A Case In Point
by Bruce McEwen, March 1, 2017
The first 911 call said that someone was dropping rocks off the Perkins Street overpass onto Highway 101. When Patrol Sergeant Noble Waidelich of the CHP arrived he could see rocks in the roadway, some the size of tennis balls and others the size of soccer balls.
Another caller had said someone was throwing rocks at cars onto the freeway from the shoulder, and after he’d cleared the rocks off the roadway Sgt. Noble Waidelich spotted a suspect inside the chain-link fence, near the shoulder of the road.
The suspect was Eugene Benitez, and he’s been in custody since this incident occurred, January 12th, 2016, more than 13 months ago.
Finally, last week, the court got around to his prelim, which he’s theoretically supposed to have within 10 days of his arraignment. The reason this case took so long was explained at the beginning of the hearing when Public Defender Linda Thompson told Judge Richard Henderson that she was going to be submitting reports from Napa State Psychiatric Hospital and Dr. Kevin Kelly on her client’s competency evaluations and his need for involuntary medication (presumably not marijuana). Benitez has been confined to Napa for an evaluation.
Public Defender Thompson wanted the charges against Benitez reduced from felony to misdemeanor.
In the meantime, Deputy DA Brian Morimune put Sgt. Waidelich on the stand to tell his story.
“I was in the area when the first call came in, and as I came down East Perkins onto the overpass, I could see rocks on the roadway below.”
“How big were these rocks?”
“They ranged in size, anywhere from the size of a tennis ball to the size of a soccer ball.”
“Did you see who was throwing them?”
“Eventually, I did.”
“Can you explain?”
“Yes. I was removing the rocks from the roadway when I first saw a man inside the chain-link fence. I got back in my patrol vehicle and approached him, and as soon as I made eye contact with him – as I was getting out of the vehicle – he started running along the inside of the fence. I got back in and went after him again, and this time when I got out and approached him, he stopped and took a fighting stance, with his fists clenched. Then he tried to climb the fence, and fell back, picked up a stick and threw it at me, and went back into his fighting stance as I dodged the stick, withdrew my baton and told him to get on the ground.”
This narrative was interrupted with a series of objections by Ms. Thompson, but it had soon become clear to the CHP officer that Benitez was either crazy or on meth. Or both. It took him and Deputy Jeremy Mason to subdue the rock thrower.
“What were you saying to him?”
“Get on the ground, stop resisting.”
“What was he doing?”
“Trying to get away, and he kept repeating, ‘I’m gonna get you, fucker!’”
Thompson objected that what Benitez allegedly said was hearsay, and Judge Henderson sustained her objection. Thompson then took the sergeant through the whole thing again on cross-examination all the way up to the hearsay she’d objected to herself, having the witness repeat it again.
Mr. Morimune just sat there shaking his head in disbelief, rather than object himself.
Thompson: “Did he say anything else?”
Waidelich: “He just kept rambling on about how he was going to get me.”
Thompson: “Can you describe for me again the fighting stance?”
Waidelich: “He had his hands clenched, and holding them up in front of him.”
Thompson: “Did you take him to UVMC for a medical clearance?”
Waidelich: “Yes, I did. And after he was cleared, I took him on to the jail.”
Thompson then submitted the reports from the state hospital and Dr. Kelly’s evaluation. Henderson took them to read – he’s retired but construction of his woodshop has been delayed by the recent fits of rainy weather, so His Honor was filling in for some judges who were home with the flu, which is going around the Courthouse – and the next day he granted Thompson’s request to reduce the charges of resisting arrest and throwing rocks at motor vehicles to misdemeanors, due to the defendant’s lack of a criminal record, as well as his mental condition.
On Friday, Judge Moorman ordered Mr. Benitez released from custody on the condition that he continue to take his meds, which presumably do not include methamphetamine or marijuana.
Dropping soccer-ball size rocks onto the freeway reminded me of a tragedy I experienced nearly 30 years ago.
In 1989 I was working as copy editor on the city desk for a daily in the Rockies where I had a little stable of writers for local news, one for special events features, another for city council and county commissioners meetings, and a third for the courthouse and police department; this last guy would go every day to the PD and get the latest from the desk sergeant, then hit the sheriff’s office for a look at the booking and activity log, then come back to the City Desk and report to me.
One day he came in with a report that a young housewife had the day before picked up her kids from school and was behind a semi-truck and trailer hauling salt blocks for livestock, when one of the blocks came loose, fell off, hit the roadway, bounced, and went through the poor woman’s windshield, killing her instantly.
“My God,” I said, “that’s awful!”
“If you think that’s bad,” the cub reporter replied, “you should have heard what the cops said about it.”
“What?” I asked.
“The sick bastards said those kids may have had their daddy’s good looks, but they damn sure got their mother’s brains.”
“You’re right,” I agreed, “that’s really sick. Don’t put that in your report, but try to understand it’s awful things like this that warps a cop’s sense of humor. They have to see this kind of thing on a regular basis, and making jokes like that helps them deal with the emotional stress and strain.”
Nowadays cub reporters have little or no contact with duty cops, as the police departments and sheriff’s offices assign the PR work to an older lieutenant or captain. As a result, the police become more insulated from the public, and lately law enforcement officers have begun using the term “civilians” to refer to members of the community, as if they no longer were a part of the civil authority, but belonged to a kind of occupying army.
This subtle change has come about in just the past year. Certainly, cops used the term ‘civilian’ often before, but now they use it exclusively to differentiate ‘us from them.’ More ominously, lawyers and judges have taken it up as well.