The Matthew Graves “assault weapons” marijuana trial goes on and on. The prosecution still hasn’t rested, and the evidence against the Leggett man is piling up.
The first week of Graves' trial, the jury walked in to a courtroom that looked like a gun show. An array of weapons was laid out on a table, more than twenty of them, more than enough to repel a frontal assault by a platoon of home invaders or pot bandits.
Last week the jury got a look at photos of many hundreds of marijuana plants from a network of gardens spread out over the hills of the Foster Creek drainage in the Bell Springs area of Northern Mendocino County. The People, which is about half of us in Mendocino County where the other half of The People are either in the pot business themselves or smoke the stuff, say all the gardens and all the plants in all the gardens are the work of Mr. Graves, a nicely dressed building contractor who's been out on big bail for three years while awaiting trial.
Before the Major Crimes Task Force had busted Graves back in November of 2008 and came up with his arsenal of home defense units, the County Of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team had descended on his gardens from helicopters and had set about cutting down the budding plants, camo teams going from one weed patch to the next, snapping enough high-quality photos to make the editors at High Times Magazine salivate.
Bureau of Land Management Special Agent Knudsen works out of BLM's Arcata office. He was called to the stand last Wednesday. The athletic-looking young man was wearing a suit, not the back country commando outfit he wore when his partner, Special Agent Laurel Pistel, descended on Graves' alleged gardens in the big chopper with the rest of the raid team. Modern law enforcement uniforms generally have a little pocket down about mid-thigh on the trouser leg. This pocket is designed, like painter’s pants, to carry a knife or maybe a gun, circumstances dictating. If it's a knife it's not a putty knife. No, it’s one of those razor-sharp little numbers with the clip like a pen, and a knob on the blade so you can snap it open with a flick of your thumb. They are used for cutting the stem of a marijuana plant. Or a throat if you're special forces.
Special Agents Knudsen and Ms. Pistel were “just helping out,” Knudsen said.
But before they reached for their pot slayer blades, Ms. Pistel took some pictures, some very nice pictures, pot porno you could say. The plants were lush and heavy with buds. Bamboo stakes and green plastic garden ties had been used to keep the stems from collapsing under the weight of their intoxicating fruit. A lot of work had gone into this grow. Whoever was responsible was an enterprising son of a gun.
“And what stage were they at?” the prosecutor asked.
“In my experience, they were close to harvest,” Knudsen said. “They probably could have gone another month, but from my experience, more like a couple of weeks. Some of the leaves were starting to yellow.”
More photos were projected onto the screen. The plants were vivid against the darker green of the oak grove they were ensconced in with a conifer backdrop. Nearby oaks had been trimmed and thinned out just right to allow maximum sunlight to penetrate the grow.
“How many plants were in this patch?”
“I thought maybe we had a thousand plants there. It was just a sea of green. But once we had eradicated them we gave the plant count to Deputy Gupta; it was only 217.”
Deputy Butch Gupta was the officer in charge of this particular raid. He had testified before, and the prosecuting attorney, Deputy DA Katherine ‘Kitty’ Houston, had kept the Deputy on hand to testify again.
“Did Deputy Gupta enter the location of this garden into his GPS?”
“Yes, Ma’am. He did.”
Younger women can be annoyed when they're called ‘Ma’am,' but not the matronly Ms. Houston. She has worked with the officers of the Major Crimes Task Force and COMMET (County of Mendocino Marijuana Eradication Team) for years and she's racked up a lot of dope and probably at least as many dopes. Ms. Houston is unlikely to be distracted by either picayune political correctness or a well brought up cop referring to her as 'Ma'am'."
Since the events under discussion had happened nearly three years ago, Ms. Houston wanted to know how it was that Knudsen could remember the plant count and other particulars. Knudsen said he’d looked at Deputy Gupta’s report just the day before yesterday.
“Ever write a report yourself?”
“No, Ma’am, I did not. I was just a laborer that day.”
There had been an acrimonious debate over the lack of reports during the pre-trial motions. Defense attorney Keith Faulder had objected that he was put in the position of not being able to cross-examine witnesses by comparing testimony with documentation.
His Honor Richard Henderson is not one of these groovy guy judges we've seen in Mendocino County, those closet pot heads who grew up — halfway anyway — smoking the stuff. Henderson repeatedly overruled Faulder’s objections as Faulder argued the rules of evidence. An irritated Henderson would say that he’d made his ruling, and Faulder would chuckle like he was laughing in the face of irrationality itself. Henderson would be further irritated and Faulder seemed to skate closer and closer to a contempt charge. The exasperated judge fixed a cold stare on the smiling defense attorney and started to say something, but stopped with an audible splutter on the first syllable, turning abruptly to another matter.
As the trial progressed, some of this antagonism became apparent to the jury, and a few eyebrows were raised when Faulder again laughed at Henderson’s terse rulings against him and his client.
Deputy DA Houston reacts to Faulder by ignoring him. She was satisfied with Knudsen's claim that he was just a day-laborer not some kind of on-site essayist.
“And how did you recall this site?” Houston asked the BLM man.
“Well, it was kind of interesting,” Knudsen replied. “A unique site, Ma’am. You very rarely see what’s called a Humboldt cut, and that’s what I saw at this site where the trees had been cleared.”
“Did you find any signs of people living there?”
“No, Ma’am. And this was unusual.”
“Well, Ma’am, usually there’s some sign of someone camping nearby to take care of the garden.”
“Were there any roads or trails?”
“In the garden we were in, yes, Ma’am, there was a trail. It went to the garden Deputy Gupta was in.”
“A trail for ATVs or other vehicles?”
“My recollection is that it was a foot trail, a well used foot trail.”
Houston asked SA Knudsen some questions about the watering system, the chicken wire fencing, the camo netting, the pots and growbags, and other features the garden had in common with the rest of the gardens in the area. The Prosecution was alleging they all belonged to defendant Matthew Graves. The BLM agent said it looked like it was all one big pot-op.
Faulder rose to have a go at Knudsen. Faulder looks like Conan O’Brien. He’s articulate and witty. It’s the wit that gets him into trouble.
“Now, Assistant Special Agent Knudsen,” Faulder began, having asked the shy young officer his formal rank and how he’d like to be addressed, and Assistant Special Agent Knudsen had said Assistant Special Agent Knudsen. You kinda got the feeling that the guy's wife calls him Assistant Special Agent Knudsen. “Back in October of ’08," Faulder continued, "when you were doing this marijuana eradication, were you a special agent for the BLM at that time?”
“Yes, sir. Since August of ’07.”
“And is it true you did investigations on trespass grows before that with the US Forest Service?”
“Yes, sir. On the Mendocino National Forest, mainly in Lake County. But this one was out of the Arcata office of the BLM.”
“And it was your understanding you were eradicating a trespass grow, correct?”
“Even though you didn’t take notes, as Ms. Houston so thoughtfully ascertained, I wonder, still, did you happen to take any notes?”
“Uh, no. No, sir.”
“So to refresh your recollection of that day, you saw the photographs of the site before testifying today, is that correct?”
“Yes, it refreshed my recollection, sir.”
“And you say you read Deputy Gupta’s report to refresh your memory as to the number of plants you eradicated that day?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“But you didn’t write it down anywhere because you already said you didn’t make any notes that day,” Faulder chuckled, moving quickly to unsmiling work.
“Now, Assistant Special Agent Knudsen, I’m going to take you back to October of ’08, okay? And what I want to know is, are you familiar with the different varieties of marijuana that were growing in the garden you eradicated? Can you tell the jury what kind of marijuana plants they were?”
Assistant Special Agent Knudsen was stymied.
“Well,” Faulder continued, “how tall was the chicken wire fence you said you saw?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Do you know what gauge wire it was?”
“I can’t remem—uh, I don’t know.”
“Now, when you flew in in the helicopter, you could see the plants from the air, correct?”
“Yes, that’s correct, sir,” Knudsen said brightly.
“So the camo netting wasn’t covering the garden, it was covering the fence?”
“Would it be fair to say, then, that if the net was around the fence it was to keep people on the ground from seeing the garden, rather than from the air?”
Knudsen froze. He didn’t answer despite Faulder’s beckoning smile. So Faulder went back to the photos the prosecution had used. He put the picture on the big screen and pointed.
“Isn’t it true the netting is on the fence?”
Knudsen said, “Yeah, but to me this could have been used to camouflage this stump.”
“What direction is the photograph taken from — in which direction are we looking here, from the viewpoint of the photographer?”
Knudsen stammered. He looked to Ms. Houston. No help there.
Finally he said, “I have no idea.”
The BLM man was becoming sullen.
“I’m not trying to confuse you, Agent Knudsen, but the direction is important to my question. Do you know what’s on the other side of that fence?”
“But that net doesn’t do anything to conceal the marijuana garden from the air, correct?”
“Not from the air, no,” Knudsen relented. “That’s correct, sir.”
“Now, you said your job that day was eradication. But wasn’t it also your job to collect evidence?”
“Did you collect any of these grow bags you’ve testified about?”
“Did you collect anything that might have a fingerprint on it, anything that might show who the true owner of this grow was?”
“No, I did not.”
Assistant Special Agent Knudsen, having scented the implication that maybe he’d gone willing along on a frame-up of the defendant, was morphing into what’s known as a hostile witness. If he showed any sign of admitting that a mistake could have been made — that, for instance, someone had perhaps camouflaged the garden so Mr. Graves couldn’t see it — well, then, he’d be marked as a special agent who just might be an assistant special agent for a long, long time.
“One final thing,” Faulder said. “As far as you know, there was no search warrant, was there?”
It was Ms. Houston's turn. She has the right to clarify what her witness had said under Faulder's cross examination. “Were you able to determine whether they were male or female plants?”
“Absolutely, Ma’am. They were all female.”
She said, “Have you seen camo netting used before in illegal marijuana cultivation?”
“Oh, yes Ma’am, many times. It’s used to hide something. They often pull it over top if they hear a helicopter coming.”
“Do you normally see camo netting used in trespass grows?”
“Yes, Ma’am. But typically these grows will have some kind of camp. On this particular grow, we didn’t see that.”
Knudsen was off beating the drum, giving the court unasked-for testimony. It’s called unresponsive — as in not responding to a direct question — and Faulder objected.
Judge Henderson, ignoring Faulder's objection, said, “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s ten minutes to 12. I think we’ll take a break for lunch. The court will be in recess until 1:15. Remember that you are not to speak with anyone about the case.”
After lunch, Knudsen returned to the witness box.
“Who was there when you arrived?” Ms. Houston asked.
Knudsen replied, “Deputy Gupta and Deputy Alvarado.”
“Then, after you eradicated the first garden, were you moved to another site?”
“Objection, your honor. This is beyond the scope of re-direct.”
“We’ve received some information over the lunch break,” Ms. Houston said.
Henderson said, “Go ahead.”
At this point Faulder was laughing as if he were an unwilling party to a farce. The judge was clearly unhappy with the defense attorney's demeanor.
Whatever Ms. Houston had found in her fortune cookie at lunch she didn't share it. Her questioning centered on Agent Knudsen’s help in loading the marijuana on cargo netting for the helicopter to carry off.
When she was finished Faulder said, “”So all the marijuana you eradicated was destroyed, correct?”
Ms. Houston objected. The two lawyers hurried to the bench for a side bar discussion with the judge. A heated exchange ensued, mostly between Henderson and Faulder. The jurors looked on wide eyed.
As the huddle broke up Faulder said, “I want it on record, your honor.”
Henderson ignored Faulder. He excused the witness, then said, “We’re back on the record, ladies and gentlemen. Ms Houston, call your next witness.”
Steve Alvarado was called. He’s a reserve deputy with the marijuana suppression unit. Like Knudsen, Alvarado had not recorded his adventures in the Bell Springs pot patch. He, too, said he had “just been helping out.”
Reserve deputy Alvarado is a GPS enthusiast, it turns out. And he had his GPS that day. Alvarado said he'd slain 259 pot plants that day. How did he remember the count? He, too, had looked at Deputy Gupta’s report the day before court. Had he kept any notes? Not really. He just wrote the number on his hand. And the longitude and latitude of the garden? Alvarado downloaded it from his GPS into the sheriff’s computer. GPS-savvy Alvarado had trained Deputy Gupta on how to use the device. Other officers as well. Alvarado had come to this raid in a helicopter, but couldn’t remember with whom.
Faulder: “So you were helicoptered in with this unknown officer?”
“Did he have a GPS, too?”
“I believe so, yes.”
“Now, you didn’t prepare any kind of report, correct?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“Have you prepared any kind of resume of your expertise in GPS use?”
“Have you had any kind of schooling in the use of these devices?”
“So you would describe yourself as self-taught?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“What kind of GPS do you use?”
“It’s a Garmin-Rino,” Alvarado answered proudly.
“How does it work?”
“Well, there’re satellites circling the Earth. The GPS picks up signals and gives the longitude and latitude.”
“How many satellites does it need to do this?”
“Four, at least four.”
“Is it true that each satellite emits a particular signal, and that there’s a margin for error?”
“Yes. It can be off anywhere from three feet to 100 feet.”
“And isn’t it true that topography plays a part in the accuracy of the reading?”
“In fact, many things can interfere, correct?”
“Such as trees, rocks, hillsides — all kinds of things.”
“So all kinds of things affect the accuracy, correct?”
Alvarado gave the impression that the defense lawyer was being unfairly exacting.
“Isn’t it true that even the noise of a helicopter produces a static that can affect the reading, putting the reading off by hundreds of feet?”
“Was yours the quadrifilar type?”
“What do you do to calibrate it?”
“Turn it on.”
“Do you ever go to a known coordinate and see if it’s reading correctly?”
“You said you wrote the number of plants you eradicated on your hand. Is that where you wrote your GPS coordinates?”
Faulder smiled and changed the subject.
“Did you collect any evidence with fingerprints on it?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
Faulder pointed out some items in the photographs that would likely have had fingerprints and wondered why they were not taken into evidence. There was no answer to this question, but Faulder had made the point that they were not taken because the fingerprints weren’t likely to be those of his client.
Deputy Butch Gupta resumed the stand in the morning to talk about how he’d downloaded his GPS coordinates and come up with a search warrant for the county assessor’s parcel Q1269050, a parcel belonging to Matthew and Duane Graves.
Deputy Gupta had some maps and charts with all the pot gardens marked.
There were many, many pot gardens.
This was a big grow for one man and a Duane to be running.
But Graves, a contractor, had a Mercedes dump truck, a backhoe, numerous ATVs, lots of related equipment, so who knows? Maybe he’s the Jess Jackson of pot growers.
Sergeant Bruce Smith had eradicated a huge garden in the same neighborhood, and Ms. Houston asked Deputy Gupta how many plants had been in that garden. Faulder objected, and for a change of pace, the judge sustained Faulder's objection.
“Just trying to save the court some time, your honor,” Houston explained.
“Yes, I know,” Henderson agreed. “But defense has raised a valid objection that it would be hearsay without any foundation.”
Sgt. Smith was duly called. He said he’d found 424 plants in one garden and 313 in another. But that was later, after the fingerprint guy, Mike Hall, testified to finding Matt Graves’ fingerprints on a couple of items.
Agent Hall works for the DEA in San Francisco. He does fingerprint work for seven western states. He said Super Glue is used to find latent fingerprints, which makes us wonder how Dick Tracy ever managed. Hall said they put the item with the latent print — a latent print is one you can’t see; a patent print is one you can see — in the Super Glue humidifier, and when the Super Glue is heated the fumes adhere to the prints. Then a rhodomine dye is applied and illuminated with a laser. The patent print can be photographed and compared to prints kept in a database or, in this case, to one supplied to Agent Hall — that of Matt Graves.
One of Graves' fingerprints was found on a plastic bag, another that came out of zipper bag from a gun case. The zipper bag contained an instruction manual for a Savage bolt-action rifle, which is not considered an assault rifle. Another of Graves’ prints was found on the magazine for a Sig-Sauer 9mm pistol, also not an assault rifle.
Ms. Houston spent the better part of the day developing the print testimony, and nobody was going to accuse her of not being thorough.
Faulder, though, only had a few brief questions on cross. One was, “You don’t know when the fingerprint was left on the plastic bag, do you?” The other was the same regarding the magazine. The expert agreed. He couldn’t say when the fingerprints were made.
The trial of the well-armed Mr. Graves is the first big pot trial of the year, the only pot trial so far, and the first one under the administrative auspices of newly elected DA David Eyster who is working his way through a very large backlog of cases left to him by his predecessor.
Graves' trial resumes next week.