Crime, Elmore Leonard tells us, is always half-baked and always goes off half-cocked. The popular novelist’s dictum is validated almost weekly here in Mendocino County. Last week a spectacular instance of it faced arraignment in Ukiah’s Superior Court.
Mr. Hank Johnson Whipple of Covelo, having been restricted from owning any firearms or ammunition because of his status as a convicted felon, took his bow and arrows to a home invasion robbery.
A confidential source says Whipple was shot in the face with a stream of pepper spray before he could loose an arrow with criminal intent. He then fled into thick cover, followed by a load of birdshot. It was probably about this time that Whipple committed his next crime, the criminal threat, of yelling, “I’ll kill you!”
Whipple was soon arrested. Last Wednesday he was facing charges of attempted armed robbery and some special allegations concerning three prior convictions. He asked for some time to contact his family about springing for a lawyer. He came back on Friday to report that he wasn’t able to get in touch with his uncle (the proverbial rich uncle?). A Public Defender was assigned to explain what Whipple was doing with a bow and arrow in a house he hadn't been invited to enter.
Deputy DA Steve Jackson asked for a criminal protective order naming the person Whipple had tried to rob. Covelo isn't the only place in Mendocino County where people will try to settle things outside the legal system, but there are feuds in Covelo that go back 150 years. Jackson wanted this witness protected from retaliation with bail set high for Whipple, a total of $110,000 — $75,000 for the attempted robbery, $25,000 for the threat, and $10,000 for the bow and arrow.
Whipple is lucky he didn’t end up like the last home invasion robber we talked about: Shot dead in the act south of Laytonville. Just like in an Elmore Leonard novel, the promise of a few easy bucks often leads to sudden death or life in the prison system.
Then came a trio of incompetent criminals we call The Lights Out Gang because after the three Bay Area bandits robbed several Boonville pot farmers at Guerreros’ Tire Shop back in January, they fled south with their headlights out, apparently on the theory they wouldn't be seen if their getaway vehicle was unilluminated.
The two heavies, Delmore Ford, 23, and Leon Patterson, 23, the ones with criminal records, got three years each in state prison, where they'd just paroled from when they appeared in Boonville with Garrett Bonner, 18, the kid who did the driving in his parent's car. Bonner, with no prior experience with the wrong side of the law, got probation.
Why so light for armed robbery?
The Lights Out Gang had good lawyers. Carly Dolan of the PD’s office and Bert Schlosser of the Alternate PD’s know their stuff, which they had to since these three characters were stone guilty. They put in the extra effort and the extra hours to get their clients a better deal than they could have hoped for, and the two publicly paid lawyers pulled it off despite the fact all the public attorneys have had their pay cut recently.
Defendant Bonner — whose father is a celebrated Bay Area surgeon — got a private lawyer from the big city. The lawyer, plus Bonner's lack of a criminal record, explains why Bonner got off light. Our local bandidos who brandish guns almost always get state time no matter how clean their records are.
Ford and Patterson, Bonner's two accomplices, had priors, and are already doing life on the installment plan, as they say. They'll keep on going back to prison until they get old and tired.
The odd case of Adam Degrenier started out odd and just got odder as it went. Ostensibly arrested on alcohol related charges with no bail (!), Degrenier and his co-defendant Adam Morris have had their matter discussed mostly in the judge’s chambers. There has been some talk — whispers, actually — about allegations of sex with a minor and battery. More indistinct whispering held that the two Adams had been arrested for sex with a minor and — having been released on bail — went right back and had sex with a minor again.
Degrenier went away to prison last week for a three-month diagnostic visit. A very young woman submitted a written statement to the court but didn’t want it read aloud. She may have been the minor referred to, and she may be in love, too. Degrenier will be back in September for sentencing. His co-defendant in all this, Morris, sits in jail.
Some weeks ago a frequent flyer named Francis Seymour wrote an eloquent and persuasive letter to this paper. Seymour was prison-bound, having been caught with meth for the umpteenth time. But he insisted that he wasn’t peddling the stuff he was just an addict. He said he would be better off in a treatment program, and The People would be better off, too, because they wouldn't be saddled with the expense of warehousing him four bunks high in one of the California Department of Corrections prison gyms.
DA David Eyster read Seymour's letter and decided to give Seymour a break, but a tenuous break, the path to redemption being a narrow one:
Mr. Seymour would have to plea to the charges and allegations which would amount to a sentence of nine years in the state pen. The judge would pass sentence, then suspend execution of the sentence on the condition that Mr. Seymour enter the Delancey Street program in San Francisco for a two-year stay.
Delancey Street is designed to straighten out tough guys, very tough guys. If you're still lying to yourself about your drug prob you'll have a tougher time at Delancey Street than you might have at Pelican Bay.
Careful what you wish for.
A similar situation involves Jeffery Ruano.
Ruano saw what happened to Seymour and wrote a similar letter directly to DA Eyster. Again, Eyster was convinced to spare The People the expense of prison warehousing in favor of a last shot at rehab. The DA went to Ruano’s lawyer, Public Defender Carly Dolan, and made an offer similar to what Seymour got. Ms. Dolan ran it past her client and they went for it.
Ruano was facing a charge of violating section 11378 of the Health & Safety Code, peddling meth, with three prior convictions for doing the same thing. The charge carries a four-year term in prison, the three priors would add three years each; then there would be another eight months for violating Section 11370.2 and another count of violating Section 11351, for a grand total of 16 years and eight months.
If he screwed up again.
Eyster told Ruano he'd buy him a steak dinner if he got through the Delancey program.
The lawyers and Judge William Lamb went over the math twice to make sure they had it right. Then Judge Lamb explained the terms and conditions to Ruano.
“You have to be accepted by Delancey Street or this sentence will go into effect. Do you understand?”
“Don’t worry, judge, they’ll accept me,” Ruano jauntily assured the judge.
“Chances are good they will, but if they don’t — through no fault of your own — this sentence will go into effect,” Lamb said. “I just want to make that clear.”
Dolan added, “Judge, we want him to stay in jail until he gets accepted just so he can’t be tempted on the way.”
“This is creating a problem,” said the judge. “He already has 695 days in the county jail. I can’t sentence him to more than a year in jail without a Johnson waiver. If you’ll just waive his right to be released on probation I’ll impose the sentence which is justified by Mr. Ruano's extensive record.”
The waiver was entered, the sentence imposed and then suspended.
When it was over, the DA said, “It was a non-traditional approach but I don’t think I’ve offended anyone’s concept of justice.”
As it turns out, both Francis Seymour and Jeffery Ruano are 47 years old. They both started using drugs when they were sixteen, 30 years ago.
Eyster said, “These two are quite similar, and this is a final step for both these gentlemen. It’s certainly the last opportunity I’d be willing to give either of them! It’s certainly an experiment. But we're putting no one at risk. If they fail, they go to prison. On the other hand, if they succeed, we all win,” Eyster concluded.