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Glovebox Banditry

Pedestrian crime in Willits is on the rise. Two cases have come to court recently, and both the footpads were found guilty. One was Sara Grusky, the Willits Bypass protester who walked on the wrong side of the street and had to be wrestled to the ground and hogtied by a CHP tag team. 

The other criminal biped, Harlan Williams, started out on foot, but also eluded a Willits Police Department officer on a bicycle.

Williams made his getaway while the Willits PD officer pursuing was busy collaring Williams' juvenile co-suspect. That kid was fleeing the crime scene on push-scooter, and proved easier to catch, but not before Sheriff’s Sergeant Mike Davis was summoned from Laytonville, and Deputy Scott Brixie was called in to help run these two characters to ground.

Sara Grusky is a Willits goatherd and vegetable farmer. She is also a Willits Bypass protester with extra incentive to protest because Caltrans, with a battalion of CHP officers running interference, is ramming the concrete Bypass monster through the Little Lake Valley where Ms. Grusky keeps her dairy goats and cultivates her veggies.

Think of Heidi at 39, and you’ll have a good mental picture of Ms. Grusky.

Ms. Grusky was arrested on May 15, on an infraction, for which she was jailed for three days. Infractions usually don't get the infractor jail time, but Caltrans claims they’ve spent over $1 million (over)guarding the bypass project, and the CHP officers collecting all this overtime pay keeping an eye on a ragtag group of pacifists are beginning, it would seem, to break the monotony by busting the most unlikely people, even infractors.

Willits News photographer Steve Eberhard, another infractor, got a handcuffed ride to the County Jail when he allegedly violated whatever it was he violated. DA Eyster immediately announced he had no intention of pursuing charges against Eberhard.

But the DA has filed a complaint alleging Grusky had walked on a roadway in a direction contrary to the flow of traffic. (Hey! Didn't Mom always warn us to walk facing the traffic?) Grusky was also accused of failing to obey the lawful order of a peace officer, but the DA dropped this latter charge.

The CHP team of Ramsey and Babcock (*See appended assessment of Babcock in action in the Anderson Valley) tackled Grusky, wrestled her to the ground, pinned her arms behind her back and tied her wrists together with zip-ties. They then shoved her into a patrol car and hauled her off to jail as her friends and fellow protesters watched aghast at the rough treatment. All, or most, of Grusky's comrades were present for Grusky’s hearing, filling the gallery of Ukiah’s biggest criminal courtroom.

Will Parrish, an array of over-charges pending against him, and Amanda “Warbler” Senseman were among Grusky's supporters. Ms. Senseman is the young environmentalist who started the Willits protests with her now-legendary tree-sit. The protesters and their supporters later posed on the Courthouse steps for a group photo.

Officer Ramsey, explaining why he'd arrested Ms. Grusky, told Judge John Behnke, “The situation was very dangerous in that area.” In other words, Grusky had been rescued, not arrested.

The roadway was being closed down, apparently so that Caltrans contractors could move in some heavy equipment; Ms. Grusky was in the way. She was ordered to move out of the way. But when she did, she was then breaking the law by walking in the wrong direction.

Judge Behnke said, “So the conduct alleged is walking in a southbound direction along the northbound lane, Ms. Grusky. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Just so you are aware,” she began, “I’m opposed to the bypass project. It is hugely destructive to the Little Lake Valley and water table. This discussion has been going on for three decades, and…”

“For four decades, to my recollection,” Judge Behnke interjected pleasantly.

“Yes, your honor, four. And many doors have been slammed in the faces of people who have tried to turn the course of the disaster…”

Judge Behnke is a careful listener. His mind never seems to race ahead to predictable conclusions in the way of so many justice system apparatchiks. Behnke studiously focuses on every aspect of a story, and so it often happens that the more sensitive creatures who come before him will eventually catch the note of overweening persistence in their own voice, and stammer to a halt.

Sara Grusky intuited as much: “To come to the point,” she sighed and said at last, “many of those of us who felt other avenues had been denied us, we, well, um … we talked it over and decided that civil disobedience was our only recourse.”

She then launched into a scholarly lecture on the history of civil disobedience in America. The judge listened with his chin in his fist, elbow on the bench, nodding his head as Grusky spoke. Judge Behnke was a Peace Corps volunteer in the 70s; his daughter is a Peace Corps volunteer now. Social justice runs in the Behnke blood, it would seem.

Ms. Grusky summed up: “It’s not a small decision to put your life on the line for what you believe in. But this is a serious threat to the future, my children’s and grandchildren’s futures.”

Behnke said, “Okay. But you haven’t actually addressed the relatively small issue by comparison to your overall concerns regarding the Willits bypass project that this hearing is about, and which I believe you are essentially admitting to. You could possibly have been seriously injured with heavy equipment moving around like that and that would have been very bad for your children and grandchildren as well. So you put yourself at risk and others too. The person driving that truck would have felt terrible and your children and grandchildren would have been distraught. Civil disobedience is one thing, subjecting yourself to severe physical injury is something else.”

“What about the rough treatment and the jail time?” Ms. Grusky asked.

“The officers did what they felt they had to do and as the infraction carries no jail time, I’ll apply the time you served against the fines. There will be six or seven dollars to your credit, but unfortunately you will not be able to get that back. I think you did what this infraction says you did, and I suggest in the future you use legal measures — you could have gotten hurt and that would have been a tragedy. That’s all I’m going to say, except I’m kind of surprised by what they did.”

* * *

Harlan Williams, 18, defended by Dan Haehl, took his case all the way to jury trial.

He lost.

Williams was accused of making a criminal threat against Mr. Soria of Willits and trying to intimidate a witness, Mrs. Soria.

The incident began on April 29th while the Sorias were eating dinner. Looking out the window of their dining room, Mr. Soria saw the defendant, Mr. Williams, accompanied by an un-named juvenile, enter the Soria's driveway and open the door to the family vehicle and start rifling through the glove box. Soria put down his fork and went out to confront the two punks.

At this point, the audacious Williams pulled a knife and said, “I’ll kill you, homey.”

Mr. Soria backed off, as Williams, seemingly in full psycho mode, walked towards Mr. Soria, fondling his knife. By then, Mrs. Soria had shooed the kids back inside, and was dialing 911 on her cellphone. Just as Mrs. Soria saw Williams walking towards her husband with a knife, Williams saw Mrs. Soria with her cellphone and, putting it all together, figured out that Mrs. Soria was calling the police. Apparently Williams said something, or made some threatening move towards Mrs. Soria, and this was the basis for the second charge against him, intimidating a witness.

His grand robbery of the Soria's glovebox having been thwarted, Williams abandoned his pursuit of Mr. Soria’s gloves — or whatever Mr. Soria kept in his glovebox — and fled with his co-defendant, the juvenile delinquent who can't be named because, Aw, shucks, he's just a kid.

Deputy DA Shannon Cox played the 911 call for the jury: “Hello? There’s someone breaking into my car! Now they’re coming after my husband with a knife!”

“Ma’am, I need you to calm down, and answer some questions.”

“But he’s about to kill my husband!”

“Yes, but I need some information. (Take a breath, pour a good long drink, drag up a chair and let’s chat, eh? Feel better? Good.) Now, where are you?”

“In Willits!”

“Yes, but what part of Willits are you in?”

“Spring Street!”

“That’s nice, lovely place, but could you tell me possibly what part of Spring Street you are on? Which side of the street, perhaps? Anything that would help me direct my officers to your location?”

When you listen to these 911 calls in court you just want to scream. There’s no time, the caller is panicking, and the dispatcher has to settle the callers down enough to get the basic facts as the callers gasp and shriek. The deed is usually done by the time the cops get there — through no fault of the dispatcher or the overwrought caller. In Mendocino County the cops get there fast; in Detroit average response time is 58 minutes.

Williams fled on foot. At first. But he later “found” a bicycle and made the second leg of his flight on the bike. Deputy Brixie arrived to interview the victims just as the two morons went whizzing by, one on a bike and the other on a scooter — not a motorscooter, a push scooter. They'd circled back to the scene of the crime! The kid on the scooter was soon in custody, but the adult (sic) on the bike got away, but not before everyone got a good look at him, good enough for an arresting officer to go straight to Williams' trailer to arrest him.

There were perhaps fifty CHP officers in Willits at the time, but they were all deployed to guard against the dendrophiles protesting the Willits bypass and couldn’t leave their posts to assist in the search for Williams. Deputy Brixie had to call Sgt. Davis down from Laytonville for back-up.

It took a couple of hours for Sgt. Davis to arrive in Willits, as he was involved, he said, with another investigation in Laytonville and couldn’t leave right away. But he drove to a certain trailer park in Willits. The moment he arrived, he somehow stumbled upon the defendant, Williams, and his bicycle. Uncanny, isn’t it, how resident deputies always know just who to look for?

The jury was out maybe ten minutes. The verdict: Guilty, on Count One threatening to kill Mr. Soria; Count Two intimidating Mrs. Soria; Not Guilty.


* From the AVA, October 17, 2012: A big win for John Mckeller is also a big win for the motorists of Mendocino County. McKeller lives on Greenwood Road. You may recall that it was the sunny Sunday morning of May 6th when McKeller set out for his regular yoga session in Ukiah in his black Dodge Durango, the kind of vehicle viewed by law enforcement as a rolling felony. But McKeller is a law-abiding citizen, not a felon. He just likes Durangos.

That day McKeller knew there was an abalone checkpoint at the Boonville Fairgrounds so he rolled his tinted windows all the way down for easy viewing and proceeded within the posted speed limits through Philo, picking up lawful speed as he approached the Indian Creek Bridge.

“Which,” McKeller recalls, “is when a CHP cruiser whipped around and pulled me over at the driveway to KZYX. As the officer walked up to my window I released my seatbelt. The cop said I was driving without a seatbelt, but how could he even see my seatbelt driving the other direction at that redwood grove at the bridge? It’s the darkest stretch of road this side of Navarro. And besides I was wearing my seat belt.”

The CHP officer was the infamous Officer Babcock, something of a legend on the South Coast for eagle-eyed seat belt violations real, but many South Coast people insist, often imagined by the zealous Babcock. There were so many complaints about Babcock from South Coast residents that he was transferred inland to work out of the CHP's Ukiah office.

Back in Philo that bright day in May, Babcock had proceeded to write McKeller a seatbelt ticket. An incredulous McKeller was astounded he was getting a ticket for an offense he had not committed. He soon visited the CHP office in Ukiah where he asked if he could look at the video of his alleged infraction, and was surprised that the duty officer immediately handed it to him.

“There it was right on tape,” McKeller says. “It shows everything — the officer doing a u-turn to catch up with me and me unhooking my seat belt as he walks up to my window.”

McKeller's next stop was Judge Nadel’s courtroom. “You have it on tape?” the judge laughed. “Yes, I do your honor,” McKeller said, “and here it is.” At the end of the viewing, the judge said, “I’m putting this over until Tuesday the 9th of October at 11am. “I’m going to bring the officer in and make him explain this one,” she said.

On the 9th of October, which was last Tuesday, Officer Babcock and McKeller both appeared in Judge Nadel's courtroom. “I couldn't get my video to work so I ended up showing it on judge's laptop. I hadn't heard the audio before. The audio goes on just as Babcock is pulling me over. He's unloading his f-bombs all over the place. As he's following behind me, the whole courtroom hears him saying, “What a fuckin' moron. Why didn't he fuckin' pull over right there. That would have been fuckin' perfect.”

So, now there's the video that clearly shows McKeller, his vehicle at a full halt at the KZYX driveway, unhooking his seatbelt as Officer Babcock walks up to McKeller's Durango with Officer Babcock spraying the Indian Creek neighborhood with f-bombs.

Officer Babcock didn't know about the video, and certainly didn't know McKeller had a copy which had just now been played in court.

Audio-visuals be damned! Babcock stuck to his false story that McKeller not only didn't have his seat belt on he'd crossed the yellow highway divider line. However, the video clearly, unmistakably, irrefutably shows the fully seat-belted McKeller not crossing the line. And wearing his seatbelt.

Judge Nadel said she'd seen enough as Officer Babcock launches into a laughable spiel about how his own camera “can't see everything” and how he saw what he saw and that he properly ticketed McKeller for not wearing his seatbelt.

“On tape,” McKeller says, you can see that Babcock is a quarter mile away from me when he starts turning around saying that he saw my belt off. My video shows everything and now we have the audio to go with it.”

Judge Nadel finds for McKeller. Officer Babcock slams his chair into the table and stomps out of the courtroom, behavior that would have caused lots of judges to bring him back into the courtroom to threaten him with contempt if he didn't apologize for his behavior.

McKeller says he will file a formal complaint against Babcock. ¥¥


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