The Low Gap Gang came to prelim last week and we learned some details about the charges the trio of home-invading hip-dopes from Sonoma County are up against.
The “heavy” seems to be Nathan Kurtz; he was charged with pistol-whipping the victim and then stealing the victim’s pickup, while all three (the other two being Shane Waier and Azuriah Paul) were charged with Count 1, First Degree Robbery; Count 2, First Degree Burglary (or “hot burg,” i.e., entering an occupied house with larcenous intentions); and Count 3, False Imprisonment.
The trio of SoCo bandidos were held to answer all these charges, and arraignment was set for September 30th at 9:00 a.m.
The one charge that didn’t stick was kidnapping in the commission of a robbery, much to the relief of the combined defense. The lawyers were a Mr. Goedel (sp?) for Shane Waier; Patrick Ciocca and Eric Guzman for Nathan Kurtz (both Waier and Kurtz were out on bail); and local free alternate public defender Lewis Finch for poor Azuriah Paul, whose family (apparently) couldn’t afford $270K in bail like his Richie-rich co-invaders. And of course we must censure Mr. Finch for not arguing for a bail reduction for his indigent client under the new bail reduction law that (supposedly) went into effect at the first of this year.
Chief Prosecutor Dale Trigg called his first witness, Deputy Jeffery Andrade, who told the court that he was called out to the remote Low Gap Road residence of David Stetson (“It turns into pretty much a jeep trail”) at approximately 2100 hours (or 9 pm), on July 9th, and it took about half an hour to get there. Mr. Stetson met Andrade at the gate to the property, and Andrade said he noticed that part of the fence was knocked down and had fresh tire tracks over it.
Here’s the story alleged victim David Stetson gave Deputy Andrade, a loose paraphrase* derived from the Q&A between Prosecutor Trigg and Deputy Andrade on the stand:
“I had gone to Ukiah for groceries and when I returned there were five or six armed men on my porch and in the yard, one of them wearing an armored security vest and another wearing a ski mask and carrying a shotgun. I was going to back out, but they came running off the porch and said, ‘Don’t do it’—I had a pistol in my pickup [a silver Toyota Tundra] but it wasn’t loaded so I didn’t reach for it.
“I was ordered out of the truck by the one in the security vest. I got out and said, ‘Take it, just take it [the money and the marijuana]’ and I backed up to a tree and the guy in the vest struck me in the face with his pistol and ordered me into the house. There was a small safe on the table; it had been brought down from upstairs, and they ordered me to open it. There was $1,000 in the safe, a stack of $20s with a red rubber band around it and they took it.
“First I was ordered to sit on the couch, then moved to a chair where they used zip-ties to bind my hands and feet and duct tape around my torso to bind me to the chair. They took my money, my wallet, my keys, my cell phone, all the marijuana, and left. After they’d gone I was able to move the chair enough to get hold of an old cell phone and call 911.”
Meanwhile (in the time it took for Stetson to deliver his statement to Andrade), Sergeant Luis Espinoza and Deputy Christian Van Patten, coming from the opposite direction, the west, had spotted and were in pursuit of the Toyota Tundra, which one of the gang members, the “heavy,” (Kurtz) had stolen. The radio transmissions were spotty, Andrade said, and only one spot in the house had cell service, but it was about this time that some friends of the freshly robbed Mr. Stetson came walking up to the house: Dalton Villalobos and Damien Register. These two had been approaching the Stetson residence when they saw the guy in the security vest and another person known only by the moniker “Sam” (whose “real” name was Steve) both on foot, guiding a Jeep Compass, to the location – it was just getting dark, and Dalton and Damien said they ran and hid until they were sure the police had arrived.
Deputy Andrade said: “Sergeant Espinoza informed me two vehicles had been stopped, one on Orr Springs Road and the other on State Street. There was nobody inside the Toyota, but the driver of the Jeep self-identified himself as Shane Waier and another individual self-identified himself as Azariah Paul; Mr. Paul had in his pocket a stack of $20s, $1000, held with a red rubber band. A cursory search of the Jeep revealed a ballistic vest with ‘Security’ printed on it.”
At an in-field line-up, Stetson recognized Shane Waier as the one who tried to hide his face in a hoody, and Azuriah Paul as the one in the ski-mask. Sergeant Espinoza located the handgun belonging to Stetson in the Toyota, and Deputy VanPatten later found the driver, Nathan Kurtz, at the Shell Station on North State Street, about half-mile from the abandoned Toyota.
Stetson’s friends, Damian Register and Dalton Villalobos, were brought to the Shell Station and identified Kurtz as the man they’d seen wearing the Security vest.
None of the three suspects were willing to talk with Deputy Andrade, but both Kurtz and Paul said. “That’s not what happened up there,” when appraised of the charges they were facing.
On cross-examination, public defender Finch asked Deputy Andrade how Stetson was so sure the guy in the ski-mask was Azuriah Paul, and Andrade answered that he, Stetson, based his recognition on the body size, the defendant’s height and clothing. Then Finch asked about the probable lighting conditions – how dark was it and even with the headlights, the suspects had flashlights in Stetson’s face, establishing that there was some room for doubt as to certainty. Another point Finch made was that there were no guns – especially no shotguns – found in the Jeep. Finch wanted to ask about who owned the property, and what were the others, such as “Sam” whose name was Steve, and Damian and Dalton — what were they doing there? But Trigg objected that it was irrelevant, outside the scope of direct, and Judge Behnke sustained the objections.
Mr. Kurtz’s lawyer, Eric Guzman, took a turn on cross and proved to have a unique style, in that he would say what he was going to ask, then ask it, as in: “I’m going to ask you about the gun found in the Toyota, okay?”
Guzman: “The gun found in the Toyota was Mr. Stetson’s 9mm wasn’t it?”
Andrade: “Yes, that’s right.”
Guzman: “Now I’m going to ask you briefly about the ammunition, okay?”
Andrade: “Yeah, go ahead.”
Guzman: “It was your testimony that Stetson told you the gun was unloaded, right?”
Guzman: “He told you he did not reach for it because it was not loaded, right?”
Guzman: “Now I’m going to ask you about where the Toyota was found, okay?”
Andrade: “Yeah, go ahead.”
Guzman: “Are you familiar with the place where it was found?”
Andrade: “I believe it was Orr Springs Road and North State Street, about a half-mile from the Shell Station where Kurtz was found.”
Guzman: “And you were telling Mr. Kurtz about how many years in prison he was facing when he said ‘That’s not what happened up there’?”
Kurtz’s other lawyer, Mr. Ciocca had some follow-up questions, but Trigg objected that it was against the rules of evidence for the lawyers to tag-team a witness like in professional wrestling, and Judge Behnke sustained the objection, after which, the two attorneys admitted they knew better than to try.
Mr. Goedel (it sounded like they were saying Mr. Go-ta-hell, but I didn’t get a chance to ask for his card and get the full name or spelling) Shane Waier’s lawyer, asked about the several ways to get to the scene of the (alleged) crime, and Andrade answered that there was the Comptche Road, Orr Springs Road, The Old Masonite Road, and Low Gap Road. This was followed with some questions about a Gucci belt and a Gucci wallet, supposedly belonging to Stetson which, along with Stetson’s cell phone, was not recovered.
Goedel said, “My client, Mr. Waier – Stetson didn’t recognize by his face but because of his body-type?”
Andrade: “Yes, that’s right.”
Goedel: “So he [Stetson] didn’t recognize Mr. Paul’s face either?”
There was a recess for lunch and when I came back Deputy Van Patten was on the stand telling how he’d found some hand-drawn maps in the Jeep Compass, directing the gang to the Stetson grow-site they were accused of robbing on Low Gap Road, and how another deputy, Brandon McGregor, used a K-9 (canine, a dog) to track bandido Kurtz from the abandoned Toyota to the Shell Station where he (Kurtz) was trying to get a ride to Petaluma.
The lawyers from both sides then went on a long scripture chase through case law precedents to see if the kidnapping charge would stick – like it did in a very similar pot robbery up at Brooktrails recently – but in the end it failed to stick and Judge Behnke held the three defendants to answer only on the first degree robbery, first degree burglary, and (for Kurtz only) the vehicle theft and assault with a firearm.
*Having spoken with a variety of readers – people whose opinions I value -- at the recent Fair and Apple Festial in Boonville, your trusty correspondent learned that the readership has grown weary of the “he said, she said” dialog form I typically use, and that mostly they just skip over it; hence, why should I bother writing out what nobody cares to read – Let us not be sticklers for a form that bores; wouldn’t it be more pleasant for everyone involved, both writer and reader, just to cut to the chase?
So, If You Prefer, This Opener
The three out-of-town suspects arrested July 10th on suspicion of burglary of an occupied dwelling and the armed theft of cash and marijuana at a remote grow house off Low Gap Road west of Ukiah, were in court last week for their preliminary hearing to determine if there was enough evidence against the Sonoma trio to advance to trial on three felony counts.
Nathan Kurtz, 26, of Petaluma, and Shane Waier, 25, of Capitola, whose parents could afford to pay their bail, were crowded around the defense table in spanking new suits looking respectable as all heck. The third suspect Azuriah Paul, 24, of Sebastapol, who was not out on bail, sat in the jury box in his jail-orange jumpsuit.
Kurtz and Waier, again fortunate in their parents, were represented by private counsel — Kurtz by attorneys Patrick Michael Ciocca and Eric Guzman, Waier by (first name unknown) Godehel (sp.?) and Paul by Lewis Finch, a stringer for the Alternate Public Defender.
Judge John Behnke called the court to order and Chief Prosecutor Dale Trigg called Deputy Jeffrey Andrade, lead investigator in the case, to the stand.
Andrade: “I responded to a call from Dispatch that an armed robbery involving several male suspects had occurred at a residence on a dirt road, which turns into a jeep trail at mile marker 3.5 on Low Gap Road.
Trigg: “How long did it take for you to get there?”
Andrade: “About half an hour. Mr. Stetson met us at his front gate, where I saw that part of the fence was lying on the ground with visible tire tracks over it.
Trigg: “What did Stetson tell you had happened?” (preliminary hearings are not bound by the rule against hearsay.)
Andrade: “Mr. Stetson said that when he pulled up to his house after grocery shopping in Ukiah he saw between five and six adult males, one with a handgun and wearing a security vest, and one in a ski mask with a shotgun. A third male tried to hide his face behind the hood of his hoody sweatshirt. Stetson was then ordered out of his car and hit with the handgun carried by the suspect in the security vest before he was escorted into his house where a small safe had been moved from upstairs to a downstairs table. After being “asked” to open the safe, which contained $1,000 in twenties bound with a red rubber band, Stetson said his hands were bound with zip-ties and he was duct taped to a chair. He said the individuals then took his money, his wallet, his keys, his cell phone and fled in Stetson’s silver Toyota Tundra. Stetson said he was able to scoot the chair to a drawer where he had an old cell phone and he called 911 with an older cell phone.
Andrade said that Sergeant Luis Espinoza told him that he and Deputy Christian Vanpatten were by then in pursuit of one of the vehicles — one on State Street and one on Orr Springs Road, and that the suspects, when they pulled over, had identified themselves. A bullet-proof vest, marijuana, and cash rolled up with a rubber band, along with a 9mm handgun, were taken into evidence.