Paul Sequiera earned his Mendo stripes last Friday. He already had lots of stripes from his years as a Contra Costa County prosecutor, but as chief prosecutor here in Mendo, it took Sequiera a year to rack up two murder convictions, and he got those just in one day last Friday.
Sequiera's working a four-defendant murder. Friday he got Marvin Johnson and Simon Thornton, but the two guys who allegedly did the Lake Mendocino shooting are awaiting trial. Johnson and Thornton were there and in on it but they weren't the trigger boys.
All four defendants are looking at life in prison without the possibility of parole. They seem surprised that you can go down for murder even if you didn't pull the trigger, but if you're there with the guy who did pull the trigger the California Murder Rule makes you guilty, too.
Like so many cases that appear open and shut, this one looked easy enough in retrospect, but the outcome was never certain, and for a time during the three week-long trial of Johnson and Thornton, it seemed entirely possible that these two unctuous fellows, slippery as eels, would get off.
Mendocino County juries can be fickle. We’ve seen them come back with some truly baffling verdicts, like the time they acquitted the biggest pot grower in the County’s history who also happened to be a felon in possession of enough assault weapons to arm a platoon of Marines to defending a banana republic. But this guy was defending a pot plantation.
Or how about the time the jury found for the smarmy school board bureaucrat who fired and financially ruined the best school principal the Point Arena school district has ever had? Add to these odd decisions the various hung-juries in seemingly open and shut cases like the murder trial of Laytonville's Two-Gun Terry Cohen, a man so guilty he committed suicide when some of his jurors refused to convict him.
The case against Marvin Johnson and Simon Thornton was far from being as cut and dried as any of the weird cases I've cited. For openers, Johnson and Thornton were not accused — or even suspected — of having planned or personally committed either of the crimes they were convicted of last week. But under California law, they were charged with aiding and abetting the killer, and are therefore exposed to the same charges he is, namely murder and attempted murder.
For this reason, the first week of Johnson's and Thornton's trial was taken up entirely with jury selection. Prosecutor Sequiera took pains to ask each potential juror if he or she agreed with the fairness and applicability of California’s just-as-guilty-as-the-trigger-man statute.
Mr. Ferris Perviance III of the Public Defender’s Office objected to the rigorous grilling of each candidate juror, saying it wasn’t a proper voir dire line of questioning.
(Voir dire is pronounced 'Vwar Dear,' a term derived from Latin meaning an examination to establish truthfulness. Lawyers, few of whom could pass a voir dire of their ethical practices, throw around a few Latin terms to sound scholarly and to bamboozle the rubes, same as judges wear billowing black robes to add a church-like solemnity to a rigged process.)
Judge Ann Moorman, presiding over her first murder trial, overruled Perviance's objection. Perviance’s client, Simon Thornton, started to squirm in his chair as Sequiera explained the reasoning behind the law and asked each of the jurors if they understood it. Perviance tried to make sure the prospective jurors agreed with the fairness of it. Anyone who quibbled or quailed at the murder law's harshness was excused.
You happen to be present when the lunatic with you goes nuts and kills someone? You didn't even know the fool had a gun? That's what it is, dude.
Sequiera used a typical prosecution example of a liquor store robbery to make this point.
“Suppose a guy goes with his buddy to rob a liquor store. Suppose he doesn’t even go in, suppose all he does is drive the car, and suppose he knows the guy going into the store has no intention of shooting anyone. But the clerk refuses to hand over the money and in a scuffle the gun goes off and the clerk is killed. Now, the intent of the law is that when you embark on a crime like this, where it is probable that someone could get killed, you are just as guilty as the shooter.”
Sequiera let that sink in.
“Anyone see the movie Lonesome Dove?" he asked. It was a popular mini-series on TV. Remember what Captain Call told Jake Spoon just before they hung him?”
Sequiera said, “You ride with an outlaw, you die with an outlaw.”
Simon Thornton squirmed again. He'd ridden in a car stuffed with outlaws and guns.
Sequiera added, “The felony murder statute has been on the books since 1872 — 142 years. It’s not new; it’s not novel; it’s what’s right.”
By now, Thornton was extremely uncomfortable. But co-defendant Marvin Johnson sat confidently at his ease during jury selection, at times stretching his legs under the table and sprawling comfortably in his chair.
Because there were four defendants, all the public defenders were used up and Johnson had been appointed a private defense lawyer, Ms. Jan Cole-Wilson, one of the best defense attorneys around. Johnson is a practiced slip-slider with a gift for gab, and he clearly felt that with the help of a formidable lawyer he could easily bamboozle the jury into seeing how he was actually one of the good guys, not one of the killers. After all, hadn't he snitched off his pals and showed the cops where the guns had been hidden while that dupe Thornton was busy making recorded phone calls from the County Jail expressing the hope the guns had been moved?
But ol' Junior Johnson had already led the cops to the guns stashed in Potter Valley.
Johnson spent most of two full days on the stand telling the jury what a good citizen he was, how he'd fully cooperated with law enforcement. He was calm, glib even, as he addressed, with his lawyer’s prompting, every aspect of the charges against him. His brow wrinkled in a baffled expression at the situation he found himself in through no fault of his own. Worse yet, the situation he was in had occurred despite his best intentions!
And for a while there it looked like the jury was buying it.
Ms. Cole-Wilson wanted Johnson to speak to the alleged abuse of his estranged wife, Debra Cano-Johnson. You'd have thought Johnson was facing domestic battery charges, not Murder One and Attempted Murder by Aiding and Abetting the shooting of Joe Litteral and Brandon Haggett. Cole-Wilson even brought in Ms. Cano’s mother to say she'd never witnessed any of the alleged domestic abuse.
The prosecution contended that Johnson recruited Thornton and the others to help him kidnap Ms. Cano-Johnson. To get the other three to go along with him Johnson suggested that there was money and marijuana at the camp. The other three mopes would get the money and the dope while Johnson did a repo job on his wife.
Johnson had met his associates down at the creek in Willits and told them how he’d made a deal to broker a big weed sale between two separate campsites at Lake Mendocino, No. 8 and No. 10. One group had the cash, the other had the weed. Johnson would broker the deal because, it seems, the people with the dope couldn't figure out how to get it one camp over to the people with the money.
Whether this side deal was real or not never came to light, but it was clear that none of these guys is likely to be recruited to move dope for the Medellin Cartel.
But the possibility of taking both the weed and the cash had inspired Simon Thornton, Arone Schnebly, and William Crocker to pick up some guns and go along with Johnson on the raid to recover Johnson's wife.
“When we talk about robbery in Mendocino County,” Sequiera said to the jury, “it usually always means the same thing — and I’ll let you fill in the blanks.”
The jurors responded with knowing chuckles, recognizing Mendocino County's global identity as a dope center. You could also make a strong case for Mendocino County as a regional dopes center, too, but this is a courtroom, not a chamber of commerce seminar.
Marvin Johnson was the one guy of the four with a valid driver’s license. Not only was he the mastermind of what amounts to a smash and grab plot, he was the enabler. The rest of his crew had had their driving privileges suspended or revoked for countless drunk driving arrests, probation violations and failures to appear. They'd panhandled some drinking money at the grocery store parking lot before they went down to the creek to hear Johnson’s recon report on their Lake Mendocino objective — dope, cash money and Mrs. Johnson.
Johnson had been told by some street waifs hanging around Ukiah’s WalMart parking lot where the campsite was. He’d gone up to the Lake the day before to case the place out. The about-to-be-victimized had not only made Johnson feel welcome, they'd thrown him a beer bust, fed him a barbecue dinner and gave him a choice place to camp.
The next day, to repay the hospitality, Johnson begged a ride back to Willits and organized his squad of thugs.
The car was borrowed from a nephew of Schnebly’s who worked at Burger King. This relative, however, refused his "Uncle A.J." (Schnebly) the loan of the car without proof of a licensed driver, and a video clip from the Willits Burger King featured Johnson showing his license to the kid and taking possession of the keys. The raid and subsequent shootings wouldn't have been possible without Johnson and his driver's license.
Ms. Cole-Wilson lobbed interrogatory nerf balls to Johnson who whiffed all of them, digging himself in deeper with every strike.
Johnson: “How was I to know they had guns?”
Cole-Wilson: “Well, you told them there was weed and cash up there, didn’t you?”
Johnson: “Yes, but I didn’t really want to go back. I had only gone up the day before to make sure my wife was okay.”
Cole-Wilson: “But hadn’t you made a deal where you’d get $100 per pound on the sale that you arranged?”
Johnson: “Yes, but we were partying, having a good time. I didn’t want to go back up there.”
Cole-Wilson: “You were broke, but you didn’t want to go?”
Johnson: “Yeah, I was broke, I needed the money. But we went to the free meal and panhandled some beer money — why go anywhere?”
Cole-Wilson: “But what about your wife? Wasn’t your pride a little hurt over her running off with Joe and the others? I’ll bet the others were ribbing you pretty bad down at the creek. Weren’t they saying things like, ‘Hey, Junior, I’ll bet ol’ Joe’s sure having a good time with you old lady, up there at the lake,’ eh?”
Johnson: “—huh? Oh, yeah, it bothered me a little, not that much… a little, sure, but, well, I didn’t really think nuttin’ of that.”
Cole-Wilson: “Did you know they were planning a robbery?”
Johnson: “Not at that time, but they had moved away from me and were talking, and I heard bits and pieces that they were going out there ‘to handle some business’.”
Cole-Wilson: “Well, why did you get in the car then?”
Johnson: “I was getting a bad vibe and I wanted to make sure my wife was okay.”
Cole-Wilson: “Now, you’ve consistently maintained that you didn’t know they had firearms. Is that true?”
Johnson: “Yeah. Bucky got out and went into a trailer and came out with a duffle bag and a pack.”
Cole-Wilson: “Bucky is Mr. Crocker?”
Johnson: “Yes, and he put the bags in the trunk.”
Cole-Wilson: “So Bucky Crocker comes out with these two bags and you finally get going to the Bushay Campground?”
Johnson: “Yeah. Then they stopped crossing the inlet channel and got the bags out of the trunk.”
Cole-Wilson: “Oh, my… Weren’t you worried when you saw what was in the bags — what was in the bags?”
Johnson: “There was a shotgun in the duffle bag and A.J. got it out and started piecing it together.”
Cole-Wilson: “[My.] What did you do?”
Johnson: “I said, ‘Hey, I don’t want no part of this business’.”
Cole-Wilson: “Why didn’t you stop the car and get out? Why didn’t you try to get away?”
Johnson: “Hey, I don’t mess around with guns. I was, like, I want no part of this.”
Cole-Wilson: “So you went along and told the campground host you were just dropping off supplies?”
Johnson: “Yeah, and then after we went past, they started putting on their face masks, the bandannas.”
The cross-examination of defendant Johnson by Prosecutor Sequiera put Johnson away, and then Sequiera summed up.
“Attempted robbery and attempted kidnapping, using fear or force, ladies and gentlemen,” Sequiera began. “The defendants planned to commit the crimes they had planned down at the creek. A.J. calls his cousin at the BK [Burger King], Johnson drives them to the trailer where Crocker gets the guns. They were embarking on dangerous felonies, ladies and gentlemen, dangerous felonies like kidnapping and robbery, which resulted in murder, Count One; and attempted murder, Count Two.”
Sequiera paced along the jury box and said, “I’m not going to stand up here and tell you these two intended to kill anybody.” He turned and paced back the other way. “But they intended to rob and kidnap. And the natural and probable consequences of armed robbery and kidnapping, the law says, is that someone may get killed. And the natural and probable consequence was that one Buck Crocker shot and killed Joe Litteral and attempted to kill Brandon Haggett by shooting both men in the chest at point-blank range.”
Sequiera resumed his measured pacing.
“A reasonable person, ladies and gentlemen, would know that a reasonable consequence of this attempted robbery and kidnapping, with guns, might have to come down to that. People are unpredictable in these situations. Brandon Haggett was a young man and, they tell me, that’s why the military wants these guys — they’re brave and do these kinds of things. I would never try to wrestle a gun away from somebody; I’m too old for that.”
That comment elicited some nods and tight smiles of appreciation from the jurors. “The rest of the statute says that a participant in that attempted robbery or kidnapping is a perpetrator — unless there are unusual circumstances. Is it unusual that someone would get killed in an armed robbery? No. If I said, ‘Gimme your stuff, and there were 15 to 20 of you and only one of me, you’d just laugh at me — unless I had a gun. And that’s why we have the special ‘arming’ allegation: If you, the defendant, if you know that the principal, your co-defendant, is armed, then, by law, you are armed, too.”
“There may have been 15 to 20 people out there, but since the invention of the gun — the equalizer — size and numbers don’t matter anymore. A.J. Schnebly’s a big guy, but he didn’t need to be six-foot-six. That Remington 12 gauge with the pistol grip made him ten feet tall! And Buck Crocker had his trusty 45.”
Sequiera held up the exhibits, not the pistol and the scattergun, rather the big bag of buckshot shells and four or five magazines for the automatic — these guys had enough firepower and ammo to take on the whole campground.
“The bat is Simon Thornton’s weapon of choice,” Sequiera said. “Now, I know defense counsel spent a lot of time on the lack of any injury to Brandon Haggett’s head..."
Ms. Cole-Wilson had brought in the ER doctor from Santa Rosa who'd treated Haggett when Haggett arrived at Santa Rosa Memorial in a CalStar medevac chopper.
Ms. Cole-Wilson: “Mr. Haggett was quite agitated when he arrived?”
Dr. Chris Kosakowski: “Yes, he was agitated in general, abusive to the staff, and resisting efforts to treat him.”
Haggett's road dog, Litteral, had taken the death blast intended for Haggett. Litteral had jumped in between Haggett and the alleged shooter, Mr. Crocker.
Cole-Wilson: “So he (Haggett) was finally sedated, wasn’t he?”
Kosakowski: “Yes, then we were able to treat him.”
Cole-Wilson: “There were no injuries to his head, were there?”
Haggett had testified that not only were the mopes trying to shoot him, one of them, Thornton, had pounded him on the head with a baseball bat.
Kosakowski consulted his report and said, “No, my exam for injuries to his head was negative.”
Cole-Wilson produced a document from Coast Emergency Medical Services and asked the good doctor if he recognized it. He did.
Kosakowski: “It shows no sign of any injury to the head.”
Cole-Wilson: “And what about this document. Do you recognize this?”
Kosakowski: “Yes, it is the flow chart from the trauma center, filled in by the scribe, who writes down what the medical staff is saying as they examine the patient. And, no. There’s no indication that Brandon Haggett had any injuries to his head.”
The prosecution had to prove “beyond any reasonable shadow of a doubt” that Simon Thornton aided and abetted in the robbery and kidnapping that resulted in the murder and attempted murder. This evidence cast a shadow on the testimony of Brandon Haggett that Simon Thornton had hit him four times in the head with an aluminum baseball bat.
“But,” Mr. Sequiera exclaimed in his closing, “the doctor also testified that the chest wound was his main concern, as well as everyone else’s, and that Mr. Haggett was being very antagonistic and that he only was with him a short time. However we do know this: we know that defendant Johnson heard a ping when he saw Thornton hitting Haggett.”
The only thing between Thornton and Johnson — the guy who snitched him out — was Ferris Perviance, III, Thornton's public defender. Johnson looked warily over at Thornton, but young Simon Thornton, going down for life at age 21, had his eyes squinched tight and was pinching the bridge of his nose, as if he were enduring the mother of all migraine hangovers.
“Simon Thornton is a pitiful liar, ladies and gentlemen,” Sequiera continued. “He tells the detective he always carries a bat ‘for protection’ then denies it when he takes the stand.”
Sequiera, just after lunch, put a picture from the autopsy up on the big color screen in front of the jury. The picture showed Joe Litteral literally dead on a slab at the morgue. Litteral, who was about 40, has a huge hole in his chest, his ribs pried apart. In the foreground we see one of his forearms held up by a couple of interns. An incision has been made between the elbow and wrist on the underside showing a mass of black blood and a broken bone, the ulna. The Medical Examiner, Dr. Jason Trent, pathologist, with 46 years in practice, said the injury was caused by a cylindrical object with the diameter and density of a baseball bat or bowling pin, wielded with terrific force. But the anatomical location and nature of the injury didn’t require a forensic pathologist to know that the victim, Joseph Litteral, had put his arm up to block a lethal blow aimed at his head before or after his brave heart had been shot out, which is to say, before he took the bullet meant for his young friend Brandon Haggett.
Ms. Cole-Wilson: “Did the decedent have any other injuries?”
Dr. Trent: “No. His liver was enlarged and…”
Cole-Wilson: “Yes, but what was his blood alcohol level?”
Cole-Wilson: “Isn’t that rather high; isn’t it what you might call a ‘highly intoxicated’ person?”
Trent: “I suppose…yes, it could be.”
Cole-Wilson: “But isn’t the legal limit less than half that?”
Trent: “Sure, for driving. But it’s my understanding he was camping out at a lake. And, as I was saying, his heart was also enlarged.”
Cole-Wilson: “Didn’t he also have other chemicals in his blood?”
Trent: “A great many, sure. There was nicotine and caffeine and, you must remember, some of these chemicals would probably have come from the resuscitation efforts. But I’m sure what you’re getting at is what we call the Delta 9 levels; and, yes, he had a lot of pot on board, too. That’s not to be unexpected, given where we live. But that’s not what killed him, if that’s what you’re getting at. He died of a gunshot wound to the chest. There was over two liters of blood in his chest cavity.”
Dr. Trent couldn’t say whether the attack with the bat came before or after Joe Litteral was shot. He could have been on the ground, with Thornton swinging down on him like a man splitting cordwood.
Simon Thornton, listening to all this, was hunched up in a fetal regression, his knuckles digging into his brow. The kid was feeling the testimony.
Sequiera continued describing defendant Thornton, “He got on the stand and said everything he could think of to push that bat away. He said he was on prescription meds when he told the detective he always carried a bat. He was on antacids, ladies and gentlemen.”
“Then we have a recording of Simon Thornton calling from the jail, to give directions to his friends, to go and get the evidence, the guns, before defendant Johnson leads Detective Porter to the location in Potter Valley where they hid them.”
The cops listen to calls from the jail, Simon. You didn't know that?
Bye, bye baby.
The jury was given the case late in the day last Thursday. They came back mid-afternoon on Friday with the guilty verdicts for Johnson and Thornton on all counts.