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The Bear Lincoln Case Revisited

In the late afternoon of April 14, 1995, just over 20 years ago now, Arylis Peters shot and killed Gene Britton in the Covelo High School parking lot. Peters and Britton both had been drinking. Peters said Britton was reaching for his rifle in his pickup intending to shoot at him. Peters eventually pleaded out to second degree murder, then tried to withdraw his plea but the withdrawal request was denied and Peters was packed off to state prison where he remains.

According to Grand Jury records at the time, in March, the month prior to the April shooting death of Gene Britton, Byron Peters, was beaten up by Neil Britton and some of his friends. Neil was 23 years old and Byron was 17.

Byron's father, Leonard Peters, insisted his son go to the police. Three times the elder Peters set up appointments with Sheriffs deputies but those efforts were unsuccessful. The Peters said the deputies had stood them up each time.

Byron continued to be harassed by the older men until he fought back by shooting into the side of their truck while it was parked at a Covelo filling station. Deputies arrested Byron within hours.

The alleged non-response by the Sheriff’s Department to the Peters complaint, and the almost immediate arrest of Byron Peters for shooting into a Britton truck, led to confrontations between Byron's father, Leonard Peters, and Gene Britton, Neil Britton's father.

A full family feud between the Brittons and the Lincoln-Peters families had erupted.

Arylis Peters, soon encountered Gene Britton, in the parking lot of the Covelo High School. Both men were armed, but Peters proved faster on the draw, fatally shooting the elder Britton as Britton went for his gun. This afternoon shooting at the high school led to a police manhunt for Arylis Peters, and it was that search for Arylis Peters that led to the shooting deaths of Leonard Peters and Deputy Bob Davis later that April evening, and which would made Bear Lincoln a cause célèbre among liberals in Mendocino County and throughout the United States.

Arylis Peters, despondent over the death of his brother and in ill health, did not participate in his own defense, such as it was. In a modern day record for Mendocino County, Arylis Peters was sentenced to 25-to-life a mere seven weeks after being charged. Peters' lawyer, then-Public Defender Ron Brown, later a Superior Court judge (who died not long ago of cancer), never questioned his client’s state of mind nor did he raise the issue of self-defense even though it was known that Gene Britton also had a gun and was apparently reaching for it at the time he was shot.

Arylis Peters fired his lethal shot at Gene Britton from a car driven by Kathleen Lincoln. Her husband, Les Lincoln, was in the back seat. Neil Britton's statement to police said that Les Lincoln handed Arylis the rifle he used to shoot his father, Gene Britton. Les Lincoln had the charges against him dropped for lack of evidence, but his wife Kathleen received three years for being an accessory to the murder of Gene Britton.

Neil Britton was one of only two civilian witnesses called to testify in front of the Grand Jury against Bear Lincoln, the other being a mystery witness by the name of Robert Steitler.

* * *

As night fell on that April 14th , police descended on Covelo looking for Arylis Peters. There was a full moon often obscured by rain clouds.

Deputies Bob Davis, a Native American and former Navy Seal, and Dennis Miller, former resident deputy in Anderson Valley, dispatched themselves to the top of a ridge between Round Valley and the Little Valley home of Bear Lincoln and family lived.

The Sheriff’s Department had information that led them to believe that Arylis might be at the Little Valley home of Bear Lincoln, four miles west of the high school, over the shallow ridge from Round Valley proper, hence the tactical placement of deputies Miller and Davis on the ridge overlooking the Lincoln property.

Deputy Dennis Miller: “We were completely off the road, uh, the trail that goes along the ridge there. We were completely off the main road. Um, and it wasn't a road block it was just uh...uh, a surveillance point.”

The “surveillance point” was on top of a large berm in the bend of the road where Davis’s 4x4 patrol vehicle was parked out of the view of anyone coming up the road from Lincoln’s compound down in Little Valley.

Deputy Miller said that he and Davis had just arrived at the ridgetop and backed their car off the road when Davis alerted Miller that someone was coming up the road. It was about 10pm. Both deputies quickly got out of their patrol wagon and Davis, Miller said, shined a flashlight on a man walking up the road carrying a rifle. Davis shouted, "Sheriff's Department! Drop the gun."

Miller testified that Davis repeated the command three times. But the man shouldered a rifle and, Miller said, fired a shot in the direction of the deputies, and both deputies opened return fire with pistols. The man with the rife went down and it was quiet.

From Bear Lincoln’s trial testimony:

What was the first thing, as you approached the summit, that you did hear?

Well, I heard Acorn. He said, “Oh, fuck.”

Then what happened?

"Then there was a barrage of gunfire, and bullets."

And how far behind him were you?

"About the same distance. 25 feet."

And when you say “a barrage of gunfire” what do you mean?

"A lot of bullets going off at the same time."

Could you see gunfire, that is any of kind light… I don’t know, any kind of fire from any muzzle?

"No. I didn’t see anything."

Had you heard any person emit any sound other than Acorn who said “Oh, fuck”?


Had Acorn shot? Did you see him shoot?

"No. He didn’t."

Did you shoot before Acorn fell?


How did he fall?

"He fell backwards."

How far from you did he fall?

"20 to 25 feet."

What did you do then?

"I chambered a round in my gun and I returned fire."

* * *

From their surveillance point, Deputies Miller and Davis had shot and killed Leonard Peters who was walking up the road a short distance in front of Bear Lincoln.

Miller said he then reached into the patrol vehicle and retrieved Bob Davis's fully automatic M-16 rifle. Peters was dead in the road in front of the deputies. Davis crawled around the back of their patrol vehicle to where Miller was crouched, saying he thought he was hit, and that he thought there was another suspect behind them. Davis turned on his flashlight and was checking his “leg and abdomen” for wounds while Miller called for back-up and an ambulance, according to Miller’s statement.

Miller and Davis, apparently in fear that someone was to their rear, decided to cross the dirt road to seek cover on the downhill side of the roadbed just beyond where Peters lay dead. As they scurried past the body of Peters, Davis, stopped to check Peters for vital signs, was in the road crouched over the dead Peters. Miller stated that he then saw a movement from down the road, followed by the flash of a gun blast.

“Davis fired one or two rounds at the same time I cut loose with about a six round burst on full automatic,” said Miller. “I stepped off the edge (of the dirt road) and I fell and I hit on my left side and I rolled and come straight up and flopped and went back to the berm of the road, and as I come back to the berm of the road, I saw Davis on his back against the … first he was against the wall and then he just went straight on his back.”

This version of events, however, would be contradicted as the case moved forward.

As it turns out, Lincoln was following some 20-30 feet behind Peters and he indeed did open fire with his semi-automatic, which he was carrying in the expectation that members of the Britton family were out to get either him or a member of his family because of the earlier shooting of Gene Britton by Arylis Peters. Lincoln and Peters assumed, apparently, that they'd been ambushed by the Brittons, not the police.

One of Bear Lincoln’s bullets in the first encounter had apparently hit Davis in the hand. Lincoln testified later that he hadn’t heard the cops identify themselves nor did he see them or their car. From the top of the berm, people walking up the road from the Lincoln place are not visible until they're almost at the top of the road where the police vehicle was parked off the road and mostly out of sight. The two parties were shooting at each other at almost point blank range, no more than 25 or 30 feet.

After the first encounter, Lincoln later testified, Lincoln ran down the hill to his right, as he faced up toward where the cops were firing down the hill at him, and hid in a dry creekbed.

Not having heard any more gunfire while down in the creekbed, he thought whoever it was might have left, so he made his way back up the road to check on his friend, Acorn Peters, who was lying dead in the road, although Lincoln didn’t know that at the time. As Bear Lincoln cautiously approached the part of the road from where he'd jumped over the bank at the initial exchange of fire, he was still carrying his Mini-14.

Meanwhile the two deputies thought they heard sounds in the brush, and that someone might be preparing to attack them from their rear. They decided to take cover in a clump of small oaks across the road from their wagon. Davis then apparently decided to check the fallen man again.

As Davis bent over the body, Miller said he saw motion down the road and fired a burst of full-automatic fire from his M-16 assault rifle at that movement. Almost simultaneously Miller fell over an embankment, rolled on his shoulder, and came back up. Davis had been shot in the head. Miller saw more movement down the road and fired another burst at that movement.

“There was an explosion of gunfire,” Lincoln testified. “The shooting started again. I was maybe 30-40 yards from Acorn’s body.”

Lincoln couldn’t see anything: “It was too dark.” He said he could see gunfire muzzle blasts, but no figures or people, and he heard no voices. He said the gunfire seemed to be coming from somewhere on the road this time because he could see the muzzle blasts. “It sounded like automatic weapons going off continuously,” Lincoln said. “There were bullets flying by me. I returned fire, but I didn’t have anything to aim at. But only one round went off. I kept pulling the trigger, but it just clicked.”

Deputy Bob Davis lay dead against the bank of the high side of the road, a fatal wound to the head and a superficial wound to the back of his hand. These were his only two wounds, according to the autopsy report.

At that time, no one knew who was in the vicinity or who was shooting at the cops or who shot first at whom. It was chaos and it was about to get a lot more chaotic.

In his first account of the incident, Deputy Dennis Miller said that Leonard Peters had fired at the deputies with his rifle after they had identified themselves as cops, and that they had killed him with their return fire.

But when Peters’ rifle was tested, it tested “clean.” It had not been fired. When Deputy Miller was informed of this finding he revised his version of events to say that Peters raised his gun as if to fire when the deputies shot and killed him. This change in Miller's testimony would become a key point in the case. Miller’s new version of events was that whoever was behind, further down the road behind Peters, had fired first.

It was never clearly established who shot first.

Miller insisted that whoever was behind Peters, which would have been Bear Lincoln, shot first and the deputies shot Peters in return fire. Lincoln’s defense team implied several times that Leonard Peters had been murdered by the police for simply raising his rifle in likely reaction to having a flashlight beamed at him, that he had not been warned that the flashlight belonged to the police. Everybody on that ridge that night had reason to think somebody else (or more) was out to shoot them.

It was also never clearly established who shot Davis or when — before he ran down the road towards the Lincoln’s cabin or later in the event. But given Miller’s testimony that he had fired two rounds of full-automatic fire from an M-16 assault rifle at “motion down the road” in the dark, it would be reasonable to presume that one of those bullets could have unintentionally hit and killed Davis.

But nobody in law enforcement wanted to believe that a deputy might have accidentally killed his own partner.

* * *

Law enforcement descended on the scene en masse. So did emergency personnel. But no one was in charge. Civilians arriving on-scene, including the late DA Norm Vroman and former Supervisor John Pinches said that Sheriff Tuso was beside himself with grief and in no condition to manage the scene. Cops, fearing someone or someones were still armed and at large, were shooting at anything that moved. Round Valley residents later reported that they heard hundreds of gunshots from the area long into the night and into the next morning.

The “crime scene” had been trampled and driven over by dozens of people, mostly cops and other emergency responders by daybreak.

Nevertheless, three key pieces of evidence were soon found: Leonard Peters’ unfired rifle, Bear Lincoln’s hat, and blood drops, later proven to be Deputy Davis’s blood, were found leading from where the two men lay dead down the road to Bear Lincoln’s gate. Davis, a resident of Round Valley and familiar with the territory, had been shot in the hand during the very first exchange of fire that killed Peters and which prompted return fire from Lincoln. Davis had run down the hill toward Lincoln’s cabin in an attempt to catch up with the second figure that Deputy Miller testified they'd seen in the road after Peters was shot.

When law enforcement recognized Bear Lincoln’s hat near the scene, a highly inflammatory wanted notice was circulated and a multi-agency, house-to-house search commenced for anyone in Covelo who might know something about where Lincoln was.

Lincoln has never said how he managed to elude the large manhunt for him. But four months later he turned himself in at the law office of Tony Serra in San Francisco.

And so began what would become the biggest and longest trial in modern Mendocino County history where, after much heated controversy and legal maneuvering over almost two years, Lincoln was acquitted. According to post-verdict statements, the jury simply didn’t believe Deputy Miller’s version of events.

One Comment

  1. ernestine November 4, 2021

    good story.

    I remember bear Lincoln’s name on the eureka news for evading the sheriff for weeks or months when I was a kid in the 70s.
    same guy?
    anybody know that story?

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