The golden “Great Seal of the State of California” hangs on the wall in front of the Ten Mile Court room in Fort Bragg. Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, warfare, and civilization stares from a cliff at mountains and ships. Athena and I watched the groggy men and women arrive for the Monday morning cases.
Deputy Public Defender Thomas Croak entered the room with a box of files in his arms, sat them at the defense table and immediately began meeting with his clients, whispering to them in their seats in the gallery or calling them into the lobby for private consultations.
Also carrying a box of files, Deputy District Attorney Sergio Fuentes entered and sat himself and the box down at the plaintiff's table. From his office in the building Timothy Stoen entered the courtroom, also carrying a box of files. Stoen was wearing a navy cardigan with the Mendocino County District Attorney seal embroidered on its breast. Stoen took his seat next to Mr. Fuentes. The court interpreter walked around the gallery, Western cut camel hair coat, turquoise stone bolo tie, and cookie duster mustache. Papers shuffled, murmurs faded, bailiff Kent Rogers stood next to Judge Clay Brennan's chamber door.
The Honorable Judge Brennan busted into the courtroom holding a plastic mail crate filled with the morning's case files. He called Eduardo Castaneda, and through the interpreter Mr. Castaneda was charged with driving without a valid driver's license and speeding. Castaneda took a deal from the deputy DA, pleaded guilty, and if he gets a driver's license and shows it to the court it will be reduced to an infraction.
More defendants were called for similarly minor infractions. Croak was all over — at the defense table, in the gallery, in the lobby, having whispered, get-acquainted meetings with people before he represents them. Deputy DAs Stoen and Fuentes sat next to each other, making deals and pushing cases through.
At 9:30am, nine prisoners — shuttled over from the County Jail at taxpayer expense — were lead in from the back door beside the American flag. Last in line was a woman who looked like Yoko Ono. Some of them wore blaze orange jumpsuits, others wore chalkboard green. They were seated in the jury box, which is separated from the gallery by a sheet of plexiglas. One prisoner remained standing to speak with Mr. Croak. He wore handcuffs connected to a chain around his waist. I recognized this prisoner as the infamous Bay Area abalone poacher Qiong Wang.
Also known as “Jimmy,” Mr. Wang was born in Tan-Jin, China, on February 11th 1979, arriving in California in 2000 to begin his unswerving commitment to the abalone. He was first nabbed on February 2, 2011 on Redwood Highway in Sonoma County near Petaluma with five illegal red abalone. He was cited and released. On February 12th he rolled through Anderson Valley from the Mendocino Coast on Highway 128 and was pulled over by Deputy Craig Walker near Boonville. Walker found 36 illegal abalone in Mr. Wang's car, five undersized and all out of season. This of course alerted the Department of Fish and Game who put Wang's San Francisco apartment under surveillance.
Early in the morning on February 19th, 2011 Wang and co-defendant Michael Trevors were observed as they got into a 2003 Volkswagen Jetta. Fish and Game wardens tracked them from San Francisco to a dive shop in Fort Bragg where they rented a kayak and drove south to Van Damme State park, unloaded their equipment, and changed into their dive gear. For nearly an hour wardens watched Wang dive from the kayak Trevors had paddled into the ocean. Wang and Trevors returned to the shore where Wang stashed a stuffed mesh bag behind a pile of rocks. At this time the men returned to Fort Bragg to have a damaged diving regulator repaired at the dive shop and buy supplies from a hardware store. Two hours later they returned to Van Damme Park where Trevors paddled back into the water and Wang resumed diving until he emerged with two more full mesh bags. He hid them behind the pile of rocks with the first bag and the two poachers returned to the dive shop one more time to return the kayak.
As they arrived in the parking lot, Fish and Game wardens finally kicked their lights on and placed Wang and Trevors under arrest. The game wardens returned to Van Damme Park to retrieve the bags Wang had hid behind the rocks. Inside the three mesh bags were a total of 55 abalone. In all, Wang took 96 abalone from the Sonoma and Mendocino Coasts in less than 20 days. In the process of his arrest his diving equipment and two vehicles were seized — a Toyota sedan on Highway 128 and the Jetta in Fort Bragg. A sad fact is that Michael Trevor's grandmother is the registered owner of the Jetta.
Wang was initially hit with eight counts, including a felony for “Conspiracy to Commit a Crime.” The rest were misdemeanors — taking abalone for commercial purposes, unlawful taking of abalone by use of scuba gear, taking of abalone out of season, and harvesting abalone over the limit.
In California, the only place abalone exist, the legal limit for abalone in season is 3 per day, per person, with a maximum of 24 for the year.
During Wang's felony plea at the Ten Mile Court back on March 7, 2011, Croak and Stoen negotiated a deal: If Wang would plead guilty or no contest to three counts, including the felony, then the prosecution would drop the other five counts. The pending charge for taking abalone out of season from the Sonoma Coast would also be dismissed by the Sonoma County DA if Wang approved the offer.
Judge Brennan spoke from the bench, “You should understand that if you're not a citizen of the United States this plea could result in your deportation, exclusion from admission to the United States or denial of naturalization under laws of the United States.” Wang already had an immigration hold in place, stemming from a Los Angeles County vehicle code violation in 2008.
Wang pleaded no contest. The court had the Probation Department conduct an investigation and provide a report on Mr. Wang to determine if he was eligible to take the deal offered by Mr. Stoen. Included in the probation report is a hand written by letter to the judge from Wang.
“Respectfully your honor: During February 2011 I was unlawfully taking abalone in Fort Bragg. My action was driven by personal greed and ignorance. I was not aware that overharvesting abalone is affecting the ecosystem, and putting abalone in jeopardy. Now, I'm facing the consequences of a big fine and spending time behind bars with years of probation after. This is a lifetime lesson for me to learn. It taught me that my obsession of instant gratification and materialistic mentality will make me become a selfish and ignorant person, deeply stranded in the vicious circle of a life in and out of the jail. It's clear to me, this is not the life I would choose for myself.
Qiong Wang / Jimmy, 4/05/2011”
Also included in the report; Mr. Wang has “Angie” tattooed on the left side of his chest.
Qiong Wang stood in front of the Ten Mile Courtroom again on Monday. The Probation Department's report and recommendation was found to be sufficient.
“Any comment from the defense?” Judge Brennan asked Mr. Croak.
“No your honor, we will submit to the recommendation.”
Judge Brennan read Mr. Wang his sentence: 36 months formal probation, 365 days in Mendocino County jail with a credit for 59 days served, probation for life from getting a sport or commercial fishing license, a forfeit of all fishing and diving gear in possession (which had already been taken), a $15,000 fine, and a list of clerical and investigation fines.
Later, Bailiff Kent Rogers told me he always fingerprints the prisoners who are new to the Ten Mile Court. When he saw a prisoner that morning he did not recognize Rogers tried to take his fingerprints and the man refused. Rogers persisted. But just before things got ugly the prisoner told him quietly that he was an undercover Fish and Game warden.
Throughout the morning, drama and confusion surrounded a long-haired young man wearing a red sweatshirt and a goatee. He argued loudly with his attorney Bart Kronfeld in the gallery during proceedings. As Bailiff Rogers quickly pulled the man into the lobby, the man yelled, “Stupid fat fucker!” at Kronfeld loud enough for the whole room to hear. When he was gone everyone in the courtroom, including Kronfeld, pretended they had not heard this outburst.
During a brief morning recess I sat in the lobby next to the courtroom entrance and watched the man in the red sweatshirt and a balding man in green approach DA Stoen. Both men flared with emotion as Stoen listened. “I'm the one he attacked first with the knife!” said the man in green.
Back in the courtroom Stoen told another attorney that he had to stop talking to the men in the lobby before he became a witness himself. The other attorney said to Stoen, “I don't want to have to cross examine you” and laughed. The loud man in the red sweatshirt re-entered the courtroom wearing sunglasses and sat in the gallery, but the morning was almost over. Brennan called a recess for lunch.
I left the building and walked up Franklin Street towards downtown. A fisherman walking around his trailer filled with crab cages attempted unsuccessfully to lift his jeans above his buttcrack; the ocean misted behind him at the edge of a nearby industrial lot. A gloomy day in Fort Bragg. A 50s vintage VW bus filled to the brim with hippies, wheels crooked, turned north up Franklin. Two traveling kids with dogs crossed the street in front of an old water tower. On side streets and main streets I saw home-buses and campers with little generators running in the back, people barely holding on.
Downtown, I crossed over to Main Street and saw a group of protesters spread across the block in front of Bank of America. The first man I saw was standing away from the group. His sign said “$22 Trillion in assets. Taxes 0.” The protest's center of power was outside the entrance of Bank of America's parking lot. As I approached, one of the two visible organizers handed me two sheets of their literature. The cops were in the parking lot behind them. All the protesters had signs;
“Honk if you pay taxes”
“Make deadbeat corporation pay!!!”
“Defend working class families”
“Demand corporations pay taxes”
“Corporations are not human(e)”
“Move your money”
They received a steady stream of approving honks from the cars and trucks passing on Main Street. One of the cops came over and asked them not to block the entrance because the bank was complaining. “Bank of America doesn't pay you... They don't pay taxes,” one of the protesters said to the officer. “That's what I hear,” the cop replied.
The other organizer approached and handed me a sheet that was a “Deadbeat Dozen Tax Bill” for the amount of $3,950,000,000.00. He encouraged me to fill it out, bring it into the Bank of America and hand it to a teller. The demonstrators were making signs on the spot, on the hoods of cars. A BofA woman talked to cops near the entrance of the bank. She was rigid with anger and holding the protesters' tax bill. Every time someone came in and handed one to a teller she called the cops. An older couple who tried to give Bank of America the tax bill talked jovially with the cops in the parking lot. The officers said that protesters were not allowed to enter the bank, but they appeared to be more annoyed by the BofA woman who kept calling them.
I started walking out of the protest, back towards Ten Mile Court. A woman tried starting a chant, “We pay! So should they!” But no one joined. A man in a “Mendocino Fire” sweatshirt held a sign that said “BofA STEALS PEOPLE'S HOMES.” Another woman said, “The tellers are good people.” As I crossed the street one of the protesters behind me said, “I'm just one of those left wing hippy liberals.”
I stood in front of the newspaper dispensers by Safeway and scanned the headlines. “The world is coming to an end,” said a red mustached man in an apron behind me as he lit up a cigarette.
“That's from a movie, you know?”
I realized he was testing me on movie trivia.
“I don't know,” I said.
“It's from the 60s.”
I shook my head.
“It's one of the fat man's best...Alfred Hitchcock.”
“Was it The Birds?”
At 1:30pm Court was back in session with two women who wanted mutual restraining orders. The most recent incident occurred on April 10, when the blond woman represented by Mr. Fuentes drove into Fort Bragg to take her little sister to their mother's house. She said the brunette woman represented by Mr. Croak pulled up to her and flipped her off, then followed her to a grocery store where yelling ensued at a four-way stop. The blond called the cops because her little sister was still in the car and she feared for their safety. “She's stalking me!” she told the court.
Judge Brennan asked the blond woman why the brunette may desire to stalk her. The blond said it was because her boyfriend killed the brunette's ex-husband. The brunette took the stand and made similar accusations of stalking and harassment. Brennan granted them mutual restraining orders without hesitation.
“If you own or possess any firearms they must be turned in.”
“But, but...” the blond woman begged.
“No!” insisted the Judge.
Similar cases finished the afternoon's business and Ten Mile Court proceedings ended before 3pm. I walked south completely out of town holding up my “Boonville” sign at passing cars before I was picked up by a man going south to Mendocino Village. He talked about the '69 Chevy pickup truck he had back in Mexico, automobile computer troubleshooting, and the drawbacks of electrical systems in newer vehicles. “When one thing goes out then the whole side goes out then everything goes out!”
Immediately after he dropped me off near the baseball field in Mendocino an old Japanese car turned in front of me and pulled over. The girl driving had bright red hair. She waved through the window, motioning me to approach. I ran to the car and the guy in the passenger seat wearing a fedora with a feather stuck in the band said they could “take me to Little River and give me a piece of pizza.” I got into the back seat with a big dog and a small dog whose name was Tank Girl. He handed me a paper plate with tin foil over a black olive, green pepper, and cheese pizza. I thanked him and started eating it.
“My name's Cody,” I said.
“I'm Destiny,” said the driver. “This is Chance.” Chance waved to me. The word “Love” was painted in hot pink between the air-conditioner vents. They were going to the beach, but they took me to the nearby Little River gas station. I thanked them for the ride and pizza. Destiny shouted, “Share the love!” and swung the car around back towards the beach.
I walked south away from the gas station down Highway One and noticed that the shoulder became very narrow on either side up ahead. I held up my sign and an old Mercedes stopped at a driveway in front of me. Inside was a gray bearded man with a young smile. He said, “I walked the whole thing once.”
“You walked all of Highway One?”
“From Fort Bragg to Point Arena. No one would pick me up and I was walking with a cane!” He was holding a plastic cigarette holder between his fingers with a long joint sticking out. Would you like to partake? It's medication for me now. I used to use it for fun. Never thought I'd have to use it as medicine.” He was looking for a new place to live, a place he could have a workshop.
“What do you do?” I said.
“I'm a jack of all trades,” he said smiling.
He told me about his time as a long haul truck driver, how it gave him most of his health problems, sitting in the same position for days. He said he once drove 5,000 frozen pizzas from Seattle to LA.
“I drove a reefer truck.”
“A reefer truck'“ I asked
“A refrigerated truck. You thought I meant marijuana?!” There was a gleam in his eyes. “Well I did that too, but that was in a pickup truck.”