Once they get you down, they never let up. —Hemingway
Sometimes, you just find yourself over the line. —Dylan
Peter Richardson’s crime spree is over, his drinking and driving days done, and he’s sitting in the county jail on a no-bail hold awaiting sentencing for five felonies. Considering that his life of crime began about two years ago when he was diagnosed with cancer, he could die behind bars.
Like a great many old alkies, Pete’s been drinking and driving for 30 years or more, and he'd picked up a few other DUIs in his time, one in ’07, another in ’09. But this latest spate of four in a row began after he beat a pot bust. It might seem as if the cops had it in for him, but even if they did, Pete made it easy for them because he was always guilty.
He got a DUI right after the pot acquittal, but the cop was too hasty and it got tossed for lack of probable cause. But Pete wasted no time picking up another one, this time getting a hung jury; the third (covered in these pages as “The Acetone Defense”) Pete was finally convicted on. Then, last week, he was convicted on a fourth, this one including extra counts of evading and resisting and special allegations that added up to five felony charges, and a no-bail jail hold “to protect the public.”
It seemed a little harsh, but if a guy just keeps driving drunk, well, that guy's got to be sequestered before he kills someone.
DA David Eyster handled the case himself, prosecuting Richardson as zealously as if there was some personal affront involved. Which there probably was given that Richardson has won a couple over the DA. And keep in mind who we’re talking about here — Peter Richardson is a local icon, what used to be called a lady-killer. He ran one of Mendocino County’s biggest construction firms: Rainbow Construction. Pete built the County HQ complex on Low Gap and several local schools. He has Robert Redford’s sandy hair, Paul Newman’s dazzling blue eyes, Cary Grant’s suave voice, and Jimmy Stewart’s lanky stature. Used to be when Pete walked down the street, all the little birdies went "Tweet-tweet-tweet," among them former DA Susan Massini. We’re not suggesting that Richardson put horns on the DA, but it was clear that Eyster wanted Richardson to go to jail for a long time.
Richardson's distinctive old gray van knows the way home from the Water Trough. It's on automatic pilot, with Pete half asleep at the wheel. In fact, that was the defense contention: Pete was in a blackout state, driving on automatic pilot, and didn’t intentionally try to evade the pursuing CHP officer. In his somnolent state Pete just didn't see the long arm of the law beckoning to him.
Defense attorney Bruce Kapsack made it clear at the end of the trial that his main concern was getting his client acquitted on the charge of recklessly evading the officer; there was no denying that Richardson was drunk. The first witness saw him leave the Ukiah Brewing Company in central Ukiah — Pete had been 86’d from the Water Trough for driving through the wall — and she was so alarmed at Pete's altered-state that she called 911 and reported him.
An expert witness from the Department of Justice in Eureka, Kay Belschner, calculated that Pete must had the equivalent of 18 cocktails under his belt at the time of his arrest. As if he wasn't already in big trouble, Pete also had to be tazered into submission. Got to hand it to the guy, he doesn't just kinda screw up, he goes all out.
Richardson himself conceded that that he’d been drinking pints of Guinness stout backed with shots of Jameson’s Irish whisky. One stout and one whisky downed in close order drill being enough to knock most people at least half way on their arse. Followed by two more of each and most of us are, at a minimum, staggering and slurring our words.
One of the women in the courtroom gallery wondered why the Brewery wasn’t closed down for having served so many drinks to a person obviously intoxicated. Defense attorney Kapsack was overheard to explain to this woman, who said she had a personal interest in Mr. Richardson, that the judges were friends with the owners and would never consider such a thing. It’s not unusual to find people in Mendocino County who feel that one man’s drinking is another man’s fault, and the courts are wrong to punish the drinker, who they should be helping. And in this county, never count out personal relationships with the people sitting in high places.
The CHP wasted no time responding to the report from the lady who saw Richardson staggering down the sidewalk from the Brewing Company and get in his van. Officer Hosford was on duty. Hosford turned on his light bar and dash-mounted iCop video long before he caught up to the notorious blue and gray van just before it exited Highway 101 heading for Richardson’s house near the Russian River Estates.
The video was shown in court, and that alone was worth the price of admission. The director of that slam-bam Need For Speed movie could have used some of this footage, with the siren screaming, on-coming traffic whipping by, and Pete's van fishtailing around corners and shooting gravel and spewing up a rooster-tail of dust. Several times the van swerves into the oncoming lane, nearly hits a furniture delivery truck head-on — then, just like nothing was out of the ordinary, Richardson signals a left turn, waits for on-coming traffic to pass — the CHP interceptor right behind him, lights, siren, the works — then turns up Henry Station Road and roars off again. At last he pulls off the road, gets out and vaults over a closed gate. (Drunks everywhere will find Richardson's agility in the circumstances positively inspiring. Stone drunk and he's sprinting and vaulting gates? Salud, Pete!) Then we see Officer Hosford get out, yell at Richardson to stop — hitch up his gun belt like John Wayne and run after him. The camera is still running, but we can’t see what happens because the van blocks the view.
DA Eyster asked Officer Hosford, “Did he stop?”
“No, he did not.”
“What did you do?”
“I yelled if he didn’t stop I’d tazer him.”
“What did he do then?”
“He said go ahead and shoot, so I did.”
Hosford was thinking he’d have to climb over the gate but, as it turned out, it wasn’t locked, and it opened when he put his hand on it.
Defense attorney Kapsack had a little dispute with Officer Hosford over whether Richardson was “severely” intoxicated or “extremely” intoxicated. On the stand the officer said extremely but in his report he said severely. Nobody but Kapsack seemed to think there was a distinction.
Then there was some question about the way the law has changed since this all happened on April 3rd. Back then, Hosford had to ask Richardson if he would submit to the blood test. Now, consent is implied.
“So," Kapsack asked the arresting officer, "you said [to Richardson] you have to give me a breath test or a blood test — something along those lines?”
“Did they say the name of the citizen who called in?”
“But they told you this person was drunk?”
“That’s not what they said to me.”
“Have you heard of HBD?”
“And that means 'has been drinking'?”
“When you said stop or I’ll taze you, and he said go ahead and shoot — does that sound rational to you?”
“It sounded sarcastic to me.”
“But that’s not something you hear every day?”
“Once he’d been tazered he had an attitude adjustment?”
“How long before the ambulance arrived?”
It took about an hour to get Richardson to the hospital and get the blood draw, which was done by nurse Beth Cabral. She said Richardson was a little combative as they tried to get him onto the gurney but then cooperatively extended his arm.
“Could you tell he was under the influence of alcohol?”
“Yes. He was staggering and angry. He said he had been on private property and was going to call his attorney, but he didn’t give me any trouble.”
“Was he pretty far gone?,” Kapsack asked.
“He was coherent, just unsteady on his feet. I’ve seen others farther gone.”
The blood draw was sent to Kay Belschner, Senior Criminologist at the Department of Justice in Eureka. She put the blood into a gas chromatograph, which selects the alcohol molecules along with a number of control samples being run at the same time. One sample had a known amount of alcohol in it and another had none, for instance. The result for Pete's sample was 0.27, more than three times the legal limit.
“And what’s the burn-off rate?” Eyster asked.
“Almost .02… it’s 0.018 per hour.”
“So, considering the time it took to get him to the hospital, we can say that the blood alcohol content (BAC) was higher at the time he was driving?”
“We could assume that.”
“Well, the blood draw was made perhaps an hour and a half after coming down to the hospital, part of that time in the ambulance — there would have been no alcohol consumption there… and during the high-speed chase, there would have been no alcohol consumed then… so, around three hours of burn off time?”
“Pretty close to that, yes.”
There were some questions about drinkers with high tolerance levels and Ms. Belschner testified that even in those cases it was universally agreed that at a blood alcohol content of .08 would impair even a seasoned drunk.
“So at .30 — which we may assume Mr. Richardson was at when he drive from downtown Ukiah to where he was arrested — someone is severely impaired?”
“Okay,” Kapsack said, “Now let’s switch topics to back-extrapolation. Let’s go back in time and try to figure out how much alcohol it takes to get to that level. For a 180 pound male adult who is at .27 BAC.”
First Ms. Belschner defined the drinks as one 12-ounce beer, one one-ounce cocktail, or one four-ounce glasses of wine. Then she took out her pocket calculator and went to work.
“It would be about 16 drinks,” she finally concluded.
“Okay,” Kapsack said. But remember this is three hours later. So would it be more like 18 drinks?”
“That person would be clearly impaired then?”
“What would most people be like at .30?”
“Most people would be all but passed out.”
“So they couldn’t very well divide their attention?”
“And they would have no concept of their surroundings?”
“Well, I don’t know about that.”
“Would they know their speed?”
“Probably not. They could focus on their speed, or they could focus on what lane they were in, but not both.”
“Thank you. Nothing further.
DA Eyster seemed to think Kapsack was going for the tolerant drinker defense, one that hasn’t worked in California courts for over 20 years. He said, “A person seen staggering down the sidewalk, getting into his vehicle… is that something a tolerant drinker could do?”
“Could a tolerant drinker find the keys, start the vehicle and back out?”
“Would a tolerant drinker be able to put the vehicle in gear and accelerate down the road?”
“Would a tolerant drinker know how to get home?”
“Yes, I believe so.”
“Would he hear a siren and see red lights in his mirror?”
“Would a tolerant drinker be able to decide whether to flee or not?”
“I presume so.”
Kapsack said, “With regard to this alleged tolerant drinker, could the answer to each of those questions be no?”
“That’s true, although there are some people who can function at those levels.”
“So, for instance, if I drove the same route for 20 or 25 years or more, I may not be cognizant of what I’m doing, I just sort of go on automatic pilot?”
“That could be true; yes, that happens.”
“Regardless of a person’s sobriety?”
“Yes, it can.”
“And still not be able to grasp everything that’s going on?”
After the witness was excused, Eyster grasped what was going on: Defense was playing the blackout card; that’s why Kapsack had sounded more like a prosecutor than an advocate all through the trial. He was trying to convince the jury that there was no intent in the high-speed evasion and resisting arrest, the felonies.
“A false claim of blackout won’t work,” Eyster told the jury. “Because he used his turn signal in the high-speed chase. You saw it in the video. He turned on his left turn signal, entered the lane, and waited for the on-coming traffic to pass. He wasn’t blacked out — he was trying to get to his own private property where, in his own mind, he thought he couldn’t be arrested. You heard what Nurse Cabral said about how angry he was about being arrested on private property.”
DA Eyster had his power point presentation up on the screen, and he attacked the blackout defense with a vengence. He doesn’t like sneaky defense strategies, calling them trial by ambush, and he was particularly infuriated by this flanking maneuver.
“So now defense thinks we can’t prove intent, but ladies and gentlemen, we do it all the time, with direct and circumstantial evidence. Mr. Richardson took the stand and said he woke up in jail remorseful for putting people at risk. Well, if he was blacked out, how does he know he put anyone at risk? How does he know he wasn’t arrested for public intoxication before he ever got to his vehicle? The blackout defense is not credible, ladies and gentlemen.”
Mr. Kapsack reiterated his blackout defense, but he knew that Eyster had shot it down with that simple question. The jury was gone an hour or less when the verdicts came in, all guilty. The DA immediately asked for a second trial to layer on more felonies, but defense folded. The game was up, the days of drinking and driving over, and the career of another remarkable and charismatic Mendocino character have come to a close.
UKIAH, Nov. 5. -- Jury Trial Result: A jury returned from its deliberations this afternoon with five guilty verdicts against Peter Alfred Richardson, age 60, of Ukiah, for criminal misconduct occurring on April 3, 2014. The jury's two felony verdicts were recorded against Richardson in the Mendocino County Superior Court for driving on a highway in the opposing lane while evading a peace officer and recklessly evading a peace officer in willful and wanton disregard of the safety of others. Two guilty verdicts were recorded against Richardson for driving a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol and driving a motor vehicle with .08 blood alcohol or greater. The jury also found true an allegation that the defendant's blood alcohol was at least .15 or greater. (The evidence showed that his blood alcohol was .27.) The jury also returned a guilty verdict against Richardson for resisting arrest after he exited his vehicle and tried to run away from the CHP officer. After the jury was released, a separate court trial was scheduled on whether Richardson had suffered three previous DUI convictions (2007, 2009, 2014), information that had been withheld from the jury. That court trial was cut short when Richardson admitted all three prior convictions, admissions that caused the jury's two DUI verdicts to become felonies. On motion of the DA, the defendant's bail status was changed to no bail (so that the defendant would be held in-custody to safeguard the public). The matter was then referred to the Adult Probation Department for a social study and sentence recommendation. Formal sentencing will be pronounced on December 19, 2014 at 1:30pm in Dept. B. The prosecutor who presented the People's evidence was District Attorney David Eyster. The investigating law enforcement agencies were the California Highway Patrol and the California Department of Justice's forensic laboratory in Eureka. Judge John Behnke presided over the three-day trial. (— District Attorney Press Release)