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Murder at Rancho Navarro

July 2017 booking photo

Is Michael J. Saner sane?

The trial for Michael J. Saner finished up last week. But the jury, due to the long weekend, was still deliberating at the filing of this report on Columbus Day, known west of State Street as Indigenous People’s Day. 

The State’s case, charging Murder One, was finished after only two days, but the defense’s evidence took all of the second week, with a long list of expert and character witnesses, including such Anderson Valley luminaries as Dr. Mark Apfel, Pastor Doug Moyer of the Comptche Gospel Church, and local impresario Dave Evans of the Navarro Store — all of it intended to show that the defendant, though undeniably guilty of killing the victim, William ‘Willie’ Martinez — there being an eyewitness to the fatal shooting — was guilty of a lesser charge than premeditated murder, due to the nature of the relationship between Saner and Martinez, and chiefly because of Saner’s prescription drug and alcohol abuse problems, along with his psychological “issues,” as described by that loquacious Ukiah psychologist, Dr. Kevin Kelley.

Michael Saner had “a whole list of complaints,” according to Dr. Kelley.

“He obviously gets some pleasure,” Kelley said, “describing how masochistically he’d been abused.”

This was in reference to Saner’s claim that he was being beaten and coerced by Willie Martinez.

“I don’t know how much to rely on spoken testimony, though,” Kelley continued, “so he [Saner] was given a psychological test for personality disorders.”

The psych doc went on to say that these tests are too clever for your average Joe to out-smart. “The questions may seem innocuous and they jump around in many directions, so there’s no way a normal person could take an actuarial inventory and come up with a psychological profile. If the score is low, he [the psych patient] is normal, but a very high score indicates a person experiencing dysfunction. Hopefully, a person can’t read too much into it [the score].”

Mr. Pekin: “How did Mr. Saner score?”

“Very high. I decided not to use the absolute principle because people over-respond or underestimate the testing protocol in a case of exaggerating and that takes a few points off itself, as a clinician generally has discretion as one would in someone who is bi-polar with PTSD and a negativistic victim-affective disorder.”

“What’s that?”

“Like hearing voices, having cognitive problems, emotions that cycle, and they overlap quite a bit these days as we’re diagnosing everybody with malingering on a regular basis and we tend to give them a high score on the bi-polar catchall and the usual adverse childhood events, but Mr. Saner’s responses can be construed any which way – the bi-polar affect, we call it.”

“How does that work?”

“He chooses among poor choices and there’s therefore no way to avoid a diagnosis for mental instability, so the answers are always consistent with bi-polar disorders, but that’s not what I diagnosed him with because I thought the psycho-affective disorder and paranoia – which the alcoholism only compounds a sour disposition with social withdrawal, which is how I distinguish it from how a normal person reacts with a fixed belief, something a person holds onto until it becomes self-fulfilling…”

This went on for several hours and my notebook soon became even more unintelligible than the testimony from the doctor, but the upshot was that Saner was badly misnamed, to say the least, and when Saner later took the stand himself it became, to use the clinician’s term, self-evident that he was quite nutty. 

Saner spent a few minutes trying to remember the name of a big city to the south of Mendocino County about 100 miles. He couldn’t remember it. He admitted he’d lied to Dr. Apfel, who had prescribed him Vicodin, about his alcohol consumption. Rather than a six-pack each week, he said he actually drank between 12 and 18 cans of beer a day. He was also on some kind of psych meds (I couldn’t catch the name of), and though he tried to stay off the hard stuff he sometimes got roaring drunk on tequila or vodka.

In the beginning he seemed to have a plausible case for being terrorized by Willie Martinez, but the more he talked, the more it seemed he was exaggerating the threat or making things up. At one point he’d be scared to death of Willie and trying to get rid of him, then later the same day they’d be having drinks together and getting along just swell. Saner said his son Jesse had brought Willie to Ranch Navarro from the Hospitality House in Fort Bragg, and that Willie sold meth to people at the Hospitality House and seemed to use a lot of it himself.

Saner talked about Willie banging pots and pans around in the night and how this behavior might cause problems with neighbors, but Saner jumped from one thing to another as frequently and as confusingly as the questions in Dr. Kelley’s test. And Dr. Kelley’s diagnosis, hard though it was for a lay person to understand, actually began to seem valid, after a few examples of Saner’s tendency to exaggerate and malinger.

Saner said Willie put a new lock on the garage and he had to borrow a bolt cutter to get it off.

One day Willie would be beating Saner up and the next buying him hamburgers at the Navarro Store, and once he showed up with a chainsaw, right when Saner needed one, “to make reparations,” Saner said.

Dave Evans took the stand and gave testimony that Saner’s fear of Willie Martinez was “very convincing.” Also, Evans said he’d heard Willie say that he was going to get Saner, drive him crazy and make him kill himself. “Several times he was parked out in front of the store and I went out and said hello, asked how he was doing, and he said fine, just waiting for Mike, and I said ‘Oh, what’s going on?’ and he said, ‘I’m gonna get him,’ and I said, ‘Not here, you’re not,’ and one day he said, ‘I’m getting to him, he’ll blow his own brains out, you’ll see, I’m gonna drive him crazy’.”

Saner’s defense attorney Patrick Pekin: “Do you think he may have been joking?”

“Absolutely not. At that point I realized it was serious.”

Pekin had hired a private investigator named, coincidentally enough, Mr. Navarro. 

Deputy DA Beth Norman had a copy of PI Navarro’s report and on cross, she asked Evans to look at page three, lines 12- 16.

“As to this part about Willie saying he was going to get Mike to kill himself, how many times did he say this?”

“At least three or four times.”

“But in your interview with Mr. Navarro you said it happened only once, didn’t you?”

After reading the lines indicated in Navarro’s report, Evans admitted it was so: “Correct… can I elaborate?”

Norman answered tersely, “That’s alright.” Then, hurrying right along, she asked, “Didn’t you once ask Willie what he wanted out of life at Rancho Navarro?”

Pekin: “Objection. Relevance.”

Judge Cindee Mayfield: “Overruled.”

Evans: “Yes.”

Norman: “What’d he tell you?”

Evans: “I don’t recall.”

Norman: “Didn’t you tell Mr. Navarro he [Willie] said he wanted a new life?”

Evans: “Yeah.”

Norman: “And you told Navarro you were surprised?”

Evans: “Yeah.”

Norman: “So you kinda started seeing all that stuff [about Willie being a threat to Mike] after speaking to others, didn’t you?”

Evans: “Absolutely.”

Norman: “You kinda didn’t give it much attention?”

Evans: “At first it wasn’t that serious.”

Norman: “Ever see any injuries on Mr. Saner?”

Evans: “I think I did once. He had a black eye one time and said Willie hit him.”

Norman: “You never saw them fight though, did you?”

Evans: “No, but I saw them get close to it until I stopped it.”

Norman: “You were trying to tell Saner to work it out with Willie – what were they not able to work out?”

Evans: “Little stuff, like tools being stolen, trivial stuff like locking him out of the trailer; it seemed like Willie was trying to drive him crazy with small stuff, and the last time I saw him [Saner] he was standing at my office door looking for a place to hide. I felt really bad for him; he was at the end of his rope.”

“Didn’t you tell him [Saner] to move out?”

“I did, several times.”

Pekin on redirect: “You said you wanted to elaborate on one question the prosecution asked you?”

Evans: “I did.”

Pekin: “Mr. Martinez said, ‘I’m gonna get him, make him kill himself’ – did that happen only one time?”

Evans: “No. It happened several times. What I meant was he said he’d get Mike to blow his brains out that one time, on the other times he used different words but meant the same thing.”

Norman: “Did Willie ever say he’d kill Mr. Saner?”

Evans: “I think… I want to say yes he did say that, but… [a pensive pause] …I can’t answer that, honestly, that he [Willie] said he was gonna kill him [Saner] … I think he [Willie] said many times ‘I’m gonna get him’…”

Norman: “Today, you’re saying he was gonna hurt Saner?”

Evans: “Under oath, I’m gonna say ‘He was gonna get him – let me just reflect on it [pensive pause]… I can’t answer that, honestly.”

Norman: “Nothing further.”

Judge Mayfield: “Is this witness excused?”

Dave Evans left the stand like so many witnesses do: With a look of having been tricked into saying something other than what he intended to say and that lawyers all justly deserve whatever vilification they get.

The witnesses from the State Department of Justice who tested Saner’s blood for alcohol and drugs testified as to the possibilities of Saner’s condition at the time of the shooting – there was an open box of beer with six cans missing in the van, and one can three-quarters full in the cup-holder when Saner was found parked behind the Gospel Church in Comptche – and the expert consensus was unanimous that while Saner was certainly impaired, he was also what’s called an “acclimated” or conditioned alcoholic, which is to say his tolerance level was higher than a “normal person’s” would have been.

The testimony of the pastor was all on the recorded interview and dealt mainly with a trip to the storage units in Philo and Boonville, looking for a non-existent storage locker where the missing tools were supposed to be, and it was easy to see how this wild goose chase could have been designed to drive somebody nuts — and it was only confirmed by Saner’s own testimony on the stand that if he wasn’t crazy already, he didn’t have far to go.

We’ll post up the verdict whenever the jurors come back with one during the coming week.

One Comment

  1. Michael Koepf October 22, 2019

    Without McEwen and Scaramella I’d be blissfully ignorant of where I live.

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