Fort Bragg is breathing a little easier these days. The picturesque little seaside town has managed to get some violent people off the streets, and the cops and the DA have wrapped up Franz Otto Wittenkeller and Maricruz Alvarez-Carillo, two persons widely viewed as disruptive of civic serenity.
Mr. Wittenkeller pled guilty last week to assault with a deadly weapon resulting in great bodily injury, and Ms. Alvarez-Carillo was sentenced to almost the same time for the same thing— assault with a deadly weapon resulting in great bodily injury, the difference in the two cases being the weapon.
Wittenkeller finessed his victim with a knife, Maricruz did a Lizzie Borden on hers, going at Fort Bragg's "dominant female" with a hatchet.
For a long time now, Fort Bragg has wanted to see Wittenkeller outtathere. A frequent jail flier, Wittenkeller has been the first guy rounded up whenever the Fort Bragg cops rounded up the usual suspects.
Every year at the beginning of tourist season, Wittenkeller, a big, menacing-looking dude, gets arrested. He didn't really fit well with the ocean views and the scented soap that visitors come to Mendocino County to enjoy. He got arrested in between times, too, typically for drunk in public. Last year it was armed robbery. But the “victim” in that one finally admitted he hadn’t actually been robbed, and Franz came back to the streets of his beloved hometown —home of the “Fort Bragg Oddities,” as the t-shirts in the fashionable boutiques puts it.
Wittenkeller has been on the outside, in all senses of outside, for years. As a long-time member of the homeless community, he was banned three years ago from entering the Hospitality House where the homeless are fed on a daily basis. This move, it was thought, would cut Wittenkeller’s diet down to three or four meals per week that he could still get at the charity luncheons provided by the churches.
"We'll starve him outtahere," the thinking seemed to be.
But Wittenkeller just tightened his belt and got in more trouble. Starve a lion, the lion goes out looking for prey, not that Wittenkeller is much of a predator, but he does have a nose for trouble.
The next step for our seaside Prussian was criminal charges for vandalism on town property. This got him off the streets for one entire summer. That was followed by the trumped-up robbery charge mentioned above which failed.
Next, we come to this latest business with the knife, which Wittenkeller says was self-defense. This sounds plausible because, despite the lightning-bolt SS tattoos on his neck (his grandfather was a major with Hitler’s storm troopers), Wittenkeller’s not violent. He’s a skilled street fighter, sure, but his fights have largely been rescue missions for his “adopted little brother,” Michael Vickers. Vickers has spent his life picking fights but calling on Brother Franzie to finish them. In many cases Wittenkeller was a fool to do it, but fool is not quite the word. Wittenkeller is loyal, and loyalty is often characterized as foolishness.
Wittenkeller says the hostility aimed his way descends from Fort Bragg's Town Hall, that city government is setting him up. Of course you can't be set up if you aren't in position to get set up, so......
Dan Haehl, Wittenkeller’s public defender, wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that there was an actual conspiracy to get Wittenkeller out of town, but there are some members of the “homeless community” who are stupid and base enough to imagine that if they could get Wittenkeller in trouble, the powers that be would make their miserable lives somewhat more endurable.
Every week the Four Square Church serves a meal to the homeless who usually gather in the alley behind the church while the meal is being prepared.
From my personal experience with Wittenkeller, the notion that he was fighting over a woman is not very convincing for a couple off reasons. One, Wittenkeller could have — and probably has had — all the women comprising the Fort Bragg Street Society's Female Auxiliary. And in his own blunt advice to me, “None of those bag-whores are worth fighting for.” Second, Wittenkeller, previous comment aside, is that rare thing in a homeless camp — a gentleman. His favorite adjective is “handsome” — he compliments people by saying “that was real handsome of you” when they do the right thing. On the other hand, if you insult a woman — even a bag whore — Wittenkeller would be all over you.
We will never know what went down in the alley behind the church, especially if the witnesses were all in on a crude plot to get rid of Wittenkeller. But we get a hint that it wasn’t quite as one-sided as it was originally painted because the DA was willing to drop the charge from attempted murder to assault with a deadly weapon.
Wittenkeller was wise to take the plea. By his latest mugshot, his jury appeal would be minimal, to say the very least, even though I, personally, like him and admire his fortitude and manners on the mean streets.
His record is dismal, of course. By his own admission he has more 647f (drunk in public) convictions than even Mendocino County's all time 647f champ, Captain Fathom. Most of the trouble Wittenkeller has been in was started by his “little brother,” Michael Vickers. Wittenkeller saved Vickers’ life when they were both wee lads, and there’s an old Chinese proverb to the effect that if you save someone’s life you become responsible for them.* Kind of like Lenny and George in Mice and Men, Lenny Wittenkeller sticks by George Vickers no matter what.
Vickers started the trouble at the Hospitality House that got Wittenkeller 86’d. The trouble was with me, not long ago a homeless guy myself.
“I was standing there in the door with a woman Vickers had recklessly fallen in love with. I characterized his ardor as reckless after considering he was already involved with another woman, the one who provided him with a roof. He came through the door and saw her. Then he turned his bloodshot eyes on me.”
“Are you fuckin' my old lady?” he snarled.
“I may have," I admitted. "You act a lot like I did when I was ten. Yeah, you could be my kid.”
Vickers didn’t hear a word of this. Not because he was drunk out of his mind, but because his love interest, Tammy, had started screaming at him to get the bleepity-bleep out of her sight.
A girl of 12, working in the kitchen, heard the commotion and came out with a stainless-steel spoon the size of a Roman short sword demanding to know what was going on. The kid advanced on Vickers and he backed out the door. Fort Bragg girls are tough, and this particular kid had no fear.
“Tammy and I sang a chorus of ‘Jessica, Jessica, you the shit, girl! The real shiznack!!’”
Vickers slunk off to get Wittenkeller. The house manager ran out of his office to see what the fuss was all about. It was known all over Fort Bragg that Tammy and the House manager were, uh, tight.
At dinnertime, here comes Vickers, leading Wittenkeller on a lunch line, popping a buggy whip at his heels. Just as they came up the ramp to the chowline, a cop whipped out his nightstick and vaulted the pipe-railing behind the Hospitality House. He ascended the deck in a bound or two, politely asked if he could come in the back door, was made welcome by a couple of worried houseguests, and stepped into the dining room just in time to turn Vickers and Wittenkeller away.
The stay away order was readily signed by Judge Jonathan Lehan.
Vickers was the vandal who got Wittenkeller put in jail for an entire summer. The smashed pots in front of the old hotel, the wrecked treeplanters and summary executions of the saplings, as well as a pile of crap on the sidewalk, all bore the signature of Vickers, not Wittenkeller.
All his days the earnest Prussian tried to school Vickers, but Vickers was a reluctant scholar. “What a gas! Any idiotic thing I do will be backed up by the toughest SOB in town!"
Wittenkeller often said he’d do the same for anyone. And in fact, he often had. When Wittenkeller, king of the road, shows up under the Noyo Bridge a lot of nasty little plots just seem to evaporate.
“Who’s ripping-off who, here?”
Last time I saw Wittenkeller on the MTA bus he told me he was going to put the booze away and that Vickers would be on his own. Apparently, that project failed.
The plea deal was for the lesser term, but assault with a deadly weapon — doubled as a strike — enhanced with a knife, and with the priors thrown in, he’s looking at four years and eight months.
Five years is a long time to be gone. Wittenkeller calls Fort Bragg God’s country, so he'll miss the place. But put away in a where he'll have to look after himself rather than fight Mike Vickers’ battles for him, and with a chance to put the hobo camps and rot-gut behind him, hell, here in the county where my editor says history starts all over again every day, Wittenkeller just might find himself mayor of Fort Bragg when he gets back.
We may see a personality makeover for Vickers, too. Without his “big brother” there to bail him out, he may learn to mind his manners.
* “The Chinese have a saying: ‘If you save a man’s life, you are responsible for him.’ In other words, by saving someone’s life you have inflicted that person’s continued existence upon the world. Whatever he does from then on — be it good or evil — it’s your responsibility. — “Sweetblood” by Pete Hautman
* * *
MariCruz Alvarez-Carrillo might be coming back a changed person, too. Or so we gather from the heartfelt contrition she expressed at her sentencing last week. I say 'heartfelt' because nobody, including me, thought she was faking it. The change seems already to be taking place, but off she went to state prison for nearly as long as Franz Otto Witttenkeller. Maricruz's son will be in the first grade when she gets out.
“Hatchet Lady” somehow got attached to Maricruz during her trial last winter, and I suppose I had something to do with it. But I was not as convinced of her guilt because I knew a lot of the circumstances surrounding the case that were kept from the jurors. But among the unhidden facts was the fact that The Hatchet Lady had pursued a teenage girl, the one who testified that she was "Fort Bragg's dominant female — and cut her up pretty good with her tomahawk. Maricruz was duly convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, inflicting great bodily injury — from the three gashes on a teenage girl’s face and chest leaving ugly scars — and now she's on her way to prison with three gashes in the form of strikes on her rap-sheet.
If she hadn’t gone out and committed another crime while waiting to be sentenced, Maricruz might have gotten off on probation, especially considering her age and the fact she has a small child. It seemed clear that Maricruz's vehicle had been attacked by a rival Fort Bragg gang, but instead of getting out of there Maricruz, wielding the hatchet that the other gang mopes had probably thrown at her, went on the offensive.
But she got out of custody on relatively low bail with a shot at felony probation. Does she stay out of trouble? No. She gets in touch with her victim’s boyfriend, a juvenile, and tells him that her mopes are going to get him if he doesn't testify the right way. And she lies about all this to her probation officer.
Deputy DA Tim Stoen, pretty much a softie by prosecutor standards, was calling for the mid-term with enhancements totaling four years in prison.
Ms. Alvarez-Carrillo hadn’t shown much remorse for her crimes — she felt it was more of a gang war she lost rather than a crime she committed — but with the reality of a long stay in the state pen away from her baby, she was plainly sorry.
“I messed up,” she said and broke down crying. “I thought I was protecting my child but I wasn’t. I was stupid and angry,” she wailed. “Whatever you give me, I deserve it. I thought it was all someone else’s fault, but I’m the one that messed up. I messed up bad and I’ve lost everything. I’d love to have a chance on felony probation, but I deserve whatever you give me and I only hope I’m a better person when I get out. I hope I learn from this.”
She got her crying under some control and continued. “It’s all been a reality check for me and I can see now I was out of touch, but if you give me a chance I promise you I’ll do better. I’m just so sorry it had to come down to this. I’m sorry. I really am.”
Judge Ann Moorman said, “I thank you for that. It shows me you have made some progress in your life, and how you look at your situation. You are the only person who can control your own behavior. But you have three strikes against you, so you have absolutely no wiggle room, whatever I do.”
Judge Moorman then addressed herself to the attorneys. “She wasn’t remorseful at the time of the probation report, but I believe she is now. Be that as it may, I’m going to remand her into the custody of the CDC and impose the mid-term of three years, with another three years to run concurrent and an additional one year to run consecutively for a total of four.”
This was what Mr. Stoen had asked for. “Without pleasure, your honor,” he added. On the way out of the courtroom he said, “I think Ann Moorman is a very fine judge.”
And Fort Bragg is a fine little town that doesn't deserve street mayhem.
No town does.