Courtroom Drama, 2009
by Bruce McEwen, December 30, 2009
On a cold dark night last winter in Fort Bragg as a chill wind whistled ashore over the chop, the cops swept into the living rooms of some of the Coast’s most conspicuous personalities, including business proprietors, jazz musicians, political activists, accomplished artists, and even a poet or two received noisy visits. Whole tribes of “Fort Bragg Oddities,” a regional label of considerable distinction with T-shirts and hoodies available at some of the better Fort Bragg boutiques were searched and seized. This series of pot busts outraged the medical marijuana community and perhaps unnerved some of the rest of us.
As these prosperous and otherwise respectable folks paraded into the Ten Mile Court for arraignment in the following weeks, the indignation grew louder. They hissed and howled. I heard one man declaiming, “Where's Bruce Anderson when we need him! That dog!” A faded female flower child hissed. “You know how he is!”
Judge Jonathan Lehan knew many of these stylishly eccentric characters, personally, from long acquaintance. They are the backbone of his constituency, the progressive liberals of Mendocino County’s — and especially the Coast’s — dominant political persuasion; they had put him in office, and he enjoyed his eminence and emoluments at their pleasure.
My favorite lawyer, Tom Croak, had one waif-like creature as a client. I shall never forget her because the court waited all winter for her to appear. She could never quite make her appearance. It was on one of those afternoons when my journalistic peer, Cowboy Don Claybrook, was snoring comfortably in the pews. Peanut shells flecked his sweater. DA Meredith Lintott entered the courtroom, laid fond eyes on Don and embraced him as if he were love itself. The DA looked at me and her pretty mouth twisted into a silent snarl.
The judge said, “Is Ms. Lauren Vance here today, Mr. Croak?”
Mr. Croak said, “Your honor, it appears her dog went missing. She called an hour ago. She is exceedingly exasperated,” Croak remarked in his uniquely flat way.
Judge Lehan, an animal lover, flushed empathetically. “I understand,” he said. The judge had just heard the hair-raising story of a pit bull chasing a horseback rider on the Ten Mile Dunes, and another bloody yarn about some throwback fellows from Anderson Valley who'd taken a rogue pig in a vineyard after dark, taken the pig the old fashioned pig hunting way, which was to corner the animal with pig dogs, leap onto its back and cut its throat before it cut your throat with its tusks. Boonville men don't scope hunt pigs. They get up close and risky.
“Yes, yes,” Lehan said impatiently. “But when can we expect to see Ms. Vance?”
Months later, there was Ms. Vance in her long black braids and a tie-dye gown. So that's Lauren Vance. A date was set to set a date, in the way of the court, and I, totally smitten by the braided apparition, fell in love, but she never came back.
The rest of the pot cases dwindled until they disappeared into relatively painless resolutions conducive to Judge Lehan’s permanent re-election as judge of the Ten Mile Court. Pot people live here and they vote.
On a frigid dark night much like the night of the living cannabis, a gunshot reverberated through the hills east of Fort Bragg as Aaron Vargas shot dead his lifelong tormentor, Darrell McNeill. I was a resident of the Hospitality House at the time, and my cot was by the window, but I can't say I heard the report from the antique pistol with which Darrell McNeill's predations finally came to an end.
However, when the local “homeless community” came in for coffee and toast at 7 am, I heard the story. They said Vargas went to McNeill’s house and shot him, in front of his wife, Elizabeth McNeill, and then held her captive until he was sure the man was dead. Vargas then disassembled his cap and ball revolver, the murder weapon, and called the police.
It is widely understood in the Fort Bragg area that McNeill had sexually abused Vargas as a child and had continued to harass and annoy the young man ever since, even suggesting that Vargas’s son could be McNeill's next victim. The Vargas trial is set to begin early in the New Year.
At an emotional hearing in September, Vargas’s lawyer tried to get the young man's bail reduced to something the family could afford, but Assistant DA Beth Norman argued, successfully, that the bail, at $600,000, was already well below the recommended schedule for a charge of first degree murder, and that Vargas, who has a record of DUIs and other alcohol-related offenses, would continue to drink and drive, and perhaps commit new offenses if his bail were reduced to where he could get out of jail for a few months with his family before facing a trial that could very well end with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. McNeill’s wife Elizabeth attended the hearing in support of the shooter, but Judge Ron Brown denied bail reduction.
Another widespread and lucrative crime on the Mendocino Coast, apart of course from the homegrown weed trade, is abalone poaching.
During the first months of 2009, the court was still hearing abalone cases from '08, with poacher-defendants driving from as far away as Nevada to pay heavy fines for a variety of Fish and Game violations related to stealing the tasty, much-in-demand mollusk. So many people are stealing it that abalone could become an endangered species.
Warden Don Powers, forever vigilant on the headlands, has caught hundreds of these thieves, caught them in the act of sweeping the seas in the wet suits. One little girl from Nevada was nearly in tears and her poaching father was furious. But her granddaddy was really mad. He said to me outside the courthouse he had half a mind to never bring his family out here for vacation again! And he wrote something similar in a letter to the court. Judge Lehan smiled as he read it and wondered aloud, “Should I take that as a threat?”
Abalone diving brings a purported $6 million to the North Coast annually. The courts take in about $200,000 per month from poaching and all the other misdemeanors committed by our anarchic population supposing all the fines and fees get paid. The 11 poachers arrested at a Boonville checkpoint, and at the Seaside Motel in Fort Bragg last summer, are still in court, tying up a big sector of the Mendocino County Defense Bar reinforced by a half-dozen Korean Language interpreters who have to be flown in from L.A. for each hearing. The DA's latest offer to settle was $40,000. Each.
As the marijuana season got underway I moved inland to cover the County Courthouse in Ukiah which, over the summer, became a kind of international melting pot where representatives from many different nations and states were blended into a uniform orange, which is to say the orange uniform of the Mendocino County Jail. These were mostly multiple co-defendant drug-related cases; the numbers of co-defendants increased with as many as 38 getting busted on a vast discontiguous pot garden near Island Mountain deep in the Eel River Canyon. Sheriff Allman described as environmentally “obscene” with its irrigation systems feeding directly out of the battered Eel and its feeder streams. In that one, Italians, Spaniards, Bulgarians, and a polyglot catch of other globetrotters gave our previously insular pot season an international flavor with the entire cast of characters metaphorically ruled by an enigmatic young Chinese woman whose name translated as Ruler of Hell.
The Italian consulate in San Francisco sent sleekly tailored envoys up from the city to protect their pot growing countryman from the unpredictable consequences of Mendocino County's arbitrary judiciary.
Most of the United States were also represented in the summer's pot catch. Another 14 co-defendants — from New York, Pennsylvania and Georgia — were arraigned just last week. Are there big splashy ads in High Times Magazine that say, “Go to Mendocino County for vacation, grow weed and get rich”?
But getting busted or killed is also a real possibility in the love drug business, and I'm still waiting to see what becomes of the latest home invasion pot robbery that left Covelo's Robert Long — still alive! — shot between the eyes and his cohort also a victim of Attempted First Degree Murder. The three Los Angeles defendants in court last week were charged with possession of assault weapons, as well as shooting Mr. Long. They were appointed public defenders, pleading poverty, but they had the money to post bail and buy airline tickets home for the holidays, and good luck getting them back to court up here.
A defendant in another pot bust also needed a public defender, “and more time, your honor. I have to fly to Indonesia to make a documentary film.” Judge Nelson sympathized with this Mr. Lopiccolo's artistic ambitions, but suggested felony charges might interfere with his schedule.
Bailiff Kent Rogers was thoroughly disgusted. He told me a marine from 29 Palms had just got reamed for over $3,000 on a DUI because he didn't have a lawyer. Judge David Nelson was lenient with the marine, however. The kid won't have to go to the expensive DUI school until he gets back from Afghanistan.
A new record for speedy justice was set in a civil jury trial last week. A former lawyer named Bruce Spence was suing Umpqua Bank, the branch on State Street in Ukiah specifically. Spence argued that it was the bank's fault that a car exiting the bank's drive-up window hit him as he pedaled past on his bicycle. Landscaping bushes maintained by the bank had obscured the overall viewshed. The jury didn't agree. The door to the deliberation room had scarcely closed before the jury was back to deny Spence his victory. Apparently, Spence had also been cycling the wrong way on the sidewalk when Jessica Pomilia pulled out of the bank and collided with his bike. The shortest jury deliberation of the year! Less than a minute!
Judge Nelson was determined to let as many people out of jail for the holidays as he reasonably could. There had been some glitch in Carol Ann Bloyd's bail — it was argued that whatever money she might post bond with derived from drug sales. But Nelson resolved the matter and left her bail at $55,000 which she has since posted and is now at home in Philo until she goes to trial.
Ryan Ford was in for stealing food and drink from Safeway. Mr. Ford had dined at Safeway before, but Lake County wanted him for transgressions there. He couldn't be released until Lake County had decided whether or not to retrieve him from the Mendocino County Jail.
Ralph Ruiz, a homeless man from Willits, had been drinking in public. Thrice! If he would plea to one, Nelson said, he'd dismiss the other two and give him credit for time served. He could be back on the streets of Willits for Christmas — which is where I personally spent Christmas night of '08, watching my rain soaked clothes turn to ice.
The judge let Anderson Valley's Joe Martin out too, over the protests of the DA. Martin was in for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and drinking while on probation, not to mention a violation of Health & Safety Code 11550 — using meth. His underage girl friend's mother is also in jail. When she hit Martin over the head with a borrowed .357 to emphasize her displeasure at Martin's relationship with her daughter, the gun discharged, putting two large bullet holes in Martin's grandmother's car. Martin had also failed to register as a narcotics offender. He'd been referred to Drug Court, but failed to appear. The Deputy DA said, “He was OR'd over the People's objection on September 23rd and failed to appear again; he's had two grants of probation and there's absolutely nothing he's doing in compliance.” Martin's lawyer, Dan Haehl, said Martin was needed to help care for his adoptive father, David Meeks, of Navarro, who has cancer. “He helps his grandmother change the dressings on the lesions, your honor, and clean up the, uh” — “I don't need any more information, counsel. That'll be quite enough, thank you,” Nelson interrupted. He let Martin out but warned him his 140 days jail time would double if Deputy Walker had to come and get him. Martin's surrender date is January 5th, 2pm, clean and sober at the County Jail.
As this, my first year at the AVA, comes to a close and a new one begins, I would like to thank all those readers who have encouraged me in my work. It means a great deal to me. Thank you and happy new year.