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Mendocino County Today: Monday, July 28, 2014

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102 IN BOONVILLE ON SUNDAY, 99 in Ukiah, not a first but Boonville is usually 8-9 degrees cooler than the County seat. Vibes are better in Boonville, too, especially when the Simplifiers are in town for their annual confab at the Boonville Fairgrounds.

DESCENDING on foot from the deep hills west of town the other afternoon, I saw what I at first took for a mirage at the ranch gate. An attractive woman was beckoning me. Me? She nodded. I drew closer. It was Joy Andrews, general manager of the Community Services District. “You have a goat loose on the highway,” Joy said. “Some CalFire guys lassoed it and are waiting with it down the road. I'll give you a lift back down there.” I issued a standard sweat-grubby apology for gym-ing the lady's vehicle — “I've been hiking and rolling around in the dust,” but Joy was undeterred and off we went. It was hot. I'd been looking forward to a Bud Light, not wrestling a goat back up the Ukiah Road. The CalFire guys handed me the human end of the strap. At the other end the goat was already digging in. “Nice of you guys to stop. Thanks. It isn't my goat but I'll assume family responsibility for it,” I said. Joy and the CalFire crew departed. I pulled on the strap around the goat's neck. It emitted a piteous cry like I was deliberately choking it which, you could say, I was, but only to get it to come with me. Tough love. We were maybe three-quarters a mile from the gate where the rest of the herd lingered. The goat wouldn't move, and I couldn't move it more than a few feet at a time without seeming to strangle it. The thing bleated every time I pulled its leash. I felt manipulated. “Please just cooperate,” I pleaded. The goat looked back at me with its blank, dead eyes. I wondered if goats were dumber than sheep. I thought maybe the heat was getting to me if inane questions like that were bouncing around my head. Cars passed. I thought I heard laughter. “Look at the old goat roper. Har-har.” It occurred to me that maybe I could lift the thing over the fence back where it belonged. Just get it up there and dump it over. But just as I almost got it up high enough to drop back inside its authorized confines, the goat frantically kicked out at me and I dropped it. I tried again. Same thrashing and unsuccessful muddle of cloven hooves and man-made curses. What's that half-man, half-goat called in mythology? Pan? Satyr? Pan, as I recall, is more wholesome but not, in my case, age-appropriate. Satyr? Flattering, kind of, but also not consistent with advanced age. It took me about an hour to pull the goat back to where it belonged, but the struggle was almost worth it the beer was so good.

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MOVING ALONG here on a hundred degree day in Boonville, like every other Bay Area sports fan I was sorry to hear that Giants broadcaster, Mike Krukow of Kruk and Kuip, has a partially debilitating muscle disease called inclusion-body myositis. Kruk's reduced to canes and walkers, old before he's really old. We were both pitchers at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, although I played some outfield and even pinch-hit on those occasions it was either me or no one. I tell people I was a Mustang "BK," Before Krukow — about 8 years before Krukow. For years I thought I was 3-2 for two years, but when the athletic department sent my late brother our stats — he held the homerun record at Poly for several years and went on to play in the old Milwaukee Braves system — it turned out I'd gone 4-6 for two years running. In my last year I'd lost interest in sports, having gone all the way over into radical politics and beatnik-ism. The only game I remember is one I pitched against UCLA because in that one I struck out a guy named Ezell Singleton, an All-American football player as a running back. Whiffed him a couple of times. Like a lot of old guys, I bet, I sometimes wonder how good I might have been if I'd worked on my game, really worked on it. But I didn't, and it wasn't until the early 1970s in the Cloverdale Fast Pitch Softball League that ball games became fun again, even though I was a catcher and the fleet-footed Tommy Wayne Kramer roamed centerfield, four of an eclectic squad of first-wave hippies, hip-symps like me, perfectly respectable people like Craig ‘The Milk Man’ Bilbro and Dave Domenichelli, unelected mayor of the town.

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IT MUST be the heat. Someone shut me up before I start confessing crimes!

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HAVE YOU NOTICED that the old oaks, the large ones especially, dropped a lot of their still-green acorns early in July? Naturalists say that premature shedding is one more sign of drought, and especially bad for wildlife who will be without that crucial food in late fall.

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ELSIE WHIPPLE (also known as El) was born on May 20, 1929 to Violet Britton and Samuel Cachora, in Covelo California. She lived in Covelo most of her life except when work took the couple to other work areas. She passed away on July 11, 2014 at 85 years old. Elsie married James Whipple on July 19, 1948. The following year in August of 1949 she gave birth to her daughter Cynthia O'Ferrall. El attended Grammer School at the Round Valley Reservation School. She graduated in 1947 at the Round Valley Unified High School, and later attended Mendocino College receiving an AA Degree in Business. AFter college she worked as a secretary for the Round Valley Tribal Council. She then worked many years as the Bookkeeper for Round Valley Indian Health. Elsie and Jim worked together with others to bring forth the establishment of the Round Valley Indian Health Center; she also helped her spouse bring forth The Round Valley Indian Housing Authority. El was very proud of the many hours she spent working for the Tribal Reservation and all the progress they helped to accomplsish. Her personal skills included: she was a beautiful seamstress, and could do fine embroidery work. She loved to bake and her later years she liked to play Bingo. El loved the fact she could take herself to and from Bingo showing her independence, that independency was a huge factor in her life. Throught out El's life there was never a day where she didn't have a book she was reading and she loved to discuss the books with you. She loved all types of music, her favorite being Country Western. She was a every special Mom, wife, grandmother, great grandmother, great great grandmother and loved her son-in-law like a son. Her friendships were long lasting from grammar school to her adult life. She is survived by daugher Cynthia O'Ferral and husband Roy (George) O'Ferrall. Sister: Barbara Wilsey, Pauline Gravier, and Susan Betts. Two Great Grand Daughters: Amanda (O'Ferrall) Hoyle and Jamie (O'Ferrall) Brown. Five Great Grandsons: Casey O'Ferrall, Trevor O'Ferrall, Matthew O'Ferrall, Hunter (O'Ferrall) Guerra, Dyaln (O'Ferrall) Guerra. One Great Great Grandson: Roy E. O'Ferrall II. 3 Nieces: Darlene Seng, Karen Gonzales, Vicki Vogel. Five Nephews: Armelio Breedlove, Samuel Wilsey, Douglas Wilsey. Numerous great nieces and nephews. She was preceeded in death by James Whipple (Husband), Margaret Breedlove (Sister), Bill Britton (Brother), Violet Britton (Mother), Samuel Cochora (Father), and Mackenzie Eileen O'Ferrall (Great Granddaughter).

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CITY NOTES. The Golden Gate Bridge will at last install a suicide net, a thin filigree of steel netting that will catch jumpers almost immediately after they take the plunge. Like so many people I was worried that the Bridge's aesthetic would be destroyed by a safety net, but it seems that a genius engineer has come up with one that will be virtually invisible, but it will cost $76 mil, a price other engineers say could be reduced by lots and lots with a simpler design.

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NOTING that there were only 12 showers for the homeless in the City of San Francisco, a city teeming with liberals, many of whom have more bathrooms than Caeser, Doniece Sandoval, a pr executive, had the genius idea to convert defunct Muni buses into mobile shower stalls. Presto! Magico! Less than a year later Ms. Sandoval had personally raised the money for a fully functional prototype, a bright blue bus emblazoned “One Shower At A Time.” The thing hooks up to fire hydrants and all systems are go, complete with an attendant. Ukiah and Fort Bragg could use one each. Ms. Sandoval got 'er done at a cost of only $75,000.

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MICHAEL ITZELL BROWN-SEALS has filed a racial discrimination claim against the County of Mendocino worth $110 million. Brown-Seals is black. He says staff at the County Jail tolerate white inmates shouting racist abuse at him.

REALISTICALLY, it's difficult-to-impossible for staff to do anything about race-based verbal abuse, especially in a county jail. At the higher levels of incarceration inmates confine themselves pretty much to their own tribes and are very polite because shouting out ethnic insults can get you killed. Brown-Seals must not be a tough guy. I'll bet the racial abuse is non-existent when the object of it is a guy prone to direct action.

STILL AND ALL, white inmates who race-bait other inmates in the hearing of staff ought to be sanctioned. Jail is bad enough without taking a lot verbal abuse from idiots.

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by Daniel Mintz

Humboldt County has entered a state pilot program that allows squatters to be evicted from properties unless they can prove their occupancy is legal within 48 hours.

The new program is outlined in Assembly Bill 1513 and is in effect in the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale in Los Angeles County. Other municipalities can “opt in” to the program and the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to do so at its July 22 meeting.

According to a staff report, squatters who lack legal tenancy can be “removed from the property by law enforcement” and be subject to a year in jail and fines of up to $1,000 if convicted.

The staff report states that there are no other California statutes that address squatting.

Victoria Copeland of the Humboldt Association of Realtors had provided testimonials from realtors and property managers on their experiences with squatters and told HumCo Supes that illegally occupied vacant properties have become more common since the fall of an inflated housing market and emergence of foreclosures.

The cities of Eureka and Ukiah have also signed on to the pilot program and Copeland said more cities and counties are expected to opt in as they’re informed about it.

She said that by law squatters are treated as tenants if they’ve occupied a property for 30 days.

Under the new program, a “declaration of ownership” form has to be filed with the District Attorney’s Office confirming that a property is vacant. If tenants are unable to provide counter-evidence of legal occupancy within the two-day timeframe, they’re evicted by law enforcement.

But the program only applies to structures with one to four units, not vacant undeveloped properties, which are also squatter magnets.

County Administrative Officer Phillip Smith-Hanes said that if the board wants to include vacant properties in the program, it can seek approval of special legislation allowing it.

Supervisor Mark Lovelace said he generally supports the county’s opt-in but he questioned to what degree the program would create new staff costs.

Supervisor Estelle Fennell doubted that costs will be significant and Board Chairman Rex Bohn said there are economic and social benefits with allowing properties to be open for legal tenancy sooner.

During public comment, Blue Lake-based developer Kent Sawatsky said the new program is overdue.

“I’ve had one building just about burn down twice while I was working on it and another building just about burn down from people breaking into it,” he continued. “This is a public health, safety and welfare issue and it needs to be addressed as fast as you can.”

The pilot program will be in effect until 2018, when it presumably will be up for renewal through further legislation.

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I MADE UP MY MIND some years back, after many visits to the region, very much including the West Bank and Gaza, that the only honest position a British person could take was absolute defense of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. It must be that, or it cannot serve its grim ultimate purpose as a refuge against hate. And that once that is accepted, everything possible must be done to improve the position of the Arabs in the region. It’s not always easy. Israel’s government and army have done and still do many wicked and stupid things. Its small elite is not really up to the huge responsibilities it faces. But I’m not budging. And it is from that position that I say Israel’s attack on Gaza is idiotic, wrong and probably fatal to the future of the state its leaders claim to be defending. Hamas, still clinging to its increasingly unpopular rule in Gaza, is overjoyed by Israel’s moronic, babyish response. It is all they dreamed of. The world’s TV screens are full of pictures of dead and wounded women and children, weeping, gore and rubble — exactly what Hamas hoped to provoke.

— Peter Hitchens

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by Emily Hobelmann

“I love to smoke marijuana
… It give me a deep meditation … 
Marijuana! I love it with my heart and soul…”
— From the Linval Thompson’s “I Love Marijuana” song, released in 1978.

Reggae music artists have long been ahead of the game when it comes to extolling the virtues of marijuana. And Northern California’s legendary gathering of reggae music artists is upon us. Yep, it’s just about time for the 30th Annual Reggae on the River, which is July 31st and August 1st-3rd, down in SoHum at French’s Camp.

People come from all over the world for this event, from all over California and from all over the Emerald Triangle too. French’s Camp will be a mob scene, the corresponding segment of the Eel River will be invaded by reggae revelers and the music will be excellent. This is the nature of ROTR.

Maybe you’ve been once or twice, or 25+ times. Maybe you’re totally anti-. Right on. My first time at Reggae was in 2005. I ate too much ganja food. Reggae lesson #1: Pace yourself.

Three- and four-day passes for the event are still available, but according to the website, they are going fast. There are no single-day tickets available this year, so you gotta be in it to win it. Yeah. All the info you need is here.

ROTR is huge. This year the event boasts more than 60 food and craft vendors, and it looks like there are 42 acts on the schedule (including Thursday), plus DJs and sound crews to boot. Scheduled performances include Jimmy Cliff, Israel Vibration, John Trudell & Bad Dog, Marlon Asher, Third World, Sly & Robbie and the Taxi Gang, Thicker Than Thieves and Fishbone.

(The 66-year-old Jimmy Cliff played down at the Fillmore in SF on July 19th. Check out the SF Bay Guardian review of the show here. Sounds like Jimmy killed it.)

KMUD Radio will be broadcasting live from the event, of course. In addition to broadcasting performances as they happen, the KMUD crew will be interviewing performers from their backstage press tent. Catch it on the FM dial or through the live stream on their website.

You probably loved the LoCO on the Pot coverage of last year’s Reggae. I did too. We’ll see what I can drum up this time around. There will be some Reggae at weed, er, some weed at Reggae. Check back with LoCO next Sunday for a dispatch of some sort.

It’s going to be all positive and irie, maybe kinda dusty and definitely ganja-heavy.

So there’s that.

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I also want to bring your attention to the evening talk show that was on KMUD radio at 7pm this past Thursday night, July 24th. The show featured local attorney Ed Denson offering lawyerly commentary on a bevy of hot marijuana issues. If you didn’t catch it, dig into those KMUD archives for a listen. Denson knows what’s up.

He spoke to the latest developments with the Board of Supervisors’ proposed ordinance for medical marijuana cultivation on small parcels. The BOS is still trying to get a palatable version of the ordinance worked out. In its current form, the proposed ordinance is less restrictive than it was… So it’s coming along. Denson discussed the ins and outs of the ordinance as it stands. The BOS is scheduled to revisit the proposed ordinance at their August 26th meeting.

Denson explained the deal with the recently passed Senate Bill 1193 — “the return of evidence.” It’s all about the conditions under which someone can get their medical marijuana and growing equipment back, or, if that stuff’s been destroyed, how someone can get “reasonable compensation” for their weed and/or equipment. That’s only if that person is acquitted or if the charges are dismissed. (Siskiyou Daily News coverage of the bill’s passage here.)

He also spoke about SB 1292: Medical marijuana: regulation of physicians, dispensaries, cultivation sites, and processing facilities. SB 1262 is still alive and kicking in the State Assembly. It would set licensing requirements for medical marijuana cultivation, transportation and dispensing. Denson explains how the bill contains conflicting information in terms of what entities (people) will require licensing, and he explains what licensing would require ($$!). The bill is ungainly. Still, it could pass.

Lastly, Denson gave the lowdown on the upcoming Americans for Safe Access (ASA) California Citizen Lobby Day, which is down at the state capitol on August 4th. Basically ASA is providing a platform for medical marijuana advocates to meet with all manner of state representatives. If you go down there, ASA will school you on pending legislation, then you will have a chance to meet in person with your Representative. Denson is going. You can too.

Good show, excellent commentary and clear information. For sure check it out.


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In the great city of old Fort Bragg,

Is a fascinating riddle,

Famous far and wide my friends,

As the fog eaters’ hospital.


That place is governed by a gang,

Composed of one-percenters,

While servicing a district full,

Of tree hugging dissenters.


These one-percenters all cry,

‘Our hospital is broke!’

And then they pass the hat around,

To the ordinary folk.


The CEO’s a brilliant man,

And one of no abash,

A treasurer he proudly claims,

Who can’t keep track of cash.


The chairman is a witty dame,

As charming as they come,

Presiding o’er a board it seems,

That’s blind and deaf and dumb.


Each year they throw a fundraiser,

Staffed up by volunteers,

It raises half a million bucks,

That somehow disappears.


Now they’ve got a new idea,

To pass a parcel tax,

And save their precious money tree,

From falling to the axe.


Their strategy’s quite simple,

The voters must comply,

For if the measure doesn’t pass,

That hospital will die.


But fog eaters with half a brain,

And memory all know,

This gang had tried the same damned thing,

Just nine short years ago.


The vote came through as Measure R,

And certainly did lose,

For the voters saw ‘Arrh’ as a word,

That only pirates use.


The moral of this story,

Is known by all adults,

There’s a name for doing the same old thing,

And expecting new results.

— Anon, Albion

* * *


In Hunt for Red Abalone, Divers Face Risks and Poachers Face the Law

by John Branch

Every year, as steady as the tides, lifeless bodies are pulled from the cold, restless water along the rugged coastline north of San Francisco.

Most of the victims are middle-aged men. They wear black wet suits, usually hooded. They are often found in small coves framed by crescents of jagged rocks. An abandoned float tube sometimes bobs about nearby. Almost without exception, the victims are found wearing weighted belts that help them sink.

Sometimes the bodies are discovered by friends nearby. If the fog is not too thick, the victims might be spotted from the towering bluffs above, where lifeguards patrol dozens of miles of desolate coast and armed game wardens spy for poachers. Many of the bodies are plucked from the swells by a search-and-rescue helicopter crew accustomed to making daring rope rescues and recoveries several times a year.

The bodies are those of abalone divers.

“There’s a lot of death in abalone diving,” Nate Buck, a longtime Sonoma County lifeguard, said as he steered a pickup truck south along Highway 1, the Pacific Ocean churning below the cliffs to the right. In 14 years, he has lost count of how many bodies he has helped retrieve. “Lifeguards know that. Drive around here, and every one of these coves is another reminder.”

Abalone is an edible mollusk, a snail-like, single-shell gastropod found in coastal waters around much of the globe. But the red abalone is the biggest and the most prized, found only on the west coast of North America. In California, with a litany of restrictions to protect its fragile population, the hunt for wild red abalone is permitted only north of San Francisco, and only for sport.

Part of the enduring allure is how easy it is to take part. No experience and little equipment are necessary. Air tanks are illegal. Abalone divers simply slip into the murky water and hold their breath, in search of a hidden prize.

The red abalone’s thick, domed single shell grows to more than 12 inches in diameter. Brick red on the outside and pearly silver on the inside, they are trophies, framed for the wall, mounted above a mantel or set along walkways as yard decorations. The meat inside, sometimes several pounds’ worth, is a delicacy, with a taste and texture not unlike calamari.

“It really is an iconic species for California,” said Laura Rogers-Bennett of the University of California at Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory and a senior biologist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It is a species that is part of our fishing heritage. And because of the size of red abalone, the biggest in the world, it’s not unlike the redwood or the sequoia.”

During the seven-month diving season — April through November, with a hiatus in July — thousands arrive each weekend to the wild edges of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, mostly, in serpentine parades from the south and the east. Divers are rooted in tradition and thrive on camaraderie, like those who hunt deer or pheasant elsewhere. They pour from cars and trucks and vans, dress themselves in rubber suits, burden themselves with as much equipment as they can carry and trudge down treacherous rocks to the ocean’s edge.

Those brave enough to dive deep below the water’s surface for abalone or pick through the shoreline rocks during low tides may take no more than three in a day and 18 for the year. Each abalone has to be at least seven inches in diameter, meaning it is probably at least 10 years old. Each shell must be tagged and recorded immediately. It cannot be resold.

But temptations are real, and the black market for poached red abalone is active, because a full-size one can fetch $100 or more.

With roughly 250,000 red abalone legally captured for sport in California annually, and estimates that at least as many are taken illegally each year, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, including its undercover Special Operations Unit, spends as much time and resources protecting abalone as any other creature in California.

Abalone, in other words, is a big deal in Northern California.

“It’s like the last warrior-hunter thing to do,” said Sydney Smith-Tallman, whose family owns a dive shop in Fort Bragg that caters mostly to abalone hunters. “There’s danger, thrill, beauty.”

And, though no one tracks the numbers specifically, up to a dozen people die doing it every year.

The holy grail for divers is an abalone with a 10-inch shell. No one has caught more than Dwayne Dinucci, a retired high school technical arts teacher who lives on a cul-de-sac in Union City, Calif., near Oakland. The license plate of his truck reads, “POPNAB” — pop an ab, the widely used expression for plucking abalone, or abs, from their suctioned underwater homes on the rocks.

“Ten inches is a landmark, the dream of a diver,” he said. “To this day, 45 years later, when I find a 10-inch abalone, I am thrilled.”

Dinucci had captured 343 abalone before the start of this season, including 20 that were more than 11 inches. The biggest he has caught is 11 29/32inches, just shy of the world record of 12 5/16 inches, set in 1993 by John Pepper, a former student of Dinucci’s.

Dinucci has four of the top 10 largest abalone caught on record in California, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“The lure is finding the world’s largest abalone,” Dinucci said. “And on my gravestone it’ll say, ‘Never found it, but sure as hell tried.’ ”

The walls and rafters of his two-car garage are covered in hundreds of abalone shells, like hubcaps. They are perfectly aligned on hooks and labeled: size, date, time, location. The locations are intentionally vague, because a good abalone diver does not reveal such secrets.

Dinucci, with a rim of gray hair and a salt-and-pepper mustache, usually dives with a group of like-minded, trophy-hunting friends. While some coves can be jammed with dozens of divers and pickers, Dinucci and his crew look for open water, about 12 feet deep, disguising rocky shoals. From an inflatable boat, they drop into the water, one held breath at a time.

Dinucci has a customized boogie board — most use a float tube, which Dinucci finds too cumbersome — fitted with straps so he can hike up and down cliffs with it on his back. The board has hooks to connect to his necessary tools, such as fins, goggles, a waterproof flashlight and an abalone iron, like a small crowbar, used to pry abalone from rocks. Divers are required to carry gauges that measure seven inches, the legal size, but Dinucci’s is 10, because he wants nothing smaller than that.

He has no special ability for holding his breath — a minute at best — but has patience to dive and resurface dozens of times in pursuit of a single abalone. With tight limits on the catch, Dinucci does not want to pluck one that he will regret if he happens upon something larger.

The water, besides being cold and rough, can be as murky as soup. Dinucci prowls the underwater rock formations, feeling with his hands, shining a light into dark holes. Some of his best catches have required him to squirm through narrow passageways. Others have necessitated great patience and reach, inserting the bar into a nook and under the abalone, hoping the slow-moving animal will slide and attach itself firmly enough to let Dinucci carry it to the surface like a Popsicle.

“I’ve gone into holes and all of a sudden a swell will come over and suck you into the hole, even farther than you wanted to come in,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’ve come close to losing my life. But I’ve had some scares. Which is good.”

Dinucci said he had been thrown into rocks by sudden swells and so-called sneaker waves, known to pull unsuspecting beachgoers off the shore. In many places, the shoreline can be inaccessible because of cliffs.

“Why do a lot of these people die?” he asked. “Mostly inexperience. We get a lot of Southern California divers, but the North Coast is different. It’s rough. And it can get rough” — Dinucci snapped his fingers — “like that. The key is to know where you’re coming out. Getting in is easy. Coming out is the hard part.”

The man on the phone wanted 45 abalone. The seller agreed to deliver them to him in San Francisco for $2,500, a reasonable black-market bulk price.

A few days later, a car approached an auto repair shop on the west side of San Francisco, far from the tourist sites. It was met by an employee in coveralls and ushered into a service bay. Three coolers were removed and placed into the back of a Toyota Prius. Cash changed hands.

“Our guy’s leaving,” a voice on a walkie-talkie radio said. Unbeknown to the buyer, the seller worked for the Special Operations Unit of the state Fish and Wildlife Department. The shop was surrounded by agents in eight cars, parked on surrounding streets, connected by radios and cellphones.

The 10-member unit is a type of SWAT team, charged with protecting California’s wildlife resources from poachers and the black market. Among its chief concerns are sturgeon eggs, part of the high-dollar caviar market, and black bears, prized for body parts such as paws and gall bladders.

Abalone, though, is the top priority. It was first harvested with regularity in California by Chinese immigrants in the mid-1800s, who mostly dried and exported it. The Japanese created many of the state’s hundreds of commercial operations in the early 20th century. With the advent of scuba, divers could eventually collect 2,000 or more abalone a day.

Concern grew as the red abalone population plummeted through the 1970s and 1980s. California took serious action in the 1990s, banning all commercial operations and declaring that sport diving (unassisted by air tanks, with no reselling allowed) could take place only north of the Golden Gate Bridge. (There remains a legal, niche business for small, farm-raised abalone steaks, sold to restaurants and consumers for roughly $125 per pound.)

These days, about 98 percent of the legal abalone diving in California occurs off the remote coasts of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. Even so, if biologists’ estimates are correct, at least a quarter-million abalone are illegally poached each year off the coast of California, and the street value could be $25 million.

“It’s not endangered, but it’s scarce,” said Capt. Robert Farrell, head of the special operations unit. “But with lots of money from the black market, it could be endangered quickly.”

Last August, using armed wardens from across the state, Farrell’s team led simultaneous early-morning raids on 14 homes in Sacramento, Oakland and several Bay Area suburbs. It was dubbed “Operation Oakland Abalone Syndicate.” Thirteen men, most of them Vietnamese, were charged with illegal possession of abalone, believed to be part of a black-market network.

“We’ve seen him to date take 57 abalone,” Lt. Patrick Foy said outside one Oakland house, noting that the annual limit in 2013 was 24. (It was reduced to 18 in 2014.) “We believe it’s for commercial sale.”

Abalone remains a delicacy in many Asian cultures, treasured not only for taste, but also for medicinal qualities, including as an aphrodisiac. In drugstores in San Francisco’s Chinatown, in glass apothecary jars kept on high shelves behind the counter, dried abalone can sell for $2,000 or more per pound. Frozen abalone, too, is commonly found in Asian restaurants and seafood markets, but often out of its original packaging and without proper paperwork. One Chinatown market recently offered it for $55 per pound in plain bags.

Not all abalone is illegal — there are dozens of varieties, and many can be imported from other countries. For investigators, though, paperwork trails get lost in translation, and promising leads disappear in mistaken identities. Leads have led to massage parlors, nail salons and other businesses viewed skeptically as fronts for seafood poaching, among other illicit activities.

The belief is that California abalone not only finances criminal activity, but makes its way across the ocean. In other countries, such as Australia and South Africa (where, this month, investigators found 36,340 abalone hidden inside a house), the authorities have connected abalone poaching directly to drug and arms cartels.

California officials have been unable to draw as many straight lines. But they have made a string of large-scale abalone busts over the past two decades. In 2004, Warden Dennis McKiver boarded a commercial sea urchin boat in Mendocino County and found it jammed with 458 abalone — a load, presumably not the first, probably worth $40,000 on the black market.

The two men aboard were arrested, barred from fishing for life, fined a combined $60,000 and sent to jail for two years. They remain oft-cited examples of the type of temptations facing divers of all kinds.

“Sea urchins are nickels,” McKiver said. “But next to those nickels are $100 gold pieces. And it’s very tempting for those guys to grab a couple. And then it grows from there.”

Along the coast, wardens sometimes dress in camouflage and hide on bluffs and in trees, spying on abalone divers through binoculars, recording what they see and citing offenders as they return to their cars.

On a couple of busy weekends each season, they erect abalone checkpoints along the meandering two-lane highways leading to and from the coast. Hundreds of cars returning inland from abalone diving are diverted, their drivers and passengers politely questioned by uniformed wardens.

Often, as cars approach the backup, abalone can be seen getting flung out windows in desperate attempts to avoid detection. Confiscated abalone is donated to area fund-raisers and local soup kitchens. Wardens mostly find improperly completed log sheets and an extra abalone or two. Even those can be costly violations.

At the Mendocino County Courthouse in Fort Bragg, about a four-hour drive north of San Francisco, the docket is filled with abalone cases. A majority involve Asian defendants from the Bay Area, often requiring Vietnamese, Mandarin or Cantonese interpreters.

Most want to avoid the headache of repeated trips to the courthouse and are circumspect about their chances of winning a trial. They accept a plea bargain, usually losing their fishing license for a year and paying more than $1,000 in fines and fees.

Investigators, of course, want meaningful arrests. After unsuspectingly buying the 45 abalone from an informant in May, the suspect at the auto repair shop in San Francisco continued his shift, unaware that he was surrounded by a constellation of law enforcement agents. They had their dealer. They wanted to see what he intended to do with his stash.

Two older men arrived in a pickup truck and went inside.

“Product 1 out of the box, into white plastic bags,” an agent reported through the radio. “Product 2 out of the box, into a plastic bag.”

It appeared that four or five abalone changed hands. The men left. Agents had already run checks on their car, and had at least one name and address. They would find the men later. They stayed with the abalone.

A couple of hours and many legitimate car repair customers later, another man left with four or five abalone. A woman accompanying him carried one in a bag. They left, also unfollowed.

At closing time, the suspect left and unwittingly led a parade of cars, mostly S.U.V.s, through the streets of San Francisco. He pulled into an auto body shop in Daly City. Agents parked nearby and watched. An hour later, the suspect left in his car and drove to a home in South San Francisco. A woman came out. The man carried two of three coolers into the garage and closed it. She got in the car and they left. Several agents followed. Others stayed within sight of the house. And, taking turns, they staked it out, unnoticed, for four more days as the supply of abalone in the coolers dwindled.

The man, a first-time offender, had no single buyer, just a lot of small ones. Some paid about $100 per abalone, investigators said, and others may have been given the abalone as a gift or a returned favor. The man was charged with unlawful purchase and sale of sport-caught fish/abalone. His web of connections was noted.

“It’s a hard community for us to infiltrate,” Lt. Adrian Foss, who led the sting operation, said during the stakeout. “But as they become more desperate for product, they have to reach beyond their own circle in search of it.”

It is just another kind of risk taken in the search for abalone.

Not all abalone-related deaths are by drowning. In June, a 55-year-old man fell to his death immediately after diving while climbing a 100-foot cliff near Mendocino.

Most out-of-water victims, however, are struck by heart attacks. They may drive hours to get to the coast and are eager to return with abalone, a quiet desperation that causes them to overlook ominous clues that the surf, tides and weather conditions silently provide to experienced divers. Water temperatures usually range from 47 to 56 degrees. An ability to see the rubber fins dangling from your toes counts as clarity.

Divers wear constricting wet suits and weight belts, up to 30 pounds, designed to help offset their buoyancy. They sometimes panic when swept into riptides or swamped by sudden swells. Other dangers lurk in the depths, ranging from tangled forests of kelp to great white sharks.

“All these things are layers upon layers of stress,” said Buck, the Sonoma County lifeguard. “And all that, unfortunately, is too much for people sometimes.”

Twelve years ago, when Buck was 21, he was diving off the rocks of Salt Point State Park with a 52-year-old uncle, an experienced diver from Southern California and an “ocean mentor” to Buck. The man climbed out of the water and had a heart attack on the rocks. Help, as it is along this part of the coast, where traffic is light and cellphone reception is spotty, was slow to come.

“The hardest part was calling my mother and telling her that her brother died,” Buck said. “Hearing her anguish on the other end of the line is a sound I’ll never forget.”

Like Buck, most lifeguards in Sonoma County gained experience much farther south, where beaches are sandy and dotted with “Baywatch”-style lifeguard stations. In Sonoma County, lifeguards work out of pickup trucks. They go where instinct, experience and unfamiliar parked cars tell them to look. The air temperature can be cold (often in the 50s in the summer) and so foggy that the high-pitched wail of young harbor seals is sometimes confused with that of a person in distress.

“I was a lifeguard in Southern California,” said Tim Murphy, one of two uniformed state park peace officers who double as lifeguards on the Sonoma County coast. “I never had a rescue where I worried about getting the person back to shore, nevertheless myself. Up here, it really is a mixed bag. You’re in the water sometimes thinking, ‘I hope my backup is here soon, because I’m not sure I can pull this off myself.’ ”

Lifeguards learn to scan a cove of bobbing divers and instantly detect discomfort or inexperience by the way they hold their heads above the water or cling to their float tubes. They urge some out of the water with polite coaxing. If there are no imminent signs of trouble, they hike on to the next cove, or drive farther up the highway.

“You are not expected to have drownings in Southern California,” Buck said as he stood on rocks near where another lifeguard nearly lost his life a few years ago in an ill-considered, unsuccessful rescue attempt in churning water. “Here, it’s sort of the norm.”

Abalone season opens each year on April 1. By early May last year, four men had died while searching for abalone — three of them on the same weekend, the other a week later.

On the last weekend of last season, during still weather in late November, a 67-year-old man from San Francisco was found in the same cove where Buck’s uncle had died more than a decade before. A day later, divers noticed an unattended float a few miles south, near Fort Ross State Park. Buck rushed to the scene, where he found a 57-year-old man from Oakland at the floor of the ocean with his weight belt on. He was the seventh and final casualty of the season.

“It’s not a matter of if some will die,” Murphy said in late May this year. “But when.”

Within two weeks, two abalone divers were dead near Mendocino. And on June 29, a 44-year-old man became the season’s third victim. He was sucked into an underwater cave. It took two days to recover the body because of high tides and strong swells.

Most abalone divers, of course, do not see their hobby as a risk, but a reward — a chance for companionship, to enjoy the ocean and, if all goes well, capture an abalone that others envy. Abalone diving in Northern California is celebrated, not feared.

The World Championship Abalone Cook-Off began at a dive shop in the late 1980s, but it now finds a home each fall at Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg. On a sunbaked day last October, there were 20 booths, offering abalone won tons, abalone salsa, abalone ceviche (two kinds), abalone sausage, even abalone wrapped with dates, goat cheese and bacon, all of it deep fried.

It is the pursuit of abalone, more than anything, that fills the campgrounds, motor lodges and bed-and-breakfasts up and down the coast in both directions. Fort Bragg used to have thriving lumber mills and commercial fishing operations. They have dried up.

“What we depend on now is tourism,” said Charlie Lorenz, the self-proclaimed Abalone Hunter, who interviewed people at the cook-off for “And what brings people here? Abalone.”

The festive air belied an undercurrent of concern about the state of abalone diving. The total legal catch in Northern California has dropped more than half in the past 25 years, and restrictions tightened further in 2014. Longtime abalone divers worry about the trend and see a day when diving is banned completely. Some say it would be catastrophic to the area’s economy and culture, and suggest it might make abalone more susceptible to poaching, not less, as if it were an illegal drug.

The only certainty is that the coves that scallop the coastline would be emptier. And the lifeguards who patrol the bluffs and rough waters would have it easier, if they had a job at all.

“Abalone divers make up the bulk of our rescues,” Buck said. “They’re the reason we’re here.”

(Courtesy, the New York Times)

* * *

CATCH OF THE DAY, July 27, 2014

Canastuj, Delgado, McBride, McGee, Misita, Moilanen
Canastuj, Delgado, McBride, McGee, Misita, Moilanen

KHADIJAH BRITTON, Covelo, Possession of meth. (Picture not available.)

CALIXTO CANASTUJ, Sacramento/Leggett. Pot cultivation/possession for sale.

JOHNY DELGADO, Fort Bragg. Domestic Battery.

JAIME HERNANDEZ Sacramento/Piercy. Pot cultivation/possession for sale, illegal entry. (Picture not available.)


RICHARD MCGEE, Orland/Willits. Driving on a suspended license.

CHRISTINE MISITA, Cloverdale/Ukiah. DUI.

CARLA MOILANEN, Fort Bragg/Ukiah. Pot cultivation/possession for sale, possession of assault weapon, armed with firearm.

Montieth, Montieth (2013), Mora, Owens, Sanchez, Wilcox
Montieth, Montieth (2013), Mora, Owens, Sanchez, Wilcox

JACKIE MONTIETH, Ukiah. Petty Theft, probation revocation.

PABLO MORA, Ukiah/Willits. Elder abuse, battery, probation revocation.

KELLY OWENS, Santa Rosa/Ukiah. Drunk in public.

ROY SANCHEZ, Ukiah. Resisting arrest, probation revocation.

LYDIA WILCOX, Probation revocation. (Frequent flyer)

Collins, Chow, Gist, Modrelle, Pernell, Pike, Wells
Collins, Chow, Gist, Modrelle, Pernell, Pike, Wells


CHOK CHOW, Ukiah. Resisting Arrest.

ROGER GIST, Willits. Probation revocation.

STACEY MODRELLE, Ukiah. Drunk in public. (Frequent flyer)

WAYNE PERNELL, Lakeport. Drunk in public.

RANDY PIKE, JR., Point Arena. Murder, Robbery, Conspiracy, False Imprisonment.

JAMES WELLS, Fort Bragg. Under the influence of controlled substance; probation revocation.

(ED NOTE: It appears that the Sheriff’s Bookings website and camera are somehow on the fritz, or undergoing some kind of change again. What we had come to expect with front and side closeup mugshots, has been replaced with what looks like cellphone snaps of arrestees holding pieces of paper with their name and inmate number written in felt-tip marker. Then later, full front shots with no piece of ID paper. In addition, some bookings do not include a photo at all.)


  1. Bill Pilgrim July 28, 2014

    RE: Hitchens on Gaza.
    He buys right into the dominant propaganda model that Israel is always “forced” by Palestinian “provocation” to respond with ruthless and utterly wicked disproportional violence.
    It’s a crock of shit.
    Here’s the REAL model:
    The guy whose throat my hobbled boot is crushing is trying to wriggle free and fight… I have the right to defend myself!

  2. Harvey Reading July 28, 2014

    Musta been a conservative (hence authoritarian royalist) goat.

    Wouldn’t it be cheaper in the long run just to let the jumpers jump? And, forget sending out people to “rescue” them. If they live and make it back to shore, more power to them. If not … well, it was THEIR choice to jump in the first place.

    • Mark Scaramella July 28, 2014

      Peter is Christopher Hitchens’ younger, and more avowedly conservative brother. He seems to be alive and living in England. Christopher died in December of 2011 of throat cancer. Death deprived us of the Cockburn-Hitchens debate we had vainly hoped for.

    • heilig July 29, 2014

      Extraordinarily ignorant and callous remark by Harvey Reading here. He should be sentenced to sit in a mental health clinic for a year, then in a group for family members of those who have committed suicide.

  3. Jim Updegraff July 28, 2014

    Re: Hitchens on Gaza:

    His comment “that the only honest position a British could take was absolute defense of Israel’s right to exist” is a lot of clap trap. The British Empire with the support of the Americans needed a place to relocate the survivors of the Holocaust The Brits did not want them and Roosevelt had made it clear the Americans did not want them. So the Brits and Americans listened the siren song of the Zionists and sent them to Palestine.

    The problem, of course,isthe Palestinians, Muslims and Christians, were already there and the Brits didn’t ask for their opinion, The reactions since that time have been what one could expect-a continuing conflict thanks to Mr. Hitchens and his fellow Brits.

  4. Harvey Reading July 28, 2014

    I thought the poor old drunk, Hitchens, was dead.

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