his credit cards, and his ATM card, was found undisturbed in his trousers.
"Considering it happened during daylight hours," detective Bailey would say, "to say that they were lucky to get away with all that right there is an understatement. Not only is it a pretty popular place — we have County employees who walk that road on a daily basis — for his remains to be maybe 20 feet off the roadway and not be discovered is amazing. There's nothing in the vehicle to indicate that he was killed in the vehicle. If they'd killed him some other place then transported him in the vehicle there would have been some trace evidence in the vehicle. They were very lucky."
Although gay groups would immediately demand that the three be charged with a hate crime because Perez was gay, the sexual motive didn't seem to have been a factor; Stuckey was gay and Abreu actively bi-sexual. Channel was heterosexual and not known to be intolerant of gays or anybody else. The sexually ecumenical hijackers, it seems, just wanted Perez's property, which consisted of two hundred dollars in cash, a hand held 8 millimeter camera, a 35 millimeter camcorder, camera lenses, four canisters of film, a battery charger for the camcorder, and music cd's including Nirvana and Suicidal Tendencies, all of it buried in Abreu's green duffel bag.
Stuckey's multiple accounts, scattered as they were, confirmed that the police had the right three persons responsible for Perez's death. Abreu's and Stuckey's accounts confirmed the information brought to the police by Michael Johnson, a drug buddy of the three young hijackers and an occasional sex partner of Stuckey's. But it was Abreu's confession to detective Kevin Bailey of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department that would send all three to state prison, Abreu for life without the possibility of parole.
A wiry, restless young man who always seems in motion, Abreu sat in the stark interview room of the county jail complex in Ukiah the afternoon of October 9th waiting for detective Bailey. As he waited, the tightly wrapped young man sang fragments of a love song to himself, rhythmically accompanying himself by slapping his hands on the interview desk. Abreu would always insist that he'd been up on the road as lookout man when Stuckey and Channel killed Perez down in the bushes. They did the murder part of the crime, not him.
If Tai Abreu had known he was about to put himself in prison for the rest of his life, if he'd known that the law says he was as guilty as whomever it was stabbed Perez in the throat, if he'd known that detective Bailey was not his friend, not some kind of surrogate daddy, but only a cop doing his job, if only he'd had the lawyer present he'd asked for, Tai might have saved himself. But he was young and dumb, and nobody was on his side, least of all the lawyer he finally got after it was too late.
It took Tai an hour to put himself in prison for the rest of his life.
~ end of Part 1 ~
The Interview; The Victim
by Bruce Anderson
Detective Kevin Bailey is a youthful, fit-looking man in his mid-thirties. He comes across as a genuinely nice guy. Bailey is close enough in age and general experience to the young people he mostly deals with to understand their formative social and cultural influences. Hip to youth idiom, Bailey throws a lot of "dudes" into his interrogations, as in, "Dude, I know it's tough." Or, "Dude, like, I'm here for you."
Bailey proceeded to conduct a carefully seductive interrogation during which 19-year-old Tai inexorably convicts himself of murder. The detective was doing his job, and doing it well.
"Well, first off," Tai began, "I want to explain my reasoning why I did not talk the first day when we had our conversation, and that you've probably been informed, I was scared shitless."
Bailey, who might have been Tai's favorite uncle, replied, "Dude, I would have been too."
"I was let in on some information that I did not want to know," Abreu continued. "I was told about August's and Aaron's interaction with this Perez guy or whatever his name is. My dad says sing like a fucking canary. He told me to do what you have to do to make sure that you don't go down for something that you didn't do."
"And I respect you for coming in here and doing it, and I respect the reasons that you came in here and did it," Bailey said, reeling in the young fish, first taking care to separate Abreu from Stuckey.
"That guy's about as sharp as a bowl of jello," the detective confided. "Don't get me wrong. I honestly think that he can probably take a computer apart and put it together blindfolded, but I think he's basically a social retard."
Abreu agreed. "He's been a recluse for like six years. I knew him back in the 6th grade. We hardly hung out. The dude, like, never talked. He is what I would describe as the quiet type of psycho. And he has really no social interaction skills that I can see."
Turning from Stuckey's multiple personality defects, Bailey assured Abreu, "Basically what we're talking about is damage control now. The water has already hit the island. How much damage is it going to do? That's where we're at. The case is basically done. I've been working on this missing person case since the day it started. That's been over three weeks. I've talked to the guy's family just about daily for three weeks. I didn't know Mr. Perez. I never met him. I don't know what kind of person he was. I know he was into some pretty strange stuff. But I do know that he's got a good family. He's got a very good mother. He's got a very good sister. And they're really, really tore up over this. We want to see the right people get what they have coming. We want the people that are responsible held accountable. And like I said, I respect you coming in here and doing this but there are some gaps that I need you to fill in. Tai, Tai. I'm in here, and I know it's hard to believe, but I'm in here working for you. And if you're only going to give me half of it, man, I can't do my job.
Abreu told Bailey, "Aaron said he's the one who stuck him. Said he got him in the throat, pushed it in straight back like that. He was going for a direct no-questions-asked-the-guy-is-dead. August [Stuckey wore a K-bar knife on his belt] planned on killing the guy from the start because he didn't want any witnesses."
Bailey was reeling fast now. "What else do you have to tell me because if you're holding something back you need to let it go. You're not going to feel good about yourself until you do."
Abreu gives up more and more. "The only one other fact is that I went out with Hippy [Aaron Channel] to bury the stuff. I drove the car out there. I'm sorry I wasn't straight about that, but that's one thing that I didn't want you to know."
His best social work self to the fore, Bailey keeps on reeling. "When I give you an opportunity to help yourself like I did today, I dropped everything over in Fort Bragg to come all the way over here to give you an opportunity to help yourself. You need to take advantage of it. It's an opportunity that I'm giving you. I'm not giving it to those other two [Stuckey and Channel] because I know they're going to come in here and lie to me. I know they're going to come in here and play games with me and I don't have time for that. I've talked to you before. I know that you're going to be straight with me. I know it's not going to be easy. We're going to get through it, and believe me you're going to be a better man for it. Your family is going to be better for it and Jennifer [Wolchik, Tai's close friend] is going to be better for it."
Abreu replied, "Yeah. My big concern is I don't want to go down for murder. Okay. Here we go. Straight facts. August approached Hippy and I the night before the incident occurred. He said, 'There's this dude I've been talking to on-line who has these things that I want. He's coming down tomorrow morning. I'm going to off him. I want his stuff.' Hippy and I looked at him. Hippy said, 'Dude, you ain't doing this alone. You'll fuck it up like mad.' Hippy knows August, knows he's stupid."
"Yeah, he is," Bailey agreed.
"So at that point," Abreu continued, "Aaron's point of view changed from, 'My friend's going to do something dumb' to, 'I'm going to make sure he doesn't do everything dumb.' And they discussed it. I was there with them. I witnessed the conversation. We planned it out and stayed up all night. The next morning we went down the A&W logging road about 6am. It was still dark when we walked down there. And we walked; we went behind the shortcut by the Redwood Health Club so we wouldn't be seen actually walking on the road. We walked down A&W logging road and..."
Bailey, knowing he'd hooked the kid, began reeling him in. "Take your time, man. You've been holding it a long time," Bailey consoled the young fish.
"So," Abreu immediately continued, "we walked down the A&W logging road and we stashed [hid out] just past the bridge. There's this one spot where you can walk down, and there's some trees and a nice climbing area that I used to hang out at. We stashed down there. We remained on scene, and we watched the vehicles that drove by. We waited there. I was told the vehicle was a Dodge Ram. Stuckey told me the color but I couldn't remember it. So I was just like watching for anything that could be a Dodge Ram. Hippy and I took turns at watch. We took naps. The plan was that if by 9 o'clock there was no sighting we were going to call August, see what was up, see if the guy had, you know, some sort of delay getting there.
"9 o'clock rolled around. We were using Hippy's pocket organizer for the time because it had a little clock on it. No sign of anything. We walked up to the road. I look up and I see a blue truck parked just down the road facing this way, no one in it. And I looked at it and it's a Dodge Ram. As I'm standing there, August and this Perez dude walk down from a hill along side the road. There's like this hill across from where the truck was parked and this little hard-to-see trail. August had his K-bar knife at his side at the time.
"Hippy and I walked up and August introduced us to the guy, and this is about the screwiest part when August introduced us to him. We had a short conversation with him. He said he was interested in possibly moving here. I don't know if he was just shooting the shit or trying to make conversation or what. I kept pretty much quiet the entire time because I was in a situation I didn't want to be involved in. I didn't really want to be there. I was dumb and got talked into it. Anyway, Hippy suggested a couple of job options. The dude mentioned he was a trucker. Hippy told him there was a job option around where you could be a trucker pretty easy. Pretty much fishing industry and logging industry is what there was in Fort Bragg.
"That took about five, ten minutes of conversation. Then August knocked the guy's glasses off and said, 'Okay. There's two ways this can happen. There's the easy way and then there's your way.' He told the guy to step out of his truck. He started walking the dude up the hill. I was going to stay by the truck and keep watch. The dude tried to run off. He runs towards the bridge and he didn't have his glasses at the time. Hippy had them in his pocket. The guy bolts for the bridge. He stops at the bridge, and Hippy laughed and said, 'Oh, so you're going to make your stand at the bridge.' I mean he was just totally getting a kick out of the situation. And the guy turns around. August and Hippy stop. I'm still back by the truck. The dude left his keys there. He had an extra copy. There was a set inside the truck and he probably had the other set on him. And he turns around and says, 'At least let me have my glasses back. I've got 200 bucks in my wallet and you can have that if you let me have my glasses and move on.' August stopped, put his K-bar in his sheath and said to the guy, 'All right. You set down the money, I'll set down your glasses. The guy said, 'I'm coming to set the money down. I'm going to back off. You come and pick up the money, drop the glasses, and then you back off'."
"He walked down on to the bridge and set the money down at the edge of the bridge. Then he backed up. August walked up, picked up the money, set down the glasses and stayed standing right there. Perez looked at him and backed off. Perez said, 'You don't get to be around my glasses,' and Perez runs up and grabs them and turns around and starts running, and puts them on as he's running. But he loses his footing and then Hippy clubbed him in the head with a rock. Right there I would have to say it was probably an instant concussion. Hippy's got some good swinging power behind his arms.
"And, um, Perez fell down. I got in the truck and started it up. I had a pair of socks on my hands because I was avoiding fingerprints. I drove the truck up to the far side of the bridge to the little pullout. I turned it around and faced it the other way because they wanted to drive the truck down the road. While I was there with the truck there was some rustling in the bushes. About five minutes later August and Hippy come running up to the truck and told me to go.
"There was a dude that had passed by not too long before, probably the guy that identified us, probably one of the loggers. The logger was going down the road, right on past us. We took Perez's truck down to the end of the road [east] and crashed it there at the spot where you guys found it. Hippy spilled the alcohol around to make it look like some kind of drunk driving thing. We wiped down the truck for prints. August and Hippy moved off up the road. I stayed at the truck for a minute and kept watch on the situation before I went to catch up with them. I didn't know the path to the [fish] egg taking station so I took a left and went the wrong way before I realized it and turned back around to come back. I met them again and they told me where they burned and buried all the stuff. They decided they didn't want to go to the egg taking station because it was in sight of CDF and everyone else who could see us. As one of the CDF trucks came by we dove down in the bushes. We heard the Skunk Train go by. We walked down hill to the tracks and walked to DeWitt's house in town. From there I tried to forget about the situation.
Bailey asked, "Did you guys tell anybody what you did?"
Abreu, telling all, said, "August informed Mike Johnson of what happened, which was pretty dumb. The way that happened was me and Hippy were at Mike's house. We were hanging out with him in his backyard in his old Cutlass Supreme, the car he had that was all beat up and messed up. While we were there, August showed up. He walked out to the backyard because he noticed no one was in the house but the music was going and the door was open. Obviously someone was home. August saw us in the car in the backyard and got in with us. Then he said, 'Dude, we've got to tell Mike about what happened.' I looked at him and I was like, 'Dude, you're nuts.' And August starts blabbering at Mike about what went down. Apparently August's reasoning was that he wanted to find some explosives so he could burn the area where the body was to get rid of hair, DNA, fingerprints, stuff like that."
"It's reasonable," Bailey agreed. "Not rational, though. Did you guys ever go back out there to where Perez was?"
"There was one time," Abreu recalled, "after the incident where Hippy and I were down there. Jen was driving my car and we were hanging out for the night and I was passing out in the car and she didn't want to drop me off anywhere because I was passing out. So she drove down the A&W road. While we were there we fell asleep. A truck pulled up behind us, and I heard this from Jen while we were driving home because I was still asleep. She said an inspector came out and said, 'Okay, you guys need to leave.' And so we left. And that was the only other time I had been out there anywhere near where Perez was."
"You never took anybody out and showed them the body?" Bailey asked.
"I'm not that dumb," Abreu said. "I did not go back to the location at all."
Bailey, commiserating, said in a therapist's voice, "That's a big burden to haul around on your shoulders. It's been eating you. For weeks it's been eating you."
Abreu agreed. "As I said before, I was scared and I didn't know what I was going to do because I got into a situation I did not need to be wrapped up in."
Bailey pressed on. "Whose idea was it?"
Abreu answered, "August's."
Bailey, disbelieving, "Who put the plan together? August didn't put the plan together."
Abreu explained, "August said he was going to have Perez drive out a logging road. He specified A&W because it was the first one that popped to mind. He threw this plan all together in one night. And we went along, we did what seemed right. Spilling the alcohol in the truck was a convenient situation because the alcohol was there. And like I said, Hippy threw the bottles."
"Whose idea was it to duct tape him?" Bailey asked.
"That would have been Hippy or August," Abreu said, "because August had a small roll of duct tape that he said he picked up at Circle K. He brought that out with him. And it was, like, the restraining thing."
"When I put the duct tape under the microscope, is it going to match the duct tape that was in your car?" Bailey wanted to know.
Abreu said, "Hippy got rid of the duct tape that was used. I don't know where he got rid of it, but he informed me he got rid of it."
Bailey was sweeping up, the case was made. "Anything else you can think of? Anybody else who knows what went down out there other than what you told me about?"
Abreu answered, "Like I said, August informed Mike. Other than that, I don't know of anyone else he would have informed."
"Mike's like you," Bailey said. "He doesn't want to go down for something he didn't do. Getting back to when they came back up out of the bushes, what did they tell you had happened?"
Abreu recalled, "Originally, it was scramble to get into the truck and get out of there. As we were going, I looked at them, and I said, 'Is he, you know, is he dead?' And Aaron said, 'I got him right in the throat. He gurgled.' And August said, 'Living people don't gurgle,' which was a spin-off of a joke from The Critic when The Critic's dad says, 'Penguins don't fly'."
Bailey, like everyone else in law enforcement who would encounter Stuckey, commented, "That guy's not operating on all cylinders."
Abreu agreed. "August has like about half his brain functioning for him, the other half functioning against him."
There it was, a murder, and all of it occurring in broad daylight on a 9am Friday morning on a perfect late summer day not a mile from the Fort Bragg Police Department. Everyone in Fort Bragg knows the spot, knows it would be just about the most unlikely place on the entire Mendocino Coast to hijack a passerby, chase him back and forth on a normally busy bridge, assault him, ransom his glasses, hit him over the head, drag him down off the road into the bushes, duct tape him to a tree, and plunge a knife blade into his Adam's apple.
If that's what happened where it happened, and apparently it was. There was no blood in Perez's truck and no sign that Perez was killed any other place on or about the A&W Road.
Maybe the joggers, bicycle riders, loggers, hikers, and dog walkers who are usually passing back and forth over the bridge on a fine, sunny late summer morning were all at home, still mesmerized by the incessant replays of those passenger planes flying forever into the World Trade Center. Whatever the reason, no one happened by. Donald Perez's last stand was not witnessed in any of its essential parts by a single soul.
The three conspirators were seen twice, however. A logging crew, on their way to work, had seen four young men farther up the road near Perez's truck, and the man driving the crummy transporting the loggers had seen them again on his way back into town. The loggers hadn't seen anything felonious, just four guys standing around, then three guys standing around, but they would have no trouble identifying August Stuckey, 19, Tai Abreu, also then 19, and Aaron Channel, then 20, as the three persons they saw on the A&W road the morning of September 14th.
Perez's perfectly maintained blue Dodge Ram, its doors unlocked, the key in the ignition, was found late the next day, three miles east of his corpse and the bridge.
A young man from Albion named James Montgomery had first alerted the Fort Bragg police to the seemingly abandoned Dodge Ram. The Fort Bragg police called Cliff Lathrop, a former Fort Bragg police officer and now a security man for Anderson Logging who logged the area, and a search crew went out to look for the truck's owner. They found empty wine coolers strewn around the truck's interior and an address book on the passenger seat. The address book contained August Stuckey's name and telephone number. The truck was hauled to the Fort Bragg Police Department headquarters, right past what was left of Donald Perez.
James Montgomery, as it turned out, is the half-brother of Galina Trefil, the young woman who would marry Aaron Channel at the Mendocino County Jail.
Montgomery was vague as to when he'd first seen the truck, but he was pretty sure it had been the afternoon of September 14th. This righteously concerned citizen had then blithely walked into the Fort Bragg Police Department where, just as blithely, he informed the lady at the desk that he was carrying a pistol because, "You never know what you're going to find in the woods this time of the year." Montgomery then told the police while he was out hiking that day he'd seen a well looked after Dodge pick-up in the brush about three miles up the road from the bridge.
The police said they assumed Mr. Montgomery, being armed and not particularly dressed for recreational hiking, had been looking around for marijuana patches to rip off. It was, after all, the time of year that the lucrative plants are ready for harvest, by both thieves and their planters, and marijuana gardens thrive throughout the 30 miles of back country separating Fort Bragg from Willits.
But speculation not being grounds for arrest, the police thanked Mr. Montgomery for having exercised his civic responsibilities, handed him his Glock 27 back and bid him good day.
Having discovered Stuckey's name and phone number in the address book in plain view on the front seat of Perez's truck, the police called Stuckey in for a chat. Stuckey said he knew Perez and had expected to see Perez the morning of September 14th, but Perez hadn't shown up. Detective Bailey was suspicious, but it wasn't until Michael Johnson went to the police three weeks later to tell them that he was pretty sure his friends had killed someone, that Bailey knew Perez was a homicide victim, not merely someone who'd pounded down a six pack of wine coolers then staggered off into the woods and gotten himself fatally lost. The detective also knew instinctively that Stuckey knew what had happened to Perez.
Perhaps aroused by Stuckey's fantasy that Perez was rich, perhaps out of a stoned, misplaced sense of loyalty to their occasional friend, perhaps out of pure, murderous boredom with their lazy, aimless lives, Abreu and Channel had decided to help Stuckey bring off his lunatic robbery scheme.
The three unlikely conspirators, camping in the woods at the Jackson State Forest egg taking station, stayed up much of the night before planning their first adventure in crime. Given the hours they put into it, their eventual plot wasn't so much a plan as an hallucination.
Donald Perez was conceded to have a bad temper, even by his family. He was also something of an enigma to them. He'd spent 11 years in the Marines before opting for an honorable discharge and, because of his temper, had bounced from job to job ever since. At six-foot-tall and 165 pounds, Perez was in good shape. One of the mysteries of his abduction and murder is how three unathletic potheads could have subdued a Marine with a bad temper and no known reluctance to engage in physical combat, but they did.
The ex-Marine had done some jail time for brandishing a hand gun at neighbors he thought were making fun of him. He'd earned a month in jail and three years probation for that one. When the Santa Ana police were informed that Perez was a missing person, the officer who happened to answer Mendocino County's first inquiring phone call, asked, "Who'd he kill?" Perez had just come off probation when he was murdered in Fort Bragg.
The dead man was last seen alive on the morning of September 13th by his roommate, Paul Smith, and his landlady, Paz Nelson. Smith and Nelson both described Perez as "quiet with a hot temper." He'd rented a room from Nelson for eight years. Even Perez's roommate in the Santa Anna house claimed to know little about him, less even than his landlady. The landlady and the roommate both said Perez spent "a lot of time on his computer," and that both men and women sometimes visited him, "but more men than women." They said that they knew that Perez had just been fired from a truck driving job for threatening a co-worker, but they were sure he would soon get another job because he was disciplined and hard working. Perez had some $8,000 in the bank and he owned his new truck free and clear. For a guy who bounced around the job market, he did pretty well.
Perez's family certainly didn't know that their Donald was involved in the most vile exploitation of children that there is. When the police examined Perez's computer after his murder they destroyed the many illegal pornographic images of children they found there.
"The first disk, labeled Guy-1," the police report says, "contains a mix of graphic images that depict primarily male homosexuality. While most of the images appear to be young adults, some are of minors, both male and female, engaged in various forms of sex acts. The disc labeled ADF-2 Guy-2 NS contains a mix of graphic images that are primarily nude photos of prepubescent girls and boys. Some photos include minor boys and girls engaged in sex acts with adults. Due to the illegal nature of these images, these discs should not be returned to the decedent's next of kin and should be destroyed." The police report went on to say the images had indeed been destroyed "to spare the family."
Deanne Perez-Granados, Perez's sister, works at Stanford University. She concedes that she speculated about her brother's hidden life.
"I wondered about his sexuality because it had been some time since Don had been in a relationship with a woman. So although I'm surprised by his relationship with this Stuckey person, I'm not completely surprised. But Don was a good person, the kind of person that if a friend or family member was in need, he was there for us."
Perez-Granados said that the murder of her brother had been "a pretty difficult couple of years for us, and to re-visit all this is too painful. I want to humanize Don, though. He was younger than me, the oldest of the four children in our family. We are Irish-Scots-Latino. Don was the nurturing one. He cared very much about us. We were all only a year-and-a-half apart. We grew up together around Pasadena, then we moved to San Francisco when my mother re-married. That was in the mid-1970's when my mother re-married and we moved to San Francisco. Don didn't do all that well in school but he was very intelligent. He could figure out how things worked. In high school he took a lot of vocational education classes, especially in electronics and mechanics. In the Marines he worked on airplanes. He'd gone to Europe and Japan with the Marines. I just don't believe my brother was sexually involved with one of them. I think that's just a way of them trying to elude guilt."
Donald Perez is buried in Portland. His mother, Gladys Fontaine, lives in nearby Eugene. Her daughter says, "My mother wanted him nearby to be buried where she and my stepfather plan to be buried," adding, "the one thing I want to be conveyed about my brother is that he was a very caring person, and that whatever went on between him and... well, he did know one of the people. He was going up there to help that person, to give that person money for whatever purpose that person needed it. The end result was that this person took his life. There's a big hole in our family because he's gone."
The grieving sister is perplexed by her brother's killers.
"I looked at them in court. It's a puzzle to me. They didn't look like the kind of people who could do the horrible things they did. My brother was not a violent person. I just don't see him threatening anybody to where they would feel compelled to do what these three did."
Perez-Granados said her brother was close to his family, always sending birthday cards, frequently spending time with her and her family's children, "his surrogate kids," playing with them for hours at a time and taking the older ones to Disneyland.
"My son, all his nieces and nephews, just adored him," Perez's sister emphasizes. "Whenever they were with him, they were just climbing all over him."
Gladys Fontaine describes her son as loving and generous.
"He was a good, giving person, and there's not too much I can talk about now because it hurts too much," she says.
In addition to his mother and sister, Perez is survived by his stepfather, John Fontaine, and two brothers, Rocco and Michael Perez.
Perez's family is not the only person puzzled by his killers. The three young men weren't the usual rootless, drug-driven criminals familiar to Mendocino County law enforcement. All three had functioning families who were behind them before and after their horrendous criminal misadventure. To everyone who knew them, their rootlessness would only be temporary. They'd get jobs, or go to school. It was only a matter of time before they grew all the way up. They'd never admired criminals or themselves been involved in criminal conduct. They certainly weren't tough guys. Young people who know them were disbelieving when Channel, Abreu and Stuckey were arrested for the Perez murder.
"Those guys? They did what? No way!" was a typical comment of one contemporary.
August Stuckey was something of a social isolate, but Abreu and Channel had wide circles of respectable friends, and all three were intelligent, literate, and fascinated by the confused world they spent hours trying to puzzle out in long, all be them stoned, conversations in Michael Johnson's backyard and in the shack on Todd's Point out behind Channel's mother's house.
"If there's a way to describe them," an adult acquaintance would say, "I'd call them like young beatniks from the 1950s. They read a lot poetry, they wrote long letters to each other, and they were drawn to the various brands of undisciplined mysticism that floats up and down the Mendocino Coast. They called themselves 'pacifists.' Rougher kids described them as wusses and weirdos, but also said they were the absolute last guys who would kill somebody. Take away the dope and the violent music and video games and these three never would have harmed anyone. Sad to say though, there are always a bunch of kids like them at loose ends around here. And there's dope of all kinds everywhere on the coast and not a whole hell of a lot of intelligent adult-type input that alienated, confused kids can respect. But Aaron Channel was the lead guy. The other two looked up to him. Stuckey couldn't have done anything like it by himself. Ditto for Abreu. Channel could have stopped it. Why he was involved is the biggest shocker of all."
Like so many other alienated youngsters up and down the Northcoast, Channel and Abreu spent their days wandering around Fort Bragg, often stopping in at the informal youth center on Laurel known as the Headlands Cafe. When Headlands closed at ten, they'd head for the all-night Denny's north of downtown on Highway One. In the summer months, the two young men would spend many days and nights camping out in the woods east of town. They were always short of money, but there was no work that appealed to them. There isn't much work of any kind on the Mendocino Coast for restless, haphazardly educated boys who'd struggled through high school. Tai and Aaron were adrift.
The Ukiah Daily Journal, and the two interchangeable weeklies "serving" the northern part of the Mendocino Coast, the Fort Bragg Advocate and the Mendocino Beacon, all three owned by the same newspaper chain, printed inflammatory news stories based entirely on press releases from the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department and the District Attorney's office. The New York Times-owned Santa Rosa Press Democrat published equivalently prejudicial pre-trial accounts of the Perez murder. The newspaper stories were invariably accompanied by gaunt mug shots of the alleged killers. These forlorn booking photos reinforced the newspapers' press release depictions of the defendants as aimless drug psychos.
The Northocast media, including the opportunistically "liberal" Philo-based public radio station KZYX, often mentioned that the victim was gay, implying that Perez was a double victim. Considerable pressure was brought on the District Attorney's office to add the additional capital charge of hate crime to Perez's death but, according to District Attorney Norm Vroman, "It just wasn't there. We looked hard for it, too."
While the three suspects were buried beneath a barrage of prejudicial public statements from their prosecutors, their defense attorneys said nothing. Public opinion being duly poisoned, the defendants undefended, there was no way any of the three alleged killers could get anything resembling a fair trial in Mendocino County.
Typical of public opinion elicited by the inflammatory media coverage of the case was this letter from a person calling himself Juan Garcia of San Francisco; Garcia was responding to one of the rare, defendant-friendly letters-to-the-editor from Kande Trefil, Aaron Channel's mother-in-law:
"The naive, mawkish article by Kande Trefil in defense of Aaron Channel and Tai Abreu reflects the deep denial of the local hippie counter-cultural community regarding the murder of Donald Perez. How could the sons of such an enlightened culture commit such a heinous crime? Impossible! See, Aaron was a Buddhist and such a sweet guy. Uh-huh, and The Sniper was a Muslim and an upstanding family man, and of course those two kids at Columbine came from such nice families. Give us a break! Actually, these guys reflect the self-indulgent, narcissistic hippie-dippie culture they grew up in the 'Albion Nation' of New Age charlatans, welfare deadbeats, dope dealers, scam artists, and now robbers and murderers. Of course that milieu is definitely minor league compared with the environment of the Aryan Nation, Nazi Low Riders and bad boys that these guys are gonna be functioning in for some time at Pelican Bay or Corcoran or wherever. It's time they grew up and took it like men if they expect to survive because, whine as much as you will, they are not getting out for a long, long time... Yeah, you people go ahead and blame it all on August Stuckey, the youngest, physically smallest and most vulnerable of the three, and the only one who can plausibly be seen as a victim in this matter mitigating his culpability, having suffered sexual abuse at the hands of the deceased, an older man twice his age."
Somehow Stuckey, a kind of rural innocent just turned 18 had been beguiled into a sexual relationship with the 39-year-old Perez. Given the age discrepancy, the reasoning goes, and given that Stuckey had legally been a child of 17 a few months before he killed Perez, Stuckey was a child and Perez was a child molester.
In living fact, a 17-year-old is not a child and none of the three accused killers were raised in the hippie households of the mythical Albion Nation or in loose households anyplace else.
But the three accused and their few supporters would consistently express outrage at "child molesters," in whose dreary ranks, they would allege, marched Perez because of his relationship with young Stuckey and the post-mortem discovery of child pornography on Perez's computer. In this twisted reality, the distinction between a pervert who collects child pornography and a pervert who actually molests children was lost, and somehow Perez had only gotten what was coming to him.
~ end of Part 2 ~
Mendo Justice Gets the Case
by Bruce Anderson
District Attorney Vroman saw the case against the three young co-defendants who were involved in the murder of Donald Perez as emphatically open and just as emphatically shut.
"Each one of them was charged and the implication was different in each one. We got an L-WOP (life without the possibility of parole) on Abreu. The other two got 15 to life [sic] by pleading. Abreu was offered a plea and he didn't take it. Taking cases to trial is never a slam dunk so we were very happy with all three of the sentences in this case."
(Aaron Channel plead to a determinate sentence of 19 years, 7 months; Stuckey's plea got him 15 indeterminate years. Channel will do his time and get out. August Stuckey will have to convince a parole board he is no longer a menace to society. Tai Abreu got life without.)
Instead of being tried in Fort Bragg where their families and friends all lived, the whole show was conducted in Ukiah. The parents, families and friends, not to mention possible defense witnesses, were never informed of exactly where Stuckey, Channel and Abreu were in the legal process, all of which was carried out an hour and a half from Fort Bragg over a narrow, twisting country road.
Linda Thompson is the lead defender in Mendocino County's historically weak Public Defender's office. Tai Abreu isn't the first indigent defendant Thompson has represented right into life without the possibility of parole. For Tai, a 19-year-old charged with first degree murder, Thompson managed a defense that put him away for life. She did not challenge a single prospective juror, she called no witnesses on Tai's behalf and, wrapping up, agreed with the prosecution's denunciation of Tai as a remorseless killer and all-round bad guy. Tai's deluded defense attorney advised her doomed client to turn down the DA's offer of 15-to-life and take his non-case to a jury of his peers. Thompson told Tai she could get him off because detective Bailey had interrogated him without a lawyer present. On his end, the 19-year-old Tai thought he was innocent period because he'd been up on the road as lookout man.
Public defender Thompson spent her several hours of Tai's one-day murder trial arguing that Tai was not properly advised of his right to an attorney, concluding her presentation with an unfounded assessment of Tai's personality she seems to have derived directly from the DA's office.
The only evidence against Tai was his own sweetly coerced confession, Stuckey's easily discredited multiple accusations and the property stolen from Perez that Tai led the police to where Tai had buried it in the woods. The murder weapon was never found. With Stuckey unlikely to be a credible witness, Tai not testifying against himself, and Channel saying nothing at all, it is unlikely that Tai would ever have been convicted of murder one in any other venue. Not that Tai had a case, really. There was enough there to put him away for a long time, especially if he got bad legal advice. But he got the worst possible advice from Ms. Thompson.
Rather than grasp the offer from the DA and thank the lord for 15-to-life, Ms. Thompson, convinced Tai to take his non-case to trial. The hapless Abreu apparently didn't know that the law that says he was as guilty of the Perez murder as whichever young man it was who slashed Perez's throat. So Tai said Yes to the worst possible legal advice he could get in his situation:
Yes, take me to the jury, Ms. Thompson. I didn't kill the man. I was lookout up on the road when the other two were down in the bushes killing the guy. I didn't know they were going to kill him.
Ms. Thompson said nothing to change Tai's mind. She didn't say anything to change the jury's mind either. The tiny woman who dresses herself in men's suits thought she could talk a conservative, rural jury into an acquittal for Tai.
So Tai went to trial. He got one whole day before an unchallenged jury not of his peers. Tai's jury consisted mostly of older retired people, the kind of people who don't refer to non-specific others as "dude." Worse, one of his jurors may have been hostile to Tai for reasons having nothing to do with the accusations against him. This juror was a Fort Bragg man hostile to Tai because he disapproved of a relationship Tai once had with his daughter.
Tai Abreu's Ukiah jury wasted no time finding Tai guilty of murder in the first degree. A few months later Tai was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole by Judge Richard "Rickey" Henderson, an undistinguished Republican from Ukiah appointed to Mendocino County's uniquely over-large superior court for reasons unrelated to his legal abilities, let alone whatever commitment to proportionate justice he may possess.
(Mendocino County's far-flung population of less than 100,000 people supports nine superior court judges, a figure that does not include the dozen or so judges who've "retired" from the Mendocino County bench but double dip as part-time, fill-in judges around the state. Henderson is only one of many starving outback lawyers promoted to instant prosperity by a fortuitous change in the state law which, by legislative fiat in the middle 1970s, elevated the County's one-session-a-week justice court judges to full-time, full pay and benefits superior court judges.)
About the same time that Linda Thompson was putting Tai away for the rest of his life, a popular Ukiah firefighter by the name of Bruechler murdered his layabout, drug-abusing son with an ax. Bruechler's son was asleep when pop took the ax to him. Bruechler was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. He did a year in prison.
Aaron Channel and August Stuckey, having seen what happened to their co-conspirator Mr. Abreu, quickly decided to plead guilty to lesser charges. Aaron received a determinate 19-year sentence, meaning he'll be free before he's forty. August got 15-to-life, meaning he, too, will probably be free before he's forty, although August will have to convince a parole board that he's no longer criminally disposed before the state lets him go.
If Tai is telling the truth about his part in the murder of Donald Perez, he was the least involved participant, but he'll never get out of prison while Perez's true killer will get out.
Linda Thompson killed Tai Abreu as dead as Donald Perez.
Detective Bailey summed up his theory of the case well after the three perps were packed off to state prison.
"Any of the three, taken by themselves, is completely harmless. The problem is that these guys were all social outcasts. Their social circle was the three of them. If these are the only people you have that you can count on and you get yourself in that situation, you certainly don't want to walk away from them. I think that's what happened. They got themselves so far into a situation that nobody wanted to be the one that chickened out. They were playing a lot of violent video games, listening to a lot of hard music, things like that."
"According to these guys Perez could hardly see without his glasses, so the whole point of slapping him the first time was to knock his glasses off, to help render him somewhat defenseless. That's why he couldn't just take off. He wanted those glasses. 'I need my glasses back.' Perez appeared to be in pretty good shape, good enough to be capable of defending himself. But without his glasses and three on one... These guys were lucky and careful at the same time. They admit to wiping the truck down. They admit to changing and destroying their clothes. But we never recovered the murder weapon. I went out to that area several times with a metal detector trying to find it. And Abreu was actually soliciting inmates to get out on his behalf and go get the murder weapon and get rid of it. Maybe someone did get rid of it. We don't know."
Detective Bailey's theory of the case matches that of Kevin Davenport's, the young prosecutor who would take it into court.
"They were in a spot up the road from the bridge," Davenport says, "maybe a quarter mile up there. This is only according to Tai, but he said he and Channel hid in the bushes, and what they were going to do was wait for Stuckey and Perez to come by. Somehow the vehicle would stop. They waited and waited there, and then, about 9am, they estimate, they thought Perez and Stuckey weren't coming or they'd missed the truck and were tired of waiting. So they climbed up onto the road and started walking back towards town. They went around a couple of bends in the road and saw Perez's truck. It had stopped before it got to where they were waiting in hiding. So, they're walking along when they encounter Stuckey and Perez standing by Perez's truck. Channel and Abreu walk up to the vehicle, and now they've put the socks on their hands and have their hands in their pockets, according to Abreu, when they approach Stuckey and Perez.
"So they've already decided, 'Let's go through with it.' They get up to the vehicle. They have this exchange, there's a sort of introduction. 'These are my friends,' Stuckey says to Perez. And so forth. According to Abreu they chat for 10 or 15 minutes about job prospects in the Fort Bragg area and about the College of the Redwoods, and all of a sudden while everyone is sort of waiting for something or somebody to make a move, according to Abreu, Stuckey pulled a big knife out of a sheath that he has on him and says, 'All right. We can do this the hard way or we can do it the easy way,' or some corny movie line like that. It's not exactly clear what happened. They knocked his glasses off early on. They all start walking towards Fort Bragg, a fairly long walk from where they started from. They end up just before the bridge when, according to Abreu, Perez just stops walking. He says, 'You know what? I can't do this without my glasses on. Gimmee my glasses.' And they say, 'We'll give you your glasses if you give us your wallet.' So he kind of steps back and they say, 'We'll do a swap.' Perez puts his wallet down. And then he steps back and they, according to Abreu, put the glasses down. They take the wallet and put the glasses down.
"Perez already has his hands duct-taped in front of him.
"Perez bends down, gets his glasses, then he tries to run towards Fort Bragg. He's trying to run and put on his glasses at the same time, but his hands are taped so he has a balance problem.
"He takes four or five steps and then kinda goes down on one knee. At that time, according to Abreu, Channel hits him on the head with a rock, and it all goes from there.
"They didn't plan that spot. Once they hit him with the rock they probably just kind of stiff-walked him the rest of the way down off the road. The whole thing took who knows how long. Three guys walking down the road with one guy's hands taped and someone waving a knife around a mile from the police department! And they didn't go down the road embankment. They went around to the gate to that pasture and sort of came back parallel to the road to the spot where Perez was taped to the tree."
Tai Abreu had the most tenuous family, the fewest resources, financial or familial, of the three young men charged with the murder. Tai's mother had been adopted by the large Abreu clan, a family with deep roots in Mendocino County, but Mom had veered off the tracks in early adolescence, succumbing to the easy availability of drugs and the ubiquity of people who use them in Mendocino and Lake Counties. Medical records indicate that Tai's mother was 22 when Tai was born on January 2. She was addicted to methamphetamine during her pregnancy with Tai, and almost immediately disappeared back into the drug life within days of Tai's birth in Lakeport.
Tai's father, Darrell Reno, like Tai's mother, had also been adopted, but, unlike mom, dad worked and stayed away from drugs. He was left alone with his son, the living consequence of his brief romance with Tai's troubled mother. Dad did the best he could with Tai, once remarking that he'd "rolled my life into a little paper ball and threw it away" to care for his son.
Backed up by his adoptive mother, Esther Nelson, Darrell Reno did the best he could with Tai until Tai was 12. The schools had always had trouble controlling Tai's "hyperactivity" and were constantly complaining about what they claimed was Tai's unmanageable school room behavior. The schools had put Tai on Ritalin, a pharmaceutical amphetamine, because a combination of school psychologists and Mendocino County "helping professionals," as the county's small army of therapists and social workers grandly describe themselves, had concluded that Tai was educable only if he were placed on the right combinations of drugs.
Tai wasn't helped. When the boy was 12, his father was persuaded to place Tai in an institutional setting and Tai was soon on his way to Sunny Hills, a treatment center for disturbed children in San Anselmo, Marin County.
Tai's capable and hard working father, who'd been a commercial fisherman out of Fort Bragg, soon left the country to begin a lucrative new career in the Middle East as a captain of sea going tugboats. He has since become a full time resident of Egypt, has converted to Islam and has married a young Muslim woman. When Darrell Reno learned that Tai had been arrested for murder he wrote his son off, but has since resumed contact.
Tai's closest, most consistent relative remains his grandmother, Esther Nelson, now of Ukiah. She lives alone in a small, tidy senior apartment just off Low Gap Road. There are pictures of her many foster children — "73 of them" — on the walls, and many pictures of Tai at various stages of growth. Esther is confined to a wheelchair from a stroke.
Tai's grandmother says Tai "just happened."
"His mother only saw him twice that I know of," she says. "She saw him when he was born and she saw him when he was in jail in Ukiah 19 years later. And she only saw him in Ukiah because she was at the jail visiting another of her sons. He was six months old when his father got full custody. Later, when they put Tai on all those pills, he hated to take them. I'd have to stand there and watch him swallow or he'd throw them away.
"I thought he was just a regular little boy. My goodness if you can't handle a child, an 8-year-old without drugs... Well, I refused to give them to him myself."
Grandma Esther visits Tai at the state prison in Soledad when she can, and she scrimps on creature comforts for herself to send Tai a few regular dollars "so he can at least have something in there."
Compounding her sorrow at Tai's fate, when Grandma Esther approached Donald Perez's mother to express her sorrow at the murder that had brought the two grandmothers into one courtroom, Perez's mother loudly told a bailiff, "Keep that old bitch away from me. I don't want to have anything to do with any of these people."
Tai remembers his formative years this way:
"I was 12 when I was placed at Sunny Hills in San Anselmo, but that wasn't the beginning. When I was seven I was placed in Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute in San Francisco. That was the beginning of my exposure to the crazies. Off the wall loons, every last one of them! During my stay there as a little kid I was taken off Ritalin in two days. Anyone who knows two shits about medicine knows that two days is hardly an appropriate detox time for any medicine, let alone for a seven-year-old on a double-adult dosage of Ritalin. I was then placed on iamipramine and basically told to kick rocks back to Fort Bragg. Then there was Sunny Hills for three years, from age 12 to age 15, during which time I was placed in Ross Mental Hospital three times because I refused to take my meds. Then off to Fort Bragg again. Don't get me wrong. None of this is meant to be an excuse. It was my own stupid fault for going along with the whole thing, and I accept that. Yet my history was obviously a series of cries for help. I guess now I'm crying for the last time."
Tai's friends were shocked when he was arrested and charged with murder.
"I'm an acquaintance of Tai Abreu, but I knew him as Tai Reno," an old friend of Tai's recalls. "I went to school with all three of the young boys who are being accused of killing Donald Perez. I remember being in the 6th grade with Tai. He was always hyper and funny. I know and believe that if Tai knew there was a dead body or knew someone was about to die he would not have tolerated it or stuck around. The same goes for Aaron Channel. Isn't it a possibility Tai and Aaron were at the wrong time and place, lured there by the third member and a fourth unmentioned member that snitched to free himself of his wrongdoing? We know that Tai and Aaron were given public defenders who did nothing to defend them in this unjust justice system. These defenders prejudged them as guilty because it was being called a hate crime. Why is it called a hate crime when these four boys weren't all straight themselves? And one public defender is gay herself. She didn't know the sexuality of her client?
"Did you know that Mr. Perez was a pornographer of children, and the so-called stolen equipment of cameras was for that purpose, and that Mr. Perez had pornographic photographs of children on his computer that were destroyed by the police to save face for the Perez family? I'm not saying what happened to Perez was right, but I know Tai and Aaron couldn't have killed him."
~ end of Part 3 ~
Who Are These Kids?
by Bruce Anderson
August Stuckey didn't know Tai Abreu and Aaron Channel well. They regarded him as "goofy" and "at least ten degrees off." But Channel had a generous way about him that made allowances for outcasts. He was kind to them, defended them, and Channel felt especially sorry for the friendless Stuckey. He, too, had been harassed in the public schools for being different. As had Tai. Channel has always prided himself on his pacifism, his tolerance, his patience with oddballs. He often signs his letters from the state prison at Susanville, "In loving kindness."
Stuckey had been found by the same helping pros who'd helped destroy Abreu's childhood to be suffering from personality disorders ranging from paranoia, to "elements of autism," a short attention span, and an ongoing inability to distinguish reality from fantasy. A slightly built young man, Stuckey had always had trouble in school from bullies. In defense of what was left of himself, Stuckey had occasionally physically attacked the children who tormented him. His mother successfully sued the Fort Bragg schools over the school district's failure to provide a suitable academic environment for her son.
"How crazy is Stuckey?" Mendocino County District Attorney Norm Vroman wonders. "Obviously, he's unbalanced. But I don't know how crazy he is. I think that anybody who kills somebody except in self-defense has got a screw loose. I was never able to understand just because you have a screw loose why that makes the person who is dead any less dead. Maybe there's a difference in how you treat them, but they have to be locked up either in a prison or a hospital. Stuckey's going to prison. You know, his defense withdrew the not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity in Stuckey's case."
Stuckey was placed in protective custody in the County Jail while he waited for trial. He was at first believed to be suicidal and generally crazy. He was accused of engaging in sexual relations with other inmates. In a letter to President Bush scanned by jail staff, Stuckey said he was the victim of Channel and Abreu. He said they'd stabbed him "100 times" with an ice pick and had crushed one of his hands with a ballpeen hammer, and had threatened his sister if he didn't obey them. "Either you're crazy or they are very bad dudes," a disbelieving investigator commented to Stuckey.
August Stuckey was certainly a problem inmate. He was constantly stuck in the safety cell where he was clad only in a safety smock he couldn't rip up and use to hang himself, although the county jail's skeptical "Mental Health evaluator" wrote of him, "Inmate doesn't talk about suicide except as a tool to get his needs met." Contradicting that evaluation, the evaluator stated that August's behavior was "erratic and unpredictable," and that he was "unable to accept relationship of his behaviors and their consequences."
Stuckey continued to throw tantrums, often over little things like being given eggs for breakfast and not liking the way they were prepared. Once, in a faux suicide note, Stuckey wrote that getting beans for a meal was the reason he was pushed to act crazy. When he was out of his safety smock he would bang the walls and doors of his safety cell and yell incoherently. Then he would calm down, behave, take his medication, and eventually be let back into the regular population. There, he would solicit other inmates to try his wares, so to speak, for the price of a candy bar. This behavior continued until other inmates complained of his behavior and he was sent back to the safety cell for the umpteenth time. Mental Health evaluators decided eventually that Stuckey would have to be held permanently in isolation, commenting, "We need to keep him under the camera."
The Stuckey family still seems to think he was the victim of Channel and Abreu when, as the known facts of the case make clear, he was the author of the crime. He might be half-cracked, but Stuckey wasn't stupid and, by any reasonably objective standard, he wasn't fully crazy. Stuckey's account of Perez's execution is similar to Abreu's, but in Stuckey's edition it is Stuckey who was up on the road as lookout man.
"I was ordered by Abreu and Channel to clear a path down the embankment to large green tree. I did that with a shopping cart, and then I cleared an area by the tree. When I finished, I went back up the embankment to where Channel was standing guard over Perez while Abreu went back across the bridge to get the truck. When I got to the top of the embankment, Abreu and Channel took Perez down the bank. I went to the truck where I was supposed to stand watch. A few minutes later I heard scuffling and gurgling noises. A few seconds later Abreu and Channel came up the bank and Channel was wiping blood off the silver colored dark handled knife." Stuckey said the three of them "got into the truck and drove east aways" before one of them "ran into the bushes and buried stuff."
Aaron Channel kept promising his family to go on to college. Abreu and Stuckey, too, had vague plans for getting their lives on track. But the three of them, despite their abilities, weren't doing much of anything other than wandering around the Fort Bragg area, tapping friends and family for small loans to get through their immediate waking hours. And they were smoking a lot of dope, dropping unwholesome amounts of acid, listening to hours of negative music, spending as many hours playing video games heavy on violent images.
A formidably bright young woman named Jennifer Wolchik, a close friend of both Channel and Abreu, had been camping at the [fish] egg taking station with the inept conspirators in the aimless days before their murder move on Perez. She had no idea the three planned to commit a big crime. (Jennifer would be challenged by police when she unwittingly put up $1,000 to bail out a jail house acquaintance of Abreu's named Rogers, allegedly so Rogers, at Tai's request, could throw the murder weapon into the ocean and raise money for Tai's defense.)
Jails these days are teeming with snitches, and they were lining up to rat on their three young and inexperienced cellmates to enhance their own legal prospects.
Ms. Wolchik, a single mother who now lives in Santa Rosa, was more than a match for police interrogators, masterfully swatting back questions as if they were the most obvious, most tedious impertinences, at one point advising detective Bailey to "use your head, Bailey." She succinctly summarizes the lives of many young Coast people as she remembers the hazy days surrounding the death of Donald Perez.
"They're very intelligent young men," Jennifer begins, "but none of them have much commonsense. No sense of place. They didn't know where they were going. August is an incredibly disturbed young man, though. I think I can see them robbing someone, but I find it difficult to believe they'd kill anyone. They're typical Fort Bragg kids. Stoners. It's the number one hobby in Fort Bragg. Most of us were always pretty broke, but we got by. They knew if they asked me I could help them out. Tai had his grandma, Aaron was capable of working because he had worked in the past with no problem. They liked material things but not as much as most people. They were perfectly happy sitting out in the woods in the rain, just sitting around being guys and hanging out. We were camping when this whole thing happened. Tai and I got in a fight one time and he got very angry but he punched a tree, He didn't hit me, he hit the tree. I was with Tai for a year and a half. We argued all the time but he never ever laid a hand on me. I never saw or heard of Aaron hurting anyone. I was working at Denny's the night they arrested Aaron. The cops asked me if I felt Tai had any problems with homosexuals. I just laughed at them. I'm like, nooooo. Sometimes Tai was home with me and sometimes he was out with boyfriends.
"I never had a problem with it."
Jennifer says Stuckey was a different story.
"According to my friends, August would bring over tapes of school girls being tortured, like this was a cool thing to watch. But I really don't know him well.
When I went to see him in jail he told me Tai and Aaron did horrible things to him like stab him with ice picks, and that they made him touch drugs so his fingerprints would be on it, which is all bull.
When he told me he was getting vegetarian meals in jail I asked him, 'Didn't you just have a hamburger with me two weeks ago?' He said, 'Yeah, but the vegetarian food in here is better'."
Aaron Channel's parents divorced in 2000. It wasn't a friendly parting. The former Mrs. Channel alleged that Mr. Channel had "raped" Aaron and his sister Jennifer. The allegations were stoutly and credibly denied by the alleged victims, her own children.
These days, Aaron's mother operates a daycare center out of her home on Todd's Point. Aaron's father, Steve, is in his middle forties. He has worked for Georgia-Pacific even after the big mill in Fort Bragg closed. The former couple's other two children, a boy and a girl, live with their father in Fort Bragg. Dad runs a happy home. Kids are in and out of the place all day. There is lots of laughter until the awful subject comes up of Aaron's 19-year sentence for his involvement in the Perez murder. All the family can do is speculate. They're as perplexed by Aaron's apparent role in the ghastly crime as everyone else is who knows him.
"I'll always be in kind of a state of shock," Steve Channel says. "I still can't believe it. I never did know where Aaron was in the legal process. It was impossible to talk to anybody over in Ukiah. They never call you back. I went over there for what I thought was a trial, but what they were doing was sending Aaron off to prison for 19 years. In Aaron's school records, if they'd bothered to look, they would have seen a portrait of a student that teachers liked, who was always helpful, and generally in the upper percentile in terms of intelligence. I don't think they had enough evidence on Aaron to even send him to a military boot camp. That's what they used to do if you screwed up."
Aaron's boyhood friend, Shayne Cowell was as staggered as Aaron's family when Aaron was arrested for murder.
"Aaron has always been a complete pacifist. If he got pissed off he'd go deal with it and go ahead. He's never been a violent person, never struck out against anybody, never really held a grudge. He's pretty much a total pacifist. I can count more times that I've blown up than he has.
"He was having a conflict with his mother about where his life was going to go. He always had trouble holding a job for one reason or another. I never knew why, he just couldn't. His mom was getting really frustrated with him. All he did was stay out in his shed out behind her house on Todd's Point and come in to eat, no different from the year that preceded it. I think his mom had concluded that Aaron needed to find his niche in society, find something to do. She threatened to kick him out a couple of times, but he took over the shed with all his stuff. I told him myself that he needed to get off his ass and do something. I can't believe he'd take the fall for a murder he didn't commit, but Aaron's always had martyristic tendencies, though. He'll put himself on the line for a friend who needs help. But murder? If he knew Tai or August did a murder I don't think he'd put himself out there for them. If he did it he'd plan it much better and he'd make himself responsible, not anyone else."
The night he was arrested, Aaron remembers sitting at Dennys at about 2 a.m. with Jennifer Wolchik and Clarissa Frey when officer Karen Harris of the Fort Bragg Police Department arrived to talk to Miss Frey about a pending legal matter involving the young woman. The officer, noticing Aaron sitting at the counter, asked, "Aren't you Aaron Channel?"
"I greeted her amicably," Aaron recalled in a letter to his new wife, Galina Trefil, "but I noticed she seemed pretty tense, but I thought it was just due to her having a hard night. I didn't think it had anything to do with me."
A few minutes later, Aaron remembers in his letter to Galina, "Three rows of two detectives each, all very large and with hands resting menacingly on their firearms told me to come with them. I said that it was very late and I'd had a long day, and I'd rather not go with them because I was tired. I suggested they try to contact me in the morning."
The cops told Aaron that it was very important and that he had to come with them; wouldn't take but a minute.
"One detective even went so far as to say that I would be back in time to eat any food I had ordered! So I went. Once there, I was treated reasonably well. I don't remember too much about the interrogation except that it lasted forever and I was tired and having difficulty following some of the things they said. I remember at one point the fat ugly detective actually got right down in my face and started yelling at me that I had to confess 'for the sake of Mr. Perez's family.' Next, I was taken to the hospital to give blood for DNA testing, which I consented to. They handcuffed me to a gurney and the doctor, or whatever he was, said that I needed to sign a form consenting to have my blood drawn. I told him I'd sign a form, but I couldn't honestly say I wanted to have my blood drawn. I was just doing it to try and appease the cops. Then, I was transported to the county jail in Ukiah. It was a long ride. My hands were cuffed behind my back way too tight and there was no seatbelt that I could put on.
"Once at Low Gap [the site of the Mendocino County Jail], I was verbally bashed by a group of 5-7 cops who got in my face and called me names. I remember at one point being asked, 'So it took three of you to kill him? You're some big men, aren't you?' I also remember being told that I'd better do everything they told me to do right when they told me to do it or they'd beat the shit outta me. I was stripped and my possessions, consisting of clothes, boots, and a rose — at the time I made a habit of always carrying a rose on me — were taken away. I was put into a large glass cell with a huge Samoan, who I assume was drunk because he snored incredibly loud. And there I was in nothing but a t-shirt and pants and shoes. I was really cold. I pressed the intercom button and asked if I could be brought a towel or a blanket because I was cold. They refused. I guess they thought I might use it to hang myself.
"After about 5 hours or 6 hours, or maybe 9 or 10, I was called back out to talk to the detectives again. I hadn't slept a wink in this entire time as I was cold and there was nothing to sit or lie on but cold metal and concrete. I remember that the time I spent in that cell was incredibly long. It seemed like days. I was genuinely miserable and, honestly, I might have tried to kill myself given the opportunity. I remember considering drowning myself in the commode, but decided against it for my family's sake.
"So I was escorted across a hallway by a guard. I was very friendly with him because I was trying to acquaint myself with someone — anyone. But he was very rude and told me 'to shut the hell up and keep walking.' My hands were once again cuffed way too tight. I was marched across the hall to where the cops were.
"I don't know if this conversation was videotaped or not. It was short, at most 10 minutes. In it, I repeatedly said I wanted a lawyer. I told them I refused to say another word until I talked to a lawyer. I even said at one time that I didn't want a single word I said recorded until I had talked to a lawyer. They kept badgering me to talk to them, but I kept refusing until they finally gave up. I was then taken back to the main jail and given a cot and a blanket and marched over to my cell. Tai was in the cell across the hall, and I could talk to him, but we didn't say much. I almost immediately went to sleep, and when I woke up they had moved him.
"For the next couple of days, I barely ate and I slept all day. I didn't call home or call anyone else for that matter. I just waited for my first court date and waited for my lawyer to get there as one of the detectives had said that he would make a call to have a lawyer come and see me during my second interrogation. At this point I didn't realize that I had to be arraigned and then assigned a lawyer.
"About four days later I was put into handcuffs with Tai and put into a squad car. We both immediately became manic from both of us finally seeing a friend after so much hardship."
The squad car was wired. Tai and Aaron were transported together so the police and the prosecutor could listen to whatever they might say about the crime. The audio tape didn't specifically incriminate either Tai or Aaron, but it hardly casts them in a sympathetic light. They are giggly and seemingly unaware of the seriousness of their position.
Although much of the recording is inaudible, it begins with Tai saying to Aaron, "OK, you realize once we're sitting back here they can barely hear us up front as long as we keep it quiet."
Aaron and Tai then admit to seeing "the body," and Aaron says about the relationship of August Stuckey to Perez, "I'm saying it was a weird sex thing. They were boyfriends. That's what I think was going on anyway." Aaron tells Tai, "We didn't know it was a murder... Whenever we saw the body, we freaked."
"We freaked," Abreu agrees. "And then we got out of there as quick as we could."
Murder One was an odd charge against the defendants because exactly who did exactly what what was not known, and no evidence of premeditation, beyond Stuckey's and Abreu's changing stories about staying up all night in the woods the night before to plan a robbery, was ever produced. Both Abreu's and Stuckey's accounts indicate that the fatal knife to Perez's throat was done on an impulse by Channel, but the pathology report states the cause of death as unknown because the forensic analysis of Perez's remains seems to favor as cause of death, "suffocation by abandonment."
When the DA offered Aaron his plea deal — 19 years, 8 months in state prison — it was, as prosecutor Kevin Davenport later told the judge, "because there are several evidentiary problems that are associated with the case of People vs. Channel, and the people anticipated some difficulty with some of the evidence coming into a jury."
In other words, the case against Aaron was weak, very weak.
Jan Cole-Wilson is a brisk, matronly Ukiah attorney employed by a private firm with offices down the street from the County Courthouse. She was assigned to be Aaron's lawyer via Mendocino County's "alternate public defender's" office, an arrangement cynics have dubbed, "The Mendocino County Full Employment Act For Starving Lawyers." On the vaguest of alleged conflicts of interest, private local lawyers are paid out of public funds to represent defendants the public defender's office says it can't defend out of a scrupulous regard for the rights of the accused.
Aaron says of Cole-Wilson, "She came to visit me sporadically over the eight months or so that I was incarcerated in the county jail in Ukiah. I saw her maybe 15 times in that period. I wrote out a copy of what happened, but she said she didn't want to issue any statement and I'd best just sit tight. "
Aaron's new bride, Galena Trefil, wasn't happy with the disposition of her husband's case.
"During all that bad press that Aaron got," she says, "Aaron's lawyer advised his family and friends not to respond. She said that making Aaron look better to the public wasn't important because the public didn't have any say-so in whether he was convicted or not. However, people phoned law enforcement from as far away as New York, demanding that Aaron get the death penalty. Few facts were published by a wildly sensational press, so Aaron gave up on the idea that he would ever find a local jury that would not be biased. That is why he took the plea.
"Worse than the fact that she wouldn't file for change of venue, his lawyer, Ms. Cole-Wilson, was not apparently doing very much of a job on the case. She never even went to the crime scene. She told Aaron's family, and mine too, that character witnesses make no difference in such cases and so she didn't bother asking her investigator to question even one of Aaron's friends or even one relative, despite the fact that he had both in ample amount who would be willing to testify for him, and despite the fact that these were the people who he'd been with after allegedly committing a murder. To this day, I have not met one person aside from herself who ever met her investigator — and I am Aaron's wife! Cole-Wilson was incredibly insensitive, making family members virtually corner her before she was willing to speak to them, even though Aaron wanted her to, and when she did speak to us, she compared Aaron to a man that stalked and slit a 17-year-old girl's throat — right to Aaron's mother's face, nearly putting her in tears.
"In many ways, Cole-Wilson gave the impression that she did not care about winning the case at all. She did no background check on Aaron, no lie detector test even though he wanted one. Because of that, I felt I could not trust her so I went out and got several character letters from upstanding members of the community on Aaron's behalf. When she saw them she changed her mind about them not being valuable and subpoenaed many of the people whom I'd presented her with. The fact that she was a lawyer and I was having to do her job for her made me very uneasy.
"She also flat out admitted to my family that she had lost a great deal of the evidence long before Aaron ever took the plea; she told us this when Aaron wrote her telling her to surrender copies of all the files and photographs to us. She wasn't able to do this she said, because she had lost them a long, long time ago. She also was reluctant to give us anything until we reminded her that it was her legal obligation to do so.
"When we went to pick up the evidence, she produced only half of it, refusing to surrender nearly all court documents, because, she said, it would be too much trouble for her secretary to find them. We asked several times for the documents which Aaron wanted us to have, but in the end we had to give up; she wouldn't budge.
"From prison Aaron wrote us that the reason he had agreed to the plea was because his lawyer not only told him he'd get life if he didn't, but also she told him that his mother wanted him to take the plea. Aaron's mother says she never discussed the possibility with his lawyer. Aaron asked for an hour to consider the plea, but Cole-Wilson said, 'No, you have to choose now, and you won't get a second chance.'
"So he pleaded to, among other things, voluntary manslaughter, which was supposed to have been carried out by means of a rock, which Stuckey alleges Aaron beat Perez on the head with. There is no forensic evidence to back this up; in fact, Dr. Trent, the coroner said, 'There is no evidence of subdural hemorrhage or any traumatic perforation of the skull.' Dr. Reiber of UC Davis said, 'Certain forms of obvious trauma can be excluded by the autopsy, such as blunt force.' He continued, 'I agree with Dr. Trent that the cause of death in this case is undetermined.' Despite the rumors of slit throat, no one knows how Perez really died."
For her part, Cole-Wilson says she got Aaron the best possible deal he could get given the circumstances of his obvious involvement.
"Stuckey will have to go before a parole board before he can get out," Cole-Wilson begins by way of a reply to charges that Aaron was under-represented. "Abreu got life without the possibility of parole. Aaron will serve his sentence and leave prison. There was no ambiguity in that each of them did something to contribute to the death of Donald Perez."
Cole-Wilson makes a strong case for her work on the case.
"In California, aidor and abbettor is all inclusive. If you go out there and assist in a robbery or even a prank which results in someone else with you committing murder, you're as guilty as the person who did it. Aaron and I discussed that a lot. His new wife is up in arms, but Aaron wasn't married to her at the time. Aaron's mother and I talked a lot, though. We were ready to go to trial, and if they had not made me an offer that included light at the end of the tunnel for Aaron we would have gone to trial. Aaron will be out of prison when he's in his middle 30's; going to trial would have been a real gamble, especially after what happened to Mr. Abreu."
The attorney emphasizes her affection for Aaron, explaining at length her defense strategy.
"I found Aaron to be a really likable, very smart, very soft spoken young man. Speaking with Aaron after he went to prison, and talking to his mother and his wife, it was my recommendation they let it rest because he got a reasonably good deal, but if he wanted to go in and say that I was ineffective that's his right. If he was able to show that, which I don't think he could — but I wouldn't discourage anyone from seeking legal options — but if you do that you go back to court on all of the counts, and you have to defend on all of them, which means you take the same chance of being convicted like Mr. Abreu and going down forever like Mr. Abreu did. I talked to both Aaron and his mom and we agreed on not challenging Aaron's sentence. But I'm not perfect; maybe there's something I missed. But before we entered his plea his mother came in and we went through all the documents looking for inconsistencies, looking for things that we could bring up to help him. It just wasn't there. It was really hard for his mother, but she was on board for this resolution. She cried a lot when she saw a lot of it and read a lot of it and heard the recordings.
"We've calculated that Aaron will be out when he's 36. That's not old. When you get out at 36 you can get out with two degrees, with some job training. Lots of doctors and lawyers don't finish their educations until that age. The world is still available at 36. Compare what Aaron got to life without the possibility of parole. If he wasn't involved, if he was just there when it happened, or just heard about it, then he should have gone to the police and said, 'My friends were involved in a murder.' He didn't do that.
"Aaron was fully aware of his options," Cole-Wilson insists, before adding that Aaron knew that Abreu, Stuckey and Michael Johnson might testify against him if he went to trial. Perhaps even more damning was the incriminating tape recording of Tai and Aaron the police made in the transport vehicle. Cole-Wilson rightly feared the effect the tape would have on a jury.
"A juror," she says, "could easily infer a consciousness of guilt. Aaron's mother and I listened to an enhanced version that the DA hadn't bothered to have transcribed. It is clear from the recording that Aaron was at least somewhat involved in some of the related illegal activity. The tone of it was not attractive, either. There was a lot of laughing and giggling. A jury would not like it. Maybe Mr. Abreu would have come in and testified against him — there was no guarantee that he wouldn't. He'd already been to trial. And he might have decided to testify against Aaron to help his chances for an appeal, or improve his chances on sentencing. The fact was that there was evidence that Aaron may have been the actual murderer, although I'm not saying he was. I'm not saying there was proof positive because if there was the DA would never have given me the deal he did.
"Aaron's father did say, 'I love my son. I'll do whatever I can for him,' but the father wasn't in court every single time like Aaron's mother was,' Cole-Wilson observes, ever more annoyed that her role in the plea deal is being questioned after the fact. She's almost incredulous when she points out that her critics keep saying that Perez had child pornography on his computer, as if that somehow justified his murder.
"He may have been some kind of sexual deviant," Cole-Wilson argues, "and he was homosexual, but all that is extraneous to what happened to him. There were letters to the editor that perhaps it was a hate crime because of the porno found on Perez's computer. We all agreed that he may have been a vile person, but you can't kill him. And there was no evidence that in any of their conversations or in any of their statements that Perez was killed because he had done something really awful to one of them at that time. I know that Stuckey, it appears, had had other contacts with him that may have been sexual in nature. It's true that Stuckey was a minor then, but just barely, maybe 17, but that hardly makes Perez a child molester."
~ end of Part 4 ~
The Raps and the Wrap Up
by Bruce Anderson
Prosecutor Kevin Davenport looks like a 6'4" Clark Kent. He's in his early 40s and wears dark, conservative suits. He looks like a movie prosecutor. Or a mortician. The grandson of famed Bay Area attorneys Carl and the late Helen Shapiro, Davenport is the first prosecutor in a family of defense lawyers. He has no doubt that Channel, Abreu and Stuckey acted in a way that got Donald Perez dead, but he remains slightly aghast at what happened in court to Tai Abreu.
"The public defender turned down a pretty good offer for Abreu, I will say that," said Davenport. "It was the same offer the other two got. Abreu had the bad luck of being first to trial because I had the strongest case against him. Under the felony murder rule all three were guilty regardless of who plunged the knife into Perez's throat. The decomposition was centered on the throat. It's conceivable that parasites could have come in through the mouth and nose and then caused the entire deterioration of the throat area that way, but I don't think, and the experts don't think, that normally happens.
"Was Tai telling the truth when he said he was up on the road when Perez was killed? Well, that's what he said. We only know that because he said so. Detective Bailey told me he was pretty sure that at some point all three went down there and tied the guy up.
"They had socks on their hands. It was a long, dramatic process, not just a matter of jumping out of the bushes and grabbing the first guy who came along. It was a planned killing. That doesn't mean it was intelligently planned or even well planned. They planned to kill Donald Perez and take his stuff. There's no doubt in my mind that's what they did.
"Stuckey had met the man over the internet and ended up having a rendezvous with him in a Fort Bragg motel before this incident. Stuckey then decided he was mature enough to leave the old coastal town that was his only home and pack everything he could carry into a duffel bag and ended up in Sacramento, of all places, where he was down and out and had a second either short rendezvous with Mr. Perez or was wired money by Mr. Perez and went back to Fort Bragg. Shortly after Stuckey got back to Fort Bragg, the three of them — Stuckey, Abreu and Channel — hatched the scheme to murder and rob the guy. We think what happened was that Stuckey became more and more talkative about his relationship with Perez and that Abreu and Channel decided they could exploit Stuckey around that relationship and lure the guy up to Fort Bragg, that's what I think happened.
"There was a suggestion from Stuckey that during that first rendezvous with Perez in Fort Bragg he'd engaged in some intimacy with Perez out of which he may have had some emotional issues. Stuckey said in one of his rambling accounts that during his Fort Bragg session with Perez he had been extensively photographed by Perez, but we never found any photographs in the possession of Perez that were of Stuckey except for the normal ones that Stuckey had emailed to Perez.
"It was a murder plot. We have Abreu telling detective Bailey that Stuckey told Abreu and Channel that Stuckey was going to off this guy and take his stuff. And Channel said, 'You'll fuck it up, man. You're too stupid. We're gonna help you.' They don't use the m-word because you don't want to say that. Instead they say, 'off the guy' or 'take him out.' But they know what they're going to do.
"They camped at the egg taking station because they were contacted by the police about 10 or 11pm the very night of the killing The murder happened around 9 that same morning. The three of them were there camping for about a week. The testimony of one of the CDF guys [Robert Rodello] was that CDF had had some complaints about noise and messiness at this campsite, but every time a CDF guy went there during the day these guys were not there. And each time their campsite was messier. When CDF went there the night of the killing all three guys were there and they were ID'd.
"To describe them as intelligent might be too strong. Compared to what? When I watched the Abreu videos, or listened to him talking, I think, 'This is a product of the public school system?' They think they're smart because they know how to form sentences, but they have no sense of social responsibility. They're intelligent like Ozzy Osbourne lyrics.
"They pretty much committed every waking minute of their day to acquiring marijuana and avoiding any sort of physical labor. That's what they were pretty much about. Crank? May have been, but being so young whatever they were into could not have become heavy or used long enough to make them become the complete psychotic you'd expect to do this kind of thing.
"I think Abreu got profoundly bad legal advice from his attorney. She felt she had a winning Miranda violation. Her closing statement to the jury was, 'Is my guy a nice person? Is my guy someone you'd want to live next door to? A despicable human being? Yes, but he's not a murderer. At worst he's a receiver of stolen property.'
"In my final argument I said, 'Even assuming Ms. Thompson is correct, Mr. Abreu is receiving his stolen property while the warm blood is running out of Mr. Perez's throat.' That isn't just simple receiving of stolen property. It's a theft during a murder, and that kicks in the felony murder rule. If he'd pled out he'd have received 15-to-life. There would have been the possibility of parole after 15 years. Ms. Thompson doesn't like the felony murder rule. She is philosophically opposed to it. Because of that she has a hard time understanding the way it works. But it's very simple: if someone dies during the commission of a felony, you're guilty of the death that occurs. It may seem overly harsh. You can disagree with it. But failing to agree with it doesn't mean you're going to defeat it.
"I've never seen a better performance from a suspect than the one Channel gave. When the investigators had him in the interview room and they were confronting him with the crime, he said, 'I don't know what you're talking about.' And the cops would say, 'Stuckey says you're involved.' Channel would say, 'Stuckey's a liar. I don't know what you're talking about.' And round and round for an hour. Channel never faltered. Maybe he's seen one more movie than the other guys. I'm not sure if I was guilty that I could hold up that long. If more people did that we'd have half as many successful prosecutions. He was amazing.
"There are things about this thing that we don't know. It's sad that these three fellows ruined their own lives, but the bottom line is Perez was killed and he didn't deserve to be. And those three guys did it.
"Channel has a determinate sentence because he had a beatable case. I'm not saying he would have beat it, and that I would have lost, just that I could have lost. I never for a minute thought I could have lost the Abreu case, and I didn't think for a minute I'd lose the Stuckey case either.
"They thought Perez had $50,000 worth of stuff. He did have a $30,000 pick-up that they just abandoned. That alone is a very stupid move. If they had driven the truck back to the town of Fort Bragg and driven it around with out of state plates on it, they probably would have avoided suspicion for weeks. They didn't become suspects until the body was found on October 5th. Johnson had come in the previous day and, that morning, Stuckey and Stuckey's sister had implicated all three.
"I heard from Jan Cole-Wilson that the family was outraged by the deal made for Channel because poor Aaron should be innocent. They went to Richard Petersen [well known criminal defense attorney in Ukiah] to get him to withdraw the plea or appeal the sentence. Richard looked it over, talked to Cole-Wilson, and said, 'This is a great deal. You leave this alone. He's going to be out of jail in 2014. He'll have a fine life when he gets out.' After all, it is called the Department of Corrections."
Aaron Channel says he's not guilty of murder, only involvement after the fact.
" I helped to cover up evidence — there is a great difference between that and murder. I pleaded 'Guilty Pursuant to a West Plea.' That is a legal term which means that I feel my case has been compromised in some way. In this situation, it was the negative — nothing short of lynch mob-esque — light in which the media portrayed me. I did not believe that is was possible for me to receive a fair trial in this county and I was unable to obtain a change of venue. (A change of venue might have provided me with a truly unbiased jury and, had I thought that a possibility, I would have gone ahead with a regular trial.)
"The decision to spend 15 years in prison was a weighty one, and I would like to go over some of the details of my case in order to explain my choice. I will stick as close to documented facts as I am able, though I freely admit that my viewpoint on these matters is rather, shall we say, understandably biased. However, I challenge anyone who doubts the veracity of my words to contact the detectives and prosecutors involved in this case and get the information for themselves!
"First off, Michael Johnson called the Fort Bragg police and told them that his homosexual lover, August Stuckey, had confessed to him the murder of another gay man, Mr. Perez. Mr. Johnson also stated that Tai Abreu and I had been present during August's confession of this crime. He stated that Tai and I confessed involvement as well to him, though, due to the fact that he was high out of his mind at the time, Michael Johnson could not remember what Tai and myself had exactly allegedly 'confessed' to him.
"That evening, August Stuckey was arrested. He told the cops a rather far-fetched story in which he stated that Mr. Abreu and myself had set him up. He said that we forced him to lure Perez to the area of the murder. August also alleged that Tai and I stole August's knife and shoes. Thus the only reason August's shoe prints were at the scene of the crime was because Tai and I had specifically worn them to implicate him. This was also our alleged reason for using the knife — all to set up August.
"He gave no particular reason for our desire to set him up, but that's supposedly irrelevant. The point to the story was that not only were Tai and I murderers, according to August, but we were out to get August. Furthermore, August claimed that Tai and I had abducted him, taken him to the scene of the crime, and forced him to handle stolen goods and leave physical evidence. There was no physical evidence linking either Tai or myself to the scene, but there was ample evidence linking August.
"Now, you ask, why did August implicate Tai and myself so graphically? Perhaps because detective Bailey and Dygert had told him that Michael, Tai and myself had already fully cooperated with the investigation and were planning to testify against him! Is the concept so inconceivable that such information, however false, might have made the noose around August's neck feel a little tight and thus made him be a little more agreeable to the concept of fingering the blame at the people closest to him?
"At any rate, later that evening, Mr. Abreu was arrested. He confessed to Bailey and Dygert that both he and I had played a part in the cover-up of the crime, but we had nothing to do with the murder. Indeed, neither of us had known about August's murderous intentions until after he had committed the crime.
"The police told Tai that his story wasn't 'good enough.' On videotape, they told him that they didn't believe him and stated that all three of us — August, myself and Michael [Johnson] — were fully cooperating with the investigation and were all going to testify to that against Tai. Yet again, the cops were lying through their teeth. Then they told Tai that if he didn't change his story, odds were good that he would receive the death penalty!
"During the course of this videotaped interrogation, Mr. Abreu invoked his right to legal counsel three times, stating that he wanted a lawyer present. This was not granted to him by the detectives.
"The interrogation continued, sans legal counsel, for some time quite rigorously... and then, when the death penalty was finally mentioned, Mr. Abreu, on videotape, went visibly white. He took a long breath and what he said next, to the best of my recollection of the tape was, 'Well, I really shouldn't say this, but I guess I gotta do whatever it takes to cover my own ass.'
"He then gave the cops the confession story that they wanted — the one that is now accepted by most newspapers as unquestionable fact. Finally then, I was arrested. I denied all involvement with the murder and, needless to say, I was told by Bailey and Dygert that August, Tai, and Michael were all prepared to testify against me. Never being one to much trust law enforcement, I refused to speak to them at that point without a lawyer — period. They interrogated me, but I continued my silence and stood my ground. No lawyer, no answering their questions!
"I was particularly irritated, however, when they told me that they knew I had murdered Perez, and had the physical evidence to prove it. I told them that they were lying and that there was no way in Hell they had that because I hadn't killed him.
"(This advice I give to the next individual interrogated by the local police force, regardless of whether it's true or not, never call a cop a liar to his face. They don't much appreciate it and have a lot of ways to show this! I called the cops liars and their reaction was to then focus their investigation on yours truly. I urge the next innocent man who finds himself alone with Dygert and Bailey to use the word "mistaken" instead of "liar," though, I'm sure, the next time, yet again, liar will be the more accurate description.)
"Three days after my arrest, Tai and I were placed in a van and, unbeknownst to us, our conversation was recorded. Basically, I can sum up what we said: 'August was guilty of Murder One, that we were both innocent of murder, and that we'd probably do some time as accessories because August had tricked us into cleaning up some of the evidence, but, all in all, we were innocent of murder and it wouldn't be too long before we'd get to go home to our families and friends.' If we served a couple years as accessories after the fact, so be it, so long as the truth that we weren't murderers came out.
"Hell, anyone who knows us saw the instant irony in this situation! Not only are Tai and I not murderers, but we are both thorough and complete pacifists and I challenge anyone to say otherwise who has actually known us!
"It seems to me that the pivotal point in all of this mess and, yes, that was the extent of the evidence against us, was the second statement that Tai gave the police — the statement of a 19-year-old boy who was denied legal counsel and threatened with the death penalty if he didn't give the cops what they wanted! So he gave them what they wanted — a false confession — and they gave him a thumbs up. Why they didn't just say, 'Congratulations, Tai, you don't get to get legally murdered now!' is beyond me, because that's exactly what they implied!
"Why else but a death penalty threat would a teenage boy incriminate himself in the execution of a crime he did not commit?
"I would also like to state that the focus of the investigation shifting toward Tai and myself and more away from August has a little something to do with the fact that August is being sent to Atascadero — a hospital for the criminally insane. The police knew that they would not be able to get a conviction on him due to his mental instability and a small town can't have a murder without a murder conviction. They needed a fall guy — a scapegoat. In this case, they were happy to accept two of them unfortunately — both Tai and myself.
"August had a long history of mental instability and violent outbursts. It is a matter of police record that while attending middle school he assaulted fellow classmates with weapons on more than one occasion. Abreu had recently been released from a mental institution, is severely ADHD, and has extreme difficulty understanding the consequences of his actions. He is trusting and, in short, highly influenceable. He was exactly the sort of patsy any good cop/bad cop duo would have a field day manipulating.
"I, on the other hand, am a fairly quiet person. I have always kept to myself and have never been known to be easily influenced by others. Though I am extremely intelligent — generally testing in the 98th percentile on any standard test — I do have a long history of being fiercely loyal to my friends. On many occasions, I admit that I have had poor judgment in who those friends were and I have been unfairly taken advantage of on many occasions because I like to believe, at the root, people are good — and it's very hard for me to give up on someone.
"August killed a sexual predator; a child pornographer. If the system truly worked, Perez would be alive today — behind bars!
"My mistake was to be trusting enough to allow myself to get tricked into cleaning up evidence of a child pornographer being killed. I exercised poor judgment and it's not just the next 15 years that I'm going to have to live with that — it's the rest of my life!
"I took the plea bargain for two reasons. The first of which is the sensational manner in which the press has exploited the death of Mr. Perez and Mr. Abreu's statements made in the false confession. When I sat in jail and read such headlines as 'He Gurgled While He Died,' I knew there was no way I would get an unbiased jury in this county.
"The second reason I took the plea was simply, humanly, fear. After watching Tai's one day trial and subsequent conviction for a crime that I know he did not commit, 19 years did not sound that long anymore. Even if it doesn't help my case now, I want the people of my home town to know the truth."
Aaron Channel is described by the warden's office at the state prison in Susanville as a model prisoner. Tai Abreu and August Stuckey, who was not sent to Atascadero — are confined to the Salinas Valley State Prison at Soledad where they live in adjoining units. Abreu is waiting for the results of his second appeal.
(Bruce Anderson lives in Fairfax where he says he's at work on "a multi-volume project tentatively called, 'An Anecdotal History of Mendocino County, With Excursions North, South and East'." The first volume is due out in July.)