There's a door in the back of the Ten Mile Courtroom in Fort Bragg that is rarely left open. It’s behind the court reporter's desk and Judge Brennan's bench. As I sat in the gallery last Monday I noticed it had been left wide open, exposing a neglected hallway full of half filled file boxes, precariously scattered and stacked. A spot is left clear in front of a door with a green lit “EXIT” sign above it.
The skinny deputy with the thin mustache and sunglasses perched atop his head entered through the back door and sat in a chair next to the court reporter's station and talked jovially with some of the officers of the court. The court reporter herself was standing in a relaxed pose, forearm propped on a ledge in front of Brennan's bench.
Coastal Deputy DA Sergio Fuentes entered the courtroom and spilled a metal crate of files on the Prosecution table. Less than ten defendants and their companions sat in the gallery. Everything was slow getting started this Monday morning.
At 9:33am five prisoners from Ukiah were lead by Deputy Christine De Los Santos through the rear exit door below the sickly green lit sign, through the cluttered forgotten backroom, and into the jury box. On the plexiglas sheet separating the jury box from where I sat in the gallery was a white sign; “Notice: Contact or communication with any prisoner, in any way, is illegal. Aviso: Contacto O communication con cualguier detenido es ilegal-Codigo.” Before assuming his position at the door to introduce Judge Clayton Brennan, Bailiff Kent Rogers walked up to Deputy DA Tim Stoen.
“Were you on Henneseey?” asked Rogers.
“No, I'm not on Hennesey,” said Stoen.
By 9:40am the gallery had begun to fill. I felt the nervousness all around me, similar to the feeling of the first day of a new school year, when summer is over and things are about to get real.
Bailiff Kent Rogers stood next to Brennan's chamber door: “All rise for the honorable Judge Brennan,” Rogers said as Brennan emerged from his chambers carrying his own box of files.
The judge called the case of Robert James Godwin, Jonathan Michael Presswood, and his brother Ryan Samuel Presswood. They each had their own lawyer. Godwin, the only one of the three who appeared in court as a free man, stood in a tight fitting light colored suit and white shoes next to his lawyer, Carter Sears. The suit was so tight and the pants too short it looked Mod-cut, like he was the organ player of an early 60s rock and roll band.
The Presswood brothers stood in the jury box, one in a blaze orange jumpsuit, the other in classic black and white stripes, “Mendocino County Jail” screen-printed on the back in red. Jonathan Presswood stood next to his attorney, Steven Antler, who has styled gray hair and sports an earring.
Long time Coast public defender Thomas Croak represented Ryan Presswood.
Fuentes offered the Presswood brothers a deal: 36 months summary probation, reduced from felony to misdemeanor, and no contact with victims. Brennan asked the Deputy DA his rationale behind the offer. “People believe it is in the interest of justice,” said Fuentes, more or less automatically.
“What is the factual basis?” asked Brennan.
“People will stipulate what’s in the police report,” said Fuentes. He said the defendants “willfully harassed” three individuals.
“By doing what?” asked Brennan.
“Following them around town to various stops,” said Godwin’s attorney Carter Sears.
Brennan got frustrated and called a recess so the lawyers from both sides could figure out the factual basis for the deal. Brennan bolted out of the courtroom to his chambers, wanting to know the details of what the three young men did before he let them take the deal. No one appeared to know or say exactly what they did.
When Brennan was gone the defendant's lawyers huddled around Fuentes like football players in suits. Fuentes left and came back two minutes later with a fresh faced, buzzed cut, Fort Bragg police officer whom he intended to put on the stand if need be. The officer sat down in a chair just on the other side of the bar. He looked over to one of the incarcerated defendants, tucked his upper lip under his lower and gave him an acknowledging nod without being too polite to the accused criminal.
Public Defender Croak asked Bailiff Kent Rogers to ask Brennan a question for the lawyers. “I don't want to get yelled at,” said Croak smiling. Rogers came back quickly and motioned for the lawyers to come on back and they formed a single file line and disappeared into Brennan’s chambers. The deputy with the skinny mustache from Ukiah talked and laughed with some of the prisoners. Just another day at the office.
Instead of moving goods and materials, some workers move people who can think, talk, and listen. Robert Godwin and his female companion with blond hair and mossy-oak camouflage sweatshirt sat in the chairs in front of me and waited for the in-chambers conference to end. The lawyers and Brennan finally walked back into the courtroom. Brennan told the young men that they must “reform their behavior and grow up.”
All three men pleaded no contest to charges of stalking — it would be reduced to an infraction if their probations go well. Their charges for vandalism and conspiracy were dropped and they were ordered released.
Brennan addressed the Presswood brothers specifically: “You have been involved in conduct around this town that is extremely dangerous.” He said the brothers had also been involved in a situation in which someone was shot. “That is completely unacceptable,” said Brennan. He denounced the brothers’ acts of “street revenge” and retaliation. “That macho Wild West type behavior will not be tolerated,” continued Brennan. “I don't like sending young people to prison but if they’re going to be going crazy in the streets, I have no choice. Any violations of probation you can expect to uh...suffer the full consequences…”
Brennan petered out on his reprimanding of the brothers and called incarcerated defendant Mark Joseph Weatherly's case. Weatherly violated his probation when he was found in possession of psilocybin mushrooms and alcohol. Brennan found him in violation and sentenced him to 73 days in County jail with seven days credit for time served.
There was much talk going on among the officers of the court about Michael Hennessy. They were trying to figure out prisoner rides back and forth from Ukiah.
“Do they have to transport Hennessy separately?” Brennan asked Bailiff Rogers.
“Yes.” Deputy Christine De Los Santos had to drive back over the hill to Ukiah to pick up Hennessy and bring him back by himself. Prisoner transport between Ten Mile Court in Fort Bragg and the County Jail in Ukiah costs the taxpayers a lot of money. There's no jail in Fort Bragg, only a holding cell.
Judge Brennan soon called a recess; they would have Hennessy in there at 1:30 when court resumed after lunch.
I left the Ten Mile Courthouse and got into the car I had rented while my van was being repaired once again. I drove to the bank and a gas station. Saw many traveling folk loaded down and haggard in the sun, walking with tall canes like Bedouins; in the place of a camel by their sides were their tired dogs.
Back in the courthouse lobby a young mother sat at the bench facing me playing with her little daughter whose face was painted blue, nose painted red, and green paint around her lips. I noticed that most of the Ten Mile Court regulars, defendants and employees, looked tired and worn out. Older. The security guards working the metal detector and x-ray conveyor belt talked to a man about the violent altercations that had just occurred at a Giants/Raiders pre-season game in San Francisco.
Back in court at 1:30pm Brennan called the temporary restraining order case of Sara Custer and Roxanne Arnold. Custer, a tall woman with long dark hair had requested the order. Brennan asked Custer the reason.
“She (Arnold) called me and told me she had a bullet with my name on it and that she would rearrange my face.” Custer told Brennan that Roxanne Arnold's kids had knocked on the door of her house at 3:30 in the morning, trying to get away from their mother. When Arnold got a chance to speak she told Brennan that Sara Custer was having an affair with her husband.
Brennan granted Custer the TRO.
Soon Michael Dee Hennessy was lead into the courtroom by Deputy De Los Santos and sat down alone in the jury box. His attorney, Timothy O'Laughlin, sat next to him and they spoke quietly. O'Laughlin wears plaid wool jackets, long hair in a ponytail with a bald spot on top. Hennessy wore a black and white striped jail suit. As the court rolled through the afternoon cases, a blond woman with arm tattoos, dirty jeans, and a face hardened by life sat in the front row of the gallery on the opposite side of the plexi from where Hennessy sat. She had some crumbled pink papers in her hands that she handed to O'Laughlin. O'Laughlin looked them over and handed them back over the bar to the woman. Brennan finally called Michael Hennessy for his pre-preliminary hearing. Michael Dee Hennessy has a long criminal history on the Mendocino Coast. He was just in court last July for his arraignment on felony assault charges from an incident on June 17th. At the time of the assault Hennessy was on probation from another set of charges. Hennessy was arrested on October 23, 2010 when Sheriff's deputies searched his home on Highway One in Fort Bragg because of a search and seizure term of yet another pending court matter. When deputies searched Hennessy's home they found him and his companion, a Mendocino County frequent flyer in her own right, Sunny Edwards, in possession of about 2.8 grams of methamphetamine, a loaded syringe, scales, packaging for retail, and a loaded firearm. Last time Hennessy was in court in July of 2011 he was remanded into custody immediately and he has been at the Low Gap Jail ever since. O'Laughlin informed the court that he was ready to enter a plea. “What’s his maximum exposure?” asked Brennan. Fuentes looked in his stack of files. He said that Hennessy could get seven years and eight months in state prison, a $2,000 fine, and a lifetime prohibition from owning firearms. Hennessy and O'Laughlin made an open plea to the court, which is a complete acknowledgement of guilt with no promise or deals. The only dim glimmer of hope for a defendant in Hennessy’s position is that the judge may reward him for saving the court the trouble of having a trial. Hennessy had a thick black mustache last time he was in the Ten Mile Court as a free man. Now his lip is bare, and he looks like a different person. Brennan asked the factual basis of the plea.
Fuentes told the court that on Valentine’s Day of 2011 Michael Hennessy assaulted his female victim, kicking her with steel-toed boats, breaking her jaw. When Fuentes was finished Timothy O'Laughlin, who was standing in the jury box next to Hennessy, spoke up.
“I'd like to say that the boots did not have steel toes, I'm not saying that they were not a deadly weapon, but they were not steel-toed.” Brennan paid little attention to this comment. He found the defendant guilty and referred the case to probation to write a report. Hennessy will be back in Ten Mile Court on October 17th for sentencing.
Most of the day’s cases had been called, so I left the Ten Mile Court building and drove my rental car out of Fort Bragg back down Highway One. Reporters and war correspondents talked excitedly on the radio about the rebels’ arrival in the Libyan city of Tripoli, that three of Muammar Gaddafi's sons had been captured, but Gaddafi himself was nowhere to be found. I cut down to Highway 128 at Navarro Beach and entered the redwoods.
Soon I spotted a man in a blaze orange vest holding a “SLOW” sign on a stick. I braked and shortly came to a woman holding the same lollipop sign but with the “STOP” side facing towards me. As I stopped the woman walked over to my window and I rolled it down. There was an orange octagonal “BE PREPARED TO STOP” sign and in her raspy voice she kindly told me that she had to move it on the other side from where she was standing so the oncoming cars would get to the sign before they got to her. “Can you put your arm out the window and hold this sign for me?” she asked kindly, referring to the lollipop “STOP” sign. “There's a good “SLOW” sign guy behind you, it should be alright.” I stuck my arm out of the window and held on to the stick of the sign. The woman walked up the road under the redwoods and moved the sign and her pickup that was sitting off the road. She walked back holding a cooler she got from her truck. She took the sign back from me.
“I don't think I am going to have time to get ice after we're done tonight so I asked one of the Caltrans workers earlier if he could get me some.”
She worked for a private construction company that was contracted by Caltrans to work on the paving of Highway 128.
“What a beautiful place to work,” she said. She told me that they were staying at the Paul Dimmick State Park campground up the road. More cars were beginning to stop behind me, the woman assumed a position with the stop sign. We waited for about 15 minutes for the pilot truck. As I passed the woman I told her to have a nice night and she thanked me and smiled. I followed the pilot truck past a long row of workers laying down hot and smelly black top. Further down the line, steamroller drivers looked as relaxed as they possibly could, flattening out the dark goo. Soon I was out of the redwoods and into the gold and green of Philo. The afternoon sun gave objects I passed the familiar aura, but the rain will be here soon.