The Ongoing Saga of the San Juan
by Rex Gressett, June 14, 2017
Saturday morning early I pulled into the Fort Bragg McDonalds to get a shot of joe. It had been a hard strange week. The boys were sitting around on the concrete sidewalk outside smoking and laughing quietly and amusing themselves with tales of weirdness and outrage completely invisible to the suits and the citizens who were padding in and out of the golden arches. The gang of grizzled streeties greeted me with friendly interest. All of them wanted to know what was “happening” with the boat.
Their tolerant and welcome inclusion made me recall that I am as much of street person as anything else. A bohemian if you want to be nice. I spent my last available dollar and a borrowed dime for a large black and plopped down on the sidewalk with my buddies to catch up. I don’t see these guys every day or even every week, but they all know that I love them in a detached and slightly wary sort of way. Truly love.
They knew all about the great old ship now half sunk in the river and are avidly following her adventure. The San Juan is a landmark, a monument and an inspiration for all kinds of folks.
Her nobility of line strikes hard at some broadly human historic memory of what ships once were. When you looked at her from across the harbor she had the startling strangeness of a clearly serious large ship with a functional double mast. Built in 1929 San Juan owns the unexpected excellence of a real schooner. Tourists all snap a shot.
In the local netherworld of the street folk she is also universally known. In that other society of the disenfranchised, the homeless, the drunks, and the mentally different, we all know each other and the San Juan is also well known. In that more private culture she is certainly recognized as a thing of beauty but also as a sort of bastion of resilient weirdness and gesture of defiance to a world that in their concrete personal experience relentlessly destroys every perishable molecule of beauty. They know also who owns her and that the ship was never a rich man’s toy.
I told them I have been arraigned at the Ten Mile Court in the matter of the sinking of the San Juan for littering. And that I was demanding a jury trial.
The information was received with gratifying joy and scorn. The entire group has at least a passing experience of the county jail and therefore court system at Ten Mile. We agreed with nods and scowls and illustrating antidotes that justice in Fort Bragg had indeed fallen on dark times with the advent of the honorable Judge Clay Brennen. The consensus was solid that the new judge would in his snooty way give you a break but his classism and bigotry were painfully in evidence. The public defender don’t defend, was the summary judgment and the judge knows it. Wistful and respectful mention was made of the honest late Tom Croak our city’s beloved and long time public defender who died on Highway 20. There was respectful headshaking but the solemnity dissolved in the sheer amusement that I was demanding a jury trial on the only offense they could hang on me: littering.
My problems go deeper than your average litterbug. The charges against me are as far as I can learn, unique in the sinking of any ship and carefully calculated by men intent on the ship’s destruction. The public defender gave it to me with no sugar coating.
To my angry dismay, and against all expectation I was plainly informed that there are powerful interests in the Harbor and the county that want the ship gone destroyed and forgotten. What I could discern for my self was that they want it so badly that they are slaughtering fair legal process to do it. The Public Defender at Ten Mile, the Harbor Commission attorney, a rogue element at Fish and Wildlife and very possibly Judge Brennan have contrived a strategy to pervert the law in plain view, arrogantly, with not the slightest concern about possible exposure or accountability. The abuse of power the distortion of law and the corruption of justice are nothing novel to the dirty power operators in Mendocino county. Catch them at it and they will laugh in your face. You know it.
Don’t let them kill the San Juan, the boys hollered at me as I drove out of the Mcdonalds parking lot. I am more scared than I let them know but indeed I do not intend to.
When the ship went down at her dock in the winter storms, it was in many ways just deserts. I had been marching to the beat of a different drummer so long that I found to my surprise I had marched right off a cliff. When the great ship that I had kept floating for 15 years went down more ended for me than just losing a home. I truly did not know until the ship sank how eccentric I had become. Neither had I any idea how angry my oddness had made a few local officials and functionaries. Living in splendid isolation I had come to a place in time and space where I thought I could hear in something other than words what the river was somehow saying. To get that crazy you have to listen for years. You have to be patient.
I had wrapped up the slow watery whispering of what I thought then was inviolate permanence around my life and removed myself from the obstructions and troubles with which every reasonable and honest person must always grapple. Now they had me.
I did not know they hated me the night that she sank but I should have. On that first dark sad night night a few hours after she went down a cop or a Petty something from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, one Don Powers, arrived quite alone in a red rage of bellowing incoherency.
Before I knew better I thought that a fellow might have expected at least courtesy if not sympathy from officialdom in the immediate aftermath of disaster. I would have preferred that they would at least not shout abuse at me, perhaps comprehending that I had lost basically everything I owned and loved. The expectation was deeply naive.
Warden Powers knew as the whole harbor knew that the ship had gone down not out of some negligence but after a vividly public, passionate and exhausting struggle extending over the better part of two days with the Coast Guard involved and supervising and me pulling the labor with their pumps.
Call the cops if you don’t want me, Don Powers announced in a triumphant wrath: I am the cops. There followed some hours of continuing tirade laced liberally with threat. He strongly implied I was going to be arrested. At one point he wanted me to go down the pilings and get in the water and start pulling out the flotsam. His abuse exceeds credulity, or I would describe it more fully. He was a monster in a uniform with a gun.
I did not grasp at the time how psychotic his behavior was. I think I was just too tired, he seemed the physical expression of what was already a bummer. He scared me of course, but at the same time I never took him entirely seriously. To do so one would have had to make a lightning readjust of every expectation of what we feel as Americans we can expect from any public official. I could not make that adjustment, not that fast.
Over the next two months I stumbled and blundered and thrashed at a solution. I made progress. More than they think. The poor ship is only a third submerged and does not represent an impossible challenge to raise physically but it weighs two hundred tons. It is not an easy thing either.
Two months to the day after that first bad night. I got an email citation from Don Powers. I was to be arraigned in Ten Mile court. They had cited me for the sin of my ship sinking, other than that I did not know the details. In the two months I had been blundering and begging, learning and figuring, officer Don Powers had spent his time somewhat more effectively.
A couple of days after I got Don Powers’ email I went before the judge for arraignment. Right away it was weird. It seemed to me from the judge’s rather snide remarks that the honorable Judge Brennan was already familiar with specific details the case. At the time I thought nothing of it. It was a little embarrassing not to be able to respond to obvious crap but it was only later that I learned that at an arraignment the judge was supposed to have no knowledge of a specific case prior to an arraignment. Brennan played around with factual detail and the Don Powers' assertions like a kid stealing candy. It sure seemed like there had been discussion. I had no idea at that moment that if there had been talk involving the judge it would have been quite illegal but it was damn certain that at the least Brennan had an attitude. I discovered that the charge against me was littering. That was the first mild surprise.
Immediately after the arraignment I met the public defender Francis McGowen. With no subtlety at all, and no playing around, our public defender let the cat out of the bag. We did not discuss my defense on any charge. We have never discussed it.
The ship will never be raised. It is not possible, he thundered. The San Juan is not worth raising, it can never be done. I tried to tell him ships are raised all the time. I was beginning to wonder what any of this had to with littering?
You don’t own the ship he put it to me with blank curiosity apparently testing the water.
Who the hell told you that?
He pulled out a fat file. What the hell? He had compiled quite a stack of documents. Jackson the attorney for the harbor commission, Don Powers from Fish and Game were mentioned. The public defender had evidently been in laborious conference with attorney Jackson of the Harbor Commission and Don Powers of Fish and Wildlife, generating in the course of their disscusions a big fat file. They clearly had worked out their objectives and a strategy during the two month silence before Don Powers sent me a citation by email. Why?
Mr. McGowen, the public defender at Ten Mile court, and I never did discuss the charges against me, my defense on those charges or anything relating to them. Our only discussion consisted of his inflexible demand that I relinquish ownership of the ship, and my flat refusal. It would take care of all your problems, “You can walk,” he said sitting back and staring. I thought he seemed a little afraid himself. Walk on the littering charge and let them destroy the ship? I thought not.
I told him, not really knowing what else to do, that I would never relinquish the ship and that I thought in my layman’s way that his behavior as an attorney was utterly off the wall. To hell with it, I sputtered if I don’t have an attorney give me a jury.
When the time came to appear in court again, I was not allowed to enter a plea or say anything. McGowen caught the plea like an outfielder snagging a high ball. He told the court that I was not competent to declare my own innocence. His comfort level when committing extortion was higher behind his closed door. He did not want a trial and specifically he did not want a jury. My next appointment was with a physiologist. Jury trial deferred.
I met the shrink at the Ten Mile court. The urbane Dr Kelly works on contract for the county of Mendocino to protect the mentally disadvantaged from themselves when they come before a court of law. He was there at the request of my appointed attorney Francis McGowen the public defender at the Ten Mile courthouse to determine my competency to enter a plea. I wanted to plead not guilty, he was determined to prevent it.
I had been dragged before the court two months after the San Juan, my ship and my home, sank in a winter storm in Noyo Harbor. Until they cited me I had no idea of the bone deep determination there was among powerful interests in the county to wreck and remove the ship.
I think the shrink and I both enjoyed the visit, I know I did. Doc Kelly asked and I answered the formal questions. We touched a bit upon the philosophy of law and the rights of men in judicial process. He seemed a bit amused to be talking to me. Apparently I did not seem to be obviously disarranged. I told him how astonishing it was to me that legal rights achieved so long ago in medieval England would be my only defense in a brazen enterprise of extortion aimed at my home and only asset.
From the time of William the conqueror it was the right of the accused to be physically present when his plea is made. It was all that had prevented them from taking my ship.
I was defending my competence to the psychologist because the public defender Francis McGowen, my appointed public defender, was determined to prevent a jury trial. I was going to demand one. Attorney McGowen had never had any reason to doubt my competency but he wanted to draw a cloak of privacy around his rather flatfooted scheme of intimidation and extortion. He had a reputation, as I was to learn subsequently, of being a truly terrible attorney but in my instance, before we ever met he had said good by and good luck to legal ethics. Somebody was telling him what he was to do, he was doing it. Ethical conduct had no part in it. Dr Kelly and I talked for half an hour and the good doctor told me (his words) I was immaculately competent.
After passing muster with the shrink. I suggested to the so called public defender that we might discuss something other than the surrender of title. Perhaps my defense. No such luck. Give up the ownership of the boat he declared getting louder now and more insistent. There is no other option.
What about the charge of littering?
Relinquish the ship or regret it, he told me in profound almost inchoate exasperation. Do it!
Could you put that in writing?
I could see his gasket blowing. You get no special favors from this office!
Just a note?
He jumped up from his desk waving his arms like a windmill and expelled me physically from his office. We had not yet discussed the littering charge that they were hitting me with.
I started sending emails. I sent to the California Bar and the director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, I contacted the office of the Pubic Defender in Ukiah, a Ms. Powers (no relation I hope to hell), finally I got the following email from McGowen in which he told me what I already knew about the Coast Guard. Local extortion was not their thing.
There follows the email from Francis McGowen public defender Ten Mile court.
I have contacted the Noyo Harbor District, the District Attorney's Office, and the Coast Guard regarding the San Juan.
I have been provided with the following information:
The Coast Guard will not get involved unless the San Juan becomes a danger to navigable waters (i.e., breaks up and debris enters the shipping channel. The District Attorney's Office will dismiss all charges against you which relate to the sinking of the San Juan if you waive your interest in the vessel. Harbor District personnel informed me that the District Attorney (Jim Jackson) has prepared a waiver for you to sign.
Thus, this criminal matter can be resolved if you give up possession and ownership of the San Juan.
I will be going to trial for littering and leaking oil into the Noyo river. I will officially but not actually be represented by my appointed attorney Francis McGowen. I have asked for and been refused a change of venue. When I go to court the cards will be stacked. I will know that the honorable Judge Brennan knows and has known all about it from before it as legal for him to know. In a small town we can see the administration of justice more clearly than the give us credit for.
The daily operations of a local court in a small town effect us very intimately. In most of the cases that come before our court most locals all know the background and the people involved. The smug well heeled legal beagles assume small town hicks are incapable of comprehending their subtlety. I think we understand more than they give us credit for. The District Attorney, the judge, and the Public Defender work together every day. Judge Brenan could not work with Francis McGowen without accepting the man's absence of integrity and abundance of brutish disregard for his clients. The Public Defender has from what I hear been trashing the law and bungling public defense without even the pretense of ethical probity for his whole term in Fort Bragg. There is zero chance that the honorable Judge Brennan did not know and has not known and condoned a pervasive and continuing perversion of justice in the Public Defender’s office.
I know that when I am dragged before the judge that there is not the remotest possibility of fairness. I know that no ship owner ever has been charged as I am being charged.
I know that they are going to nail me for whatever they can. I have read the law and I know that I could offer a reasonable defense. I have asked for a change of venue and will continue to fight for it. I won’t get it. They will probably send me to jail for six months, the maximum term reserved for chronic remorseless repeat offender litterbugs. When my home was lost and my most precious personal effects were cast into the river it may have been a violation of the law, but I know that I fought to prevent it with every ounce of energy I possessed. It won’t matter. Not at Ten Mile.