Blood in the Vineyards

by Bruce McEwen, December 9, 2010

William Crawford is the target of a personal injury lawsuit brought by Nicolas 'Nick' Fross.

Crawford owns McDowell Valley Vineyards in Hopland.

Fross, a former lineman for Mendocino College, was stabbed in the chest at a party held on the vineyard property in early November of 2006.

William Crawford’s son, Kyler Crawford, and some of his teammates from the Mendocino College football team were celebrating the end of the football season.

Celebrating football teams can be rambunctious.

Crawford senior had asked a couple of big guys, the Gonzalez brothers, Ramiro and Marco, to keep an eye on things, chaprone the festivities.

A fight broke out and Marco Gonzales stabbed young Fross, nearly killing the kid. Fross was rushed to the Ukiah emergency room. He survived and Marco Gonzales was arrested.

Marco Gonzales pled guilty to the stabbing and was packed off to state prison in late 2006. He gets out next month.

Nick Fross recovered, kind of, from the knife wound and moved to North Dakota on a football scholarship. But he didn’t recover all the way from his near death experience. He wants compensation for physical therapy — his doctor recommends a massuse — and psychological therapy for the post-traumatic stress he suffers from.

Ben Cartwright came to mind when William Crawford entered the courtroom with his defense attorney, Steven O’Neil. Mr. Crawford looks like a man accustomed to getting what he wants. He's a big, forceful looking guy.

Detectives Andrew Alvarado and Jason Caudillo of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department were called to give the jury an idea of what went down at the Crawford place that night in November of ’06. They were not called to give their opinions, but Fross’s lawyers and Judge John Behnke could hardly restrain them from doing so.

One of Fross’s lawyers, Ms. Close, asked Detective Caudillo if he had formed an impression as to what happened that night.

“Yes, I did. I found that the conclusions I came to were pretty much consistent with the other officers, that what had happened was....."

Ms. Close cut the officer off at this point, reminding him that it was a simple yes or no question.

“But thank you for your enthusiasm,” she added wryly, eliciting a ripple of mirth from the jury.

Detective Alvarado would later show the same enthusiasm in relaying his memory of stab night.

Ms. Close asked Caudillo if he remembered his interview with Kyler Crawford, the son of the owner. Kyler Crawford had thrown the party.

He did, Caudillo said, adding, “I was very impressed with him. He seemed just a very forthright, honest and squared-away young man.”

“Is it your practice to include your own opinion when you testify?” Ms. Close wondered.

“No, not generally in criminal cases.”

“Did Kyler seem nervous?”

“I don’t think nervous is the right way to describe it. He was upset.”

“On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate his nervousness?”

“I would rate him around one-and-a-half or two.”

“Did Kyler do or say anything to cause you to question his truthfulness?”

“No, I thought he was honest and forthright.”

Ms. Close asked Caudillo if the fact that he was distantly related to the victim, Mr. Fross, would have any effect on his testimony.

“No, not at all,” he answered. Fross, Caudillo explained, was a shirt-tail cousin of his wife’s. Caudillo hadn’t seen Fross since he was a little kid.

Detective Alvarado was called.

In the early morning hours of November 5, 2006, Alvarado had gone to the emergency room at Ukiah Valley Medical Center to see Fross.

“I spoke with him very briefly. He was in tremendous pain. He had a laceration across his chest and blood was coming from the wound.”

Alvarado was unable to talk with the quarterback until the next day.

Ms. Close asked, “Was he doing better by then?”

“Yes. He appeared to be in a little more comfort.”

“Did he do anything to make you question his testimony?”

“No. In fact, he admitted to smoking marijuana and drinking.”

“Did you identify any discrepancies in his testimony?”

“No.”

“What did you do next?”

“I went with Detective Jason Caudillo to interview Kyler Crawford.”

“Did Kyler appear nervous?”

“Yes. A little bit.”

“On a scale of one to ten…?”

“I’d say about a five.”

Ms. Close was trying to find out why Mr. Crawford had hired a problem guy like Gonzalez, a guy who goes for a weapon at a party of college kids.

Detective Alvarado was reluctant to answer.

The Crawford family's attorney, Mr. O’Neil, florid-faced and blue-suited, objected when Ms. Close asked, “Were the Gonzalez brothers employees of the ranch?”

Judge Behnke sustained the objection. (You often get the feeling that what gets sustained and what doesn't is purely random on the judge's part. This was one of those times.)

No matter, Ms. Close had a recording of the interview Detective Alvarado had conducted that night with Kyler Crawford.

On the recording Alvarado asked what the Gonzalez boys were doing there, and young Crawford had replied, “My dad asked them to keep an eye on things. Juan [the boys’ father] is kind of the manager of the ranch. Then Marco showed up, saying someone was following him. I guess you guys know he’s kind of, uh, ‘gone’…”

Mental Marco seems to have appeared at the gathering in a paranoid state.

Judge Behnke instructed the jury that they were to disregard speculation about Marco’s psychological whereabouts.

On the recording, Alvarado prompted Kyler to continue, “So they were told to watch things?”

“Yeah, they’re big guys, so they’d say, ‘Hey, you can’t do that,’ and things like that.”

Parts of the recording had been redacted, other parts were unintelligible, but somehow a fight broke out over a motorcycle. “Did you see how this incident got started?” Alvarado asked Kyler.

“I was in the house, and when I came out Juan and Miguel had bloody mouths. Marco took off, he ran inside and must have jumped out the window, the window was broken and—”

Who had slugged his brothers Juan and Miguel wasn't clear, but it seems that the mental case had stabbed the quarterback and jumped out a closed window.

Again the judge asked that the volume be turned down, and the transcripts passed forward for further redacting.

The judge clarified: “Since you inadvertently heard that last bit I’ll explain: Because the witness did not see this happen, he simply heard these things that are not in his personal knowledge, so for that reason I ordered it redacted. Okay, we’re gonna try this again.”

Ms. Close started the recording.

Alvarado asked Kyler, “Did you see Nick get stabbed?”

“No, I was inside.”

“Ever know Marco to carry a knife?”

“No.”

The file for the criminal case against Marco had been removed from the court clerk’s office to the court administration office. I had to get special permission to go up there and see it. All three of the Gonzalez brothers —Juan [Jr.], Marco, and Miguel — had criminal records, but Marco’s was the most impressive in its plentitude. So, when Kyler had said to Detective Alvarado, “You guys know he’s kinda gone,” the detective must have had at least a nodding acquaintance with what the kid was talking about.

Mendocino County cops have a pretty good idea of who's who in the miscreant community.

Next day Nick Fross’s doctor was on the stand. Kevin Konicek, another of Nick Fross’s lawyers, was directing the examination of Dr. Joel Erickson.

Dr. Erickson began talking about chest wall injuries and how they can change a person’s posture, making them hunch over.

“Do you see that in Nick?” Konicek asked.

“Yes, he has to find new ways to get comfortable. And then there’s the loss of breathability. It involves the muscles of the chest and diaphram. His chest wall mechanism has been injured, the resulting scar tissue, that would all translate downstream to a loss in breathability, making long runs, cardio-style aerobic exercises, more difficult from the permanent change brought on by the scar tissue.”

“Can you describe what the surgeons do following a stab wound like this?”

“Well, first they would have to stabilize him, which involves two maneuvers — making sure he was breathing, and stopping the bleeding.

“Were those maneuvers necessary to save his life?”

“Absolutely. They would have to put a tube in his chest to drain the blood from the lung, and that’s before the surgery even begins. Then the surgeon, with the help of the anesthesiologist, had to open the hole up wider to see where the bleeding was coming from, and in this case he couldn’t get to the blood vessel so he had to come in from behind and suture it with a loop around the vessel. Fortunately the heart was not punctured.”

“So over time the breathing capacity gets worse?”

“Naturally. With age this type of injury gets more acute. There is a possibility that with physical therapy — lots of physical therapy — the tendency to hunch over requires a lot of forced exercise, back exercise, but massage can also be useful in getting a person past some of the catches.”

“Can physical therapy help with the pain?”

“It can. If it was me — in fact what I recommended is body work with a good massage professional, a physical modality is really necessary to improve the breathing mechanism.”

“Okay, let’s move along to the post traumatic stress,” Konicek suggested.

O’Neil erupted in objections, but it was real clear that this kid Fross had nearly bought the store, permanently sacked, you might say. He was lucky to be alive.

“There’s no foundation for post traumatic stress,” he huffed indignantly.

“Okay,” Konicek said patiently. “Doctor, could you describe the psychological consequences of this type of injury?”

“Well, first of all the young man had to deal with a knife in his chest — the acute horror of the event. It’s a well-documented fact that those kinds of things will cause long-term psychological effects. And secondly, facing your mortality as acutely as he did — he told me his funeral was what he fully expected — he had to face his own mortality suddenly and acutely, and we know this manifests later as depression. We’ve been working on this for years; we have to put people on antidepressants after open-heart surgery — which doesn’t come unexpectedly and suddenly. Then the third part is his social sphere. I’m sure his friends—”

“Objection,” O’Neil growled peevishly. “This is speculation!”

Konicek bowed his head and rocked on his heels, his hands clasped behind his back, as Judge Behnke sustained the objection.

“One of the things about Nick,” the victim's lawyer said, "is that he left Ukiah after this. What is the significance of that, the loss of community?”

“Well, young people, young men in particular — in the psyche of a young man—”

“Objection,” O’Neil groused again. “This is the purest speculation!”

Judge Behnke said, “It does seem a little outside the expertise of a cardiologist. Why don’t you move along, counsel?”

Konicek asked for Dr. Erickson’s overall opinion on the PTSD.

“When you add it all up,” Erickson said, “he could be a poster boy for PTSD.”

“The person who stabbed Nick gets out of prison in January" —

“Objection!”

“Rephrase.”

“Has he said anything to you about Mr. Marco Gonzalez's release?”

“He said he’s afraid for his mother.”

“Is that one of the reasons he left town?”

“Objection!”

“Overruled. You can answer.”

“It is.”

“The person who stabbed him is Hispanic. Does that have any significance to—”

“Objection. Lack of foundation, outside the expertise of the witness and calls for speculation!”

“Overruled.”

Konicek smiled faintly at O’Neil and said, “Doctor do these kinds of psychological injuries affect the way you deal with your life?”

“Certainly, and he’s done the right thing so far. He’s gotten away from the source of the trouble, he continues to play football.”

“And how about counseling?”

“Absolutely. Finding an expert he can relate to is very important.”

“And this costs money?”

“Correct.”

“How long would he need to—”

“Objection.”

“Sustained.”

“Again, Nick, as you know, played football. What does that indicate to you, as far as the PTSD is concerned?”

“Objection. Lacks foundation, calls for speculation and is beyond the expertise of the witness.”

“I’ll allow it,” Behnke ruled.

"It is extremely important for the psyche of young men to work with the support of a team, going out and doing something useful like that, being involved with a team is a well known treatment for PTSD.”

On cross, Mr. O’Neil said, “You came into this case at Mr. Konicek's request, didn’t you Doctor?”

“That’s right.”

“Now, when Mr. Fross came to you — what was given to you as documentation of his medical condition?”

“His medical records.”

“So you were aware of a minor elective surgery at the Ukiah Medical Center?”

“No.”

“Were you aware of any other treatment?”

“No.”

“Any treatment for PTSD?”

“No.”

“Depression?”

“No.”

“Anxiety?”

“No.”

“Any anti-anxiety medications?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“Do you know where he went in North Dakota?”

“No.”

“Did you know he went there for a football scholarship?”

“No, I wasn’t aware of why he went there.”

“Did you notice the PTSD was diagnosed as mild in Dr. Schmidt’s opinion?”

“Yes.”

“And would you agree with that?”

“Yes, I would.”

“Is it also true that everything you know about the event came from him, from Nick?”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“That’s all I have.”

Mr. Konicek said, “Doctor, you have a medical practice in Santa Rosa, true?”

“Yes.”

“So it’s rare that you appear as an expert witness?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have any reason to doubt what Nick has told you?”

“No, I don’t.”

“So when you say Nick’s PTSD is mild, it is nothing trivial, is it?”

“No, it’s not.”

Mr. O’Neil said, “Are you aware of Secondary Gain, doctor?”

“Yes.”

This question started some furor on the part of Fross’s lawyers, but Judge Behnke settled the quarrel by saying, “He already said he had no reason to doubt Mr. Fross.”

That seemed to settle it, and the trial was recessed until next week.

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