A jury trial for James Robert Nix, 65, of Ukiah, on two counts of assault with a firearm began with jury selection last Monday in Judge Cindee Mayfield’s court. At the same time a jury trial for Pablo Gonzalez, Sr. on similar charges (assault with a firearm, felon with a gun, theft of a firearm) began jury selection across the hall in Judge Keith Faulder’s court.
It took until mid-day Wednesday to pick these two juries, as some of the same people went back and forth across the hall, from one courtroom to the other, having been dismissed by a lawyer here or there on peremptory challenges, and the jury pool drained rapidly, so everyone was made to try and try again to serve on one jury or the other, and only the most stubborn were excused from both venues.
Having covered the prelim in the Gonzalez matter back in August of 2018, I chose the Nix trial to cover this week, since it is difficult, not to say impossible, to be in two places at once.
Mr. Nix is a prosperous Ukiah businessman; he’s so prosperous, in fact, that he hired costly defense attorney Chris Andrian of Santa Rosa to represent him – it being a widely held superstition that the more you spend on your lawyer the better the quality of justice you shall receive. Or, as the more succinctly put proverb has it, You get what you pay for.
And for the People, Chief Prosecutor Dale Trigg.
On June 12, 2018, a long-running dispute between neighbors high in the West Hills above Ukiah came to a head. One of the neighbors in question was the defendant, Jim Nix; the other, his one-time friend, but now avowed enemy, Dave Hull, another prominent and prosperous Ukiah businessman and developer.
Mr. Nix had previously called code-enforcement on Mr. Hull, alleging that grading violations had disturbed the sanctity of the exclusive West Hills subdivision above Janix Drive, where the pavement ends and four-wheelers rule the dirt roads and firebreaks.
On June 12th, 2018, Jim Nix found a broken tree branch on his property and deduced that a low-boy trailer carrying heavy equipment had passed that way. Mr. Nix strapped on his pistol, swung up into the saddle of his trusty red ATV, and rode off like Tom Mix in a Saturday Matinee horse opera. Nix soon found the heavy equipment, a bulldozer and excavator, parked near a new cut in the landscape. On he rode, on to property belonging to Dave Hull, where he came up against one of Hull’s employees, Pete Voldenik, and a confrontation ensued.
Mr. Voldenik was the first witness to testify, Mr. Nix was the last, and their stories varied in the extreme. Voldenik said, “The guy on the red four-wheeler pulled right up to my front bumper and I couldn’t get around so I stopped and got out to ask what he was doing there. With a lot of profanity he told me I was trespassing. He said it was his property and I told him I didn’t think he was right, then he took his cell phone out and wanted to take a picture of me, said I looked like trouble.”
Prosecutor Trigg asked, “What did you do?”
“I smiled for the picture and he reached out and tapped me in the face with the phone, and started waiving it in my face so I swatted it away, and that’s when Mr. Hull arrived.”
“How long would you estimate it took from the time you got out to when Dave Hull arrived?”
“A minute, a minute and a half.”
“Was there any physical contact between you and Mr. Nix?”
This was the point of contention: Jim Nix said that Voldenik reached over the ATV handlebars, put Nix in a headlock, put a fist in his face and said, ‘You want some of this?’ ” But that would come later, at the end of the trial. In the meantime, Voldenik finished his version of events.
“Dave pulled up on his four-wheeler and said, ‘Stand down, Pete, I think he’s got a gun!’ and then Mr. Nix backed off and kinda fumbled under his shirt and pulled out a gun and pointed it at me.”
“Did you feel threatened?”
“I certainly did.”
“Were you afraid for your safety?”
“I certainly was. Then he very rapidly walked towards me with the gun still pointed at me. It happened very fast.”
“Did he make contact with you?”
“Yes, he shoved the gun in my chest, twice, pretty hard both times, so hard I had to brace myself. Then, still pointing the gun at me he slowly backed away.”
“What was Mr. Hull doing?”
“He got on the phone and called 911 when the gun was pulled. I heard dispatch ask, ‘What’s your issue – it [the phone] was on speaker mode.”
“Did you see him point the gun at Mr. Hull?”
“He could have.”
“Did the officers arrive?”
“Eventually. Three of them came on a larger ATV.”
“Did they ask Mr. Nix to put his gun down?”
“Yes, and he finally did, real slowly.”
“What was the officer’s tone?”
“Pretty assertive. They ordered him to get on the ground.”
“How long did it take for the officers to get there?”
“Roughly 20 minutes.”
“What did Mr. Nix do?”
“He backed off 15 to 18 feet and just stood there.”
“Was he still pointing the gun at you?”
“Eventually, he held it at his side.”
“You say the gun hit you in the chest?”
“Did it leave a mark?”
“It certainly did.”
Photos of these two marks were shown to the jury. Photos taken a few days later showed the marks as ugly yellow bruises. It would later be defense’s contention that these marks were made by things mounted on Nix’s handlebars, when Vodelnik supposedly leaned over to put Nix in the alleged headlock, a tussle with him first for the phone, then for the gun, as Nix would allege Voldenik tried to take his gun away. It was part of defense’s “theory” that Voldenik was working without a permit and therefore didn’t want his picture taken.
The jury was asked to leave the courtroom while Judge Mayfield ruled that Voldenik’s permit status was irrelevant, as it would be Mr. Hull’s problem if he hired someone without a permit, and so the motive for the “tussle” or “tug-o-war” over the phone went out the proverbial window; and, as Mr. Andrian had hoped to pin Voldenik down on this permit issue, and that he was under investigation for doing work without one, the ensuing cross-exam of Voldenik lacked any teeth and ended inconclusively.
The next witness was Mr. David Hull, the alleged victim. Hull reported that he’d started out as friends with the defendant, Mr. Nix, but disputes had started some years ago after Hull built a home for his parents in the West Hills. A map of the area was put up for the jury and Hull pointed out his extensive holdings, as well as a large tract of land he was donating to the city of Ukiah. Hull then showed the jurors where Nix lived and said that on the day in question, June 12th, he’d seen Nix go by on his “quad” so he got on his own ATV and followed, having recently been turned in by Nix for an alleged grading violation. Hull said of Nix, “He likes to stir the pot, and he’s really good at it.”
“I saw Nix go by on his quad up to the top of the fire-break; he came right along here [indicating the route on the map with a pointer] and down this road – it’s the old fire-break, from years back.”
“Can you estimate the distance?”
“One-and-a-quarter to one-and-a-half miles; three or four minutes if you’re in a hurry and on a good quad; and if you know what you’re doing.”
Hull gave the impression he knew what he was doing and was always on a quad of the first quality. Dave Hull exuded competence and self-reliance, his bearing was almost martial, his short haircut fresh, his clothes new.
“Nix had turned us in on an alleged grading violation and I thought he was trying to stir the pot so I went to make sure he wasn’t going to cause trouble. I called Casey Bartlett and we went up to this point here, looked down and saw him on the new road, the lower road. I dropped Casey off at the gate and went down to tell Nix to get off the property. That’s when I came up on Pete’s [Voldenik’s] pickup, and found Jim’s [Nix’s] quad up against the bumper of the pickup; I saw Jim in a rage screaming, ‘Get him away from me’; I got my phone out and put it on speaker; Jim and Pete were tussling over something and at first I thought it was a gun so I got off and went closer and saw it was a cell phone; but what with the rage I was seeing I called 911 and told Pete to stand down, let the police handle this, that he’s probably got a gun. I didn’t know what was going on but Jim was out of control; they both had hold of the cell phone and were having a tug-o-war over it. But when I said, ‘He may have a gun,’ Jim fumbled for it under his shirt.”
“Does he have a concealed carry permit?”
“Oh, yes, he’s really into guns.”
“You have a concealed carry permit yourself, don’t you?”
“I do, yes.”
“Were you armed at the time?”
“I was, yes.”
“What did Mr. Nix do next?”
“As soon as he got the gun out he charged Pete with his arm outstretched and rammed it into Pete’s [Voldenik’s] chest, at least twice, he rammed the gun stiff-armed into Pete’s chest.”
“What did you do?”
“We both stood there frozen. He jammed him really hard.”
“Did he say anything?”
“I can’t recall. I was busy telling him, ‘Don’t do it,’ and I thought things would go really bad at any moment. After he backed away, though, he said we’d be his first victims.”
“You heard him say that?”
“What did you think?”
“I didn’t know what to think.”
“Did he point the gun at anyone else?”
“At both of us, on and off; he waved it at both of us for a few minutes.”
“You had your gun on you?”
“At any time did you take it out?”
“No, I did not.”
“All the courses say you never take a gun out unless you’re ready to use it, when you’re prepared to shoot.”
“You felt it would escalate the situation?”
Hull then called 911 and a recording of the call was played for the jury. When Hull told the dispatcher that Nix was holding a gun on him and Voldenik, Nix put the gun down to his side. It took 28 minutes for the officers to arrive riding on a side-by-side quad driven by Casey Bartlett who had met them at the gate. The officers ordered Nix to drop the gun and get on the ground. Nix took out the magazine and ejected a round from the chamber, then put the gun down and got on the ground, and after Nix was handcuffed the “interviews” began.
When Jim Nix took the stand in his own defense, he denied having touched Pete Voldenik with the gun. He said he took his gun out in the first place because Voldenik was trying to reach back and take it from his holster. It was clear that Dave Hull had not seen what happened when Voldenik and Nix first met, so it will be up to the jury to decide whether or not to believe Nix about Voldenik being the aggressor who put Nix in a headlock.
The trial having ended on Friday, a verdict was not expected until after publication, so we’ll post it up as soon as we get it and report it next week.