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Kill or Be Killed

The jury trial for Michael J. Saner, accused of murder in the killing of William Martinez at Rancho Navarro on August 6th, 2017, finally began last Monday only to go into recess before noon on Wednesday when one of the jurors had to go to the emergency room to pass a kidney stone. 

The trial was set to resume Monday, October 7th.  

Saner is charged with first-degree murder, but Saner’s lawyer, Patrick Pekin, seems confident the jury will come back with a lesser verdict.

When the trial went into recess last Wednesday, the prosecution was still in the midst of presenting the evidence for Murder One, and already this reporter was convinced he, too, would have been tempted to hasten Mr. Martinez into the next life. 

In his opening statement, Mr. Pekin had noted that the victim, the late, unlamented William ‘Willie’ Martinez, had himself been to prison for homicide and assault with a deadly weapon causing great bodily harm, and other offenses. It was also plain that Mr. Saner had reached out to the Sheriff’s office for help in dealing with Martinez, his nightmare tenant who, among other un-tenant-like behavior, was beating and constantly threatening his landlord, in addition to stealing from him, and vandalizing his property in violent, meth-fuled rages.

Deputy DA Elizabeth Norman called her first witness, Steven “Fritz” Ohm, of Ranch Navarro. Mr. Ohm described himself as a long-time resident of the area and the one whose job it was to take care of the road and keep it in good repair. Ohm is famous in the Navarro area for thanklessly helping people in need, being the neighborhood go-to guy for help with a wide variety of chores and errands.

Mike Saner had hired Willie Martinez as a helper and at some point Martinez had moved from Ohm’s property to Saner’s place.

Norman: “Were you aware of any problems between Mike and Willie?”

Ohm: “Yes, gradually, I became aware that the situation was causing stress.”

“So at some point did Willie come to your property?”

“Yes, he was sleeping in his vehicle, which is taboo; and, trying to keep the peace, I gave him a place to park his truck. There were a lot of incidents that year [2017] and people were upset about the machete incident”—

“Let me stop you right there, and let’s focus on the situation with Willie.”

“Well,” Ohm continued, “he disappeared from working with me – he’d been put on the payroll on May of ’17 for a regular paycheck, off-and-on working on the roads. Initially, he was getting on with everybody; but asphalt work in hot weather is not for everybody, and at the best part of the day he started being tardy, and these incidents led up to his just not being there at all — he had kind of a split personality, a Jekyll & Hyde kind of guy.”

“Was he there on this day?”

“Yes, he was on the property, showed up around five, five-thirty, he hadn’t been around for a few days, but it being the end of the pay-period, so he turned up for dinner.”

“Do you recall what his demeanor was like?”

“He was down on his luck, tardy for the week’s work, tail between his legs, broke.”

At this point Ms. Norman put up some photos of the picnic table, fire ring, canopy and vehicles parked around the property.

“And so you were having dinner?”

“Yes, I’d just put the food on the table, and I first saw Mike [Saner] peer around the side of the tool shed and our eyes met for an instant. I guess he took note of the situation and stepped forward saying, ‘He was gonna kill me’ and one hand came up with the Mace and he fogged the table with it. I turned my head to escape from the impact of it. Willie recognized the voice and probably heard the words, made an exit — Willie was seated here [pointing to photo of table] and he would have had to put his legs over the bench, here, and gone around that way… I was here, and I had turned and ducked down to avoid the propellant [bear spray], and that’s when Mike let loose [with the shotgun]; and he [Willie] took the impact — he’s a big guy — and the bullet propelled him further; he kind of bounced off the fender of the Chevy, here, hit the other truck, here, and fell down between the two.”

Mr. Ohm actually stood up from the witness stand and re-enacted the the two or three steps Willie took, the bouncing off the vehicles, falling to the courtroom floor in front of the jury.

“You were almost in the field of fire yourself, weren’t you?”

“Like I say, I’d seen the propellant coming and I’d pulled myself in a position not to receive the spray. Over here’s a cut-bank [using the pointer again to indicate each side of the photograph], and over here’s a building or two, containing noise [of gunfire] so it didn’t travel too far. Later, the investigators were looking for stray pellets on the headlights [of the parked vehicles] but there was nothing they could find.”

“Did Mike say anything to you?”

“I said, ‘Mike, what are you doing?’ and he just walked away.”

“Recall what time it was?”

“Six-thirty or so.”

“Was Saner having any difficulty walking away?”

“No. I got up and went to see how Willie was doing. He was on his face and moaning. He’s a big guy and was wedged between two vehicles – there was nothing I could do by myself, so I went to get some assistance from the guys up top.”

“How did he [Saner] seem to you?”

“Same facial expression as before, just a blank stare.”

“Did he seem calm?”

“Yes, I think so. I didn’t think to go in the house to call on the land line. I felt I needed assistance to get Willie out of the position he was in, so I went up to the upper landing.”

“Did you see Saner?”

“Yes, about midway up, up, up here, Mike was here [pointing at photo], he was in his vehicle and I drove by him, didn’t say anything, I was looking for someone to give me a hand.”

“Did you see him drive off?”

“I saw him obligate [sic] himself into the road.”

“Wasn’t Janet there?”

“Yes, she was on the property, at the base of the incline, sitting in her car listening to music and drinking water.”

Mr. Pekin on cross-examination: “You were just sitting down to dinner. Remember what you were eating?”

Ohm: “Beef-a-Roni, mac and burger, skillet-style, not out of a box.”

“Were there any knives on the table?”

“Probably a butter knife, nothing more.”

“What did Michael Saner say just before he pulled out the bear spray?”

“He said, ‘He [Martinez] said he was gonna kill me’.”

“You said on direct that he, meaning Willie Martinez, you said he had a split personality. You said, ‘Jekyll & Hyde’. What did you mean by that?”

“He’d just talk about before he came to Fort Bragg and Anderson Valley, and it made me put my radar out, made me more cautious in my dealings with him. He did real well for a while, there. A limited amount of labor force, kind of a retirement community, a good place for somebody who’s an able worker, he was hired by some of my neighbors, made good money in the beginning.”

“A big guy, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, probably 250 – able, capable guy. I told him, ‘If you can keep up with me you’ve a good possibility of getting on the crew for the summer – basically rebuilding the road for the winter months.”

“Was Mike Saner a match for Willie Martinez [in a fair fight]?”

“No – I think I know what you’re leading up to and he [Saner] said he was beaten up sometimes by him [Martinez], and that he [Willie] broke a couple of [Mike’s] ribs at one point.”

“Did Mike show you any injuries?”

“No, but I could see by the way he was moving when he got out of his car.”

“Did Willie tell you he’d destroyed any property of Mike Saner’s?”

“No, but I saw some broken windows, like the windshield out of his car, and a lot of things were being verbalized in the community.”

“Did Mike ask your help in filling out a form for a restraining order?”

“Yeah, I tried to get them back together [sic] but it wasn’t meant to be.”

“Did Mike Saner ever tell you Willie threatened him with a weapon?”

“I know they had one-on-one confrontations.”

“Did he [Mike] tell you that he [Willie] threatened to kill him [Mike]?”

“I heard that through other people.”

“Willie wouldn’t go to mediation; did he tell you why?”

“There were a couple of attempts to get him to go, others got together and waited for Willie to show up and he never showed up.”

“He ever tell you why?”

“They had some kind of sharing, between paychecks – things get narrow and slim, so you borrow – and I think there was some dispute between the cost of commodities and what one or the other owed.”

“Did Saner ever ask you where Willie was?”

“Yeah – not only me, but all over the Valley?”

“He wanted to know where Willie was in order to stay away from him?”

“Or, just to know where he was. I thought I knew what his capabilities were, but he was no match for Willie.”

“Did Martinez tell you he had Saner’s tools stored in Fort Bragg?”

Martinez had taken Saner’s tools, thousands of dollars worth, while Saner was in jail for a DUI. Martinez sold the key to the storage unit in Fort Bragg to Saner for $50; but there was no such storage unit; when confronted about this, Martinez said he would give Saner the number of a Storage unit in Philo where the tools really were for $200, all of which came out in a recorded interview with Pastor Douglas Moyer of a church in Comptche. The interview was conducted by Detective Luis Espinoza. After a recording of the interview was played in court one of the jurors became ill and had to go to the emergency room to deal with the kidney stone, so Judge Cindee Mayfield called a recess until Monday, October 7th at 9:00. We hope to have the trial results by next week’s edition.

Rancho Navarro is peaceful as we go to press this week. 

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