Marijuana & Mayhem

by Bruce McEwen, February 3, 2010

The voice mail said: “This is Terry. Something happened… I might not see you for a while. Anyway, I’m glad you weren’t here and didn’t have to see it.”

Terry Cohen left that message on Jonathan Arnold’s voice mail. He’d been

Terry Cohen

calling Arnold and Tesha Bushnell’s cellphones every few minutes for over two hours. They lived in a trailer behind Terry Cohen's house.

Tesha Bushnell called 911.

The court tried to play the 911 tape but the playback machine didn't work.

Sergeant Michael Davis of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department was “first responder.” It was 8pm.

Davis has 13 years of salt in the two hash marks on his sleeve. He's seen things, but Davis wasn't quite sure what exactly he was looking at at 1485 Woodman, just off Woodland Creek Road, between Laytonville and Spy Rock Road, on September 23, 2008.

He found Terry Cohen, 59, on the ground in the front yard, his feet tangled in a folding chair. Cohen looked dead, but he wasn't drunk, but he was certainly in a deep sleep from pharmaceutical drugs of the obliviating type.

Backup arrived. Cohen stirred, mumbled something “incoherent” about shooting someone, and was promptly cuffed.

Sgt. Davis left Cohen with the backup deputies and went up the stairs into the house. He found a revolver sitting on a brown paper bag in the entryway. Another pistol, a semi-automatic, was on a chair in the next room. He went into the kitchen and found a 12-gauge shotgun in the middle of the floor. He went down the back stairs, searched an outbuilding, a trailer, went through a marijuana garden, and finally called from the corner of the house, “Ask him: 'Where’s this guy you shot?'”

The backup deputies called back: “He says, ‘At the base of the back stairs, under a tarp’.”

Under the tarp, Sgt. Davis found John Jason Piper, 38, with a gunshot wound behind his ear. And five more holes in him, head to toe.

Mr. Piper has been described as “a former roommate” of Mr. Cohen's.

Judge Ron Brown called a recess.

After lunch, the courtroom was packed with people in matching black T-shirts. The shirts had a picture of a man fishing at sunset and the words, “Larry B. King, always in our hearts.”

Larry B. King of Willits had been killed in a head-on collision by Valerie A. Williams. Valerie A. Williams was being sentenced for vehicular homicide. Judge Brown gave Valerie A. Williams 270 days in jail, 60 months probation, and 1500 hours community service. Valerie A. Williams would have to register as a narcotics offender and keep the court informed as to her whereabouts. Valerie A. Williams got off light.

A young man in a black T-shirt left in a furious huff, slamming his fist into the door as he went out.

Valerie A. Williams’ lawyer asked the judge to set the surrender date a couple of weeks in the future to allow Valerie A. Williams to make some arrangements before she went to jail.

Larry B. King remains dead.

Judge Brown said, “She's remanded into custody forthwith.”

Bailiff Karen Beaman unsnapped the handcuff case on her Sam Brown utility belt, deftly cuffed Valerie A. Williams, and sat Valerie A. Williams in the jury box to await transportation to jail.

* * *

Charged with first degree murder, Terry Cohen of North Laytonville, a hawk nosed man in an ill fitting suit jacket, walked back into the courtroom. He was not in custody.

Mr. Cohen seems to be a person of means. He was able to post bail, which had been put at $550,000. Cohen took a seat next to his lawyer, Katherine Elliott.

Detective Andy Whiteaker was called.

The prosecutor, Deputy DA Scott McMenomey, brandished a packet of C notes before Whiteaker.

“Do you recognize this?”

“Yes, I do. It's the US currency I removed from Mr. Cohen's right front pocket.”

Mr. McMenomey presented the witness with some smaller evidence bags.

“Do you recognize these?”

“Yes,” Sgt. Davis said. “That's the .45 shell casings found at the bottom of the stairs.”

“Now, Detective, if you'll turn your attention to the screen behind you and tell me what is depicted in the photograph on the screen...”

“Yes. That photo was taken by me and shows a bullet hole in a wall near the front entrance to the house.”

“And following the path of the bullet, shouldn't there have been a bullet hole in the front door?”

“Yes.”

“Did you find it?”

“I did not.”

DDA McMenomy then put a photo of a bloody torso on the screen with an ugly bullet hole near the rib cage.

He said, “Would this wound be consistent with someone crouching behind that wall, Detective?”

“Yes,” he said. “It would.”

He showed more pictures of blood found behind the wall and asked the detective to identify more .45 shell casings collected on the other side of the wall.

The deputies had also found processed bud and an undisclosed amount of cash.

Bailiff Beaman was handed a note from a juror. Ms. Beaman passed the note to the clerk who handed it to Judge Brown. Brown summoned the lawyers to the bench for a long, whispered discussion.

During this interlude I hurried across the hall to Judge Richard Henderson's court where a particularly vicious home invasion robbery trial was underway.

Judge Henderson was reading the charges to the jury. There were 14 felony counts and all manner of special allegations, including child endangerment, assault with deadly weapons, burglary, robbery, and the theft of the victim’s vehicles.

The home invaders had been armed with a taser, a gun and a fork, all of which they'd wielded to force the whereabouts of the weed and cash from the people invaded.

The defendant was at the defense table with his Spanish language interpreter and his public defender lawyer. He's large, squat, impassive. If he came at you with a fork, you might indeed be forked.

There was a commotion in the hall.

Marcos Escareno, who recently pled guilty to manslaughter at the Manchester Reservation, a shooting he'd carried out at age 14. He's spent the last three of his formative years in Mendocino County's Juvenile Hall.

Escareno was being ushered into Judge Brown's court to be sentenced, but there was a glitch, and the judge delayed it. Chief Deputy DA Jill Ravitch, who is running for DA of Sonoma County where she's raised more money than that county's incumbent DA, was unhappy with the delay. Ravitch said the dead man's aunt and uncle were present, having gone to considerable expense and trouble to attend.

“They want to see this go forward,” she said.

Brown said, “The defendant has the right to have his attorney explain to him what's in the report. I can't blame the defendant for that. You're asking me to reconsider?”

“They're asking for a two-week window so they can get time off work, your honor,” Ravitch said.

Escareno's attorney, Katherine Elliott wanted the 19th of February so her co-counsel could be there.

“Can't we have it on the 10th?” Ms. Ravitch asked.

Ms. Elliott said she would be out of town that day. Much to the consternation of the aunt and uncle, they agreed on the 19th.

Back in Judge Henderson' court, the home invasion case had resumed. Deputy DA, Brian Newman was making his opening statements to the jury.

“...The defendant grabbed Nicole Stanley by the hair, pulled her head around, showed her the stun-gun and shoved her into the bedroom with the children and a seventh member of the invasion force — who was called ‘Youngster.’ He stayed in the bedroom with Nicole and the children, guarding them, while the others ransacked the house, taking TVs, computers, cameras, and many other things — some never recovered. They then tied them up with duct tape and zipties and said if they called the cops the ‘Pelican’ — Mr. Fernandez, the defendant — and Company would be back to the home on Branscomb Road in Laytonville, for vengeance. The ‘Pelican’ & Co. then loaded their plunder into the Stanley's two vehicles and roared away to where they'd parked their own vehicles. Mr. Stanley got loose, rounded up a posse of neighbors and left in hot pursuit, while Nicole called 911...”

The Pelican looked on impassively.

Mr. Cohen's trial for murder had reconvened across the hall.

A man was testifying that he'd employed the deceased, Shawn Piper, in Glen Ellen. He said that Piper came to work for him when he had a falling out with Terry Cohen, after the marijuana harvest, that year, the week previous to his demise.

“Was Piper paid?”

“Yes. I paid him $400.”

“Did he tell you where he was going?”

“Yeah. He said he was going up to Spy Rock to get marijuana.”

“Did you ever see him with large amounts of money?”

“Yeah.”

“Ever see him with firearms?”

“No. No guns.”

“Where you present when he had a phone conversation with the defendant, Terry Cohen.”

“Yeah. I heard what he said, not what Terry said.”

“Where were you?”

“In Shawn's living room, in Glen Ellen”

“Did he tell you what Cohen said?”

“Yeah, he said — ”

“Objection, your honor. The testimony is hearsay.”

Eventually, the witness was allowed to repeat the hearsay. “Terry told Shawn if he ever came back he'd fucking kill him.”

On cross examination Ms. Elliott asked, “So Shawn was living in Glen Ellen after leaving Spy Rock — what you understood as the general area of Spy Rock — and you've never been there, you said. Did he tell you what he did before?”

“Yeah. He said he made his living buying marijuana in the Spy Rock area and selling it in San Diego. He said he'd been doing that for about ten years.”

“But he did tell you he'd recently purchased a gun, didn't he?”

“Yeah.”

“That's all I have for now, your honor. But I would like the witness to be available for further questions.”

Judge Brown turned to McMenomey. Re-direct, counsel?”

“Just one question, your honor. What kind of gun did Shawn buy?”

“A .20 gauge shotgun.”

Judge Brown let the witness step down with the admonition that he was to speak to no one about the case and remain available for further examination.

Tesha Bushnell, who lived on Cohen's property, and the lady who'd called 911, was called.

She testified that at the time of the shooting she'd been living behind the defendant's house in a motor home with her fiancee, Jonathan Arnold.

The DDA asked, “Were you growing marijuana, you and your fiance?”

“Yes, we were.”

Judge Brown stopped the proceedings and called the lawyers to the bench. The jury was sent away. The witness had just incriminated herself and her significant other in open court. Linda Thompson, the Public Defender arrived to protect the witness from her own candor.

An alternate public defender was required for Jonathan Arnold. The court clerk was on the phone, trying to reach alternate public defenders Robinson or Schlosser. Jokes were mumbled that the alternate public defenders had been delayed at a neighborhood bar.

Arnold was brought in and advised of the legal danger he was in from his girl friend's statement that they were in the pot business. He waived any conflict and Ms. Thompson agreed to represent them both. It would take some time, however. The Public Defender wanted the DA's assurances of immunity for the witnesses in writing. I folded my notebook and went to the bar, looking for the lawyers to inform them they'd missed a client.

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