by Bruce McEwen, December 5, 2013
It was an exciting night that crisp February 25th of this year, so exciting that Walter K. Miller's performance is playing again in Mendocino County Superior Court.
Miller, 43, of Ukiah, is accused of leaning out the passenger window of a speeding car and shooting at a pursuing deputy's vehicle. Miller was one of two passengers in the fleeing '95 Thunderbird driven by his pal, Christopher Skaggs. The other passenger was Skaggs' love interest, Miss Tracy Cox, a young woman with a history, as the Victorians might say.
Miller is charged with attempted murder, assault with a firearm, first-degree burglary and special allegations of having served prior prison terms and having two prior strikes under California's Three Strikes law.
DA David Eyster is prosecuting Miller. He put the case this way to the jury: “You're going to see six muzzle flashes coming back at the deputy. The deputy will tell you that was not an expected thing; he was scared.”
In other words, Miller is looking at spending the rest of his life in prison.
Miller and Skaggs big night doesn't seem to have been well thought out.
Skaggs was driving on South State Street when he was pulled over by Deputy Darren Brewster for expired registration tabs. When the deputy began asking questions that Skaggs had no answers for, Skaggs took off, careening full speed up the Boonville Road, the intrepid Brewster on his tail until, on a long turn offering a clear field of fire at Brewster's hot pursuit, Miller allegedly leaned out the passenger window and cranked off a number of shots at Brewster, managing to hit Brewster's radiator, and stopping Brewster's pursuit two miles up the Ukiah-Boonville Road.
Miller and Skaggs sped on but abandoned their T-Bird after another few miles. The three of them spent a long night eluding an all-out search by personnel from a variety of agencies. Skaggs was taken into custody the next morning as he blithely walked along State Street with Miss Cox.
Miller, however, holed up in a Ukiah motel to consider his options which, he soon discovered, ranged from zero to ought. He was arrested after a standoff and lengthy negotiations with, among others, Sheriff Allman.
Al Kubanis is defending Miller.
“I sprang out of bed,” Mark Bennett of North State Street, Ukiah, stated. Bennett was the victim of a robbery by Miller and Skaggs prior to the big chase on the Ukiah-Boonville Road.
“Really,” defense attorney Al Kubanis replied skeptically.
Kubanis had described Bennett as “a very interesting witness,” suggesting that Bennett wasn't particularly credible. He wanted to know if Miller had entered Bennett’s trailer and stolen stuff, including a laptop computer. Bennett said when he heard someone in his house he “sprang out of bed.”
“So you thought you heard someone in your house and you got out of bed?”
“No,” Bennett said. “I heard someone in my house and sprang out of bed. Literally. My bed is fixed with springs so that it springs up, and I literally spring out on my feet.”
“Really,” Kubanis repeated. “Have you thought about getting a patent on it?”
This got a chuckle from the jury, but the implication was that Kubanis had to discredit Bennett to persuade the jury that Miller and Skaggs hadn't spent a long, felonious day before their even bigger felonies commenced that evening when Deputy Brewster pulled Skaggs' T-Bird over for the expired registration tabs on its rear license plate.
The dispatcher on duty that night was a trainee, otherwise Deputy Brewster would have been given a red flag when he called in the license plates — but even a veteran dispatcher couldn’t have known how much firepower was in the T-Bird, or how ready the occupants were to use it.
Is it a good idea to go on a crime spree with expired license plates? Well, when you’re going to burgle a couple of houses and start a running gun-battle with most of the cops in the County, what’s a fixit ticket for lapsed tags?
How surprised was Mark Bennett to find an ex-con creeping around in his house that early winter morning in February?
Kubanis asked, “Did you have any conversation with my client?”
“Yes, I said his name, ‘Chris Miller?’ Like you would to someone you hadn’t seen in 20 years. “So, you’re out of prison, I see. Let’s go out on the porch and talk…’.”
“Why did you invite him out on the porch?”
“I wanted to get him out of my house.”
Mr. Bennett lives in a trailer park just off North State Street in Ukiah.
“Now, at some point he asks you about purchasing some marijuana?”
“Yes. He said he had five pounds and wanted five more so he could put together a Ten Pack.”
“There was an exchange of phone numbers. Did you initiate that?”
“Yes. I said ‘Let’s do the number thing, good to see you out [of prison], man’ — I wanted to get this whole interaction over with.”
“What was he wearing?”
“A sweatshirt, I believe. Pretty nondescript.”
“Could you see his hands — you told Deputy Scott he had his hands behind his back, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, he slipped some keys between the couch cushions as he backed out.”
“Of the things missing, you mentioned a laptop — did you see a laptop in his hands?”
“You saw a car when you got out on the porch?”
“Yeah, it was immediately outside my gate in what you call ‘get-away’ parking, meaning it was backed in, and ready to go.”
“Was the motor running?”
“I believe it was.”
“And you saw a young lady in this vehicle?”
“Yes. He (Miller) excused himself and went to the car to speak to her — all very hushed. He had his back to me and was doing something with his hands, which I couldn’t see.”
“How could you tell he was doing something with his hands if his back was to you?”
“Like this:” Bennett stood in the witness well, hunched his shoulders over and made motions with his hands. He shrugged his shoulders and sat back down.
“Did you have any further conversation with him before they left?”
“Chris was fishing to see if I had any guns.”
“Did you tell that to Deputy Scott?”
“I believe so, yes.”
“Prior to this did you look in your girlfriend Dorota’s purse?”
The witness measured his examiner briefly before finishing, “I can’t say I was snooping in her purse for anything.”
“But didn’t she tell Deputy Scott that some of her prescription medications were missing?”
“I believe she said her keys and some Vicodins, along with the laptop, were missing.”
Kubanis consulted with the suave gent seated next to him, his private investigator, Thomas Clements, a retired homicide detective from Clearlake. Then Kubanis asked, “You have a neighbor, Justin Harris?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“When Mr. Miller left your house, was Justin Harris around at all?”
“No, I hadn’t seen him that day. But Justin told me later that Miller had been there before.”
Kubanis objected that this was non-responsive, and he wanted it stricken from the record. Judge John Behnke agreed and instructed the jury that they were to disregard the remark, but the bell had been rung, as the saying goes, and it would be hard to un-ring it in the jurors’ ears.
Kubanis asked, “Were you at all intoxicated?”
“No. This is the first thing I woke up to.”
“Did you contact anyone?”
“Did you make a phone call?”
“Yes, when I found out the laptop was missing.”
“What did you say?”
“I said bring it back or I’ll send you back to prison.”
“How did you know he took it?”
“He was the only one who came to my house that morning.”
“But weren’t you asleep in bed?”
“I was only dozing because I’d just been up to let the chickens out.”
“So you call him up and accuse him of taking the laptop and he denies it?”
“That’s right. I said, 'You need to bring our stuff back.'“
“So you didn’t believe his denial, and you said something about Dorota knowing someone in the DA’s office?”
“It was a bluff.”
“And he retaliated about knowing somebody on the street who could come and mess you up?”
“Yeah, but I don’t believe he was bluffing, though.”
DA David Eyster called his next witness, a Polish exile, called Dorota Blaszkowska. How this seemingly innocent young woman came to be in a Ukiah doublewide with desperados coming and going in the middle of the night is not known.
“I want to take you back to the 20th of February, Dorota. Do you remember that night?”
“Rather more than I could wish, but sure.”
“Before the incident we’re all here about today, before any of that happened, at around 7:30 in the morning, what had you been doing that night?”
“I was going on the computer, yes; but, no, not ‘Facebookin’ — but, yes I was on a chat line with some friends.”
“In Europe,” Kubanis interjected irrelevantly.
The witness shrugged non-comittally, and since Kubanis was only being conversational, the DA didn’t object as to pertinence.
“Where were you?”
“On the couch.”
“Did you leave the laptop there when you went to bed?”
“Yes. I didn’t want Mark to sit on it — and he would, if I didn’t prop it up in plain sight.”
“So you left it on the pillow where Mr. Bennett wouldn’t sit on it. Do you carry a purse?”
“Where did you leave your purse when you went to the bedroom?”
“Under the table.”
“What was on top of the table?”
“The case I carry my prescriptions in; my keys were beside it. My purse with my passport, ID and such, was under the table.”
“Did you go to sleep?”
“And when you woke up, what did you do?”
“I went into the kitchen and had a glass of water. Then I noticed the couch where I’d left the computer was covered with a sleeping bag.”
“And you’re sure you hadn’t spread it on the couch before you went to bed?”
“No I didn’t, I’m sure. And my purse was open with the lid off my pill bottle.”
“And your computer?”
“It was gone.”
“Were you there when Mark called the police?”
“Did he seem scared?”
“Objection, calls for speculation.”
“Do you know Mark well enough to tell if he’s scared?”
“And was he?”
The dapper Kubanis, his face ruddy from the dual effects of the recent cold snap and, perhaps, liquid antidotes, wore a tweedy wool suit with a tartan necktie. He paced along the jury rail, then stopped abruptly and said, “Ms. Blaskowska!”
“Ms. Blaskowska,” Kubanis resumed. “You left the laptop on the pillow, but where was the charging apparatus, if any?”
The dramatic had instantly devolved into the trivially mundane.
“I put it under the coffee table, with my purse.”
“But I thought you said you left your purse on the top of the coffee table?”
“Not that purse. I left that purse on the tabletop. But I left my purse under the table.”
“And you have a prescription for Vicodin?”
“For menstrual pain.”
“And you thought some pills were missing, but you weren’t sure, correct?”
“Now, with regard to your sleep patterns, you were up between 3 and 7am — was that because of your having communications with people in Europe on the computer?”
“No, I was having a bad night.”
“And when you were having a bad night, would Mark get the sleeping bag and sleep on the couch?”
“No, he did not.
“Notice anything else disturbed?”
“No, other than the keys, the sleeping bag and the pill bottles.”
“Did Mr. Bennett keep any firearms, to your knowledge?”
“No, he did not.”
“And the charger for the laptop was not taken?”
“It was still where I left it.”
The next witness was William Haga of Potter Valley. The first thing the DA did was to show Mr. Haga a wicked looking 9mm automatic handgun with a couple of large capacity magazines. The gat looked like one of those sub-machine guns from a James Bond movie. Haga recognized the weapon as the one that had been stolen from beneath his bed last February 21st. Also taken were several boxes of ammo, a scope, a rifle, a shotgun, a smaller handgun, a pellet gun, and a fair amount of his wife’s jewelry, most of which has never been recovered.
A photograph of Haga’s house on Van Arsdale Road was shown to the court. The house is protected by a state of the art automatic gate. But it appeared the low-tech burglars had simply vaulted the gate and kicked Haga's door open, leaving a footprint on the gate, and a boot mark on the door.
Kubanis wanted to know if the Haga residence could be considered “remote.”
“Yes,” Mr. Haga said. “It’s right behind the Heartstone Church.” Which, presumably, is remote.
“And this happened on a weekday — was the traffic heavy?”
“I have no idea. I was at work all day.”
“Well, if someone parked across from your gate, could they watch what was going on there?”
“Like I say, I was at work until 6:30 that evening, and my wife had gone to work at 9:00 that morning as well.”
“Was it dark when you got home?”
“Do you have any pets?”
“Yes, some cats.”
If you're living remote in this county, you need a big, mean dog to go with your cats.
“And you told the police the cats hang out at the shed?”
“They do. But they were gone for three days afterwards.”
“So something disturbed them?”
“Was any cash missing from your home?”
“Yes, some coins. Like everyone, I assume does, we had coins we emptied from our pockets when we got home. There were change rolls, rolls of coins…”
“Lemme interrupt — has any of this turned up yet?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“Did you have any collector’s coins?”
“Yes. I had rolls of Presidential dollars, 25 rolls of 25 coins, each.”
“And that one small handgun, the .380 Lorsen, that’s all you’ve got back?”
“Yes, and some of the jewelry. They said they had something in evidence, and I guess they meant the weapon [AP 9 mm with the 30- and 20-round clips, the People’s Exhibit Number One].”
“Did you see any footprints?”
“While the sheriff was there we saw a shoe mark on the gate.”
“Was it small enough to be a woman's?”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Did they make a plaster cast of it?”
“I dunno. Most of the drive is gravel.”
“Was there any damage to the door jamb?”
“The door is wood?”
“It’s metal-clad, basically.”
“And it had a boot print on it?”
“A mark, yeah. The sheriff indicated that’s where they hit it to get it to do what it did.”
“Now, the footprint in the soil”—
“It wasn’t soil, sir. It was the top of the gate. There’s a small gap where a four-by-four fits to the fencing, and it was broke, and the footprint was there.”
“Anything unusual about the soil?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“When you got the pillow cases back, was the stuff [the loot the burglars stole] still in them?”
“No, and I don’t believe we got all the pillow cases back, either.”
“How many were you missing?”
“Five, and a suitcase.”
“How close is your nearest neighbor?”
“About 50 yards.”
“And none of your neighbors reported to you that a car had parked on the shoulder of the Van Arsdale Road that day?”
The trial was in its third day when Mr. Haga left the stand. Most of the time had been taken up in jury selection. There was another jury trial going on across the hall, and I later spoke to one of those jurors — after they’d reached a verdict — and this juror turned out to be one of the Search & Rescue team that had searched the area on Highway 253 where the burglars had abandoned their car after the high speed chase and running gunfight. Search & Rescue is better than deputies at this kind of thing, and they went over the area with the proverbial fine-toothed comb. It appears that the burglars had stashed or cashed the goods from Bennett’s and Haga’s houses before the chase began.
The other jury trial involved a certain Mr. Costa who responded to somebody spitting at him by throwing a bottle jack. The jack hit the pickup truck of the alleged spitter and damaged it a bit. The incident occurred in the Home Depot parking lot. The charges were vandalism and giving false info to a cop. Costa was found guilty on both counts. One of the jurors told me that it was hands down on count one, but there were two camps on the charge of lying to the cop: One camp, led by my source, thought that in an adrenalin-fueled moment, Costa might have merely been mistaken about what he was saying; the other camp thought Costa lied intentionally. The second opinion won out after five hours of discussion.
The matinee featuring Miller, Miss Cox, Mr. Skaggs, a T-Bird, and shots fired is ongoing.
DA Eyster showed the iCop video from Deputy Daren Brewster’s Crown Vic police interceptor as Brewster chased the Ford Thunderbird down South State Street and up the Boonville Road. The first viewing had been at the prelim some months ago — back when Hollywood was on the Boonville Road filming Need For Speed. But the iCop film is the better of the two — even though it’s a silent movie.
After the iCop film was over, the DA played the accompanying sound track — the recording of the radio traffic from Deputy Brewster’s on-going conversation with dispatch.
Brewster was westbound on Talmage when, just before the stoplight at State Street, he noticed the car in front of him had expired tags. The iCop camera on the dash of his cruiser comes on and we see a Thunderbird turn south on State Street. Brewster follows, comes alongside, then drops back and “initiates a stop,” which is cop-talk for turning on the blue and red light bar.
We see BeBop’s restaurant go by in the background and, shortly, the Thunderbird pulls over, the blue and reds pulsing off its bluish-green body. The rolling drama was about to begin in front of Plowshares.
The T-Bird remains stationary as the dispatch trainee confirms that the vehicle registration has expired. Brewster gets out and strolls up to the driver’s window and leans down to ask for the driver’s license and registration. Does this guy know he hasn’t paid his vehicle tax? Does he care? Before the interrogatory can begin, the T-Bird roars off. We see Brewster scrambling back to his cruiser, and the chase is on.
“Stop the video right there,” Eyster said.
I found this interruption rather annoying, as the vehicles were just passing the Water Trough and some poor fool was staggering along, dangerously close to stepping off the sidewalk into the crosswalk — somebody who bore a strong resemblance to a person who looks a lot like me!
“What, Deputy Brewster, are those numbers running alongside the video?” Eyster asked.
“They give the date and time of day, there at the top, which would be about 9:45 on February 21st; and those numbers under that would be the speed the vehicle was traveling at, which would be approximately 93 miles per hour. I say ‘approximately’,” Brewster explained to the jurors, “because it takes a moment for the signal to go up to the satellite, and bounce back. Same as your cellphone. And here, where it says 80mph as he takes the turn onto the Boonville Road, that was probably not accurate. Considering how fast the suspect vehicle was going, it took me by surprise; I thought for sure he would go straight onto the freeway and open up that big T-Bird engine, so I was going pretty fast, myself.”
“Stop the video right there,” Eyster shouted again. “And back it up.”
Eyster sounded like a football coach demanding a replay.
“What was that blur, off to the left?”
“It was a car coming the other way on the Boonville Road, and it had been forced to swerve off the roadway to avoid being hit by the subject vehicle.”
Shortly thereafter, a figure appears leaning out of the passenger side of the vehicle, as it moves into the oncoming lane, there's a series of flashes, muzzle flashes from the AP-9mm. At this point, Deputy Brewster’s voice to the dispatcher has changed dramatically. He sounded like he’d been castrated at age 10.
“Shots fired,” he sang in a high contralto. “Request backup.”
The dispatcher who had been training the newbie took over. The veteran dispatcher noticed that the T-Bird was registered to the felon’s father, and the driver, Christopher Skaggs, apparently thought little or nothing of taking his father’s car on a crime spree. Red flags were popping up everywhere now, but it was too late. The dispatcher alerted Deputy Walker in Boonville, first; then Deputy Espinoza, also in Boonville.
“Stop the video,” Eyster demanded. “What were you thinking at that point, Deputy Brewster?”
“Whew! Boy, that sure brings back memories. Ones I’d rather have forgotten.”
“What did you do?”
“I let off the throttle and turned off my overhead lights.”
The video started again and we see that Brewster had nearly run off the road into some mailboxes before he regained control of the vehicle and got his red and blues shut down. The taillights of the suspect T-Bird faded around a turn, but the patrol car is soon in their rearview mirror; and a gain a torso emerges from the passenger side as the vehicle cuts into the on-coming lane: More muzzle flashes.
Eyster: “Stop the video! Where is this happening?”
“That was just before the Robinson Creek bridge.”
When the camera swerved to avoid the hail of bullets, it seemed itself to go into the creek. But Brewster had been hit in his radiator, and as the road began to climb the deputy's vehicle staggered to a stop.
Eyster said, “You seemed to have slowed down after crossing the bridge, Deputy Brewster. Why is that?”
“Wull, first, I couldn’t see their taillights and I was worried they’d pulled off and doused their lights in order to ambush me; and also, it felt like I had a flat tire. My vehicle was sluggish, and getting worse as I climbed the switchbacks of the grade. I would find out until later that the engine was overheating and the tires slipping in the antifreeze, but at the time I thought they’d hit one of my tires. I made it to the first hairpin turn and left my disabled vehicle at the big turnout. I called the responding units and asked the first one to stop and pick me up. At this point dispatch notified Sonoma County law enforcement as the suspect could possibly have been intending to flee down Highway 128 to the south. An officer pulled over to pick me up, but he slipped in the antifreeze, and I had to pick him up before we could proceed.”
The T-Bird was found abandoned at a driveway just past the sign that says: “Ukiah 6 Miles.” It’s the home of John Pesko. John came into the Water Trough the next day to tell all the Troughers what a thrill it was to wake up in bed surrounded by guns pointed at your head by a bunch of anxious cops. The Search & Rescue was called in to look for Miller and Skaggs but not much of their stolen loot was recovered.
The trial resumes this week. ¥¥