Travis Jesse Maresh was pretty sure he could beat the rap for ripping off the golden doorknobs. The only guy who could place him at the scene was Earl Lansdowne, and Earl had also made a fool of himself over Jesse’s gun moll, Mary Wisterman who was only leading Earl on because she and her beau, Jesse, as he's known, needed a wheelman for the big heist.
Jesse and Mary could see the glitter off those Ukiah golden doorknobs all the way from their home base in Lake County.
The strategy at the Office of the Public Defender was to make poor old Earl come off as the jilted clown, out to get back at Jesse, his rival for the attractions of the alluring Mary.
It really was just about that silly. Right out of an old black and white, low-budget detective flick, circa 1950s. Of course none of the players — the defendant, his lawyers, the prosecutor, even the witnesses, were old enough to have ever seen the old movies they were unconsciously acting out 60 years later. The two defense lawyers, Rana Parsanj and Jonathan Opet, thought they had come up with something original, clever and — get this — foolproof.
The golden doorknobs, however, turned out to be fool’s gold. Even the wheelman, Earl Lansdowne, knew that. He said on the stand he never believed there were any golden doorknobs, that he thought Jesse and Mary were in some kind of fantasyland when they started talking about this supposedly abandoned Ukiah mansion with those confabulous knobs.
But the house wasn’t abandoned, and the heist turned into a first degree burglary, with serious consequences. The Doorknob Gang snagged the knobs but also took eight guns, adding grand theft of firearms onto their other charges which, for the gang's mastermind, Maresh, a convicted felon, included possession of firearms. That was count three.
The target was the main house at Parducci Wine Cellars on Pomo Lane near the Highway 101 overpass north of Ukiah. At about 10pm on August 4th Charles Van was working in his office at the winery when he heard a man and woman having a loud argument outside. This turned out to be Mary Wisterman and Jesse Maresh.
The two burglars were loaded down with bags of plunder, but couldn’t keep from fighting like cats and dogs even at the most crucial part of the rip-off — the getaway. The Doorknob Gang, off their doorknob heist, should be contenders for America’s Dumbest Criminals, the most popular TV show at the Low Gap jail where all three will be spending a lot of time.
Mr. Van fired a shot in the air and ordered the couple to come out with their hands up. Mary immediately surrendered, but Jesse ran for it, and got away. Van only got a glimpse of him and couldn’t make a positive ID. Maresh smiled hugely at this testimony, confident he’d get off scot free. He seemed to think The People had nothing on him, couldn’t prove a thing. For the next three days Maresh was a happy man, just waiting for the trial to end so the jury could cut him loose.
Messrs Parsanj and Opet for the defense must have shared their client’s optimism because all they did from here on out was object to every question the prosecution asked, doing their best to obstruct the entry of any further evidence, until it came time to put the cross exam-thumbscrews on poor old Earl Lansdowne, the get away driver.
The thieves had gotten off with quite a haul. Besides the eight guns, there were lots of other valuables missing from Parducci, such as high-dollar poker chips, antique lamps, high end Christmas ornaments, beer steins, vintage felt hats, a genuine Mexican sombrero, Armani handbags, and those much coveted custom gilt decorator doorknobs. Lots of other things, too. A spotting scope. Fishing rods. Italian marble grapes. An antique spinning wheel. Ink wells and quills from the roll-top desk which had been jimmied open and damaged. And then the boxes; many, many storage boxes pulled into the center of the room and ransacked. They even took Grandpa Parducci's Purple Heart medal from WWII.
Mr. Van and his wife estimated that the loss amounted to over $12,000.
Mr. Parsanj for the defense objected. He said that Mr. Van, the owner of all the stolen property, was not an expert, so the value of his property was not admissible.
Judge John Behnke had to advise the defense lawyers that the rules of evidence permitted witnesses to give an opinion of the worth of their own stuff.
True, some of the stolen guns had belonged to Mr. Van’s father-in-law, the late Ukiah real estate magnate Jack Cox, and Van and his wife had inherited them. Van had gone online to websites specializing in antique and collectible firearms, and also to local gun dealers, to get the dollar values of his guns. But anyone who has inherited a father’s hunting rifle or fowling piece feels something close to his father’s hand shake every time he grips the stock, and this is hard to put a price on. So Parsanj was right when he insisted that the value of the guns could not be accurately determined from a website or dealer — but the young lawyer was ignorant as to the reason he was right; in fact, he had it all backwards.
Parsanj hoped to diminish the value of the guns to obsolete junk, and thereby reduce the charge from grand theft to petty theft. To him the old double-barreled Forest King shotgun made with the beautifully engraved Damascus steel that had belonged to Great-Grandpa was worth maybe $40, not the $2,000 a collector would gladly pay, nevermind the sentimental value the Vans would attach to it.
All through the process of showing the guns to the jury, Parsanj objected apparently unaware that niggling objections and the nigglers who make them are highly annoying to jurors who are merely trying to learn what happened, and many of the jurors were visibly out of patience with Parsanj’s obstructionist tactics.
Meanwhile the prosecutor, for his part, was making himself irritating in his own right. Deputy DA Daniel “Mad Dog” Madow has a tendency to bark his questions at the witnesses. It’s just a matter of personal style and every lawyer has his or her own, but sometimes these presentation tics can be downright disconcerting to a jury. About as beguiling as a Doberman pinscher straining at his leash, Madow barked out his words. When he asked the judge if he could approach the witnesses to show them pictures or documents the person on the stand would reflexively recoil as Mad Dog lunged aggressively forward to show them something.
These critiques of both prosecution and defense lawyers are often rather more candid than a lawyer’s vanity can take. But the difference is the lawyers at the Office of the Public Defender always take offense, while most of the others do not with the exception of a few sour old sots like long time area defense attorneys Ed ‘Jive’ Denson, and the martyred Phil DeJong. The two tottering hacks always put on injured looks at the sight of me while rock-ribbed Trump booster Al Kubanis takes criticism with good humor. I should mention that the columns of Boonville's beloved community newspaper are always open to our critics, and we're available for direct debate, 7am to 9pm, seven days a week. Offended esquires are welcome to take their beefs straight to us.
Public defender Parsanj was making it plain he didn’t approve of the presence of a reporter in the gallery during his performance. And it was all him. Parsanj's colleague, Mr. Opet, was only doing duty as a bench warmer, sometimes whispering atta boys to Parsanj, but nothing more.
At length, getaway driver Earl Lansdowne took the stand.
DDA Madow began with brisk, “Ruff-ruff ruff ruff-ruffs and woof-woofs.”
I half expected someone to shout, "Better muzzle that beast!"
Lansdowne: “Excuse me?”
Madow: “Where were you August 4th?”
Lansdowne: “At home, minding my own business.”
Madow: “Did Mary Wisterman contact you?”
Parsanj: “Objection, leading.”
Behnke: “It is leading. Sustained. Re-phrase your question, counsel and remember to ask open-ended questions on direct.”
Madow: (having bared his teeth with a rabid growl at Parsanj): “Did anyone contact you that day?”
Madow: “And who was that?”
Lansdowne: “To give Jesse a ride.”
Madow: “Where to?”
Lansdowne: “He had court that day.”
Madow: “Did you oblige?”
Lansdowne: “Yeah, I did.”
Lansdowne: “I guess I’m just a sucker…”
Parsanj: “Objection, move to strike, calls for speculation on the part of the witness.”
Behnke: “The witness was guessing, but he can comment on his own state of mind. I’m gonna let the answer stand. Overruled, and motion denied.”
Madow: “So what did you do?”
Lansdowne: “Wull, I took ‘em all up to the courthouse.”
Madow: “Who all was there?”
Lansdowne: “Me and Mary and Jesse and Jesse’s kid of about five… I don’t remember his name, but he was a real nice kid. Then we went to another friend’s house to look for the mother but she wasn’t there, and so”—
Anthropological aside here: Outsiders will note the picaresque lives led by many Mendo people, a kind of daily ad hoc, minute-to-minute life style. Hmmm. I'm awake. Wonder what I'll do today.
Parsanj: “Your honor, I’m going to object, the answer’s non-responsive.”
Behnke: “It is non-responsive. Sustained. Just answer briefly, then wait for the lawyer to ask another question, Mr. Lansdowne.”
Madow: “What time did you get there?”
Lansdowne: “About 10:30 or maybe 11:00.”
Madow: “Did you go in with them?”
Lansdowne: “No, I stayed in the car with the kid.”
Madow: “Were they gone long?”
Madow: “When they came out, did they discuss a house?”
Parsanj: “Objection, vague.”
Behnke: “It is vague, but Mr. Madow is contending there was a conspiracy that took place within the vehicle so I’m gonna allow it. Overruled. You can answer, Mr. Lansdowne.”
Lansdowne: “No, that came later at the park. I was playing with Little Jesse — there, I’ve remembered his name — and they started talking about this abandoned house with these golden doorknobs.”
Madow: “Did they say anything about firearms?”
Lansdowne: “No, not that I heard.”
Madow: “No? That’s not what you told the detective. Your honor, may I approach?”
Madow was waving a copy of the transcript from the police interrogation and wanted to point out to Lansdowne what he’d said to the cops, but Parsanj objected that the audio recording was evidence, but the transcript wasn’t, which was technically true, but the recording was long and full of extraneous material and replete with long pauses, so the judge let the jurors go home early while he and the lawyers spent the rest of the day listening to the recording and deciding what would be played.
And, yes, the next morning, it was shown that Lansdowne had told the detective they’d mentioned guns and other items, as well. Madow had the remote control and would stop the recording to bark incriminating questions at Lansdowne, and, of course, having just heard himself say on the recording as much to the detective, Lansdowne would have to admit he had indeed said what he'd said.
Madow: “Did you go up there earlier to case the place out for a burglary?”
Madow: “And you knew that Jesse had been to the house on Pomo Lane before?”
Madow: “And your job was to be the wheelman?”
Lansdowne: “I didn’t want no stolen things in my Mom’s 4-Runner!”
Madow: “But you knew they were going to put things in there, didn’t you?”
Madow: “You knew they were going up there to steal stuff” —
Parsanj: “Objection, argumentative.”
Behnke: “It is argumentative. Overruled.”
Madow: “You knew they were going up there to steal, so how is it they were not going to put things in the 4-Runner?”
Lansdowne: “I was just taking care of the kid. I thought it was all a big fantasy about golden doorknobs, and [angrily] I wuz jist watchin’ da kid, see?”
Parsanj: “Objection. Prosecution has antagonized the witness.”
Madow: “Jesse approached Mary a year ago about this, didn’t he?”
Lansdowne: “That’s what she told me, yeah.”
Lansdowne: “Coupla days ago.”
Madow: “So you knew about this for two days before?”
Madow: “But it was Jesse’s idea, wasn’t it?”
Madow: “And they gave you a time frame?”
Lansdowne: “They said it wouldn’t take that long, 45 minutes to a hour, maybe.”
Madow: “So Jesse knew everything about that house. Did he say anything about anything besides guns and jewelry?”
Lansdowne: “Yeah, the stupid golden doorknobs.”
Madow: “Feral woof-woofs.”
Parsanj: “Move to strike!”
Behnke: “Motion denied.”
Parsanj: “But your honor…”
Behnke: “The court doesn’t need further argument on the ruling.”
Madow: “When did Jesse tell you to take Little Jesse to McDonald’s?”
Lansdowne: “When I dropped them off.”
Madow: “Did you tell them to call you when they were done?”
Madow: “At some point Jesse talked to you about tying stuff on top of the 4-Runner, correct?”
Lansdowne: “No, never.”
Madow: “Now, Earl, you heard yourself say that on the recording, didn’t you.”
Parsanj: “Objection. The recording was unintelligible.”
Behnke: “That’s why we had the transcript. Overruled.”
Madow: “So it’s possible you were planning to put things on the roof?”
Lansdowne: “Yeah, it’s possible.”
Madow: “So when did you realize they weren’t coming with the stuff?”
Lansdowne: “When I heard shots fired.”
Madow: “What did you do then?”
Lansdowne: “I turned around and sped off?”
Madow: “Why did you do that? Were you scared?”
Lansdowne: “I heard shots fired and I had a little kid with me… I wuz gittin him outta harm’s way.”
Madow: “Nothing further.”
* * *
Parsanj: “You are being charged with burglary?”
Parsanj: “Facing serious jail time?”
Parsanj: “Your attorney [Jan Cole-Wilson] spoke to the District Attorney, didn’t she?”
Parsanj: “And she said maybe she could get you a deal?”
Lansdowne took a drink of water and sat in silence a moment before answering quietly: “Yeah.”
Parsanj: “So you were promised something?”
Lansdowne: “There was no promise, no.”
Parsanj: “But you just admitted your attorney got you a deal for less jail time, didn’t you?”
Lansdowne: “Wull, yeah.”
Parsanj: “Ever get in trouble before?”
Parsanj: “Ever have to snitch on somebody to get out of trouble?”
Parsanj: “You didn’t even know Jesse, did you?”
Lansdowne: “Yeah—I mean, no.”
Parsanj: “But you knew Mary, didn’t you?”
Lansdowne: “Yeah, but I hadn’t seen her for ‘bout 20 years.”
Parsanj: “And you had a thing for her, didn’t you, a sexual attraction?”
Lansdowne: “Yeah, but…”
Parsanj: “But you were never able to date her, were you?”
Lansdowne: “No, never wuz.”
Parsanj: “Did you feel, maybe, that Jesse was closer to Mary than you were?”
Lansdowne: “Yeah, I guess so.”
Parsanj: “And all you were there for was the ride; just to give them a ride?”
Lansdowne (bitterly): “Yeah, that’s right.”
Parsanj: “And later when you heard gunshots you drove away?”
Parsanj: “Back to Lake County?”
Parsanj: “And you took Little Jesse to McDonald’s?”
Parsanj: “Why was that?”
Lansdowne: “It was dinnertime.”
Parsanj: “And when you were talking to the officers you wanted to get out of trouble, didn’t you?”
Lansdowne: “I didn’t think I wuz in any trouble.”
Parsanj: “But you wanted to go home?”
Parsanj: “So you were willing to say whatever was needed — and I’ll get back to that, but first you heard Jesse and Mary talking about some golden doorknobs, so you thought it was some kind of magical house that didn’t really exist…”
Parsanj: “And you waited for hours?”
Lansdowne: “That’s right.”
Parsanj: “And you never saw Jesse and Mary come back?”
Parsanj: “And maybe you were thinking they might be doing what you’d like to be doing with Mary…?”
Pasanj: “Did you think they were going to hook up?”
Parsanj: “But you didn’t want them to…?”
Lansdowne (bitterly): “It didn’t matter.”
Parsanj: “You told me earlier you were attracted to her, and now ‘it didn’t matter’?”
The jury was out about ten minutes before they came back with guilty verdicts on all three counts for Travis Jesse Maresh, including child endangerment.
The coveted Mary Wisterman had already pled out, and in the coming weeks Earl Lansdowne will see what kind of a deal his testimony bought him.
Four of the guns were recovered, along with a few other odds and ends, but most of the loot from the caper — including the fabulous golden doorknobs — remains missing.