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The Hungry Hollow Gunslinger

When Brandon Johnson arrived in court for his sentencing last Friday, he hardly looked the part of a gunslinger. In fact, the guerilla growers and bush hippies of Hungry Hollow, Philo, would have had to look twice to recognize him. He was in the company of his mother and she, clad in somberly formal dress herself, had dressed her son in a suitcoat he probably hadn’t worn in years, complete with a sunny yellow necktie. Brandon's hair was clipped and combed, his face shaved and scrubbed, his manner as subdued as a Sunday School student.


There had been a long wait for the sentencing ceremony to begin. Judge Ann Moorman had taken to her chambers to study the probation report. The defense was asking for the minimum; prosecution wanted a bullet — not a real bullet — the DA didn’t want young Brandon dragged out back China-style for a quick bullet in the back of the head the way Mr. Johnson had allegedly done away with Mary Aigner’s second best friend, her dog. Her boy friend, Hugh Freeman, is presumed to be first in Ms. Aigner's affections. A “bullet,” by the way, is courthouse slang for a year in the slammer.

While we waited for Judge Moorman to convince herself of what justice might look like in the case, Deputy Luis Espinoza chatted with the bailiff. Actually, it wasn’t the usual bailiff, but the relief bailiff — Judge Moorman’s polished, silver haired Art Barkeley having gone to lunch. Deputy Espinoza, a native of the Anderson Valley which includes the wilds of Hungry Hollow — recently promoted to Detective, was chatting with Deputy Scott, a patrol deputy was filling in for Barkeley.

Detective Espinoza had come within a heartbeat of shooting Brandon Johnson dead last September 12th. Johnson had come running at Espinoza and his backup Deputy Derek Paoli with a pistol in his hand. Detective Espinoza didn’t want to talk about it, but the incident had obviously made him uneasy. It isn't often in these tense times that deputies hesitate to pull the trigger. Johnson is lucky to have survived the encounter.

The lawyers appeared. Deputy DA Justin Boyd and Mr. Andrew Higgins from the Office of the Public Defender. Probation Officer Damon Lebert walked in and took a seat on the witness stand, which is where POs usually sit during sentencing procedures.

The alleged victims, Mary Aigner and her boy friend, Hugh Freeman, weren't present, although they would certainly have been notified of the opportunity to prepare a few pages of pre-sentencing remarks about the grief Johnson had caused them, along with suggestions on how he should be punished.

The judge finally came out, briskly assumed the bench, and said, “Alright, I’ve read through the probation report and recommendations, which I’m ready to follow. This is a stipulated sentence, which the parties agreed to when the defendant pled to Counts One and Two on December 5th. There was a promise of no state prison at the outset, and a recommendation for the nine month minimum. Any reason why we shouldn’t go forward at this time?”

Johnson had made his way forward and stood with his lawyer.

“We’re ready, your honor,” Mr. Higgins said. “We’ll waive formal reading of the charges. This incident was caused as much by my client’s neighbors as anything; there were bad decisions made on both sides, and Mr. Johnson knows he may have over-reacted, but some people just don’t get along, and my client is planning to relocate away from what became, and remains to be, a very volatile situation.”


The victim, Mary Aigner, owner of the dog Johnson shot, enjoys something of a pitbull reputation herself. Ms. Aigner runs the local public radio station. Yes, there's a doughy, capon-ized, male-type character occupying the boss chair, but Mommy rules. As program director at KZYX, Ms. Aigner decides who should or should not be accepted as a member of the audio community; programmers, and every other KZYX dependent are either at her feet or she's at their throats.

The sad episode that placed Mr. Johnson in front of Judge Moorman began back on September 12th with Aigner’s dog harassing Johnson’s penned horses, which until recently was always justification for shooting the guilty dog. Dogs worrying livestock could be shot on sight, and Aigner's dog was seriously worrying Johnson's horses.

These days, though, consequences in Mendocino County depend on whose dog gets shot.

If Johnson had simply shot Aigner's dog and left it at that, there'd probably be no case against him. But he'd done a maniac number in his driveway, waving his gun at the cops.

And here we were.

“As I said, some people you just can’t get along with,” Higgins resumed, “so the police got involved, and here we are today. The whole incident proved to be worse for my client than anyone else involved — he was the one most likely to have been shot, quite frankly. Yes, he was growing marijuana, but so were they, and he was under the impression they were coming to steal his, so he ran down to meet them, and all he could see was the flashlights coming up the drive.”

Johnson was discovered to have 173 marijuana plants, all doing quite beautifully by mid-September, when “head hunters” are commonly at large. So it wasn’t entirely unreasonable of him to suspect a plot was afoot involving intruders, pruning clippers and plastic sacks for carrying away the prime kolas. On the other hand, pot thieves don't usually walk up a pot plantation's drive with two-foot flashlights.

“My client was very aggressive in admitting his mistake," Higgins continued. "He threw the gun in the back of a pickup as soon as he saw it was the police — taking full responsibility for his actions — in light of which we’d be asking for the minimum sentence and to postpone the turn-in date as far as possible as he is working on a plan to get away from the on-going volatility going on there and move to Greenville, you honor.”

“He can’t move anywhere! — not out of the county, at least,” the judge quickly exclaimed. “Not without a transfer, he can’t; and a transfer can take anywhere from 60 to 90 days. Mr. Boyd, what’s the People’s position?”

“I’m covering this case for Ms. Norman [Deputy DA Elizabeth Norman, who was absent] and it says here in her notes that she wants at least a year, so our position would be to ask for more time, at least a bullet. We feel, quite frankly, that Mr. Johnson has been dishonest and has tried to minimize his actions. He left a voice mail on his neighbor’s phone saying he’d shot her dog in the head with a pellet gun, but a search didn’t turn up any pellet guns; he had 173 marijuana plants, there was loud music playing, he was shouting obscenities, and he was intoxicated when he ran at the officers with a firearm.”

Boyd turned a page in the file and continued. “…A lot of minimizing on his part, and as for the running at the officers with a firearm — a very scary situation for everyone involved — he says he thought it was other growers coming to take his plants, but the officers identified themselves and asked him to come down the driveway where they could talk. He’s very lucky that this didn’t turn out a lot worse — he’s lucky he wasn’t shot — so we would be asking for the bullet, your honor.”

Judge Moorman noted that she had also received and read a number of letters from members of the Johnson family and others asking from the minimum sentence. She asked Johnson if he had anything he wanted to say.

“I’m very sorry about the whole thing and regret what happened that night.”

The judge then turned to the Probation Officer.

“We are also asking that he get a mental health evaluation. He has an anger problem, and that needs to be addressed.”

Public Defender Higgins resumed: “We understand that the alcohol program was recommended and we don’t have a problem with the anger management recommendation. A lot of the people involved made it impossible for him to get along with them; he was facing an overwhelmingly proprietary attitude, which I understand is not uncommon in the region where this all happened, and now here we are. But I don’t think the extra three months will send any significant message to the community. So, whether it is an alcohol program or anger management, or both, the most important thing is for my client to get out of there.”

“Wait a minute,” Moorman said. “The people in the no-contact order… Did they call the police?”

“Yes, your honor, the neighbors. And Mr. Johnson has no problem with the stay away order.”

There was some confusion concerning Johnson’s criminal history. He was prohibited from possessing a firearm due to a restraining order resulting from a domestic violence charge, but the judge only mentioned a prior conviction of Penal Code 417, brandishing a firearm, which her honor characterized as a misdemeanor, and yet the two felony counts Johnson was facing were (or seemed to be, since the judge didn’t read them) brandishing a firearm and a felon in possession of a firearm: it is one of the means lawyers and judges use — the technical jargon, and closed files, the secret meeting in chambers, and sundry other obscure mysteries of justice — to keep the rest of us in the dark as to what is going on in courtrooms and, like the Catholic priests, Indian chiefs, medical doctors, and all the other voodoo practitioners plaguing our lives, the legal system shrouds their doings in codes and dead languages to give them a mystical aura of superior wisdom and a higher dispensation of sound judgment.

“I don’t usually send someone to prison on their first felony, but in this case I would have, had it not been for the agreement between the parties. I don’t believe that the officers did not identify themselves… I don’t believe it, but I’m going to go along with it. I am ordering the minimum sentence of 300 days in the county jail, and I am placing you on 36 months probation, Mr. Johnson. And you are to report to probation today. You can’t relocate your residence without working it out with probation, and the only reason I’m not giving you the bullet, is to give probation some leeway. You are to have no alcohol, no marijuana or drugs of any kind; no contact with Hugh Freeman or Mary Aigner; and you are to have no dangerous weapons of any kind; and no guns or ammunition for the rest of your life. Mr. Lebert, what is probation’s position on the request for a transfer?”

Mr. Lebert replied, “This particular probation officer is not a big fan of transfers, your honor. They [the probationers] tend to fall through the cracks during the process."

“Okay, I’m ordering you to surrender at the jail on March 15th at 2pm in a clean and sober condition; and I’m ordering the firearm — if it was seized — I’m ordering it forfeited.”

I followed Detective Espinoza out of the courtroom in hopes of getting a comment, but he took the back stairs down to the DA’s Office. I waited outside the locked door until a clerk came out to ask my business, and when I told her, she said the detective had gone into Paul Sequiera’s office and the door was shut, a sign they were not to be interrupted. I later saw Mr. Sequiera and he hadn’t been in his office at all. Espinoza had left by a back door, eluding me.

“Mr. Johnson was lucky he wasn’t in Sonoma County when this happened,” Sequiera said with a grim smile, alluding to the recent incident where a teenager had been shot dead by police officers for pointing a BB gun at them. Johnson had pointed his pistol — which was not a BB gun — at the deputies.

Mr. Lebert, the probation officer, happened by and I asked him if I could see the probation report. Lebert chuckled nervously and hid the report behind his back. “I don’t know if I should do that,” he said. “Mr. Johnson deserved more than a bullet and he’s lucky that’s all he got.”

“But I thought he only got 300 days. Isn’t a bullet a full year?”

“It is, but he had credit for the 65 days that he had already served. So he got the bullet. He’s lucky. He could have got shot.”

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