Charles ‘Max’ Sperling of Willits was facing a number of charges last week, and that was before he picked up a DUI driving to court one morning. But things seemed to be going his way until they weren't.
Sperling had several witnesses, including his supposed victim, all disposed to testify in his favor that he hadn't hit her, the gun wasn't his, he wasn't drunk, the cops were outtaline, and screams, injuries, guns, dope and booze notwithstanding, Sperling had been completely, ah, misinterpreted.
The defendant's lawyer was competent and for a moment there seemed to be a general sympathy in the room for the guy — especially from guys — as it was learned that the cops had appeared bedside as Sperling was enjoying intimate relations with his girlfriend, Ms. Shannon Thom, also of Willits. The defense said that in Constitutional terms, the “sanctity” of Sperling's “castle” had been violated big time since the officers didn’t have a search warrant and they hadn’t knocked or identified themselves in breach of the so-called “knock and notice” clause of the Fourth Amendment.
The first charge against Mr. Sperling was domestic violence against Ms. Thom. But she took the stand to tell the court that the cut on her face and the bruises on her arms were not the work of Max Sperling. Oh no. He loves me. Ms. Thom said she’d bumped her head on the door jamb to cause the cut and her arms bruised easily, she said, due to a medical condition. Someone had called 911 — it was never made clear who — and when the officers arrived to investigate a "domestic disturbance" at the cabin housing the lovers in a row of cabins just off Highway 101 in Willits, Ms. Thom told them she was fine, there was no problem. The officers returned a few hours later to check on her welfare, and as they approached the Sperling-Thom love nest, they said they heard Ms. Thom pleading with loverboy not to force her, then they said they heard choking noises, so they kicked down the door and arrested Sperling.
With testimony steadily undoing the charges against him, and the courtroom being crowded and lunch time approaching, Judge Ann Moorman asked Sperling if he would agree to come back after 3:00 that afternoon, after the court calendar had been cleared of routine matters. Sperling and his witnesses, all of them friendly, agreed to this arrangement, and everyone went to lunch.
As I was leaving the Courthouse I ran into my old friend Pete Richardson who was just finishing up a jury trial for his second DUI in as many months. His first DUI had ended when his lawyer, Keith Faulder, had convinced the court that Richardson’s rights had been violated when the officer pulled him over for failure to signal a turn when he was in a dedicated turn lane. But Richardson promptly went out and got himself a second DUI on the heels of the first, this second one ending in a hung jury. Attorney Faulder had meanwhile taken his family to Spain for the famed Running of the Bulls, figuring, I suppose, that he and his family might be safer running through the narrow streets of Pamplona with half-ton fighting bulls than on the broad avenues of Ukiah with Pete Richardson behind the wheel of his three-quarter ton van.
“Meet me at the Water Trough for a drink later,” Pete said. “We’ll celebrate.”
But by the time I got out of court, Richardson had plowed his van into a wall of “the Trough” and fled. He was arrested later that day for his third DUI, evading the police, and felony resisting arrest, among other charges.
Poor old Pete has cancer, and the prognosis is grim, which apparently has given him a devil-may-care attitude unshared by Ukiah law enforcement. But the Grace Hudson school is right next to the Trough, and while Pete’s days may be numbered, vehicular manslaughter is something else again.
Sperling, the love-shorted Willits man, also has a drinking and driving problem. He hasn’t had a valid driver’s license since 2002, but that hasn’t kept him from driving, even when he’s drunk before 10:00 in the morning. Yup, he got arrested for DUI on his way to court last Friday. But let’s go back and explore how it happens that the cops can come busting in at a most inopportune moment.
To put this situation in perspective — in the perspective of law enforcement — a domestic disturbance is about the most hateful duty a cop can get called out on. It often happens that once the wife beater his been pulled off his loving spouse, wrestled down and cuffed, his “victim” will then mount an all-out frontal assault on the officers slapping the cuffs on Lover Man. And keep in mind that Sperling was no stranger to the officers involved, Sgt. Mike Davis and Deputy Jason Cox. These guys handle much of the mischief in what’s called the North Sector of Mendocino County, and through long experience babysitting a familiar roster of career fuck-ups, they know all the players.
They knew, for instance, that Max Sperling had domestic violence priors.
In fact, they knew Sperling so well that they told Ms. Thom that she was in danger.
“He could kill you,” Sgt. Davis warned. “We’ll come back and do a welfare check later.”
Ms. Thom, natch, ignored the advice of the one person looking out for her welfare.
Ray Wood is new to the Office of the Public Defender, and he was representing Mr. Sperling. On cross, he asked Sgt. Davis to describe the cabin.
Davis: “It’s small, very small. As we approached, we heard Ms. Thom say, ‘Don’t force me. Why do you want to force me?’ Then we heard choking sounds.”
Wood: “What, if anything, did you say?”
Davis: “Show me your hands, show me your hands!”
Wood: “Where was Mr. Sperling?”
Davis: “Standing alongside the bed when we made entry.”
Wood: “How high was the bed?”
Davis: “It was a standard size bed.”
Wood: “So he was handcuffed — how long did that take?”
Davis: “Thirty or 45 seconds; it was done very quickly.”
Wood: “So both of you took Mr. Sperling out?”
Wood: “And you went back in to talk to Ms. Thom?”
Davis: “Yes, but she wouldn’t talk. She said, ‘I don’t want to talk to you’.”
Wood: “Did you ask what had happened?”
Davis: “She refused to answer. She just wanted to know how she could bail him out.”
Wood: “Did you or Deputy Cox have a camera?”
Judge: “What’s the relevance?”
Wood: “In almost all domestic violence cases photographs are taken as evidence, but there are none in this case.”
Judge: “You may answer.”
Davis: “We both had cameras.”
Wood: “The whole issue of going back and breaking down the door was based on her being assaulted, and yet you took no pictures…”
Wood was just doing his job, but in the many cases basically dealing with people trying out for the Jerry Springer Show, lots of people get impatient with the niceties.
Judge: “Ask your next question.”
Wood: “That’s all I have for this witness.”
Wood called Shannon Thom to the stand.
Thom: “I’d been living at the cabin with Sperling for about a year and a half. On August 28th the police came to arrest him for domestic abuse. It was about 10:00 at night. I had a little cut on my forehead. I’d been drinking and I tripped on the steps and hit my head on the doorjamb. It bled a lot. The police asked about some bruises on my arms and I told them I was anemic and bruised very easily.”
Wood: “Did the police try to get you to say Max Sperling had assaulted you?”
Thom: “Yes, then they left.”
Wood: “Did they come back later?”
Thom: “”Yes, they kicked down the door while we were …while we … I was straddling over Max and…”
Wood: “Were you having intimate relations?”
Wood: “Were you at any time being choked?”
Wood: “Did Mr. Sperling at any time force you to do anything?”
Thom: “No, I wanted to have sex with him.”
Wood: “Did he want to have sex with you?”
Deputy DA Beth Norman: “Objection. Calls for speculation on the part of the witness.”
Thom: “I thought so.”
Wood: “Walk us through it — just the part where the police came back the second time.”
Thom: “The door came crashing in, I was pulled off of him, and he was pulled outside.”
Wood: “So you were left alone with the other officer. How long?”
Thom: “It seemed like forever, but was probably only five minutes or so.”
Wood: “Did the officer ask you anything?”
Wood: “Was there any conversation between you at all?”
Thom: “I asked where they were taking him.”
Wood: “Did anyone ever ask you if you had been choking?”
Wood: “Did they ask if you were having consensual sex?”
Thom: “It didn’t ever come up.”
Wood: “Did they ask or say anything about the prior visit?”
Wood: “At the time the door was kicked in, was Mr. Sperling standing?”
DDA Norman (peering over her eyeglasses like a censorious librarian): “So this Charles Maxwell Sperling, he’s your boyfriend?”
Norman: “And how did you get here this morning for court — did you ride with him?”
Norman: “Did you discuss your testimony with him — did he tell you what to say?”
Norman: “Now, on the night of the incident you’d been drinking. Were you also taking Vicodin?”
Thom: “I don’t remember.”
Norman: “Do you remember testifying at the prelim that you might have taken some?”
Thom: “I don’t remember.”
Norman: “Do you remember testifying that it was hard to remember what happened on this day?”
Thom: “I could have, but I don’t remember.”
Norman: “On the day this happened, you asked Tammy to come over…?”
Thom: “No, she asked me what happened, and I said I hit my head on the door.”
Norman: “When law enforcement arrived at 10:00 you were in the bathroom crying; you were upset that you were arguing — did you call 911?”
Thom: “I might of.”
Norman: “Remember the deputies leaving your house?”
Norman: “Remember them saying they’d come back to check on you?”
Norman: “But some things you do remember?”
Norman: “Like the bruises on your arms?”
Norman: “You said you get them all the time. Do you have any today?”
Norman: “After they took Mr. Sperling out did the officers check on you?”
Thom: “One stayed behind with me.”
Norman: “You don’t remember him asking you if you were okay?”
Defense attorney Wood called his investigator, John McCarty, who described the cabins along 101 in Willits as being down a driveway and along a creek about 110 yards from the highway. Then Woods argued his case saying the sanctity of Sperling's castle had been violated because the officers had parked down the driveway, and had come creeping up to the cabin on foot, hadn’t identified themselves, knocked, or even had a search warrant.
Judge Moorman said there was an exception to the rule about kicking people’s doors down without a warrant and that had to do with a case in Brigham City, Utah where the Supreme Court stepped in and said the cops could knock the door down if someone on the other side of the door was in imminent danger. Judge: “When they came at 10:00 they believed she’d been a victim of domestic abuse, and when they came back a few hours later they heard noises that led them to believe she was being assaulted — are you saying that what they said they heard is false, Mr. Wood?”
The deputies, their hands casually on the handles of their guns and tazers, turned to look at Wood.
Wood: “Yes. They took great pains to assert that they thought she was being assaulted so they could go in and drag Mr. Sperling out.”
Judge: “But I’m focused on what they heard and saw earlier.”
Wood: “If they were so concerned for her well-being, why is there no report from Sgt. Davis who stayed in the cabin to question her? They had cameras, yet they took no photographs. Then, when they go back three hours later, they park far enough away where they can’t be heard, and as they approach they say they hear choking noises. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Judge: “Deputy Cox said he heard statements consistent with someone in distress, and her words were cut off by choking sounds — are you saying he fabricated that?”
Wood: “It’s my position that that was a pretext.”
Judge: “So you’re saying there was another motive, that maybe they thought there was marijuana in the closet, or something like that? But the case law doesn’t require it. The thrust of the inquiry is, Was it reasonable to enter to render emergency aid, and I want to tell you, Mr. Wood, I believe the officers. And we have a third person named Tammy — no last name, no contact information — who said the victim was crying and saying she didn’t want to get her boyfriend in trouble and that her demeanor was consistent with someone who was a victim of domestic violence. What the case boils down to is, Do I believe the officers and the answer is I do. Now, we’ll come back at 3:15 and start the prelim on the other case against Mr. Sperling.”
It was actually closer to 4:00 by the time DDA Norman called Deputy Jason Cox to the stand and the prelim on Sperling's "other case" got underway. As usual, the parties had waived a reading of the complaint, so it was tricky finding out what it was all about. But it eventually came to light that Sperling had a prior domestic violence conviction and therefore wasn’t supposed to have a gun.
On November 11th of last year, the tenants at 30401 Highway 101, Willits, were playing musical cabins. Ms. Thom and Max Sperling were moving out of cabin number five and into cabin number one; Jeremiah Martin was moving into cabin number one; Andy Smith was moving out of cabin number three and into cabin number two; and Mike Pitts was moving into cabin three from cabin four; Gary Parsons was moving — I forget where. Also, the cabins were being painted, and at about 7:30 that evening Jeremiah Martin, who’d been living in a tent, became impatient that his quarters still weren't ready to move into and tried to shoot Max Sperling in the leg with a Ruger .22 rifle. The cops were called. Ms. Shannon Thom grabbed a .22 rifle single-shot of some antique make from the closet of one cabin and, as she was running to hide it under a bed in another cabin, Deputy Cox arrived and couldn't help but see Ms. Thom hurrying along with the single-shot.
A kind of shell game involving a pea-shooter ensued.
Deputy Cox said that the trouble started after an altercation between Mr. Sperling and Mr. Martin.
“I was talking to Jeremiah and Shannon went into a cabin and came out with a rifle and went into another cabin. I asked her what she did with the rifle and she said ‘What rifle?’ so I went into the cabin and found the rifle under the bed directly in the center of the room.”
Norman: “Did she tell you who brought the rifle to the cabin in the first place?”
Cox: “Yes, Mr. Sperling.”
Norman: “Nothing further.”
Mr. Wood on cross: “You spoke to Jeremiah and he said he was moving into cabin number three?”
Cox: “No, number five.”
Wood: “It’s confusing, isn’t it?”
Cox: “Yes, because some people refer to it as cabin five and others refer to it as cabin number two.”
Wood: “It’s a different number system than many of us are used to, isn’t it?”
The courtroom was already crowded, and at this point a file of prisoners were brought in, making it impossible to hear what was being said. When the commotion subsided Mr. Wood was saying, “…pulled out a rifle and fired it?”
Cox: “He did, yes.”
Wood: “Do you remember hearing about a Ruger .22?”
Cox: “Vaguely. I believe it was a Mr. Andrew Smith.”
Wood: “Did Mr. Smith say he lived in any of the cabins?”
Cox: “I believe he said he was moving.”
Wood: “But you did recover a .22?”
Wood: “Was it a single-shot?”
Cox: “I don’t recall.”
Wood: “But it was separate form the Ruger?”
Wood: “Did you record any of this?”
Cox: “No, my iCop is broke.”
Wood: “Did you see Mr. Sperling at any time in possession of the firearm?”
Cox: “I did not.”
Wood: “Nothing further.”
Norman: “When did Shannon say he first brought the rifle to the cabin?”
Cox: “About a week prior.”
Norman: “Did you ask her if it was his?”
Cox: “I know I brought it out in front of her, but I don’t think I asked if it was Sperling’s rifle.”
Wood: “But did they say they were moving out?”
At this point, the line of defendants was backed up in the hallway — only one judge seemed to be on duty — and it was getting late, too late to keep track of alternative cabin numbers and their occupants.
Judge Moorman put the Sperling hearing over until the next day at 10:00 am. She then called the case of Angela Hayden who was going to plead guilty to willfully and maliciously firing a gun at an occupied vehicle; she would be released on her own recognizance and come back for sentencing on May 13. Judge Moorman slogged through the packed calendar all that afternoon and the next morning.
When 10:00 o’clock rolled around, the judge was still working her way through the back-up and not quite ready to resume the Sperling saga. But it didn’t matter because Mr. Sperling had been pulled over by the CHP and arrested for DUI on his way from Willits to the County Courthouse in Ukiah.