Neighborhood Wars

by Bruce McEwen, April 20, 2011

Something was happening.

Courthouse security people were on their radios talking with the bailiffs upstairs in the courtrooms. The transmission said, “Tell Bruce we need to talk to him.”

Uh-oh.

“Talk to,” is cop-speak for “arrest.”

Me?

I hadn't done anything, but that's what they all say.

Three big bailiffs approached, hiking up their Sam Brown belts like they meant business.

“We’ve got a guy up here says he’s a photographer for the AVA. He tried to bring a camera into court. You know anything about this guy?”

“We don't have a photographer,” I said. “We're print all the way.”

I didn't see the guy myself until I got upstairs, and we never did get around to photography. I would have told him that he wouldn’t be allowed to take his camera into a Superior Court of the State of California.

There’s good reason for this. It’s so you can’t suborn potential witnesses by taking a picture of somebody involved in the case witnesses may never have seen before, then show these witnesses the picture during a recess, say, so they can walk in and finger the person in the pics.

Make sense?

Yeah.

And for the same reason tape recorders aren’t allowed.

Any photojournalist knows this going in, and leaves his camera in the car unless he's got prior clearance.

An imposter was afoot in the Courthouse.

I went looking for him.

I found Roderick Brown of Whitethorn in Judge John Behnke’s court. Mr. Brown was facing civil harassment charges.

He'd already been shot down as staff photographer.

Mr. Brown was agitated. He could barely contain himself, and sometimes he couldn't contain himself at all.

“I’ll get back to you Mr. Brown, in just a few minutes,” Judge Behnke said. “Right now, I have to deal with other folks on a similar matter.”

It was restraining order day in Judge Behnke's court.

“Mr. Walker,” the judge said, referring to the other restraining folks he was dealing with, “I understand you were unable to reach a resolution with the arbitrators?”

Mr. Walker wanted to tell the judge just what he thought of the arbitrators, along with a laundry-list of his neighbor’s civil transgressions. He was just casting what was clearly going to be a long list of aspersions when the judge said, “No. What was said in mediation was confidential.”

Judge Behnke looked at some papers on his desk before he said, “So Mr. Walker is contending there have been violations of the agreement between the two parties.”

“Yes,” Mr. Walker said indignantly. “Mrs. Krone violated the written agreement. And she did that first on February 24th when she had a conversation with the garbage collector and again on March 2nd she was standing in her driveway and looked threateningly at Mrs. Walker.”

“What did she say to the garbage truck driver that amounts to a violation of the agreement?”

“It was the manner in which she spoke to him about us. It is a matter of on-going behavior that’s been going on for years. The agreement says they are to have no contact or no communication with us, direct or indirect. Now, one of the mediators seemed to understand what we want, but the other wasn’t so experienced in my view and—”

“Just a minute, Mr. Walker, the mediation is confidential in terms of what he said or she said.

“Okay, we also received a phone call regarding our children, and it’s been a year since our children have been able to go into the backyard.”

“Mr. Walker, your testimony is too vague. Did you receive a phone call from Mrs. Krone?” the judge wanted to know.

“I did. She said your children are too loud, and to quiet them down.”

The Krones had a lawyer, Mr. Knight, who objected on behalf of the Krones that this testimony was hearsay.

Judge Behnke said, “Harassment is a course of conduct that would cause a reasonable person to feel threatened. In this case you folks reached an agreement and I don’t think talking trash, if you will, to the trashman, or staring across the driveway, is something I can base a restraining order on. There’s a problem here between neighbors and I’d like to see it resolved, but as far as finding a violation of a court order, I don’t think the allegations rise to that. Mrs. Walker had something she wanted to add?”

Mrs. Walker got to her feet: “What it feels like to me is it feels unsafe to me and to my children. We don’t want our children to be crying because they feel unsafe. It’s very scary living next to these people, and I feel like something bad can happen.”

“I appreciate that, Mrs. Walker, but basically nothing bad has happened. I understand that this is an on-going problem and I don’t know why, but I want it to go away.”

A professional mediator explained to me that it is very difficult to get the parties to admit the underlying problem to anyone. Often, he said, the underlying problem is concealed for the very good reason that it amounts to some very petty meanness, a desire to make other people miserable just for sport.

Which reminds me of the three Fort Bragg girls who, out of boredom, decided to go get restraining orders against one another, but decided to get tattoos instead.

Going to court for restraining orders because your neighbors are bad mouthing you and bad-vibing you can be expensive.

After the judge made it clear that the Walkers didn’t have a case, Mr. Knight, the Krones' lawyer, said there was the matter of his bill, which was now over $1200. He felt the Walkers should be obliged to pay it because the Krones had been forced to hire him to protect themselves against the Walkers.

Mr. Walker said, “They didn’t have to go out and get a lawyer. We didn’t have one.”

“They have that choice,” Judge Behnke said.

The Moral: Tolerate thy neighbor or pay for the trouble you cause them.

Mr. Roderick Brown’s case was called.

Mr. Brown lives in Whitethorn, which is a far northern tip of Mendocino County that you get to by driving north to Garberville in Humboldt County then driving southwest until you get to the Whitethorn Store. When you get to the store you're in Whitethorn. It's an agricultural area about twenty miles west of the blue Pacific. Lots of Whitethorn people are hidden away in the hills.

Mr. Blu Graham was seeking a restraining order against Mr. Roderick Brown because, Mr. Graham said, Mr. Brown had been harassing him, harassing him big time, all the way to posting signs in and around Whitethorn saying that he, Blu Graham, formerly chief of the area's volunteer fire department, was a snitch. Putting up snitch signs is very dangerous to the person named as a snitch, especially given the kind of agriculture that is common in Whitethorn. Graham wanted it all stopped.

On his part, Brown said that not only was Graham interfering with his right to free speech, Graham couldn't spell.

“I don’t even know what a 'gauge' order is,” the erudite Brown declared. “Is it some kind of shotgun? Blu Graham can’t even spell gauge, a three-letter word. And knife, he spells knife with a 'k'. A man who is 30-something years old who can’t even spell…”

Judge Behnke said, “I’m not going to fault him for his spelling, Mr. Brown.”

Graham had gotten a temporary restraining order against Brown on March 29th. Since then Brown, Graham says, had deliberately and aggressively brushed his shoulder into Graham, chased Graham by motorcycle, fired shots near Graham's home, set a fire to lure Graham onto Brown's property, blocked Graham on the road, and grabbed his crotch and yelled something at Graham like, “Take this.”

Graham had been the fire chief in Whitethorn until Brown made his life so miserable he decided to quit. After Graham had obtained his TRO to keep Brown away from him, Brown built a fire – it wasn’t a burn day – to force Graham, in his capacity as Whitethorn's fire chief, to come to Brown’s property in violation of the TRO.

Graham, not being the restrained party, tried to avoid Brown, but Brown started stalking him, following him by motorcycle, swerving around and in front of him, lurking near Graham’s property.

“He called me a Cuban,” Graham told the judge. “I have Cuban relatives, but I’m an American. He called me a communist when my dad fought in Vietnam against communism. He called me a flag-burner, which is not true in any way. He has left some very scary notes for me to find, with comments about arson, which I’ve reported to the Laytonville Arson Unit.”

Brown also followed Graham, Graham said, to a wake where Brown intentionally brushed Graham's shoulder on his way out. The list of Brown's alleged violations of the temporary restraining order continued: Brown went to the Mateel Community Center and some Redway and Garberville businesses and circulated slanderous letters about Graham; fired high-velocity shells at or near Graham's yard; put the snitch signs high up on telephone poles but not so high up on the poles they couldn't be read; Brown had made remarks about fighting Graham within hearing of Graham’s daughter; and when Brown spotted Graham working as a volunteer clearing brush for CalFire, Brown came along and kicked the caution signs down a hill so Graham would have to drag them back up.

At this point the hearing was recessed for lunch.

After lunch Brown didn’t return.

Graham said that he knew Brown was in another department on a criminal matter.

Judge Behnke asked his clerk to get Brown’s criminal file.

After Brown was tracked down and returned to Judge Behnke’s court, Judge Behnke asked Brown what he had to say for himself.

Brown said he didn’t believe any of this behavior amounted to harassment. Letters calling his neighbor an arsonist wasn’t slanderous it was a statement of fact.

Brown had an unusual way of speaking, stringing words of his own coinage into sentences that defied meaning. The defendant's rhetorical style was sort of like watching a drunk waiter with a great stack of china and crystal on a tray trying to stagger through a crowded dining room without dropping anything.

Finally, Behnke had heard enough.

He said, “If this was a spelling contest, you’d win hands down, Mr. Brown. But it’s not. You’ve stalked Mr. Graham, fired weapons, chased him on your motorcycle, and scared his children. In short, you’ve done everything you can to get under his skin. He doesn’t spell well, but I’m not going to hold that against him. The letters you circulated were not so much slanderous, as you point out, they were more along the lines of libel, in fact. I wasn’t so much concerned with your writing the letters, but you were to have no contact with him. Now, we could go into a discussion of what a snitch is, but all of this is a kind of conduct that to a reasonable person would constitute harassment. Just for the sake of argument, if you posted these signs—”

“The only shield against libel and slander is truth!” Brown thundered.

“If you’ve got more to say, I’m going to give you five minutes. Go ahead,” the judge said.

Brown wasted no time resuming his lengthy denunciation of Graham.

“It’s my contention he [Graham] was using his position as fire chief to conflagulate the infrastructural diastunia. I don’t know what a gauge order is. His filings are rife with omissions. He only called the sheriff for one reason; he wanted to see if it would work. Everyone has these face masks; he can’t tell it’s me!”

“Doesn’t your motorcycle have a distinct sound?”

“I have not seen this man in six months. A friend came over to shoot some pop cans. He slandered my name!”

“Who? The shooter?” the judge wondered.

“He called me some names I can’t repeat, the two officers who came out. He said they were Irish, when he knew one was African-American. How could that be Irish? He’s a disgraced fire chief. I was forced off the fire department, but I’m back now.”

“Your honor,” Graham said, “He’s not a member of the fire department. And I quit voluntarily.”

“Who’s harassing who?” Brown demanded.

“Mr. Brown, you’ve had seven minutes. You can have 60 more seconds, then I’m calling these other cases.

“This is the testimony of my convictions, the rectitude of my spirit. I want no indulgence; I want strict justice!” Brown concluded.

“Okay, and you’re going to get it, too,” the judge said, a hint of vehemence in his voice. “If this were a spelling contest, you’d win. You’re more eloquent and have a nice turn of phrase. But I’m convinced you’ve been harassing him. And – not to put too fine a point on it – you are starting to foul your nest, so to speak, with the rest of your neighbors. Whitethorn is a very small place. But as to Mr. Graham, you are not to follow, stalk, approach or go near him. I’m also naming his wife and children in the order. You are to have no contact and stay completely away from them.”

* * *

I followed Roderick Brown over to Judge Ann Moorman’s criminal court where he was charged with possession of a firearm. Brown wasn’t supposed to have a gun. Graham's TRO forbade Brown from possessing one.

Brown, 0 for 1 on the day, was again representing himself. Judge Moorman advised Brown that it wasn’t a good idea to try a defense on a gun charge without a lawyer.

“You have a right to a lawyer,” she said, “and if you can’t afford one, the court will appoint the public defender.”

Brown said he had a constitutional right to represent himself.

“I must advise you it’s unwise to act as your own lawyer,” Judge Moorman repeated.

“I understand what you said, but I have a legal right,” Brown insisted.

“That’s a right you have that no one’s going to make you give up, but you may do more harm than good. The prosecutor, Mr. Hughes here, is a trained and experienced lawyer. Do you know what the possible defenses are to the charges against you?”

“Uh… no.”

“Do you read and write English?”

“I do!”

“How much schooling do you have?’

“Uh…”

Did you graduate high school?”

“Yeah.”

“College?”

“About two years.”

“And you still want to represent yourself?”

“I think we can hammer out an agreement.”

Deputy DA Hughes said, “I’d be willing to offer a deferred entry of judgment for 12 months.”

“Do you understand what Mr. Hughes is saying?”

“Uh, no.”

“What he’s saying is that if you plead guilty to the charge and you don’t get into any more trouble for a year, then that’s all that will happen. But if you are charged with any other violations before the year is up, then sentencing would take place right then. Is that what you want to do?”

“Yes.”

But before Brown got through the procedure, he grew confused and changed his mind. Judge Moorman was about to start her explanations over, but then changed her mind too.

“I’m going to have you come back next week, Mr. Brown, so I can appoint the public defender. I’m just not comfortable going forward with this when I can’t be sure you understand. Okay, that’ll be the order. Next Tuesday at 9:30, I’ll see you then.”

One Response to Neighborhood Wars

  1. Steve Reply

    April 23, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Reading about the courtroom antics of Mr. Brown of Whitethorn brought back an old memory. Back when I worked backstage at Reggae on the River, there was lots of good-natured ribbing among our crew. A couple of women on the kitchen staff were chopping veggies and giving each other grief about some trivial dispute, when one finally said “If you don’t watch out, I’m going to set you up on a blind date with a guy from Whitethorn!” Much hilarity ensued and the arguing ended for a while, as apparently that threat trumped all others.

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