Getting Away With Murder

by Bruce McEwen, November 11, 2009

It was a perfect early afternoon in May when a young Mexican couple saw the car under the overpass with the man holding a knife to a terrified woman's throat. The young Mexican couple got back on Highway 101 and sped south to the Cloverdale Police Department. They told the Cloverdale police that a man seemed to be killing a woman in plain view beneath the Geysers overpass maybe three miles from where they were now trying to explain to the Cloverdale cop that if he didn't hurry the woman would be dead.

It was 1:15pm on May 22nd, 2005.

The Cloverdale Police said the Geysers overpass was out of their jurisdiction, that it was just over the Mendocino County line, that the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department would respond.

And Sonoma County did respond, 13 minutes later, but when they got there the woman was dead and the man who killed her was sitting beside her as if wondering what to do next.

Family and friends of the dead woman, Jasa “Haille” Anguillo, 19, say if the Cloverdale Police had immediately driven north to the scene Haille might still be among us, but it doesn't take long to choke someone to death and this man had told Haille that's what he planned to do to her.

Four and a half years later, in the Mendocino County Courthouse, the killer, 31-year old Atticus Reynolds, with a room full of his victim's family and friends looking on, showed no remorse. Clad in faded sweats, hair uncombed, a bailiff at his side, Reynolds ambled to the defense table. Two young women whispered that it was his good looks that made him such a hit with the ladies, his good looks that Haille couldn't resist, but those good looks weren't in evidence today.

The sweatsuit he wore for sentencing meant that his lawyer, Public Defender Linda Thompson, had been successful at getting the killer sent to a hospital, rather than a prison. She had a letter from a psychiatrist, another from a member of the clergy, attesting to the young man's lack of sanity.

There were people present who wanted to address the court on the sanity point, and some of them were heard, but the deal had already been done in chambers, behind closed doors, where it had been agreed that Atticus Reynolds was crazy, that he was unable to distinguish between right and wrong, that he was not responsible for his actions.

The room full of Haille's family and friends wondered if Haille was any less dead.

The prosecuting attorney, Jill Ravitch, also had some letters for the judge. Those letters probably said that Atticus had always been a low down no good son of a bitch and he should go straight to prison, not to a state hospital.

Ms. Thompson objected to those letters, but Judge Brown, speaking as if the matter hadn't already been decided, said it would be difficult for him to decide the case without seeing the letters. He wanted to read them so he could properly decide if they should be admitted into the file. Judge Brown took the letters, and the victim’s grandfather, Jerry Huot, came forward to address the court.

Huot said he'd known Atticus Reynolds long before he murdered Haille. Huot had been a teacher at Cloverdale High School and had never known “anybody,” he said, “like Atticus Reynolds. When I found out Haille was going with him I said, ‘Oh, no. God, no. Not Atticus Reynolds.'”

Huot's early apprehension was borne out by the killer's record, a lengthy one ranging from drug selling to poaching. For years Atticus had gotten away with crimes high and low by playing his crazy card, hoodwinking the mental health pros who inevitably found him redeemable. Huot said Atticus was perfectly sane, that he knew what he was doing, that he should pay.

The killer looked sane. He studiously avoided eye contact with everyone in the courtroom, even the old couple off by themselves behind the defense who I supposed were on his side, maybe his parents, and one more set of his victims. Atticus would put his hand up to his face to avoid prying eyes, or he'd look between his knees at the floor, or sometimes he’d look blankly into a midspace a few feet in front of his face. He knew they were all talking about him, but he also seemed to know that when all the talk was over he'd get his crazy ticket punched and off he'd go to a state hospital and some day while he was still young he'd be back in Cloverdale as if he hadn't murdered anybody.

Haille’s mother came forward. She was crying and weak and exhausted. She said that besides the pain and suffering Atticus had caused when he killed Haille, she and everyone else who knows Atticus were afraid that he'd get out and make good on his threats to kill the rest of her family. She said they “just wanted the peace of mind to keep Haille alive in our hearts, because that’s what Haille would have wanted.”

Haille’s aunt was also afraid. Atticus had called her and threatened to burn her house to the ground. Her own child was Haille’s cousin and fast friend. This young man lived in terror that he was next on Atticus's hit list. “Please,” she pleaded with the judge, “don’t let him out.”

Someone else wanted to speak — the defendant’s grandfather.

Atticus knew what his grandfather was going to say. Atticus knew he'd never fooled the old man, that the old man was going to say that Atticus had charmed his way through life by bamboozling a bunch of damn fools, the so-called helping professionals who kept letting him escape responsibility for himself all these years, but the grandfather knew that Atticus was a bad seed, that he'd known Atticus would kill someone some day and now that he had killed a young woman he should at last be made responsible.

“What business is it of his,” Atticus said out loud in the voice of an injured party. “What right does he have? He has nothing to do with any of this.”

Atticus knew that his grandfather was the one person in his life that he'd never been able to get over on.

Judge Brown told the defendant: “Sir, you need to stop talking. If not, I’ll have you removed.”

“Objection,” Linda Thompson said. “There’s a question as to whether the individual qualifies for addressing the court.”

“He’s a collateral victim,” Jill Ravitch asserted.

There was back and forth between the lawyers about who had the right to talk and who didn't, which letters could go into the file, which couldn't.

All the letters were admitted, but Atticus's grandfather was denied the opportunity to tell the court that his grandson had been a rat bastard all his days.

Thompson wanted the defendant’s mother to be given a chance to address the court. But Judge Brown knew of no authority for subjecting the victims to a wretched presentation that would say her poor son never got the help he deserved and how he was really a swell guy. The usual thing from a mother and one more victim of her son.

The defendant spoke.

Atticus, in the insincere tones of the true psychopath, said he had no desire to cause any more pain.

“I’m very, very sorry,” he said.

Because Atticus killed Haille at the southern tip of Mendocino County, he was brought to jail in Ukiah where he was allowed access to bail. He didn't get bail, but he could have been right back out if someone had posted a bond for him, and this was a man already on probation in two counties including Mendocino County who had now committed murder.

Atticus didn't get out, but here he was getting off, really, getting away with murder by persuading the authorities that he was crazy.

Judge Brown summed up.

“I always wish I had some magical words I could use to help a family that has suffered in this way, but there are no magical words. Nor can I say that I understand how extreme the suffering must be … Sometimes it seems the law itself has limitations, and to family members it must seem that it leaves a lot to be desired. What is so tragic about these situations is that the pain and suffering goes so much further than is demonstrated by those of you here today. This order may not satisfy your sense of justice, but by law it is what is required for us to do.”

The judge then read the order quietly, without expression: “Murder in the Second Degree, by reason off insanity … was determined to be insane at the time of the murder … 1026b. … hereby sentenced to Napa State Hospital for life … antipsychotic medications … order signed and dated.”

Judge Brown laid the order on his desk, rose and went quickly to his chambers, wiping a tear from under his glasses. Everyone sat stunned. Slowly, the crowd realized it was over. One by one, they gathered up their things and left.

* * *

Coast attorney Gregory Petersen has worked hard to keep David Lieberman out of the County Jail while DA Meredith Lintott has worked hard to keep him in.

And make him pay.

At issue is the County’s transient occupancy taxes (TOT), or bed tax, in the amount of $245,697. Mr. Lieberman owes the County of Mendocino that amount plus $3,366 to the Lodging Association’s Business Improvement District.

The County's inns, hotels and motels collect the bed tax for the County. Sometimes the money gets to the County, sometimes it gets mixed up with the inn's general receipts and never makes it to Ukiah. The County is notoriously lax at collecting the money, not that official laxity, which is the name of the game in Mendocino County, is an excuse for not paying.

Petersen argued that Lieberman’s resume and spotless criminal history should spare him jail time. Petersen said that Mr. Lieberman had been a Silicon Valley marketing exec before escaping to Mendocino County where he'd hoped to realize his dream of owning and operating an inn, in this case the venerable and luxurious Elk Cove Inn in Elk.

Mr. Lieberman bought the Elk Cove Inn from Elaine Bryant in 2001 and began an expensive remodel to add a full service spa and an upgrade of the rooms.

Then the economy went south and stayed there.

Mr. Lieberman had borrowed from his retirement account, his mother had mortgaged her house to help him achieve his remake at Elk Cove, and he was working to get a loan — which fell through, he said, at the 11th hour with which he'd hoped to pull himself out of the hole. Mr. Lieberman had spent the accumulated quarter of a mil in unpaid bed tax revenues to make payroll, pay his suppliers, stay open — he took nothing for himself, and he hadn't run away.

This was a man overtaken by events, not a criminal.

Petersen said the case of Mr. L in no way resembled that of the infamous James Robichaud, formerly of Mendocino, who had deliberately embezzled bed tax money along with the proceeds of numerous rental units while he bought Super Bowl box seats, antique cars and expensive women.

DA Lintott, intransigent, said Robichaud and Lieberman were in fact very much alike.

Petersen reassured the court that Lieberman was industrious, resourceful and perfectly capable of making good on restitution. Mendocino County would get its money. Petersen hoped the court, Judge Brown, would consider giving his client only 45 days jail time so he could continue to work.

DA Lintott wanted maximum jail time: 365 days.

Mr. Lieberman said he never meant to harm anyone; he thought he could turn the business around; he couldn’t have dreamed the economy would collapse. “I apologize if anyone’s been hurt,” he said.

Lintott reminded the court of all the County employees who had lost their jobs for lack of revenues to pay them — presumably including some of her own staffers — suggesting that if these bed taxes had been paid, some people would still be working.

Petersen pointed out that his client had engaged a third-party to negotiate a repayment plan, but the County had refused to consider it.

It should be noted here that whatever one’s opinion of Mr. Lieberman’s failure to pay his bed tax — a 10% surcharge on top of the cost of a pricy room — the County didn’t help matters by letting the unpaid balance balloon to a quarter of a mil before doing much about it. As a result, when the bank foreclosed on Mr. L, the County was left holding the empty bed tax bag.

Supervisors have often complained that the County’s bed tax collection system is sloppy and needs to be tightened up.

Judge Brown said he wanted to address the general circumstances as well as the defendant. He said the issue was “trust.” Brown said that “The transient occupancy tax is to be paid over to the County. To convert the money to other purposes, to deprive the owner of the property even if only temporarily is enough. The wrong that I’m looking at is the use of that property for the individual’s personal benefit. I recognize that business is tough everywhere — including the County. So, how to measure the pain involved? I don’t know. But the holding of these funds caused a lot of problems for people — it certainly didn’t help matters; it is a lot of money.”

Brown rambled on.

“This money is not yours! You must give it to the County. Yes, it would have been nice if you had made it work out with the loan, but you didn’t. I need to get your attention and send a message to the community about this kind of conduct. I’m going to impose 180 days in jail.”

Given the facts, it was a stiff sentence — the Probation Department had recommended only 90 days. It was left to attorney Petersen to work out the restitution arrangements with the County.

So, taxpayers, the guy who owes us a quarter million dollars will sit in jail for three months when he could be out working to pay the money back.

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