Getting Away With It

by Bruce Anderson, September 3, 2008

In recent months, the Mendocino County District Attorney has prosecuted a Fort Bragg man for saving a mountain lion cub, put a Little River man in jail for tidying up a State Parks trail, ruined a Potter Valley teacher with false charges of molestation, let a couple of confirmed wife beaters go, confiscated the property of several alleged drug traffickers before they'd even gone to trial, refused to prosecute two politically friendly County supervisors for their obvious thefts of public funds and, now, has done everything short of apologizing to an animal torturer whose prosecution her office botched from start to pathetic finish.

James "Jimmy" Denoyer is the latest beneficiary of disarray in the District Attorney's Office. He'll get four of the 36 horses the county seized from Denoyer when they were discovered starving and near death in the shin-deep mud of two pastures near Westport three winters ago.

Last year, Denoyer hung a jury. This year, the DA gave up. The DA said there was no point in trying Denoyer a second time, claiming that some witnesses had "disappeared" so a second prosecution would likely fail.

Some witnesses had indeed disappeared. They're probably buried in the wooded vastness lying between Westport and Laytonville.

But the DA ignored living witnesses with incriminating evidence who did come forward but who weren't called to testify against Denoyer in his first trial, let alone contacted to testify against him in a second.

In dismissing all but one charge against the Westport building contractor and pot farmer, now a resident of Lake County, Judge Henderson said he "had to believe" that Denoyer had learned from what Henderson characterized as a "mistake" — one misdemeanor count of leaving a horse carcass within 100 feet of a road.

That mistake was Denoyer's 37th consecutive documented error. He appears to be a slow learner, and Judge Henderson an infinitely optimistic teacher.

Denoyer's 36 other mistakes were rescued before they could die in the mud of his 20-acre Westport ranch like number 37.

One spectator at Wednesday's hearing said Denoyer's courtroom demeanor was "smug," that "it seemed difficult for him to say 'guilty' to even the one charge."

Prosecutor Katherine Houston, the spectator said, "seemed deflated, like she had given up."

The DA had given up, and they'd botched the first case — 36 counts of felony animal abuse — in as many ways as it's possible to botch a case. The DA had been trying to plea bargain with Denoyer ever since that trial last year when the jury was convinced by Denoyer's attorney, Stephen Turer of Santa Rosa, that it was Denoyer's caretakers who'd failed to care for his horses, not Denoyer, not the owner of the horses, not the man responsible for buying their feed, for paying their vet bills.

Denoyer said he was in the Lake Tahoe area taking care of his ill mother when his horses were found starving that Christmas.

The DA couldn't find a rebuttal for that one, or any other of the childishly transparent claims Denoyer made through his attorney, the glib Turer, paid for by Denoyer's wealthy family, and one more example that in Mendocino County you get the defense you pay for.

None of the casually maligned caretakers were called to testify at Denoyer's one and only trial, although at least two were eager to appear. They filed affidavits claiming that Denoyer did not buy feed for the animals or provide the caretakers with the money to buy feed for his horses.

How could the caretakers do their jobs when the boss didn't do his?

Prosecutor Houston went along with Denoyer's characterization of his employees as "transients" and "unreliable" and "marginal."

Lisa Hodanish's father and brother worked as caretakers for Denoyer. Mrs. Hodanish's brother Ryan survived the experience. Her father didn't. He hasn't been seen since he ran afoul of Denoyer.

"My brother is not a lost witness," Lisa Hodanish insists. "He sent to the DA in March of 2008 a notarized statement of the horse abuse that he had first hand knowledge of Denoyer committing because my brother lived on his property for three years and worked with Denoyer. The statement also included why we think Denoyer is responsible for my dad's disappearance."

JC Cavanaugh is a second senior citizen associated with Denoyer to go missing. Cavanaugh was Denoyer's uncle, and a long-time horseman who'd come out from Illinois to help his nephew with his horses. He hasn't been seen since he refused to stop insisting that Denoyer feed and care for his emaciated herds.

Property belonging to the two missing men was found on Denoyer's starving horse ranch near Westport. The police brought cadaver dogs to the denuded twenty acres to search for Neily and Cavanaugh, but no trace of them was found.

The Mendocino County Sheriff's Department regards Denoyer as the sole suspect in their disappearances. Both men were in their late 60s.

Denoyer will get four of his horses back when he pays the County of Mendocino $5,000 for their care. Predictably, he's contesting that fee. Denoyer has, however, agreed that every three months, a veterinarian of his choosing will examine the four returned animals, and that the County of Mendocino can inspect the horses twice a year with a veterinarian of their choosing. The mistake-prone Denoyer will also be on probation, and can't own more than four horses at a time. Judge Henderson ordered the defendant to take classes in horse care.

Denoyer's attorney, Stephen Turer told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that Denoyer "didn't like the idea of pleading guilty to anything, but he's happy to have his horses back."

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