Old Uncle Scratch

by Bruce McEwen, June 11, 2010

Dope in a diaper? This week's court report, in images (from upper left): James Sanderson, Jose Maldonado, Luis Navarrete, Felix Valdovinos Ayala, Galdino Diaz Ceja, Humberto Beltran

Back on February 11th, the cops and the DA were talking about 51 pounds of methamphetamine and a warehouse full of marijuana, but last week in Ukiah that particular load of dope had shrunk to a couple of kilos of crank and a mere bale of weed. It was still a lot of dope, and the people dealing it were being packed off to the state pen.

The DA had already slammed Luis Navarrete as one of the perps.

“He was already put away,” Deputy DA Kitty Houston said. “He got four to five years in prison.”

Navarrete's confederate, Felix Valdovinos-Ayala, got 10 years.

“We’re doing this in segments,” Ms. Houston explained. “Mrs. Valdovinos will be next. They had a child, an infant, in the car, and the dope was in a diaper.”

Presumably not the diaper the infant was wearing, but driving around with a baby and a big load of dope is generally considered outside prevalent child care practices.

The buyer was an “U.N.C.L.E” — an UNderCover Law Enforcement officer. Good Old Uncle Scratch — scratch an uncle and there's a cop.

Ms. Houston described the diaper caper.

“Mr. Valdovinos drove to Cash Creek with a sample the first day. Obviously, he was one of the major players. And the residence involved was being used for storage with many small children, a number of families!”

The prosecutor sighed.

“Although I was impressed with Mr. Valdovinos’ honesty and remorse, this was a large amount of contraband. He was, in effect, a ringleader. He was in a position to sell large amounts and to do it again. We need to send a message that criminal enterprises are going to be punished.”

“No doubt,” Public Defender Linda Thompson agreed. “But in light of the fact he took responsibility early on, Mr. Valdovinos deserves consideration. As to being a ringleader, he was a conduit only, a useful tool for a person who procured those large amounts.”

Thompson said she agreed that eight years would be as good as ten to ensure that Valdovinos wouldn't do it again.

Judge Richard Henderson hates meth. “A scourge on the community,” he calls it. Which it surely is. The judge just put a desperate Covelo grandma away for selling crank. He isn't fooling around.

“The court finds,” Henderson began, “well, first of all, Mr. Valdovinos is statutorily ineligible for probation based on the sheer volume of drugs involved, so probation is denied. Mr. Valdovinos was probably not a ringleader but he was one of the principle organizers, moving a huge amount of methamphetamine — four-and-a half pounds, the most I’ve ever been involved with — and a very large amount of marijuana, a major drug trafficking operation in Mendocino County. Considering the amounts and number of people, I suspect it had been going on a long time. Based on that I feel the ten years is warranted. He did enter a plea at an early stage, but a number of counts were dismissed in exchange. Considering the sheer volume involved I’m not inclined to reduce the recommended term.”

Henderson had thrown the book at Valdovinos and then hit him over the head with the kitchen sink.

Rick William Robeson, the Lake County bank robber who stuck up several banks in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties before blundering straight into law enforcement's arms near Hopland, was up for sentencing. But Public Defender Thompson got Robeson's day of judgment postponed — again — until June 11, 9am.

Another “conduit” — to borrow Ms. Thompson’s euphemism for drug runners — Mr. Humberto Beltran — was present for judgment and sentencing. His lawyer was David Eyster, candidate for DA.

It seems Beltran had entered a plea, then after retaining the formidable Mr. Eyster, elected to withdraw it. Eyster proposed that Beltran be placed on regular probation, thus removing him, a Mexican national, from the country. The People would be spared the expense of incarceration.

Deputy DA Shannon Cox was in agreement. ICE (formerly the INS) would return Beltran to Mexico and if he came back to the land of opportunity, he’d go straight to prison.

Judge Henderson wanted it in writing and the court interpreter, Tim Baird, explained the nature of the waivers to the defendant, an older gentleman with dignified manners, who agreed to, essentially, go back where he came from.

Mr. Eyster stuck around for another client, a Mr. Galdino Diaz-Ceja, with whom Eyster had just been in court in Lake County. The charge was accessory to the transportation of marijuana in Lake County one day and Mendocino County the next day.

The US Forest Service had put a tracking device on the defendant’s vehicle and set a trap for him. Eyster said his client had fessed right up to transporting devil weed and that a co-defendant had only gotten a misdemeanor. Couldn’t the court be lenient with his client, too? Eyster thought 90 days would be appropriate. “And I think he’ll do well on probation,” Eyster concluded.

Deputy DA Shannon Cox considered her file briefly and said, “He’s only 22, no previous criminal history. I think he was caught up in this, needing money, but even at 22, he should have known his behavior was inappropriate. Ninety days is light, but I’ll submit. I hope he’s learned a lesson form this crime.”

Judge Henderson mused over the probation report.

“On review,” he said, “I feel he will benefit from probation. I’m going to suspend the prison sentence. But I have a problem with Mr. Diaz.”

Staring at Diaz, the judge said, “You were stopped with ten pounds of marijuana in Mendocino County when you’d just been stopped in Lake County the day before. It seems like all someone who wants to make some easy money has to do is offer themselves up as a safety valve to protect those who are growing marijuana illegally, but I will tell you that your involvement supports a lot of violent crime in this area.”

The judge took another look at the probation report and said, “A hundred and twenty days was recommended, but I was more inclined to impose 180. I mean, you went ahead and did it again right after you were arrested for it in Lake County!”

His misgivings notwithstanding, Henderson imposed the 120 days plus probation.

After recess, Darvel Blackwell and Clifton Jacobs, accused of attempted murder in an alleged home invasion robbery on Chicken Ridge outside of Covelo, were back in Henderson’s court. They are the final two defendants in the Chicken Ridge shootout, a confused event that has occupied the court off and on all winter, and amused many more persons outside the halls of justice with its often comic testimony. Carly Dolan, Blackwell’s public defender, had filed a motion to compel discovery in the case.

“Things have trickled in,” she said in reference to the DA’s ongoing tardiness in surrendering evidence of use to the defendants.

“I just spoke to Mr. Hubley about the photos and the defective VHS video of Mr. Slade. It appears he’s working on that.”

Deputy DA Matt Hubley said, “My VHS was eaten. It has the defective problems. I expect the Sheriff’s will be of similar quality.”

“The real issue,” Ms. Dolan said, “is Mr. Long’s wallet and necklace being stolen — by Mr. Slade. They now know it wasn’t stolen. We deserve to know how and when they came to know that.”

“They were never recovered,” Hubley said evasively.

“Are these items truly missing?” Dolan demanded. “We don’t know that. It’s my belief that Mr. Slade took these items to support his testimony that this was a robbery. He’s made these allegations and the People have a duty to look into it and see if they’re true or false.”

Hubley said, “I have no problem with contacting Long to see if the items were returned, and if so, by whom.”

Mr. Jacob’s lawyer, Alternate Public Defender Berry Robinson was surprised at this revelation. He wanted to know if law enforcement had had any contact with Robert Long. Long had been shot at close range in the head, but miraculously survived.

Robinson said, “Long was going to testify and never came in. I wonder if we could get some contact information if law enforcement knows where he is?”

Judge Henderson said, “Mr. Hubley?”

Hubley hesitated, then said, “I thought we turned that information over… I’ve never spoken to him, Judge.”

Henderson said, “Will you get that information and turn it over to the court, Mr. Hubley?” His tone was mild, as if it were a matter of casual consequence, but the judge's humorless grin conveyed a sense of the imperative.

“Yes, Your Honor,” Hubley said, aware that the judge was on to him.

To sum up the Chicken Ridge case at this point: The primary victim doesn't seem to want to be found, the tape of his interview has been eaten by technology, and another victim can't prove he was robbed.

Prediction: Blackwell and Jacobs will walk.

The Aaron Vargas case, which has attracted international interest, is nearing the sentencing stage, but all the media attention has created some fresh questions. During the recent interview on ABC’s “20/20” new allegations of abuse by Darrell McNeill, the man Vargas shot dead, had surfaced. Vargas’s defense attorney Tom Hudson made a motion to compel the DA to provide his client with anything new in the investigation. Assistant DA Beth Norman said, basically, her office had not added anything new. Hudson was satisfied, and sentencing could proceed as scheduled for Monday, the 14th and Tuesday, the 15th. Expect satellite trucks and a horde of tanning salon reporters at the County Courthouse next week.

The case of Mr. Jose G. Maldonado was particularly well suited to attorney Dan Haehl of the public defender’s office. When God in His infinite wisdom and humor was drafting the final days of creation, Dan Haehl must have been looking over His shoulder because Dan seems to have known in advance that he’d get this case. Of course there’s no tangible proof of Mr. Haehl’s prescience, but why else would he have put a lifetime of study into the relative merits of so many different kinds of firearms if he wasn’t destined to defend Mr. Maldonado on a concealed weapons charge?

Maldonado, it seems, had been drinking when a cop pulled him over and found an old .410 single-shot on the floorboards in the back of the car. The DA’s office managed to inflate a misdemeanor into a felony charge.

The .410 single-shot is basically a kid’s gun. It’s cheap—about $75 at K-Mart—good for little more than shooting upland game birds, likes chukars and quail with a light load of BBs.

Maldonado said he found the little shotgun, which was plausible enough since either a kid or a fool had taken a hacksaw to it and made it even less serviceable for range and lethal effect. Cutting off the barrel of a shotgun reduces the “choke,” making the BBs spray out ineffectively. Yet kids and idiots like to mutilate old guns this way in imitation of the sawed-off shotguns they see on TV. This gun was pretty much ruined and probably discarded.

Mr. Haehl provided all this and sundry other technical information relating to the usefulness of this gun as a weapon intended for criminal applications. But Judge Ron Brown apparently couldn't grasp Haehl’s firearms brief.

Maldonado, who labors in the vineyards, said he used the .410 for snakes, which is about all it would be good for in its “modified” condition. I live next to a vineyard and know from first-hand experience that they are full of rattlers and gofers. The rattlers come for the gofers.

The prosecutor in the case, Deputy DA Brian Newman, a gun lover himself, moved quickly to capitalize on the judge’s ignorance.

“The gun was open,” Newman said. “And there were a couple of shells on the floor as well. All the defendant had to do was put a shell in and it would be ready to fire. The officer found it when he pulled the car over after the crash.”

“There was no crash,” Haehl said. “The car rolled forward when Mr. Maldonado got out — after he was stopped! He hadn’t got it in gear when he parked. And the gun was in plain sight, unloaded.”

“But it was laying on a coat,” Newman said. “All he had to do was throw the coat over it. He didn’t in this case, I think, because he was too intoxicated.”

Haehl countered that Newman had earlier said Maldonado had had the presence of mind to minimize his drinking, but now Newman wanted it the other way around: “Counsel says my client was too intoxicated to hide the gun but sober enough to know he’s had more than three beers. Mr. Newman makes much of what the gun ‘could have been’ intended for, but there’s no evidence for any of it. It’s a good gun for snakes in a rural area, and not much else. There’s all sorts of suppositions about what Mr. Maldonado could have done with the gun, but I just don’t see what’s to be gained by making this man a felon.”

Judge Brown said, “Well, first of all, it’s obvious to me that someone put a lot of effort into this particular weapon. Whether it was to be used for unsavory reasons is unknown, but I have some concerns about how he came into possession of this weapon. I don’t know how probation came to the conclusion that he wouldn’t be a good candidate for probation, but under the circumstances he seems to be a good candidate.”

Brown consulted his file briefly and resumed, a little disingenuously, saying, “I’m not addressing whether he be deported, but I’m going to deny the 17b at this time.”

The 17b was Haehl’s motion to reduce the charges to a DUI, a misdemeanor, and prevent Maldonado from being deported.

“I don’t see much chance of him not being deported,” Haehl said. “I guess I must be mentally ill because I can’t see any reason to make this man a felon.”

Brown said, “Mr. Maldonado, this may cause you to be deported and denied re-entry into the country, but do you understand the terms of your probation?”

Maldonado said he did.

“The court intends to adopt the probation report’s recommendation with the exception that I intend to suspend the jail sentence and place him on probation. That’ll be the order,” Brown said. Then he added reflectively, “I do find unusual circumstances in his lack of any criminal record…”

Adios, amigo, y via con Dios.

James Sanderson was sentenced next.

It appears that Mr. Sanderson nicely set himself and his missus and their child up in a big house on the Mendocino Coast, a house the Sandersons funded by dispatching lucrative amounts of marijuana and via Fed Ex and receiving large amounts of cash — $80,000 when he was popped — in return.

Judged solely by his credentials, Sanderson is a clever fellow, having graduated Phi Beta Kappa from a good school, and clever enough to have gotten his family on welfare while they raked in large amounts of cash-money.

So Mr. Sanderson had these charges against him — selling dope by Fed-Ex and defrauding the welfare state. There was also a third charge, joyriding in a stolen vehicle.

The People, which is us, few of whom have ever seen $80,000 in cash, were nevertheless inclined to follow the probation report recommendation, which was lenient. Sanderson’s lawyer, high-decibel legal legend Richard Petersen, agreed.

In his booming muleskinner’s voice Mr. Petersen told the court his client had no memory of the joyride or leaving the vehicle abandoned at the Burger King in Willits.

“It would be tricky for this college grad to deny he was in the car since the surveillance cameras at Burger King clearly show him at the wheel,” Petersen declared, establishing either his unfounded faith in the intelligence of college graduates or making a tiny joke to make it seem as if Sanderson was just another fun lovin' frat boy.

“He now understands that he cannot take alcohol or drugs, Your Honor,” Petersen fairly shouted. “If the court allows probation, he’s keen on doing what has to be done. CPS is involved and he’s in AODP, in a family reintegration mode. We, of course, would like less jail time, but he’ll do what he has to do. He’s thankful for the opportunity and he wants to prove to his family and the court that he can do what he needs to do.”

Drive the dope east next time? Not drink himself into a stupor in Willits and fall out of a stolen car?

Judge Brown said, “I must say that when I read these reports I had some problems. Considering the amount of money involved, I’m wondering whether I should go along with these recommendations. He certainly knew what he was doing when he violated the welfare laws which were meant to help people who are really struggling when he was not in need. But I am going to adopt the recommendations in the report. And I am going to impose the jail time. I’m going to increase the jail time to 180 days. In each of these cases I am going to increase the community service to 150 hours. Otherwise, I intend to adopt the probation report’s recommendations.”

Petersen, who always lays it on thick and loud, concluded, “Your honor, we thank the court for the probation.”

Deputy DA Brian Newman brought up the matter of restitution, $5,048 owed to the state for welfare. The court ordered it reserved, saying, “I expect the rest will be paid by the co-defendant.”

The co-defendant is Mrs. Bess Sanderson. She's facing charges similar to those of hubbykins, save falling drunk out of a stolen car.

In the meantime, the press took a break. Reporter Tiffany Revelle of the Ukiah Daily Journal and I were discussing where to go. I wanted to go to the Forest Club for a beer, she wanted coffee at Schat’s Bakery. She felt that going to a bar while on the Journal’s clock would be deleterious to her professionally; but I, too, have a reputation to maintain. In the end, I relented and we went out for coffee. Tiffany had to go there anyway to meet with a delegation from the Anderson Valley Unity Club to find out what was going on with the money they gave the Sheriff to get Anderson Valley’s resident deputy, Craig Walker, a police dog.

The Deputy’s dog, it turns out, has been put on hold. Everything at the Sheriff’s office seems to be in limbo due to funding limitations. We’ll have to wait until after the next round of budget cuts to see if Anderson Valley will continue to have a second deputy.

Speaking of cuts, the man who was out in front of the courthouse a few months ago brandishing a placard that read “CUTS HURT KIDS” will be in court this coming Friday. His name is Paul Tichinin, Mendocino County’s Superintendent of Schools. Tichinin is a defendant, along with several other school administrators, in a case filed by Dennis Boaz. Tichinin and his supporting cast of intellectuals accused Boaz of racism when Boaz deployed the word “niggardly” to describe the school district’s parsimonious offers to the inland teacher's union Boaz represents. Boaz rightly resented being denounced as a racist by Mendocino County's illiterate “lead educator.”

One Response to Old Uncle Scratch

  1. Kat Reply

    June 15, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    I’m guessing his “co-defendant” is Bess Sanderson-the same one who just left their 2 kids unattended in an unlocked car while hitting the bar in Mendocino? While her welfare check wouldn’t cover the payments on their + million dollar coast home, surely it would have been enough to pay a sitter. Those poor children!

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