Part 5: The Raps and the Wrap Up
by Bruce Anderson, December 21, 2005
Prosecutor Kevin Davenport looks like a 6'4" Clark Kent. He's in his early 40s and wears dark, conservative suits. He looks like a movie prosecutor. Or a mortician. The grandson of famed Bay Area attorneys Carl and the late Helen Shapiro, Davenport is the first prosecutor in a family of defense lawyers. He has no doubt that Channel, Abreu and Stuckey acted in a way that got Donald Perez dead, but he remains slightly aghast at what happened in court to Tai Abreu.
"The public defender turned down a pretty good offer for Abreu, I will say that," said Davenport. "It was the same offer the other two got. Abreu had the bad luck of being first to trial because I had the strongest case against him. Under the felony murder rule all three were guilty regardless of who plunged the knife into Perez's throat. The decomposition was centered on the throat. It's conceivable that parasites could have come in through the mouth and nose and then caused the entire deterioration of the throat area that way, but I don't think, and the experts don't think, that normally happens.
"Was Tai telling the truth when he said he was up on the road when Perez was killed? Well, that's what he said. We only know that because he said so. Detective Bailey told me he was pretty sure that at some point all three went down there and tied the guy up.
"They had socks on their hands. It was a long, dramatic process, not just a matter of jumping out of the bushes and grabbing the first guy who came along. It was a planned killing. That doesn't mean it was intelligently planned or even well planned. They planned to kill Donald Perez and take his stuff. There's no doubt in my mind that's what they did.
"Stuckey had met the man over the internet and ended up having a rendezvous with him in a Fort Bragg motel before this incident. Stuckey then decided he was mature enough to leave the old coastal town that was his only home and pack everything he could carry into a duffel bag and ended up in Sacramento, of all places, where he was down and out and had a second either short rendezvous with Mr. Perez or was wired money by Mr. Perez and went back to Fort Bragg. Shortly after Stuckey got back to Fort Bragg, the three of them — Stuckey, Abreu and Channel — hatched the scheme to murder and rob the guy. We think what happened was that Stuckey became more and more talkative about his relationship with Perez and that Abreu and Channel decided they could exploit Stuckey around that relationship and lure the guy up to Fort Bragg, that's what I think happened.
"There was a suggestion from Stuckey that during that first rendezvous with Perez in Fort Bragg he'd engaged in some intimacy with Perez out of which he may have had some emotional issues. Stuckey said in one of his rambling accounts that during his Fort Bragg session with Perez he had been extensively photographed by Perez, but we never found any photographs in the possession of Perez that were of Stuckey except for the normal ones that Stuckey had emailed to Perez.
"It was a murder plot. We have Abreu telling detective Bailey that Stuckey told Abreu and Channel that Stuckey was going to off this guy and take his stuff. And Channel said, 'You'll fuck it up, man. You're too stupid. We're gonna help you.' They don't use the m-word because you don't want to say that. Instead they say, 'off the guy' or 'take him out.' But they know what they're going to do.
"They camped at the egg taking station because they were contacted by the police about 10 or 11pm the very night of the killing The murder happened around 9 that same morning. The three of them were there camping for about a week. The testimony of one of the CDF guys [Robert Rodello] was that CDF had had some complaints about noise and messiness at this campsite, but every time a CDF guy went there during the day these guys were not there. And each time their campsite was messier. When CDF went there the night of the killing all three guys were there and they were ID'd.
"To describe them as intelligent might be too strong. Compared to what? When I watched the Abreu videos, or listened to him talking, I think, 'This is a product of the public school system?' They think they're smart because they know how to form sentences, but they have no sense of social responsibility. They're intelligent like Ozzy Osbourne lyrics.
"They pretty much committed every waking minute of their day to acquiring marijuana and avoiding any sort of physical labor. That's what they were pretty much about. Crank? May have been, but being so young whatever they were into could not have become heavy or used long enough to make them become the complete psychotic you'd expect to do this kind of thing.
"I think Abreu got profoundly bad legal advice from his attorney. She felt she had a winning Miranda violation. Her closing statement to the jury was, 'Is my guy a nice person? Is my guy someone you'd want to live next door to? A despicable human being? Yes, but he's not a murderer. At worst he's a receiver of stolen property.'
"In my final argument I said, 'Even assuming Ms. Thompson is correct, Mr. Abreu is receiving his stolen property while the warm blood is running out of Mr. Perez's throat.' That isn't just simple receiving of stolen property. It's a theft during a murder, and that kicks in the felony murder rule. If he'd pled out he'd have received 15-to-life. There would have been the possibility of parole after 15 years. Ms. Thompson doesn't like the felony murder rule. She is philosophically opposed to it. Because of that she has a hard time understanding the way it works. But it's very simple: if someone dies during the commission of a felony, you're guilty of the death that occurs. It may seem overly harsh. You can disagree with it. But failing to agree with it doesn't mean you're going to defeat it.
"I've never seen a better performance from a suspect than the one Channel gave. When the investigators had him in the interview room and they were confronting him with the crime, he said, 'I don't know what you're talking about.' And the cops would say, 'Stuckey says you're involved.' Channel would say, 'Stuckey's a liar. I don't know what you're talking about.' And round and round for an hour. Channel never faltered. Maybe he's seen one more movie than the other guys. I'm not sure if I was guilty that I could hold up that long. If more people did that we'd have half as many successful prosecutions. He was amazing.
"There are things about this thing that we don't know. It's sad that these three fellows ruined their own lives, but the bottom line is Perez was killed and he didn't deserve to be. And those three guys did it.
"Channel has a determinate sentence because he had a beatable case. I'm not saying he would have beat it, and that I would have lost, just that I could have lost. I never for a minute thought I could have lost the Abreu case, and I didn't think for a minute I'd lose the Stuckey case either.
"They thought Perez had $50,000 worth of stuff. He did have a $30,000 pick-up that they just abandoned. That alone is a very stupid move. If they had driven the truck back to the town of Fort Bragg and driven it around with out of state plates on it, they probably would have avoided suspicion for weeks. They didn't become suspects until the body was found on October 5th. Johnson had come in the previous day and, that morning, Stuckey and Stuckey's sister had implicated all three.
"I heard from Jan Cole-Wilson that the family was outraged by the deal made for Channel because poor Aaron should be innocent. They went to Richard Petersen [well known criminal defense attorney in Ukiah] to get him to withdraw the plea or appeal the sentence. Richard looked it over, talked to Cole-Wilson, and said, 'This is a great deal. You leave this alone. He's going to be out of jail in 2014. He'll have a fine life when he gets out.' After all, it is called the Department of Corrections."
Aaron Channel says he's not guilty of murder, only involvement after the fact.
" I helped to cover up evidence — there is a great difference between that and murder. I pleaded 'Guilty Pursuant to a West Plea.' That is a legal term which means that I feel my case has been compromised in some way. In this situation, it was the negative — nothing short of lynch mob-esque — light in which the media portrayed me. I did not believe that is was possible for me to receive a fair trial in this county and I was unable to obtain a change of venue. (A change of venue might have provided me with a truly unbiased jury and, had I thought that a possibility, I would have gone ahead with a regular trial.)
"The decision to spend 15 years in prison was a weighty one, and I would like to go over some of the details of my case in order to explain my choice. I will stick as close to documented facts as I am able, though I freely admit that my viewpoint on these matters is rather, shall we say, understandably biased. However, I challenge anyone who doubts the veracity of my words to contact the detectives and prosecutors involved in this case and get the information for themselves!
"First off, Michael Johnson called the Fort Bragg police and told them that his homosexual lover, August Stuckey, had confessed to him the murder of another gay man, Mr. Perez. Mr. Johnson also stated that Tai Abreu and I had been present during August's confession of this crime. He stated that Tai and I confessed involvement as well to him, though, due to the fact that he was high out of his mind at the time, Michael Johnson could not remember what Tai and myself had exactly allegedly 'confessed' to him.
"That evening, August Stuckey was arrested. He told the cops a rather far-fetched story in which he stated that Mr. Abreu and myself had set him up. He said that we forced him to lure Perez to the area of the murder. August also alleged that Tai and I stole August's knife and shoes. Thus the only reason August's shoe prints were at the scene of the crime was because Tai and I had specifically worn them to implicate him. This was also our alleged reason for using the knife — all to set up August.
"He gave no particular reason for our desire to set him up, but that's supposedly irrelevant. The point to the story was that not only were Tai and I murderers, according to August, but we were out to get August. Furthermore, August claimed that Tai and I had abducted him, taken him to the scene of the crime, and forced him to handle stolen goods and leave physical evidence. There was no physical evidence linking either Tai or myself to the scene, but there was ample evidence linking August.
"Now, you ask, why did August implicate Tai and myself so graphically? Perhaps because detective Bailey and Dygert had told him that Michael, Tai and myself had already fully cooperated with the investigation and were planning to testify against him! Is the concept so inconceivable that such information, however false, might have made the noose around August's neck feel a little tight and thus made him be a little more agreeable to the concept of fingering the blame at the people closest to him?
"At any rate, later that evening, Mr. Abreu was arrested. He confessed to Bailey and Dygert that both he and I had played a part in the cover-up of the crime, but we had nothing to do with the murder. Indeed, neither of us had known about August's murderous intentions until after he had committed the crime.
"The police told Tai that his story wasn't 'good enough.' On videotape, they told him that they didn't believe him and stated that all three of us — August, myself and Michael [Johnson] — were fully cooperating with the investigation and were all going to testify to that against Tai. Yet again, the cops were lying through their teeth. Then they told Tai that if he didn't change his story, odds were good that he would receive the death penalty!
"During the course of this videotaped interrogation, Mr. Abreu invoked his right to legal counsel three times, stating that he wanted a lawyer present. This was not granted to him by the detectives.
"The interrogation continued, sans legal counsel, for some time quite rigorously... and then, when the death penalty was finally mentioned, Mr. Abreu, on videotape, went visibly white. He took a long breath and what he said next, to the best of my recollection of the tape was, 'Well, I really shouldn't say this, but I guess I gotta do whatever it takes to cover my own ass.'
"He then gave the cops the confession story that they wanted — the one that is now accepted by most newspapers as unquestionable fact. Finally then, I was arrested. I denied all involvement with the murder and, needless to say, I was told by Bailey and Dygert that August, Tai, and Michael were all prepared to testify against me. Never being one to much trust law enforcement, I refused to speak to them at that point without a lawyer — period. They interrogated me, but I continued my silence and stood my ground. No lawyer, no answering their questions!
"I was particularly irritated, however, when they told me that they knew I had murdered Perez, and had the physical evidence to prove it. I told them that they were lying and that there was no way in Hell they had that because I hadn't killed him.
"(This advice I give to the next individual interrogated by the local police force, regardless of whether it's true or not, never call a cop a liar to his face. They don't much appreciate it and have a lot of ways to show this! I called the cops liars and their reaction was to then focus their investigation on yours truly. I urge the next innocent man who finds himself alone with Dygert and Bailey to use the word "mistaken" instead of "liar," though, I'm sure, the next time, yet again, liar will be the more accurate description.)
"Three days after my arrest, Tai and I were placed in a van and, unbeknownst to us, our conversation was recorded. Basically, I can sum up what we said: 'August was guilty of Murder One, that we were both innocent of murder, and that we'd probably do some time as accessories because August had tricked us into cleaning up some of the evidence, but, all in all, we were innocent of murder and it wouldn't be too long before we'd get to go home to our families and friends.' If we served a couple years as accessories after the fact, so be it, so long as the truth that we weren't murderers came out.
"Hell, anyone who knows us saw the instant irony in this situation! Not only are Tai and I not murderers, but we are both thorough and complete pacifists and I challenge anyone to say otherwise who has actually known us!
"It seems to me that the pivotal point in all of this mess and, yes, that was the extent of the evidence against us, was the second statement that Tai gave the police — the statement of a 19-year-old boy who was denied legal counsel and threatened with the death penalty if he didn't give the cops what they wanted! So he gave them what they wanted — a false confession — and they gave him a thumbs up. Why they didn't just say, 'Congratulations, Tai, you don't get to get legally murdered now!' is beyond me, because that's exactly what they implied!
"Why else but a death penalty threat would a teenage boy incriminate himself in the execution of a crime he did not commit?
"I would also like to state that the focus of the investigation shifting toward Tai and myself and more away from August has a little something to do with the fact that August is being sent to Atascadero — a hospital for the criminally insane. The police knew that they would not be able to get a conviction on him due to his mental instability and a small town can't have a murder without a murder conviction. They needed a fall guy — a scapegoat. In this case, they were happy to accept two of them unfortunately — both Tai and myself.
"August had a long history of mental instability and violent outbursts. It is a matter of police record that while attending middle school he assaulted fellow classmates with weapons on more than one occasion. Abreu had recently been released from a mental institution, is severely ADHD, and has extreme difficulty understanding the consequences of his actions. He is trusting and, in short, highly influenceable. He was exactly the sort of patsy any good cop/bad cop duo would have a field day manipulating.
"I, on the other hand, am a fairly quiet person. I have always kept to myself and have never been known to be easily influenced by others. Though I am extremely intelligent — generally testing in the 98th percentile on any standard test — I do have a long history of being fiercely loyal to my friends. On many occasions, I admit that I have had poor judgment in who those friends were and I have been unfairly taken advantage of on many occasions because I like to believe, at the root, people are good — and it's very hard for me to give up on someone.
"August killed a sexual predator; a child pornographer. If the system truly worked, Perez would be alive today — behind bars!
"My mistake was to be trusting enough to allow myself to get tricked into cleaning up evidence of a child pornographer being killed. I exercised poor judgment and it's not just the next 15 years that I'm going to have to live with that — it's the rest of my life!
"I took the plea bargain for two reasons. The first of which is the sensational manner in which the press has exploited the death of Mr. Perez and Mr. Abreu's statements made in the false confession. When I sat in jail and read such headlines as 'He Gurgled While He Died,' I knew there was no way I would get an unbiased jury in this county.
"The second reason I took the plea was simply, humanly, fear. After watching Tai's one day trial and subsequent conviction for a crime that I know he did not commit, 19 years did not sound that long anymore. Even if it doesn't help my case now, I want the people of my home town to know the truth."
Aaron Channel is described by the warden's office at the state prison in Susanville as a model prisoner. Tai Abreu and August Stuckey, who was not sent to Atascadero — are confined to the Salinas Valley State Prison at Soledad where they live in adjoining units. Abreu is waiting for the results of his second appeal.
(Bruce Anderson lives in Fairfax where he says he's at work on "a multi-volume project tentatively called, 'An Anecdotal History of Mendocino County, With Excursions North, South and East'." The first volume is due out in July.)