(Ed note: After 22 years in a variety of federal prisons, John Dalton is at home in Laytonville picking up the pieces of his shattered life. His case was the worst example of egregious/outrageous government misconduct we know of. So far as we know, Dalton was held longer on marijuana-related charges than any other Mendocino County resident. We spoke to him about his unbelievable case and the aftermath last weekend.)
AVA: How did your case become a federal case and not just a Mendocino County matter sorted out on the local level?
Dalton: I don't really know. It's been a long time. There was the burglary mentioned in your earlier AVA articles, I think one of the local cops got ahold of the DEA agent in the area after that.
AVA: So the DEA just took it over and made it a federal case?
Dalton: That's right. They thought there were assets involved and they had more power to steal them.
AVA: When did you realize they were after you? Was it when shots were fired at you at your place near Branscomb?
Dalton: That was just the local cops back in 1986. Just county deputies. That was basically the first time I realized they were after me.
AVA: You were living in Redwood Valley. You were working. Life was going reasonably well. You had a stormy relationship with your wife, Ms. Horstman....
Dalton: That was well after that initial 1986 timeframe. When those shots were fired I was living on the mountaintop near Branscomb. That was back in the 80s. Hostmann got involved with the DEA in 1993 or 94.
AVA: Ms. Horstman was romantically involved with at least two DEA agents for whom she placed a tape recorder beneath the marital bed. Did you suspect that she would be as treacherous as she turned out to be?
Dalton: Not even. She was a demon in disguise, I kid you not.
AVA: The feds arrest you…
Dalton: Yes, and I was at Dublin Jail for almost four years, then Oakland County Jail for about 11 months. Over four and a half years, fighting my case. I went to court many times. I filed motions and I was trying to overturn this indictment. Fighting it left and right, one way or the other, any way I could. Several attorneys. They all seemed to be on the side of the government, to be truthful about it. I was denied bail before my conviction. When they arrested me, they didn't have anything on me. I knew I would be out of jail within two weeks on bail so I could defend myself. But that never happened. Four and a half years went by before I even went to trial. Then they sentenced me.
AVA:It was a jury trial?
Dalton: My trial was a jury trial. As it should have been. But it was more like a circus, not a trial. By that time they had already stolen my defense from me because months before the trial when we had an evidentiary hearing for outrageous government conduct we thought the judge would allow us to bring in all this ridiculous government conduct, the tape recordings, my wife flying around in a DEA helicopter, etc., and let the jury hear it. That part was just before the judge. The judge ruled against me. She said, 'You have brought all this out at the evidentiary hearing but we are not going to allow the jury to hear any of it. So the jurors who convicted me knew that something was being hidden from them but they did not know the extent of what was being hidden. We were not allowed to say anything about Agent Nelson and my wife, making a double agent out of her and getting into her head and screwing her over — they wouldn't allow any of that to be presented to the jury. The jury was out for two and a half days. If they had been able to consider what we brought up in that evidentiary hearing two or three months before trial — but they were never able to hear any of that. If they had, they would never have convicted me.
AVA: The jury look ok?
Dalton: The jury was about half men and half women. There were two or three young people on it. My trial attorney, Tony Serra, I have respect for the man. And Sherry White also. Very much. But before the evidentiary hearing on the outrageous government conduct I told him, Hold on a second. If we put all this evidentiary hearing evidence in front of them now about this agent with my wife in this case — will they let us put it in front of a jury? And he did not say anything. He just looked down. I thought for certain we would be able to bring it up. But he knew at that point that we probably wouldn't be allowed to bring it up. After the judge denied us, Tony never even told me that that was the ruling. It was about a month later. There was a ruling and she denied it. It killed me. I had to find out for myself a month later after the ruling.
AVA: And now, twenty-two years later…
Dalton: I was incarcerated from the time I was imprisoned in Dublin to October of 2019 when I walked out the door and my son was outside to pick me up. That was my son John. Josh Corrigan was Victoria's son.
Dalton: Being in prison is another life. A terrible life. You're just trapped in there. You can look beyond the fence and know you never can go out there or anywhere. The only time we went out was for some medical reason or from one prison to another or a plane ride across the country to another prison. Shackled and chained all the time, well over 100 times in those 23 years on different occasions. They still call it bus therapy.
AVA: Your exact conviction?
Dalton: I was convicted of a continuing criminal enterprise and that is a very high charge for the feds. I know of one other case out of this area that was handled like that. Eddie Lepp. He just got out of a few of years ago as well. He did a lot of years in the federal prison system too for marijuana. I'm pretty sure he was out of Mendocino County. But he's in some other county down south now. He was a big-time dude. I wasn't into anything like that. I was a small-time marijuana grower that they made out to sound like a big one. They convicted me of 9,000 plants over a three-year period. That's nothing compared to what's going on in this county today! I was just a simple grower.
AVA: How many prisons were you held in?
Dalton: I was in seven different federal prisons in those 23 years. Beaumont, Texas was the worst, probably. There are a few variations in the food and medical help, which is lacking in all of them actually, but some are little better than others. Nobody ever messed with me. I didn't have to gang up. I weight lifted and I was in good shape and nobody ever messed with me. A lot of racial politics in the federal system between races and gangs. Oh yes. You have the black shot callers and the white shot callers and one-shot caller will go and talk to the other shot caller and cool things out. Some prisons it's much worse than others. You don't want to get into that.
AVA: Are you a Mendo native?
Dalton: I had lived in Mendocino County since 1983. I moved up here from Porterville. And by the time I finished 11th grade I had been to 26 different schools in four different states. My father was a truck driver and we seemed to always be on the road from the get-go. I've always been mechanically inclined, I've worked at several diesel truck companies, picked it up pretty easily. I was considered to be the top-notch mechanic and an up and comer in the mechanic world. I built hot rod engines there in Redwood Valley. Doing fine until these people came into my life. It didn't take long for the word to get around in those small towns that the federal government was on my case. It put a real cramp on any business coming in. At one point they even rented a house behind me to spy on me in Redwood Valley. They did that while Victoria [Horstman] was living with me.
AVA: How many times did you go up for parole?
Dalton: I was never up for parole in my 23 years. They don't have federal parole anymore. They stopped that 25 or 30 years ago. I had to do all my time, complete all my time, every day of it. There was a point when Obama was President in 2016 when they were considering reducing sentences for all drug crimes. But if you are convicted of a criminal enterprise, that was not included in the eligibility. They commuted everybody else with a drug crime and gave them a two-point reduction in their sentence. But I could not get that. I watched all these thousands of people getting reductions but I couldn't get a thing. I kept appealing with the courts and I was denied and denied and denied, time after time.
AVA: Did you have any representation while you were inside?
Dalton: Most of that time I was in the federal system I did not have an attorney. I had an appellate attorney who did my direct appeal. He messed that up. Dan Horowitz, from the Bay Area. He tried to bring up the outrageous government conduct in my appeal and it was still denied. They were going out of their way to convict me. I had a $48 million lawsuit against these people. It was a dead-bang winner. But they had to convict me in order to get past that and they had to make sure on appeal that I did not overturn my conviction. I think they would have been more lenient if I had not filed that suit and it's possible I might have won my trial.
AVA: I know the feds took most of your property. Do you have anything left?
Dalton: I have about 80 acres out in Branscomb that my son lives on. And my brother. That's about it. I now live in Laytonville with an old friend and his wife who stuck with me throughout this entire fiasco. They were nice enough to let me locate a little trailer here where he lives. True friends.
AVA: How’s your health?
Dalton: My rib injury is feeling a little better. Sciatica in my left leg. Herniated disc. Several crushed vertebraes. Bulging discs. I’m 64 years old. I'm on SSI right now.
Dalton: All my brothers and my sister are still alive. I have two grandsons from my daughter who passed away in 2014, an 18-year-old grandson from her and a 10-year-old. The oldest is in Florida and is about to go into the military. I have not seen him since he was real small, maybe six or seven. I've never seen my 10 year old. I'm in contact with him by phone all the time from Carson City, Nevada. He's going to visit pretty soon. I’m looking forward to that. He's looking forward to it too.
AVA: Computer world?
Dalton: Just the phone. No computer. Can't afford anything like that right now.
AVA: Any contact with local cops? Deputy Bone?
Dalton: Bone lives over in El Dorado County now somewhere. All those guys are getting up in age. Those guys don't want anything to do with me and I certainly don't want to see any of them. They got me dirty. Every single one of them knows that they screwed me around worse than anybody that they've ever screwed around. I'm the last person they want any contact with. And I don't want anything to do with them. I don't want to talk to them. I don't want to even see those sons of bitches. I'm trying to live a clean life. I'm on probation and just trying to get on with life. I've put all that past stuff behind me and I just want to go on with my son and my grandson and just live. I was 41 years old when they arrested me and I'm 64 now. Took the best years of my life. I'm starting to break down physically now.
AVA: A lot of people are following in your case. It's been online. A lot of interest.
Dalton: I'm struggling out here. We will make it, but it will be slow for a while. I wish we had more money coming in. But it's going to be this way for awhile. I may have to start cutting some trees on my property before long
The Dalton Case: Egregious Government Conduct
by Tim Stelloh (April 2010)
It was a little over a decade ago [from 2010] that John Dalton, formerly of Redwood Valley, was sentenced to 27 years in federal prison for growing large amounts of marijuana in the rugged hills near Branscomb. He received the sentence after the DEA agent investigating him amassed a mountain of on-the-job improprieties — including a romantic tryst with Dalton's alcoholic, drug-using, unstable wife, Victoria Horstman, who the agent had cultivated as an informant and who was found dead in 2007 under mysterious circumstances in Montana.
Those improprieties were the spine of a civil lawsuit filed late last year by Dalton in San Francisco Federal District Court for $44 million against Janet Reno, the DEA, the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office, Mendo’s pot raiders (COMMET) and everyone in between.
The agent, Mark Nelson, met Horstman in the summer of 1994. She had long harbored law enforcement ambitions, so she began aiding the drug cops in their investigation against her husband. It started with Horstman handing Nelson bank deposit slips from her husband's machine shop. The agent subsequently made her a snitch (and allegedly threatened that she could be prosecuted for money laundering if she refused). In an effort to collect more information on her husband — and with Nelson's encouragement — Horstman placed a DEA recorder behind the headboard of their bed, a violation of marital privacy rights. It was around then that things turned romantic between the agent and his informant. When it came time to fingerprint Horstman — who was now officially a “source of information” — Nelson blindfolded her and drove her to the county drug cops' secret “safehouse.” Then he gave her a beer.
“Soon after, he put his head in my lap as if nothing was abnormal,” Horstman later wrote in a letter to prosecutors. “I froze up out of disbelief of what was happening to me. Soon after he then turned over on his side on the couch and swung me down and over facing him and began kissing me while he took my left leg and pushed it into his crotch area.”
In Horstman's telling, Nelson tried, over the course of their relationship, to have sex with her multiple times — though she refused — and he even drove her to a divorce lawyer and “forced” her to leave her husband (which she did). During Dalton's trial, a close friend of Horstman's testified that it was far more than fondling, kissing and “trying” to have sex, however — she said that Horstman and Nelson were having an affair.
In those letters to prosecutors, Horstman said that all that DEA pressure had damaged her irreparably — that she'd filled her garage with exhaust in a suicide attempt. In the years following Dalton's eventual conviction, in 1999, Horstman moved first to Potter Valley, then to Montana, according to her son, Josh Corrigan, who testified in Dalton's trial but soon after left Mendocino County for Oakdale, near Modesto, to live with his grandparents.
“She went up there because part of her heritage is Blackfoot Indian,” said Corrigan, now 31. “When we were kids, she talked about going back there, about knowing her roots. One of her favorite movies was ‘A River Runs Through It.’ But she couldn't handle it. I felt so sorry for her.”
Corrigan kept in touch with his mom through letters, and occasionally they talked on the phone. Then, several years ago, she sent family photo albums — the only possessions she'd taken with her up north — to Corrigan's sister. On the evening of July 5, 2007, her body was found floating in the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula. Horstman was taken to the hospital and placed in intensive care — but she was already brain dead. She died 15 days later.
The medical examiner found that Horstman had drowned, and classified her death as undetermined. Detective Chris Shermer, who investigated the case for the Missoula Police Department, said her apartment — which was at an Elk's Lodge — was nearly empty, save for a few jugs of wine, some bottles of anti-depressants and recently purchased bed sheets. Neighbors described a troubled woman to Shermer: On one occasion, he said, Horstman was seen crouched in the lotus position outside her apartment, a bottle of booze beside her. She'd been screaming. Other times, she told neighbors that she worked for the DEA and that the KGB was watching them through their televisions.
“They drove her insane,” Corrigan said. “When my sister visited my mom, she was really paranoid, especially with TV screens. She thought the DEA was watching her.”
When agent Nelson was questioned about Horstman's allegations during Dalton's trial, he denied some, admitted some, took the fifth on another, crucial point — and was accompanied by a non-government lawyer to the witness stand. Yes, he'd taken Horstman to the safehouse. Yes, he'd given her a beer. No, he didn't know she was an alcoholic. Yes, he'd kissed her — but only once, at the safehouse. No, he'd never fondled her. Yes, he knew he'd broken DEA rules. Yes, he'd driven her to the divorce lawyer. No, he'd never forced her to leave her husband. Maybe he'd threatened her with prosecution. When Nelson was asked about the precise day he'd taken her to the safehouse, he took the fifth. Nelson, prosecutors told the court, had falsified the date on Horstman's fingerprint cards so as to conceal when he'd taken her to the safehouse.
Tony Serra, Dalton's attorney at the time, tried getting the government's indictment dismissed based on Nelson's “outrageous” conduct (he also argued that Nelson's search warrants were based on bogus info). While the judge, Susan Illston, found that the agent exercised “poor judgment,” and that what he did was “highly inappropriate,” she didn't find his behavior so “grossly shocking” that it violated the “universal sense of justice” and tainted the government's entire case.
She barred the bedroom recordings, but allowed the prosecutors to proceed. Though they had no physical evidence linking Dalton to the pot gardens the DEA said were his, the government got a conviction based on the testimony of several informants, including Horstman.
Dalton — who filed the same civil lawsuit in the late '90s but voluntarily withdrew it in 2000 due to lack of access to a law library — says despite potential statute of limitations problems with his case, he's confident the judge will agree to hear it. “The lawsuit is a dead-bang winner,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I just basically need someone with some balls to go after the government and hold them accountable for what they have done.”