- Mendocino County
- Anderson Valley
by Bruce McEwen, March 9, 2016
They finally found the gut-shot 911-caller at a guerrilla grow near Yorkville. It was 7:30 the morning of September 27th. The gut-shot man was unarmed, except for his iPhone. It turned out to be better than a gun. If he hadn't been able to call out, he would have bled to death. The paramedics evacuated the gut-shot man to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital where he eventually recovered enough to get himself arrested.
Further along the trail, the rescue party came across another body. This one wasn’t as lucky as gut-shot man. He was dead, and would be identified as 43-year-old Marcos Bautista from Cloverdale. The dead man's pistol was still holstered, and the homicide detective, Luis Espinoza, who doubles as Boonville high school's basketball coach, drew the Smith & Wesson out of the holster and checked the chamber. It was charged, locked and loaded, as they say, but the dead man had never got off a shot at his killers, by the looks of things. (The state’s Department of Justice hasn’t finished with the ballistic reports.)*
The lucky gut-shot guy, Del Diablo (Bad Boy), said he’d been plugged by one of his partners, Blackie (El Negro), and that his other partner, Shorty (Chipparo), had taken his gun (pistola) away. Then, he said, those pinche madres left him to bleed out in the thirsty dust of Cooper Ranch Road off Highway 128.
Bad Boy’s real name was Edgar Contreras. He said La Cholita —translated as Little Gangbanger — Blanca Rodriquez, drove the three (or four) bandidos out Highway 128 in the early hours from their Cloverdale headquarters, dropped them off at a spot where they armed up with stashed weapons and, as La Cholita drove back to Cloverdale, Chipparo, Del Diablo and El Negro headed into the woods for the grow site, arriving at first light.
Instead of bringing some sensible tool, like pruning shears, they were reduced to snapping off the trunks of the plundered marijuana plants by hand, and then twisting and wrestling with them to worry the fibers loose. They make rope from this stuff for a reason, Vato.
The thieves later admitted they’d been toiling in this manner for over an hour when an angry voice interrupted to them to stop.
That’s when the shooting started.
Each of the defendants denied shooting first. Edgar “Bad Boy” Contreras said he only fired once — into the air. Isidro “Blackie” Lopez-Bernal said he only fired twice — in the air. And Mario “Shorty” Godinez-Gonzalez said he fired three maybe four times — all in the air.
Somehow all these air shots came back to earth where two guys got shot, one of them fatally.
But each of the widely separated bundles of marijuana had several spent shell casings in and around them, which had been ejected and fallen into the bundles or nearby.
True, the victim, Mr. Gut-Shot Bautista, was only hit three times, but the brush and tree limbs around him had been shot up pretty good, and the detectives had pictures to show the hail of gunfire through the shattered branches. Medical marijuana may be good for lots of ailments but no one has used it to stop bullets.
So they were bad shots. The autopsy reports suggested that the third and final shot on the dead man came from close range, fired downward, after the guys who said they were shooting in the air had obviously run the wounded man to ground and finished him off.
One man dead, one man left for dead.
The thieves seem to have concluded that their easy money plan to rip off a trespass grow — major crooks ripping off minor crooks — had failed. Seems that the robbers panicked and abandoned the bundles of marijuana plants, with their ragged and frayed stems they'd worked so hard to break loose and bundle up.
As part of the evidence against the Cloverdale gang, Deputy DA Paul Sequiera put on a DVD walk-thru of the crime scene.
It began as a leisurely stroll through an oak woodland with its buck-brush, manzanita, French broom, dry and dusty, deadfall here and there under the oak trees. The trail ambled through a camp with a tarp strung up over a hammock, a scatter of canned goods, plastic food packaging, items of clothing left to rot — not a Boy Scout camp, by any stretch of the standards of tidiness. The trail crossed a hillside, descended and ascended again. The guy carrying the video camera was huffing and puffing when us courtroom viewers arrived at the spot where the dead man was found. Then the trail dropped down to the guerrilla grow. Some small plants were still in the ground, and the places where the larger ones had been ripped off were obviously the scene of a struggle with the stubborn plant’s fibrous stalks.
The abandoned bundles of pot, had been tied with cheap quarter-inch nylon rope. Not very professional, to put it kindly, and again, nobody among the three bandidos had thought to carry a pocket knife to cut the rope whose ends trailed in a tangle behind the bundles. A knife had been found, bloodied and abandoned it seemed, after it proved inadequate to the job of hacking through the stems of marijuana plants. A machete would have come in handy, but a knife was good for nothing but cutting the rope. After dulling the blade on a few plants, it was probably useless even for that.
Speaking of inadequate equipment, the computer playing the DVD in the courtroom broke down before we could finish the walk-thru. It kept stalling, making the narrative unintelligible. So the walk in the woods had to be canceled before it had ended in real time. That’s a great pity, because it’s too dangerous to go for a walk in the woods anywhere in Northern California any more — and for all we know that’s all the victim of this crime had been doing.
The first witness to take the stand was Deputy Sergio Chora who was dispatched not to where Gut-Shot Man lay but to cell tower on Geyser Road. Gut-Shot Man didn't know where he was. By using exigency pings from the cellphone, the cops finally got in the general area, and Deputy Chora, walking on Cooper Ranch Road, found Mr. Contreras “supine in the middle of the road.”
Sequiera: “How did you find him?”
Chora: “We parked at the end of Cooper Ranch Road and started walking around, yelling his name.”
Sequiera: “Was he responsive?”
Sequiera: “What did you do?”
Chora: “I notified dispatch that I had located him and requested medical personnel.”
Sequiera: “Did you ask him what happened?”
Chora: “Yes. He said he’d been shot by someone he didn’t know.”
Sequiera: “Did he tell you why he was there?”
Chora: “He said he was there trimming marijuana. I tried to question him further but he was uncooperative. His cellphone was lying there and I asked if I could look at it. He said yes, so I did.”
Sequiera: “What did you find?”
Chora: “A text message.”
Sequiera: “What did it say?”
Chora: “It was in Spanish, addressed to someone called Chipparo, and it said I’m going to steal these plants.”
Sequiera: “Was the text message incoming or outgoing?”
Chora: “I believe it was outgoing.”
Looked at from outside, I would say four guys from Cloverdale went out to steal dope and wound up in a gun battle with the garden's proprietor who was shot and killed. Gut-Shot might have been shot by one of his fellow thieves because the dead man's gun had not been fired.
I'm just speculating here. The facts are, as they say, in dispute.
It took about two hours from the first call from Gut-Shot Contreras, at 7:20am until he was found at 9:30am and by then he was weak from loss of blood and in considerable pain. But by 10:00 the paramedics had stabilized him and he was hauled off to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.
On cross-examination, Deputy Chora was asked to check his report as to whether the text message on the cell phone was incoming or outgoing — it was, in fact, incoming. So, was Edgar actually Chipparo? Not by the looks of him. When they marched the three prisoners in, it was easy to see that Godinez-Gonzalez had drawn the moniker “Shorty.” Unless it was intended ironically, which would mean the guy was unusually tall. No-no, Edgar Contreras and Isidro Lopez-Bernal were average height, Mario Godinez-Gonzalez was the short one.
Next up was Cholita, aka Ms. Rodriquez, but first she had to be assigned a lawyer to make sure she didn’t incriminate herself. Al Kubanis was across the street at Schat’s Bakery eating donuts and practicing his free-throw shots with balled-up napkins when he was recruited to represent the charming Cholita. After lengthy consultations — Mr. Kubanis said he had yet to read what the lawyers call “the murder book,” the case file in legal parlance — so Cholita's testimony was put on hold after she'd already made it clear she was a co-conspirator.
In the meantime Detective Wyant testified. He and Espinoza had taken over from Deputy Chora, and we’ll get back to that. Let’s skip ahead to keep the action in chronological order, rather than the makeshift schedule of the court.
When Blanca 'Cholita' Rodriquez took the stand she said she was hoping to borrow Mario’s (Godinez-Gonzalez) truck so she could take her recyclables in, and also she wanted to shop for some furnishings. She had her eye on a carpet and needed a truck to haul it home.
Sequiera: “What time did Mario call you?
Cholita: “It must have been soon after 1:00 in the morning. I was asleep, but if I wanted to use the truck I had to go with him then and drop him off.”
Sequiera: “Was anyone with him when he came to pick you up?”
Cholita: “Yes, it was somebody I’d seen at the fair, but didn’t know. Mario called him Del Diablo.” (Literally, ‘of the devil’ but, as one interpreter explained it, the idiom is less ecclesiastical than that, and more readily understood as a charmingly unrepentant fellow, what Californians fondly call a Bad Boy.)
It was Edgar Contraras, and the witness pointed him out, sitting with his lawyer, Jona Saxby.
Sequiera: “Where did you go?”
Cholita: “First to the Quick Stop, then back to Mario’s place to pick up another guy, somebody they called El Negro [in Spanish it means black].
It was Isidro Bernal-Lopez, seated next to his lawyer, Walter Rubenstein.
This gang of crooks each got a state-paid lawyer.
Sequiera: “And just for the record, can you point out Mario for me, Blanca?”
Cholita pointed to Mr. Godinez-Gonzalez who was seated with his lawyer — The Dumptruck herself, Public Defender Linda Thompson.
Adios Godinez-Gonzalez. You might as well drive yourself to state prison. You'll get there faster.
Prosecutor Sequiera: “Where did you go from the Quick Stop?”
Cholita: “Out to Highway 128. Mario was driving really fast. There was a white truck in front of us and I had to close my eyes when he decided to pass it.”
Sequiera: “So you were kinda nervous. Did you know where they were going and what they were up to — did anybody say anything to you about it?”
Cholita: “No, nothing. They were playing the music really loud, and driving like crazy.”
Sequiera: “Where did you go?”
Cholita: “It was dark, I couldn’t tell where, but Mario pulled off on a dirt road and him and Diablo got out, to pee, they said. Then they got back in and we went back the other way and pulled over again. This time they all got out, and I got in the driver’s seat.”
Sequiera: “Did you see where the men went?”
Cholita: “I was busy adjusting the seat and the mirror, then Mario slapped the fender and said, Go home!”
Sequiera: “How long did it take you to drive home?”
Cholita: “I don’t really know. I was going so slow and still I had to brake for a big pig once, then for a deer. I don’t know…”
Sequiera: “When did you next hear from them?”
Cholita: “Mario’s brother — his sister-in-law, I mean — she called me and asked where he was. His brother Juan had told her two people were missing and one was injured. Then I got a call from Isidro to go and pick him up at Cherry Creek in Cloverdale.”
Sequiera: “Where did you take Mr. Lopez-Bernal?”
Cholita: “To some trailers by the freeway.”
Sequiera: “You picked up Mario as well?”
Cholita: “Yes, later, at the Hamburger Ranch on Highway 128. I was scared, but he let me use his truck, so I picked him up and took him home.”
Sequiera: “Did you ever get to use the truck for yourself?”
Sequiera: “Nothing further.”
* * *
Mario Godinez-Gonzalez was in his bed with his girl friend when the detectives came through his open bedroom window, weapons drawn, and dragged him out buck naked to cuff him and place him under arrest for murder one. They found Mario, then Isidro, using the exigency pings off their smart phones. The cops had the three bandidos, assuming Gut-Shot wasn't the fourth, wrapped up before noon.
Detectives Wyant and Espinoza took the stand to deliver the evolving testimonies of the three desperados. Each thief pointed the Finger of Guilt at each other. Edgar said it was Isidro who gut-shot him because he dropped his bundle of weed, and threw his rifle away, and ran after firing one shot in the air. Funny thing, though. It was a rifle bullet that went through the vic’s thigh, and the other two gunslingers had pistols. In another version, Edgar said Mario took his pistol away and gave him the rifle.
One of these hombres made the kill shot, and when the state DOJ sends back the ballistics we’ll know who was the cold-blooded one. But under California law, it doesn’t really matter. As Capt. Gus McCall said in Lonesome Dove — and Assistant DA Paul Sequiera is fond of paraphrasing — “if you ride with a killer, you hang with a killer.”
They were all held to answer on Murder One in the commission of a robbery.