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by Tim Stelloh, April 14, 2010
It was a little over a decade ago that John Dalton, formerly of Redwood Valley, was sentenced to 27 years in federal prison for growing massive amounts of marijuana in the rugged hills near Branscomb. He received the sentence after the DEA agent investigating him amassed a mountain of on-the-job improprieties—including a romantic tryst with Dalton's alcoholic, unstable wife, Victoria Horstman, who the agent had cultivated as an informant and who was found dead in 2007 under mysterious circumstances in Montana.
Those improprieties are the spine of a civil lawsuit filed late last year by Dalton in San Francisco Federal District Court for $48 million against Janet Reno, the DEA, Mendo's drug cops and everyone in between.
The agent, Mark Nelson, met Horstman in the summer of 1994. She'd long harbored law enforcement ambitions, so she began aiding the drug cops in their investigation against her husband. It started with Horstman handing Nelson bank deposit slips from her husband's machine shop. The agent subsequently made her a snitch (and allegedly threatened that she could be prosecuted for money laundering if she refused). In an effort to collect more information on her husband—and with Nelson's encouragement—Horstman placed a DEA recorder behind the headboard of their bed, a violation of marital privacy rights. It was around then that things turned romantic between the agent and his informant. When it came time to fingerprint Horstman—who was now officially a “source of information”—Nelson blindfolded her and drove her to the county drug cops' secret “safehouse.” Then he gave her a beer.
“Soon after, he put his head in my lap as if nothing was abnormal,” Horstman later wrote in a letter to prosecutors. “I froze up out of disbelief of what was happening to me. Soon after he then turned over on his side on the couch and swung me down and over facing him and began kissing me while he took my left leg and pushed it into his crotch area.”
In Horstman's telling, Nelson tried, over the course of their relationship, to have sex with her multiple times—though she refused—and he even drove her to a divorce lawyer and “forced” her to leave her husband (which she did). During Dalton's trial, a close friend of Horstman's testified that it was far more than fondling, kissing and “trying” to have sex, however—she said that Horstman and Nelson were having an affair.
In those letters to prosecutors, Horstman said that all that DEA pressure had damaged her irreparably—that she'd filled her garage with exhaust in a suicide attempt. In the years following Dalton's eventual conviction, in 1999, Horstman moved first to Potter Valley, then to Montana, according to her son, Josh Corrigan, who testified in Dalton's trial but soon after left Mendocino County for Oakdale, near Modesto, to live with his grandparents.
“She went up there because part of her heritage is Blackfoot Indian,” said Corrigan, now 31. “When we were kids, she talked about going back there, about knowing her roots. One of her favorite movies was A River Runs Through It. But she couldn't handle it. I felt so sorry for her.”
Corrigan kept in touch with his mom through letters, and occasionally they talked on the phone. Then, several years ago, she sent family photo albums—the only possessions she'd taken with her up north—to Corrigan's sister. On the evening of July 5, 2007, her body was found floating in the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula. Horstman was taken to the hospital and placed in intensive care—but she was already brain dead. She died fifteen days later.
The medical examiner found that Horstman had drowned, and classified her death as undetermined. Detective Chris Shermer, who investigated the case for the Missoula Police Department, said her apartment—which was at an Elk's Lodge—was nearly empty, save for a few jugs of wine, some bottles of anti-depressants and recently purchased bed sheets. Neighbors described a troubled woman to Shermer: On one occasion, he said, Horstman was seen crouched in the lotus position outside her apartment, a bottle of booze beside her. She'd been screaming. Other times, she told neighbors that she worked for the DEA and that the KGB was watching them through their televisions.
“They drove her insane,” Corrigan said. “When my sister visited my mom, she was really paranoid, especially with TV screens. She thought the DEA was watching her.”
When agent Nelson was questioned about Horstman's allegations during Dalton's trial, he denied some, admitted some, took the fifth on another, crucial point—and was accompanied by a non-government lawyer to the witness stand. Yes, he'd taken Horstman to the safehouse. Yes, he'd given her a beer. No, he didn't know she was an alcoholic. Yes, he'd kissed her—but only once, at the safehouse. No, he'd never fondled her. Yes, he knew he'd broken DEA rules. Yes, he'd driven her to the divorce lawyer. No, he'd never forced her to leave her husband. Maybe he'd threatened her with prosecution. When Nelson was asked about the precise day he'd taken her to the safehouse, he took the fifth. Nelson, prosecutors told the court, had falsified the date on Horstman's fingerprint cards so as to conceal when he'd taken her to the safehouse.
Tony Serra, Dalton's attorney at the time, tried getting the government's indictment dismissed based on Nelson's “outrageous” conduct (he also argued that Nelson's search warrants were based on bogus info). While the judge, Susan Illston, found that the agent exercised “poor judgment,” and that what he did was “highly inappropriate,” she didn't find his behavior so “grossly shocking” that it violated the “universal sense of justice” and tainted the government's entire case.
She barred the bedroom recordings, but allowed the prosecutors to proceed. Though they had no physical evidence linking Dalton to the pot gardens the DEA said were his, the government got a conviction based on the testimony of several informants, including Horstman.
Dalton—who filed the same civil lawsuit in the late '90s but voluntarily withdrew it in 2000 due to lack of access to a law library—says despite potential statute of limitations problems with his case, he's confident the judge will agree to hear it. “The lawsuit is a dead bang winner,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I just basically need someone with some balls to go after the government and hold them accountable for what they have done.”