Four hours after Russell Rexrode handed a month-old mountain lion cub to a Fish and Game warden, he was arrested for having it.
But, as events soon proved, Fish and Game didn't want the cub so much as they wanted Rexrode.
They wanted him bad and they got him good.
It was late on a Monday back in October of 2005 when Fish and Game Warden of the Year, Lynette Shimek and a team of game wardens from as far away as Tulare, popped Rexrode's gate and turned his house and him upside down.
There were enough people and guns to take down the James Gang, but the Warden Shimek's warrant said she and her strike force were looking for a month-old cougar cub they already had.
The warrant, the first of what would become four warrants signed by four different judges for two searches on two lengthy occasions, also said the game wardens could look for anything related to mountain lions — body parts, cages, catch poles, whatever.
There weren't any mountain lions, but there was plenty of whatever, including legal amounts of marijuana and the Rexrode family's gun collection.
"I hear the chain lock go pow! and they come charging in," Rexrode remembers, not that he would be likely to forget the sight of an armed, uniformed swat team running at him. "They said there were 7 Fish and Game wardens, but we counted 17. How could there be 7 people in 9 vehicles?"
"My wife was brushing out our daughter's two ponies. McKiver drives right up to her and stops maybe an inch from her, and she's brushing the pony with one hand while she'd holding the baby in her other arm. They surround me, and there's McKiver, the guy I'd handed the cub to four or five hours earlier. Shimek was there, too. I said to them, 'Hey, if this is for a mountain lion I just gave it to McKiver.'"
But it wasn't for the lion cub. Fish and Game was hunting Rexrode.
Three years and thousands of futile dollars to defense attorneys later, Rexrode, a fit, soft-spoken man with close-cropped black hair who looks younger than his 41 years, can only speculate about the reasons for his ruinous journey through the local legal system.
"They already had the cub. That Monday, I handed the cub over to Dennis McKiver. I wasn't sure where to take it so I took it to the Fort Bragg Animal Hospital. When I show up — my little girl was with me and she was upset about having to turn it in because she was already attached to it — McKiver's waiting for me. He asked me what happened to the mother. I told him I had no idea, but I wondered why there was no commonsense here. What are you supposed to do with a lion cub? Leave it out there? It couldn't be returned to the wild because its mother hadn't taught her to hunt."
The Rexrodes go back four generations in Fort Bragg. They've hunted and fished the forests of the Northcoast for a hundred years. Like most people who hunt and fish, Russell Rexrode cares deeply about the woods and the creatures who live in the woods, mountain lions especially. He probably knows more about the forests of Mendocino County than all the county's environmentalists put together because he's hiked after game over much of it. And he knows everything there is to know about mountain lions.
"They're a protected species," Rexrode says, "but there are lots of them out there, more than there used to be, and there seems to be more fish and game wardens here in Fort Bragg than there are in the whole state of Alaska."
"That day," Rexrode remembers, "the day I turned the lion in, I'd also met Shimek at the Sheriff's substation in Fort Bragg, after I'd turned the lion into McKiver at the Animal Hospital. McKiver introduced her to me. She said that the other cub a lady turned in in Willits was in bad shape. I said mine wasn't in bad shape, but I said the damage was already done to it. It wasn't wild anymore. It couldn't go back to the wild because its mother was gone before she could teach it to hunt. I explained everything to Shimek. She told me I'd done a good job, how I planned to worm it and all. She said she'd see me tomorrow, and I knew something was up. Our business should have been finished right there. I smelled a rat."
Four hours after that seemingly conciliatory conversation, four hours after the cub was turned in to game warden McKiver, the gate to Rexrode's house popped open, and 18 people, disgorged from 9 vehicles, came running onto his property. Twenty minutes another armed posse appeared, this one from the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department.
Rexrode's 8 acres off Gibney Lane looked like some kind of law enforcement training camp. All this for the misdemeanor offense of illegal possession of a wild animal?
"They went all through the house, throwing stuff on the floor, turning everything upside down," Sara Rexrode says.
All this commando show biz for a mountain lion cub?
There are thousands of young families like the Rexrodes on the Northcoast. They are a working couple struggling in a poor rural economy to raise their two children and pay off their property. The versatile Rexrode has worked in the woods and, for years, fished commercially in Alaska. Now he makes split stuff (fencing), does tractor work, tree trimming, carpentry. He stays busy because he's skilled and he works hard. Sara Rexrode put in twenty years as a waitress at the Little River Inn and did another tour at the MacCallum House. She'd taken time off to have the couple's second child, a boy.
Russell Rexrode's resume reads like that of many of his contemporaries on the Northcoast.
"I've worked in the woods. Fished. I do carpentry and tractor work. As a kid I was always hanging around the harbor, so I got hired on fishing boats out of Noyo. It was long lining and long hours. Tough work. Good training, though, and I was able to make real good money fishing in Alaska for 9 years. I'd be gone for 3 and a half months, hunt all winter. I could make as much as $90,000 a season in Alaska. My parents loaned me money for the property and I built the house myself. And then all this happened."
Within days of the raid, and alerted by Fish and Game's jubilant, fact-free press releases, media were hunting Russell Rexrode too.
"One of the strangest wildlife cases of the year was broken up by a team of state game wardens who rescued two baby mountain lions that weighed 5-7 pounds and in the process busted a suspect for drugs, weapons and illegal wildlife charges," began a typical newspaper account.
The papers were unaware that the cubs had already been turned in to Fish and Game; that the people who'd turned them in had saved them not starved them; that the weapons were a family collection of hunting rifles with an average age of 70, not an arsenal of assault weapons; that the drugs were a little more than 5 pounds of usable marijuana Rexrode had grown for himself and for neighbors with legal medical marijuana permission.
"Until this case was nailed," Lynette Shimek told her stenographers at the San Francisco Chronicle, "I wasn't able to sleep at night."
But instead of getting some shut eye once she had the cougar cub that had kept her awake, the insomniac game warden of the year just couldn't seem to stop hunting. She hadn't put together a Fish and Game strike force drawn from all over Northern California simply to round up a five pound panther cub. Warden Shimek was stalking Russell Rexrode.
"I just don't go randomly hunting mountain lions," Rexrode explains. "If I wanted to kill lions I could kill one today, any day. The thing with me is how good my hounds do on their track. I track mountain lions. That's the whole sport of it. Like running foxes. Lions tree right away. They have no lungs, no stamina for running. The hard part's getting them to jump. And to get them to jump you've got to find them. Lions hunt in big loops as big as 8 miles. Lots of time your dogs will have troubling picking up their trail; it can take hours, and even when you find a starting point a lot of time elapses between that point and when you and your dogs jump the lion and the lion goes up a tree and just sits there looking at you. I don't shoot it unless I've been hired to shoot it. What kind of sport would that be? Anybody can shoot a lion sitting in a tree. Me and my dogs track them then we go home. That's it. That's what I do. I've been hunting for 30 years. I'm proud of my dogs. I wanted that cub to raise it, to use it to train my hounds to trail mountain lions — trail them, not shoot and kill them!"
Rexrode is truly perplexed. He honestly believes he'd done the right thing in taking the cub home for a week, feeding it, searching the internet for a legal way to keep it. And when he learned there was no legal way to keep it, he turned it in.
"Over the years I've turned in 9 other cubs. I sign depredation permits so they know what I'm about. I'm not hunting for money. I do this because I enjoy it, and the fact that my dogs can do this, that I have the ability to do it. These cubs were weaned. I gave mine powdered goat's milk. I got it some wormer but didn't give it to her because I wanted to see if she was healthy enough — wormer's real hard on animals. My cub ate a lot so she was healthy. And I was on the internet constantly looking for ways to get a permit to keep it. There are these guys who go around to schools showing lions and I could see myself doing that here in Mendocino County. It's not impossible, or shouldn't be anyway. But the more I found out about it I learned it is pretty much impossible. Then I looked around for a place this cat could go if I couldn't get a permit for it."
His research into legally keeping the animal having failed, and realizing there was no sanctioned way to raise the lion, Rexrode and his 7-year-old daughter picked up the meticulous carrying cage Rexrode had handmade and drove the baby cat to the Fort Bragg Animal Hospital where they handed it over to game warden McKiver.
"If a warden saw me out there in the woods with it my hunting would be done, like it is now. That's what I didn't want to happen ever, and now that's exactly what has happened. I've got two hounds left. I hunt bobcats and run bears with them. Bobcats are the hardest to hunt. I don't want to kill bears although there are lots of them out there. I don't really like bear meat and I don't want to pack a bear out. But where's the animal cruelty with the mountain lion cub? I still don't see what I did wrong. I looked for ways to keep it, realized I couldn't, and I turned it in. "
And after he did the right thing, here comes a swat team through his front door.
"I hunted for years and it was Patton and Riley," Rexrode continues, looking back over his long history with Fish and Game, "the two game wardens out on the coast here. I never had any problem with them. They were reasonable, and they knew I played by the rules. But when Pam Robeson came along, well, things changed for me. I knew she didn't like me. We clashed a few times, and I admit I popped off a little to her."
There was a memorable set-to at a Hunter Safety class Robeson gave in Fort Bragg. Rexrode had taken some neighbor kids to the class.
"I didn't know she was teaching the class. She looked right at me, and I couldn't believe what I was hearing. She said, 'Some people aren't happy unless they get 4 ten-inch abalone; some people aren't happy unless they get a 20-inch blacktail buck; some people think it's ethical to run an animal until it's out of breath and then shoot it from 20 feet when it's up in a tree.'"
"So I argued with her. I told her she had it all wrong. Most of the people in the class were there for deer hunting maybe four weekends of the year. But people like me take care of our dogs all year, pack our guns around a lot. When a legal animal is in a tree you can decide if it's the one you want and you can make a better shot. I knew then I should have kept quiet. I never should have argued with her. I knew when they got their chance with me they would take it."
When mountain lions menace stock in the Fort Bragg area, Rexrode is often the rancher's go-to guy. The rancher gets the depredation permit, Rexrode brings his tracking hounds out and he and his dogs find and kill the predator.
"There was a lion a couple of years ago taking sheep out on the Noyo at the County Ranch," Rexrode says, producing an example of his function, "the rancher got a depredation permit from Fish and Game, she called me to get it. A lion teaching cubs to hunt on sheep — those lions aren't going back to deer. They're going to stay with sheep, and if they're hungry enough they'll go for a human. I think they're most dangerous just when they left their mothers. They tend to go for whatever's moving.
"The rancher was upset" Rexrode continues, "because after I got one that was killing her sheep, there was another one killing them. But she couldn't get the game warden to come out and give her a depredation permit, and she was losing sheep every night. Finally, she got permission, and I caught a total of three lions in a row in three nights. After that second one, I thought there might be another one, but I wasn't sure. She called me again and I caught the third one. Then Pam Robeson called me at 7am after the third one and told me my dogs' feet 'couldn't hit the ground' until she issued another depredation permit. She told me she was going to get an autopsy done on the last lion, and if there were no sheep parts in it I was going to be cited. I was kind of a smart ass with her, too. I told her I had a device that tells me if a lion ate sheep. She said, 'Well, that would make my job a lot easier, wouldn't it?' I told her one of the lions had gone straight from a dead sheep up a tree. Pretty good indication, isn't it? Pam said she was sure I was sport hunting lions on depredation permits. They did the autopsy, and found sheep in it. All three of those lions were killing sheep, and lions never go back to eating deer after they've killed sheep."
Another time Robeson found an unused bear tag in Rexrode's truck. Unused tags are supposed to be returned.
"I didn't send it in," Rexrode concedes, "but not on purpose; I just forgot about it. I'm not even sure why it's a violation not to send them back in, to tell you the truth. I don't get the logic of the violation."
Fish and Game, Rexrode says, wanted to take him to court on the bear tag, but nothing came of it.
But when Fish and Game heard that their nemesis had a mountain lion cub, they pounced.
Rexrode got the cub from Tony Pardini in Philo. Pardini is an old friend of Rexrode. They've worked and hunted together. Pardini had found two cougar cubs up a tree on his place. Their mother never was found.
Pardini called Rexrode and asked him if he wanted a lion cub.
Yes, of course Rexrode wanted it. Mountain lions fascinate the guy. He hustled down to Philo to get it. And he had the baby lion for one week, during which time he lavished care on it.
"No way was I going to hunt this lion," Rexrode insists. "I was hoping to raise it to train my dogs to trail lions. My dogs are trailing dogs, not hunting dogs. The way it works is like this: I'd have a friend of mine take the lion out into the woods and walk the lion through the woods and then 6 hours later see how cold of a track my dogs could trail. That's how you can really test your dogs. That's the part I'm interested in. My lion would already be back at home, not out in the woods with the dogs."
The Fish and Game search warrant was ostensibly restricted to mountain lions and mountain-lion-related objects, but when the strike force — or whatever action film fantasy it was that prevailed among the guardians of California's wild life that late fall afternoon — got to the Rexrode home, "they went through everything, just trashed the place, dumping drawers, the whole show," Rexrode says. "I challenged Fish and Game to take my computer so they could see I'd been looking for ways to legally keep the cub. I know they euthanize about 90% of the lions they take into custody because there isn't room for them all in licensed big cat sanctuaries, but here they were coming down on me for trying to keep one alive."
Their house made a shambles by the forces of law and order, Rexrode forewarned the raiders they would also find some marijuana.
"Then they called the cops from Ukiah. They told my wife Sara to take the kids and go to my parents house. They'd call when they were done to come home, but I was going to jail. Two weeks later she gets a letter that says she's to be booked on the same charges except for the mountain lion."
It was about 6pm when they'd all arrived and fanned out over the Rexrode place. They were still there until early the next morning.
Sara Rexrode remembers hearing a game warden "walking around out in back making sounds like a baby lion," as if there was another one some place nearby.
Her husband says of the raid, "They completely tore my house apart. They even went through the kids' stuff. I told them where all the guns were in the gun safe downstairs. I'd just sold a tractor, that's where the cash came from because I was going to buy a bigger tractor. I signed an affidavit that there was $3,800. They took it, too, of course."
Testimony would reveal that the cash had been paid to Rexrode by a young man who'd bought a tractor from him. The police assumed the money had derived from marijuana sales.
"In court," Rexrode says, "they made a big deal out of 'How could I bring that lion home with my kids?' Without claws, they're harmless, and this one was only 5-6 weeks old. It could eat and drink on its own. First one I saw this young. I was looking to get a permit to keep it. I would never endanger my kids or any other kids. I could have a lion with claws and I guarantee it wouldn't touch my kids. They claimed my cage wasn't certified, inadequate, makeshift, no lock, how it was endangering my children, but Fish and Game transported the cub in this cage all the way to Rancho Cordova."
The charges were piled on, everything from felony cultivation of marijuana for sale to misdemeanor possession of owl talons to possession of an assault weapon to possession of a mountain lion. Nothing related to mountain lions stuck.
Three years of legal wrangling commenced at the end of which the Rexrodes had gone broke employing five lawyers, and Russell Rexrode had been found guilty of felony marijuana cultivation but sentenced to serve six months in the County Jail.
He was fined $1,500 for possession of the lion cub he turned in.
Rexrode's conviction occurred the same day as the famous Kelly Decision ruling that the state's numerical pot limits were unconstitutional.
The famous lion itself was last seen in Rancho Cordova being carried by an employee of the Fish and Game Department in Russell Rexrode's handmade cage, the same cage a game warden had told him was illegal.
"There weren't any standing plants," Rexrode maintains. "It had been a bad year. Rained a lot. There was mold on everything. I'd plowed it under and fertilized the place where I'd grown them with lots of horse manure. I had no drip system, no fertilizer except horse manure. I was growing strictly for neighbors — a Vietnam vet, a diabetic, my own arthritis."
Rexrode was nearly killed in a terrible car crash when he was in high school.
"I was hit head-on by a drunk lawyer."
And mugged, it seems, by five sober ones.
"I had 7 and three-quarters pounds of clean pot in 9 bags for the people I was growing for; two of them had doctor's prescriptions for five pounds each. No money was exchanged, I did trades with them. I thought I was legal. The cops claimed 142 pounds of green pot. They weighed everything from the coat hangars to dirt balls like it was all bud. I didn't even have any ziplock bags at my house. This was the only dry, processed marijuana I had. The rest was hanging in the pump house. They bagged it in garbage bags with the coat hangers and other debris then weighed it."
At trial the jury almost laughed out loud at the 142 pounds figure alleged by prosecutor Tim Stoen. The jury was also comprised of 12 persons who implausibly claimed that they didn't use marijuana and didn't know anybody who did. The prosecution and Rexrode's attorney, Katharine Elliot, arrived at 8 pounds. They also arrived at an agreement that Rexrode had 4 more pounds than Mendocino County's fluid guidelines said he could legally possess.
At one point in the proceedings, the DA said her office didn't have the manpower to check the validity of marijuana prescriptions. Rexrode was certain the prescriptions he had allowed him to possess the less than ten usable pounds he was eventually convicted of possessing.
Charges were dropped against Sara Rexrode the day before her husband's trial began. The Mendocino County DA had tardily decided that Mrs. Rexrode had committed no crime. Mrs. Rexrode, it seems, had been charged simply to bring pressure on her husband to plead out in a way that reflected glory on the badged rampagers who'd torn his house and life apart.
The defendant is about to begin a six month stay in the Mendocino County Jail. He still hasn't gotten his tractor sale cash or his guns back.
He won't get his cash back. Rexrode's father will be allowed to retrieve the family's collection of hunting rifles.
"They told us we didn't get our paperwork in on time," Sara Rexrode says about the seized cash, while her husband bitterly sums up law enforcement's assessment of his gun collection.
"They made it sound like I was standing there with an M-16. I have nothing resembling an assault rifle. All my guns together average 70 years old. I'm a lever action guy, I have some bolt actions but they're all hunting rifles. Not that it makes any difference. I'm a convicted felon now. I can't have a gun, and I can never go hunting again."