Bang Bang Fort Bragg

by Bruce McEwen, November 10, 2011

Last week, a juvenile delinquent being tried as an adult for attempted murder was looking at attempted murder plus four other criminal counts and 11 special allegations that will get him 70 years in prison if he's convicted.

Alex David Hurtado has been offered a conditional plea agreement that would earn him a mere seven years and eight months with that sentence suspended but with a year in the County Jail if he will give “full and truthful testimony” as to the gang activities of Jose Rodriguez, a suspected Fort Bragg gang leader.

Gang violence in Fort Bragg has become a serious problem. The cops say a few ex cons are recruiting and encouraging kids to join them for lives of drive-by shootings and trips in and out of the state pen.

Fort Bragg Police Chief Scott Mayberry was in Ukiah last week discussing Fort Bragg's gang infestation with DA David Eyster. As a result of the meeting, the DA’s office has determined to let some of the lower level offenders plea to reduced charges in exchange for testimony against the shot-callers, the recruiters. DA Eyster and Chief Mayberry want to put this Jose Rodriguez character away; he is seen as the pied piper behind much of the recent urban-style violence plaguing Fort Bragg.

Another juvenile, Benito Garcia, testified last week in a preliminary hearing involving Rodriquez, his son Alexis Rodriquez, and Alex Hurtado.

Garcia testified, reluctantly, that he had attended a recent party at the Rodriguez residence in Fort Bragg. At that gathering, Garcia said, Jose Rodriguez had asked him and other youngsters at the party what they were willing to do for the gang. Garcia said he was present during the shooting of Robert Russell by Hurtado, and had accompanied Hurtado and others on a drive-by shooting at the Sanchez residence at the Minnesota Apartments on Chestnut Avenue in Fort Bragg.

Another hearing was underway in a different courtroom involving other gang members from Fort Bragg. They were with severely beating potential witnesses to dissuade them from testifying.

Young Benito Garcia's reluctance to name names was understandable, and when Jose Rodriguez’s lawyer, Tom Mason, began a grueling cross-examination of the kid, the boy mostly muttered, “I don’t remember,” “I don’t know,” or “I don’t recall.”

“Were you recently attacked by another person at Juvenile Hall?”

Deputy DA Ray Killion objected as to relevance, and after due and substantial consideration Judge Lamb sustained the objection, although it wasn't clear why given that it seemed related to the campaign of intimidation against anybody who testifies against Rodriguez.

Mason: Do you know Mr. and Mrs. Sanchez?”

Garcia: “No.”

Mason: “But you know where they live?”

Garcia: “Yes, on Chestnut.”

Mason: “Are you sure?”

A long pause.

Garcia: “I’m not totally sure.”

Mason: “Do you know if they have any children?”

Garcia: “Yes: George, Alex, Mario… one more I don’t know.”

Mason: “And Alex is the one you saw at the quinceanera earlier that night?”

Garcia: “Yeah.”

Mason: “Were you invited?”

Garcia: “Yes.”

Mason: “Do you know who it was for?”

Garcia: “No.”

Mason: “How many have you been to?”

Garcia: “I don’t know. Maybe about five.”

Mason: “And this one was at the Catholic Church in Fort Bragg?”

Garcia: “Yeah.”

Mason: “Was Nicole there?”

Garcia: “Yes.”

Nicole Gibson is on record as having told Detective Wesley Rafanan of the Fort Bragg Police that she had also been at the party at the Rodriguez residence and saw Hurtado shoot Russell in the shoulder.

Mason: “Did she invite you?”

Garcia: “Yes.”

Mason: “Now, you testified that you knew who was there when the ‘green light’ was given. Can you name who was there when the order was given?”

A long pause.

Mason: “Was this the first time you ever heard them give an order like this?”

The boy didn't want to answer.

Mason: “An order to attack someone is a major thing, eh? I mean, come on…”

Garcia: “Yes, but…”

Mason: “But what?”

Another long pause from the kid.

Garcia: “Can I talk to my lawyer?”

Judge Lamb nodded affirmation to Deputy Public Defender Farris Perviance, who came up to the witness stand, sat next to the boy, and put his hand over the microphone.

After Mr. Perviance left the stand Garcia answered: “I don’t know.”

Mason: “So you don’t know who was there, when or where the word was given. How long have you been associated with the gang?”

Garcia: “I don’t recall.”

Mason: “Were you ever arrested before this incident?”

Garcia: “No.”

Mason: “Do you know John Presswood?”

Garcia: “Yes.”

Mason: “Ever see him at the party?”

Garcia: “No.”

Mason picked up a full-page color photograph and asked Judge Lamb if he could approach the witness. He put the picture of four men on the stand and asked Garcia to identify them.

Garcia: “There’s myself, Alex Hurtado, Jeremy, and Kyle.”

Mason: “Are you friends with Kyle?”

Garcia: “Yes.”

Mason: “Good friends?”

Garcia: “No.”

Killion: “I object. Counsel is intimidating the witness. Request he be ordered to move away from the stand.”

Attorney Thomas Mason is a man of nearly 90. Ok, not really, but he does not present an intimidating figure. He has the polished manners and even tone of a man who takes being a gentleman seriously. He also has the palsy pretty bad. The sight of him up there juxtaposed with this tough kid, his thin hair, bleary eyes, worn smile, and impulsively quaking hands was striking. Many people in the gallery, including Mason’s recently retired law partner, found the idea that the old boy was scaring the kid pretty funny.

Judge Lamb laughed, too. He explained to Mr. Killion that as long as Mr. Mason was presenting physical exhibits like the sheaf of photos, which were rustling in his shaky old hands like leaves on a tree in a small wind, he could remain in the proximity of the stand.

Mason’s patience with Garcia’s amnesia, the constant probing of each “I don’t recall, I can’t remember, I don’t know” was like the constant tapping of that old philosopher who sounded every idea with his hammer.

We learned how Benito had eaten dinner with his mother, showered and gone off to the quinceanera. It was uncertain how he got mom’s Honda when he didn’t have a license, but experts agree, these things are not uncommon.

Benito Garcia called what ensued from mom's car the “drive-by.”

Mason: “So Alex was in the front seat with you and he reached across and shot?”

Garcia: “Yes.”

Mason: “How many shots did he fire?”

Garcia: “I don’t recall.”

Mason: “Did he do anything before he shot?”

Garcia: “I don’t remember.”

Mason: “When you say you don’t remember, is that because you don’t remember or because you don’t want to tell us what happened?”

Garcia: “I don’t remember.”

Mason: “Are you telling the truth?”

Garcia: “Yes.”

Mason: “Do you remember telling Officer Cottrell that Alex was actually sitting in the back seat?”

Garcia: “I don’t remember.”

Mason: “You don’t remember saying it or you don’t remember where he was?”

Garcia: “Jose was in the passenger seat, Alex in the back.”

Mason: “But you have him leaning across you to fire the shots. How can that be?”

Garcia: “I don’t know.”

Mason: “So after the shooting, what did you do?”

Garcia: “Went back to Paco’s.”

Mason: “Why?”

Garcia: “Scared.”

Mason: “Nothing further.”

A woman with a pronounced British accent took the stand.

Leslie Bryant introduced herself to the court as “a Community Service Officer in Fort Bragg and an evidence technician certified by Napa Valley College.” Officer Bryant had been assigned to the crime scene at the Minnesota Avenue Apartments where the Sanchez vehicle, a van, had been fired up, the windows shot out, and bullets lodged in neighboring apartments. She said she recovered some fragments from the van and the window of an apartment.

The next witness was Detective Wesley Rafanan of the Fort Bragg Police Department. Detective Rafanan had investigated the Robert Russell shooting, interviewing several of the people who had been at the party at the Jose Rodriguez residence.

“I’ve known them all for a long time,” the detective said.

Killion: “Did you talk to Isaac Cabrerra?”

Rafanan: “Yes.”

Killion: “And was he at the party that night?”

Rafanan: “Yes.”

Killion: “Did you ask if he saw any gang activity?”

Rafanan: “Yes, he said he was asked by Alex Hurtado and Alexis Rodriguez what he’d be willing to do for the gang – whether he’d shoot, stab somebody, or other things.”

Killion: “Did he say how he responded to these questions?”

Rafanan: “He said he’d fight one-on-one, but not shoot or stab anybody.”

Killion: “Did Jose Rodriguez ask him similar questions?”

Rafanan: “Yes. He said they were asking the ‘little ones,’ the younger kids at the party. He mentioned Nicole Gibson, Anthony Doll, and some others.”

Killion: “Did you talk to Cabrerra about his gang activities?”

Rafanan: “I asked him if he was banging, and he said he was looking to, had been asked by Jose Rodriquez if he’d be willing to put in work for him.”

Killion: “Did you ask him if he was present at the shooting?”

Rafanan: “I did and he said, no, he wasn’t there.”

Killion: “Did you ask him about the BLN, the Barrio Loco Norteños?”

Rafanan: “I did. I asked who he thought the shot-caller was, and he said”—

Mason: “Objection. That’s just his opinion, your honor.”

Judge Lamb: “Of course it’s his opinion. He can answer.”

Rafanan: “I asked him to put down who was the shot-callers; he placed Jose as number one; Alexis, number two; and Alex Hurtado as number three.”

Lamb: “And by that you mean he, Jose Rodriquez, was the one they took orders from?”

Rafanan: “Yes.”

Killion: “Did you speak with Nicole Gibson?”

Rafanan: “Yes. She said she’d been there — a witness — and saw Alex Hurtado with a handgun. She heard a loud firecracker-like noise and saw flame come out of the barrel. Then she saw Robert Russell stumble backward toward the river, or Spring Street.”

Killion: “Where was this?”

Rafanan: “On the front lawn of Jose Rodriguez’s house.

Killion: “Was Ryler Hurtado there?”

Rafanan: “Yes.”

Killion: “Did Ryler witness the shooting?”

Rafanan: “He would not go into that. He said he saw somebody put a knife to Alex’s throat.”

Killion: “Was he able to identify that person?”

Rafanan: “No.”

A search of the Hurtado’s house and Alex’s bedroom failed to produce the gun, but the witnesses were enough to put him away, so Alex Hurtado took the plea deal and will testify against Jose Rodriguez in further proceedings in coming weeks.

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