Robert S. Sherman is a Point Arena auto mechanic sentenced to the County Jail for selling stolen property. Sherman was arrested when he boldly appropriated a water tank from the Elk Fire Department and sold it down the Coast to a homeowner at Sea Ranch. While in jail, Sherman continued his larcenous ways by defrauding a Coke machine. This crime caused Mr. Sherman to get his face stomped in, all his teeth knocked out and his upper jaw and eye sockets crushed.
Most people would say the latter punishment was out of all proportion to Sherman's defraud of the coke machine.
No, the jailers did not do this to Mr. Sherman, but fighting among inmates and inmate beatings of other inmates are fairly common occurrences at the jail, although there are inexperienced liberals who prefer to assume that jailers, aka corrections officers, do the beating.
Surely the oppressed wouldn't do this to each other? That can be the thinking.
It was a jailer who probably saved Sherman's life.
Ask the Sheriff if this kind of thing happens very often and you’ll get, “Not very often.” Ask the people who come and go from the cells on Low Gap Road and they'll say it happens all the time, but not to the degree that Sherman got it. And there's the problem. Most people don’t believe jailbirds when they have the Sheriff’s assertions to the contrary.
Many times I’ve seen defendants stand up in court and try to tell the judge what goes on at the jail. But the judges invariably cut them short. The defendant is told that they — the judges — cannot hear the complaint because the jail must first have a chance to respond to the charges. The person doing the complaining is told that there are proper channels at the jail to go through to file such complaints. This usually shuts the defendant up, as the color drains from his face and nothing more is ever heard from that particular bellyacher. But soon enough, another “crybaby” tries to tattle tales to a judge and the same thing happens: “Sit down and shut up. If you have a problem at the jail, tell your jailers.”
“It’s one of the little tools we have to get even with some of these people when the judge lets ‘em off with an easy sentence,” one officer who understandably wished to remain anonymous told me.
Twice in the past year, we’ve seen serious inmate-on-inmate beatings come into court, and both cases were assaults so severe they could have resulted in death.
Robert Sherman was about halfway through a one-year sentence last December 1st when he got his. Sherman had figured out that the Coke machine in his unit could be cheated by inserting the card with your commissary credits on it upside-down in the machine, causing the machine to not only give you the desired can of soda, bag of chips or candy bar, but add $2.50 to your account. Sweet!
Others caught on — believe it or not — and soon the machine was empty. Thinking that the vendor would be loathe to refill the machine when he toted up his missing cans and coins, Sherman called for a moratorium on the swindle. So many guys were doing it they were killing the goose laying the golden cokes.
Jailhouse vendors have a captive audience that they ruthlessly exploit. Even something like a call from a payphone to your dear old mother is prohibitively expensive, but there is no choice — you have to call mom collect and jack up her phone bill so exorbitantly that she's punished, too.
Sherman's call for a moratorium on the looting of the Coke machine was not well received.
* * *
Chief Prosecutor Paul Sequiera called his first witness, the victim, Robert Sherman, and asked if he was nervous facing the four men who tried to stomp his brains out: Cleveland Carr, Yordan Mirabal, Eric Roberts, Miguel Contreras. They were arranged around the courtroom with their guards and lawyers, staring at Sherman.
Sherman said he was indeed nervous.
“Did you ever snitch anyone off,” Sequiera asked.
“But someone thought you did?”
“Yeah. They thought I had floated a kite,”
“What’s a kite?”
“It’s a note to the jailers — I didn’t know that at the time, but I do now.”
“What were you doing that day?”
“Same as every day. I worked in the kitchen so I got up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning to have breakfast and go to work. It was a regular day. I went to work and came back to my cell at about 1:30. I was tired so I laid down and went to sleep.”
“What’s the next thing you remember?”
“I woke up because I was being kicked out of my bunk.”
“Do you know his first name?”
“Which bunk were you on?”
“The bottom. Carr came around behind me and kicked me out on the floor.”
“Then what happened?”
“I was held down and beat up by Carr and the others.”
“Held down by who?”
“By Mirabal, Contreras and, that guy, Eskimo.”
“The guy over there with the blonde lady.” The blonde lady was Jan Cole-Wilson of the Alternate Public Defender's Office.
“The People would ask that the record reflect the witness has identified Eric Roberts, your honor. Anybody else?”
“All of them started kicking and punching me, yelling that I’d floated a kite.”
“How long did this go on?”
“Two-and-a-half to three minutes.”
“You said you were stomped?”
“Yes. In my face. My upper jaw and eye sockets were crushed, I now have metal plates in my head; all my teeth were knocked out. I would have been killed but another gentleman pulled me out by the leg… I don’t know who he was.”
It was Corrections Officer Zaied, a man with a Syrian name who is lucky not to be in Syria. Sherman, considering his injuries, might have been safer in Syria.
Clothes do not always make the man, but everyone at the courthouse was so used to seeing corrections officer Zaied in uniform, that we failed to recognize him when he came to court, as a witness, in an ink-blue suit.
“So you don’t know who pulled you out?”
“By then my eyes were swollen almost shut and swimming in blood, but he pulled me out by the leg and got me by the arm and helped get me out the door. He told me to get out of there before they killed me. They were trying to pull me back in. Then I went to the hospital and was life-flighted to Santa Rosa.”
Officer Zaied deserves a medal. But he was left out in the hallway during the hearing (all witnesses being excluded so they can’t compare notes with others) and nobody even bothered to tell him when it was over, that he wouldn’t need to testify. Whether this was because Sherman couldn’t identify the man who saved him, or because the defense was so hopelessly unable to defend the beat down boys that having Zaied testify would only dig this indefensible crew in deeper.
Each of the beat down boys had a publicly-funded attorney.
Judge Ann Moorman: “Who wants to go first?”
Justin Petersen (for Yordan Mirabal): “I guess I will. Good morning, Mr. Sherman. How long was it that you had been in jail before this incident occurred?”
“Five months and three weeks.”
“And in this time you had learned some of the lingo, some of the jailhouse slang?”
“But you had never heard the term ‘kite’?”
“No, I had not.”
“So after this incident you had, what?”
“How much more time did I have to serve? About six months. Are you suggesting I took a nearly fatal beating just to cut my sentence short?”
“Please, Mr. Sherman. Please, just answer the questions.”
Justin Petersen looks like Eddie Haskel from “Leave It To Beaver.” He even wears vintage suits from the era when the sit-com was popular. He has a stable of sports cars and, to him, I suppose, taking a public defender case is just gravy. Bill three or four courtroom hours to the county for asking a few questions any random person off the street might ask. It took him 47 minutes to go ever so thoroughly through every aspect of the testimony Sherman had just delivered on direct — just to be sure he'd heard it right. As the clock ticked and legal fees mounted, all of these questions and reminders and scrupulously exact exactitudes were prefixed and appended with, for example:
Petersen “Now, Mr. Sherman — may I ask you — no, strike that. Let me ask you this, Mr. Sherman. Just let me flip through my legal pad a moment longer — oh, yes. Here it is: Did you say you had just got off work at the kitchen… It was the kitchen, where you were working, wasn’t it? Yes! That’s right and, then, let me see… Oh, yes, can you describe Dorm C? — no, wait, I’m sorry. It was B-12, wasn’t it?”
Is that a cellblock or a vitamin?
“There is a large living area with tables and four dorms altogether. Two upstairs and two on the ground level.”
“And did any of the four defendants here today live with you in your dorm?”
“They all lived upstairs.”
“And you worked in the kitchen with one or more of them?”
“Yes, three of them: Mirabal, Contreras, and Carr.”
“Now, isn’t it true that you had told someone that my client, Mr. Mirabal, was a rat?”
“No. I don’t recall that.”
“Yes, but wasn’t there a black guy in the kitchen and you bragged that you got him kicked out of there?”
“No. He got kicked out for hollering and screaming.”
“Yes, but wasn’t he hollering and screaming because you called him a nigger?”
“And wasn’t it you who figured out how to get free drinks from the vending machine?”
“Yeah. Another guy saw me do it and told everybody. The machine was empty the next day.”
“Who was that guy?”
“I’m not sure… I don’t remember… maybe Mirabal — yeah, it was Mirabal. He saw me do it and I told him not to do it or they would take the machine out. It was a nice thing to have and I didn’t want to lose it.”
“How many people knew about it after Mirabal?”
“I don’t know — maybe 12.”
“So you talked to the 12 guys and told them not to use it or they’d take it out?”
“Yeah, right. And everybody stopped as far as I knew.”
“Did somebody go and get three sodas out that day?”
“I don’t know. I was at work.”
“But if somebody had gone to get a soda while you were at breakfast in the living area, you could have seen it, right?”
“Did that happen?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“There was a box in the living area to put notes in for the corrections officers, request slips, and things like that, wasn’t there?”
“And you could put other things in the box too; things like kites?”
“And it would be difficult to see what anyone put on those notes and slips, wouldn’t it?”
“Did anyone put a note or slip in the box on that day?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
Mr. Petersen paced a moment in contemplation, then he took another tack.
“So after you came back from the kitchen, you saw these people come into your dorm”—
“I was asleep when they came in. I was woken up when I was kicked out of my bunk.”
“Can you describe how he kicked you out — it was Carr who kicked you out, wasn’t it? And how did he — physically — how did he do that? Did he grab the railing of the top bunk and swing from it? Is that how he did it?”
“Yeah, like that.”
“So he kicked you with both feet at once?”
“He kicked me with his foot and his knee.”
“And can you describe how you landed?”
“Yeah. I landed sort of on my side and back and slid into the next bunk.”
“Now, after this incident you made some statements to a correctional officer, do you remember his name?”
“I was in pretty bad shape, all I know is I was rushed to the hospital.”
“Do you remember speaking to an Officer Leon?”
“I was going unconscious. I can’t remember. I couldn’t talk — my jaw was crushed.”
“Do you remember saying to the officer that you got hurt falling out of your bunk?”
“You said I said that.”
“Do you remember Carr coming to your bunk and saying he needed to talk to you? And you said you were tired — do you remember that?”
“Do you know who kicked you out of your bunk?”
“So Carr swings from the top bunk and hits you with his feet and knees and knocks you out of your bunk and you hit the floor and slide into the next bunk, four feet away, correct?”
“And what part of your body hit the bunk that stopped you?”
“My head, but it wasn’t that bad. I didn’t hit the bunk that hard.”
“And where was Carr at this time?”
“Carr came through the bunk and was on top of me.”
“So all five of you are there between the two sets of bunks?”
“Did you hear anything before they began hitting and kicking you?”
“Yeah. I heard ‘kite! Roll it up, kite!”
When you are going to move from one cellblock to another, or leave the jail, you “roll up” all your things inside your mattress so you can carry it all with you, ready for the next guy. “Roll it up,” means you're leaving. In this instance, the noun 'kite,' meaning a note to the guards, also doubles as an epithet for the one who wrote the note.
“Who was saying this?”
“Eskimo [Roberts] and Carr were both yelling, ‘Hey, Kite, you need to roll it up and get out’.”
“How many times did you get hit by my client, Mr. Mirabal?”
“Four or five times.”
“Where did he strike you?”
“In my teeth — my face and jaw.”
“Who was holding you down?”
“Eskimo and Carr, and when Carr got up to kick me, Mirabal held me down.”
“Who was punching you?”
“They all were.”
This was far too clear of an answer for that master milker-of-the-clock, Justin Petersen.
“Wait wait wait,” Petersen said. “Let’s just slow it down a bit… Relax a minute. Now, who said ‘kite’?”
“Who said ‘snitch’ — did any of them say ‘snitch’?”
“Who said, ‘Roll it up’?”
“That would have been Carr. But I said I wasn’t going to roll it up because I didn’t snitch nobody off.”
“At one point you said Carr got up?”
“Yeah. He was yelling I was a snitch and Mirabal came over.”
“Did you know this had to do with the soda machine?”
“Not at the time.”
“Didn’t someone say they saw you put a kite in the suggestion box?”
“I don’t recall.”
“But didn’t Eskimo have something in his hand?”
“Yeah. A piece of paper. He said somebody fished it out of the box. Then Mirabal kicked me in the head.”
“How? How did he kick you? Was it with the toe of his foot, the ball of his foot, the side or what?”
“He stomped his foot down on my face.”
“Oh, so now you’re saying he stomped you?”
“Yeah. He stomped me.”
“How did he do that?”
“With the heel of his foot. He raised his foot up and stomped me.”
Petersen wanted a re-run of the stomping in slow motion, but Deputy DA Paul Sequeira was getting impatient and objected. Petersen was asked by the judge to move on.
“How many times did Mr. Mirabal do that?”
“Until all my teeth were knocked out.”
“Did he say anything?”
“Not that I recall. I couldn’t see much at that point. My eyes were swelling shut, and some guy grabbed me by the leg and pulled me out.”
“And then they took you to the hospital — do you remember when they asked you about the mechanism of the injuries that you told them it lasted only seconds?”
“I don’t remember anything about that. They’d already given me injections.”
“You also don’t remember saying you fell off the bunk, right?”
“Okay. Let’s go back to the dorm. After Mirabal strikes you with his foot, what does he do then?”
“I don’t know, I couldn’t see very well.”
“So you don’t know if Mirabal was still striking you after that?”
“Yeah, I was trying to get up and got slammed back down. I was going in and out of consciousness.”
“And that would impair your ability to tell who was stomping you wouldn’t it? After that point, you wouldn’t be able to tell who did what to you? Or how long this was going on, isn’t that true?”
“So the truth of the matter is you really don’t know?”
“That’s pretty much it. I was pretty messed up.”
“So you didn’t actually see Mr. Contreras do anything—?”
“I don’t remember him actually hitting me, no.”
“As far as you know, did you have any kind of beef, or dispute or disagreement with any of these guys?”
Jan Cole-Wilson, attorney for Mr. Eric Eskimo Roberts, went next.
“Would you say your memory was clearer then than it is now?”
“I don’t know.”
Ms. Cole-Wilson frowned at this response. She said, “And you don’t remember telling Corrections Officer Zaied that Carr wanted to talk to you but that you were too tired?”
“So after you were knocked out of the bunk it was like a mob on you?”
“And you remember my client Eskimo holding a piece of paper and talking to you?”
“Was that before or after?”
“I’m not sure. I just remember parts of it.”
“And all this time, nobody helped you?”
“Was the main room empty?”
“As far as I remember it was.”
“Do you remember the name of the person who pulled you out?”
“No, I can’t remember his name now.”
“Was this your first time in jail?”
Next up was Catherine Livingstone of the Public Defender’s Office. She was representing Mr. Cleveland Carr.
“I’m a very visual person,” Ms. Livingstone announced as if it was all about her. “Could you draw a diagram of the layout?”
Mr. Sherman used a pad of sketch paper on an easel to diagram the scene. When he was done, Ms. Livingstone said, “Now you told the officer that you fell out of the bunk…”
“I don’t remember saying anything like that.”
“But didn’t Carr come to your bunk saying he wanted to talk to you?”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Do you remember what names you were alleged to have put on the kite?”
“Do you remember telling the doctors you had a seizure?”
“Do you recall telling them it only lasted a few seconds?”
Defense was apparently consulting different playbooks. They were all flipping through their files and legal pads looking for some inconsistency to exploit. They seemed to have lost track of the charges — assault with force likely to cause great bodily injury — a strike offense, as in Three Strikes and you're bye-bye for the rest of your life. Even if Sherman was a snitch, it wouldn’t mitigate the guilt of their clients.
Next was Patricia Littlefield, of the Alternate Public Defender’s Office, for Miguel Contreras. She said, “So as far as you knew you were the only one who knew how to get the free sodas from the machine?”
“So you were the only one benefiting from it — until Mr. Mirabal saw you do it and then he tried it himself?”
“Did you show him how to do it?”
“No, he figured it out himself.”
“Do you know who he told?”
“No, but it got around pretty quick.”
“Were you upset?”
“No. I just wanted to keep the machine.”
“Did anyone come to you and tell you to cool it?”
“After the beating started, how long was it before an officer came to help you?”
“No officers ever came to help.”
At this point a baby started wailing out in the foyer and hardly anything could be heard in the courtroom. Bailiff Arthur Barkley, a silver-haired gentleman of sterling polish and grace went out to restore order, but the wailing continued, and even seemed to soar in volume and pitch. Had it been anyone but Art Barkley, we’d have thought the kid was being tazered. Suddenly, Judge Moorman flew down from the bench, her robe fluttering like Dracula’s cape, and stomped out into the hall to make a judicial demand for quiet. The baby was not impressed. The wailing continued, as the judge climbed back up the dais and dropped in her chair, defeated.
After a while, the mother got her noise machine out on the courthouse lawn where it continued to drown out sirens from ambulances, but allowed court proceedings to resume inside.
Ms. Littlefield said, “Did you file a claim against the county after this incident?”
“No,” Sherman answered.
“And you don’t remember my client, Mr. Contreras doing anything?”
This would have been the end of it, but Ms. Livingstone had given Mr. Petersen the idea that more time could be taken up drawing pictures, and he had the witness do just that. Everyone went at it again, repeating all the same stuff, mostly. Finally, it came down to the fact that Contreras was the most likely to get out of this one and Ms. Littlefield presented the noble argument that since her client had not actually done any of the violence to the victim, he should be let go.
“Mr. Sherman never said that my client ever once laid a hand on him or tried to keep him there; he never said Contreras was an active participant.”
Mr. Sequiera said, “He was facilitating and abetting by his presence.”
Ms. Littlefield said, “Just being present doesn’t cut it! He did not owe a duty to anyone to try and stop the crime.”
Judge Moorman said, “I’m not buying it. He could have been working as lookout, or blocking the view to facilitate and abet the actions of the others.”
They were all held for felony assault resulting in great bodily injury, except Contreras; he was held for misdemeanor assault.
Petersen said his client, Mr. Mirabal, was due to get out of jail and wanted to know what the bail schedule was for the new charges.
“There is no bail, the judge said.
When Petersen persisted, the judge said, “Okay, I’ll set bail at $500,000.”
* * *
NOTE: Miribal and Contreras were originally arrested on the same day (October 22, 2010) on pot-related charges. They're from East LA. Roberts and Carr are Ukiah-area residents with long bad boy legal histories.