Incident At Cuffey’s Cove

by Malcolm Macdonald, October 18, 2017

How did I go from a city council meeting in Fort Bragg on a Monday night to the wind whistling bluffs behind Cuffey's Cove Cemetery ten days later?

The journey commenced at the October 3rd special city council get together where a fellow attendee reminded me that the following day marked the preliminary hearing of a young woman named Morgan Franklin who was whacked-out on something, probably lycergic acid diethylamide (LSD), while she ran amok at Mendocino Coast District Hospital (MCDH) on August 14th (see the September 6th AVA for more on that “isolated incident”).

Wednesday morning, October 4th, I arrived at Ten Mile Court just in time to hear Public Defender Frank McGowan declare that the unfortunate young lady in question was waiving her right to a preliminary hearing and proceding to a trial (or plea agreement). Staying seated I witnessed the other preliminary hearing of the day, that of Sayuri Asaoka Gatmaitan, Justin Adams, and Edward Tam. All three were charged with illegal procurement of abalone.

The hearing was held up momentarily due to the absence of Ms. Gatmaitan and her attorney, who were reportedly driving to Fort Bragg from the Bay Area. Judge Leonard LaCasse (who retired from the Mendocino County Superior Court bench in 2011) went ahead without her. Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Kevin Davenport called Deputy Sherriff Jonathan Martin to the stand. Martin testified that he had been summoned to the scene of a 911 call on the night of April 18, 2017. The scene being the bluff west of the Cuffey's Cove Cemetery, where an attempt to rescue a man halfway down the cliff was about to get underway around 11pm. Elk Fire Department and Mendocino Fire had also been called, with volunteers from Mendocino Fire ultimately employed in the climb down to defendant Justin Adams, who was stuck on the side of the nearly straight up and down bluff.

The 911 phone call had been made by Ms. Gatmaitan (pronunciation of her name varied between the judge, the ADA, PD McGowan representing Adams, and Bart Kronfeld representing Tam), apparently to the dismay of Mr. Tam. The differing stories offered to Deputy Martin and other officers present, from the defendants, concerning the reasons for Mr. Adams being on the cliff behind the cemetery as well as Mr. Tam and Mr. Adams being observed arguing at MCDH after the latter's rescue in the morning hours of April 19, prompted contact between the sheriff's department and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Game Warden Donald Powers stepped to the witness stand next. While rescuing Adams, fire department personnel and deputies noticed a relatively thin rope, held down by a rock, that extended from its resting place on top of the Cuffey's Cove bluff to a dangling position far below. When Warden Powers investigated the scene the following morning he found a faint trail some distance north of the rescue area. A trail that led to the beach below. From the beach Powers noted that at low tide a person could travel through a cave to a seemingly hidden portion of the beach. After waiting for such a low tide Warden Powers navigated the cave and, on the far side, under a cut bank at the base of the bluff, he located a backpack and another sack that held a combined total of thirty-eight abalone. Conservatively, these abalone could fetch $60-80 apiece for a seller in the Bay Area.

Guess what was directly above that cut bank and the abnormally abundant number of abalone. That's right: the same rope mentioned earlier. A rope that presumably was there to pull up the sacks of abs.

Through later interviews with at least two of the defendants, it appears that Gatmaitan dropped Adams and Tam off at the Cuffey's Cove Cemetery in the late afternoon of April 18th. Tam's attorney attempted to portray his client as someone just along for the ride from the Bay Area, only interested in procuring some marijuana from another party at the McDonald's in Fort Bragg. A more likely scenario played out this way: Tam served as both a lookout and someone to pull up the sacks of abalone using the aforementioned rope. Adams descended the bluff, presumably using the same trail Warden Powers found the next morning, traveled through the cave and, either by prying off the rocks and/or diving, procured the thirty-eight abalone. This must have taken quite awhile, apparently to a time after the sun had set. It would seem that he could not make his way safely through the cave after the tide rose and darkness fell, precipitating an ill-fated attempt to climb up the bluff. When Adams did not return, and with darkness upon them, Ms. Gatmaitan grew concerned enough to want to call for assistance. As mentioned before, Mr. Tam opposed this measure for some length of time until Ms. Gatmaitan's concerns won out, thus bringing law enforcement into the picture.

Judge LaCasse was having none of the 'just along for the ride' defense' of Mr. Tam. He and Adams were held over to account for their actions at a full trial (or plea bargain out in the meantime). Neither Ms. Gatmaitan nor her lawyer ever appeared, so the judge issued a no bail warrant for her arrest.

Having traveled to those bluffs behind Cuffey's Cove Cemetery on a Thursday when it felt like the wind would blow anyone within twenty feet of the edge right into the Pacific, I'm here to tell ya, it's not worth the three or four thousand dollars, or even double that, one might get for thirty-eight abalone. If the wind doesn't get ya, the ocean or fall from the bluff surely will.

(No slippery slopes at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)

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