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The Trial of Glenn Sunkett

Dusty Miller and Matt Graves had just eaten dinner on the evening of July 10, 2008, when everything went wrong.

Miller and Graves were on one of their first dates at a mutual friend’s house in Inglenook, a few miles north of Fort Bragg. Miller was on vacation from college in Southern California, and had driven over after a shift at Mendo Bistro to cook a vegan eggplant dish; Frank Sinatra was on the radio, and the two were cleaning up in the kitchen, according to Graves, when a man wielding a semi-automatic pistol and wearing an FBI t-shirt, camouflage pants and black boots burst through the door. He instructed Miller and Graves to get on the ground; they were in the midst of a bust, Graves said.

The lean, white-haired pot grower who owned the house, Michael Bennett, and his friend, Max Stover, would soon return from a night out in Fort Bragg in Bennett’s white Chevy pickup. Both would be caught up in the events unfolding at the house at 27425 N. Highway One — events that would nearly end Bennett’s life and would strike fear in the legions of Mendocino County pot growers. They were events that would become yet another example of those growers’ increasingly frequent worst nightmare: The armed home invasion.

The nearly three-week trial of the man described by prosecutor Jill Ravitch as the robbery’s unmasked ringleader ended yesterday in Ukiah, with jurors finding 37-year-old Glenn Sunkett, of Oakland, guilty of robbery, kidnapping, burglary, false imprisonment and making criminal threats. Sentencing is set for August 14.

Sunkett’s public defender, Linda Thompson, had portrayed her client not as a cold-blooded thug, but as a savvy, intelligent businessman — a man who wore somber slacks and button-up shirts to court and who avoided the glitzy jewelry and baggy clothing he was identified as having worn before his arrest. He was portrayed as a man who, despite his felonious history — he spent eight years in federal prison on weapons charges and in the early 90s was arrested for selling cocaine and marijuana — had no need to get involved with brazen, violent stick-up artists.

Sunkett’s arrest, Thompson said, was a classic case of mistaken identity and human fallibility — of white witnesses misidentifying a black man.

THINGS WENT DOWNHILL as soon as Stover and Bennett pulled in the driveway of the latter’s single-story, woodframe house just off Highway One. “I got out of the truck and was about to close the door when someone grabbed my right arm,” he said. “I turned, and I see a black man has my arm. I think, ‘this doesn’t look good’.” One of the three men whacked Bennett — who was 54 at the time — so hard with a still unidentified object that part of his skull caved in, Bennett said; he’d remain bound and in and (mostly) out of consciousness the rest of the night. Several hours later, he would be taken to the Coast Hospital in Fort Bragg and then airlifted to Santa Rosa Memorial, where he would be hospitalized for the next month. (He said he only has 60 to 80 percent vision in his left eye now, and has trouble using his left arm.)

Stover, meanwhile, was handcuffed and taken at gunpoint into Bennett’s house, where he joined Graves and Miller. In a sparsely decorated living room, the thieves — two of whom were wearing masks — began interrogating the group. “They said they wanted the ‘dope’ — that’s what they called it’,” said Graves, 22, who now lives in Thailand and, while testifying, had the odd habit of wearing tight, silk-looking suits he’d had custom tailored there. On the first day, the suit was a shiny electric blue with a white tie, white sneakers and a white kerchief poking out of his breast pocket. On the second day, the suit was an equally gleaming brown with matching accoutrements.

Graves said the three black men who robbed Bennett’s home were most interested in money — and lots of it. Bennett, the thieves told their prisoners, had cash buried in his backyard. And they wanted it. They would go on to say they were “on a hit” from New York and had a contract to terminate Bennett’s life — but would take money instead of executing the man they’d knocked out cold. But the would-be assassins were out of luck; none of those whom they’d left conscious had any idea where Bennett’s money was (“I told them, ‘would you tell your friends where you hide your money?’” Stover said).

With Graves, Miller and Stover clueless about where to find Bennett’s savings, one of the assailants — a shorter, more rotund individual who, according to Miller and Graves, displayed the fidgety paranoia of a tweaker — decided it was time to go medieval. He produced a butane barbeque torch and sat down on a small wooden rocking chair. Then he looked at Graves and Stover. “He said, ‘do you know what this is? You better give us the money or someone’s getting tortured,’” Graves said, adding that “torture” meant blowtorching the men’s testicles — something that had occurred a few weeks prior during another pot robbery.

“At this point,” Graves continued, recalling the other blowtorch incident, “I was pretty sure I was going to get my head blown off.” But the torture never came to pass, and the thieves settled on restraining Graves and Miller (Stover was still handcuffed). As with the initial encounter with Bennett, the men demonstrated their less-than-proficient home invasion skills: They forgot to bring something to tie up their prisoners with. They planned on using electrical cord, but Graves suggested they grab a few zipties (“I knew they would be easier to break,” he said). A few minutes later, the intruders were stymied again. They didn’t know how to use the plastic ties. So Graves, ever the polite captive, provided a tutorial.

Once bound, Miller, Graves, Stover and Bennett — who was still barely conscious, and whose hands had darkened from the wire bound around his wrists — were taken into a small spare room and plopped on a wooden platform. Their legs were duct-taped and the thieves began pouring water on Bennett to try and roust him; they were unsuccessful. So there the group stayed for the rest of the night.

Witnesses said Sunkett guarded the doorway to the room while the two other men turned the place over — removing dozens of mature pot plants from an outdoor grow room and, the big prize, a tanzanite ring Bennett said was worth $46,000 (though they missed several pounds of bagged bud in the house; and police would later seize more than 800 plants from Bennett’s property).

Stover sat quietly while Miller propped Bennett up, saturating her denim skirt in blood. Graves said he apologized to Miller for what had to have been one of the worst dates ever. The intruders eventually left, and by 3 or 4am the captives had freed themselves. Stover set to work cleaning up the house, Miller went home and Graves called Bennett’s son; then they took the badly-injured man to the hospital.

But, as with many pot-related home invasions around the county, nobody called the cops — and the Fort Bragg police, who interviewed Graves briefly at the hospital after dropping off Bennett, never filed a report. It wasn’t until July 11 that sheriff’s detectives, acting on a tip from a confidential informant, visited Bennett’s house and began their investigation. It was two months later, to the day, that detectives — with the aid of an Oakland police SWAT unit — came knocking on Sunkett’s front door at about 6am.

ONE OF THE most powerful pieces of evidence prosecutor Jill Ravitch had on Sunkett was a “100 million percent” certain ID from Graves. After the incident, Graves had been given 60 photo lineup images to browse; Sunkett was the only person he identified as a suspect. (Asked how, a year later, he could recall with complete certainty Sunkett’s face, Graves first gave what seemed a reasonable answer: “If someone’s pointing a gun at you for hours, you tend not to forget their face,” he said. Then he went Margaret Mead. The suspect had “standard Negroid features,” he said. “These are cranial facial identification features,” he continued, apparently realizing how odd that must have sounded to the men and women sitting to his left. He then scrambled to explain the difference between Negroid and Caucasoid: “I’m identifying him by his square jaw and upper brow ridge.”)

Miller also ID’d Sunkett — though her identification had been less certain than Graves’, and Thompson argued she had been influenced by the case’s lead detective, Sgt. Greg Van Patten. As with Graves, the first time the detective asked Miller to look at lineup photos, Van Patten showed Miller 60 images; she identified several of them as possible suspects, including a driver’s license photo of Sunkett. Several months later, after Sunkett had been arrested, he asked her to look at images of suspects again; this time, because Miller was out of the country traveling, Van Patten e-mailed her just one image: Sunkett’s booking photo. He also mentioned that Sunkett had been arrested in connection with the crime. According to the detective, she never responded to the e-mail. But she testified nevertheless, and identified Sunkett in court.

Besides this “tainted” identification, as Thompson called it, police amassed plenty of evidence. There were, for instance, the records of a GPS device owned by Sunkett that, according to those records, was at Bennett’s home on the night of the robbery. During a search of Sunkett’s office/apartment, cops found a duffle bag with a butane torch, duct tape, a pair of camouflage sweatpants, two pairs of black boots, a pair of gloves, pruning shears and two flashlights; they also seized a money counter, a digital scale and, inside the purse of a woman who stayed at Sunkett’s office the previous night, a 9mm pistol. In another bag at Sunkett’s office, they found three sets of handcuff keys — keys that matched the cuffs used on Stover.

In searching Sunkett’s financial records, they found that on July 9, the day before the robbery, Sunkett had gone to a military surplus store around the corner from his office and spent $63 on neoprene masks and military-style BDU pants. A hotel clerk at the Beachcomber Motel in Fort Bragg identified Sunkett, saying Sunkett had stayed there the night of July 9; she’d checked him out the following day, and she said she saw him with two other black men. Another hotel clerk, at the Ocean View, said Sunkett had checked in on July 10 — though she never saw him leave. Finally, rental car records obtained by police found that Sunkett had rented a black Lincoln Navigator on July 9 — the same Lincoln he was driving when he checked into the Beachcomber.

Besides the eyewitness IDs, police recovered no evidence that directly linked Sunkett to the robbery; and Sunkett — who was the final witness to testify during the trial — explained away the mountain of circumstantial proof that was the backbone of the district attorney’s case.

AT THE TIME of his arrest, Sunkett said he was a financially stable man with many hats: He was a construction worker who got jobs through local 261 in San Francisco; he helped run a tow-truck business; he ran a hip-hop and reggae publishing company; he was on his way to starting a perfume business; and, most significantly, he was a middleman for a grower couple in Caspar. He’d met the couple at a reggae concert last November. When they let him sample their product, he was impressed, he said. So he began moving their pot — and making frequent trips to Fort Bragg in rented cars (he didn’t want to damage the resale value of his BMW or Dodge Magnum, he said).

But aside from one small buy, he never actually drove the stuff south himself; that was the job of a runner, a man named “D,” or Donald Broussard. As Sunkett’s buys got bigger, he invested in a $1,000 GPS unit from a company called Covert Track, which allows clients to log on to a web site and follow the device in real time. “I bought the device to track my purchases,” he said. On July 10, Sunkett said he was to buy 30 pounds of bud for $75,000 (two-thirds of the money was his, the rest was from a business partner, he said). The day before, he said he’d rented the black Lincoln described by Ravitch, picked up his girlfriend in Richmond and the couple drove north; they cruised up Highway 101 to 128, where they then cut over through Boonville to the Mendocino Coast.

That night they stayed at the Beachcomber Motel, he said, and the following day they drove to Denny’s on Highway One to complete the deal. He met his runner — who’s black, and who was with two other black men — in the parking lot; the GPS device, Sunkett said, was in the bags he’d given them to move the pot. When everyone started getting nervous because a few hours had passed and there was still no sign of his supplier’s runners, he went to the Ocean View and rented a room for his own mules, just in case they’d need to stay the night. Then he and his girlfriend went to the beach and eventually drove back to the Bay Area.

Along the way, Sunkett said he got a call from his uncle, Guy Sunkett, who told his nephew the borrowed 73 Chevy he was driving had broken down on Interstate 880. So he picked Guy up, dropped him off at a friend’s house, then drove back to Richmond and crashed at his girlfriend’s place.

This, of course, was Sunkett’s alibi, and both his uncle and girlfriend testified that he’d given Guy a ride that night at roughly the same time Ravtich said he was at Bennett’s house tormenting the group with a semi-automatic pistol. Sunkett went on to explain how the duffle bag of gear cops found at his office was for his tow truck business and construction jobs — the most recent of which was fitting sewer pipes in San Francisco.

The blowtorch, which both eyewitnesses initially said was a different color than the one used during the robbery (Graves later changed his mind), was for sealing the frayed ends of rope used to lower pipes, he said. The camouflage pants seized by cops were sweats — whereas the ones worn at the robbery weren’t. His gloves didn’t match those worn by the thieves, and the .9mm didn’t have Sunkett’s prints on it.

The military pants and neoprene masks he’d bought from the surplus store were for a paintball match he’d been invited to a few days before the robbery, he said. And the handcuff keys? Those are from a music studio in Hayward. The famous image of Tupac Shakur spitting at reporters is hanging on the wall there, he said, beside a handcuff key-laden hook. “The owner said, ‘take one of these keys — you may need them one day,’” Sunkett said. “It’s a joke, but I took them.”

After Sunkett was arrested last September and cops began asking him about the robberies around Fort Bragg, Sunkett said he never told them about Broussard or about his pot operation because he didn’t want to incriminate himself. Instead, he told them he had been coming to the Mendocino Coast to buy ounces for personal use. “I didn’t want to tell [Van Patten] I was a drug dealer — that would have been crazy,” he said. “He was asking me about a robbery.”

Ravitch hammered Sunkett on this, saying he’d lied in his interview with police and therefore couldn’t be trusted. She said Sunkett lied about his pot business on the coast and that he, his girlfriend and his uncle had cooked up and coordinated the story about the broken down car after he’d been arrested. Ravitch offered little evidence of that from the apparently many, many recorded phone calls between Sunkett and his girlfriend, Jamila Thomas, in the days leading up to the trial.

Thomas, however, could recall little about her and Sunkett’s trip to Fort Bragg — except that the couple drove there on a “dark and scary road,” stayed at a hotel the first night and, the following day, saw three black men in a car at Denny’s before leaving the coast and eventually meeting Sunkett’s uncle.

Ravitch referred to Thomas’s seemingly selective memory as her “script.” Thompson, of course, declared this to be baloney. If her client was clever enough to fabricate an alibi from whole cloth, why would such a savvy criminal hire tweakers to execute a strong-arm robbery? Why would he use his debit card all over town before that robbery? And why would he use his own name to check into a nearby hotel?

To think he’d leave such an easily traceable trail was “unreasonable,” she said. “That’s unrealistic.”

One Comment

  1. Greg Milver August 22, 2016

    This is one of the most poorly written stories I have read in years. The narrative was painful to wade through and try to make any sense of.

    The editorial comments the writer throws in are unprofessional and amatuerish.

    This reporter needs to work on clear writing skills.

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