The Guns & Gardens Of Bell Springs
by Bruce McEwen, March 10, 2011
The cops catch a Bell Springs guy with two-dozen assault weapons and a half dozen marijuana gardens and they think they've got a case.
The DA thinks so too, and it all limps into court three years later.
The prosecution rested just last week, perhaps satisfied they'd finally slam dunked the alleged proprietor, the gun guy, the guy who the cops think maintained one of the biggest grows in Mendocino County history.
Which is saying something because there are some very large grows out there.
But wait a minute.
Matthew Graves hung his last jury, and he just might hang this one because his attorney, the formidable Keith Faulder, says he's eager to put on what he calls “a positive defense.”
The prosecuting attorney, Deputy DA Katherine ‘Kitty’ Houston, has been allowed some sensational advantages by Judge Richard Henderson, including a display of a large weapons cache found at Mr.Graves' Bell Springs redoubt. For the defense, Mr. Faulder says the guns were laid out there “for the sole purpose of inflaming the jury.”
Unfortunately for the prosecution, the San Francisco fingerprint expert testified that he'd found only one print that belonged to the defendant, and that print was found on a plastic bag, not a gun. There was another partial print on a magazine for a pistol that appeared to come from defendant Graves, but none of the assault weapons had Graves' prints on them.
Faulder had also made it clear that the cops hadn't made any attempt to find out exactly whose prints were on the guns or who the guns might belong to. The raid team simply assumed the arsenal belonged to Graves because it was found not far from where Graves had been taken into custody on his Bell Springs farm.
Judge Henderson instructed the jury, before whom all the fire power was arrayed on a long table, that they were not to concern themselves with the ownership question. I guess maybe the jury was supposed to think the guns were part of an estate sale.
The multiple marijuana fields, the nearly 200 photos of “a sea of green,” as one assistant pot eradicator poetically described the gardens also seemed to have ID probs.
The fields were in an area where everyone is growing weed and even the family dog has a Prop 215 card. And since the latest high court rulings say that the amount a “patient” can possess varies from ruling to ruling, exactly how much medicine can be grown in the healing hills of Mendocino County is a matter of constant legal debate.
These particular grows were supposedly on Matt Graves’ property, but the evidence presented to establish the allegation was highly inconclusive: An amateur GPS enthusiast had taken the readings and had conceded large room for error.
Although the officer in charge of the case was identified as Butch Gupta, it has since become clear that Sergeant Bruce Smith is driving the bus. It is Sgt. Smith whose beat is the northern sector of Mendocino County, not deputy Gupta. Smith sits with Ms. Houston at the prosecution’s table advising her in whispers. And Smith is the officer who went to the Graves’ house the day of the bust and searched the residence after detaining Mr. Graves and Graves' two sons.
What did Sgt. Smith find?
Nothing unusual for a Mendocino County hill country household. Some big bags of partially trimmed marijuana, the usual stash of oven roasting turkey bags, a Seal-A-Meal, the food saver vacuum sealing machine outback medicinal houses use to preserve the freshness of their “meds,” a scale, a bong on the desk where some notepads indicated amounts paid to trimmers, a slug of money order receipts. And lots of US currency.
It’s all very nice having scads of ready cash laying around collecting dust, but you have to have a way of cleaning it up, making it look respectable. This is where the money orders come in.
Like the oven roasting turkey bags advertised on billboards in Ukiah and Willits, money orders are more common in Nor Cal than perhaps anywhere else in the country. They keep the local underground economy afloat. It’s a way of keeping a receipt for cash tendered without resorting to the banks. All of which is to say, a way of money laundering.
Mr. Graves had 93 money order receipts.
Two of them were for Scott’s Tanks in Willits for four 5000 gallon water tanks, and one 10,000 gallon tank. One receipt was for $4,498, the other for $6,593. The five tanks cost about $11K. There was also lots of potting soil and fertilizer bags from Fox Farm Garden Supply discovered in a vehicle registered to Matt Graves; in another vehicle, more US currency was found.
With more than 1400 plants eradicated in the area and about 50 pounds of bud found in the Graves’ residence, Sgt. Smith concluded that Mr. Graves, turkey oven bags aside, was not running a turkey farm. Smith was pretty sure Graves was growing marijuana for sale.
“What else led you to this conclusion?” Ms. Houston asked.
“There was lots of expensive equipment and personal items — ATVs, surfboards, big screen TVs, hot tubs, massage tables, a $13,000 money order receipt for kite boarding lessons.”
None of which necessarily points to illegal activity, but....
Ms. Houston wanted to know more about kite boarding, but Faulder objected to the relevance of her sudden avocational interests. Faulder seemed eager to cross-examine the sergeant.
“Sgt. Smith,” began the defense attorney, “we’re going to have to go back to the beginning.”
Smith waited to begin at the beginning.
“Were you Deputy Gupta’s supervisor — I mean, you were head of the COMMET [County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team], weren’t you?”
“And you were present when Deputy Gupta testified about his ability to distinguish the different types of marijuana that were found growing in these various plots, which have been marked, B-1, B-2, B-3, B-4, and B-5.”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“But you know the difference, don’t you?”
Smith admitted his knowledge reluctantly. He said he knew there were three species of the lucrative weed, of which he was familiar with two, Cannabis sativa and C. indicus.
“And you can tell the difference?”
“I’d say no. The problem is, there’s so many crossbreeds nowadays.”
“Yes, there’s a third group that are hybrids,” Faulder agreed. "But C. sativa is different from C. indicus, isn’t it?”
“Yes. The sativa is taller, and the indicus is more stumpy, shorter, with bigger leaves.”
“So when you’re out in a garden you can tell the difference?”
“Well, you can also tell by the flowers, can’t you?”
“I don’t know if I could. The strains go into the thousands.”
“Yes, but the flowers can be radically different.”
“I’d say that could be true,” Smith conceded.
Faulder asked about the colors of the bud fibers, but Smith wasn’t sure.
Faulder said, “But you can tell by the size and shape of the leaves?”
“I think I could, yes.”
“Are you familiar with a strain called “kush”?
“And isn’t it an indoor strain?”
“I wouldn’t agree with that.”
Faulder seemed to think Smith was being obstinate. He laughed, saying, “But Sgt. Smith, surely you know everybody grows kush indoors. Are you familiar with Purple Urple or Purple Haze, as it’s sometimes called?”
“Yes. But it’s a matter of personal style, how it’s grown.”
Faulder seemed to think it was more a matter of personal idiocy to grow these indoor varieties of dope outdoors, but he didn’t argue the point.
“Is it part of your training and experience, Sgt. Smith, to look for signs and evidence of medical marijuana use?”
“Yes,” Smith said.
“Look for keef?”
“Sure. But I don’t recall seeing any.”
“I don’t know that I’d look for salves,” Smith said.
“Would you look to see if people were juicing?”
“I don’t know.”
Maybe Smith didn't know about the new juicing and vaporizing craze, but cops are usually up on the latest in mind-altering substances.
“Now,” Faulder continued, “taking you back to the eradication of these gardens in October of ’08. Warden Aaron Galloway of the Department of Fish & Game worked with you that day, did he not?”
“Did he take any notes?”
The lack of notes and reports — anything substantive about exactly what was found at Graves' place — has been a subject of debate throughout the trial. The defense is pegged to ownership identifications of guns and land parcels.
“And you haven’t written one to this day, either, have you, Sgt. Smith?”
“Did Galloway write a report?”
“I don’t know that he did or not, on this particular day.”
“Well, did you ever see any report by Warden Galloway?”
Faulder works on his feet. He paces back and forth, often smiling.
“Ever heard of Bart Kaplan?”
Sgt. Smith stiffened.
“I don’t think so...”
“But didn’t you investigate Bart Kaplan?”
“I. Did. Not,” the sergeant said through his teeth.
“Well, you must certainly have been aware that there was an investigation?”
“You mean of Bart Kaplan?”
“I may have been.”
“Well, isn’t it true that Bart Kaplan is the owner of a large property right next to Matthew Graves’?”
“I don’t know,” Smith said vacantly.
“Well, how about J.C. England? You know where the England property is, don’t you?”
“Yes,” Smith murmured, sullenly.
“And Lorie Parker?”
“What about the Fields’ place, surely you know where that is?”
Of course these were all property owners surrounding the Graves property, and Sgt. Smith’s denials were sounding more implausible by the minute. As the guy in charge of this raid he must certainly have known these names.
But Bruce Smith is no dummy.
He said, “No, no notes, counselor. What I normally do is write down the numbers on a notepad.”
“Do you still have those notes?”
“No, I discarded them.”
“How convenient,” Faulder murmured, sotto voice.
If you think Sgt. Smith was disgusted with Mr. Faulder before, you should have seen him at this point; he was absolutely livid. But he hid it pretty well.
Faulder grinned his grin and paced his paces, and Sgt. Smith seethed his seethes.
“Did you make any independent determination whose property that was?” Faulder asked.
Smith looked at Faulder like a boxer would look at an opponent, looked him over from head to toe. They were both of a size, about five-eight, a hundred and sixty, seventy pounds, maybe; both fit: A splendid match in a welterweight ring, but they were in a heavyweight courtroom.
Faulder said, “So let’s talk about plot B-1.
The B-1 garden would be within spitting distance of Bart Kaplan’s place. Bart’s the fellow the cops mysteriously decided not to prosecute.
Faulder said, “Did you make any determination — any independent determination — whose property that was on?Wasn’t Laurie Parker's property on the edge of B-2?”
Sgt. Smith didn’t respond.
“Whose property borders B-3?”
Sgt. Smith’s didn't answer.
“And isn’t B-4, really, actually, on Mr. England’s property?”
Sgt. Smith didn’t think so, but he made it clear he didn't like Mr. Faulder very much.
“In your training and experience, the purpose of taking pictures is to document the scene, correct?”
“Are you aware that over 450 photographs have been taken in this case?”
“I didn’t know that,” Smith said.
“But you, yourself, took 17 of these photographs, didn’t you, Sgt. Smith?”
“Oh, well, I don’t know. I know I took some.”
“Did you take any from the air, flying in in the helicopter?”
“No, we normally do not do that.”
“Well, why in the world not? I mean, wouldn’t that be the most excellent time to get an overall picture, a prime view?”
Smith was silent.
Faulder said, “So you were helicoptered in?”
“And you had your camera with you?”
“Yes, I did. In my pack.”
“But you didn’t take any photographs?”
“Well, sergeant, did you collect any physical evidence? Such as fingerprints or other evidence?”
“No,” Smith admitted.
“Okay, fine. Fair enough. But let me ask you this, Sgt. Smith: How did you get from B-3 to B-4? Were you helicoptered in, or did you walk?”
First Smith said he flew in, then he reconsidered. “No, that’s right; I walked it.”
Faulder had made his point: It was a long time ago, there are lots of contiguous properties in that neighborhood, most of them involved in turkey bag ag. Memory fades over three years.
A bitter dispute between the lawyers broke out.
There was large bad feeling in the room.
Judge Henderson called a recess for lunch.
After lunch, an investigator, a Mr. McCoullough, was called.
McCoullough was just the thing to put us all to sleep after a heavy lunch, and it wasn’t long before the courtroom resounded with muffled snores. Fortunately, Investigator McCoullough was back on the stand the next morning when we were all awake. He had copies of 93 money order receipts belonging to Mr. Graves.
Mr. Faulder asked the expert investigator to go over one of the money orders with him. There was a transaction date and time on the money order, the city and zip code of the post office where it was purchased, the clerk’s ID number, how it was paid for (cash), the serial number and the sum of it’s value.
“Is it fair to say everything we’ve just talked about is the responsibility of the post office?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“And the rest of the information is the responsibility of the purchaser or eventual user of the money order?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“Is there anything about the money order that tells you who, or what is the name of any purchaser of the money order?”
“No, there is not.”
“So you cannot tell the jury that Matt Graves was the purchaser of any of these money orders, correct?”
“I can’t, that’s correct.”
“And you can’t tell the jury how many people handled it before the final transaction, either, can you?”
“I cannot, that’s correct.”
“Did you ever contact any of the payees of any of these money orders?”
“You said earlier that that some of them came from Matt Graves’ natural foods co-op, UNFI, but you don’t know what UNFI does?”
“Did you try to see if these were personal or business expenses?”
“Since you don’t know if Matt purchased any of these money orders, did you make any attempt, such as handwriting analysis, to see if he had actually written any of them?”
“No, I don’t know that anything like that was done.”
Faulder took one of the copies from his stack and put it on the screen. He asked McCoullough, “Can you tell me when this one was purchased?”
Investigator McCoullough narrowed his eyes at the screen and said, “Yes, it was January 29th of ’07.”
“Can you tell when it was negotiated?”
Faulder said, “See down at the bottom where it says July 23rd, 2007?”
Investigator McCoullough squinted at the screen. “That’s what it looks like, yeah.”
“Okay, going to page two, this one’s made out to UNFI. Can you tell when it was finally negotiated?”
“I can tell that Bank of America processed it June 22nd of ’07.”
“So it looks as if someone bought it in February of ’07 and didn’t use it until June of that year. And the next one is the same, correct?”
More were shown, more of the same; a pattern was developing, pretty as a picture. Faulder bade the witness to have a seat, and got out a spreadsheet, with all the money orders listed on it.
“I have a couple of things I want to draw your attention to, Mr. McCoullough. First of all, there were some of these bought on August 6th of ’07, which the prosecution alleges were purchased by my client. There was one in Laytonville, one in Leggett, one in Garberville, one in Redway, one in Petaluma, and one in Fortuna. But the first one was purchased in Redway. Do you know how far it is from Laytonville to Fortuna?”
McCoullough wasn’t sure.
“Well, what about these serial numbers. Have you compared the serial numbers on the money orders to the serial numbers on the spreadsheet?”
Investigator McCoullough had not, but he hastened to do so.
“They’re not all the same, are they?”
“The witness fidgeted uncomfortably. “They are,” he insisted. “But the final few numbers are missing on the spreadsheet.”
“Yes. And isn’t it true that every single one is missing the final few numbers?”
“Do you know where Garberville, Redway, Fortuna and Laytonville are?”
“Is it your contention that Matt Graves went to these post offices and purchased these money orders on August 6th of ’07?”
“How many miles is it from Laytonville to Fortuna?”
The investigator wasn’t sure.
These money orders add up to $8,000 in all, don’t they?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“And the $8,000 was sent to Seltzer Home Loans.”
It was Matt Graves’ monthly mortgage payment. The Prosecution’s contention was that Graves made the run north to get the money orders to make his mortgage payment.
Faulder said, “Couldn’t somebody just get a cashier’s check for the amount of $8,000 and send it or take it to Seltzer Home Loans — there’s no check up or reporting on cashier’s checks, correct?”
“Or if he just took $8,000 in cash to Seltzer Home Loans, you’d never even know about it, correct?”
“If it were told to you that sometimes Matt Graves gets paid in cash or with money orders for his construction business, would that be unlawful?”
“Did you investigate that?”
If somebody wanted to do some money laundering for this much cash, why would a person buy a money order with all this information on it — why not just pay cash? It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?”
“I’ll agree, it does at times,” Investigator McCoullough said.
“Well,” Ms. Houston harrumphed. “Isn’t it possible that people don’t wish to be seen with that much cash — and carrying $8,000 in cash can be quite dangerous?”
“It would, indeed,” the inspector agreed gravely.
Faulder said, “But wouldn’t it be just as dangerous, perhaps more so, to take the $8,000 in cash to all these post offices, from Laytonville to Fortuna?”
Inspector McCoullough conceded that rural post office hopping might present an opportunities for theft.
“Of the four sites you personally eradicated, you labeled them in your GPS, correct?”
“Yes, that’s right. I punched the grid coordinates into my GPS.”
The Graves trial continues this week.