Matt Graves, The Civil Case

by Bruce McEwen, February 15, 2012

Matt Graves, the well-known North County agriculturist, is back in court trying to keep his land from falling into his neighbors’ hands. Graves says he owns the parcel. The neighbor, Mr. Abram, says he owns it.

Interest in the civil action is especially keen among law enforcement personnel, many of whom feel that Graves cheated the hangman when he won his pot cultivation case last year following a sensational jury trial.

Many — a great many cops — were involved in the massive bust that led to Graves' jury trial last year. Law enforcement views the Leggett-Bell Springs man as among Mendocino County's big fish pot growers, and probably the biggest fish of all. At his trial, the cops thought they had Graves cold, but a jury thought otherwise.

The People vs. Graves was a legacy of former DA Meredith Lintott. She believed in prosecuting all pot growers “to the fullest extent of the law,” a policy that kept the courts humming with prosecutions of lots of people who shouldn't have been prosecuted, especially for felonies, which is the way Lintott filed them. The small fish prosecutions cost the taxpayers lots of money and, often as not, the DA lost. DA David Eyster settles these things for cash fines, which means the taxpayers come out ahead, way ahead.

But Graves wasn't viewed as one of the little fish; he was seen as the Moby Dick of local growers. Lintott went all out to nail him. And lost.

The photos of the Matt Graves pot plantations would make a banana republic colonial green with envy. Graves had several fields of the squat, bushy Indicus plants, set out like pineapple plantations in Hawaii, and several other gardens of the taller Sativa that could have been Cuban sugar cane. And there were several more fields of crossbreeds, all beautifully maintained. Keeping the different plots in some sort of coherent order proved challenging to prosecutor Katherine Houston as she tried to show the jury how extensive the Graves operation really was. The property was 80 acres or more, and Graves had all manner of heavy equipment for maintaining 80 acres of the love drug, including stuff for industrial scale road building and land clearing — all of which the Task Force seized — plus lots of other pricy gear, both recreational and work-related.

In addition, Graves was accused of having enough firepower to arm a Third World revolution, which he said belonged to some guy in Oakland whose last name he couldn't remember. The Oakland guy, you see, occasionally came up to the Graves place in the country to test fire his guns. The day the aerial raid team dropped in on Graves, the arms cache was found just over the property line hidden behind a log, as if pushed there hastily when the choppers descended. A true gun guy would no more stash his guns out in the weather than voluntarily turn them into the government to beat into plowshares.

But Graves won his case in a hostile court, so hostile the jury seemed to resent it. Judge Richard Henderson had made it obvious which side he was on, and it wasn't on Graves' side. Much of the court’s censure of Graves’ defense attorney, Ukiah hotshot Keith Faulder, was conducted outside the presence of the jury, but Henderson’s irritable overruling of Faulder’s every objection and his eager sustaining of prosecutor Houston’s every move, showed the jurors where His Honor’s sympathies lay. The jury felt sorry for Graves.

The Graves case also confirmed Faulder’s billowing reputation as Mendo's go-to guy for pot cases. Faulder took the brunt of Judge Henderson’s displeasure with cheerful good humor and, because it was so blatant, he knew it was working to his client's advantage.

“The Matt Graves case sent us a message,” DA David Eyster said at the time, “that Mendocino juries are not going to convict pot growers. My predecessor’s policies did not succeed.”

Eyster was referring to Ms. Lintott’s policy of having “confidential informants” turn in their more enterprising neighbors. For four years the courts were flooded with every holder of a 215 card, any itinerant trimmers the cops could round up and herd into a courtroom, and no attempt was made to sort them all out prior to charges being filed — everybody got charged with felony cultivation and possession for sale. I remember days when the Courthouse was like a cattle barn, with the judges working like auctioneers, disposing of many prominent locals along with a variety of pot tourists from every state in the US and every corner of the globe, from China to the Balkans.

Graves soon returned to court after his famous acquittal and began the lengthy and expensive litigation involved in getting his seized property returned. Also, he was beset with a series of civil issues with his neighbors that had to do with restraining orders and the like. And now, a year later, he’s back in court squabbling with one of his neighbors over a vague deed to some of the land that made his fame and fortune but is claimed by the neighbor. A good many parties from law enforcement are monitoring the case and they’re definitely not cheering for Graves. So it was probably not surprising that Judge Cindee Mayfield ruled against him at the end of last week’s lengthy court trial. She is well known as being a cop-friendly judge, having risen to the bench via conservative attorney Jared Carter's law firm.

The subject of the current Graves action was an 80-acre parcel in the Foster Creek drainage of the Bell Springs area near Leggett, the title to which is disputed by Matt Graves and his neighbor Harold Abram. They both claim it. The property was owned by Eugene “Sandy” Maggiani who in 2005 told his friend Jed Sherman that he wanted to sell it. The owner of the adjoining property, Mr. Abram, expressed an interest, but there was a question as to whether he wanted to buy it all or just the 20 acres adjoining his.

So on behalf of Sandy Maggiani, Jed Sherman, who has since died, asked Matt Graves if he was interested. At that point Maggiani was in default on a note on the property. Graves agreed to assume the loan on the property and make some improvements on it in exchange for a quitclaim deed. Maggiani executed the quitclaim deed in October of 2005. Unfortunately, Graves did not record it until April of 2008.

But on November 5th of 2007 Harold Abram recorded two quitclaim deeds that purport to convey the property from “Sandy Maggiani” as grantor to Harold and Dana Abram as grantees and that the deeds were executed on November 2nd 2007.

Harold Abram testified that in October of 2007 he had a conversation with Maggiani during a chance meeting outside a Garberville restaurant in which Maggiani confirmed that Sherman had arranged some sort of deal with Graves, and that he, Maggiani, had signed “some kind of claim or deed” to Graves.

According to his deposition, Abram also had a conversation with Graves “sometime in 2006” when the two met as Graves was driving away from the property on the road that accesses both it and the Abram property. In the course of the conversation, Abram told Graves that Abram had purchased the property from Maggiani. Graves, in turn, showed Abram what Graves claimed was a copy of the unrecorded deed conveying the property from Maggiani to Graves, and the two acknowledged that they both claimed ownership of the property.

Judge Mayfield managed to sum up the week-long affair, during which even the dead guy was represented by counsel. “Please speak up Mr. Mason, I can’t hear you.”

Tom Mason’s voice is wafer thin and doesn’t lend itself to being raised. But apparently he was saying he wanted to bring Sandy Maggiani back in for further questioning about the quitclaim deed he’d given Mr. Graves. Phil DeJong said he’d call Maggiani and he could come down from his home in Garberville by two in the afternoon. During recess, Mr. Graves, a friendly fellow, tried to chat with me, but his lawyer saw what was afoot and called him away.

“Come on, Mr. Graves; let’s not be talking to that fellow about any of this,” Mason said.

When Maggiani appeared in the courtroom promptly at two he was put immediately on the stand. Like many people who live in Garberville, Maggiani looks like a veteran of Woodstock, and it soon became apparent that his mind had suffered from the Summer of Love, Drugs and Rock and Roll.

“I can’t really remember anything,” he said apologetically.

Mr. Mason had given him the deed and was going through it line by line.

“Yes, I think I may have written this, and that does look like my signature, but I don’t remember any of it. It was my intent to sell the property, and I didn’t have a guaranteed sale.”

“Who were you intending to sell it to?”

“To Mr. Graves.”

“Do you recall the day you signed the quitclaim deed?”

“My memory is really not that good.”

“Do you remember Mr. Sherman coming to your house?”

“I think we met somewhere, then went to a shop in Garberville where a woman was a notary.”

“Did you bring anything with you?”

“My driver’s license, my ID.”

“Did you see the quitclaim deed?”

“Nooo… “

“Do you remember who had it?”

“I do. Mr. Sherman.”

“Do you recall if it was blank at the time?”

“My memory’s not that good,”

“Do you recall anyone filling it out at the time?”

“I do not.”

“Do you recall writing on it?”

“Yes. I wrote this [referring to Matt Graves’ name], and this, I think. I have no memory of any of this but I think I must have; the signature is mine.”

“What about this line that has been whited-out?”

“I have no memory of that.”

“What about this address in Redway, California?”

“I have no memory of putting that in but I believe the writing was mine. The address is mine.”

“So Mr. Sherman took the deed and did you ever see it again?”

“I did not.”

“Do you recall the notary doing anything?”

“I can’t rely on my memory; I have to rely on this. I can look at this and conclude that I must have signed it but I have no memory of doing so.”

Mr. Maggiani was excused and Mr. Mason made his case that the deed must surely have been the work of Maggiani, but Judge Mayfield was not persuaded.

“Mr. Maggiani’s and Mr. Sherman’s testimony are critical to this case, and Mr. Sherman cannot be here. (He's the dead guy.) Now, I understand that looking at the deed at trial is helpful, but Mr. Maggiani’s memory was faulty, and as we have here a quitclaim deed with numerous people having written on it. I cannot say in good conscience that the plaintiff has presented a preponderance of evidence.”

Matt Graves was the plaintiff.

The ball was now in defendant Harold Abram’s court. He would have until March 9th to decide what he wants to do about it. There were no problems with the quitclaim deeds he and his wife Dana were in possession of — or were there?

The next day I went to have a look at the file, and I saw that Judge Mayfield had altered her ruling slightly:

“MINUTE ORDER CORRECTIING TENTATIVE DECISION

“On February 9, 2012, at the conclusion of Plaintiff’s presentation of evidence in the above-referenced case, the court issued an oral tentative decision granting Defendants’ motion for judgment (Code of Civil Procedure 631.8). This minute order is issued to correct a mistake in the tentative order announced by the court.

“At trial, Defense exhibits A-1 and A-2 were identified for the record as quitclaim deeds executed by Sandy Maggiani to Harold I. Abram and Dana L. Abram on November 2, 2007 for certain real property described in the legal description attached to each deed and commonly referred to as APN# 012-540-16 (ex. A-1) and APN # 012-540-29 (Ex. A-2). Sandy Maggiani and Hal Abram testified at trial about the 2007 quitclaim deeds. The deposition testimony of Jed Sherman which was received in evidence also addressed the 2007 quitclaim deeds from Maggiani to the Abrams.

“In its tentative decision, the court found that the 2007 quitclaim deeds transferred the subject property, then owned by Sandy Maggiani, to Harold and Dana Abrams. Accordingly, the quitclaim deed to the same property which Sandy Maggiani gave Matt Graves in 2008 (Plaintiff’s Ex. 6) conveyed no interest in the subject property because, at that time, Maggiani had no interest to convey. The court hereby sets aside this finding as unsupported by the evidence produced at trial. The court’s tentative decision assumed that Defendant’s exhibits A-1 and A-2 were received in evidence; in fact, said exhibits were not offered or received.”

The whole show will be back in court March the 6th. It's not looking good for Matt Graves.

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