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by Tim Stelloh, February 24, 2010
That’s what caused the argument between Robert Forest and Stanley Douglass one November afternoon three years ago. They were in downtown Fort Bragg, and Forest was walking from a coffee shop back toward the bar where, earlier, he’d had a couple drinks and where he’d parked his motorcycle. Douglass was walking along Franklin Street. They met. They scuffled. And that’s when Forest, then 54, removed a .32 pistol from his pocket and aimed at Douglass, then 26.
That much is clear.
How that scuffle lead to a federal lawsuit filed Dec. 21 claiming a former Fort Bragg cop had altered police documents, thus causing Forest’s “wrongful and malicious” prosecution in the same case, is another story.
Which we’ll get to.
First, a bit more on that cigarette. How the argument happened is still up for debate: According to police reports, Forest said he was walking back from Headlands Cafe when Douglass, who’s black, approached him, grabbed him, demanded a cigarette. Forest told police that Douglass had said he was a gangbanger and that he’d rough Forest up. Forest also said he felt threatened, so he got his pistol — for which he had a concealed weapons permit (that would later be suspended).
Douglass put it differently. He told the cops that he was walking past the bar, saw Forest and asked him for a cigarette. An argument followed, so Douglass started walking away — which is when Forest grabbed him and pulled out the gun. A witness provided police — and later the DA — with a version of events that more or less matched Douglass’s. The police arrested Forest (who, it turned out, had been convicted 20 years earlier for carrying a concealed, loaded weapon), charged him with assault with a deadly weapon and forwarded the case to the DA’s office.
Which is when things got weird.
About a month after the incident, Forest’s arresting officer sent an e-mail to recently hired Police Chief Mark Puthuff. The report had apparently been changed: Words had been rephrased. Conversations the officer never had had been inserted. Paragraphs where Forest described his side of the scuffle had been deleted.
“I was working on the supplement you had requested on this case, and when I began to re-read my (4 page) supplement to refresh my memory, I realized that it had been altered. No, I’m not kidding, it has literally been changed,” wrote the officer, Sgt. Brandon Lee. “I found some paragraphs inserted that I never put in there, and then found some missing as well. This is pretty typical fro [sic] FBPD. Anyway, I am sending you this e-mail to let you know that I printed a copy of my supplement, with highlighted sections where the narrative had been changed or deleted. I find this very disturbing, because íf I had not taken the time to review it, I never would have known it was like that.”
In the margins of the report, Lee scrawled comments noting which sections had been altered. “This is garbage,” he wrote at the top of the report, “and I would not testify to this under oath that I wrote this!”
Meanwhile, the DA’s office was proceeding with the case — though shortly after Lee sent that e-mail, prosecutor Tim Stoen learned of the problems at the police department. He learned that Lee had accused a veteran supervisingofficer, Lt. Floyd Higdon, of altering the report, according to court documents.
Forest, who once worked with Higdon as a reserve officer, had “professional and personal disagreements” with the lieutenant. The day Forest was arrested and booked, those differences were apparently on full display: Forest promptly asked if Higdon was the officer who’d ordered his arrest. (He was). “I should’ve known,” he told the arresting officer, Brandon Lee. When Lee asked if Forest could post bail in Fort Bragg, Higdon “insisted” that he be moved to Ukiah instead.
Shortly after these problems began, Higdon retired. He’d been on the force 25 years. He then left Mendo altogether for Merced in the Central Valley, where he’s now a police commander; he’d been “recruited” by former Fort Bragg police chief Russ Thomas, he said. Higdon declined to comment on the charges, except to say he’d deny them and that he didn’t alter anything.
Problems dogged the DA’s case against Forest, however, and in January 2008, District Attorney Meredith Lintott dropped the charges against him. Nowhere in her decision did she mention the problems with Higdon and Lee; she simply said a conviction was not probable.
Tim Stoen, the prosecutor, still maintains that he would have gotten a guilty verdict if his boss had stuck it out. At the time, he made sure Fort Bragg PD knew how he felt.
“It seemed obvious to me that this conflict within the department was causing it to reverse position on the desirability of prosecuting Robert Forest despite the ‘firearm seriousness’ of the charge’,” he said, according to court documents. “At the preliminary hearing the defendant’s first attorney stated in open court that the new chief of police [Mark Puthuff] himself had gone so far as to tell him — the defense attorney! — that Lieutenant Higdon had poisoned the reports in this case,” Stoen said. “After working for seven different elected District Attorneys, I cannot recall a single instance where the internal quarrels within a law enforcement department created a similar attempt to impugn the integrity of an ongoing prosecution.”
That “poison” is one of the central claims in Forest’s federal case. So are the “disagreements.”
Nevertheless, the attorney representing Higdon — along with the city of Fort Bragg and the Fort Bragg Police Department, which are also named in the suit — said she’s confident they’ll win. “We believe the complaint to be unfounded and expect that will be the ultimate outcome,” said the lawyer, Nancy Delaney.
Donald Kilmer, Forest’s attorney, said a tentative agreement has been reached in the case, although details are yet to be worked out.
To see the documents behind this story, visit Tim’s blog, Flypaper.
Jonah Owen-Lamb contributed to this story.