Out With a Whimper & In With a Bang

by Bruce McEwen, January 5, 2011

The year ended at the Ukiah courthouse Thursday with the Honorable Leonard LaCasse striding out the door with his robe folded over his arm, his years as a strictly Mendocino County judge completed. Of course, their honors never really retire; they show up all over the state as substitute judges, working whenever they feel like supplementing their retirement checks.  Some of these old boys make more money retired than they made unretired.

Because Mendocino County has so many judges — 9 for 90,000 people — there's now a small army of our black-robed graduates out there, beneficiaries of the Great Consolidation of the County's justice courts in the 1970s.

First came the law that justice court judges had to be lawyers. Mendocino County had been perfectly happy with "lay" judges, meaning those community guys without the law degrees who everyone trusted to be fair and honest. Mendocino County was also perfectly happy with two (count 'em) superior court judges, Broaddus and O'Brien who did the whole load that it takes 9 people to do now.

When the lawyers in the legislature passed the law that justice court judges also had to be lawyers because, you see, only lawyers can tell truth from untruth, many of today's Mendocino County lawyers were still running around naked in the hills as hippies! But when these hippies with the law diplomas got the news that their similarly qualified brothers in the state legislature had created 9 new judge sinecures for lawyers in Mendocino County, the hippies with law degrees came down out of the hills and ran for justice court judge, and very soon, from Covelo to Point Arena to Boonville to Laytonville to Fort Bragg to Hopland to Willits to Ukiah the hippies with law degrees were Yer Honor and pulling down upwards of a hundred grand a year processing the working class in and out of the state pen.

Why, old timers tell me that a hippie guy named Kossow got one of these new judge jobs right out of Boonville and nobody's seen him since around here, but he shows up in courtrooms from Crescent City to San Diego, and hasn't run for judge since that way back election.

Judge Richard Henderson announced last week that the Honorable Ronald Brown is not expected to return to the bench because he is dying of pancreatic cancer.

The first week of 2011 began Monday with the swearing-in of the new District Attorney, C. David Eyster.  Supervisor, Dan Hamburg on Tuesday and new judge Ann Moorman on Friday.

The face of local justice will be substantially altered in the new year, and there’s a buzz of crackling anticipation that these new personalities will usher in an era of sensible law enforcement, especially for the many who make their living growing and selling marijuana.

Judge Henderson, never a hippie, tends to be old school about marijuana cultivation and sales, but LaCasse — who not only thought medical marijuana was a farce but said so — is gone and Judge Clayton Brennan, a committed stoner — may be moving onto more substantial duties than mere arraignments. Former defense attorney Moorman will get that work. And she’ll probably have an easier time of it since the new DA has said he won’t be sending her the great hordes of pot trimmers to sort out from the growers that the former DA sent into superior court — a circumstance that caused much pandemonium on Brennan’s watch.

With Brown gone and a hefty number of murder trials ready to go forward, it is unlikely that Henderson will have much time for marijuana cases. Brown was the main man when it came to murder. Now Henderson will handle the sanguinary calendar.

Henderson was already hearing some of the big boy murder cases, and he has some serious ones progressing towards trial stage, most notably the matter of Mr. Philip William Frase, arrested last January for the murder of Steven Richard Schmidt.

As is often the case with murder in Mendocino, the Phil Frase case is pegged to the love drug: The cops think Frase killed Schmidt over a pound of pot. Schmidt was found by cadaver dogs under some brush on Frase’s Bell Springs Road property. Schmidt didn't put himself there. He'd been bludgeoned to death by a hammer and dragged by his neck behind a four-wheeler and concealed by brush from whatever picture windows might be in the neighborhood.

Mr. Frase, wearing rubber gloves, was seen driving Schmidt’s freshly vacated motorhome off Frase's Bell Springs property. The deceased's motorhome turned up in Fort Bragg, personal property of Schmidt's at the door of the Elk Store. Frase told authorities that Schmidt had left the area, which he certainly had in the spiritual sense, but a cadaver dog soon found his physical remains on Mr. Frase's property.

Then, in December, detectives in Siskiyou County connected Frase to the 2005 murder of Patricia Katherine Joseph. of Fort Jones. Ms. Jones body was found in the Klamath River. Like Schmidt, Ms. Joseph had died prematurely from severe blows to the head. Like Schmidt, Ms. Joseph had also been working for Phil Frase, a dangerous guy to know it seems.Last year when they brought Phil Frase in for arraignment he looked like your basic Mendocino County Bush Hippie, wearing a long white beard with hair ties in it to section it off. He had that mountain man beard and wild white hair streaming in all directions. He didn't look like anybody's Employee of the Month, it's fair to say. But Frase has since cut his hair and trimmed his beard, preparing himself to not look like a guy who boosts his bottom line by knocking off the people working for him.

Mr. Frase has also been trying to get himself a new lawyer. At the moment he’s being represented by Farris Perviance III of the Public Defender’s Office, meaning he's presently on the fast track for a Murder One conviction. Mr. Perviance lost the last murder case he tried, which was prosecuted by the able Jill Ravitch, the newly elected Sonoma County DA, referred to in Monday's Santa Rosa paper as Sonoma County's "Jackie Robinson."

The case against Phil Frase is being prosecuted by Deputy DA Scott McMenomey.

Jury selection in the Frase case is set to begin March 21.

A slow couple of weeks ended the old year at the Ukiah Temple of Justice, but it looks like the new year will get off with bang, the kind of bang you used to get from bodies dropping though the floor of a scaffold. ¥

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