The Fort Bragg Police Department got a moment in the spotlight on Thursday, June 23 while detaining a man who was eventually returned to Sacramento County in connection with a home invasion robbery the previous weekend that had resulted in a homicide.
Jason Maldonado was arrested by the Fort Bragg police at the request of the Sacramento Police Department and was being held last week in Sacramento County on bail of $1 million.
The traffic stop and arrest in the Fort Bragg McDonald's parking lot showed up on Facebook within seconds, with local officers' behavior scrutinized throughout. But Fort Bragg Police Chief John Naulty, along with everyone else involved, including Maldonado's young family, who were present throughout, reportedly breathed a sigh of relief in the end, despite the circumstances. That was largely, Naulty said, because Maldonado, reportedly a parolee whose last known location was Lake Tahoe, and who was wanted in Sacramento for the home invasion, cooperated with officers and communicated to his family what was going on.
Naulty added that the arrest was not the end of things. Considering Maldonado’s wife and children were present and away from home, Naulty said a little extra effort was made to get Maldonado something to eat and make sure his family knew what was going on.
Eventually that involved local activist Ui Wesley, who has been speaking with Naulty regularly regarding local protests and related efforts around racial justice and police accountability.
Wesley spoke with Maldonado while he was in custody and supported his wife during the incident. Afterward, she wrote, “Big Mahalo to Chief Naulty and FBPD for handling what could have been a heated situation today very well, mahalo for listening and providing information to defuse things right away.”
On June 23, the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office served a search warrant on two huge marijuana grows just outside Covelo. As numerous workers on the two sites fled, deputies discovered, by their count, more than 20,000 growing marijuana plants and nearly a ton of dried bud, along with associated infrastructure (including large, illegal watering systems hooked up to local creeks) and firearms, including an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.They also found groups of men living on each site, men from other parts of California and Mexico. Each group included one female as well. One of those was a 17-year-old girl from Salinas. The MCSO's investigation into the marijuana grows expanded to include possible sexual or labor trafficking.
A couple of weeks earlier, on June 8, at 6:30 in the evening, a near combat-level shootout erupted in a residential neighborhood on Covelo's outskirts, near the intersection of Crawford Road and Biggar Lane. According to an MCSO news release, between 40 and 200 shots were fired, some from what sounded like automatic weapons, witnesses said. As law enforcement including the Round Valley Tribal Police, MCSO and California Highway Patrol responded (the latter two with hour-plus drive times to Round Valley) “witnesses reported numerous armed Hispanic males fleeing the area on foot…”
What is happening in Round Valley and other distant reaches of Mendocino County is a leveling-up of organized crime's participation in Mendocino county's marijuana industry, according to Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall. Property owners, often poor, living in areas with no other near term chance of economic development, are being offered tens of thousands of dollars up front, with more promised, plus often a car thrown in, for permission to grow, in these cases in Round Valley's rich and well-watered bottomlands.
These property owners (who, in the case of a Native reservation, are often not the only owners of a particular piece of land) also know that refusal will sour relations with some very frightening people, in a place where law enforcement resources are stretched thin. Tales of large cartel grows used to center on the National Forests or the vast holdings of the county's large timber companies. But as Kendall said this week, “They've come out of the hills and into people's backyards.” That many of the backyards in Round Valley are on the federally recognized and sovereign Round Valley Indian Reservation land, complicates things in a number of ways. Property ownership on any reservation is hugely complex and getting “permission” from all the property owners involved is often impossible. The Tribal Council would normally be involved, and has been in the past. Kendall said he has talked with council members and that, given the criminal aspect, it should be law enforcement addressing it. Law enforcement in Round Valley is primarily the role of the Tribal Police, though California is a “280 state” (Public Law 289) meaning county sheriffs do have authority on reservation land. The Tribal Police are equipped for the basics, essentially taking care of their community, not facing down international organized crime. The multinational dimension of the problem, and the vast resources of the perpetrators, does not escape Kendall, who considers the MCSO the lead responder on the issue. The agency's stepped up busts this spring have had some participation from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, and much of the extra equipment involved, like helicopters and imaging technology, is paid for by a federal grant. But Kendall does not rave about the help received so far from the federal government to combat cartel grows in small town America. He said he's meeting with DEA representatives this week, hoping for more support, mainly personnel. “I don't have many coins to rub together these days… and the federal government likes to pay for gadgets, not people,” he said, noting that there are the same number of patrol deputies with the MCSO now as when he was born on 1969. The impossible choices being forced on people in Round Valley and elsewhere reflect the fractured nature of the “legal” marijuana industry, where a large number of what Kendall calls “fence sitters” grow without permits mainly because they don't have the time, money, or land of their own to comply. Then, he said, there are the outright criminal operations that's use legal grows as cover, “hiding in plain sight,” he said. People seeing the large criminal operations cracked down on will increase the incentive on the fence-sitters to get legal, he said. The other part of that, he added, is changing the county's marijuana cultivation ordinances — and their enforcement — so that well-meaning but strapped farmers can be helped to comply without being swamped with fees and paperwork. Kendall said he plans to sit down with county supervisors soon to make his case. In the meanwhile, he said stepped up enforcement against big grows will continue. The cases have been light on arrests, with the goal being to compile evidence of a large-scale phenomenon and prosecute it whichever way is most effective. Kendall, born and raised in Round Valley, gave no sense of the end of any tunnel. He put aside complaints that he was “anti-Indian” because the busts focused on reservation land, saying warrants have been served on all kinds of properties. The main focus, he said, is on “the ones who are using poverty as a tool to go into places — who have turned Covelo into the Wild, Wild West, and not just Covelo. Any place we have trouble getting resources to, that's where that toe-hold gets in, and you've got to get it out of there.”