District Attorney Meredith Lintott had a problem.
His name was Peter Hoyle, a well-known and controversial Ukiah cop with 33 years anchoring Mendocino County's thin blue line. If Hoyle hasn't arrested every crook in the county down to their grandchildren it's only because they weren't home when he came calling.
Lots of people say that Hoyle, now a full-time soldier with The War On Drugs, Mendo Front, doesn't always play by the rules. Or he plays so hard by the rules the rules get bent.
So when Hoyle's two sons, Robert and Steven, and their long, lean fightin' friend, Brady Baker, were arrested for felony assault last year, well, there were appearances to consider. Certain insider-like favors seem to have been done for the trio of defendants from the beginning; the boys' booking photos, and that of their well connected co-defendant, Brady Baker, are “unavailable” while everyone else who gets arrested in Mendocino County appears in full color portraiture on-line, courtesy of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department.
There were grumbling suspicions that the old man, Hoyle Senior, would make the case disappear.
It disappeared all right, but it wasn't Pop Hoyle who made it go away.
Mrs. Lintott, fully aware that people would be watching how this case was handled, looked around for someone outside Mendocino County's cozy legal establishment to prosecute the Hoyle boys and young Mr. Baker. The DA soon found Gary Luck, Lake County's retired District Attorney who agreed to take the case.
Luck, and his keen teen witnesses disappeared the case, not Hoyle.
What's a prosecutor to do when his victim can't identify his assailants, and the babes involved change stories faster than they change boy friends?
So, as the trial began its fourth day, special prosecutor Luck, Lake County's finest, became the DA's big problem, her biggest problem of all when Luck made a surprise announcement. He said he quit.
The judge said, “Case dismissed.”
The guilty were jubilant, the jury went home wondering what the hell, the taxpayers waited for the big bills this farce cost them to roll in.
But before Luck bowed out, taking the case with him he hadn't done all that bad, treacherous witnesses and all.
Robert and Steven Hoyle, and their well-connected young friend, Brady Baker, the son of a prosperous Ukiah family, are accused of beating James Perez. Perez was 17 when the Hoyles and Baker, one or in combination, attacked Perez the night of November 20th 2008. Allegedly attacked him, that is. The Hoyles and Baker say it was all more of a mutual combat situation.
Mr. Luck's apologies for what he calls his “senior moments,” and his self-deprecating humor during jury selection and throughout the opening days of the trial have endeared him to the jury whose final selection occurred last Tuesday.
Mr. David Eyster is the lead attorney on the three-lawyer defense team. The other lawyers on the defense team are Justin Petersen and Keith Faulder. Mr. Petersen looks a little like Eddie Haskell — he even wears period suits and ties. Mr. Faulder vaguely resembles Conan O’Brien.
Petersen, Faulder and Eyster were playing T-Ball when Gary Luck began practicing law, while the defendants and most of the witnesses were two generations away from beginning life's journey.
The age disparity in this trial became even more dramatic as the witnesses were called. Four had just turned 18 and one, the flexible Miss Shelby Smith, was only 15.
First up was 18-year-old Victoria Moody. Ms. Moody, you could say, had set all these events in motion. She was defendant Robert Hoyle’s girlfriend and still is, she testified. Miss Moody's shifting affections also seemed to surprise prosecutor Luck. On the night of the fight Miss Moody had seemed estranged from Robert Hoyle.
But Ms. Moody testified that she now visits Robert Hoyle's house almost every day. She said that at the time of the fight she was frustrated that Robert was spending too much time with his brother and friends, and not spending enough time with her. She said she’d called Robert repeatedly that day, but couldn’t get him on the phone because he was out in the wild with his friends, beyond the reach of cell phones.
“So you were upset and thinking about breaking up with Robert, and that’s why you went out to the Hoyle house in Redwood Valley?” Luck asked.
“I didn’t want to break up,” she corrected the lawyer.
Luck had said in his opening statement that the evidence would show Victoria Moody was breaking up with Robert Hoyle and the fight had occurred when she'd summoned her friends to the Hoyle home in Redwood Valley to pick her up, to get her outta there.
“So you were not breaking up with him,” Luck asked.
“I just wanted to talk about it.”
“So you went looking for Robert with your friend Breanna and her sister Shelby? In Breanna’s black VW Jetta?”
“She’s not my friend anymore,” Victoria clarified.
Luck, waist-high in teen-think, asked, “Why not?”
Victoria said, “She’s sneaky, too dramatic.”
Defense attorney Justin Petersen had suggested the evidence would show that Breanna was something of a “drama queen,” apt to enhance reality, implying that Breanna's creative embellishments were somehow relevant to young Mr. Perez getting his face smashed.
As Victoria testified, Robert, defendant and boyfriend, watched his love intently, tapping a pen nervously on a legal pad his lawyer had given him.
Luck asked more questions with the same puzzled tone.
“So Robert never prevented you from leaving? He didn’t grab your arm to keep you from getting into Breanna’s car?”
“No,” Victoria Moody said. “We were just talking.”
Luck seemed to be having another of his senior moments. He paged through the police report with the look of a man who had been given the Swedish instructions for the assembly of an Ikea desk.
Finally, he said, “Do you remember telling Deputy Cox, the person who interviewed you last November, the night all this happened” — Luck double-checked the wording of the report then quoted from it — 'that Robert was angry with you and that he pulled you by the arm?'”
“Nooo,” Victoria sang emphatically. Then, seeing the bewildered look on Mr. Luck’s face, she asked, “Can I explain?”
“Please do,” Luck said.
Victoria glanced nervously at Robert before she said, “He led me over by the house so we could talk without the others hearing.”
“But last November when this all happened, you told Deputy Cox something entirely different. Why?”
“I just wanted my story to match Breanna’s. I didn’t want to get into trouble.”
Luck was clearly exasperated with the witness and, as it turned out, exasperated with the whole show, so exasperated he said Tuesday morning that he was going home where, presumably, he does not depend on the veracity of teenagers.
Deputy Cox's report says that Victoria Moody called for help, that she wanted to leave the Hoyle home in Redwood Valley. Breanna and her sister Shelby, reinforced by two young men, Ryan Wade and the victim, James Perez, soon appeared in Breanna's Jetta.
“So when Breanna and Shelby returned with Ryan Wade and James Perez, what happened then?”
“James told me to get in the car.”
“So you were in the car and James was standing next to your door? Then what happened?”
“James pushed Robert.”
“What happened next?”
“They started boxing.”
“Did anyone say anything? Were there any words between them?”
“I don’t know. James was yelling get away. Robert was trying to talk to me. Then they were up against the fence.”
“Who was against the fence?”
“And James in front of him.”
“It wasn’t James who was against the fence?”
“And then what happened next?”
Victoria said she didn’t know. She couldn’t remember. Then she said she saw Ryan Wade try to punch Robert Hoyle. She remembered Robert Hoyle telling James Perez to get off his property. Then they were all running out into the street. James Perez fell. Steven Hoyle and Brady Baker were there about then. She couldn’t see what they were doing to James Perez. James Perez was behind the car by then, on the ground, she said.
Miss Moody testified that her former friend Breanna had tried to run-down first Steven, and then Robert, as she followed the running fight in her black Jetta.
“I’m gonna hit him,” Breanna had supposedly whooped with homicidal glee, as she floored the accelerator and spun the tires in the driveway gravel, “I’m gonna hit him!”
“Don’t hit him,” Victoria said she pleaded with Breanna. “That’s my boyfriend!”
The defense team, on cross examination, elicited more testimony in support of their theory that James Perez and Ryan Wade had come out to the Hoyle property spoiling for a fight, and that Robert and Steven Hoyle, with the help of their friend Brady Baker, were merely defending themselves from Perez and Wade who had not only been egged on by the motorized maniac Breanna Smith, Breanna Smith had tried to run down the Hoyle boys with her black Jetta.
The next witness was Breanna’s sister, 15-year-old Shelby Smith, and if prosecutor Luck was perplexed at Victoria Moody for turning on Breanna, he seemed doubly perplexed that Breanna's own sister, Shelby, was now estranged from her sister, the Jetta-driving Breanna.
The pretty Ms. Smith, all grown up for the day, flounced up to the witness stand with impressive confidence. She's pretty and she's charming, by turns clever and callow, and at times the girl's naiveté had the courtroom merry with laughter.
On the night of Perez's terrible encounter with the Hoyles and Baker, Shelby Smith was a changeable 14-year-old. She's now a changeable 15-year-old.
Shelby Smith told the police one thing when the fight happened and now, in court, she was saying another. Judge Richard Henderson sternly reminded the teen witness of the consequences of lying in formal circumstances, while prosecutor Gary Luck found himself sandbagged by a girl who might be his granddaughter.
Luck had assumed Miss Smith would get up on the stand and repeat what she'd first said to the police back in January, but here she was telling a new story.
On Fight Day, Miss Shelby Smith recalled, she had been at home with her sister, Breanna and Breanna's friend Victoria Moody. The three girls were “hanging out” and eating pizza. Victoria had been on the phone all day trying to reach the elusive Robert Hoyle who was not hanging out with the girls eating pizza but was out in the woods doing manly things with manly men while Victoria pined for him. Victoria was sad, very sad, Shelby recalled.
“How did you know she was sad,” Luck asked.
“She had tears on her face?” Shelby answered with a girlish inflection. Her small, tentative voice charmed more laughs from the jury and lawyers. Even Judge Henderson was smiling.
“Speak up a little bit, please,” the judge said. “And speak directly into the microphone, dear.”
“So you went out to the Hoyle’s residence with Breanna and Victoria to look for Robert?”
“Yes?” Shelby said, apparently wondering if she was responding correctly.
“And Victoria was talking to Robert? Then what happened?”
“Then Breanna just drove off,” she said with a dismissive shrug.
Prosecutor Luck had something entirely different in the investigator's report, and his own interview with this young woman back in January was at odds with what she was saying now. Luck was silent, stumped, experiencing another of his senior moments, it appeared.
Shelby drawled helpfully, “Wull, that’s how it happened.”
“And you came back with Ryan and James? Why?”
Shelby didn’t know, she said, and court recessed until Thursday, as Breanna and her little sister Shelby, with Ryan Wade and James Perez, sped to help Victoria Moody at the Hoyle home in Redwood Valley, Shelby's intense sister Breanna at the wheel of the black Jetta rescue vehicle.
* * *
On Thursday morning, when court resumed, Mr. Luck’s young witness, Shelby Smith, was missing. Luck checked his watch, paced, checked his watch again. Finally, he sent the bailiff to look for the young Ms. Smith and soon, her hair piled up on her head today, confidently took the stand.
Judge Henderson reminded Shelby she was still under oath, and recapped the progress, if that's what it was, made during Tuesday afternoon's testimony.
Mr. Luck resumed.
“So you were going back out to the Hoyles' in Breanna’s black Jetta. What was going on in the car?”
“Wull, Breanna was getting them ready to fight when they got there.”
“And what happened when you got there? Did Breanna have the car turned around, facing out?”
Shelby was pretty sure Breanna's weaponized Jetta was faced out.
Luck set some photos depicting the Hoyle's driveway on a large projection screen. Shelby used a pointer to show where they were parked. Robert and Victoria were standing in the driveway. Shelby got out of the Jetta and went towards them. James Perez got out of the Jetta and told Victoria to get in the car.
“In what kind of voice?”
“I have no clue.”
“Can you imitate it?”
“Uh — nooo,” Shelby said emphatically, blushing as she spoke.
“When you walked back to the car, did you see anything physical happen between Robert and James?”
“Did you hear Robert make any threats to James?”
“Did you see Robert holding James against the fence?”
Nope, it was, Shelby said, the other way around. James was holding Robert against the fence.
And so it went. Everything Shelby had said in January had become the reverse in August.
Shelby's sister Breanna, who Shelby said she didn’t speak to anymore, had told her, Shelby said, that Shelby should “cut a few things.” This was Shelby's explanation for why her original testimony was in error, Shelby said. She'd edited her version of events because her big sister had asked her to.
When she'd gone to the hospital with James Perez that night Shelby said, her sister and James’s brother had told her what to say had happened. But now, almost a year later, she was saying what really had happened.
Shelby Smith wasn't very convincing.
After the morning break, Judge Henderson sent the jury out of the courtroom.
Shelby Smith was summoned to come forward.
Judge Henderson regarded her sternly.
“Do you understand the difference between telling the truth and a lie?”
The judge stared at the girl. Shelby said she knew the difference.
“There are three people here facing criminal charges,” the judge continued. “This is very serious. I want you to listen carefully to the questions and tell the truth, do you understand?”
Shelby said she understood.
The judge said, “Okay, let’s bring in the jury.”
* * *
Justin Petersen then began his cross-examination of Miss Shelby Smith, freshly reminded that there was a difference between truth and untruth, that a courtroom was a serious place where truth had to be told and sometimes actually is.
Petersen wanted to clarify a few things for the benefit of his client, Brady Baker.
“Steven Hoyle and Brady Baker came out of the house. They had been watching TV after a day of clearing brush and they had their boots off. They heard a commotion, put on their boots and came out. Steven knew Ryan Wade from school; they shook hands in front of the car and, at some point, Ryan Wade got back in the car?”
“Yes,” Shelby said. “I’m pretty sure he got back in before we started moving.”
“If Steven hadn’t moved, would the car have struck him?”
“Yeah, I think it would.”
“I have only one summary question,” declared Petersen. “Did you see Brady Baker do anything to James?”
The answer was no.
The Judge said, “Are you finished, Mr. Petersen?”
“I am, your honor.”
“Mr. Faulder, do you have anything for the witness?”
“I do your honor.”
Faulder asked Shelby Smith, “You don’t remember talking to Deputy Cox? Did you see a transcript of your statements?”
“Not until two days ago,” Shelby answered.
“But you did not see Steven hit or kick James Perez?”
Shelby said she had not seen Steven Hoyle hit or kick James Perez.
“And you told Deputy Cox and Mr. Luck in an interview last January that you never saw Steven do anything?”
The judge said, “Mr. Eyster?”
“You saw it was James who had Robert backed up against the fence? You saw Ryan Wade try to hit Robert?
“I haven’t a clue.”
“Ryan is your sister’s boyfriend?”
“Ex-boyfriend. Ryan got over by them, but I didn’t really see.”
“But you saw Ryan talking to Steven?” Eyster continued. “You were in the car when the car went toward Steven? Perez at some point fell? He just fell? No one threw him on the ground? And you were asked to leave certain things out?”
“Nothing further, your honor.”
“Mr. Luck. Redirect?”
Mr. Luck said, “So at some point Breanna (that night) told you what to say?”
“Yes. At my house.”
“How did you know the police would be at the hospital?”
“Wull, Breanna like called them. She said to say they were threatening James.”
“So she and James’s brother Nick Nymann were telling you what to say to the police?”
Luck tried again to present the contradictory statements in Cox's original report, but Faulder objected and the judge sustained; he fumbled somewhat ineptly for the proper legal form of the question, but it eluded him. Luck took a different tack.
“Has anybody else interviewed you? Did anyone talk to you about this case before coming to court? You say you and your sister do not talk. Do you talk to Victoria?
“No. Not really. Wull, we just say hi, like in a text message.”
Luck shook his head. His hand, holding the investigator’s report, fell to his side. He looked defeated.
He was defeated. Utterly, but hardly the first man to succumb to teen idiocy.
Luck quit the next day, and Judge Henderson tossed the case. It was over.
But questions lingered.
If Mendocino County goes to all the trouble of bringing in a special prosecutor, why isn't that special prosecutor fully prepared? How can he go to trial not knowing his victim can't identify his assailants? How can he not know his teenie weenie witnesses have the collective attention spans of fruit flies? How can he not know what the hell he was doing?