The murder trial of Marvin Johnson and Simon Thornton is underway at the Mendocino County Courthouse. Johnson and Thornton are charged as accomplices in the fatal shooting last summer of Joe Litteral, who took a bullet for his young friend, Brandon Haggett. Haggett had already been shot through the chest with a .45 when Litteral dove in front of the gunman at the fatal moment, intercepting the shot that would have finished Haggett off.
The DA contends that Marvin Johnson recruited Simon Thornton and two others, A.J. Schnebley and William “Buck” Crocker — reputed big-shots in the elite (by Mendo street standards) “Willits Mafia” — to go to the Bushay Campground at Lake Mendocino where a homeless tribe from Willits had camped. While Thornton, Schnebley and Crocker robbed the rival group of homeless shlubs, Marvin Johnson would muscle his estranged wife, Debra Cano-Johnson, into the getaway car.
Why not woo Debbie back with red roses and chocolates? Why the guns and robbery? Then one remembers Elmore Leonard’s dictum: “Crime is always half-baked, and always goes off half-cocked.”
The Willits Mafia, as they dub themselves, has been around for many years, a version of the old Dixie Mafia, the backward rednecks who ran rampant in the Deep South during the 1960s. The Willits Mafia has been more commonly referred to — in less politically-correct circles — as the Willits White Trash Mafia, the Brooktrails Trailer Trash Mafia, and, my favorite, the Willits Witless Mafia. Their source of income has traditionally been scouting out and raiding guerrilla marijuana grows, mugging trimmers, and conducting other civic duties such as terrorizing the homeless and driving potential rivals out of town. Perhaps it is for this service that the Willits Police seem generally indifferent to this mafia’s vigilante belligerence.
On July 20 of last year, four of these fine fellows— Marvin “Junior” Johnson, “Simple” Simon Thornton, Aaron “A.J.” Schnebley, and William “Buck” Crocker — arrived at the Bushay campground in spectacular style, just like in the mafia movies.
“The car came screechin’ up and the doors popped open and all these guys with guns jumped out and started yellin’ fur ever buddy to git down on the ground.”
The witness looked kind of like Momma Cass from the Mommas and Poppas back in the 60s. She went by the name Gin-A-Fire, which seemed to be a version of her given name, Jennifer. The prosecutor, Deputy DA Paul Sequiera, asked, “Where were you? And tell the jury what you were doing at the time.”
“In a chair, doin' a puzzle," Gin-A-Fir replied. "We’d just come back from a swim at the lake, and me and the girls were still in our swimsuits.”
“How old were they?”
“Nine and seven, I think.”
“What kind of puzzle were you doing?”
“A sudoku. Ever’buddy wuz gist relaxin’, ‘cept those gittin’ dinner on.”
“What was your first thought?”
“Wull, first I saw Hubcap pick up a burnin’ log from the fire and my ‘mediate thought was, he was about to get his fool-ass shot. At least two guys had jumped out with guns, maybe more…”
“Who is Hubcap?”
“You don’t know Hubcap? Hell, ever’body knows Hubcap*. But my main thought was for the girls.”
“Where were they?”
“They wuz headin’ for the hills, runnin’ through the bushes — all I saw wuz butts and ponytails.”
“What happened next?”
“Then I heard a shot and Brandon fell; then another shot and Joe fell. Our guys were fallin’ ever’where. Then I heard Junior yell to Debra, ‘See what we can do! Now, git the fuck in the car, bitch!’”
Mr. Marvin Douglas “Junior” Johnson denies all this. He swears he said no such a-thing. His defense is that he was duped into going along on this caper, and once he realized what was up, he demanded to be let out of the car, that he wanted no part in it, but what could he do to stop it, a poor honest fool?
“I wasn’t the trigger man,” he yelped desperately, “I didn’t touch no guns or nuthin’, man, not even a bullet — you can’t pin this double-murder on me!”
This high-pitched, highly keyed-up statement was from a tape recording with the homicide detectives the next day. Eyewitnesses had fingered Johnson in a photo line up, and he’d been arrested. The tape was played in the courtroom, and the jury and defendant Thornton followed along, reading copies of a printed transcript. Thornton seemed particularly intrigued with his copy, whereas Johnson ignored his and nervously stroked his chin.
“Whoa, hold on there, buddy,” the voice of Detective Andrew Porter was heard saying to his voluble suspect. “I have to read you your rights before I can take a statement.”
Johnson’s voice was frantic on the tape, to put it mildly. He couldn’t have known at this time that Brandon Haggett was still alive and Joe Litteral had been pronounced dead while waiting to board the CalStar helicopter to Santa Rosa. But he’d seen enough back at the lake to surmise that one or both hadn’t survived. He was in great haste to push the blame onto the others, and paint himself as the sane and sober voice of reason, a compassionate and loving husband, who only went along on this raid to check on his wife’s welfare. But he had painted himself into a corner, he seemed to slowly realize, as he sat there stroking his chin and squirming in his defendant’s chair as the tape was played to the jury.
“Did you at any time tell Debra to get in the car?”
“Nooo…” Johnson said to Detective Porter, “I gist wanted to make sure she was safe, man.”
“Sure, I know what you mean, man,” Detective Porter commiserated, reeling Johnson in.
Det. Porter had explained his interrogation techniques to the jury, just before the tape was played. “I try to fall in with the same kind of street talk and slang familiar to the suspect I have been assigned to interview. So if you hear me fall into a style of vulgar terms and profanity, it’s just a technique to make the homicide suspect feel more at ease and communicative at a time when he feels particularly reluctant to talk to law enforcement."
Marvelous Marvin Johnson, the guy who was out to save the day and his wife from the evildoers, was far from reluctant to talk to law enforcement.
“You guys gotta understand,” he screeched desperately, “When I walk outtahere, I’m a marked man — my days are up, man! You gotta help me!”
“Hey, bro, we’ll do, like, what we can,” Det. Porter said with what sounded like feeling. "But you gotta remember if we’re gonna help you, you gotta help us, eh?”
“Sure, man, and I’ll take you to those fuckers. But I can’t be seen, man. Do you get it? I still gotta live here!”
Detective Parker gave Marvin Johnson a cigarette — Junior had been begging for one for hours.
“Generally, there’s No Smoking in here," Det. Porter said, "but I’ll make an exception if you’ll help me out, here.”
“What is it, man?” Junior gasped as he lit a Marlboro and sucked a centimeter down in the first drag, “I’ll tell ya’all anything for the rest of that pack.”
“We wanna know where you all dumped the guns. And I’ll even let you smoke in the car, ‘though it’s strictly against regulations,” Porter said.
Junior said, “Man I can’t be seen in no cop car — I’d be dead meat, man.”
“No shit, man," Porter agreed. "We know that. We gonna take my own ride, family car and all. You can set up front. Hey, I know where y’all comin’ frum, bro. You can set in the front with me — and, hey, slump down all you want. Do you mind if my partner comes along? He’ll be in the back — nobody’ll ever see him. Plus, I gotta have some security, man. You know where I’m comin’ frum?”
There’s a rustle of men evacuating the comforts of plastic furniture in an institutional cinderblock room … and the tape ends.
Chief Prosecutor Paul Sequiera came to his feet and buttoned his suit coat as the bailiff turned the plasma screen-monitor off and the lights came up. The jury rubbed their eyes and re-focused on the witness, Detective Andy Porter, who had sat out of the limelite while the tape was played.
Mr. Sequiera asked, “Where did defendant Johnson take you?”
“First,” Det. Porter replied, “ he took us to where he’d spent the night after the shootings.”
“And where was that?”
“In Ukiah — but, well… not really.”
“What do you mean?”
“It was outside the city limits, near the Boonville Road turnoff. He had his clothing and some other personal items stashed at the place where he said he’d slept.”
“And this was, where?”
“Down near the end of the Norgaard Vineyard, close to Highway 101.”
They'd picked up Johnson’s gear from the vineyard, and locked it in the trunk.
“Then what happened,” the prosecutor asked the detective.
“Then he took us to where they had dumped the guns.”
The eagerly cooperative Johnson maintains he was only concerned with his wife’s welfare, her comfort and happiness, and that he got cornswaggled into the whole murder business. Johnson’s devoted wife, Debra Cano, is much less devoted these days. She told a different story, both at the preliminary hearing last October, and again at the beginning of the trail last week.
During the prelim Ms. Cano spoke in the quaint solecisms of Mendo's regional street dialect, and she had a distinctive sibilant lisp. But now she speaks as correctly as one of those vacuous NPR personalities. And, except for when she became somewhat flustered by a lengthy and rigorous cross-examination by Marvin Johnson’s lawyer, Jan Cole-Wilson, the endearing lisp was gone.
“He’s always been abusive,” she said, repeating her travails with a man who beat and cheated on her for many years, both at her home in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and during the couple's frequent trips to Willits to get marijuana for Marvin, who, Debra claims, absolutely has to have it.
“And yet you married him after living together for four or five years, and have stayed with him for as many as another 12 years since.”
“Yesh, I mean, yes, but you don’t understand.”
“Did you meet Mr. Johnson here or in Nebraska?”
“Here, in California.”
“Then you went to Nebraska?”
“Yes. Then back here every year at harvest time so Junior could get his marijuana.”
“Did you also live for a time in San Rafael?”
“And that’s where your mother lives?”
“And did she witness any of this abusive relationship?”
“I don’t get along with my mother. I thought he was having an affair with my mother.”
Your husband's fling with your mom would likely do it for most mothers and daughters, alright.
“And you also went to Susanville fairly often, too, didn’t you?”
“That’s where Mr. Johnson’s parents live?”
“And were you homeless there?”
“No. We stayed at the Saint Francis Hotel, where Junior’s sister works.”
“And Mr. Johnson’s parents and sister, did they witness any of this abusive behavior?”
“I don’t know if they did or didn’t.”
“And one of your daughters lives there?”
“And did she witness any of this abuse?”
“I don’t get along with my daughter.”
“But your daughter still stays in contact with Mr. Johnson’s mother, doesn’t she?”
“What are you getting at? I don’t know where you’re going with this.”
“Just answer the questions,” Judge Moorman said. “If you don’t understand the question, say so.”
“I gist don’t know where she thinks she’sh going with thish!”
“Just answer the questions as best you can, Ms. Cano.”
“And Mr. Johnson is not the father of any of your children, is he?”
“No, they’re from a previoush marriage.”
“And none of these people were willing to help you get out of this abusive relationship?”
“No, we were always moving back to Ukiah and Willits so Junior could get his weed.”
The gist of Debra Cano’s testimony was that the little band of homeless people on the shores of Lake Mendocino were helping her dump Junior. They’d taken her to the Pine Cone Motel in Willits where most of them were staying in a single room, then when Junior found out she was there he started making cellphone calls to the room demanding they turn over his wife.
Gin-A-Fire had said she'd heard a man’s voice, presumably Junior’s, shouting outside in the parking lot of the motel, “Gimme my wife back, Joe, or I’ll kick yer ass!” As the threats escalated, the little band of beleagured vagabonds decided to move to the campground at Lake Mendocino where Marvin Johnson and some of the Willits Mafia came out the next day for a peaceful visit and stayed until dinnertime, “drinking beer and smoking pot.” Two of them were “stand-offish” to the point they wouldn’t join the others for dinner and Gin-A-Fire said she was glad to give them a ride out to the freeway. “I hate to say I had a bad vibe about them in court, but that’s how it felt.”
Junior and A.J., however, stayed for dinner, then caught a ride back to Willits, but the next day they came back and the shooting started.
Brandon Haggett, 20, was the first one shot that day. He took the stand to help put away the men who killed his best friend and had tried to kill him. He’d come out from Montana to see his old friend Joe Litteral, who he’d been friends with since he was 15. Haggett told much the same story he’d told at the prelim, but this time the cross-examination by the defense lawyers — private attorney Jan Cole-Wilson for Johnson, and public defender Ferris Perviance for Thornton — were playing hardball.
They asked Haggett to draw a diagram on a sketch pad on an easel at the front of the courtroom, and mark everyone’s position on a series of photographs of the crime scene.
Attorney Cole-Wilson: “What were you doing when the green car pulled up?”
Mr. Haggett: “Stoking the fire, getting it ready to cook dinner.”
Cole-Wilson: “How many of you were there at that time?”
Haggett: “There were 15 to 20 people around the picnic table and fire pit.”
Cole-Wilson: “When the car pulled up, who was the first one to get out?”
Haggett: “The one with the pistol.”
Cole-Wilson: “Which side did he get out of?”
“Haggett: “He jumped out of the passenger side, front seat.”
Cole-Wilson: “Did he aim the gun at anyone?”
Haggett: “He had it at his side.”
Cole-Wilson: “Pointed down?”
Cole-Wilson: “Who got out next?”
Haggett: “Well, they all sort of got out at once.”
Cole-Wilson: “Where did Mr. Johnson go?”
Haggett: “He stood next to this tree, right here.”
Cole-Wilson: “And you never saw him leave that area, did you?”
Cole-Wilson: “What about the others?”
Haggett: “A.J. got out the of back, circled the car and came around to the front with a shotgun, right about here. The guy with the handgun started moving straight up this pathway. He ran behind these tents and—”
Cole-Wilson: “And you were running in the same general direction?”
Haggett: “Yes, and as he ran, he kept the gun trained on everybody.”
Cole-Wilson (putting up another photo): “Is this where the gunman and you ended up?”
Haggett: “Yeah, right by this tree.”
Cole-Wilson: “When you caught up with him, did he back up or run away?”
Haggett: “No, he stood his ground.”
Cole-Wilson: “Did anyone else come up there?”
Haggett: “To my assistance? No, not until I got shot.”
Cole-Wilson: “And when you got shot you noticed from the corner of your eye that Mr. Johnson was still by the tree where he first went when he got out of the car?”
Cole-Wilson: “And he left with the others?”
Haggett: “Why would he want to stay there?”
Cole-Wilson: “And when he said, ‘Debra get in the car,’ he didn’t come into the campground, did he?”
Cole-Wilson: Did any of them have their faces covered?”
Haggett: “Yes. Crocker and maybe one other.”
Cole-Wilson: “Did you know Crocker or Schnebley?”
Cole-Wilson: “Nothing further.”
Deputy Public Defender Perviance: “Let’s start again with when the car pulls up. What color was the car?”
Perviance: “Well, was it dark green, light green, mint green…?”
Haggett: “I didn’t look at it long enough to figure out what shade of color it was.”
Perviance: “So this car pulls up to the parking area—”
Haggett: “I don’t think it was a parking area.”
Perviance: “Okay. I’m going to ask you to draw the roadway.”
Haggett: “I already did. I don’t know what you’re trying to—”
Perviance: “I’m going to ask the questions, and you are going to answer them.”
DDA Sequiera: “I’m going to object”—
Judge Moorman: “Mr. Perviance, re-ask your question.”
Perviance: “Gin-A-Fire had a truck, right?”
Haggett (snarling through his teeth): “Yes.”
Perviance: “Draw where that truck was parked.”
Haggett scribbled on the diagram.
“I’m not asking for any great work of art, just a rectangle where the truck was…”
Haggett made a rectangle that could pass for a triangle as well as any number of other geometrical forms, but Perviance didn’t complain, he merely smiled condescendingly. “Okay, now where did the green car park?”
Perviance: “Okay, let’s use that for a reference point. Now, the first person got out of the front?”
Perviance: “And that person was…?”
Haggett: “The shooter.”
Perviance: “Mr. Crocker?”
Perviance: “And the second person?”
Haggett: “The back seat passenger.”
Perviance: “Did he leave the door open?”
Haggett: “I dunno.”
Haggett: “The guy with the shotgun.”
Perviance: “Where did he get out?”
Haggett: “The back, then circled around to where Crocker had been.”
Perviance: “Then who got out of the driver’s side?”
Haggett: “I don’t know. By then I was running after the guy with the handgun.”
Perviance: “You fought with Crocker?”
Perviance: “For the gun?”
Perviance: “And you both fell to the ground?”
Perviance: “And you knew this was a real gun?”
Haggett (sarcastically): “No, I thought it was a squirtgun.”
Perviance: “Your honor…!”
Moorman: “Please give only serious answers, Mr. Haggett.”
Perviance: “All I wanted was a straight answer, your honor.”
Sequiera: “Objection, your honor.”
Moorman: “Please move on, Mr. Perviance.”
Perviance: “And you knew this was a real gun?”
Haggett: “Yes, I did.”
Perviance: “Well, weren’t you afraid it might go off in the scuffle?”
Haggett: “Yes, I was.”
Perviance: “So you gave it your greatest concentration?”
Perviance: “So you couldn’t very well gaze around and leisurely take everything else in, could you?”
Haggett (through gritted teeth): “No, not really.”
Perviance: “Also, you say you were getting hit in the head with something that had a metallic sound to it when it hit you, what, three or four times — isn’t that your testimony?”
It is the prosecution’s contention that Simon Thornton, Mr. Perviance’s client, attacked Haggett with an aluminum baseball bat while he was struggling with Crocker for the gun.
Haggett: “Yes, that’s right.”
Perviance: “And the fourth time you let go of the gun and turned to see who was hitting you in the head?”
Perviance: “And then you were shot?”
Perviance: “So your focus then changed again?”
Perviance: “Were you scared?”
Perviance: “A little scared?”
Haggett (sarcastically): “Just a little.”
Perviance: “You were on top of Crocker and almost had control of the gun, but you turned to address whoever was hitting you in the head and then you were shot and rolled off.”
Perviance: “You were on your knees.”
Perviance: “You were wounded.”
Perviance: You were bleeding.”
Perviance: “So you never saw who was hitting you.”
Haggett: “No! I did!”
Haggett: “When I turned around.”
Perviance: “You turned around and saw who was hitting you in the head?”
Perviance: “As you sit here today, who did you see who had been hitting you in the head?”
Haggett: “Simon Thornton.”
Perviance: “Okay, but in the transcript from the prelim you say you let go of the gun and turned to see whoever was hitting you in the back of the head, but as a matter of fact you had never seen Simon Thornton, and was told that it was him who was hitting you.”
Haggett: “No. I saw him. I was not aware of his name at that time, but I was aware who was hitting me in the head.”
Perviance (reading from the transcript): “After you were shot you had tunnel vision … so you got four head-bangs … something metal striking the back of the head…”
Defendant Simon Thornton was sitting in an intense crouch at the defense table, his chin in his hand, his brow seriously knitted in concentration.
Haggett said, “What is this? I feel like I’m being sandbagged here.”
Judge Moorman: “Ask your question, Mr. Perviance.”
Perviance continued to read the “inconsistencies” from the transcript: “Yes, some people did fill me in on what happened…”
Moorman: “Ask a question!”
Perviance: “You were shot and, according to your testimony back then, ‘things weren’t real … I felt this can’t be happening …'
Moorman: “Mr. Perviance, what’s your question?”
Perviance: “So it felt unreal?”
Perviance: “I think you said you were losing your vision…?”
Haggett: “I was losing a lot of blood!”
Perviance: “Would it be fair to say your ability to perceive what was going on around you?”
Haggett: “Yes, it was impaired, but—”
Perviance: “You were shown a photo line-up, what the detectives call a six-pack?”
Perviance: “And in that six-pack, you couldn’t identify Mr. Thornton, could you?”
Haggett: “No — may I explain why?”
Perviance: “I’m sure the district attorney will help you out on that. I have nothing further.”
Mr. Sequiera: “Was the photo of Mr. Thornton in the six-pack an old picture?”
Judge Moorman called a recess. The trial resumes Monday. Simon Thornton and Marvin Johnson are looking at First Degree Murder charges, the same as the two alleged gunmen, Aaron Schnebley and William Crocker.
*Ed Note: The homeless and the mafia thugs in this story all have nicknames. The people involved rarely even know one another’s legal name; and, even when they do, they are under an unspoken obligation not to reveal it, because the person in question often has an extensive rap-sheet and is on the lam from the law.