Mendocino County natives take for granted something outsiders consider intoxicatingly glamorous, adventurous, and outrageously profitable — the pirate’s dream of going to Mendoland and growing a fortune in weed. The image that many of these 09ers have is of a summer frolicking in the redwoods and ferns, plenty of recreational drugs, reggae festivals, skinny-dipping in the Eel with backwoods belles, and an extravagant payoff when it’s over.
A modern-day gold rush complete with outlaws of all sorts has in fact commenced. People now come from all over the world to share in Mendocino County's spoils.
In the last few months, Bulgarians, Italians, Spaniards, Israelis, Australians, Chinese, Russians and, just this week, a pair of disoriented Romanians, have passed through the Mendocino County Jail on pot charges.
The fantasy, however, is not the reality.
And what there was of this illusory heyday of such heady dreams may be over.
There was a huge high profile bust — 38 people and multiple gardens — the last week in September in the Eel River Canyon, and another the first week of October in roughly the same area, netting 13 more people out to make quick fortunes in the marijuana business, several of them foreign nationals.
For this baker’s dozen of potdreamers, a bunch of them standing forlornly in the dock this week, the nightmare began with a raid by the latter-day incarnation of Jarboe’s Rangers, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s deputies and Bureau of Land Management troopers who swept in on the remote camp in the wild country on the border of Humboldt and Mendocino counties, slashing tents, mattresses, packs, sleeping bags, and flinging clothes, toiletries and other gear into a ravine before smashing the windshields and ignition locks on the pot people's vehicles.
It was all quite gleeful. Or malicious, depending on your point of view. A locksmith in Willits says he's seen smashed ignitions before, and local growers say raider rampages are nothing new.
There was a time, of course, when the BLM was staffed with good old boys who knew how to broker grazing rights and mining claims with prosperous pillars of the local economy, but those days are gone, and most BLM personnel are merely cops these days. Yet another branch of the war on drugs, Mendocino Sector.
* * *
The Honorable Judge David Nelson was absent so Judge Clayton Brennan, often spotted at Ukiah social gatherings toking away, presided over the bustees described above.
The DA was represented by Deputy DA Brian Newman. Newman has often appeared before Judge Brennan in Brennan's haphazard Willits court, which is now in the process of relocating to Ukiah in yet another round of local cost-saving moves.
In their booking photos, the set of manacled defendants looked like characters from Pirates of the Caribbean. It was a blistering hot day, the 8th of October when the 8 prisoners were busted, and now its the moist onset of winter. The accused were all of an age — late twenties, early thirties — and, at a glance, they could pass for locals, young people starting out in what may be America's final growth industry — the illicit drug business.
But they weren't locals.
It took a couple of hours to sort out all the various states and countries this international jet set came from. The court clerks had spent a lot of time on the phone rounding up an adequate squad of defense attorneys and an interpreter for one defendant.
Initially, Newman told Brennan the court would need Spanish and Italian interpreters. A Spanish interpreter was found. He spoke with some of the prisoners, four of whom were from Mexico, two from Spain. The Italians had bailed and were not in court.
Lawyers hustled into the courtroom as quickly as they could be found. Newman gave each fresh attorney a photo of the grow, taken from a chopper, and a copy of the complaint, saying, without being asked, “Six hundred pounds! Prime!” Newman would add with the finality of the hangman.
Jan Cole-Wilson, who took a defendant on an immigration hold, merely glanced at the photo, passed it dismissively aside and began speed-reading the complaint, her polished fingernail gliding down the lines of a boilerplate paragraph like she was reading single digits, rather than the convoluted paragraphs of legalese.
The aerial shot was as compelling as a scab. The dope fighters have the finest cameras and lenses tax money can buy, but they come to court with these crude, generic snapshots. Any respectable pot publication would toss them. And yet the DA thought this vague aerial image was as compellingly vivid as an Ansel Adams print.
An active and able criminal defense attorney, Katherine ‘Kitty’ Elliott was ahead of the rest of the defense gang, having contacted the parents of her two Ohio defendants. Cole-Wilson sat next to Elliott. The senior guy from the alternate public defender’s office, Barry Robinson, tried to muster his staff of “three and a half people.” His junior partner, Bert Schlosser, stumbled in, seemingly exhausted from climbing five flights of stairs. Schlosser, his face flushed stroke-ready red, mopped his dripping brow with a sopping handkerchief. Schlosser's wife was busted last year driving through Mormon country with hundreds of pounds of Mendo Mellow. Mrs. Schlosser's case is pending. When people laugh that everyone in Mendocino County is, one way or the other in the pot business, it's no joke.
Meanwhile, Judge Brennan muddled through the announcement of the charges, all of it translated by the Spanish-language interpreter as the international pot farmers looked on from the dock.
“Now,” Brennan said, “there’s a felony count against each of you. Count one alleges that on October eighth you each were in possession of marijuana for the purposes of for sale, a violation of 11359 of the Health & Safety Code. Count two alleges you each also on October eighth committed the crime of cultivation, a violation of 11358 of the Health & Safety Code.”
This statement may or may not have become more intelligible in translation as the judge droned on “…that said defendants then and there did plant, cultivate, harvest, dry, and process said marijuana for sale.”
Really. All on the eighth day of October? Amazing, but the charges always sound more surreal than the realities of the crime alleged. Or not surreal enough.
The Judge read the defendants their rights. He asked each if they desired an attorney. He called on Ms. Noemi Moreno-Crespo. Yes, Moreno-Crespo wanted a lawyer. No, she couldn’t afford one. Did she have any money? Perhaps $600 in the bank. Nothing more. A job. Yes. Volunteer work. Her income was $250 per month. A public Defender was appointed.
Did Mauricio Rafael Padilla-Garcia want an attorney? Yes. Job? He works in Mexico, has maybe $50 at his disposal.
Casey Dean Collier had no job, no money. How did he support himself? Friends, he said.
Francisco Deidda was a student from Caeliari, Italy, supported by his parents and, along with four others, on an immigration hold, charged with illegal entry into the country.
More attorneys were summoned.
A lawyer asked about the possibility of getting the defendants released on their own recognizance. DA Newman shot to his feet in a spasm of indignation.
“Some of these people are foreign nationals,” Newman declared, sounding quite alarmed. “The others are from Michigan, Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina. The State’s worried they might not show up.”
Why? If they didn't show up we'd be done with them and the taxpayers spared the huge expense of running them all through the justice system's crap shoot.
Attorney Cole-Wilson pointed out that the defendant from North Carolina had already made bail.
The People’s position, Newman insisted, was to oppose OR for the foreign nationals. As to the others, if they would waive extradition, well, then “we” might consider…
Ms. Elliott said she had spoken with the parents of her Ohio-based clients, and the necessary waivers were already in hand.
Mr. Robinson wanted more attorneys for the foreign nationals.
Myron Sawicki, formerly a top pot prosecutor under both DA Susan Massini and DA Norm Vroman volunteered to defend the furriners.
Ms. Cole-Wilson tried to establish that her client had local ties. He had friends in Mendocino. An address? Well, no.
“The People object,” Newman said.
Judge Brennan was casting about for some clarification. To the practiced eye, these bright, young kids and hippies were merely trimmers; the growers had all made bail.
“They were low-level employees, you honor,” Public Defender Linda Thompson confirmed. Brennan, however, set bail at $25,000 each and the prisoners filed out for the van ride back to jail on Low Gap Road.
The case of the infamous Alan Graham, aka Captain Fathom, was called. Fathom had had his ankle fitted with a “SCRAM” GPS locator bracelet in hopes of avoiding a long term in state prison. He's been arrested so often over the past few years for varieties of charges that add up to him becoming a kind of roving nuisance, that no one quite knows what to do with him.
Fathom has a bullhorn of a voice. He shouted merry assurances at the judge that had the crowded courtroom at a pitch of hilarity bordering on open contempt for order.
“IT COST $5,000, YOUR HONOR,” Graham honked in reference to his fancy leg bracelet. “DO YOU WANT TO SEE IT?” The judge had decided to give Mr. Graham’s SCRAM bracelet a two weeks trial period to see if the device might curtail his drinking. An Elk man put up a hefty deposit for the device.
“IT WILL DO THE JOB, YOUR HONOR,” Graham assured the judge.
A mother seated with her son nearby whispered urgently to the young man: “See; that’s what alcohol will do to you!”