Last Wednesday the County Courthouse was something of an old-fashioned media circus. Media ghouls, always keen for second hand blood, were drawn from near and far to watch a pair of monsters get their due. But before you denounce media ghoulishness, check your righteousness at the door. We report what you want to read.
There was a preliminary hearing for Tyrrell Marshall. He's accused of raping and murdering a popular young Willits dance instructor last Halloween. Kayla Chesser was beautiful, vivacious, and much loved. What Marshall did to her was hideous, but, in a time of social collapse, the murder of this young woman was merely one more atrocity in a daily deluge of atrocities.
The other media magnet was Talen Barton, 19, of Laytonville. Barton's crimes are inexplicable. He murdered two-thirds of his surrogate family, and tried to murder all four members of that family, perhaps out of pure envy that they had the secure wholeness he'd never had. In a few frenzied minutes of the knife Barton accomplished the truly monstrous.
“Innocent until proven guilty” is the formula we’re all taught to religiously observe, but neither case was a Who-Done-It. Tyrrell Marshall was seen coming out of his victim’s bedroom fastening his belt and buttoning his shirt just before her body was discovered. Within a few hours of straightening himself up after a vigorous rape and murder, Marshall drove his pickup off the Covelo Road into the Eel River at a suicidal rate of speed, his conscience perhaps catching up with him two hours too late.
In the Talen Barton case, Barton himself called 911 to report his crime as his victims bled to death after he'd attacked them with a butcher knife. First he stabbed his best friend, the boy who'd talked his family into taking Barton into their home. When the boy's father tried to stop the attack on his son, Barton killed him, and when Mom ran into the room he turned the knife to her, reportedly leaning in to her to ask, "What does it feel like to die?"
The Marshall prelim got started shortly before 10:00 in Judge John Behnke’s court and went on until 3:30. Across the hall in Judge Ann Moorman’s court, Barton’s pleading was set for 1:30, but didn’t get going until after 2:00. This caused a logistics challenge for a single reporter trying to cover both stories, but an added complication was the crowding in the courtroom for the Marshall case, where a large number of friends and family of the victim had turned out. The maximum number of people legally allowed in the courtroom, due to state capacity laws, had been reached and to give up your seat meant you couldn’t get back in.
Not only were the logistics complicated, but considerable tact was required. People who have had a loved one murdered tend to look on reporters as vultures out to profit from their tragedy. Like many intense emotions, this attitude defies reason. It does no good to explain that public exposure of the crime is part and parcel of punishment, that a rapist and murderer would evade due public condemnation without the efforts of us reporters. So I came early and sat off by myself only to have people fill in around me who treated me as if I were a co-conspirator in the death of Miss Chesser. But when I came back after the Barton plea across the hall, my seat was taken, and an officer from the DA’s office directed me to a vacant seat in the midst of the family of the victim. I did as ordered against my better judgment and came to regret it as I was immediately set upon with hisses, and soon prodded into leaving. The officer apologized for his error and I was suffered to stand off to the side, a pariah dog, the object of scornful, glaring looks from the public gallery, for the rest of the hearing.
Marshall, for his part, did not have to face the gallery. He sat with his back to them and kept his head down as his defense lawyer, Justin Petersen, conducted lengthy cross-examinations of the witnesses brought against Marshall. The first of these was Dr. Hillary Larkin, a sexual assault specialist from the Alameda Medical Center. Dr. Larkin described the brutality of the rape in more detail than anyone cared to hear. But the defendant has a right to any all exculpatory evidence his lawyer can winnow out of a witness, and it was during this unprintable dialogue that Sheriff Tom Allman made his appearance, joining his corrections and transport officers in the jury box. The Sheriff was also prominent when Talen Barton pled to murder charges across the hall.
It only took the prosecutor, Deputy DA Scott McMenomey, a few minutes to conduct his questioning of Dr. Larkin, but Petersen spent well over an hour grilling her. McMenomey was brief — terse, even, while Petersen was discursive to the point of verbosity, repetitive and, at times, redundant. These, er, qualities, however, are what Petersen’s clients pay him for and they prefer the word “thorough” in describing his methodical style. Another advantage of this tediously detailed questioning is that it tends to numb and distract a hostile audience, and the Marshall audience was definitely hostile.
Judge Behnke was indulgent with Petersen's redundancies, overruling prosecution’s objections that certain questions had already been asked and answered. The wisdom in allowing this lawyerly scrupulousness is that Marshall won’t be coming back on appeal, bellyaching that he didn’t get a fair hearing. Unlike Barton, Marshall looked like he was really afraid of going back to prison for the rest of his life. He might even be contrite.
Marshall was wearing red coveralls from the jail, a sign that he is being held out of the general population, even though he looks like a big tough dude. In any jail context, there are always dudes bigger and tougher, and rapists are right up there with child molesters as prison targets. Marshall has a prior for a forced sex crime, which wasn’t elaborated on, but nevertheless entered into evidence as People’s exhibit number one. And it is telling that the defendant apparently tried to kill himself when he deliberately drove into the Eel River before his capture.
Detective Stephen Gray was called next. Det. Gray said he’d been called to the Brooktrails residence where the body was found early on November 1st and was investigating the scene when he was called away because an EMT from Covelo, Dustin Acosta, had simultaneously, maybe thirty miles to the northeast, pulled the number one suspect in Miss Chesser's murder, Tyrrell Marshall, out of the Eel River where Acosta had kept Marshall from drowning.
Detective Gray spoke with eye witnesses to the crash. They said the vehicle had seemed to be accelerating and was going nearly 100 mph as it shot from a private driveway across the Covelo Road and on into the river.
Again, Petersen combed through the evidence with the meticulous assiduity he's known for and came up with a curious, grasping-at-straws discrepancy. It seems the body bag containing Marshall's victim had not been properly fastened. Two zippers were supposed to have been hooked together by a strip of hard plastic that then goes into a lock, something like a zip-tie, to seal it. This was not properly done and the body bag thus rested at the Eversole Mortuary for two days. Det. Gray said it commonly happens.
“Five, maybe ten percent of the time.”
“Who was in charge in this case?”
“I don’t know, specifically.”
“But without the bag being sealed, isn’t it hard to know the body was the same as it was when it went in?”
“Yes. But sometimes the lock doesn’t seal.”
Sheriff Allman was present for this part of the testimony and it may be presumed a memo will already have issued from his office about sealing body bags.
Petersen also questioned Gray about rumors circulating around Willits that the body had been washed before the paramedics arrived to retrieve it. Gray said he didn’t know if there was any truth to the rumors.
Detective Andrew Whittaker was called. Whittaker had interviewed Shauna White, owner of the house in Brooktrails where the crime had been committed. White told Whittaker that a number of people had been at the residence preparing for a costume party at the Brooktrails Lodge later that night. They had all gone to the party together, but the victim, Kayla Chesser, and two others had left earlier, and that they were intoxicated when they left. Ms. Chesser was eventually left alone at the White residence and at some point Tyrrell Marshall, a cousin of White’s, arrived. When White and the others returned to Ms. White's home around 4:00 am, Marshall was coming from the bedroom, buttoning his shirt and buckling his belt. When asked what he was doing at White’s house — he hadn’t been there in 15 years and wasn’t welcome — Marshall was said to have made a couple of jocular comments, such as, “Just been chatting up your girl,” and, “She was game.”
After Marshall left, somebody went to check on Chesser and found her battered and dead.
The hearing recessed for lunch and this reporter went to Judge Moorman’s courtroom after lunch to hear the Barton plea. Public Defender Linda Thompson said she'd advised Barton to “sleep on it” when District Attorney David Eyster offered the 71-years in prison deal, but Barton had said he'd take the offer. Ms. Thompson stood by and watched as DA Eyster outlined the terms. Basically, it was two terms of 25-to-life for the two murders and two terms of seven-to-life for the two attempted murders and seven-to-life for each of the attempted murders, along with another term of seven-to-life for holding two teenage girls hostage.
As is now well known, Barton had been taken in by the Palmieri family at the request of the late 17-year-old Teo Palmieri whom Barton murdered in his bed with a large knife. When Teo’s father Coleman Palmieri came to his son’s defense, Barton cut him to death as well. Barton then attacked Teo’s mother, Dr. Cindy Norvell and her brother Theodore Norvell, critically wounding both. The two teen girls were not physically injured in the rampage.
Barton's victims were adamant that the death sentence not be considered for religious reasons — they were Quakers and opposed to the death penalty. As Judge Moorman took the plea, Barton stood grinning at the judge. It’s something of a feat of deception on the part of the Press Democrat photographers that they were able to catch Barton with a more “appropriate” expression on his face. And PD reporter Glenda Anderson — who was across the hall at the Chesser hearing, by the way — failed to mention in the article bearing her byline any of Barton’s clownish antics. No wonder most people have no idea what kind of world they live in, any realistic notion of the kinds of demented characters who populate it.
“How do you plea to count one, murder in the first degree?”
“Guilty, very guilty!”
Barton’s grin curled up like the mask used by the Anonymous hackers.
“…Count two, murder in the first degree?”
Barton was having such fun, hamming it up, but it didn’t last long, and the big show was over, and the boy from Laytonville is gone from this life forever. It’s unlikely that the fun will last until he’s 90 and up for his first parole. He's raw meat where he's going.
Back across the hall, our new County Medical Examiner, Dr. Jacqueline Benjamin, formerly of Clark County, Nevada. Dr. Benjamin, now based in Los Angeles, made it clear that her autopsy of Kayla Chesser showed that she had died from being struck in the head and strangled during the commission of a rape and sodomy.
For the purposes of a prelim Judge Behnke was sufficiently convinced that there was plenty enough evidence to hold Marshall to answer on all counts of rape, sodomy and murder. Marshall will be back in court many times in coming months as his lawyer prepares for trial. It is almost certain that he will try an insanity plea and many more months of visits to psychiatrists will ensue. But sooner or later, if he doesn't manage to play Let's Make A Deal, Marshall will have to look a jury in the face and explain himself. I understand why he looks like he'd rather be dead.