La Familia In Boonville?

by Bruce McEwen, October 28, 2009

The Mexican drug cartel La Familia went down last week, big time, with kingpins arrested in 19 states and 750 pounds of meth seized and Michoacan, the birthplace of most Mendocino County immigrants, much in the news as headquarters for much of the mayhem associated with the international drug trade.

In Boonville, the Tapio-Soto familia went down too, with brothers Jose and Alodio Tapio-Soto arrested, and 14 pounds of bud seized.

The DA’s top prosecutor, Jill Ravitch, brisk and as always nicely dressed in a smart black suit, called the first witness, Boonville’s resident deputy, Craig Walker, one of two Anderson Valley resident depu­ties, the other being the legendary deputy Squires.

Ms. Ravitch asked, “How long have you been a sworn peace officer, Deputy Walker?”

“Over 12 years,” Walker answered in clipped sen­tences, adding that much of that time had been in metropolitan San Leandro.

“And were you in uniform and on duty at or around 7pm on October 3rd?”

“Yes. I was.”

“Where?”

“I was southbound on Highway 128. In Boonville.”

“Did you notice anything unusual?”

“I did. Yes.”

“What?”

“A vehicle with no license plate lamp. The vehicle turned off the highway without signaling,” Walker said.

“Then what happened?”

“I approached the vehicle and the driver got out and ran away.”

“Was anybody else in the vehicle?”

“Yes.”

And there they were, the defendants, Jose and Alodio Tapio-Soto, in County Jail orange seated at the defense table with their public defenders.

“Was there anything else in the vehicle?” Ravitch asked.

“Yes, a large black trash bag on the front seat — a big bag and it appeared full.”

“Did you look in the bag?”

“I did.”

“And?”

“Well,” Walker said, “there were 14 separate packs of marijuana in the bag.”

Public Defender Bert Schlosser objected, and moved to strike the answer, saying the determination that the bags contained marijuana went beyond the witness’s “expertise.”

Judge Ron Brown smiled.

“In Mendocino County? Overruled.”

Ms. Ravitch distributed pictures of the evidence, “People’s exhibits 1 and 2,” she said. Then, perhaps in light of President Obama’s request that law enforce­ment lay off medical marijuana patients, she asked Walker if either of the defendants had Prop. 215 cards?

“No. No 215 cards.”

“Did you weigh the separate packages?”

“Yes. It was a little under 14 pounds. The packs were 450 grams each.”

Public defender Attila Panczel objected with the odd argument that, “Hearsay, your honor. He was merely reading the numbers on a scale, there’s no proof that —”

“He’s testifying that he weighed the parcels, coun­sel,” Judge Brown corrected Mr. Panczel. “Your objection is overruled.”

Prosecutor Ravitch was studying her file, her pro­file canted in the aspect of someone who has encoun­tered a curiosity, a smile growing ever so faintly on her face. She said, “Did you have a conversation with the defendant, Jose Soto, in English?”

The eyes of the Soto brothers were on the DA, snapping with alarm, before Tim Baird, the Spanish language translator, caught up with her.

“Yes,” Walker said.

“And he understood you?”

“Yes,” Walker said. He shrugged matter-of-factly. “I asked him what was in the bag. He said clothing.”

“And he was not in custody at this time?” Ravitch was taking pains to clarify a point defense could exploit to get the case dismissed on a technicality.

Public Defender Schlosser, whose wife is facing pot charges in Utah, objected.

“The witness says the suspect was not arrested, but I don’t know that.”

Judge Brown sustained the objection.

Jill Ravitch is running for District Attorney in Sonoma County. She is an exceptionally capable law­yer. But something about this case left her at a loss. She went back to the beginning. Speaking slowly and clearly, she tried to get it straight.

“At what point did you turn on your overhead lights and siren?”

“I didn’t use the lights. Or siren.”

“Then how did you contact the occupants of the vehicle?”

“I just walked up to the car.” I

In Boonville there is a wonderfully large and con­venient parking lot in front of the famed fairgrounds, lined by a row of maples, all in glorious autumn leaf. It is also the site of much police activity. Many a south­bound abalone poacher has been stopped at Fish and Game roadblocks at the Boonville Fairgrounds, many a criminal traveler pulled over in its convenient spa­ciousness. Mostly, though, it's an inviting respite for the road weary traveler; secluded yet public, with lush grassy islands, broad sidewalks, rows of zinnias, and a marvelous antique steam engine.

Deputy Walker explained patiently.

“They parked at the fairgrounds. I parked a ways down and walked over,” presumably, to advise the trio that their license plate lamp was burned out and maybe toss them a que pasa or two.

“At what point did the driver leave the vehicle?”

“When I approached.”

“Did you smell marijuana?”

“No.”

“And what kind of car was it again?”

“A Jeep Cherokee.”

“Nothing further,” Ravitch said.

Public Defender Panczel, his shaved head bright as a light bulb, had an idea.

“Did you witness a vehicle code violation?” he asked.

Ravitch had already established that state law requires a well-lit license plate, and the judge was entertaining this quibble with impatience, tidying up his desk, ready to move on. Panczel took the hint. He asked if Walker had made a written report.

“I did.”

“And this testimony is consistent with your report?”

“Yes, I believe it is.”

“And you searched the bag — when? — before or after the driver ran?”

“After.”

Panczel’s eyes and hands fell. He sat down. “Noth­ing further,” he said, and we all wondered why he'd bothered in the first place.

Deputy Timothy Goss, the case investigator was called to testify. Panczel wanted to know if he’d ever testified as an expert before. Goss said he had. Five times. Where? Right here. In Department B, Judge Brown’s court. Panczel had stepped in it again.

Ravitch took over.

Was the expert witness familiar with metric weights? He was. And 450 grams is …? Just under one pound. Could he form an opinion on the 14 packs? Obviously for sale, by the weight of the quantities. The street value?

“Here? Right now?” Goss thought a moment and said, “$3, 000, maybe $3, 500 a pound.”

Attorney Bert Schlosser, an expert himself from his family's recent history, knew better than that. He scoffed and stood up, tossing a copy of the investiga­tor’s report dismissively on the table.

“So you’re saying the going rate for a pound of out­door grown marijuana, for this time of year in Mendo­cino County, is $3,500!” Getting that kind of money for Mendo Mellow, as Schlosser knows from intimate personal experience, is getting it past the I-70 and I-15 interchange in Central Utah where an incredible amount of drugs from Mexico and California are rou­tinely seized. According to CBS’s 60 Minutes, this is where profiling was invented and perfected.

Deputy Goss admitted the current rate “depends on a lot of factors.”

Schlosser asked, “So isn’t it fair to say that the going rate is more like $1, 500 to $2, 000?”

Goss replied, “Still, it depends on a lot of factors.”

Schlosser wanted to know if Goss could say for sure that the marijuana was an outdoor grow, but the line of questioning had grown inane and Ravitch objected. Schlosser tried a different tact. Could the marijuana have been for medical use?

“Yes,” Goss shrugged, breezily inducing a murmur of mirth in the gallery, “it could have.”

“Did you look at the pictures?”

“Briefly.”

“Did you find anything else to base your opinion on? Any money? Scales?”

Goss was “unaware” of any money or scales.

“So the only thing you based your opinion on was the one pound increments. Nothing further, your honor.”

Mr. Panczel wondered if the one pound incre­ments could have been used to preserve the freshness of the marijuana, suggesting that the weight was purely incidental. “Wouldn’t one pound increments preserve the freshness?”

Goss wouldn’t know, he said. “I don’t smoke.”

Panczel scowled as if Goss was intentionally being obtuse.     “So you can’t testify as to the use of one pound plastic bags being used to preserve freshness,” Panczel asked. “Hypothetically,” Panczel continued, “if some of the marijuana was moldy, then it could contaminate the rest?”

“Yes,” Goss agreed, “then you’d have a problem.”

Schlosser became curious about the analysis, he still wanted to know if this was an indoor or outdoor grow. And what about the THC level? Was it con­densed? Could Goss testify as to the quality?

“No, I cannot,” Goss replied.

“Was it moldy?” Panczel asked. “Can you testify to that?”

“No, I cannot.”

“So you can’t testify whether it was even saleable or not!”

Ravitch objected.

But Judge Brown was curious. He overruled her.

“It would be saleable,” Goss said. “I just don’t know who would buy it.”

Even the judge laughed at this one.

Panczel remonstrated indignantly about the hypo­thetical mold, but he was in no danger of being taken seriously.

“He answered the question,” Judge Brown ruled tersely.

“There was no test as to quality,” Panczel sulked.

Judge Brown laid the exhibit aside and said, “It looks like good bud in the photo,” in the tones of a man who recognized good bud when he saw it. “Based on the evidence I find good cause to hold the defen­dants over for trial.”

* * *

A diplomat from the Italian Consulate General’s Office in San Francisco appeared in the courtroom. Mr. Aldo Mura, in a fine suit and very expensive shoes, was there on behalf of an Italian national charged with cultivation and possession of marijuana for sale. The defendant, Francisco Deidda, of Calieari, Italy, wanted his personal effects returned; his pass­port, his money, and he was especially regretting that his eyeglasses had been seized along with the contents of his fanny-pack. Deidda's attorney, Myron Sawicki, chatted with the envoy from the Consulate. Two young women from Madrid, Spain, facing the same charges, but without benefit of diplomatic interven­tion, were considering an offer from Mr. Newman, Assistant DA. They were studying the pages describ­ing their alleged crimes with expressions one might unconsciously indulge while reading the menu at the proverbial Carrion Café. It didn’t appear very appe­tizing, and Judge Brown called a recess, to let them decide.

I crossed the hall where a preliminary hearing on a money laundering case was underway.

Special Agent Beau Bilek was not about to be duped by any clever lawyers. He wasn’t about to give a straight answer to any question, even for Deputy DA Kitty Houston who was on his side. Bilek finally con­ceded that he’d been trained at Quantico, Virginia, probably the FBI school there. This may or may not have explained Agent Bilek’s gift for circumlocution, but you had to give him his due: he could talk in per­fect circles.

The Defendant, a Mr. Graves of Leggett, had been paying his mortgage and car payments with money orders for the past year and a half. Like Boonville, there’s no bank, only the Post Office, in Leggett. To Bilek, Graves' money orders constituted “a red flag.”

“Whenever money orders are written below the reporting threshold,” he said, “It’s a red flag to law enforcement.”

“Why?” Ms. Houston asked.

“Because it raises a red flag,” Bilek answered with a straight face, the fluorescent courtroom lights bouncing off his shaved, and perhaps impenetrable head.

Defense attorney Keith Faulder had a go at Bilek.

“This red flag,” Faulder said. “At your academy classes in ’05 — or was it the more recent training at Quantico? — at which did you learn about these red flags?”

“At a red flag seminar,” Bilek said.

“Oh, so it was at a money-laundering seminar! And what’s the reporting requirement?”

“A red flag,” Bilek said.

“What’s the authority?”

“A red flag,” Bilek said.

“Do you know if there is a statute?”

“A red flag,” said.

“Are there no currency transaction reports?”

“A red flag,” Bilek said.

“Look, Agent Bilek,” Faulder said, “I’m not trying to be funny, here. I just want to know what the authority is? Your instructor at the seminar, was this person from law enforcement or some financial insti­tution?”

“You’re getting into sensitive material,” Bilek said, and no one would have been surprised if he'd pulled a real red flag

out of his pocket.

Faulder seemed startled. He’d stumbled into peril. He fumbled for his handkerchief, a white handker­chief.

“You can’t tell me because I’m not qualified to receive the answer?” Faulder asked.

The flat smile on Bilek’s face said it all: If I tell you I’ll have to kill you. He looked like a man who had seen way too many movies.

This one is going to go on for a while.

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