Navigating the pot laws is always exciting and Sara Fraker’s trial last week was even more like a regatta than most. Ms. Fraker claimed she was only house-sitting at the extensive Robinson Creek Road property where she was arrested. The home was also the site of several high-tech hydroponic grow rooms, amounting to 468 marijuana plants.
In the words of Ms. Fraker's attorney, “She found herself in the middle of a hurricane.”
The District Attorney disagreed.
“That’s not true, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. She was a part of this operation, this huge — huge and very sophisticated — illegal marijuana factory. Ms. Fraker was there guarding the factory, she was part of it.”
The S.S. Fraker was skippered by defense attorney E.D. Lerman with her law partner Rebecca Mendribil as first mate. Ms. Lerman had a hard working crew which included a private investigator, a paralegal and a legal secretary.
The Ship of State’s vessel, with DA David Eyster at the helm, was no less capably staffed, from his first officer Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Wells, on down to two staff investigators and a legal secretary. They were all kept very busy coming and going with documents, reports, photographs and witnesses throughout the trial. It reminded me of the pre-Eyster days when DA Meredith Lintott simply threw every pot case into court with entire convoys of support ships and delays.
The Fraker event attracted not only the usual idle lawyers and stray cats, but also a lot of local dignitaries, including Mendocino Sheriff Thomas Allman.
By Friday afternoon, however, the hurricane had blown itself out and S.S. Fraker sailed through the salt and foam into the welcome Port of Acquittal when the jury came back with a not-so surprising Not Guilty verdict.
The course of the trial went along the shoals of controversy over local pot regs and the DA Eyster’s new policies which were well marked with bell buoys as being off limits by Commodore — oops, I mean Judge Ann Moorman.
“You are not going to be allowed to go there, Ms. Lerman,” declared the frustrated Judge Moorman who wanted nothing to do with Lerman’s attempts at bringing DA Eyster’s policy to reduce felony charges to misdemeanors upon payment of eradication fees into play. “This case is not about whether or not the Sheriff’s Office gets money from the DA’s Office to bust people for growing marijuana. You cannot question the witness about that. Stop interrupting me! That’s about the tenth time! I won’t have it!”
The property was the focus of two ambitious people, a realtor named Melissa Chapman and a pot pharm entrepreneur with a rather amorphous name, Jeremy Redford, or Jeremy Kee, depending on what was at stake. Ms. Chapman wanted to sell the property on Robinson Creek Road outside Ukiah (Supervisor Dan Hamburg’s neighborhood, in fact) and collect a nice commission; Mr. Redford/Kee wanted to keep his factory rolling out buds. A question arose over a lease, and both these people proved so incredible on the stand that nobody believed either one of them, although Eyster said Jeremy was the liar and Lerman said No it was Melissa.
To determine for Chase Bank whether anyone was living at the residence, realtor Chapman went out there and knocked on the door. No answer, but suddenly she was set upon by two ferocious dogs. She ran to her car and made it just ahead of the hounds. A woman appeared and told Chapman to go away and never come back.
Ms. Chapman did go — straight to the cops — Tom Allman, personally — to say that she'd smelled marijuana growing out there, and describing what she'd experienced as a trespass grow. This led to the bust, and Ms. Fraker was taken into custody for cultivation of marijuana on an illegally ambitious scale.
Ms. Chapman, who lived in Lake County, said she did this sort of thing all the time — going up to the door of rural sale properties unannounced to find out if anyone was there and to get trespassers removed. Eyster praised the real estate lady for her valor, but Lerman said it was cupidity, not valor, and the reason Fraker was there was to keep this nosy woman from snooping around.
Jeremy Redford/Kee said, “Yes, she [Ms. Fraker] was there to keep the riff-raff out [Ms. Chapman] and feed the dogs.”
But not to water the plants? No, decidedly not. She wasn’t even given keys to the grow rooms; the systems were automated to the point that the grower could be gone for weeks at a time. The pharm ran itself. Jeremy had come out of hiding after three years (the original bust was more than three years ago in 2012) to take the stand on Fraker’s behalf. Ms. Lerman praised this real gent Redford-Kee’s courage as much as Eyster had praised Chapman’s.
To prove this point, Lerman brought in one of the pot pharm community’s most colorful celebrities, my old friend Chris Conrad, the Oakland based hotshot-pot expert whom I hadn’t seen since the Emerald Cup was held at the Mateel in Redway. Mr. Conrad had no doubt just come from the Emerald Cup’s new venue at the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa — the event has grown so popular, especially as a training ground for undercover cops, that the Mateel was too small to accommodate everyone.
Conrad's enthusiasm seemed to infect the entire courtroom. Even Judge Moorman seemed charmed, but Deputy Jim Wells, a student of pot pharms for altogether different purposes, was sedulously taking notes on his hand-held, kept discretely out of view, but nobody was looking anyway — Conrad was that good, he had everybody enthralled.
I’ve seen Conrad in action before and it’s always been a pleasure. He’s justified in promoting himself as a “court-qualified” pot expert at his website www.chrisconrad.com where he’s pictured in his hemp shirt while closely examining some very fine bud. This occasion was no exception:
“Mr. Conrad, look at this photograph and tell me if you know what it is?”
“Oh yes, I do indeed, and what a great set up this is — just look at those ballasts, the very best state-of-the-art, those babies are.”
Called to the stand by Ms. Lerman, Conrad was on his feet with a pointer practically dancing in front of the big-screen TV where the pictures were shown to the jury.
“This is obviously a rock-wall slab and cube hydroponic system automated through this control panel here, the brains of this very sophisticated system. See where this hose — it’s two hoses actually — comes down here to these slabs with the cubes above it? This is called an ebb and flow system; one hose brings in the nutrient-rich water, the other drains it out — very important or the plant would drown, you see, and oh, look at these things over here; that’s your air-filtration system to keep the odor down, and these fans here reduce the heat of the lamps… yes, a garden like this could go weeks, conceivably months without any bother, though most people wouldn’t let it go that long.”
Ms. Lerman put up another picture.
“Ah, yes, very nice equipment, here. These silver-colored ducts are for fresh air, and the entire system is completely automated. The system is set up to run indefinitely, yes, but the nutrients, the fertilizer if you will, must be checked occasionally, and this is the tank the nutrients go into. This line here goes down to what we call the air stone, to keep air in the water — you’ve heard of hard water, naturally — and this prevents it, keeps the pH levels optimal.”
Mr. Conrad suddenly scowled like he’d found a fruit fly in his pinot noir.
“See this heavy build up of nutrients along the wall of the tank, sorta like a ring around a bathtub where the water has gone down? That suggests to me that it’s been more than just a few days since anyone has attended to this garden. And here’s more evidence. As the water level goes down the concentration of chemicals goes up and you get what we call a chemical burn on the leaf, as we can see here, all these yellowing and brown leaves. This is the plant defending itself. That’s significant in two ways. One, it shows that it’s off balance and, two, the grower hasn’t been there to pull the dead leaves off the plant. Plus, it’s wasting light, by having these dead or dying leaves blocking the light.”
“So no one was tending that garden?”
“It doesn’t look like it. But here you see how everything has been thought of: This is a bucket hanging here with a line going up to it from the control panel. That’s sulfur for fungus control. A timer turns it on at night when the lights are off to kill the molds…”
DA Eyster has a grudging admiration for Conrad but he was not about to let the jury see it so he dismissed the man’s expertise as a biased opinion that was paid for with a hefty check from the defense. He concentrated his argument on the fact that Ms. Fraker was there to guard the operation, the “factory,” as he called it and whether she had to water plants was beside the point. Fraker’s “indicia,” some of her personal papers and clothing were at the residence and this was proof that she was living there, guarding the place — and this was a major point of contention. Lerman asserted that law enforcement didn’t really look for any of Jeremy’s indicia because he wasn’t there and couldn’t be found.
The lawyers argued endlessly over this point before the jury came in each day, and after they left for the night. Not only then, but every five minutes or less, they gathered at the side of the bench with numerous sidebars and argued in whispers over legal technicalities.
Most of these sidebars had to do with the regatta buoys referred to earlier: Ms. Lerman kept trying to go outside the parameters of the trial and make it a showcase for her views on the marijuana laws, and the way entities like COMMET (the County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team) and the Major Crimes Task Force do their job. (I often get the same thing myself from people who want to define my duties and write my job description for me.)
Lerman, for instance, felt strongly that law enforcement’s job was first and foremost to find every scintilla of evidence that the grow was legal, compassionate and altruistic; not the unholy profit-making “factory” Eyster wanted to paint it as.
Ms. Lerman’s questions had been somewhat muddled because they were verbose to the point of being unwieldy and hard to understand, run-on sentences festooned with redundancies and repetitions which were time-consuming and, in effect, quite dull. The rhetorical rambling, Eyster told the jury, was a ploy to bore them to distraction, to lull them into a disregard for the facts and was a tactic designed to make the jury just want to get the whole thing over with.
Ms. Lerman reacted with great indignation. She came on deck with her eyes flashing and her tongue sharpened in denunciation of Eyster’s characterization of her style of delivery. It was such a swiftly delivered spate of succinct recrimination that I sat paralyzed by the contrast from her former monotonous style, and didn’t get any of it down in my notebook. But I did note that Eyster blushed a time or two (or maybe that was rage reddening his face and ears). In any case, the lawyer’s opinions of each other had become a side issue, and the tide had turned.
The jury came back promptly with the acquittal, ruling that indeed Ms. Fraker had nothing personally to do with the pharmaceutical factory on Robinson Creek Road. All weekend I heard — or imagined I heard — champagne corks popping at the Mendo Pot-Yacht Club.
Press Release & Comment At The Time Of Ms. Fraker's Arrest
ACCORDING to a press release from the Sheriff’s Department, a raid early Monday morning (1am) on a property at 5700 Robinson Creek Road netted 468 pot plants, 42 grow lights and Sara Fraker, 30, of Ukiah. Deputies from the County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team (COMMET), with the help of night shift MCSO patrol deputies, agents from the Mendocino Major Crimes Task Force, Mendocino County Probation Office and wardens from the California Department of Fish and Game, served a search warrant on the address southwest of Ukiah where they found indoor grows in several buildings. Ms. Fraker was booked at the Mendocino County Jail on suspicion of cultivating marijuana, possessing marijuana for sale and maintaining a place to grow marijuana. Her bail was set at $25,000.
GIVEN THE NUMBER of cops involved, one might have thought Ms. Fraker was an al Qaeda affiliate, but the raid is likely to turn out to be a net financial plus for Mendocino County given DA Eyster’s innovative pot prosecution policies. Eyster basically settles these things for cash and minor misdemeanors on the bustee’s record. Eyster’s way spares the bustee the very real possibility of serious jail time if he takes his case all the way to a jury and loses, but if he or she pays up and takes his or her misdemeanor the County gets the fine money and the taxpayers aren’t left with the expense of lengthy court proceedings. So far, no one’s complaining. (AVA, March 28, 2013)
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TURNED OUT, Ms. Fraker took her bust to a jury, and as reported here, the jury took about thirty minutes to laugh it out of the courtroom. If there was a case against her, the DA didn't make it. An Albion guy who served on the jury told friends the case against Ms. Fraker was a joke.