As of March 18th, the County of Mendocino has taken in $2,618,806.41 in dope fines. The idea is to trade drug cash for misdemeanors and probation. This way, the thinking goes, local taxpayers are not only spared the huge expense of running the pot brigades through the court system, the County of Mendocino makes a few bucks by fining growers, then marking them down as misdemeanor offenders and putting them on probation. If they do it again, penalties are much more severe. The DA's strategy here is unique in the state and, so far as we know, unique in the country.
11470.2 is the section of the California Health & Safety Code which states, in essence, that the DA has a right to demand restitution for the cost of making expensive busts — not to mention the overwhelming burden of pursuing the bustees through the courts. That's the legal foundation to which the DA's cash for misdemeanors program is pegged.
But a group of local citizens — who for now insist on anonymity — insist that the DA’s program is morally wrong, patently unfair, and highly illegal. The goal of these anons is to get District Attorney David Eyster and Sheriff Tom Allman arrested, prosecuted and even pilloried on the courthouse lawn. The anons think rich marijuana growers are getting off scot-free, while “the poor hippies” are taking it in the shorts.
At least one of the departments the pot loot is dispersed to agrees that the marijuana booty is tainted, and holds the money in a special account against the day DA Eyster and Sheriff Allman come to grief, and the money must be accounted for.
The anonymous group is highly motivated — zealous, even — but none of them want to risk their own government jobs by speaking out publicly against the DA and the Sheriff.
It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that one of the anons agreed to step out of obscurity. This was Christopher Brennan, a rancher and government trapper from Laytonville, a vivid character who, in modern therapy lingo, could be described as “a polarizing figure.”
“I’m doing this as a private citizen,” Mr. Brennan insisted. “My job has nothing to do with it.”
“Okay, fine. Bring your files and meet me for lunch at Romi’s Brews and Barbecue on Perkins Street in Ukiah.”
As I waited, I asked my waitress, Megan Morales, a former Laytonville Rodeo Queen, if she knew Chris Brennan.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “He shot my friend’s dog. They have a name for him in Laytonville… something about all the dogs he shoots… I don’t remember just what it is, but he shoots a lot of dogs.”
As a government trapper, that would be part of Brennan's job, shooting dogs that get after livestock. Feral dogs are a big problem in the more anarchic sectors of vast Mendocino County, especially in the outlaw neighborhoods north and east of Laytonville. Pot growers bring in pitbulls to guard their gardens then abandon the animals after they bring in the crop. Brennan isn't shooting household pets, but he is widely known as Dead Dog Brennan. And he has plenty of critics.
I asked Matt Hilton, a Romi’s regular who works for Mendocino County Search & Rescue, if he knew Chris Brennan.
“Oh, yeah, I know him. All too well. He tried to take over the Hunter Safety course I was teaching. I had to ask him to leave.”
Brennan, to be sure, is a strong-willed individual.
I asked another frequent customer at Romi’s, Craig Bartow, a Willits stock farmer and Ukiah vineyard manager, about Brennan.
“Oh, you mean Dead Dog! Dead Dog Brennan, they call him, a real piece of work. He has some coyote snares on my grandma’s place and she’s getting tired of him ‘losing’ all her keys to the gate.”
“What I do for a living doesn’t make me very popular,” Brennan concedes.
Brennan begged out of our first meeting, saying he had to take his kids on a pig hunt that day.
“I want to raise my kids as rednecks,” he explained over the phone. “That’s what got me involved in this whole thing. My wife left me for a pot grower, and I don’t want my kids around that kind of thing.”
When the new boyfriend, Erin Gamble, got off with a misdemeanor under the 11470.2 program, Brennan joined the anonymous group of critics of the DA's strategy, and made up his mind he’d be the one to come out in the open.
Brennan told me about unhappy encounters with DA Eyster and Sheriff Allman.
“Tom Allman called me up one night and said, ‘How dare you call me corrupt?’ I just laughed, and I’ve been escorted out of the DA’s office at gunpoint!”
When we met for lunch, we had the counter to ourselves, and it wasn’t long before Brennan had every inch of it covered with paperwork.
“Now, this is our main case, right here,” he said, showing me copies of the Kyle Stornetta file. “You are not going to believe what happened to this guy — have you heard of Stornetta?”
“Yes. I wrote an article on him, last year.”
“No. But look what this guy got away with…”
“I know what happened to Stornetta.”
“The guy had 18 steelhead trout in his freezer.”
“Yes, and he served 45 days in jail for poaching and was heavily fined, not to mention $500 in restitution to the Fish & Game.”
“He’s our main guy. We’ll have the transcript from the Ten Mile Court pretty soon; our lawyer’s working on it.”
“Who’s your lawyer?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“That’s okay, Chris, I can guess.”
“Well, Chris, I can speculate with moderate accuracy, that most of your group is made up of disgruntled law enforcement officers; and we all know who ran against Eyster on an uncompromisingly pro-law enforcement platform, don’t we?”
“Iceman — not Eyster. I call him Iceman,” Brennan said, changing the subject.
My speculations about who the anonymous group consisted of were enhanced, if not corroborated, by the names on the police reports and search warrants Brennan had with him. These things can be tricky for anyone but a defendant to get hold of — but of course the officers themselves would have access to their own reports and warrants.
Brennan showed me some more of the files on growers who had had their charges reduced to misdemeanors through the 11470.2 program, many of whom I was familiar with.
“Chris, I know most of these cases — show me some more of the ‘poor hippies’ who got screwed over because they didn’t have the money to pay.”
“Here’s a great one you probably never heard about,” he said, producing a file on Kim LaValle. “Just look at this!”
“Chris, I sat through Ms. LaValle’s trial and wrote about it in the paper — did you read my story?”
“No, but it doesn’t matter. She was poor, couldn’t afford to pay the Iceman, so she got the book thrown at her for a measly eight pounds!”
I pointed out that her lawyer’s fees alone would have come to perhaps as much as ten times the amount of the 11470.2 restitution fee Kim LaValle was offered. Brennan seemed not to hear.
“I’m surprised,” I added, “that you didn’t at least bother to read my articles on Stornetta and LaValle. Show me another one of these ‘poor hippies’ who got screwed.”
Brennan swallowed hard and dug out the file on Cody Bass. I licked the barbecue sauce off my fingers and thumbed through it. It appeared that Mr. Bass and some other throwback counter-culturalists were popped back when Meredith Lintott was DA. In those days, everybody the cops could round up — trimmers and all — were charged with felonies for cultivation and possession for sale. The trimmers were assigned public defenders but Bass hired E.D. Lerman, who got him what was considered a pretty good deal at the time; he would lose his weed and weapons, pay his fines, go on probation and do some community service.
But Bass apparently decided to blow off the community service, and instead filed suit (on February 8th, 2010) against the county and, specifically, Peter Hoyle, legendary nemesis of NorCal stoners, for seizing and destroying his several hundred plants. Bass put his Hoyle Experience (aka, the marijuana value) at $1,200,000.
In the meantime, a warrant was issued for Bass because he hadn’t done his community service, which put him in violation of his probation. When the officers came to pick him up they found he had another large grow going. This time, with Tony Serra representing him, Bass claimed his new bust was in retaliation for Bass's lawsuit.
But Deputy DA Katherine Houston established that she wasn’t even aware of the civil suit being filed, and only learned about it when Serra filed his motion to dismiss on the grounds of a vindictive prosecution. At this point (August 2011) DA Eyster stepped in and took over the case. Brennan’s paperwork ended there, so I don’t know what eventually happened to the “poor hippy” Cody Lee Bass.
But it became obvious to me that Brennan and the anon group were not as concerned with the fate of poor hippies as they professed. To my mind, the poor hippies were the trimmers, and they were certainly getting a much better shake (sic) under Eyster than they ever had previously. The anonymous group, I strongly suspected, was made up of the task force officers who resented seeing their catches get off the hook by writing a check, then going right back out to start another grow cycle. The cop's ire is understandable. But the courts and the prisons are full and the Governor is under a federal mandate to thin out the “incarcerated community.”
Brennan must have noticed I was losing interest, because he then pulled out his masterpiece, the case that inspired much of his fervor, the case against the man who'd run off with his wife, Erin Gamble. This case had everything, Brennan assured me — water diversion, pot for sale, a vial of liquid LSD, pages of blotter acid, and sandwich bags full of ecstasy. Big wads of mystery cash, too. But lunchtime was over and I had to go. I took the box of materials and told Dead Dog I would go through them.
DD's parting shot was aimed at Sheriff Allman. He sneered at a recent Fred Sternkopf cartoon in the AVA whose caption read, “Beware pot growing water thieves, Sheriff Allman is coming after you!”
Brennan said it was a joke.
When I examined the file on Lover Boy Gamble I noted that he had been fined for his water theft and that the LSD and ecstasy had been found at Gamble’s brother’s residence. Brennan had already told me several times that his chief interest in the 11470.2 program was fueled by his desire to get full custody of his children. A police search of his ex’s residence turned up nothing, not even the pot for which she has a Prop 215 card. So she was let go. Gamble paid his water diversion fine, his 11470.2 restitution, forfeited his weed, a hefty stack of US currency, a vehicle, and was put on probation, just like any everyone else, “poor hippy” or otherwise.