Blood on the Tracks

by Bruce McEwen, February 24, 2010

The murder trials are piling up at the Mendocino County Courthouse almost as fast as the bodies are.

The sentencing of Marcos Escareno was rescheduled for March 5th. Escareno was 13, maybe 14, and drunk, when he pulled the trigger on a drug dealer named Enoc Cruz at the Manchester rez. The kid has spent the past three of his formative years in the Mendocino County Juvenile Hall, having traded his youth for the life of Mr. Cruz.

“Mr. Escareno,” as the boy is referred to by the Court, has been locked up for 1,200 days, and he’s looking at 12 more years in close, very close, custody. Persistent talk in Point Arena says the actual shooter was an adult male who owed Cruz drug money, but when the police arrived Escareno was so drunk he was unable to stand for his interrogation and was in no condition to testify as to what had happened.

Alleged murderer Terry Cohen attempted suicide twice last week, just as the jury deliberated his fate. Cynics say Cohen, who has not been in custody after shooting Sean Piper to death near Laytonville in September of 2008, is over-dosing on his prescription pain meds to get a mistrial declared. But smiley faces say Cohen's so overcome with remorse he wants to kill himself. Pragmatists say at age 60 Cohen simply can't bear the thought of spending his golden years in jail.  A person of resources, Mr. C has been free on $500,000 bail. The prosecution wants the jury to bring in the verdict regardless of Cohen's medical state.

Mr. Cohen emptied two guns into Sean Piper, his erstwhile housemate. Mr. Piper was an enterprising and seemingly successful young weed broker from San Diego. Cohen says it was self-defense, but there were 11 bullet holes in Mr. Piper, one of them in the back of Mr. Piper's head, the rest of them fired from the front, and draw your own conclusions from that. The jury is supposed to hear more arguments from both the prosecution and the defense in hopes of reaching a verdict. Judge Brown ruled the proceedings would resume Monday whether or not Cohen was able to appear. Two-Gun Terry's self-induced medical coma was found to be an absence of his own volition, and his time is up even if he's still on life support.

Mr. Cohen's trial had already overlapped with the case against Alva Reeves and Brandon Pinola, which could no longer be postponed because the case of Aaron Vargas is due, and Philip Frase was indicted for murder last week, too.

Murder is backed up to overflowing in Mendocino County.

Aaron Vargas shot Darrell McNeill to death at McNeill's home near Fort Bragg, putting an emphatic end to McNeill’s long career of abusing small boys. The date for the trial has come and gone twice in recent months as the matter attracts much outside attention, most recently in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle where it was featured on the front page.

Philip Frase was on last Tuesday’s arraignment calendar, charged with killing Steven Schmidt, his former housemate. Mr. Schmidt was dispatched by means of repeated hammer blows to his head. This event also occurred in the Laytonville area.

All of these murders, except perhaps the Escareno case, involve one man turning on another, an other known to him.

The co-defendants in the grisly murder of Gerald Knight are Mr. Reeves and Mr. Pinola. The deceased and the two defendants are Indians, their shared lineage not having prevented either the killing or subsequent placement of blame.

Mr. Reeves and Mr. Pinola are pointing at each other but they are accused jointly of stomping Knight to death and opening his jugular with a handy shard of glass. It all happened in broad daylight on the rusty old abandoned railroad tracks near Perkins Street in Ukiah. Mr. Knight may also have been sodomized at some point in the festivities, and it's fair to say that there have been more dignified departures in Ukiah, even on the railroad tracks, Ukiah's roistering site for the drinking and drugging segment of the “homeless community.”

Messrs Knight and Reeves were formerly an “item,” as their relationship has been chastely characterized, and Reeves was supposedly also homicidally enraged over an infidelity involving a woman. The romantic lives of the railroad  track people can be as complicated as those of the nice people obliviously shopping nearby at the Pear Tree Center.

Pinola says Reeves stomped Knight’s skull and cut his throat. Reeves, Pinola says, then followed Pinola to the Forest Club for a post-mortem drink where he boasted about the murder to patrons at the bar.

Reeves says Pinola did it. Reeves' defense says he's incapable of homicidal-type “malice” because of a previous head injury and his debilitated mental condition therefrom, although he shot and killed his brother some years back and, about ten years ago, was acquitted of another murder.

But, hell, nobody's perfect.

All three men had been drinking, which is to minimize their likely state of intoxication. This thing didn't go down after each had sipped a single afternoon Mimosa.

Mr. Reeves’ lawyer, Berry (sic) Robinson, produced a witness who had seen Pinola put the non-lethal boots to another victim down on the old tracks. “Knocked him down and did a little dance. It kind of reminded me of Cassius Clay,” the witness stated. “Then he kicked him four or five times,” said the witness.

“Nothing further,” Mr. Robinson said, the image of the triumphant Ali Shuffle over the dead man lingering, vivid ,in the courtroom.

The DA’s lead prosecutor, Jill Ravitch, rose to  question the Ali Shuffle witness.

“You say you were 15 to 20 feet away — but you weren’t able to get a visual of the victim?”

“I think I chose not to,” the man stated tentatively. “Besides,” he added, “he was laying face down.”

Ravitch showed the witness a picture of the late Mr. Gerald Knight and asked the witness if he recognized it.

“No,” the witness said. “My memory is not as good as it used to be,” the witness added apologetically. “I’ve noticed that for the past few years.”

Brandon Pinola’s lawyer, the elegantly named Public Defender Ferris Purviance III, said this port-mortem identification was not relevant or timely, but Judge Brown later ruled that it was relevant, having occurred not all that long ago.

Another witness, described by Ravitch as “a jailhouse snitch,” was waiting to testify that Brandon Pinola confessed to the murder to a cellmate after he was arrested.

The next day, Alva Reeves’ expert witness appeared. A learned fellow with an academic pedigree in the more arcane theories of criminal psychology, Dr. Kertcher expounded on Reeves' alleged “dementia.” The upshot of the doctor's testimony was that defendant Reeves was “too grossly impaired to form a speculative mental state, to plan something and carry it out.”

We all wondered how much planning goes into a  drunk stomp?

“How does this diagnosis correspond to malice,” Robinson asked his expert witness, “the intent to kill?”

Ms. Ravitch said malice was a matter for the jury to decide. She then asked the doctor about his bona fides, if he were board certified, if his peers checked his work product.

“No,” the doctor confessed, he was not board certified. He explained that his specialty was not of the type that could be evaluated by peers.

Ravitch wanted to know if the doctor had considered his patient’s criminal record. “I did,” the doctor said.

“And when you did your interview, your three-hour interview…”

“Actually,” the doctor interrupted, perhaps in order to justify both his bill and the thoroughness of the exam, “I spent about six hours with him.”

A fire truck and ambulance blared past outside on State Street, obliterating the next few statements with sirens and air horns. As the commotion receded, the doctor was saying he didn’t think Reeves’ lengthy criminal history was relevant.

“I mean his anti-social behavior,” Ravitch urged.

“Well, I know for instance, that he shot his brother. He’s been to prison. I know this from what he told me. And about his issues with substance abuse. He and his mother told me about his anti-social acts as an adolescent, his stay at a group home and repeated arrests for substance abuse.”

Ms. Ravitch asked, “So who makes the determination of impairment?”

“I do,” the doctor said authoritatively.

Ravitch asked, “Were you given an article titled 'Homicide, The Lack of Malice, And California’s Changing Homicide Laws' by Mr. Robinson?”

“Uh, no. No, I don’t believe I was.”

But the doctor's expertise was urgently required in Santa Rosa and he was allowed to step down.

After a recess, Ravitch said she wasn’t going to object to the doctor’s qualifications. As for the defendant Reeves' “specific intent,” she said it was “for the jury to decide, not the doctor.”

And, Ravitch noted, “The witness expands on any number of things when he testifies, whereas legally, he can only testify as to his expertise, and I object to him reciting medical opinions in his testimony.”

The judge agreed, as did Mr. Robinson, who said he'd be more careful in framing his questions.

The next order of business was a motion to try the defendants separately. Mr. Robinson had two modes of defense for his client, Mr. Reeves: First, pointing the cold finger of guilt at Pinola, the second, the argument that Reeves was too far out there, mentally, to go about killing anybody.

Robinson said kicking a man when he was down was Pinola's “signature,” not Reeves'. There was blood on Pinola's shoes, and bloody footprints from those shoes on the victim's clothes.

But Brandon Pinola had a female witness who could testify that the incriminating shoes were not Pinola's, but belonged to Reeves. It was Reeves' lawyer who argued to have the defendants tried separately. But Pinola's lawyer, Mr. Robinson, seemed indifferent to trying them separately, and Jill Ravitch was dead set against it. Ravitch was certain that Pinola and Reeves had killed Mr. Gerald Knight's death as a team and she intended to prove it.

Later, when Ravitch walked into the Forest Club, I nearly dropped my drink. I'd never seen officers of the court in my favorite refuge despite what the court gossips assume quite audibly to the contrary.

Ravitch was there because she had a video CD from the Forest Club's surveillance system; I'd never noticed the cameras, but now I spotted three of them. Ravitch asked Leah, the barmaid, if she could speak to the owner. The owner's son Raymond obliged her. Shortly, Ray Senior came out and the party further along the big barroom to the area presently being remodeled.

The next day I asked owner Raymond what was up. He said the gent in the suit had apparently been some kind of artist because they wanted to make sketches. He'd told Ravitch that the Forest Club place probably didn't look the same since he and his father had been remodeling ever since they'd bought it, which was well after Knight had been killed.

The Forest Club is looking better than ever under the new owners. There's new doors and fresh trim, a professional paint job, polished hardwood flooring, leather sofas, coffee tables, a digital jukebox, and half a dozen digital widescreen TVs visible from almost any vantage point. Unfortunately perhaps for the DA's purposes, the place, vibe and all, has changed.

The motion to try Pinola and Reeves separately was ultimately denied, as was the idea — I forget whose — for two juries. Jury selection was set to begin Monday, two weeks late.

Blood on the Sheets

Dennis Day

There were a great many sentencings and judgments last week. Almost all of these were continued, for one reason or another, but Dennis Day of Fort Bragg was right on time for a prison express bus to San Quentin. Dennis, who'd worked as a sandwich maker at the Fort Bragg Safeway, had finally hit bottom, his lawyer said, but was ready to turn his life around, and it might be time to put that particular promise permanently to rest. “My client, your honor, was turning his life around…” But his wheels locked, I guess, midway in his u-turn. Turning his life around has achieved mantra status.

Unfortunately for Dennis Day, and doubly unfortunate for her, Dennis had raped a former friend's 13 year-old daughter as he turned his life around, and she and her family wanted him locked up for a long time.

Judge Richard Henderson might have considered a sentencing amelioration of Day’s recent history of stolen cars, random vandalism and physical assaults, but to go into a home where he was trusted and welcome, and use his physical dominance and presumed eminence as the child's father's friend, to satisfy a few minutes of his own pleasure, the judge said, was, well, just too much.

The victim's mother and father each made a statement to the court, calling for the maximum sentence. Then an officer of the court read a statement written by the victim. All three statements attested to Dennis Day's terrible impact on their lives. The girl's mother said the whole family was permanently scarred.

Facing the husky and seemingly unmoved Day where he stood in his orange jumper in the jury box she said, “How could you do this to us after all we've done for you?” The girl's father told how the girl now came crying to him deep in the night, unable to sleep.

The victim's advocate lady read the girl's statement about how Fort Bragg oafs now hooted and whistled at her as she walked to school, this shame and abuse waiting  for her whenever she ventured into public.

James Griffiths, Day's attorney, said something about Day himself having been abused as a child, igniting some commotion between the respective parties in the gallery. The prisoner sitting next to Day bowed up to promise to get Day, and if they hadn't been shackled and cuffed there would have been mayhem.

Dennis Day looked straight at me and mouthed the words, “I'll get you, motherfucker!” I've written about his exploits before, and he knows me from his Fort Bragg Safeway sandwich days where I was a frequent customer. He made great sandwiches.

But the man standing behind me (it was standing room only), was the victim’s father. The father shouted, “Did you see that! That fucker just threatened me! God damn you, Dennis Day,” the father howled in rage. There was a smattering of applause at this denunciation of Day, but Judge Henderson put an end to all of it before the courtroom got any more out of hand.

Deputy DA Heidi Larson used this break in the disorder to remind the court what Dennis had said to the cops when they busted him: “That little bitch wanted it…”

“No remorse, your honor,” Ms. Larson said. “He tried to blame the victim,” Larson added with sing-song disgust. “In all these cases, he's always made the victim out to be the culprit. But the fact is, Mr. Day is an opportunist. Whatever he wants, he takes. He steals other people's cars, smashes things up, hits people… He's frankly out of control.”

“Mr. Day,” the judge began, “what you did was disgusting. What you basically did was reprehensible. You overpowered the girl with your age, your strength, and the trust you'd been given. But what particularly worries me is that you seem to have no remorse. Your attitude toward the victim and her family, those who trusted you... Well, based on the circumstances of this case, and the ten previous convictions over the course of a mere four years, I do not think you are a suitable candidate for probation. In fact, you've done very poorly on probation. I’m going to impose the mid-term of six years in the state prison.”

There was some discussion about the credit for jail time Day had already served, and all the while the prisoner who had promised to get Day was watching him with a cold smile. His name was Peter Gunn and he would be doing three years himself for stealing 1,000 gallons of gasoline from an underground storage tank.

It is generally understood that child molesters have a rough time in the pen, and it was plain that Mr. Gunn would do what he could to make it known inside that an unrepentant baby raper was on the way.

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