Talkin’ Smack On Facebook

by Bruce McEwen, June 7, 2017

Howard

Stephen Howard was held to answer on a felony charge of criminal threats last week. The criminal threats charge was Count One — that one held up (like a house of cards). Count Two, stalking, failed entirely. The result being, Mr. Howard was discharged.

This doesn’t mean Stephen Howard was innocent and somehow got railroaded — he had threatened to burn down the home of a Potter Valley family with the family inside it; he also appeared to have been stalking one family member, Desiree Rhoads, over some miscellaneous property left behind when he, Stephen Howard and his girlfriend, a certain Ms. Beals, were asked to move out in January. The problem was lawyerly confusion, all of which worked to the advantage of Stalker Dude.

We might also note here that one of the Deputy DAs hustled out to go find Mr. Welsh, his colleague. As she waited, Judge Moorman clapped her palm to her forehead, closed her eyes and took a deep, calming breath.

“Ah, there you are Mr. Welsh. Call your first witness.”

Deputy Gregory Clegg was standing by (had been all morning), and he marched to the witness stand with martial celerity and efficiently described his contact with the family of Derrick and Monique Aragon who were having problems with Stephen Howard, who had been asked to move. The Aragons were forced to sell the RV that Howard and Beals had been living in.  There was a civil case involving some unnamed property left behind, and this property was the motive for the threats the Aragon family was getting from Howard.

But Deputy Clegg couldn’t just say that. According to court protocol he had to be asked it by Assistant DA Welsh.

Welsh: “Is that when they started getting threatening messages?”

Rennert: “Objection. Leading.”

Moorman: “Sustained.”

Welsh: “Is that when the family started getting communications from Mr. Howard?”

Clegg: “Yes.”

Welsh: “How were the messages sent?”

Clegg: “Through social media, mostly Facebook.”

Welsh: “How many were sent?”

Clegg: “Several.”

Welsh: “Were the messages threatening?”

Rennert: “Objection, leading.”

Moorman: “Sustained.”

Welsh: “But…”

Moorman: “The objection is sustained.”

Welsh: “What was the nature of the messages?”

Clegg: “They were concerned with Mr. Howard getting his property back and stated in a threatening manner.”

Welsh: “Was Desiree Rhoads in fear of Mr. Howard?”

Rennert: “Objection, leading.”

Moorman: “Sustained.”

Welsh: “What was Ms. Rhoads’ reaction to the Facebook messages?”

Clegg: “She was in fear of great bodily injury or death.”

Welsh: “Why is that?”

Clegg: “Because of a previous message to her father, a result of which the whole family had blocked him from social media.”

Rennert: “Objection, foundation.”

Moorman: “Lay your foundation, Mr. Welsh.”

Welsh: “Were there other indications that the family was in fear?”

Clegg: “They’d stopped going into town, and instead were driving to Lake County in regards to things like going to the store.”

Welsh: “Did Desiree believe Mr. Howard was capable of carrying out his threats?”

Rennert: “Objection, calls for speculation on the part of the witness.”

Moorman: “Sustained.”

Welsh: “Not really, judge. It doesn’t call for… Sorry, judge, but—”

Moorman: “The objection is sustained, Mr. Welsh.”

Welsh: “What did Desiree tell you in regards to whether Mr. Howard was capable of carrying out his threats?”

Rennert: “Objection, calls for double hearsay.”

Moorman: “Sustained.”

Welsh: “It really doesn’t though, judge, not really because, uh… sorry.”

Welsh then showed his print-outs of the messages sent to Desiree Rhoads’ Facebook page. These were entered into evidence.

Welsh: “Did you know Mr. Howard from before?”

Clegg: “Yes.”

Welsh: “How did you know him?”

Clegg: “My partner had arrested him.”

Welsh: “Did you contact him after your interview with the Aragons?”

Clegg: “Yes.”

Welsh: “Where did you contact him?”

Clegg: “He was in his blue van, parked behind Home Depot.”

Welsh: “What did you do?”

Clegg: “I asked him to step out of the van and asked if he’d left any messages on Facebook for Ms. Rhoads. He said he had, but that they were not threatening.”

Welsh: “Did you tell him you’d heard the message he’d left on Mr. Aragon’s voice mail about burning the house down?”

Rennert: “Objection, hearsay.”

Moorman: “Sustained.”

Welsh: “But — sorry…Uhm… Did Ms. Rhoads tell you why she called the sheriff?”

Clegg: “Yes, because of a message left on her father’s phone.”

Welsh: “Did you listen to it?”

Clegg: “I did.”

Welsh: “Did you record it?”

Clegg: “I did.”

Welsh: “Did you recognize the voice?”

Clegg: “I can’t say that I did, no.”

Welsh: “Was the message threatening?”

Rennert: “Leading again!”

Moorman: “Sustained.”

Welsh: “What did it say?”

Clegg: “That he, Mr. Howard, needed to get his property back and, specifically, that he would kill Mr. Aragon and, if necessary, take the law into his own hands.”

Welsh: “And this was from an unknown number?”

Clegg: “It was, but they all believed it was Mr. Howard.”

Welsh: “Did you ask Mr. Howard about it?”

Clegg: “I did. Initially, he denied it. Then, when I told him I’d listened to it, he said he gets a little upset and made the excuse that he has a bipolar disorder.”

Welsh: “Were they all afraid?”

Clegg: “All the ones I spoke to were.”

Welsh: “Were there others?”

Clegg: “The only one I didn’t speak to was the 11-year-old.”

Pubic Defender Rennert cross-examined Deputy Clegg.

Rennert: “Isn’t it true that Derrick said he wasn’t afraid of Mr. Howard?”

Clegg: “Initially, yes.”

Rennert: “Did you specifically ask Desiree about her fear and inform her of the elements of the charge?”

Clegg: “I did.”

Rennert: “Then after you, um, told her the, uh, that the charge required a, um, fear of great bodily injury, you then, uh, asked her if she had any fear of GBI [great bodily injury] — or did she, uh, offer that on her own?”

Clegg: “In regards to the burning down of the—”

Rennert: “Objection, non-responsive!”

Moorman: “Sustained.”

Rennert: “So, uh, then she did not say she was um, uh, afraid of death until after you advised her of the elements of the, uh, the charge?”

Clegg: “Correct.”

Rennert: “When you spoke with Mr. Aragon about the, uh, voice mail message, he never said — well, let me just ask you this, isn’t it true that the message never specifically named Mr. Aragon as the, uh, the one he would, um, uh, kill?”

Clegg: “Yes, it is true.”

Rennert: “Did you make any attempts to verify… Well, lemme ask you this: You received these screen-shots of the Facebook page via email?”

Clegg: “Yes.”

Rennert: “Did you then, uh, take any, um, measures to verify they came from uh, Mr. Howard’s Facebook page?”

Clegg: “I did not.”

Rennert: “And did you, uh, review the emails from Desiree?”

Clegg: “I did.”

Rennert: “And isn’t it true that some of these were, uh, from, uh, another um party?”

Clegg: “Yes, that’s true. And I stated that in my report as well.”

Rennert: “And isn’t it true that in that writing there was, um, uh, nothing that specifically says he would, um, uh, burn the, uh, house down?”

Clegg: “That is true.”

Rennert: “And when you spoke to Mr. Howard, he never specifically, um, uh, said, did he, that he had any accounts with social media?”

Clegg: “That’s correct.”

Rennert: “Nothing further.”

Moorman: “Redirect, Mr. Welsh?”

Welsh: “Did Derrick tell you he was in fact scared?”

Clegg: “He stated he was not scared of Mr. Howard one-on-one, but he was in fear for everyone residing in the residence.”

Welsh: “Was he afraid of what the defendant might do?”

Clegg: “Correct.”

Welsh: “And he denied making the threats?”

Clegg: “He did, initially. But when I told him I’d reviewed the message, he made the excuse that he sometimes made threats due to his mental condition.”

Moorman: “But Mr. Aragon had gotten the message that the defendant would burn down the house?”

Clegg: “Correct — with them in it.”

Moorman: “When?”

Clegg: “It was in January, but these messages had been deleted because they’d blocked him from Facebook.”

Rennert: “As to these, uh, other, um, messages, do you, uh, know whether they’ve been, uh, edited?”

Clegg: “I didn’t know you could edit them. I’m not familiar with that.”

Rennert: “So it’s your, uh, understanding that… Well, lemme just ask you this: Fair to say, you don’t know whether these messages have been, um, uh, edited?”

Clegg: “Correct.”

Rennert: “Did you make any, uh, effort to get the, um, uh, records from Facebook?”

Clegg: “I did not.”

Rennert: “That’s all I have.”

Moorman: “Is this witness excused? [He was.] With respect to this print-out, People’s Exhibit Number One, the messages did not come from Mr. Howard’s phone.”

Rennert: “There’s other problems with the print-out, your honor. Here at the bottom it says ‘see more’ and the picture is not of Mr. Howard. I would agree that the language may be threatening but it also says ‘read comments’ and we don’t know what comes after that, so the, uh, clear, immediate, unconditional, and specific elements are not met, and, uh, um…”

Moorman: “I agree with everything you say, Mr. Rennert.”

Welsh: “But the voice mail, judge…”

Rennert:: “There was a threat to kill, but it wasn’t specific to Mr. Aragon, so again, that’s not before us, and where he says he’s going to burn down the house with everyone in it, the tie-ins are very vague, hardly enough for even a prelim.”

Welsh: “Although he didn’t specifically name Mr. Aragon, there was the part about he’d better be looking over his shoulder, and that’s unequivocal in prospect of immediate execution, I think.”

Moorman: “Alright, it’s a close call but I’m gonna hold the defendant to answer on the statement made in the voice mail sent to Mr. Aragon’s phone number — it was his phone number so it was intended for him and the statements on Facebook show an escalation in tenor and threatening demeanor in the tone of the writing on the Facebook posts.”

Rennert: “It was Desiree who received those, not Derrick, your honor.”

Moorman: “That’s true. Good point.”

Welsh: “But — sorry, judge — Mr. Aragon had blocked his Facebook — and the entire family had changed their habits.”

Moorman: “I’ve made my decision on the 422, but I’m gonna discharge him on Count Two because of the way it’s alleged. We’ll bring this back for arraignment on June 14th, 9:00 am sharp.”

* * *

UPDATE ON THE COAN CASE: Ms. Coan is suspected of murdering Jamie Shipman, 57, of Mendocino, two weeks ago. The victim and her husband, who was not present at the time of the shooting, had lived on the same property with Ms. Coan, 39, and her son, Alexander, age 20. Police investigations revealed the Ms. Coan was upset with the victim and her husband about her eviction. Ms. Coan, who had fled the area in Mr. Shipman’s work truck, subsequently turned herself in in Fresno.

On May 27, 2017 around 3pm Mendocino County Sheriff's Detectives, after conducting follow-up investigations related to this case, responded to the 10800 block of Docker Hill Road, in Comptche, where they believed suspect Alexander Coan, 20 years of age, might be staying. Alexander Coan is the son of suspect Kelley Coan and had been questioned on the day of the crime and released. At the time detectives did not believe there was enough evidence to identify him as a responsible party in the crime. Detectives now believe he was an active participant in the homicide.

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