Last Wednesday, January 27, John Henry Ross, 66, of Covelo, was bound over for trial on a single count of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Alejandro ‘Alex’ Hernandez, 33, of Ukiah.
Alex was John Henry’s father-in-law so to speak, since Alex was in a relationship with Linda Davis and John Ross was married to Davis’s daughter. But, hey, it’s Covelo, so go figure, but begin by assuming everyone's related somehow, some way.
Although the body was found in a marijuana garden, the police do not think the murder was related to the dope; in fact, they have no motive, no witness, no murder weapon, and only the testimony of Linda Davis — who says Alex was her “man” — to place Ross at the scene of the crime.
Essentially, Ms. Davis’s testimony was that she saw Ross through a window and then heard two shots in rapid succession. That was the only evidence Judge David Nelson heard to hold Mr. Ross for trial on. The evidence for the purposes of a preliminary examination need not be conclusive, but only enough to make the judge “reasonably suspicious,” and that is what we have here, if that.
There were many neighbors who also heard the fatal gunshots. But, again, it’s Covelo and gunfire is as common as it is in Aleppo, so nobody thought anything of the sounds of these particular rounds fired off at 8pm one evening.
The prosecution’s star witness, John Ross Junior, of Manila, the Philippines, said he was inured to the racket of gunfire after only a few weeks in Covelo and couldn’t say what time of day the shots were fired or the direction they came from because by then he no longer paid Covelo's sound track any mind whatsoever.
John Ross Jr. was important because defense lawyer Keith Faulder said Linda Davis and her daughter Darlene Davis, the primary witnesses against Ross were not credible, and that they had participated in a coordinated deception.
Everybody in Covelo has a nickname, it seems, and John Ross Jr. was called ‘John-John’ to differentiate him from his father, Ben Fu, after John-John arrived in Covelo from Manila the first part of June and went to work trimming marijuana for his father. Accordingly, he was called John-John on the witness stand.
But before John-John could testify, he had to be found. The homicide detectives had bugged the visiting booth at the jail when they heard Ross Sr. — “Ben Fu” — tell “John-John” (using expletives, the detective said) that John-John was talking too much and he was to get a plane ticket and get out of the country.
“Did he address whether John-John wanted to leave?”
“He said, ‘And don’t tell me you don’t want to go ‘cause you fucked me up’…”
“Ross, Jr. called him Dad and said he loved him, to which Ross, Sr. replied he was serious and needed Ross, Jr. on the next airplane.”
The cops subsequently located John-John in San Diego. Apparently he was trying to go to Calexico to depart for his motherland but had lost his passport in Las Vegas and couldn’t leave the country. Deputies interrogated John-John on the eight-hour drive back to Ukiah where he was held on Judge Nelson’s order until last Wednesday when he stepped down from the witness stand.
During the interrogation in the long cop ride from San Diego to Ukiah, detectives showed John-John smart phone pictures of guns. John-John identified a nickel-plated Ruger Super Redhawk .44 Magnum with Pachmayr® grips as something that looked like the gun his father carried in a black nylon shoulder holster.
Detectives Andrew Porter and Luis Espinoza had found two spent .44 Mag. casings and a black nylon shoulder holster in a barn near the Davis property, and a neighbor had seen somebody who “could have been” Ross Sr. go into that barn shortly after the estimated time of the shooting.
With this information to bolster the prosecution’s “theory,” as it was called, that Ross Sr. was the shooter, Deputy DA Shannon Cox crafted an immunity agreement with John-John and his court-appointed lawyer, Justin Petersen, and after a few days of delay, John-John took the stand.
Judge Nelson: “You understand, don’t you, that they cannot prosecute you for anything you say today unless it’s untruthful, and then they can charge you with perjury?”
Nelson: “Your first language is Tagalog, as I’ve been told, but you understand English well enough that you don’t need an interpreter, is that right?”
John-John: “Uh-no, no I don’t need one.”
Nelson: “Okay, we won’t use any big words and if you have any questions just say so.”
Deputy DA Cox: “You were born in the Philippines and the defendant is your father?”
John-John: “Ah-yes, that’s right.” (Das righ’)
Cox: “Did your dad live in the Philippines?”
John-John: “Uh-no, no. He stayed there like nine years only, because they arrested him there and but he stayed in the prison there.” (Dey arres’ him dere and but he stay in da prison dere.)
When his son arrived from the Philippines, Mr. Ross picked John-John up at SFO and took him straight to Covelo, arriving at 3am. The very next day John-John was at work tending the family weed patch, which in June needed frequent tending. When he wasn't out in the pot patch, John-John, perhaps yearning for his former life under the coconut trees, was trimming weed brought in from elsewhere. The kid had just come to America — on his own money — and was not allowed to so much as leave the property that his pops rented from a certain “Mr. Steve/Mr. C” — Steve Carbone. In the month he was indentured on his dad's farm, John-John was never on his own no more than once or twice for a quick trip to the store, he said.
Cox: “So you were working in exchange for rent?”
John-John: “Ah-yes, yes that’s it was I worked there. I had no place else to go.”
It was during this time he sometimes saw his stern disciplinarian of a father carrying the big hog’s leg of a .44 in the shoulder holster.
John-John: “I ask him can I hold it and he say, No, you can’t, and don’t ever touch it.”
It was also during this time, early in June, that Elaina, Linda’s daughter, visited and John-John learned Linda was his father’s wife and, by extension, his mother.
Cox: “Did you know your father was married?”
John-John: “Uh-no… no, I just found out.”
John-John was also being paid in meth, and when he offered to pass his pipe to his newly introduced step-mom, Dad scowled and told him to never do it again — not because she didn’t smoke meth (she did) but because Dad didn’t want Jr. even so much as talking to her.
John-John: “He told me it was not my place to be talking to her.”
Cox: “Did she live with your dad?”
John-John: “Uh-no, no…”
Cox: “Did you know where she lived?”
John-John: “Uh-no, no, not then, I didn’t, but then I found out the day we were arrested and they took us down there to that house [the Davis’s].”
Cox: “Did your father ever go visit her?”
John-John: “Uh-no, no-no, we don’t talk about that. It was none of my business where he go.”
Nothing was John-John’s business, it seemed. He talked about his duties, going to the well (!) to get buckets of water and carrying them to the fenced-in weed patch, watering the plants, going inside to trim bud during the heat of the day, and playing Scrabble on his smart phone to improve his English.
At the end of June, the day of the shooting, John-John was watering the plants and of course minding his own business when his father drove up in the truck and got out holding his side. John-John said his father was on the phone to Mr. C. yelling that he’d been shot, but John-John said he looked his dad over and said, 'Uh-no, no, you okay man, there’s nothing wrong.' John-John said he walked around dad's truck and again reassured his father that there were no bullet holes in the truck either.
Cox: “Did you ask what that was all about?”
John-John: “Uh-no, no. I just thought he was nervous or paranoid. It was not my place to ask those kinds of stuff.”
Cox: “Where were you when he drove up?”
John-John: “I was standing by the wheel?”
Cox: “The wheel of the truck?”
John-John: “Uh-no, no-no, the weel… you know, the place by the tank for the water.”
Cox: “You mean the well?”
John-John: “Yah-yes, that’s what it was, (da weel.)”
John-John said he went back to work and then saw his father walking towards the police officers who were suddenly up at the gate. Dad handed John-John a bag of bullets and a clip for a rifle and told him to go hide it.
Cox: “What did you do?”
John-John: “I walked out into the field and put it down under some star thistle. Then the police, they call my name on the loudspeaker and tell me to go up there. So I went up there and they put the handcuff on me.”
Father and son were placed in the cop car.
Cox; “Did he [Dad] tell you anything?”
John-John: “He told me about a gun under the tin roof [a pile of tin roofing stacked on the ground near the well and water tank]. He told me get it out of there and go hide it.”
It was a Ruger Mini-14 with a folding stock; the weapon was dirty and covered with cobwebs, the detectives later said. John-John hid it under a different pile of tin roofing. Later, after three searches failed to turn it up, John-John, at the behest of the mysterious “Mr. C” led the cops to it, and later showed them the ammunition and magazine he’d put under the thistle, as well.
It was unlikely that this rifle had been used to fire the alleged pot-shot (the basis for count two, the attempted first degree murder of Darlene Davis) that Ms. Davis claimed Ben Fu had fired at her when, she said, she followed him home.
There was lots wrong with this war story. The distance, for one thing. Detective Cromer did a “walk-through.” In fact, the cops drove to the place where Ms Davis was allegedly standing when the alleged shot was fired at her. Detective Cromer said he could barely make out detectives Espinoza and Porter who were up at the bus (an inhabited dwelling) where Ross had allegedly been standing at the time. Cromer estimated the distance at three to four football fields, rather than the rather short distance Ms. Davis had claimed. And the time frame of the alleged pot shots was as wildly off as the distances.
Ms. Davis had walked off for softball practice at 4:30pm and almost immediately got a call from Mom saying her “man” had been shot. (Softball practice is the sole reference to a wholesome activity anywhere in all of this.) Ms. Davis flagged down a neighbor and rushed home. Then after some confusion at the scene and having viewed the body, Ms. Davis said she went in pursuit of the suspect, John Ross. She called him names and he went briefly behind the bus, then emerged and fired a shot at his tormentor, causing her to retreat.
The detectives did, however, find another rifle under the hood of the bus, which would fit nicely with Ms. Davis's story that she'd been shot at. But, again, it was a rusty old sporting piece, long neglected and unlikely to have been recently used. A week later, Ms. Davis claimed to find a .22 semi-auto pistol near the scene of the shooting. Faulder strongly felt this was planted by the Davis women. Cox said it was prosecution’s theory that the victim was killed with a .44 (big difference from a .22). The .44 Magnum was never found.
The attempted murder of the softball player, then, would seem to be totally false, calculated to make Mr. Ross seem even more violent than he may be.
Cox: “Did you ever ask where your father got that .44?”
John-John: “Uh-no, no. I know better not to ask about that.”
Cox: “But you must love your father and wouldn’t want to see him go to prison, would you…?”
John-John: “Nah, no… no, no, that’s nothing new, the prison. He already do that nine years in the Philippines, and more here, too.”
John-John appeared to have had an opportunity to play the tourist after Dear Old Dad was arrested. He said he had made his own way to this country and would leave it in his own good time, no matter what Dad wanted, so he went to Las Vegas where he lost his smart phone and passport. Then he ended up in San Diego where he was picked up for vagrancy, apparently, and the Mendocino Sheriff’s Office was notified.
On cross-examination we learned that John-John had been released by detectives on the night of the shooting, and told not to go back on the property, as it had been sealed off as a crime scene. He spent one night in an abandoned house, but since he had no place else to go he went back to the only home he knew, despite the order to stay away. While he was there he saw his Dad’s “wife” and her sister come onto the property and steal a generator and a TV. Then he said they came back the next day and set the place on fire.
The fire burned up half the property. The Davis ladies denied any knowledge of the looting and firebombing raid.
Jona Saxby for the defense: “Had you ever seen these two women on the property before?”
John-John: “Ah-yeah, yes-yes. They came the first week I was there and stole my stuff, everything I brought from the Philippines.”
Keith Faulder made the closing argument for the defense, expressing his belief that Linda and Darlene Davis were trying to frame his client. Judge Nelson said he would have to give some thought to count two, the attempted murder of Darlene Davis, the softball player. But he was going to hold Poppa Ross to answer for the murder of Alex Hernandez. Also, Ross would be bound over on the charges of being a felon in possession of a gun and ammunition, as it seemed likely Ross knew about the Mini-14 and had handed the ammo and clip to his son to run off and hide it.
The judge then ordered John-John released from custody. If he chooses to return to the Philippines, he can go. The transcript from a day and a half on the stand should be adequate for purposes of a trial. The cross-exam had been painstakingly tedious and thorough, and both parties were satisfied that nothing further could be squeezed out of the hapless tourist, John-John.
However, a trial may or may not be in the offing. Once the District Attorney evaluates the remaining evidence, a plea bargain may well be called for. As to who actually killed Alex Hernandez and why — well, it’s Covelo, not Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.