Log Rustling, Fort Bragg Style

by Mark Scaramella, May 6, 2010

In the Summer of 1998 an enterprising fisherman and timber worker named David McCutcheon leased a bare acreof land from Ed Colombi Sr. The empty acre sits on Odom Lane about a mile north of Fort Bragg. McCutcheon needed a place to store the huge Doug Fir and redwood sinker logs he'd retrieved from the depths of local rivers. McCutcheon would convert the logs on Odom Lane into lumber, valuable lumber from perfectly preserved old growth logs lost years ago in the age of the big trees before they got all the way downstream to Mendocino County's then-booming mills.

Fish and Game put an end to the sinker log business in 2007. Environmentalists had complained that the logs had been in place for so many years to remove them meant the altering of stream beds to their detriment. While it lasted, the retrieval of the logs proved quite lucrative. Old growth lumber had grown scarce, and the yield from the sinker logs was much in demand.

Dave McCutcheon was one of several men from the Mendocino Coast engaged in the sinker log business, a business that requires multiple skills, not to mention the risks that come from diving to locate the logs, securing them under water, then carefully hauling them up and out of the river. It is not work for the lazy and the careless.

McCutcheon had worked long and hard to salvage some 80 large sinker logs from local streams. Also busy as a working fisherman, he planned to mill the logs into commercial quality lumber. The logs were like a savings account, a large and valuable sweat equity savings account McCutcheon had deposited for safe keeping on Odom Lane.

Over the next few years McCutcheon, with a hired helper, had produced more than 4,000 feet of perfect redwood siding, 18 cants (large, slabbed logs ready for milling), 13 clear-heart redwood beams, a bunch of doug fir beams, and flooring, all of it of a very high quality as only increasingly rare old growth lumber can be. And McCutcheon still had about 28,000 board feet of unmilled, old growth, sinker redwood logs worth more than many of the world's currencies. McCutcheon conservatively estimated the value of the milled lumber at about $70,000 and the value of the remaining unmilled sinker logs at about $300,000. He'd made this little fortune the old fashioned way — enterprise, ingenuity and many long hours of hard physical labor.

The sinker log entrepreneur rented the Odom Lane lot from Ed Colombi Sr. It was perfect for storing and then milling the logs to lumber. The old man liked McCutcheon and never charged him more than a hundred dollars a month rent. But in late 2004 Ed Colombi Sr. passed away and the property was transferred to Ed Colombi Jr. McCutcheon continued to send rent checks to the address he'd always sent them to, but came back marked “deceased, return to sender.”

McCutcheon says that after the first few months his progress on the conversion of his log cache had slowed way down. He'd married and started to raise a family; he didn't get out to Odom Lane much.

A drawing of McCutcheon's yard

On May 26, 2006, McCutcheon arranged to move his dormant lumber operation down the coast to Elk. He called Colombi Jr. and told him that he was ready to move.

“I told him I knew I was behind in the rent and that I was ready to make it even with him. He asked me how much I was behind and I said it's got to be a couple thousand dollars. The actual amount was $1,800. And so I said I could pay $500 to a thousand now and give him the rest by the time I moved the lumber logs out of there by mid July.”

McCutcheon says that Colombi told him, “Send me $500 and we'll call it good. … And I thought that was a heck of a generous — you know, very generous and very considerate of Mr. Colombi.”

McCutcheon sent the $500 check, but Colombi Jr. later told him that based on “legal advice” he hadn't cashed it. McCutcheon says he then told Colombi that he would soon be down from his home in Oregon to relocate his logs and lumber to Elk, closer to where it was intended to be used.

When McCutcheon arrived on June 15 he discovered that his rented lot on Odom Lane was empty. His logs and lumber were gone.

“There had been a burn pile that was still smoldering,” said McCutcheon. “And there had been a road cut in from Odom Lane that had never been there before, since I was there, and never been used since I was there in '98. And all my wood was gone.”

Colombi Jr. told the investigating officer, Mendocino County Sheriff's deputy Ricky Del Fiorentino, that he'd given Robert Russell permission to remove firewood, downed trees and to do general cleanup of the property. The deputy also talked to a neighbor who said that between June 9 and June 11 a flatbed truck came and went late into the night, carrying away many loads of logs and lumber, Dave McCutcheon's logs and lumber. The neighbor said he'd also heard chainsaws running for hours and couldn't help but see a newly constructed gate at the site.

As the investigation proceeded, Ed Colombi Jr. told a stunned and disbelieving McCutcheon, “I thought you’d abandoned that stuff.”

Deputy DA Tim Stoen of the DA's Fort Bragg office soon filed grand theft charges against both Edward Colombi Jr. and Robert Russell, but the case languished while Stoen and his investigator tried to find a crucial witness they eventually located in Idaho.

Ed Colombi Jr. and Robert Russell were in trouble.

A few months ago, Colombi Jr., forthrightly described by DA Stoen as a “recidivist thief,” pleaded guilty to felony grand theft; he's scheduled to be sentenced on Monday, May 10th in Fort Bragg's Ten Mile Court. Stoen is only seeking a year in County Jail plus full restitution for the value of the lumber.

For a man with four felony priors, Colombi is getting off light.

Stoen's unkind description of Ed Colombi Jr. is based on Colombi’s criminal record; it includes four prior felony theft convictions in Oregon for which Colombi served time in the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Back home in Mendocino County in 2004, Colombi, with $300 in his pocket, tried to steal a $100 watch from the Ukiah Walmart. Walmart’s thief-monitor saw him do it and Colombi was detained when he walked out the door. Colombi told the Ukiah officer who'd slapped the cuffs on him, “Man, I know that I'm wrong. I'm on methadone, and when I'm on methadone I get these impulses, and sometimes I steal.”

Most of the lumber stolen from McCutcheon has disappeared or was sold by Colombi Jr. and Robert Russell to a third party named Greg Arnold. Arnold is not being charged in the case.

Well known defense attorney Richard Petersen is representing Colombi Jr. If Colombi Jr. has the resources to hire Petersen, he would also seem to have the resources to pay McCutcheon for McCutcheon's losses.

Colombi's co-defendant, Robert Russell, cannot be found. A bench warrant has been issued for his arrest.

And how do you get a large sum of restitution money from a junkie?

(Tim Stelloh and Bruce Anderson contributed to this story.)

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