“Is Alan Graham in here? I haven't seen him,” said Judge Brennan, amused as he read Mr. Graham's fat file. Graham was supposed to be in Ten Mile Court that morning to be arraigned on a violation of probation, but he was nowhere in the building. Alan Graham is of course the legal name of Mendocino County street legend — and Mendo County Jail frequent flyer — Captain Fathom, a man whose letters and arrests appear regularly in this newspaper. In one of his most recent communications Fathom begs the police to lock him up because there is a “room in the concrete hotel” that he says is the only room he can write in. He says the government is conspiring to keep him out of jail because they are afraid of what he may write.
I’ve been curious about the legend of Captain Fathom, the mugshot that accompanies the descriptions of his arrest, the unkempt beard, the wide eyes and unhinged smile are provoking. He reminds me of a friend of mine back in Brooklyn named Matthew Silver, aka The Man in the White Dress. Mr. Fathom's now out of print book titled “Captain Fathom's Fables” is about his adventures in this County of Mendocino in the 60s and 70s — diving for abalone, growing weed, living on communes, driving carloads of glass pipes to the Bay Area to sell during the peak of Flower Power.
According to Mr. Fathom, he “was a rich white man living in the Bay Area managing a clothing store” before he moved to a commune near Mendocino Village in 1967, never returning to his old life. An Anderson Valley resident told me that if I wanted to meet The Captain, as he calls him, I have to put out signals. “The Captain loves fire extinguishers,” he said. The Captain collects them, stealing them from businesses then trading them with or selling them to other businesses and individuals. “Never take the Captain to the Ark in Fort Bragg,” he warned me. “He'll fill your trunk and backseat with books; he'll just buy whole rows of books.” The Valley man also cautioned me to never give The Captain a ride home. His truck had just gotten stuck in the mud while driving The Captain to his Albion home.
Judge Brennan issued The Captain a new bench warrant, but they needed to have another hearing to resolve the old warrant. “Put the matter on the calendar for warrant recall.”
Brennan then called defendant Holly Louise Valera to enter a plea. Deputy Public Defender Thomas Croak informed the court that Valera had not made an appointment with him in two months so there wasn't much he could do for the woman.
Valera herself was angry. She entered a “not guilty” plea then asked Brennan, “Could you find someone else to represent me?” Brennan said the court would conduct a Marsden hearing to determine weather Valera had a reasonable basis for requesting a new court appointed council. A morning recess was called and the gallery emptied for the Marsden hearing held behind closed doors.
Every time I’m inside the Ten Mile Court building in Fort Bragg I hear little pieces of information in the lobby. The lobby and parking lot is where a listener can really put the case together. Many use the lobby as their soapbox, talking loud enough for the room to hear. A man nearly 30 years old named Justin Hendricks sat on a bench near the courtroom entrance. I sat on a bench near the vending machines and probation office. Justin Hendricks was in court that particular day for a contempt of court “disturbing the peace” charge. He spoke loud and lucid to a hardened faced blond woman who was wearing a crew cut sweatshirt, a face of a wolf on the front of it. Hendricks told her it would cost less to put breathalyzers in every car than to prosecute drunk drivers. He said that the County spent thousands trying to prosecute him for one DUI. I noticed the ease with which Hendricks dealt with lawyers and the court, not that it made him good at it — it didn't. It's the comfort in the way he and others like him demand jury trials and play musical lawyers — fallouts and outbursts all along the way. Hendricks had just gotten into an argument with Mr. Croak as they walked into the lobby. “Try to call themselves a lawyer and they don't even represent you!” Hendricks said.
Hendricks asked the reporter sitting next to him in jeans and cowboy boots who writes for the Fort Bragg Advocate and Mendocino Beacon if he was a lawyer. The reporter, presumably Cowboy Don Claybrook, spoke much quieter than Hendricks as he answered his questions. Mr. Hendricks continued atop his courthouse lobby soapbox giving the tough-looking blond woman advice: “Always take the jail time instead of paying the fine. It costs them money. Get some medical attention you need, eat some good food, read a book, relax, think about what you are going to do next.”
After the Marsden hearing we re-entered the courtroom and Brennan called defendant Eunice Isabel Larson: “Were you able to obtain a California's driver’s license?”
Ms. Larson was fuming. She began speaking over Judge Brennan's words, barely letting him inject a word. “I have tons of records here in evidence,” she said, referring to her briefcase.
“We are not taking evidence at this time,” Brennan said over the angry woman. Bailiff Kent Rogers walked over to Larson and put his hand on her shoulder. Larson, undeterred, took a paper from her briefcase and tried to begin, “This is the reason why nothing in my life has been…” Brennan talked over her and passed on the matter until counsel could do some further research. Larson was lead out of the room by Bailiff Rogers and on her way she yelled “Not guilty!” I was told later that Eunice Larson has been trying to get a jury trial for the same license infraction for years.
Judge Brennan called an early recess for lunch before 11am. I sat at a cafe downtown and drank two mugs of coffee. A street performer in baggy cargo pants played near the corner in an alley. I couldn't hear him, only see his facial gestures and body movements, selling it and receiving a few bills in his hat on the pavement. A skateboarder ollied onto the sidewalk, a tourist family walked their dog in the alley. A sunny day in downtown Fort Bragg.
I finished my coffee and left the cafe and walked back down Franklin towards Ten Mile Court. I passed a wooden, hand carved grinning skull bust wearing a wide brimmed explorer hat in the window of an antique store. On the brim of the hat was a blue piece of tape with black marker writing, “Handcrafted Philippines 1921.” I continued down Franklin, between the Purity Market and Jake's Sports Grill, and I was reminded of a violent, ugly incident that had taken place at this location, a case involving accusations of a hate crime out here on the Mendocino Coast.
Back on March 30th 2011 a preliminary hearing was held before the Ten Mile Court. Private attorney Bart Kronfeld represented the defendant David Steven Balassi; Deputy DA Sergio Fuentes represented The People. There were two witnesses who testified; Elsa Pimentel, the Fort Bragg police officer who was called to the scene, and the victim Juan De Dios Balam-Chi.
Fuentes spoke first, “Your Honor, at this time the people would call Mr. Balam-Chi to the stand.”
“The record will reflect he's (the victim) being assisted by the court certified interpreter,” said Judge Brennan.
Mr. Fuentes began his direct examination of Mr. Balam-Chi.
“Taking you back to an incident that happened on November 14th, 2010, do you remember what happened on that night?”
Mr. Balam-Chi answered in Spanish and the interpreter replied, “I was coming out of a party and I was going home and at about 15 meters away from the party I felt a blow.”
At closing time Balam-Chi had left Jake's Sports Bar alone when he was suddenly struck in the face. The blow knocked him to the sidewalk and he heard his attacker yell insults.
“What were those insults that you heard?” asked Fuentes.
“Insults about what I am, Mexican.”
“How were you able to understand what was being said?”
“Because you understand what an insult is in Mexicano.”
Balam-Chi doesn't understand English but did recognize the word “Mexican” from Balassi's insults. Balam-Chi said he was wearing a hat and the force of the blow knocked it to the sidewalk. Blood fell from the bridge of his nose and nostrils, he had difficulty breathing, and the front of his sweatshirt was completely covered in blood. He said that a few days later when the swelling went down his nose still felt “wobbly.” Officer Pimentel had arrived on the scene at approximately 2:10am.
“Did you point out to her who the defendant was that struck you?” Fuentes asked Balam-Chi
“Who was that person?”
Balami-Chi pointed to the defendant, David Steven Balassi.
David Balassi was born on October 20th, 1989. He has brown hair, blue eyes, stands 5 feet 10 inches, and carries around 200 Caucasian pounds. On September 26th, 2009 he was caught driving on a suspended license. In court on December 15th, 2009, Balassi was granted 12 months summary probation for the misdemeanor.
Almost a year later on November 14th, 2010, a month and a day before his probation was to be lifted, Balassi walked with a man named Steven Scott on Franklin Avenue between Purity Market and Jakes Sports Grill where Balam-Chi had just left to walk home alone. Juan De Dios Balam-Chi works at North Coast Brewery and the Wharf Resturant. He had spent the evening at Jake's Sports Grill having some drinks after work. He is nearly one-hundred pounds lighter and ten inches shorter than David Balassi.
It was a chaotic late Saturday night, the bars had just let out. When Officer Pimentel arrived at the scene 15 to 20 people had exited Jake's and were standing around Balam-Chi, someone held his head.
“He was bleeding significantly from his facial area. From his nose specifically,” Officer Pimentel said during her direct examination by Mr. Fuentes.
“What did you do when you got there?”
“I tried to render aid to Mr. Balam-Chi.”
She cleaned Mr. Balam-Chi's face because he was inhaling blood when he tried to breath through his nose. Then Pimentel took photographs which were submitted as evidence. There were five photos presented to the court showing the blood covering the front of Balam-Chi's sweatshirt, his hat that was knocked off by Balassi's blow, Balam-Chi's blood on the sidewalk in front of Jake's Sports Grill, and Balam-Chi's swollen nose and face lacerations. Fuentes asked Officer Pimentel what Balam-Chi had told her at the scene.
“He said that he just received a blow to the face, a punch to the face, and he fell to the ground and that's all he knows. He didn't know where, which area the punch came from. He appeared to be disoriented from the blow.”
Officer Pimentel brought Balam-Chi across the street to the front of Purity Market because such a large crowed had formed in front of Jake's. Pimentel asked who had punched him in the face and Balam-Chi pointed to Balassi, who was now walking a block down the street with Steven Scott in front of Figueiredo's video store.
Officer Pimentel requested an ambulance to the scene but Balam-Chi refused medical attention. He told Officer Pimentel he could not afford it.
“Did you ask Balam-Chi if he knew the reason why this incident occured?”
“Yes I did.”
“What was his response?”
“He stated that he believed that he was struck in the face because he was Mexican.”
Officer Pimentel also spoke with a man named Eduardo Gonzalez at the scene. She asked Gonzalez if he had heard anything prior to Balassi's attack.
“He stated that Mr. Balassi stated, ‘I don't like Mexicans’.”
Gonzalez stood in Balassi's path and told him to stay until the police came. Balassi got very upset.
“Fuck you, let me go! What the fuck do you want with me?!” Balassi yelled as he walked away from the scene with Steven Scott. “You’re not Americans!”
Balam-Chi told Officer Pimentel he wanted to press charges. He signed a citizen's arrest form and Pimentel approached Balassi who was a block down the street and placed him under arrest for assault and battery. Although she didn't charge him with a felony at the time of his arrest, she included a recommendation in her report to “review for hate crime.”
Balassi was eventually charged with two felony counts; assault with a deadly weapon and battery with serious bodily harm. Both counts included a special allegation that Balassi committed the “offenses because of the named victim’s race, color, religion, nationality, country of origin, ancestry, gender, disability, or sexual orientation…”
The court found the testimonies and evidence convincing enough to bring Balassi to trial. On April 11th he was arraigned on the information from the preliminary hearing. He plead “Not Guilty” to the felony counts and the special allegations of a hate crime. A jury trial has been set for July 27th.
When I got to the courthouse I walked back through the metal detector, the security guards x-rayed my backpack again. At 1:30 court resumed for the afternoon. Brennan called a woman who wanted a restraining order against her ex. She claimed there were seven different incidents of stalking and harassment, all taking place before July 2010, except for one incident in April of 2011 when he hand-delivered a letter to her mailbox.
“Other than this letter, has there been any other instances of contact with him?” Brennan asked the woman.
“Um, well, I reviewed the letter and the letter is really just an apology for ah — prior poor conduct on his part.”
Brennan told the woman that the letter she presented to the court could not be considered harassment and the other six incidents had happened too long ago. The woman began crying and Bailiff Kent Rogers brought her a box of tissues.
Brennan continued, “It's a fairly gentle apology if I had to characterize the letter.”
The woman asked Brennan if it made a difference that her ex has a violent past and spent 24 years in prison. Brennan said any incident of harassment or violence is “remote in time by this point.”
After a pause, Brennan added, “I'm sorry. I realize you’re disappointed.”
“I'm afraid!” the woman exclaimed.
As she exited, the courtroom was silent. In a quivering voice she said, “Project Sanctuary didn't help me either!”
The short afternoon was filled with long periods of silence. At one point, Mr. Claybrook, the reporter who writes for the Advocate and Beacon, fell asleep with his head in his hands, pushing the glasses off his face. After all the afternoon cases were heard Brennan went back into his chambers and I talked to Bailiff Kent Rogers in the lobby. He told me that Mendocino County doesn't have a mental health court anymore and that's where a lot of these cases really should be handled. A man attempting to pay a fine at the court clerk's office window stood in the wrong line in front of the District Attorney's office window. Rogers joked to the man “Don't go to that window; they’re the ones trying to get you!” He turned back to me with his signature smile, “I'm so helpful.”
I said goodbye to Rogers and left the Ten Mile Court building. I walked south down Highway One over the bridge and watched a small tugboat cut the water from the ocean into the mouth of Noyo Harbor. I held up my cardboard “Boonville” sign at passing traffic. Before I left the city limits a pickup truck stopped and I got in. The man wore a baseball hat and a gray prickly beard. He had a big brown dog who shared the passenger seat with me and a stick shift knob shaped like a Colt 45 bullet chamber. He was going to Point Arena, and could drop me off at Highway 128 by Navarro Beach. He asked me if I wanted to hit the joint he was smoking.
“The dog licking your face is Heidi.” I patted Heidi's head and said hello. The man told me he used to live in Fort Bragg as a kid but enrolled in Mendocino schools, so he and ten other kids would hitchhike every morning.
“Sometimes the same teachers would pick us up, but not when they were mad at us!”
He said he liked to dive for abalone, and his father had too. He hadn't been able to eat it for 30 years because his dad prepared it constantly when he was a kid.
“When we lived in Point Arena my dad would pack abalone in our lunches. The kids who just moved into Sea Ranch, I would trade them my abalone sandwiches for their lunches and they'd give the abalone sandwiches to their moms!”
He told me he had two more big Labradors at home that his “50 year old” friend left behind when he died. His friend's wife wanted to put them to sleep because she thought they were too sad. “I told her, ‘He was dead for three days and those dogs didn't even eat him!’ Now those are some good dogs. It’s been tested!”