Chef Fransen's got the clean good looks of a young man who might come to your door with the Jehovah's Witnesses, that generic poster boy look. He's trim and keeps himself well groomed. Maybe it's his looks that caused the devil to make him the local front man for the Norteño street gang, even if he is only 18.
Last year, Chef solidified his local reputation as a hard guy when he stabbed another kid for stepping on a red handkerchief, red being the Norteños color.
But there was one more test he had to pass: He had to show the gang that he was loyal; that he wouldn’t be tempted to try and save himself, that he would sacrifice himself and even break his poor mother’s heart for the glory of the gang.
And this he has done spectacularly.
When we last saw Chef back in May, he was on his way to San Quentin for a diagnostic evaluation to see if he could be saved. The DA thought the diagnostic was a waste of time. He thought Fransen was already a hard case, and, after all, the guy Fransen had stabbed in Ukiah had nearly died, with Fransen expressing no remorse whatsoever, not even the mumbled pro forma remorse you hear from thugs when they get to court.
When a rural wannabe tough guy is packed off to San Quentin for a diagnostic he often comes back from the experience vowing not to go back to prison. The Quentin sneak preview is usually enough to convince a kid, “I don't want to do this for 50 years.” At Quentin, the evaluators look for signs that the kid will not choose a life outside the law.
It only took the evaluators a few minutes with Fransen to peg him as the kind of guy who, if he ever wakes up he'll do it on his own, not from repeat second chances.
Fransen was also evaluated by prison gang members.
They loved him.
Prison staff sent a short letter back to Judge Ann Moorman recommending that young Fransen go straight to prison, that he was not a likely candidate for leniency.
Judge Moorman asked, “Mr. Fransen, is it your desire to go forward with this?”
There had been some delays. Fransen's lawyer got sick, and now Tom Mason was his new attorney. Fransen was swaying back and forth impatiently as he stood in the dock as if to say, “C'mon, c'mon. Let's wrap this bullshit up.”
But there was a sealed transcript in Fransen's file — no one was sure what was in it. But the judge was willing to give Fransen time to go over it with his new attorney, Mr. Mason. Fransen's mother gasped something that sounded like “Yes. Please open it.” Maybe there was something redeeming in the mystery file, but Fransen didn’t care. It was all the same to him. Open it, leave it unread. Who cares?
“I know you have read the probation report, and I’ve received a letter from Mr. Fransen,” Judge Moorman said. “On May 4th I ordered a diagnosis from the California Department of Corrections and I have that report with a psychological evaluation and a two-page letter dated June 16th, which I must say I’m not very encouraged by. I will say I found unusual circumstances, such as his age and lack of a criminal record to put him on probation before he went to CDC, but this letter is very disappointing and the psychological evaluation report is such that I’m going to have to deny the probation. It is also my intention to follow the probation report and impose the aggravated sentence of four years in the state prison with an additional year for the special circumstances as recommended by the report, for a total of five years.”
Chef was still in the dock, swaying impatiently, his nonchalant expression unchanged. But Chef's mother was wailing. She knew that sending her 18-year-old son off to state prison was unlikely to make him less violent, less indifferent to what's left of prevailing standards.
Chef’s lawyer, Mason, said quietly, “I don’t know what kind of an evaluation can be done in five minutes…”
Apparently the report said that Chef was not remorseful, that he didn’t regret trying to kill the other kid, because Mr. Mason resumed with “…he is remorseful, he just doesn’t know how to show it. He has trouble trying to express himself. His real problem is alcohol and this needs to be addressed; if we send him to prison, it won’t be. He has never been given an adequate chance to address his alcohol problem so we are asking for probation.”
DA David Eyster, who was handling the Fransen case personally, strode forward. “Again, judge, this is just another instance of Mr. Fransen arguing that this is everybody’s fault but his own. As for the five-minute report, he was minimally cooperative. It had been stressed by the court that his cooperation and attitude would be paramount to his chances of getting a favorable report. And yet he was minimally cooperative.”
Eyster turned to face Fransen and said, “He was also minimal about his gang involvement, vague when asked if he’d dropped out of the gang. He has made no effort to distance himself from the gang and remains actively involved in his gang.”
Mr. Mason repeated that he had psychological issues.
DA Eyster said, “He denied that he had any mental health issues.”
“I don’t know what kind of an psychological evaluation can be done in five minutes…” Mason repeated feebly.
“His cooperation in the evaluation,” Eyster continued, “was artificial, and it was plain that he does not take any of this to heart. He remains actively involved in his gang, he has no prospects for a job, no intention of finishing his education or addressing his alcohol problem. What he has done since he got back is pick a fight at the jail and broke the other person’s nose.”
A young man in the courtroom yelled out, “Fuck that shit! You can’t prove that!” This guy was out of his seat and moving across the room. The bailiff jumped up and put himself between the man and the judge, whose eyes were popping. What was this?!
The bailiff’s hand was on his pistol butt as Mr. Outburst veered out the door.
Chef’s mother had been crying steadily, but now her grief was louder and more dismal than ever. As for Chef, he just stood there swaying back and forth. His expression never changed.
Neither did DA Eyster’s.
In Mexico, prosecutors and judges are routinely killed when they interfere with the gangs — they kill journalists, too. Everyone hopes they won't become numerous enough to bring it here. This little outburst show may have been intended to prove the intimidating prowess of the Norteños. These guys live on their reputations for being loco, and here's hoping Mr. Outburst will be identified and prosecuted for contempt of court.
Eyster hadn’t flinched.
“I’ve seen the video,” he said, “and we can prove it. By the way, I’ve given these reports to Mr. Mason, so this comes as no surprise.”
Mason made no effort to deny his client's jailhouse assault.
Judge Moorman did what she had to do.
“At this time I’m going to deny probation. Mr. Fransen. You’ve admitted to a very serious battery. The charges were reduced to battery with force likely to cause great bodily injury from assault with a deadly weapon, which would have had harsher consequences, and I’ve heard a lot of reports that you are very lucky that this gentleman did not die. As it happened, this case settled very favorably for you. The lack of remorse is something that this court places a great deal of importance on. Mr. Mason says you have difficulty expressing yourself, but there are many ways of showing remorse and you have not to my satisfaction done any of those things.”
“He is remorseful, your honor,” Mr. Mason said. “There was alcohol involved, a quarrel broke out and escalated due to the alcohol. He is only 18 years old. These are mitigating circumstances. I don’t think he needs the aggravated term — there are factors of mitigation. He has a severe alcohol problem. The evaluation at San Quentin was only five minutes! Why didn’t they do more testing? I think he suffers from some mental health issues like PTSD. And he admitted to the charges early on so we’d be asking for the mid-term, your honor.”
Eyster said, “I don’t think the early acknowledgment of wrongdoing was anything but his jumping at the chance when I offered to reduce the charges from assault with a deadly weapon to battery with a force likely to cause great bodily injury. And I think the aggravated term is well-warranted. The court has seen the reports of the damage, the huge medical bills, the life-long consequences to the victim. This was a crime which involved great violence and a high degree of viciousness. It is for the public safety that I am asking for the four-year aggravated term and the one-year enhancement.”
The judge asked Fransen if he had anything he’d like to say.
He answered by swaying impatiently, if not defiantly.
Moorman said, “I can appreciate that your life has not been easy, but there is a time when you have to take responsibility for your actions. Mr. Mason, I am aware that alcohol played a part in this, but the offense is extremely serious and I haven’t been given any facts that can justify this stabbing — and I mean that in the broadest possible sense. It was very violent and a crime with life-long consequences for the victim, so I do feel the circumstances outweigh any factors of mitigation. I am ordering that he be delivered to the California Department of Corrections for four years and I will impose the enhancement of one year. How many credits does he have?”
Fransen had 474 days credit for time served. He'd been locked up since the stabbing.
Moorman said, “One other thing, just for the record. I am obligated to provide for the safety of the community and send a message that the courts will not tolerate this type of conduct.”
She addressed Fransen: “I hope you use the programs available in the prison system to address your alcohol problems.”
“There is a matter of restitution, judge,” Eyster said. “I’ve submitted the documents on that. The hospital bills were not taken into account, though. The $1480 does not include the bills which are in the $200,000 range.”
He looked through some pages and found the figure. “It’s $265,088.33,” Eyster said. “That’s the amount we are asking for.”
“Does he wish to be present at the restitution hearing?”
Fransen gave no indication he wanted to be present, but his mother had raised her hand and was waving it desperately. Nobody paid any attention to her.
“So he waives his presence at the hearing for restitution, Mr. Mason?”
“He does, Your honor.”
One kid without resources stabbing another kid without resources. The taxpayers will pay for the whole show. Restitution in these cases never happens.
Fransen was on his way at last. He dropped into his seat looking like he was relieved all the talk-talk was over.
His mother wept.
She'll be weeping all her days.
* * *
With so little punishment to deter it, illegal marijuana sales seem to be going pretty well. Even the low prices caused by a local glut didn't prevent a certain Taylor Wright from making about ten grand cash money in one day simply driving around the streets of Ukiah like some kind of cannabis Good Humor Man selling weed.
And he still had 10 pounds
left when he got pulled over on a traffic infraction.
Not a bad day’s work for Wright and his friends. If they were operating in the Bay Area they could call their three-man business Wright & Associates.
Wright had one guy drive while another helped handle the product and add-up accounts, while Wright himself used his cellphone to send text messages to potential customers. When he got pulled over he had $3,000 in his wallet and another $7,000 in the glove box.
The long-time team of Kitty Houston of the DAs Office and Officer Peter Hoyle of the Task Force were handling the case, but they seem to have lost some of their old gusto for these things since Mendo perps can now buy their way out of almost any marijuana charges. Rather than grind them through the system, the DA makes an offer based on the size of Mr. Doper's business. Mr. Doper usually takes the deal. This approach saves the system a lot of time and money. In Mendocino County, if all the dope cases were run through the courts the courts would run round the clock.
The dope dealers are as indignant as ever, of course, howling that they’re being extorted, but the days of going to jail for selling weed are over and Taylor Wright was not in custody and, in fact, seemed mildly annoyed at being put through all this courtroom fol de rol.
Deputy DA Houston first called an investigator for the DA’s Office, Andrew “Andy” Alvarado, who'd downloaded the information found on Mr. Wright’s cellphone. The investigator said that the material entered into evidence was taken from the defendant’s phone and that was about it.
Justin Petersen had been hired by Wright & Associates. He did his best to bring the evidence into question. But, like Ms. Houston and Agent Hoyle, he didn’t seem to have his heart in it. The stakes, it seems these days, just aren’t high enough to get excited about.
Special Agent Hoyle took the stand next, looking like he’d rather be out on the coast with the big manhunt — oops, we’re not supposed to call it that — for suspected killer of Fort Bragg Councilman Jere Melo, Aaron Bassler. Hoyle's an action guy. He'd like to see every doper in the country behind bars, even if it meant a radical depopulation of the United States.
Hoyle said he’d been called to the Ukiah Police Department after Wright was taken there by Officer Lundsford, who had made the stop and found the weed and cash.
“Do you recall how much money was involved?”
“Yes. It was $9,960.”
“Did you read him his Miranda rights?”
“And he agreed to talk to you?”
“Yes. He told me that two pounds of the marijuana belonged to him and he was trying to sell it, but couldn’t get anyone to pay his asking price.”
“What about the other eight pounds?”
“He said he was safeguarding five pounds for another individual.”
“Did he account for the money?”
“Yes, he said he’d been loaned $9,000 to pay some of his bills.”
“What about the other three pounds?”
Hoyle didn’t know.
“Were the other two individuals arrested?”
“I don’t recall.”
“Did you find any other items of interest in the vehicle?”
“Yes. In a dufflebag with the marijuana, there was a digital scale. There was a cellphone with text messages consistent with the sale of marijuana in large amounts and a notebook with notations that are consistent with marijuana sales.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, there would be a name, and a notation that the person wanted six pounds of “O.G.” or “Bubba” and then the price of $1800 multiplied by six. Things like that.”
“Did you form an opinion?”
“And what is that?”
“That it was transportation and possession of marijuana for sales.’
“Based on what?”
“On the fact that he was driving around with 10 pounds of marijuana in one-pound bags. On the fact that he told me he was trying to sell the two pounds, but couldn’t get the price he wanted. On the text messages on the phone; on the notations in the notebook; on the scale; and on the money.”
“Did he have a valid medical recommendation for marijuana?”
“Yes, he told me he could have a pound a day.”
“Did that change your mind?”
“Well, he had told me, for one thing, he was trying to sell it.”
Justin Petersen rose to cross.
“Did you find any personal items in the dufflebag?”
“I don’t recall.”
“There were three people in the truck?”
“Was my client a passenger?”
“Your guy was in the front right front.”
“The other two were not California state residents, were they?”
“That was my recollection.”
“They were from South Tahoe, weren’t they?”
“Objection your honor, that’s irrelevant.”
“I’ll allow it for the time being,” visiting Judge William Lamb said.
Hoyle said, “My recollection is that they had out-of-state IDs.”
“Do you remember my client saying they were from South Lake Tahoe?”
“Were the other two arrested?”
“I don’t recall.”
“Anything of interest found on them?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, wouldn’t it be in Officer Lundsford’s report?”
“I didn’t read his report.”
“Did you ask my client about the notations in the notebook?”
“He said they were questions people had asked him about the amounts and prices of marijuana.”
“But not records of sales.”
“Did you ever question him if any transactions had taken place?”
“He told me no transactions had taken place — the notations were merely quotes.”
“Did Officer Lundsford tell you everything pertinent to the case?”
“I would expect he had.”
“So there was six pounds in the black bag?”
“There were ten pounds in all.”
“But wasn’t there four pounds in the black bag?”
“And two pounds in the white bag?”
“But if there was four pounds in the white bag and six pounds in the brown bag and four pounds in the black bag, wouldn’t that amount…”
“Objection sustained, counsel.”
“Any opinion as to whether it was indoor or outdoor marijuana?”
“I knew he claimed the two pounds were indoor.”
“Did he say the outdoor was going for only $1000 per pound?”
“Relevance, your honor. Objection.”
“But he did have a valid medical recommendation, did he not?”
“Yes. He at first said he was allowed to have five pounds a day but later changed that to one pound per day.”
“Now, the five pounds he was safeguarding for someone else, was that in the black bag?”
“And the two pounds of indoor was in the white bag?”
“Then where was the six pounds in the brown bag?”
Judge Lamb was quarreling with his clerk over some files he wanted handed back to him. He couldn’t get them himself, it being beneath his dignity to lean over and pick them up. He curled his fingers impatiently for the files. The clerk was wearing black, all the clerks were, and a (union) button asking, “Why?”
The clerks’ contract had expired but they were still working. The judges, of course, have opposed improved conditions for the people without whom their jobs would be a lot harder.
The clerk finally got up and handed the judge the files he was demanding.
“The objection was sustained,” Judge Lamb repeated.
It was obvious the old boy was randomly sustaining objections. He probably didn't know which one he was sustaining at this point.
A passing lawyer asked the bailiff if Judge Lamb was going to take over the court, since he’d been coming quite regularly and was getting rather casually imperious in his dealings with his clerk. The bailiff said she had no idea, adding that that level of information was way above her station.
Judge Lamb said there was enough evidence to hold Mr. Taylor Wright for trial and tossed the file aside where it proceeded to slide onto the floor. The clerk had to get up and go pick it up off the floor. Judge Lamb left the courtroom with the air of a Victorian gentleman who has finally, after months of forbearance, been obliged to put the chambermaid in her place once and for all.
As for Wright, he'll now play Let's Make A Deal with the DA, a deal that will cost him a lot of money, save the taxpayers a lot of money, while it puts a big crimp in his annual income.