‘And You Pour Him A Beer?’
by Bruce McEwen, March 10, 2010
I caught hell Monday from the tribal women in court every day for the murder trial of Alva Sonny Reeves and Brandon Pinola. The picture we ran with last week's story was not Alva Reeves. The boys in this newspaper's composition room put up a photo of a man named Danny Alva Reeves thinking it was Sean Alva Reeves, defendant. Apologies for the error, ladies, but no apologies for describing Brandon Pinola as “homeless.” He was described in court as homeless although the tribal women say he lives with his mother and grandmother.
When Judge Ron Brown, looking quite dour, entered the courtroom last week as the trial resumed, no one stood up. “All rise” doesn't seem to apply at the County Courthouse, Ukiah, but at Ten Mile Court in Fort Bragg presided over by The Honorable Jonathan Lehan, “The Great Oz” or “Let 'Em Go Lehan” as he's variously known by the Coast's defendant community, the old customs are observed. In Ukiah, the consequences are more dire, formalities less consequent.
The defendants in the Murder One case — a particularly brutal killing accompanied by sexual implications so sordid they could make a monk out of Larry Flynt — are two Indians, Alva Reeves and Brandon Pinola. Reeves and Pinola are accused of killing a third Indian, Gerald Knight with whom, it seems, Reeves had been romantically involved.
All three men had been drinking. In the context of the Ukiah railroad tracks, drinking usually means drinking to oblivion. But murder came first that day.
There were a good many Indians at the trial, mostly women in smart black suits, but only white people sat on the jury. The lawyers are white, as is Judge Brown. One could say that the more Mendocino County changes the more it stays the same.
One juror, a pastor, had once known defendant Brandon Pinola's mother. The prosecutor, Jill Ravitch, wanted the pastor off the jury. Judge Brown said he'd take the request to remove the man “under advisement.” Having satisfied himself that the relationship of Mrs. Pinola and the pastor was unlikely to interfere with the pastor's objectivity, Brown decided the pastor would remain a juror.
Mom, Karen Pinola, was called to testify. She said her son had come home the night of the murder and gone straight to bed. Shortly thereafter, Alva Reeves showed up at her door, looking for Brandon. She told Alva that Brandon was asleep and Alva left. The next morning the cops came looking for Brandon because Brandon had been seen at the Forest Club bar the night before washing blood off his shoes. Brandon had then hidden the incriminating shoes in a storage shed at his mother's home, and when a detective found them Brandon said the shoes belonged to Alva Reeves. Brandon's mother knew better, and advised her son to admit the shoes were his.
Brandon Pinola himself took the stand. A big, open-faced kid still in his early twenties, Brandon was no match for prosecutor Ravitch.
Brandon said he was down at the tracks drinking beer with Alva “Sonny” Reeves and Gerald “Gerry” Knight. He said Sonny and Gerry were arguing.
Brandon's lawyer, Farris Purviance, asked Pinola how he would characterize the argument.
“It was getting violent,” Pinola said.
“Was it still light out?”
“A little bit, Pinola said, “but the sun was down. Then Gerry got up and started putting things in his pack, getting ready to leave. Sonny came up with something in his hand and hit him hard in the face.”
“What did Knight do?”
“He stumbled and fell to the ground, and Sonny kept going at him. Sonny dropped down on him and kept punching him in the face.”
Alva Sonny Reeves, a look of severe disapproval on his face, murderous disapproval perhaps, watched Pinola testify.
“You expected to see a fight, didn't you? Hadn't Reeves told you he was going to kick Knight's ass?”
“Yeah, I did. But not like this. The guy went wacko, man.”
“Did you try to stop it?”
“Yeah, I did. I grabbed his shirt and tried to pull him off, but I dunno, he like threw my arm back, and wouldn't stop.”
“Did you try a second time to stop him?”
“Yeah, I got him in a choke hold, but he threw his elbow and leaned back and made me let go. He's a lot tougher than me; I'm not that big.”
Pinola and Reeves are about the same size, and are both stout.
“Did you do anything else?”
“Did you think you could stop it?”
“What did you do?”
“I started walking away. I didn't want to see any more.”
“Did you go for help?”
“No. I was out on bail and wasn't supposed to be drinking.”
“Where were you going?”
“To the bar.”
“To drink more? Why not go for help?”
“I was scared, man.”
“Did you look back?”
“Yeah. By that time, he'd flipped the guy over, and pulled his head back. Then he made a cutting motion at the guy’s throat.”
The “he” referred to, Alva Sonny Reeves, squeezed the pen he clutched like he wished it was Brandon Pinola's neck.
“At any time,” Purviance asked, “did you ever strike or kick Mr. Knight?”
“Did you try to help him?”
“Then you went to the bar.”
“You told Detective Guzman that you went home.”
“I was scared. I thought just because I was there I'd get blamed for something I didn't do.”
“When you went to the bar, was Sonny with you?”
“Right behind me. I only saw what was in front of me. I didn't really notice him.”
“When you went to the bar did you notice anything?”
“Yeah. I had blood on my shoes, so I went to the bathroom to clean my shoes.”
“Where was Sonny?”
“He went to the sink to wipe his hand off.”
“Did someone come in, a Mr. David McCarty? Do you remember what he said?”
“Yeah, he said, You guys look like you been in a fight.”
“And what did you say?”
“I said he kicked the shit out of him.”
McCarty's testimony had been that Pinola said, “We kicked the shit out of him,” and had demonstrated the kicking the shit out of Knight with a kicking motion.
Mr. Purviance himself had slipped into street talk, a long fall from the Trollopian associations of his name, conjuring exquisitely mannered English lords and ladies languidly chatting at 19th century garden parties.
“As for this he-we shit — I meant the issue of whether he said he or we — you thought he said we — but he could have said he?”
McCarty said it could have been he, could have been we. Chief Deputy DA Jill Ravitch went right for Pinola's throat.
“You lied to your mother, you lied to your grandmother, you lied to Detective Guzman, and you lied to the other detective. But today you're asking us to believe you?”
“Yeah,” Pinola said.
“You said you were afraid to go to the police because you were out on bail for beating up some stranger, the old man you know near the trailer park on Mason Street. You just beat him up, and when he went to the ground you started kicking him. If they hadn't dragged you off, you would have killed him, wouldn't you?”
“No. No, somebody pulled me off.”
“You had to be tazered, didn't you? And then you tried to spit on the officer. And this guy, this old man, he had broken ribs, too, didn't he, just like Gerald Knight?”
Brandon Pinola had just been buried, but Ravitch wasn't through shoveling.
She took Pinola back to the bar, where he'd gone to clean his shoes.
“Then what did you do?”
“I ordered a pitcher of beer.”
“Where did you get the money?”
“It doesn't matter where I got it. I just had it.”
“You told Detective Guzman you didn't have any money. Isn't that why you went to drink free beer at the tracks? How much did you have?”
“I don't know, 60, maybe 70 bucks.”
“Today's the first time you told anybody you had 60 to 70 dollars, isn't it?”
“You told Detective Guzman you had a buck and you bought a bag of chips. That 60 to 70 dollars, that's what Mr. Knight had, isn't it?”
“I don't know.”
“You heard the testimony, didn't you?”
Cheryl Sanders had testified that she gave Knight $50 and her friend gave him $20 shortly before he was murdered. When Knight was found with his pockets turned inside out, the money was gone.
“So when Alva Reeves told you to come down to the tracks, he said there was going to be a fight, didn't he?”
“You like fights, don't you?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Gerald Knight never had a chance, did he?”
“You were there until he stopped moving, weren't you?”
“Was he dead?”
“You didn't even care, did you? See that photo?” Ravitch pointed to the photo of Knight the way the cops had found him, dead, half-naked, sprawled in a blood pool, and said, “That's what you walked away from, isn't it?”
“Then you went to the Forest Club and bought a beer. You weren't afraid of Alva, were you? You're just telling us that today because you're afraid you're going to get into trouble right here. The truth is, you were there when Gerald Knight was killed, weren't you?”
“Yes, I guess so.”
“You didn't admit that to anybody until today, did you?”
“No further questions,” Ravitch concluded, having put Brandon Pinola in prison for a very long time.
A reporter seated next to me said, “She's good, isn't she!”
If you're given to euphemism, you could say that Alva Sonny Reeves already had major areas of concern before Brandon Pinola took the witness stand. Those areas of concern now seemed continental, if not global.
The DA had shown a video of Alva Reeves talking to another man at the Forest Club after he and Pinola had met McCarty in the bathroom. This man was Aaron Wear. Mr. Wear and a friend had visited the Forest Club after a day's fishing at Lake Mendocino. Alva Reeves approached Wear and said he'd just killed someone on the tracks.
“What did you do?” Ravitch asked Mr. Wear.
“I got him a beer. I asked my friend to pour him a beer.”
“A total stranger tells you he just killed someone and you pour him a beer?”
“I, uh, thought he was joking.”
“So you got him a beer?”
“Yeah. There's lots of crazy people in there, saying lots of crazy things.”
“Then what did Mr. Reeves do?”
“He walked away.”
“Did you see him again?”
“Not until I talked to the police.”
“When was that?”
“The next day I was going to work and saw all the police down at the railroad tracks. They were still there when I went home for lunch, so I went over and talked to Detective Guzman.”
The trial is set to resume Monday, when Alva Reeves' lawyer, Alternate Public Defender Berry Robinson, will call an expert witness to present evidence that Reeves suffers brain damage so severe he literally doesn't know what he's doing. Mr. Robinson got Reeves acquitted of murder charges before. Maybe he can do it again.
* * *
Marcos Escareno was sentenced last Friday to 10 years, having pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the shooting death of Enoch Cruz four and a half years ago. After credit for time served in Mendocino County’s Juvenile Hall, Escareno do another five and a half more years, according to his lawyer Katherine Elliott.
The victim's aunt and uncle wanted the maximum sentence, but the plea arrangement only called for the mid-term sentence, which is what Judge Brown imposed. Ms. Elliott said Escareno, who had been tried as an adult, probably would have gotten more time if he'd been tried as a juvenile.
Tony Serra and Omar Figueroa, Elliott's co-counsel were both present, and Mr. Figueroa stayed around after the others left. He had some questions for Special Agent Peter Hoyle about one of his client’s marijuana which, Hoyle said, had to be destroyed because it constituted a fire hazard.
Special Agent Hoyle said he thought 50 pounds was probably a fair estimate of the amount of the hazardous reefer. He said deputy Bruce Smith, the Sheriff’s Department pot expert, was a pretty good judge of incendiary cannabis. Figueroa didn't think the fifty pounds had much, if any burning bush potential, and he had an expert, a Mr. Chris Conrad, who testified that he'd never heard of marijuana spontaneously combusting. Judge Brown said he'd have to read up on Section 11470 of the Health and Safety Code before ruling on whether the weed had been legally ignited, and the parties were scheduled to return Friday, March 26th, when the debate would resume.
* * *
On Monday, officer Hoyle was sitting outside lame-duck Judge Leonard LaCasse's court. Judge LaCasse is taking on a number of criminal cases that Henderson's and Brown's courts can't accommodate, what with all the murder and thuggery those two jurists have had to deal with lately.
There was a jury trial in progress, and Hoyle, a witness, was excluded. I saw him in the kid's room — LaCasse's court usually handles family matters — in a charcoal suit and pastel tie.
“Agent Hoyle,” I said. “How do you do?”
He watched warily, the beginnings of a smile on his face.
“Are you going to testify in there,” I asked tossing my head at LaCasse's door.
“What's the charge?”
“Possession of heroin.”
“It was only half a gram,” Hoyle said. “It should never have gone to trial.”
“Who's the defense attorney,” I asked.
“You know… What's his name?”
“I shall never forget old Whatsisname, a most memorable character!”
“Attilla, I think they call him.”
“Oh, yes, Mr. Panczel of the Public Defender's office. Isn't he still in his Pampers?”
Hoyle didn't find me funny. He said, “This is a case of the lawyer losing 'client control.' The old man with the junk was offered 60 days in the county jail. He won't get that now.”
“He's going to lose?”
“I don't know,” Hoyle said. “He's saying the pants weren't his.”
“The pants you found the smack in?”
“That's right; the pants he was wearing. The money found in the same pants, however, was his — he says. What do you think?”
“I think the leadership down at the Public Defender's office wants to give the young Mr. Panczel some trial experience.”
“It's going to cost their client a lot more than 60 days,” Hoyle predicted.
I would have stayed to watch the youthful Attilla try to unravel Hoyle because I knew it was Hoyle who would be doing the unraveling. It was past 3 o'clock. I had to catch my bus.