All In The Family

by Bruce McEwen, August 19, 2009

Bullet-headed, barrel-chested, built like a brickworks, and with his head shaved and sporting a big, bushy Fu Manchu mustache, Special Agent Peter Hoyle, a 33-year police veteran, much of it with the Ukiah Police Department, was called to the stand.

If Hoyle had karate-chopped the witness chair to kindling no one would have been surprised.

Instead, the legendary cop, looking more like an enforcer for a biker gang than an officer of the law, confidently sat down like a man who'd been there many times.

As the court clerk swore him in, Hoyle looked down at defendant Eric Johnson, aka Mr. Meat, and public defender Elizabeth Fowlds with just the hint of a gotcha grin playing at the corners of his mouth.

Hoyle had busted Johnson last March as Johnson, trying to sell 10 pounds of marijuana as middleman, hoped to make $100 per pound off the deal.

Johnson didn’t know that Peter Hoyle is now an under-cover cop, which seems to account for Hoyle's biker guy appearance. Then, again, maybe Hoyle just looks like that, and likes looking like that, nice and menacing.

The DA’s prosecutor, Ms. Katherine “Kitty” Houston, set the scene back in March when Johnson pulled his pick-up truck with the meat freezer in the back into the driveway of an acquaintance, Rick Mayfield of Ukiah, who is also a friend of agent Hoyle’s. Hoyle and Mayfield bought a case of meat from Johnson and.....

“Did the defendant try to sell you anything else?” Ms. Houston asked, eager to shoot Johnson and plug the next fish in the DA's bottomless barrel.

“Objection, your honor. Counsel is leading the witness,” Ms. Fowlds remonstrated tartly.

“Sustained,” said the judge.

Judge David Nelson is a man of few words. He is soft-spoken and expects the lawyers, it would seem, to listen carefully. Ms. Houston didn’t seem to be listening.

She persisted, “What else did Mr. Johnson try to sell to you?”

“Your honor!” Ms. Fowlds protested indignantly.

“The objection was sustained,” Judge Nelson said softly with a hint of emphasis and a mirthless smile. “Re-phrase your question, counsel.”

Ms. Houston laid her blue Bic on her yellow legal pad. She is a woman of perhaps 50, an attorney of considerable experience. She knows the rules of evidence in the direct examination of a witness.

“What, if anything,” Houston demanded, “did the defendant say to you after you had finished the transaction for the case of meat?”

“He approached me, aside from Mayfield, and said he finds himself in the hills quite often.”

“What did you make of this comment?”

“Objection, the question calls for speculation on the part of the witness, your honor.”

Ms. Fowlds, a younger woman than prosecutor Houston, was on her feet.

“Sustained,” said the judge.

“Did Mr. Johnson say anything else?”

“Yes. He did.”

“What else did he say?”

“He asked me if I wanted to purchase marijuana – if I wanted to buy some weed.”

“And what did you say?”

“I said that yes, I did.”

“And what did he say when you told him this?”

“He told me to call him and gave me a piece of paper with his phone number on it and his name. It also said ‘the meat man’ on the paper.”

Houston: “And did you call Johnson?”

Hoyle: “Yes, I did. On numerous occasions.”

Houston: “And what did you say?”

Hoyle: “I said I was interested in buying some marijuana.”

Houston: “And what did he say?”

Hoyle: “He said he hoped to make $100 a pound on 10 pounds of marijuana, and that he could get various kinds of marijuana, one at $2,700 per pound and another at $2,900.”

Houston: “And was this consistent with your understanding of these things?”

Hoyle: “Yes, it sounded about right.”

Houston: “And so did you arrange to make a deal with Mr. Johnson to purchase the marijuana?”

Hoyle: “Yes, I did.”

Houston: “Nothing further, your honor.”

Nelson: “Ms. Fowlds. Your cross?”

Fowlds: “Agent Hoyle, you say you made an arrangement to meet Mr. Johnson — where did this meeting take place?”

Hoyle had turned in his seat to face the public defender. His demeanor had changed. While prosecutor Houston had put him through his paces Hoyle had been serious, all business, humble even. Now he was smiling superciliously as if he found defense attorney Fowlds a minor amusement. He answered her in a mocking, high-pitched voice:

“We met in Willits, south of Harris Manor, but he wanted me to go with him to another location,” Hoyle said.

Fowlds: “What location?”

Hoyle: “A Beckler Street address, I think. I don’t recall.”

Fowlds: “Did you record the meeting?”

Hoyle: “Yes.”

Fowlds: “How did you record it?”

Hoyle: “I was wearing a concealed tape recorder.”

Fowlds: “And did you record the telephone conversations you had with Mr. Johnson?”

Hoyle: “Yes. Some of them. I recorded the calls I made from my house. Not the others.”

Fowlds: “And when Mr. Johnson asked you to go to the Beckler Street address, you arrested him?”

Hoyle, smiling, recalled the look on Johnson’s face when Hoyle revealed himself to Meat Man as a cop, “Yes,” Hoyle said. “I arrested him then. He'd said he was getting pissed-off, people were waiting, he wanted to see the money.”

Fowlds: “And you only found seven grams of marijuana in Mr. Johnson’s possession? And a pipe?”

Hoyle: “Yes.”

Houston: “Your honor, California Criminal code 2351 says the defendant need only offer and intend to sell marijuana; we don’t need to prove he actually sold or possessed it. The defendant was more than willing to broker a marijuana transaction.”

Nelson: “Are we submitted, counselors?”

They were.

“The statute,” intoned the judge, “requires only that the defendant make an offer to sell a controlled substance, and the People have certainly proved that. The court finds sufficient evidence for a violation of Health & Safety Code 11360 and the defendant will be arraigned on the information August 27th at 8:30am.”

The Meat Man had himself a case of legal trichinosis.

* * *

Special Agent Hoyle’s sons, Steven and Robert Hoyle, along with codefendant Brady Baker, were in court last week, each of them represented by different lawyers. Their jury trial in the severe beating of a 17-year old last winter is set to begin Monday at 9am. The three defense lawyers will try to seat a jury that doesn't know Hoyle Senior. Ukiah, after all, is a small town and Hoyle is probably better known than the mayor. Some people think Hoyle Senior is a badged menace, some people think he's merely aggressive, an officer of the law of the type required to beat back the rising tides of crime.

The investigator in the Hoyle boys’ case is also an undercover cop, Special Agent Jason Cox. Jury selection will be a matter of defense attorneys trying to weed out people who think the Hoyle boys are junior versions of their old man, that these apples haven't fallen far from the tree.

* * *

Deputy DA Shannon Cox (neé Hamilton — she recently married the above mentioned Special Agent Jason Cox) dueled with Deputy Public Defender Eric Rennert last Friday.

Rennert had filed a motion to suppress the evidence that his client, Steven G. Lewis, was under the influence of methamphetamine while gambling at the Coyote Valley Casino in Ukiah. It is Rennert’s opinion that Mendocino law enforcement is overly zealous in pursuit of “victimless crimes.” Rennert says he has filed 1538.5 motions to suppress evidence approximately 80 times in many such minor cases as Mr. Lewis’s. He has only won one of them, Rennert admits, insisting that he will continue to fight back by filing the motions anyway.

Ms. Cox called her witness, Sheriff’s Deputy Thom Davis. Deputy Davis was trained in spotting persons under the influence of stimulants such as methamphetamine and cocaine. In fact he'd been trained by Special Agent Cox, the prosecuting attorney’s husband.

Deputy Davis said he has made approximately 70 to 80 arrests out of perhaps as many as 100 such evaluations. He said, though, that he doesn’t always make an arrest.

“Why not?” Ms. Cox asked.

Deputy Davis cited “The spirit of the law.”

Mr. Rennert didn’t quite understand what the deputy meant by “the spirit of the law” and interrupted the direct examination of the witness for clarification.

The deputy said, “Well, sometimes you don’t arrest them, you know, for other things. It all depends.”

This perfectly contradictory statement left Rennert looking perplexed.

The deputy testified that he saw this defendant, Mr. Lewis, sitting at a slot machine and noticed that the pupils of Mr. Lewis's eyes were dilated. Mr. Lewis, the hawk-eyed deputy added, was also avoiding eye contact with the deputy.

Mr. Lewis's failure to lock eyeballs made the deputy suspicious. The deputy drew closer to his prey where he noticed that Mr. Lewis's hand was trembling. The deputy said his training and experience led him to believe that Mr. Lewis was under the influence of stimulants.

Deputy Davis approached Mr. Lewis and asked him “to step outside and talk to me.”

Lewis wanted to know why he should step outside and asked the deputy to “quit bugging me.”

The deputy informed Lewis that if he didn’t come out for the talk, he’d place him under arrest right there. Lewis agreed to step outside for a chat.

The deputy noticed some eyelid flutter at the corner of Lewis’s eye. He performed some fine motor field tests, which Lewis failed, and placed Lewis under arrest. Ms. Cox said she had nothing further to ask deputy Davis.

Mr. Rennert rose to defend a man who had committed the crime of playing a slot machine under the influence of Mendocino County's most prevalent non-prescription stimulant.

“Deputy Davis, you stated that you noticed my client’s eyes were dilated. How far away were you?”

“About three or four feet,” Davis answered.

“And you hadn’t received any reports from anyone in the casino concerning my client?”

“No. None whatsoever.”

“Didn’t you approach him and say, ‘Hey, where do I know you from?”

“I don’t recall.”

“And you say his eyes were dilated . How dilated were they?”

“Five or six millimeters. For the lighting conditions they should have been about three millimeters.”

“Really,” Rennert said incredulously, marveling at the deputy's powers of ocular analysis. “And how far away did you say you were?”

“About three or four feet.”

“Really,” Rennert repeated. “And how dilated are my eyes?” Rennert strode toward the witness stand.

The practice in court is to ask the judge’s permission to approach the witness, and Ms. Cox seemed alarmed as Rennert commenced a round of close up reckless eyeballing with the deputy.

“May I approach, your honor?” Rennert asked belatedly, without pausing for an answer.

Mr. Rennert is from New York and has the aggressive manner the people of that town are known for.

Rennert got to within three or four feet of Davis — over Ms. Cox’s protests — and asked again for the witness to evaluate the size of his pupils.

Davis said Rennert's pupils were about four millimeters.

“Did you observe Mr. Lewis smoking cigarettes?”

“Yes, I believe he was.”

“And do you know whether nicotine affects people’s eyes?”

“Before Davis could answer Rennert asked, “Do you know whether alcohol affects the eyes? … You say you took him outside. Did you tell him he was free to leave?”

“Your honor,” Cox interrupted. “He needs to cut to the chase. I’ll not have him arguing with the witness.”

Before anyone could cut to the chase Judge Henderson said he would have to pause to take a civil matter on the court’s telephone line. They would resume the discussion of eyeball dilation after the judge had heard the urgent civil matter on the phone.

The lawyers were finished anyway. Mr. Lewis' suspect eyeballs was assumed to have been chemically expanded.

Rennert gave me his views on Mendocino County law enforcement’s penchant for pursuing petty lawbreakers. He said he was well traveled and had never seen anything like it. Earlier in the day I had overheard some lawyers remarking that the state’s jails and prisons were currently at 190% capacity and, what with all the budgetary concerns, and the Governor threatening to turn out thousands of non-violent prisoners, one has to wonder why so much effort is going into these kinds of cop-generated arrests in Mendocino County. Deputies idly trolling the casinos for tweakers might be put to better use, mightn't they?

Judge Henderson denied Rennert's motion to dismiss the case.

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