Guns, Germs & Steel
by Bruce McEwen, November 4, 2009
James Stephens, felon, up on charges that he was in possession of a .22 rifle and a 12 gauge shotgun, narrowly missed four more years in state prison because, apparently, he's a non-violent felon and he wasn’t in actual possession of what the DA characterized as “weapons.” A .22 and a shotgun were merely in a room Mr. Stephens had access to, and never mind that plinkers like .22s and an old fowling piece like a 12 gauge are standard adolescent sporting equipment, as familiar to most rural youngsters as an UglyStick spinning rod or a lock-blade Buck knife. They can be used as weapons, but so can sticks and stones. Mr. Stephens went on probation.
The gun charges against Olen D. Sowers were far more serious. Sowers had a 30.06 Savage, a .45 Colt, a .40 Smith & Wesson, a 9mm Taurus — stolen, it turned out. He also had a replica New Army black powder revolver, a .44, a case of high-tech throwing knives and hatchets. Sowers had enough weapons to single-handedly repel a frontal assault on his Fort Bragg house by Al Qaeda.
Sowers was on parole, which is a ticket already half-punched for a return trip to prison, which is where Sowers seemed headed. Not only had he shot a nice pattern in himself — what gun enthusiasts call a tight group — with his impressive arsenal of handguns, Sowers also hit himself with a couple of bulls eyes in the form of a meth stash and a set of scales, not to mention $12, 629 in bundled cash. Sowers definitely had himself a window seat on the southbound for San Quentin.
In the vernacular of gun editors, the .45, the .40 and the 9 mm are called auto-loaders. The pistol reloads itself when fired. On the street, they’re called automatics, because you can shoot ’em as fast as you can pull the trigger. They are highly prized among drug dealers because they can be instantly pulled from your baggy shorts if a deal goes bad.
The late Dave Ainsly, who played the army captain in the movie Hamburger Hill, could tell if a man was armed by the way he carried himself. We were playing a friendly hand cribbage at the Rustic Bar when a couple of guys in baggy shorts came in; Ainsly turned over the ace of spades, upside down — the sign of a violent end — and said, “those guys are packing.” They were young and cocky like they might shoot the barmaid if she ID’d ‘em! When Ainsly died, I went to my American Legion Post to volunteer for his firing squad, a 21 gun salute due all veterans, but there was no record of any military service.
I knew a Highway Patrolman in Wyoming who got into a shoot-out on I-80 by Elk Mountain. The “dude” got out of his ride, pulled an automatic out of his baggy shorts, and emptied his clip at the approaching trooper, using the stylish movie method of holding the gun sideways. The officer calmly took his stance, and shot Mr. Dude dead with a single pop.
So, who wants to go out to Mr. Sowers' place at 19000 Babcock Lane in Fort Bragg at 10:30 at night to take his guns and drugs away from him?
A certain Mr. Moore, that's who, Mr. Robert Moore. Mr. Moore, with his fluffy beard, mismatched old sweats and beer belly, doesn't look like a guy likely to take on an armed tweaker in the middle of the night, but the portly cop was introduced as Special Agent Moore who said he’d been a qualified meth witness no less than 10 times.
Olen Sowers’ attorney, public defender Carly Dolan, wasn’t inclined to quibble. She “stipulated” to SA Moore’s expertise.
Ms. Dolan had her bobbed black hair in a sort of question mark of a ponytail. She’s tall and pretty, and always reminds me of my niece, Amy, who has known since she was nine she wants to be a lawyer. Amy would be thrilled to meet Ms. Dolan.
Ms. Dolan asked to have her client, young Mr. Sowers, who looks like an NFL linebacker complete with stylishly shaved head, seated next to her at the defense table; “And, your honor, could he have his writing hand freed?”
Sowers' “writing hand” was most likely also his gun hand, not that the kid looked like he might make a move on the deputy. But the deputy who un-cuffed Sowers positioned himself where his .40 Glock couldn’t be snatched from the holster as Sowers hand came out of the cuff. In the Marine Corps I did duty as a brig chaser. A chaser, charged with taking the world’s most proficient killers to court, is not entrusted with a gun. The defendant could take it and commandeer the jeep. So all a chaser gets is a nightstick and an armband. This way you, the taxpayer, don’t lose a perfectly serviceable marine to an ugly gunshot wound; he merely gets cool-cocked, and a fire team of MP’s are standing by, anyway, to take him down.
Special Agent Moore, on the witness stand, and defendant Sowers, relaxed next to Ms. Dolan at the defense table, watched each other like grizzly bears — in grinning, sidelong glances.
“A little fold-up safe held the throwing knives,” Moore said, ticking off the contents of Sowers' arsenal.
“Anything else?” Kitty Houston asked.
“A bullet-proof vest. A black piece of body armor,” Moore said. He gave Sowers a flat sour look. Sowers dropped his eyes after a little staring contest with his nemesis to jot something on the legal pad his lawyer had given him. Moore grinned.
“Based on your [expert] opinion,” Kitty Houston wondered…?
“Definitely for sale. And the guns would have been for protection from robbery.”
“Did the defendant appear to be using meth?”
“Yes. It was obvious. Just by the size of his pupils. But he was also sweating profusely. It was 10:30pm on the coast, the deputies were all in coats and hats and he had his shirt off, sweating profusely.”
Ms. Houston wanted to make a final point: “And the 9 mm was reported stolen in Fort Bragg in August of ‘08?”
“Yes,” Moore said, looking straight at the defendant.
Ms. Dolan began her cross:
“You went to Babcock Lane following a briefing. He’d been seen there. This was all based on the hearsay of other law enforcement officers. Do you know what address he was registered at with Parole?”
Moore didn’t recall, or seem much to care.
“You said there was a fence?” Ms. Dolan was reminding the witness of his own description of the Fort Bragg property where the evidence was found.
“Yes. A tall wooden fence. around the trailer.”
“Does the trailer have its own address?”
“Not that I know of.”
“And when you arrived, he was fixing a car?”
Cops naturally resent defense attorneys, and Moore couldn’t resist a dig. He laughed and said, “He was working on it. I don’t know if he was ‘fixing’ it.”
Ms. Dolan asked, “Wasn’t Mr. Harju, in the house 20 feet away, the property owner? And when you contacted Mr. Sowers, didn’t he tell you he lived in Willits?”
“I believe he did,” Moore conceded, in an offhand manner, as if it were beside the point.
“Did you ask what he was doing in Fort Bragg?”
“I don’t believe I did,” Moore said vacantly.
“Did he say he had no access to the trailer?”
The deputies had found a key to the trailer where the guns and drugs were found. Mr. Harju, who readily admitted to the cops he was tweaking on go-fast himself, said he’d sold the trailer to Sowers for $600.
Public Defender Carly Dolan wanted to clarify a couple of points.
“You filed your charging report October 10th?”
“Correct. Initially, yes.”
“But then you filed a more formal report. And when was that?”
“Just a couple of days ago.”
“And there were — what? — 12 keys on the ring? One of them used to unlock the trailer? And inside you found letters with the defendant’s name?”
“There were handwritten letters, one from San Quentin, some bill-type letters.”
“Was there any bedding? Any sign that anyone was living there?”
“It appeared to be more for storage.”
“Were any of the guns registered to other members of the Sowers family?’
“I don’t recall,” Moore stated blandly, as if the serial numbers on the other weapons hadn’t been traced back to the owners.
“Are you familiar with the Sowers family?” Carly asked.
“I don’t believe so.”
“Mr. Harju admitted he was using meth. Was he arrested?”
“Did you search his house?”
“Did you find any keys to the trailer?”
“Not that I recall,” Moore said
“But the trailer was still in Harju’s name, despite the claim he’d sold it to Sowers for a few hundred dollars?”
She asked Moore how he knew the defendant.
“From years ago, at the jail,” Moore said. “When I was a working at the jail. I knew he was a felon.”
A shudder ran up my spine, my throat tingled urgently, and I coughed loudly, invoking a scowl from the judge. I thought maybe I was identifying too intensely with the defendant. My throat went dry and I folded my notebook and went to the water fountain. The flu was kicking in.
Sowers was held over on all four counts. He’ll get a fair trial, if that’s what he wants. But he’ll have to prove he didn’t have that key.
* * *
I have no idea why District Attorney Meredith Lintott is personally prosecuting Mr. David Leiberman, except that the charges are grand theft, and the matter had to be put off for the umpteenth time, because the probation officer had supposedly assured counsel, Coast attorney Gregory Petersen, that a letter from a prominent figure in the case would not go into the court’s file. Defense was mistaken, it turned out. The judge said he’d read the letter and that it would have a definite bearing on the sentence. Defense wanted time to prepare a no doubt-expensive prophylactic to the virile contagion.
The judge asked the DA if she had a problem. She didn’t. It could wait a few more days.
* * *
Putting things off can pay off. Three Norteños accused of attempted murder — they'd supposedly bashed a rival in the skull with a rock and slashed his chest open — got their cases dismissed. All they'd had to do was wait quietly for their 60-day right to a speedy prelim to pass and, presto! free to do it again. “Vamanar, esse!”
Dominick Favor was hauled in on a 647f, cop code for drunk in public. Favor was later discovered to have smuggled a steak knife into the jail. Or, more accurately, it was found on him when he was being admitted to the jail. There's no evidence Mr. Favor had planned on spending the night at 951 Low Gap Road.
Apparently, the cops were having a 647f Field Day out on Pinoleville Road north of Ukiah, rounding up the drunks. They came swinging around the corner and there was Favor, a beer can in one hand and a trash bag in the other, picking up recyclables. Officer Tim Goss testified he kicked the beer can out of Favor's hand as Favor crouched to pick it up and “put” Favor on the ground.
Deputy Goss said they dropped Mr. Favor in the sally port of the County Jail and sped off in the big Crown Vic Interceptor for three more 647f’s. When they got back to the Jail with the next load, Officer Lopez — a jailer, and no relation, I presume to the one fired for, well… Well, anyhow, Lopez was complaining that they’d found a steak knife on Mr. Favor.
Then there was the case of the Willits school janitor who showed a pocket knife to a kid in the cafeteria and got charged with 417a, exhibiting a weapon, and 273a, cruelty to children, an Only In Mendo case to the max. I once showed my replica Marine Corps parade saber to a six year old, and the only cruelty it exerted on him was making him wait until the next time his folks brought him by to hold it and marvel at it. So I was keen see what the judge would decide after reading the janitor’s personnel file, which his lawyer submitted with solemn confidence. However, by then the swine flu had me fully in the grip of its squalid sty and everything blurred into an obscene delirium. The fate of the unfortunate custodian will have to wait.