Not a soul in the crowded courtroom stirred when her name was called. She was just another anonymous fish in drab green jailhouse coveralls.
But the apparent Ms. Wright struggled to her feet, encumbered by shackles and chains. Everyone else was too absorbed with their own problems to notice, having no idea they were in the presence of a bank robber and master forger, a pair of charges that always arouses both curiosity and admiration in the criminal element.
The judge asked his bailiff to go out in the hall and find Ms. Wright’s public defender, and a prosecutor — anyone who had any idea why this attractive woman was in the dock.
Jessica Hoagland of the Public Defender’s Office came bustling in, apologizing profusely for not having been present when her client's name was called. Then Deputy DA Larson appeared, hurriedly searching through the bucket of files on the prosecution’s desk for some info on Ms. Wright. The Judge twiddled his thumbs impatiently as justice was put on hold.
At last His Honor, Judge John Behnke, said, “This comes on for a Preliminary confirmation; how do the parties want to proceed?”
“We’re ready to confirm,” Ms. Hoagland said.
Prosecutor Heidi Larson wasn't ready. “I apologize to the court, your honor, but this is not my case. Mr. Hawkins is absent today, but it appears from a note in the file that the People intend to amend the complaint against the defendant, Nicole S. Wright, to three counts of burglary from three separate financial institutions, Wells Fargo on State Street, Mendocino Savings Bank on Airport Boulevard, and the Redwood Credit Union…”
A hush had suddenly stifled the commotion in the courtroom, and every face, rapt with what can only be described as awe and respect, was now turned on Ms. Wright — a bank robber? Had she rappelled down through late night bank skylights like some kind of outlaw Batwoman?
Most of us harbor secret admiration for bank robbers. Banks rob us, occasionally us robs them.
As I searched for an epigram for this story by some famous thief or writer, I saw many that were appropriate. But none of them were quite as memorable as the one my stepfather uttered as he unplugged the coffee maker and folded the cord to administer a whipping for stealing a pack of cigarettes from him. He said, “Boy, if you’re gonna steal, steal big. You’ll get the same punishment, either way; but if you steal big, at least you won’t hurt the people in the same boat as you.” Then he laid on the lash: 20 of them, as I recall; one for each cigarette.
The new charges gave Ms. Hoagland, public defender, pause. “In light of the new charges, your honor, I’m uncomfortable with moving forward.”
“Also,” prosecutor Larson added, “the co-defendant, Jeannette Long, will not be charged in these cases.”
Jeannette Long was — according to my sources — the ringleader in the bank jobs.
“In that case,” Hoagland said, “we’ll be entering not guilty pleas on all three counts and entering time waivers.”
Larson said, “The note in the file indicates the DA would like to consolidate the complaints, since they are all the same kind of crime.”
Another preliminary examination had been set for September 10. On that day, the proceedings were in another department, Judge Richard Henderson presiding. By then, Hoagland had arranged that her client, Ms. Wright, would plead to one count of cashing a forged check — the original name having been erased with fingernail polish, and Ms. Wright's own name substituted.
Ms. Wright’s sentencing is still pending, and her reputation as a folk hero diminished by her fancy-sounding crimes being busted down to petty forgery.
The new focus was on Jeannette Long. So when Ms. Long’s Preliminary Hearing was scheduled for last Tuesday in Judge Ann Moorman’s court, I sat patiently coughing and sneezing with a bad cold next to the investigating officer Anthony Delapo of the Ukiah Police Department, waiting for it to get underway. But at the last moment, Long’s attorney, Jonah Saxby (wife of Ukiah attorney Keith Faulder), announced that her client would plea to other charges, totally unrelated to the three bank jobs: Theft of a wallet from a car, unauthorized use of someone else’s credit card, and possession of a shotgun by a convicted felon.
It seems to be somewhat problematical to get a jury conviction on someone who steals from a big bad bank; on the other hand, it is easy as pi [sic] to get a conviction for stealing from an ordinary citizen, and so Ms. Long, wisely perhaps, pled to stealing a wallet with cash and credit cards in it from a parked vehicle. Which is hardly bank robbery.
The prosecutor, Deputy DA Hawkins, explained it this way: “A jury would be reluctant to believe the testimony of the co-defendants, with their criminal records, on the bank heist business, and since we had her dead-to-rights on the car burglary, why take the chance? She has a prison prior and will do seven years and eight months on this charge alone. Justice has been served.”
Next day I went back to court, still under the weather, as they say, and sat coughing and sneezing off by myself, regretting the missed chance to write a story about a bank job. (I didn’t feel too guilty about coming into the Courthouse with a cold, since that’s where I probably caught it.) And, sure enough, I found myself in the middle of a credit card scam.
A Ms. Angie Stump had had her wallet stolen out of her car. Her credit cards were in that wallet. Her bank account had been plundered for hundreds of dollars. She was distraught, impoverished, scared. So her mother took her to Sonny’s Donuts on South State Street for something sweet and comforting so they could chat about what could be done about the low-rent intrusion into their law-abiding lives.
And wouldn't you just know there was this guy, Joshua Keys, and his “wife” Delilah Knight, sitting right there in plain view chowing down on about twenty bucks worth of gluten-packed bear-claws, cheese Danish, glazed doughnuts, cinnamon rolls, sticky buns, and jelly wellies — all billed to Ms. Stump’s credit card!
A vigilant Ms. Elliott at the cash register knew the Stump ladies, wondering aloud why these other people — Keys and Knight — were using the Stump bank account to pound down the negative food value viands.
Mother Stump and her daughter, aka the victims, were astounded. How brazen! Ms. Elliott produced the receipt from the cash register with Angie Stump’s name on it. As the implications became obvious, a hue and a cry arose. Mr. Keys bolted and — trust a mother to do something reckless — the elder Ms. Stump ran the scoundrel down, hauling him back by the scruff of his neck, all hang-dog and apologetic, to Sonny’s Donuts, where Keys claimed he hadn’t meant any harm, was just hungry, and some vague body had given him the credit card, and since he’d just gotten out of jail and hadn’t had a decent meal in a long time… and so on. Mr. Keys was also sporting brand new duds, fresh from a shopping spree at WalMart.
By this time, Officer Josh Cooper of the Ukiah PD was present to take Keys into custody. Defense attorney Sergio Fuentes (formerly of the DA’s office) asked Cooper, “Did he explain to you why he ran?”
“He said he had just gotten out of jail and didn’t want to go back.”
Fuentes said, “The WalMart Video clearly showed a third person, and my client had just been released from jail. In fact, when Angie Stump first noticed her wallet missing, my client was still in jail. He was duped, your honor, by these acquaintances who said they wanted to help him out.”
Judge Moorman, no dupe, said, “At Sonny’s Donuts he said the card belonged to his wife and pointed at Ms. Knight.”
“But keep in mind, your honor, he bought clothes at WalMart, not big screen TVs and junk food and things like that,” defense attorney Fuentes persisted. “And he sat calmly eating his donuts at Sonny’s Donuts — yes, he did run; he was being accused of a crime and had just got out of jail. But then he thought about it and came back — and a lot of people in the community got their property back as a result of his cooperation with the police. So we would be asking the court to reduce the charges from a felony to a misdemeanor, your honor.”
Judge Moorman said, “The officer testified that Mr. Keys attempted to use the card and was declined by Ms. Elliott at the cash register. He then went back to the car and got another card from Delilah Knight…”
“Yes,” Fuentes enthused. “Then he sat and ate the donuts very calmly with Delilah.”
Moorman: “A lot of people break the law and are very calm about it, Mr. Fuentes. He was using a card belonging to Angie Stump.”
Fuentes: “There is a third individual. [Jeannette Long?] My client was duped, your honor. And he helped get back a lot of stolen property.”
Moorman: “Well, doesn’t that mean — since he knew where the stolen property was — that he had some part in stealing it?”
Fuentes: “Yes, it could mean that, your honor. But keep in mind it was small amounts, only $10 or $15 at Sonny’s Donuts, and only about $139 at Walmart.”
Deputy DA Joshua Rosenfeld said, “Mr. Keys, up to the time he was caught and brought back by the victim’s mother, showed no remorse. And knowing of a deposit of stolen goods shows he wasn’t duped, as counsel says, but in on the caper. As for the reduction of the charges from felony to misdemeanor, certainly it’s not the crime of the century, but his criminal conduct and record shows…”
Fuentes: “Objection, your honor. Those are pending cases, not yet proven!”
Moorman: “Well, he was on probation, counsel. Overruled.”
“It was not just a one-time thing,” Deputy DA Rosenfeld concluded. “And it was opportunistic, and involves a real victim.”
“I’m gonna hold him to answer on the charges,” Moorman said. “The name of Gelmann was on the card he used at WalMart, and no one gave him permission to use it. Ms. Stump confronted him with her card and he ran. Then later he led the officer to Ms. Stump’s wallet. The only reasonable inference is he knew where it was and had used the credit card out of it. This kind of thing can cause real harm to a person. Ten or fifteen dollars may not be much, but $139 may have been a great deal to Mr. Gelmann. We’ll have Mr. Keys back here on October 29th for arraignment on the information.”
A letter in my email from Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsome had me convinced to vote yes on Prop. 47, which would cut funding to the prisons, where people are “needlessly being warehoused” and redirect it to education. But after the Sunny Donuts case, I changed my mind. Jeannette Long and Joshua Keyes haven’t been out of school for five years and already they’re prepped to be “warehoused” in the prison system. Our education system, once the envy of the world, isn’t working, and these conscienceless little thieves need to be put away. Call me a mean-spirited bully with no compassion for the young, but I’m voting No on Prop. 47.