Bud, Bribery & Extortion in Covelo: And the Real Crook is…
by Tim Stelloh, April 21, 2010
The cops say it's Dennis Gage, busted a year and a half ago for possession and cultivation of marijuana, and for attempting to bribe the deputy who nabbed him. Gage tells quite a different story. He says the deputy, Derek Hendry, is an extortionist who shook him down for protection money.
No matter your point of view, what Gage did on Sept. 15, 2008 — the day before he was arrested — was desperate. According to law enforcement, it was the last ditch effort of a criminal determined to avoid prosecution and to misdirect attention.
Take the opposing view, and what Gage did was the act of a brave public citizen, a man so compelled by the corruption unfolding before him he had to do something big — he had to visit the Mendocino County Sheriff's internal affairs investigator and lay out the case against Hendry.
After a lengthy interview, the Sheriff’s investigator, Lt. Kirk Mason, instructed Gage on how to nail this crooked disgrace. So Gage dialed Hendry's cell phone and — with Mason listening — arranged what he thought was a sting: They'd meet the following morning at the Willits Burger King and he'd deliver Hendry the payoff: a Ford F550 pickup truck. To avoid any whiff of a setup, Mason told Gage he'd have an out-of-county deputy on hand. He told Gage he was “brave” for coming forward and that if he was telling the truth, Hendry's law enforcement days were over, according to Gage's attorney, Ed Denson.
Little did Gage know, he was the one who'd just been set up.
Once this would-be corruption buster arrived at the assigned destination the next morning, Gage was swarmed by police, arrested, hauled to jail and held on a million bail.
The way Hendry tells it, he first heard about Gage back in 2007, when he got a tip from his dad — Deputy Raymond Hendry — about a big pot grow in Covelo. At that point, Derek Hendry--who has a shaved-head and is built like a linebacker-type--was just a rookie patrol deputy. So he passed along the tip to Bruce Smith, head of the sheriff's pot unit. But nothing ever came of it. The following year, Hendry Sr. reminded Hendry Jr. of the grow again. He told him that his cousin's partner, Kevin Mullens, was working there and that he'd been bragging about how it was run by an entrepreneur so audacious he'd packed a motorhome with weed, driven it to Texas and made a cool quarter mil.
By then, Hendry Jr. was in the pot unit himself, so he followed up on the tip himself, got Mullens on the phone and soon had a name: Dennis. “He wanted to know what it would take for me to not bust their garden,” Hendry said during Gage's March 19 preliminary hearing. “So I started to ask, 'Well, do you have anything else that might divert me from your area,' trying to gain more information from him.” Hendry was already going to investigate Gage, so he was trying to “suck” as much as he could from Mullens, he said.
Not long after that, Hendry was coaching a Pop Warner football team in Ukiah and got a phone call from Gage. “He asked if there was anything he could do that could turn me away from his marijuana grow,” Hendry said. He asked Gage to clarify. According to Hendry, Gage continued to lay it on thick, saying that he would “take care” of Hendry if he left him alone. Hendry hung up and looked at Greg Baarts, a CHP officer who was with him. “I can't believe it,” Hendry said he told Baarts. “I think I'm being bribed.”
The next step, Hendry says, was a September 8 meeting at the Burger King in Willits. In exchange for not busting his grow, Gage allegedly agreed to give him the Ford truck plus $10,000. The truck's pink slip was in Texas, however, so they agreed to another meeting.
Everything discussed during this first, crucial rendezvous was supposed to be taped by Hendry, who was wired with a recording device. True to the curse of modern technology, the gadget failed. This fact, coupled with Hendry's decision not to document the beginnings of the alleged bribery scheme as he’d been instructed to do, led to a series of vague and non-committal replies in court about when, where and how Gage's sinister plan had unfolded. Denson asked, for instance, if Hendry had told a supervising officer that he'd made a “deal” not to raid Gage's property in exchange for info on a “large white dope operation.” Hendry said he didn't recall that — even though it was in a report written by that supervising officer. And when Denson questioned Hendry on where Gage's Covelo property was — and Hendry said he'd heard it was near Ferry (“Fairy”?) Ranch — the deputy provided the court with this gem: “I didn't even know if 'Ferry Ranch' even existed,” he said. “All I heard was it was a ranch with a bunch of faggots.”
All this led Denson to call Hendry the “least reliable witness” he'd ever heard, a witness who could pin down “no facts to anytime or anything.”
The Set Up
Around the same time as the Burger King meeting, Gage called William McPike, a Central California attorney. Hendry had been conducting aerial surveillance over Gage's Covelo property, and Gage — who says he's a legitimate medical grower — wanted to make sure he was in compliance (McPike told him he was). Then he told McPike about the Hendry situation. If he didn't turn over a big time meth dealer, he told McPike, Hendry said he was “going to get him.”
Two days after the rendezvous, McPike called Sheriff Tom Allman and explained the situation. “Allman says, 'This is very serious —these are serious allegations. It's not up to me to make a judgment call,” McPike said. “I called him back the next day and his attitude had totally changed. Now he's telling me we can't talk to anybody from internal affairs until Monday. I go, 'Monday?'” McPike told Allman that Hendry was being pushy — that he wanted the truck immediately. Allman said there was nothing he could do. “He goes, 'call the switchboard, go through dispatch.' I said, 'Really? That doesn't sound secure.'”
Monday it was.
The day before the scheduled meeting, Allman called Mason, the internal affairs investigator, and told him two things: He'd be meeting with McPike and Gage the following day to look into the extortion allegations, and that the Sheriff's office was investigating Gage for attempting to bribe Hendry. Allman never explicitly told Mason that Gage was a liar, but the lieutenant assumed as much. “I inferred that in fact the Sheriff believed deputy Hendry had been bribed,” Mason said, adding that such an inference in no way biased his opinion of Gage.
Gage's current attorney, Ed Denson, asked Mason during a court hearing if it was unusual that the sheriff had called him up and telegraphed his opinion. “I don't know if it was unusual,” Mason said. “But it was different.” Never before had the sheriff told him that his officers were operating a separate, parallel investigation that countered a citizen complaint. And though Mason typically interviews cops who've been accused of misconduct, he never talked to Hendry about Gage's allegations. He said he was satisfied to rely on the info he'd received from Allman and other supervising officers.
Mason met with Gage and his attorney on Monday, September 15. Gage explained the situation: He told the lieutenant that Hendry had been on his property and that he'd demanded “white dope” — but now he wanted more. He wanted the truck. He wanted the cash. And if Gage didn't cooperate, Hendry would make his life “a living hell,” Gage told Mason. The investigator had Gage call the agent and set up the Burger King meeting for the following morning. He told Gage about having the Lake County deputy on hand and about being brave. Then he shared what he'd learned with the officers running the criminal investigation on Gage. And when Gage was arrested the next morning in the Burger King parking lot, Mason was watching.
Randy Rider, president of the National Internal Affairs Investigators Association, said it's a perfectly legitimate practice for IA investigators to share info with criminal investigators. “It may not seem fair, but that's the way it is,” Rider said. During Gage's preliminary hearing, prosecutor Katherine Houston dropped all pretense of a thorough internal affairs investigation — that's why it took so long for Allman to get Gage into the sheriff's office. “The Sheriff and the whole sheriff's department [were] completely aware of what was going on, and they need[ed] to be able to arrange for the arrest of Mr. Gage,” she said. “That's how undercover operations work. It's an unusual setting. It's not something that happens very often. Lt. Mason [hadn't] encountered it before. Most of law enforcement personnel hadn't dealt with this situation before.”
Following Gage's arrest, cops searched his properties in Willits and Covelo and found more than 300 plants and several pounds of processed, packaged weed — weed Gage says he provides for several medical marijuana patients.
The jury trial is scheduled for August 30.