An LA cop was deer hunting with a 12-year-old kid north of Westport. The cop and the kid didn't know they were in a bush hippy neighborhood. *
The LA cop was armed with a high-powered rifle and his concealed duty weapon. The bush hippy had a .22 pistol.
The cop hasn't gotten over the encounter.
“I have never in my life been so terrified. I have been in gunfights with LA gangsters and in many dangerous situations over the years, but nothing as bad as this. I have been forced to seek counseling and I’ve been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder from this incident.”
It was supposed to be “the dream hunting-vacation of a lifetime” for LA County Sheriff’s Sergeant Tui Wright. But, he says, his Westport wilderness outing turned into a lifelong nightmare.
“This incident will not be leaving me, in my dreams, any time soon,” Wright said, and he wanted Keith Jacovac to pay for his nightmares with 15 years in state prison.
But Ten Mile Court's prosecutor, Deputy DA Timothy Stoen, cut a deal with Jacovac's lawyer, Justin Petersen, that got Jacovac 30 days in jail and probation.
Part of the reason Jacovac got off light was a slew of letters in support of him, encomiums from all segments of Mendocino County society, including pillars of the community, some of whom are friends of presiding Judge Ann Moorman. These many, many letters, unprecedented in Bush Hippy legal history, extolled the virtues of the defendant; some of them suggested the LA cop was the perp.
The facts of the case were certainly in dispute. Not only facts, but some of Mendocino County’s most revered, not to say “hallowed,” traditions came into play.
“There is a long history,” Justin Petersen began, “in the Westport area concerning the Wages Creek Road area where this incident took place. There are about 15 to 20 houses along the sunny side of the creek and none on the shady side. Historically, therefore, there has been no hunting on the sunny side for obvious reasons. The residents have always had an agreement that the hunting would be done over on the shady side where there are no houses. In fact, my client had permission from Pic Sosa to post the area in front of his house with No Hunting and No Trespassing signs, an arrangement made over dinner with Pic some time earlier, and here I have a photograph of one of these signs right where Mr. Wright was found with the deer. And Pic Sosa himself got in a fistfight at a barbecue with someone for hunting in one of these posted areas.”
Prosecutor Stoen objected that there was no proof of this agreement about posting the area, but the photo was accepted into evidence by Judge Moorman.
Petersen continued: “When law enforcement arrived my client told them that in 25 years this was the first time he’d ever had anyone hunting in his front yard, especially after dark. Now, of all the many letters we don’t have one from Mr. Pic Sosa — who is no friend of my client — but he is a friend of Mr. Wright. Another thing about this area along Wages Creek is a long history of vandalism and break-ins, and my client told law enforcement about numerous instances of vandalism, and that this crap has been going on for years, and that he thought Tui Wright was someone who was up to no good when he first went down there. He saw the deer next to the No Hunting sign, then, and knew it was a hunter. But it is also important to note that the Aaron Bassler business was going on during this incident, and likely as not some of the break-ins and vandalism were his doing. All the people who live on Wages Creek Road were very agitated and even Tui Wright knows that.
"Now, the facts in this case are disputed, but my client says the shots were fired below his house where Tui Wright was ultimately found with the deer well past eight o’clock at night. And my client can hear these shots whistling through the vegetation. And he knows it is past eight because that’s when his son gets off work at the Westport Store. And he doesn’t want his son walking home through the gunfire so he goes to pick him up. Now, we all know you can’t hunt after dark. But you can mesmerize deer with a spotlight, and I know Tui Wright has denied this, but here he is on the last day of what he himself describes as a ‘dream hunt’ and he still hasn’t got a deer. I suppose that on this, the last night of a dream vacation from LA, it is possible that, well, even some lawyers have been known to stretch the Fish and Game rules a bit — not that I personally have any such experience with that…”
This comment caused a few gasps of restrained merriment in the courtroom because the entire male Petersen lawyer clan was once arrested in Wyoming for an illegal elk hunt.
“Be that as it may," Petersen continued, "Tui Wright was on a quad equipped with a spotlight and even the neighbors heard shots after dark. So as a result, my client goes down there and meets Megan Perry. She says she saw these guys and it didn’t look right to her, and she asks my client to check it out. So he does. He sees Tui Wright and, thinking he’s a burglar or a vandal, says he’s sick of this. Like he told law enforcement, he thought it was someone other than who it was. He went home afterwards and called Pic Sosa and apologized; next day he called Jonathan Langenderfer’s [the 12-yeaar-old who was with Mr. Wright] mom and apologized to her.”
The charges against Jacovac were pointing a gun at Wright and the kid and threatening to kill them.
“Defense,” Petersen said, “disputes that the gun was pointed at anyone. We would also argue that this offense does not constitute a criminal threat. The probation report says my client does not express any remorse and maybe that is why they are seeking the 180 days in jail, but my client is remorseful. He does express remorse for what he did, but not for what he didn’t do. What my client did was he made a mistake, and I think an understandable one. He threatened them and he ejected them from the property. They were spotlighting deer and he thought they were doing something else. With respect to the jail time, I think it’s preposterous that my client should go to jail for this.”
Prosecuting DA Tim Stoen said he had also read the many letters attesting to Jacovac's good character. “And I’m very impressed with what the defense has done. Mr. Jacovac has many redeeming characteristics and is well thought of in the community. But I am deeply troubled that what he did was act like a vigilante … and the lack of remorse is also very troubling. Now, what Mr. Wright did was perfectly legal in every way. He was hunting with written permission from the landowner, Mr. Sosa. He did nothing that was culpable, and if it had not been for the character of Mr. Wright — he had a concealed weapon — after the gun was pointed at him, this could have developed into a very tragic situation. But because of the 12-year-old who was present, Mr. Wright chose not to go that far. So if his character was good enough to show that admirable restraint, then it is good enough to be believed when he says he shot the deer legally.
"These are the facts from the preliminary hearing: Mr. Wright testified that the defendant ‘threatened to kill me’ and ‘to put a bullet in my brain.’ Also, J.T. [the 12-year-old] said the defendant trained the pistol at both of them. And Mr. Wright said, ‘I briefly considered drawing my duty weapon, but thought it would be a losing proposition’ …so the defendant got a break. Considering the seriousness of this, the jail time should be 365 days; 180, if anything, is too short.”
Sgt. Wright is assigned to the Malibu/Lost Hills Station Search and Rescue team, and a veteran of some of the most difficult mountain searches in the area. Sgt. Wright also has experience with L.A.'s Juvenile Intervention Program. After apologizing for not wearing a suit to court, he said he was legally hunting with written permission and had brought along a friend’s son “to observe and assist.”
“I observed a legal buck," Sgt. Wright said, "which I shot and killed during legal hunting time. I wasn’t shooting from any road or at any structures, and there was a good backstop. I agree with Mr. Stoen. I believe the defendant has some very good qualities. But we’re talking about an incident that ended in a felony conviction. Now, there’s been some talk about me shooting after dark. But I shot the deer at six o’clock, well before dark. In hindsight, it may have been a little later. Maybe 6:15 or 6:20. Also, there’s been a lot of talk about why I didn’t gut the deer, which is the usual practice. But I heard some gunshots from the direction of the defendant’s property, and that made me nervous. So we dragged the deer out to the ATV. Just then this truck came down the road and skidded to a stop, nearly colliding with the ATV. The defendant then got out and threatened to kill me. He threatened to kill both of us, repeatedly, and told us to get out of there.
"I thought about defending myself, but considering the 12-year-old, I had no choice but to beg for our lives, and that’s what I did. I did anything I could to keep him from pulling the trigger. I reached for the deer and the defendant said ‘Leave the deer there, and leave!’ He continued to point the gun at me and told me to leave. Now, what has not been mentioned is that I met the defendant the day before. I was wearing camo pants, which are favored by hunters for the big cargo pockets and a bright orange vest. He asked me to leave the gate closed so a horse didn’t get out. I did not see a No Hunting sign, which may have been put up afterwards. Eventually, I did get the deer back. But, to back up a bit: Pic Sosa and I grew up together. He never told me there was no hunting on the north side of the road. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Sgt. Wright arranged some papers from a thick envelope and resumed his narrative.
“Eventually, we fled for our lives back to Westport. I believe the defendant was following us. We almost crashed and I told J.T. to slow down. J.T. was driving. We fled into the back yard of a house. There could have been a dog there, I didn’t know, but I was terrified. In fact there was a dog there, a huge mastiff, which could have ate me, but what am I going to do? The homeowner could have shot me and would have been perfectly justified in doing so. It was a terrifying incident. I told J.T. to slow down and called 911. There was a white pickup following us. Law enforcement showed up eventually. It took a very long time. They returned my deer to me. I was told he was a marijuana grower and that he thought I was there to steal it. In fact, they all [the residents of Westport and Wages Creek Road] looked at me and sneered, like I was a terrorist or something. I had heard these rumors that they all grow marijuana in the Wages Creek area and now I believe they are accurate.”
Sgt. Wright then launched into a long description about how the incident had caused him to seek counseling and lose work. He didn’t know if he could continue in his stressful line of work. He said he worried he might "freeze up" at a decisive moment or shoot someone who didn't deserve to be shot. He said he'd been diagnosed with PTSD. The 12-year-old's mother told him the boy had also been badly shaken by the confrontation.
“The name Bassler was brought up,” Wright said. (Bassler, a backwoods guy, had shot and killed two men in that area of the Mendocino Coast and was still on the run at the time.) “Basically, that is what the defendant has done to me. In my opinion, he should get over 14 years for armed robbery — taking my property, my deer — and terrorist threats, all strike offenses. Yet he acts like he’s the victim in this case. And this angers me because I expected him to stand up like a man and accept greatly reduced jail time. I also believe he hasn’t turned in his guns as part of the restraining order. And also…”
Timothy King of the Probation Department had rolled his eyes at some of Sgt. Wright's more piteous digressions into victimhood; he now had his face buried behind his hands in disbelief.
Sgt. Wright then launched into a lament about how the Northern California outback had become a free range entitlement area for marijuana growers who “feel they can run other people off. I was a fool to think I could hunt in this lawless area. This incident will not be leaving me, in my dreams, any time soon.”
No evidence was introduced that the defendant was a pot farmer.
“And, now, your honor," Wright continued, "I’d like to just briefly explain that I was hunting with a scope on my rifle and, as everyone knows, you can’t see through a scope at night with a spotlight.”
Scoped rifles are in fact the weapon of choice for spotlighting deer.
Far from being brief, Sgt. Wright was going on and on when another judge came to the door and reminded Judge Moorman that it was well past noon and she was expected at a memorial ceremony commemorating a long-time Mendocino County jurist, the late Frank Petersen, defense attorney Justin Petersen's uncle. Following a group photo of Mendocino County's legal establishment out on the Courthouse steps, Sgt. Wright resumed his tale of unending woe.
“I’ll be brief, your honor” — a chorus of muffled groans greeted this latest promise from the traumatized L.A. cop to at last wrap it up. “The defendant and all these letters all tell about seeing me after dark. But it was only after a long search that we were able to find the deer. Then there was the long drag out to the road where the ATV was parked.”
On and on about the struggle to drag the trophy out to the ATV. Then a parting shot at Mr. Petersen: “Defense has had excellent counsel in this case,” the implication being that if Jacovac hadn't had excellent counsel Jacovac would be headed for the state pen.
Judge Moorman assured Sgt. Wright, “I believe everything you say. I also believe you are sincere as to how this has affected you psychologically, and that is regrettable. I encourage you take some solace in that you have had your say.
"Now," the judge said turning to the defendant, "with respect to Mr. Jacovac, I would like to note the following: You are 54 years old and have never been in court before on any criminal matter, at least, and that is to be commended. And while I am impressed by the way you are thought of in the community, I am troubled by the sadness this situation could have resulted in. You were both carrying loaded firearms; you were both upset and fearful and this could have been an all-round bloody tragedy. Now, the letters do play a role. I have to draw some conclusions from them. Mr. Jacovac is very highly regarded in the community, but no one should walk away from here thinking I don’t feel a great deal of contempt for this kind of thing — to confront someone with a firearm was foolhardy, Mr. Jacovac. Now, I know you’ve reached a disposition in this case and the Probation office is recommending 180 days, but custody is not always the answer. Your record is also very admirable. I expect every adult to live their entire life without being a defendant, but I think that since these circumstances are likely never to be repeated — and the 136.2 [restraining] order aside, you cannot posses a firearm ever again, Mr. Jacovac, and that’s the reason this isn’t going to happen again. But just remember, your first thought is not always your best thought. Having said that I’m going to follow the plea agreement and place you on probation for 48 months and impose a jail sentence of 30 days. Also, I’m going to add 100 hours of community service since you seem to be the kind of person who does that sort of thing anyway. This was a one of a kind incident and I’m very glad it didn’t have a different result.”
Afterwards, Sgt. Wright told this reporter he wasn’t surprised that Mendocino County has the amount of violence it does. “The facts speak for themselves. Mr. Jacovac had excellent counsel, but that’s all a smoke screen. He should have gotten 14 to 15 years. Anywhere else in the state, this would have resulted in a prison sentence.”
*There are three kinds of people in Mendocino County: pavement people, bush hippies and hill muffins. Pavement people live within walking distance of a store; bush hippies live deep in the woods; hill muffins, who like their views, dwell on the ridges. The largest concentration of bush hippies in Mendocino County is strung out (sic) along Spy Rock Road, north of Laytonville, and the muffs live on the ridges everywhere in the County.