Finally, more than an hour after my arrival, I first set eyes on William Allan ‘Redbeard’ Evers, accused burglar additionally charged with the attempted murder of a peace officer. Shackled and wearing a chartreuse jail jumpsuit and an orange undershirt, he looked like a classics professor I had in college. Clear-eyed, tall, and lean, he glowed with good health. It struck me that a health-minded entrepreneur could make millions using him as the model for promoting a lifestyle of living in the woods, hiking eight hours a day, and eating out of vegetable gardens.
Redbeard smiled with perfect, startlingly white teeth when he introduced himself. When I asked him what I should call him he replied “William or Redbeard,” the latter written as one word. So Redbeard it is. And for the record, his beard isn’t really red, at least it wasn’t in the dim yellowish light of the jail’s no-contact visiting room.
Much has been written about the elusive Redbeard, including in this newspaper, so I’ll be brief. He turned 40 last March, grew up in Redding with his parents and younger brother, liked school, attended some college, served time for burglary in Humboldt County, arrived in Ukiah around a year ago and survived alone in the remote woods of Mendocino County until county detectives arrested him shortly before noon on November 4 near Albion Ridge Road in Albion following a short foot chase. His next court appearance will be for a preliminary hearing on December 7. More on his bail later.
So how did Redbeard survive nearly a year living rough in the woods?
“I was cold all the time,” he said. He said he had a radio, but that he only listened to it infrequently when he was sure he wouldn’t be overheard. Ditto for talking to himself. Feeding himself was often daunting. “I foraged for food, and didn’t have to kill any animals,” he said, though over that time he said he did kill one turkey and a quail with a slingshot. “I ate a lot of different mushrooms and especially liked the chanterelles.”
A plant website describes Golden Pacific chanterelles as “one of the best wild edible mushrooms in the Pacific Northwest.” He said that what he couldn’t forage in the woods he took from unoccupied coastal homes and their vegetable gardens. (As an aside, realtor.com lists the median price of a home in Albion as $1,247,500.) “I basically just took what I needed,” he said. “I especially love pumpkin, all other kinds of squash, cabbage, green beans, and onions.” When surprised by a resident in a vegetable garden, his pockets “stuffed with beets and onions,” the resident reportedly said that he never felt threatened by Redbeard and “would have given him the food if he hadn’t stolen it.”
Redbeard told me that he carried all of this in his backpack, in addition to “a sleeping bag, a nylon jacket, a leather mitt and a cooking pot.” He never had a phone. “I didn’t want to involve others,” he said, “and I didn’t know what to say to them” [family and friends]. He never had a dog, explaining that he feared he wouldn’t be able to adequately feed them both, and was constantly on the move. “I walked through three pairs of shoes,” he said.
This is neither the time nor the place to argue the specifics of Redbeard’s case, though something must be said about the mind-blowing $2.5 million bail levied by the district attorney. According to Mendocino County’s own posted felony bail schedule, assault with a deadly weapon on a peace officer lists bail at $50,000; attempted murder in the first lists $250,000, and murder in the second $125,000. Burglary of a residence lists bail at $50,000. It can only be assumed that the preposterous $2.5 million bail is law enforcement’s pound of flesh for embarrassing them by eluding SWAT teams and dozens of deputies who couldn’t catch this low-key survivalist for nearly a year.
In 2014 voters in California overwhelmingly passed (59.61% to 40.39%) Proposition 47, which “classified certain crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies unless the defendant has prior convictions for murder, rape, certain sex offenses or certain gun crimes.” Burglary was one such reclassified crime. As for the attempted murder charge, nobody was hit, and when one enterprising local reporter requested footage from the body-cameras worn by deputies pursuing Redbeard back in May, when the alleged attempted murder took place, the reporter wrote that he was told the footage didn’t exist. So absent any physical evidence or any witnesses (at least as publicly disclosed so far) other than Redbeard himself or the pursuing deputies, who really knows who shot first, and at whom?
In America, property rights reign supreme. Stealing is stealing, though California distinguishes between stolen goods valued at less than or greater than $950. A man’s home is his castle, so goes the slogan. Even if you’re poor and have to eat to survive, stealing food is a crime, one that landowners and the police of yore have grappled with since time immemorial. In medieval times a spike could be driven through a thief’s tongue for stealing food. But even poets have addressed theft in the face of “the sharp tooth of hunger” through the ages, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who wrote on the cusp of the nineteenth century:
Th’ almighty power of hunger was the cause,
Which owns no master, and obeys no laws.
Those tempted to fall back on the “law and order” plank buried deep in the law-and-order firmament of American exceptionalism and its Trumpian adherents might do well to consider a more contemporary example when considering punishment for the poor who steal food to survive.
Five years ago Italy’s highest court of appeals ruled that stealing small amounts of food to stave off hunger is not a crime. An op-ed following the ruling stated that “In times of economic hardship…the court “reminds everyone that in a civilized country not even the worst of men should starve.” The ruling derives from a concept that “informed the Western world for centuries – it is called humanity.”
Getting in to see Mr. Evers was not easy. I had arrived a half-hour early for my 1:30 scheduled interview with William ‘Redbeard’ Evers at the county jail on Low Gap Road in Ukiah. I’d arranged the interview with the help of the sheriff’s public-information officers, who have been unfailingly respectful and helpful in paving my way for past interviews in and around the jail complex. I didn’t expect to even mention the jail when I set out to do this story.
My troubles trying to meet Redbeard began at the main entrance front door. The locked doors bore a sign reading “We Are Open,” and instructed the reader to push the doorbell. Which I did, once, twice, and thrice before a cheery voice finally picked up. After stating my business she said, “You’re in the wrong place. You have to go to the night entrance door. Someone will help you there.”
“No problem,” I said, noting the night entrance on the far side of the building. The narrow room contained a locked door, a reinforced window, and two phones: tan and black. The wall-mounted instructions were to pick up the tan phone and wait until someone got on the line. For 15 minutes I picked up the phone, getting nothing but empty air for my trouble. I walked over to the black phone on the facing wall and picked up the receiver. The corrections officer who answered told me that he was in the communications center and couldn’t help me. So I fell back on the “pick up the tan receiver and someone will answer” maneuver again, with the same dead-air result. By this time, I was officially late for my scheduled interview. I left tan-phone and went back to black-phone, where I practically begged the guy in the communications center to help me. He relented and gave me a different number.
When I called this latest number a pleasant young woman asked me to please hold on. Which I did, for another five minutes. She came back to me and asked “Are you still there?” I assured her I was, and she told me to go back to the front door and “someone will get you.” By now I was 45 minutes late for my interview.
I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist but it finally dawned on me that something was rotten in Denmark. When the sergeant I had been seeking finally walked up behind me I asked him if these numerous delays were some kind of payback against the inmate, who had embarrassingly eluded law enforcement for nearly a year. “I didn’t know you were here,” he replied with a straight face. After my dozens of calls at multiple numbers I found this hard to believe but held my tongue. In this life it’s important to recognize when you’re powerless.
As I followed him down the rise to the jail building I asked him what room I’d be doing my interview in. “I don’t know anything about a room for an interview,” he said.
“But but but — I went through this when I set it up,” I said. “The acoustics are awful and it’s hard to take pictures through the glass.” He said it was out of the question, that Redbeard could “take me hostage” and corrections officers would have to “go in and rescue you.”
Really? Taken hostage by a shackled, unarmed inmate in a jail filled with locked rooms? I told him I would take full responsibility and sign a waiver absolving the county of any and all liability if Redbeard attacked me or took me hostage.
No dice. Not even any wiggle room. So it was down to the interview dungeon, where you sit behind thick glass. Two old-timey black phone receivers supposedly allow inmate and visitor to clearly communicate on opposite sides of the glass.
The next problem was that nobody could figure out how to connect the phones. Worse, the volume button was either broken or disabled. Geeez Louise, what next? My hearing isn’t the greatest but with my hearing aids I do fine. I explained to the corrections officers that it was critical that I hear every word and asked if Redbeard could call me on my Smartphone, which I held up to show that they could prove that it was me Redbeard was calling.
No cell phones allowed. Period. So in this rinky-dink auditory environment Redbeard and I cobbled together a conversation of sorts by near-shouting and holding paper-and-pen messages up to the glass.