The trial of MariCruz Alvarez-Carrillo ended ahead of schedule last week, but as of late Thursday the jury was still deliberating the verdict. Ms. Alvarez-Carrillo is charged with one count of assault and battery resulting in serious bodily injury, two counts of assault with a deadly weapon — a hatchet — and a number of special allegations that the violent attacks were gang-related. She is, for all intents and purposes, married into a gang family. Her year-old baby was initiated into gang violence before he was a month old when a hatchet whistled by his innocent head during the mêlée that badly injured Alissa Colberg, self-described as the “dominant woman in Fort Bragg.”
The prosecution contends that MariCruz Alvarez-Carillo chopped up Miss Colberg as part of her duties as a member of the Fort Bragg South-Siders, a local chapter of the Sureños, a street and prison gang of Southern Mexican origin, and the traditional antagonists of the Norteños, or Northerners, of Northern Mexican origin.
The Nortenos greatly outnumber the Sureños in Fort Bragg and other 707 area code communities. With Spanish names like Sureños and Norteños, it’s natural to suppose that the members of these gangs are largely Hispanic, especially Mexican, but that is not necessarily the case; the gangs in Fort Bragg include a great many disaffected white youths.
The prosecution contends MariCruz is a gang-banger, that her color is blue, her number 13, and that her choice of weapons is the hatchet. Deputy DA Tim Stoen has collected some group photos posted on the internet showing MariCruz and other Surenos, some wearing blue bandanas bandit-style over their faces, demonstrating their secret hand sign — curled fingers hanging as if deformed.
Prosecution contends that Sureño MariCruz initiated a street fight that left Norteño Alissa Colberg’s face and chest hacked up by Mari-Cruz's hatchet.
The defense claims MariCruz acted in self-defense.
The Fort Bragg law firm of Pekin and Pekin is the defense. The Pekins say MariCruz and her baby, along with the baby’s father, Jorge Sanchez-Acoltzi — an admitted gang member on parole from prison — were just leaving the Catholic Church in Fort Bragg when they were surrounded by 15 to 20 Norteños who started smashing out the windows of MariCruz’s white Jeep SUV.
The defense claimed it was this group of mostly white Norteno assailants who'd brought the hatchet to the fight, and threw it at the Jeep in which Mari-Cruz's infant was sitting. They said MariCruz used the hatchet — if she ever used it at all — as a mother defending her child. The defense questions whether MariCruz ever possessed the hatchet during the fight. Indeed, just before the victim, Alissa Colberg, left the witness stand, Mr. Stoen showed her the hatchet — it had been found at the CV Starr Recreation Center parking lot by a child whose father turned it over to Fort Bragg Police. When it was shown to Alissa, and she was asked if it was the weapon used to inflict her injuries, she said she didn’t know; she said she thought MariCruz had been armed with a hammer!
The defense called Cecilia Hernandez, who lives in the neighborhood where the startling fight took place. Mr. Timothy Baird, the Spanish language interpreter, sat next to Mrs. Hernandez, a sedate, motherly woman, on the stand. Mrs. Hernandez said she was at home on the afternoon of the big fight watching television with her children and two other children she was tending. She was drawn to her window by three boys walking rapidly down the street yelling “bad words.” Then she noticed a white Jeep, and saw that the boys were yelling at the driver of the Jeep. When Jeep turned around next to her house and she became concerned.
“I thought it was going to hit my car. When it turned around, it stopped in front of my neighbor’s house. Then I saw a woman coming down the sidewalk with a chain on a piece of wood and she used this to break the window out of the Jeep.”
“Did anyone get out of the Jeep?”
“Did you ever talk to the police about this?”
“The police never came. They never came to look at the glass. I told my friend I wanted the police to come, but I also said I didn’t want to get involved.”
“Did the police ever talk to anyone in the neighborhood?”
“No, and I was waiting for them so I could tell them what I saw.”
Ms. Socorro Serrano was called. She, too, was a Spanish-speaking witness. She said as she approached Maple Street she saw “a lot of young people running around.”
“About 15. And two young women fighting on the ground. I thought they were playing, but it was all wrong. I got out and said, ‘That’s no way to play’ — then I recognized MariCruz; I know her.”
“Yes. Behind her a ways back were some young people with pieces of wood ready to hit someone.”
“Did you see any weapons?”
“Yes. A hatchet.”
“Who had the hatchet?”
“A young man.”
“Did he do anything with it?”
“Yes. When MariCruz and the other girl”—
Judge Moorman interrupted this speculation as best she could with the lull in translation, but the witness continued:
“He was going to hit MariCruz in the head with it.”
“How do you know this?”
“Because the other person who came with me said”—
This bit of hearsay speculation was stricken from the record, but defense had managed to bring doubt to the earlier testimony — almost all of it by confessed liars — that MariCruz was the one with the hatchet.
“Did you ever speak to the police about this?”
“No, they never talked to me.”
On cross, prosecutor Stoen asked, “So you know the defendant?”
“Yes, she’s a friend of my niece.”
“Do you ever meet with her socially?”
“How did you get here from Fort Bragg today?”
In a car with four other witnesses called to testify, Mrs. Socorro Serrano said.
“Did you discuss the case on the way?”
“No, we just talked about personal matters.”
Sara Jean Theiss was called. She works at the CV Starr Center as a receptionist and was on duty on the big afternoon. It was the consensus of all the confessed liars — who have had a year to get their stories straight — that when somebody yelled “Cops!” everyone ran to the CV Starr Center.
Mr. Pekin put some pictures of the new aquatic facility, the pride of Fort Bragg’s recent civic achievment, on the screen at the front of the courtroom. Ms. Theiss described each photo. The jury was shown the main entrance and a side service entrance, which Ms. Theiss said is supposed to be locked, but somehow Fort Bragg’s gang-bangers have figured out how to open it.
“I heard loud noises down that hallway — kids from the skate park often used it — so I went to see what was going on. Just then a bunch of young men burst through the door, which was supposed to be locked. One looked like Ritchie Oldstadt.”
Mr. Oldstadt, the reader will remember from last week, was the admitted gang-banger and self-described liar who started the testimony in this case. He'd said he’d left the dog park on his bicycle and somehow accumulated 20 followers by the time he encountered MariCruz’s white Jeep a block or two away.
Ms. Theiss: “I said, ‘Hey hey, hey! What are you doing?’ But there was all kinds of confusion at that point. Five or six others came in the main entrance and said, ‘The cops are here!’ They ran towards the cops yelling and the cop pulled his gun out and told them to get on the ground.”
“How old were these young men?”
“Teenagers, as far as I could tell.”
“How many cops?”
“Two, at first, then several.”
“Did you see a girl who was bloody?”
“Yes. She came out from the restroom.”
“Had she come in through the front door earlier?”
“Would you have noticed if she had?”
From the pictures of the reception desk and the main entrance it seemed unlikely that a bloody girl could have come in un-noticed by the receptionist. And yet, everyone involved in the fight claims to have used the main entrance.
Ms. Theiss testified that she also saw Anthony Dahl who'd had possession of the hatchet earlier in the grisly event. Dahl had returned to the Starr Center after the cops were gone. He was acting so suspiciously, as he went in to the bathroom, that Theiss called 911. She said Dahl went in there to get something, but Judge Moorman had this comment stricken as speculation.
“What made you call 911?”
“He made a gesture to me and my co-worker that I considered threatening.”
Alfredo Achamado was called down from Oregon to testify. He'd departed Fort Bragg after the fight, but he'd been present for it.
“Did you see Anthony Dahl break out a window in MariCruz’s white Jeep?”
“I saw several people break out her windows.”
“Do you recall making a statement to law enforcement saying you saw Anthony Dahl with a hatchet?”
Mr. Achamado shrugged noncommittally and Mr. Pekin lost his patience. He snatched up a copy of the signed statement and slapped it on the witness stand for Achamado to read. A moment passed, then:
“So is it true or is it a lie?”
“Why did you lie, then?”
“It’s, uh, kinda hard to, uh, remember.”
“Is it because you’re afraid of the gang?”
“Nah… I’m not afraid.”
“So, you saw Anthony Dahl break out a second window with a skateboard?”
“It wasn’t a skateboard.”
“Oh!” Pekin returned to the signed statement, pointed to a paragraph and said, “What does that say?”
Achamado scowled miserably at the words on the page. Eventually he muttered obstinately, “The hatchet broke a couple of windows, I know that.”
“You never saw MariCruz with a hatchet, did you?”
“MariCruz never got out of the car.”
“Is Ritchie Oldstadt in a gang?”
“He testified on the stand that he was!”
“Mr. Pekin!” Judge Moorman admonished.
“Sorry, your Honor,” Pekin said sheepishly as he sat down.
Mr. Stoen said, “You saw the hatchet when the windows were being broken?”
“It almost hit me!”
“It didn’t come out of the Jeep?”
“Nah, somebody threw it into the Jeep.”
“Then it drove off?’
“With the hatchet in it?”
“Where was Ritchie on his bike?”
“Ritchie was on his skateboard. I had the bike.”
“Did you see Alissa hand off her bulldog?”
“Alissa had a Chihuahua. It was in her pack. She handed it off to somebody, I don’t know who.”
Stoen threw up his hands, and seemed to mutter that he’d never try another gang case if he could help it.
On Tuesday, after the long weekend, it appeared that the trial was going to finish up ahead of schedule, barring further complications. But the next witness, Alex Williamson, failed to appear, and Mr. Pekin was furious. He wanted the Sheriff to go to the young man’s “grandmother’s house in Mendocino. I know that’s where he’s hiding; that’s where we found him before.”
Mr. Stoen didn’t think the witness was necessary. He wanted to call his own witness, Scott Smith, for rebuttal, but Pekin argued that Mr. Smith was not a proper rebuttal witness, merely an attempt by Stoen to get in the last word. The jury cooled its heels in the jury room away from the dispute between lawyers.
As the minutes ticked away into half-hours then an hour, Mr. Williamson finally got the message that if he didn’t come to court a deputy would come to Mendocino with an arrest warrant and drag him out from under grandma’s bed. The man himself appeared just after Judge Moorman had concluded that his testimony wouldn’t be worth the trouble of a warrant and deputies dispatched to gran's house.
“He’s here, your honor,” Pekin said, just before lunch.
“Do you still want to put him on?”
The jury was brought up from the Courthouse bowels where the jury room is located and Alex Williamson took the stand.
The Pekins had all along been trying to establish that this was not a singular incident; that, in fact, the gang battle was an on-going war with MariCruz and her husband’s family, the Sanchezes of 101 Minnesota Avenue, the scene of several gang incidents, including a drive-by shooting. As it happened, Mr. Williamson had seen Ivan Sanchez, MariCruz’s brother-in-law, being chased by some of the youths involved in the hatchet incident that same day.
“Did you recognize any of them?”
“Were Ritchie Oldstadt and Alissa Colberg with them?”
“Yes, they were in a truck and they jumped out and joined in the chase.”
“Did you speak to law enforcement about this?”
Mr. Stoen had a copy of Mr. Williamson’s statement to the Fort Bragg Police.
“Is this accurate,” he asked.
“Yes,” Williamson said.
“So you saw three kids chasing Ivan, then you saw Ritchie and Alissa pull out of the alley?”
“Now, they also could have been chasing one of the juveniles…”
“Yeah, but I doubt it. I know them all pretty well.”
Stoen called his witness, Scott Smith, who lives in the neighborhood and saw part of the altercation.
Mr. Smith said, “I was inside the house and came to the window after hearing hollering in the street because my eight-year-old son was on the sidewalk riding his skateboard. I witnessed a few males come into view, then a female with a hatchet in her hand.”
Stoen asked Smith if it was the defendant, MariCruz.
“I think so, but I can’t be 100% sure. Her and some guy were doing a rochambeau in around a car and she was waving the hatchet around above her head.” (In street parlance a “rochambeau” is a contest where the combatants kick each other in the crotch to see who can take the most shots before quitting. The idea seems to have come from the cartoon show “South Park.")
Pekin asked, “Did you see the fight between the two women?”
“The guy she was chasing around the car — you recognized him, didn’t you?”
“That’s because you are related to him, isn’t it?”
“Then you read about the incident in the newspaper, correct?”
“Yes. But, truthfully, I can’t say for sure that that’s [the defendant] her.”
“The evidence has concluded,” Judge Moorman told the jury on Wednesday. “We’re going to recess for the rest of the day and commence with closing arguments promptly in the morning.”
Mr. Stoen estimated he would need as much as an hour, and Mr. Pekin said he could finish up in 15 minutes or less.
Mr. Stoen went first: “May it please the court, we now come to a summation of the facts, but first I’d like to thank you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, for your careful manner of considering the evidence; and I’d like to thank Mr. and Ms. Pekin for the fine job they’ve done, as well. Now, let me tell you what this case is not: It is not a case to be decided on moral qualities, but on facts. It is a case to be decided on the basis of truth.”
Stoen was nicely turned out in a Royal Navy blazer and crisp Oxford shirt, subdued tie. He squared away his notes on the podium and continued.
“Whether these people are gang members or not, they are entitled to be protected from violent crime. Now, some people might have the point of view that, well, they’re gang members, they brought this on themselves, let them suffer the consequences. But whether you feel they deserve the protection of the law — or maybe you feel they can all go to hell — I can tell you that if we were to let this sort of thing go, it would become a cancer on society and…”
And it's already a cancer on Fort Bragg’s society, it seems, and who could have imagined this kind of thing ever becoming a problem in bucolic Mendocino County, home of the love drug?
“…then where would we be? Well. Defense would have you believe that this was a case of self-defense. They put all that in about the events on February 11th at the apartments on Minnesota Avenue as a red herring. And let me tell you what a red herring is so you’ll understand what defense is trying to do. A red herring is a kipper, a small fish cured in brine that has a very pungent odor and, in former times, it was used by convicts to throw the hounds off their trail. And that is what defense is trying to do; to throw you off the trail.”
Mr. Pekin — whose tie was longer behind than in front, and whose posture demonstrated a contemporary disdain for foppish pretensions — stiffened impatiently at Stoen's presentation, but he said nothing out of turn.
“The victim,” Stoen resumed, “Alissa Colberg was clear as to what this was all about. She didn’t want her title taken away, her title as the dominant female in Fort Bragg. Now, when could you expect to get more truth from Alissa Colberg? But being domineering and aggressive does not mean she cannot still be a victim. Ladies and gentlemen, this was a sacrificial act of love; love for her boyfriend, Ritchie Oldstadt. She took a hatchet for her loved one.”
Stoen paused to put the photo of Alissa with the three bloody gashes in her face and chest up on the big screen in front of the court.
Again, Mr. Pekin stiffened.
Stoen said, “Now defense would have you believe Alissa went to the Sanchez residence five hours after being sewn up at the emergency room, but there’s no evidence of that. No, ladies and gentlemen, she was coming to the rescue of a person she loved. And this case is really that simple. There are only three legal questions you have to answer, and the rest will fall into place. One, did the defendant chase Ritchie? Two, did she confront Alissa? and Three, did she leave her car to do it?
“If your answer to those three questions is yes, then you’ve answered all the questions in this case and you must find the defendant guilty on all charges. She got out of her car not only to confront, but also to fight. I contend, dear jury, that no reasonable person would use a hatchet for self-defense. The People are not required to prove the defendant had a motive, but did she have a motive? I think she did; I think she had a gang-rage and a gang-revenge motive.
“What happened here? What are the central facts of this case, the undisputed facts?”
(There weren’t any, beyond the gashes on Ms. Colberg.)
“MariCruz Alvarez-Carrillo had a relationship with a gang member who was on parole. She was driving her vehicle with that gang member, and she drove to a place where there is a group of people — a group containing Norteños gang members. Now the gang member she was with, Mr. Jorge Sanchez-Acoltzi, he said they went to the church to pray, and you saw how prayerful he looked slouched there up on the stand, ladies and gentlemen.”
Stoen chuckled at the improbable image of a gang guy like Sanchez-Acoltzi in church as Pekin for the defense became even more agitated, and Pekin's law partner, Mrs. Pekin, placed a restraining hand on Mr. Pekin. As for the credibility of his own witnesses, Stoen said, “Take into account the overall panorama of the truth. Consider the soulfulness of that interview with Officer Clark.”
(Fort Bragg's dominant female, speaking through the morphine she'd been given at the emergency room, had said, “I was pretty high.” She giggled at the memory during her testimony.)
“It doesn’t matter if she lied a million times. Base your decision on the parts that are truthful,” Stoen continued. “Remember, she was miserable to be on the stand. But to me that is consistent with someone owning up. What a precious gift we’ve been given… a soul opening up. When I showed her the hatchet, she was so honest with you she didn’t even know if it was the same one.”
Stoen was slathering it on pretty thick. Panoramas of a million lies with you-find-'em truths somewhere in them? A soul opening up?
The prosecutor picked up the hatchet and showed it to the jury, “It’s a serious instrument, this, an inch deeper and this one on the chest, just above the heart, could have been fatal.”
When Stoen finished up, it was a quarter to noon, but Pekin was sure he could finish before everyone shuffled across the street to Schatt's for lunch.
Pekin put the picture of Alissa’s wounds back on the big screen. “There’s a couple of things I want to get out of the way. First, this — parading this picture in front of you all morning — does nothing to prove what happened or who is responsible! The second is lies, which is a big part of this case. A lie isn’t zero information — actually, it reveals what the liar is trying to conceal. And it’s obvious what’s being concealed here. Let’s talk about self-defense. Ms. Alverez’s car was attacked by 15 to 20 people, many of them admitted gang members. Now, did this group bring the hatchet? Common sense tells us it was this large armed group that brought the hatchet, a subsequent crime to the previous attacks on the Sanchez residence, and there were later attacks on that same residence later that night, and I know counsel wants you to believe that Ms. Colberg [the victim, in case anyone had forgotten] wasn’t there. But Ritchie says she was and furthermore she was at the attack on February 11th and again on July 24th and September 9th and”—
The jury was glancing anxiously at the clock, wondering, perhaps, if Pekin would finish before noon. Pekin seemed to note their distraction, and speeded up.
I quit trying to take notes and just listened. Pretty soon, even the court reporter, who takes down upwards of 500 words per minute, fell behind and Judge Moorman asked Pekin to slow down.
The defense attorney took a breath and launched back into his argument that all these attacks by Colberg and Oldstadt and their lovely friends were a kind of signature, a modus operandi. He started off calmly, but again took verbal flight at warp speed. I was unable to get anything on paper, but a word or two for every dozen he spoke. The jurors were trying to concentrate, but it was tough going and, at any rate, Pekin had gone way over his time estimate. He had to be stopped, then slowed, by the court reporter again at 25 minutes after, and at 12:30 Judge Moorman asked how much longer he would be.”
“Just a couple more pages, your honor.”
“That doesn’t tell me much, Mr. Pekin. I think we’re going to break for lunch.”
Thus the closing statement had been not only rushed, but broken up as well.
Stoen convincingly countered the lingering coherent points and it looked bad for MariCruz. We waited for the jury to come back with a verdict.
Late last Thursday, MariCruz was found guilty on three counts of felony assault, but the jury found that the 22-year-old mother wasn't a gang member.