Eric Wayne Mehtlan was acquitted of felony vandalism charges in a jury trial last week that was based, by and large, on a shopping list compiled by the innkeeper of the Economy Inn on State Street in Ukiah after Mr. Mehtlan checked out.
Ms. Patel wanted all the towels replaced, all the bedding, including the mattress, the pillows and even a broken window that was going to be replaced anyway, since the motel is being remodeled. It was a little disingenuous to say that the bath mat, for instance, had to be thrown away because there was a speck of blood next to it on the floor.
The jury didn’t buy the shopping list either and let Mehtlan off.
The trouble started when Mehtlan decided to buy a bottle of Black Velvet and take his girlfriend to the Economy Inn where, by 2:00 a.m., the fun couple was in such a heated argument that Ms. Patel called the police to quell the disturbance coming from room 137. Ukiah Police Officer Adam Elledge knocked on the door, announced he was the police, and immediately heard glass breaking. Then a woman yelled, “He’s going out the back window!”
Officer Matthew Edwards ran around back and pursued the fleeing Mr. Mehtlan. When Edwards finally caught Mehtlan on Main Street, the barefooted fugitive was bleeding from a cut on his hand. Back at the motel, there was blood on the wall and floor near the broken bathroom window, so it was assumed Mehtlan cut his hand while breaking the window out in order to escape. But when Mehtlan later took the stand in his own defense he said he cut his hand by slamming his drink down on the table in a fit of pique.
The broken window, Mehtlan explained, had accidentally fallen out of its track after he slid it open to get out. The trouble was Ms. Patel wanted $483 for this window, along with all the new towels, bedding and a $327 mattress. There was no evidence that any of these damaged goods had been stained with blood — other than her word for it — and the window was easily fixed with a sliding sash from one just like it in the wing of the motel that had been closed for extensive repairs and remodeling.
Ms. Patel said she paid her maintenance man $485 to throw everything away and fix the window. “The walls — everything — had blood on it, and there was glass in the toilet, you can’t just flush it.”
She said this under oath.
Mary Le Claire of the Office of the Public Defender questioned how much Ms. Patel paid her maintenance man per hour. She replied that she didn’t pay by the hour, but contracted the man’s services only when needed.
“And isn’t it true you were remodeling one wing of the motel?”
“Yes, we have that part closed while we work on it.”
“And you took a window from the wing you’re not using?”
“Yes, but we are going to have all the windows replaced, both the front window and the bathroom windows.”
“Who did the temporary fix?”
“My maintenance guy.”
“Do you recall telling the police that it would cost $500 to fix it?”
“It’s an estimate, not the exact amount.”
“Okay, but you told the DA’s investigator you had to pay $700 for similar work in the past, didn’t you?”
“No, we’ve never had a broken window before.”
“Are you replacing all the windows?”
“Yes, with newer and better quality. The ones we have now are from the 1950s when the motel was built.”
“I see. Now, as far as cleaning costs go, there’s this one spot of blood on the wall here by the window [Ms. Le Claire points at a picture taken by the police officers], and another spot on the floor, and that’s all isn’t it?”
“No, there was blood everywhere, on everything.”
“But look! That bath mat doesn’t have any blood on it, does it?”
“We tossed everything out!”
“Is there any blood on the pillows in this photo?”
“I can’t see it but we tossed it all out.”
“So there was no blood on the sheets and you tossed them out anyway?”
“My maintenance guy threw it all away.”
“When women have menstrual accidents, do you throw out the mattresses?”
“If we can’t scrub it out we do.”
On re-direct Deputy DA Luke Oakley asked, “If there’s a spot of blood next to a bath mat, you wouldn’t wash that mat and expect a new guest to use it would you?”
Ms Patel, with an air of deflecting a most scandalous aspersion, assured the jurors that she most certainly would never dream of doing such an awful thing to a guest at the Economy Inn.
Deputy DA Oakley brought in Peter O’Brien who works for Roundtree Glass in Ukiah. He testified that he had bid the job of replacing the windows at the Economy Inn and that the price of $453 for each new insulated bathroom window was correct, labor included.
Nobody asked what it cost to take a sliding sash (panel) from the closed wing and put it in the track replacing the broken one. It would take less than five minutes, travel time included, and would hardly require a professional: Put the top in first, then lower it onto the track: Done.
Eric Mehtlan took the stand, and explained that his true name was Eric Wayne Crouch, but he had been using his stepfather’s name of Mehtlan since he was a kid. He admitted to a checkered past, a prison term, said he was 40 years old and had grown up between Willits and Ukiah.
Mehtlan/Crouch said that before his big night he had been working at the Wing Stop on North State Street. He'd gone out and bought a bottle of Black Velvet during a break, which he gave to his girlfriend and made a plan to get the room with her when he got off work. He also admitted that getting the Black Velvet was a mistake. When he got to the room the girlfriend was already there and, he said, she poured him a good long drink, then went back to bed. Some meth and paraphernalia had been thoughtfully left on the table. Mehtlan said it was hers, not his, and that the cause of the argument was her sanctimoniously censuring him for drinking while she was doing drugs. (The etiquette of consuming drugs and drink is not covered in Miss Manners.)
Here was a point I thought the Deputy DA would pounce on, but Mr. Oakley didn’t seem to find it inconsistent that the girlfriend was supposedly sleeping after doing meth, which, if I’m not mistaken, energizes the central nervous system like a jolt off an industrial power cable. But nothing was said, and we were left to ponder the young woman's amazing powers of rest.
By and by the girlfriend woke up and discovered that meanwhile Mehtlan had poured himself another drink, and for some reason this infuriated her. The argument that ensued woke up the neighbors, who started pounding on the walls. Down in the office (room 137 was on the second floor) Ms. Patel, who was checking in another guest (perhaps assuring this prospective guest of the purity of the bath mats) was so alarmed she called the police.
Somehow or other, the girlfriend left the room — Mehtlan’s narrative was vague on this point — after Mehtlan slammed his drink down and cut his hand, and when he heard footsteps approaching up the stairway, he decided to flee out the bathroom window, barefooted, and without his shirt, his cut hand wrapped in a towel to staunch the bleeding. He slid the window open, crawled out and must have, he said, knocked the sliding part out of its track with his foot. He dangled there for a moment from the window ledge, then dropped 15 feet to the ground, cutting his foot on a sharp stone.
There was a picture of one blood-stained towel on the ground below the window. When Officer Edwards ran him down and cuffed him, Mehtlan said he cut his hand on some razor wire. When asked about this comment in court, Mehtlan said, “I was being an idiot.”
“But why go out the bathroom window?”
What Mehtlan did not want to tell the jurors was that he was on parole, and with signs of meth and drink in the room he would be in violation, so he told them that no, he hadn’t heard the officer identify himself as the police, and he was trying to get away from his irate girlfriend. But he wasn’t being charged with trying to elude the police (he’d already pled to that), only with felony vandalism for breaking out the window, and for this the jury acquitted him, despite the many unlikelihoods in the story he told.
On cross-examination, Prosecutor Oakley was brutal, but only because he knew he was fighting a losing battle. Ms. Patel had let the jury see her opportunistic cupidity and they were going to find for the defense, that much was plain enough. The only recourse was to make a liar out of the witness.
Oakley: “When did you come up with this story?”
Mehtlan: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Oakley: “Well, it’s not what you told the police.”
Mehtlan: “It’s not a story.”
Oakley: “You said you never drink, so why were you drinking this night?”
Mehtlan: “To decompress. I’d just worked an eight-hour shift. It’s a lot of stress.”
Oakley: “Why was your girlfriend staying with you at the room?”
Mehtlan: “Well, I can’t very well take her to my dad’s house.”
Oakley: “How long did it take you to drink a half-pint?”
Mehtlan: “Maybe 45 minutes.”
Oakley: “Did your girlfriend have any?”
Oakley: “So you were drinking by yourself?”
Oakley: “She poured you the first drink?”
Oakley: “Then she got mad?”
Oakley: “Did she tell you only one?”
Oakley: “When was the last time you drank?”
Mehtlan: “When I was a kid.”
Oakley: “You were drunk for the first time since you were a kid, and you miraculously remember every single detail about that night?”
Mehtlan: “I’ve been piecing it together.”
Oaklley: “When you left out the window where were you going to go?”
Mehtlan: “To the Plaza.”
Oakley: “But the Plaza is over here [pointing to map] and you were running down here. How do you explain that?”
Mehtlan: “I was disoriented from drinking.”
Oakley: “And yet you were still able to remember all these details — why didn’t you use the door and go down the steps?”
Mehtlan: “You’ve never been in these situations, have you?”
Ms. Le Claire wanted a sidebar with the judge. It was obvious Mr. Oakley had never been in any situation even remotely like the one Mehtlan described, and Ms. Le Claire didn’t want her client to try and explain it in front of the jury, because it could cause them to focus on his prison priors and miss the point that he had not “willfully and maliciously caused over $400 worth of damage to the Economy Inn.”
It was Oakley’s duty in our adversarial system of justice, the envy of the world, to go after Mehtlan with a vengeance and, having accomplished this, he waited for the inevitable Not Guilty verdict. But the DA had no choice about bringing such a dawg of a case to trial — how else could he depend on the landlords of Mendocino, land of exorbitant rents, when it came time to re-elect him, if he didn’t fight tooth and nail for their sacred property rights and captious claims for damages?
* * *
District Attorney’s Post-Verdict Press Release:
A Mendocino County Superior Court jury returned from its deliberations Thursday to announce it was acquitting a defendant of having vandalized a local motel in a value greater than $400. The evidence presented at trial included that the defendant literally tore a window and its entire framing out of the wall in the Ukiah motel room where he was staying.
Eric Wayne Mehtlan, 40, of Ukiah, had been charged with felony vandalism and misdemeanor resisting arrest, along with a separate matter involving violating his parole, the Mendocino District Attorney (DA) said.
"Outside the presence of the jury the defendant plead no contest to the resisting arrest charge, as well as admitted having violated his parole, to strategically keep that information from the jury during the course of the trial," the DA said.
When Mehtlan chose to testify on his own behalf, it was disclosed to the jury through the questioning of his counsel that he had three prior felony convictions, the DA said. The court had earlier granted a defense motion disallowing the prosecutor from also impeaching the defendant during cross-examination with one of the defendant's prior convictions for burglary in the first degree, as well as the defendant's prior felony conviction for being an accessory to the 1996 murder of Larry Long, according to the DA.
Overall, Mehtlan has five prior felony convictions, four of which are strikes under California's voter-modified three strikes laws, the DA said.
Once the jury was excused, the defendant was sentenced to 135 days in county jail for the parole violation, and an additional 60 days for the resisting arrest conviction, according to the DA. Mehtlan was awarded 21 days for time already served against the 30, meaning he would be released back into the community in less than nine days.
The prosecutor who presented the People's evidence at trial was Deputy District Attorney Luke Oakley. The investigating law enforcement agencies were the Ukiah Police Department, the State Parole Office and the District Attorney's investigators.