The obligatory year-in-review highlights represent the staid thinking you get in journalism schools. To me, the idea of rehearsing old stories causes me to slump over my computer in a sound sleep. So, I thought I’d try something a little different this year and bring the readers some of the things that didn’t make the cut, “newswise,” but made the job of covering the news not only interesting but very entertaining.
The year began with the departure of Deputy DA Joshua Rosenfeld. The talented young prosecutor had decided to try his hand at street-level law enforcement. So he quit the DA’s Office and went to the police academy with a plan to join the Ukiah PD after graduating the six-month course. Why? He said the pay was better, that he could get overtime as a cop.
A pretty young public defender, fresh out of law school, Christine Brady, had defeated Rosenfeld in a driving under the influence of marijuana case, and this defeat maybe got to the guy's male vanity. At any rate Ms. Brady soon moved on to bigger and better things due in large part to her stunning success at her first trial ever — unusual at the Public Defender’s Office — and Mr. Rosenfeld, after serving a few months as a cop, came back to the DA’s office where he continues to perform admirably.
On January 2nd of 2014 many of the lawyers and judges hadn't returned from their hangovers; Judge John Behnke had several calendars crowded into his one courtroom. After all the prisoners had been taken away and anyone with representation had been duly adjudicated, there were still a number of people left in the gallery. Who were these people? What did they want?
Behnke asked if anyone had a matter they wished to be heard ? A middle-aged woman stood.
“Yes, what is it?” Behnke asked.
“I received a nasty text message on my cell phone,” she said. “From my tenant.”
“What did the text say?”
“It said 'You locked me out of my house and I got no paper from the courthouse.'"
“That’s not so bad,” Behnke said. He had been on the Criminal Bench for two years and had spent the previous seven years hearing civil cases — which adds up to a great many evictions. He’d heard a lot worse.
“Yeah, sure, judge, but he nearly set my house on fire,” the woman said indignantly. “Then he vandalized my water tank. And I know it was him ‘cause he left a nasty note!”
“What does the note say?” Behnke asked, his hands bunched under his nose, his eyes peering at the complainant over his reading glasses.
“Your honor — and I don’t mean any disrespect — but it says, and I quote, 'Have a merry fucking Christmas!'”
The judge said, “But you evicted him — didn’t you? — and I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but it may have been unrealistic to expect anything more than that. Now, that being said, we’ll go ahead and set this for an evidentiary hearing in a couple of weeks. You will be able to present your case after he has been served: Will January 14th be all right?”
Department B’s Court Clerk Bonnie Miller, a mother, reminded the judge to ask whether any children were involved in the Christmastide eviction. There were none.
By the way, our courts are run like the military. The judge is only nominally in charge, like a regimental colonel; the Sergeant Major actually runs the show. In the courtroom, the Court Clerk is the Sergeant Major.
A vast majority of judge’s time on the bench is taken up with repeating the same few paragraphs over and over. Every few minutes, a new defendant has to listen to a rote spiel about understanding or waiving his or her rights. It is exceedingly tedious to listen to — if you’re not the defendant — but I imagine the judges must find it even more wearying than the rest of us. I generally leave the courtroom during this exercise but I see that my note taking had become such a habit that I once wrote down the pro forma rights recital.
Behnke: “Mr. Cordova, you have certain rights you are giving up if you accept the offer the DA is making. Do you understand that?”
Cordova: “Yes, your honor.”
Behnke: “For instance, you have a right to a trial where the People would have to prove you guilty of the charges. Do you understand that?”
“Yes, your honor.”
“And do you give up your right to a trial?”
“Yes, your honor.”
“And you have an absolute right not to incriminate yourself by saying anything. Do you give up that right as well?”
“Yes, your honor.”
Also, Mr. Cordoba you have a God-given right to whine. Do you give up that right as well?
No — no, your honor! I don’t give up my right to whine — it’s the only right I have left after being stripped of my Second Amendment, my Fourth & Fifth Amendment rights by you, your honor, and I’m not sure I had any of the others in any but in a nominal sense to begin with… So, no, I don’t give up my right to whine.
A shocking series of child molestation cases began at the first of the year, and continue to this day, sad to say, and for the most part they are unreported because the testimony is almost entirely unprintable. The testimony in these cases often veers into the bizarre.
Prosecutor Heidi Larson handles these depressing matters for the DA. She dresses up to do it. For trials, she appears in scarlet stiletto heels to match her crimson nail polish and lipstick. Her heels click, her nylons snick and her skirt snaps. Defense attorneys, on the other hand, dress and deport themselves like mortuary ushers or people who would rather be hippies.
The case of an accused pederast that ended in acquittal had any number of unprintable phrases repeated several times from the time of the prelim, the previous year, and often again throughout the process of going to trial, which took place last winter. To hear DDA Heidi Larson, with her gotcha! smile, ask the witness about some of this obscene testimony made everyone in the room know that the perv was going down, and going down hard.
A girl reported she’d been felt-up while in medical care. The charges had something to do with having her catheter removed by a male nurse. Detective Andrew Porter and Investigator Mariano Guzman worked on the case, and in my notebook there was an asterisk with a footnote in the margin, reminding me that something had struck them funny.
There’s no indication in my notes what the two were joking about, but it’s unlikely it was the victim, a girl, who was recovering from a suicide attempt. The charge was 243.14, and the defendant, Craig Stewart, was told by Judge John Behnke, a man who likes to laugh -- and a judge who can't laugh is headed for the bin -- that his “conduct may not have been inappropriate, but was perhaps ill-advised. This isn’t a trial so the question is whether I’m suspicious that the touching — or ‘scrunching’ as it was called — was done for sexual gratification, and I am [suspicious].”
Near the end of January we heard Public Defender Linda Thompson tell Judge Behnke, in a veiled reference to Proposition 47 (which was enacted later in the year) that the laws for possession of meth were about to change.
“The word coming down,” Thompson said, “is that these kinds of crimes [felony possession of a controlled substance for purposes of sale] are going to become misdemeanors.”
Behnke replied, “The ‘word’ has yet to come down to my admittedly-low level, but I’ll keep my ears open, Ms. Thompson, thank you.”
Word finally came down after the election last November. But other defense attorneys had gotten the same memo: Linda Thompson wasn’t clairvoyant. Lawyers from the Pier 5 Firm in San Francisco (Tony Serra’s base of operation) made similar prophesies at this time — early February — as did Eugene 'Ed' Denson, a Humboldt County defense lawyer who handles a lot of clients who get busted running their “product” through Mendocino County to market in the southern metropolises. Prop. 47 was instituted by the San Francisco DA and a retired San Diego Police Chief, but the California defense bar was definitely on board, and a great many have since profited, having been called up to petition for clients they never expected to hear from again once the law went into effect.
One day near the end of February I was sitting in the sun near the Courthouse during the longish (1-1/2 hrs.) lunch break watching the pedestrians along School Street, coming and going from all the nearby cafes, when, out of the blue, Ukkah attorney Al Kubanis crossed the street and joined me. We were both fasting, as it happened, and trying to be stoic about it, as my notes indicate. Me, I had no money. Al, he was on a diet imposed by his spouse. As our stomachs growled watching the diners come and go, Al reminded me of how hard it was for a tort lawyer to get a decent break these days.
“Mendocino juries are so parsimonious, stingy, cheap, close, scotch, tight and downright mean that it doesn’t pay to even hang out your shingle these days — let alone place a modest little ad in the yellow pages.”
A couple exited the cantina across the street. A whiff of seared meat seasoned in cumin wafted along the sidewalk.
“Al, have you ever been in that place across the street?”
“Oh, sure. It’s great, too. Love their carne asada. You should try it sometime. Nothing I’d like better than to go in there right now, in fact, but I have to follow this diet — or else.
Down at the corner a delivery driver was loading trays of buns into a bakery van.
“So the tort craze, the days of runaway juries for civil damages are over, Al? Is that what you’re telling me? Is it that bad?”
“I’m thinking of taking more criminal cases, these days…”
“Al, you sound like a grave digger who’s had his backhoe repossessed. Can you still handle a pick and shovel?”
I blinked my eyes and a month flew past. It was March and the court was still mining the police blotter for crimes (alleged) in December. I heard Deputy Craig Walker say, from the witness stand, “The defendant, Nelson Vose, after being asked ten times or more to please sit down, doubled up and hit me in the head with his fist.”
Deputy DA Scott MacMenomey — who looks like General Custer would have looked, had Custer lived long enough for his hair to turn from gold to silver — asked Deputy Walker, “Do you remember Mr. Vose telling you he’d blow your fucking brains out?”
“I do, yes, I remember that; it’s not something you tend to forget right away.”
My notes indicate that Walker suppressed his usual good humor while on the stand; ordinarily, I think, he would have laughed out loud at the absurdity of the question.
The rules of evidence, of course, require that nothing be taken for granted. For instance, the lawyers have to build up what is called “Foundation” when they enter into a line of questioning, otherwise they get interrupted by their opposite number yelling. “Objection!” It’s a complicated business, but basically the lawyers cannot just ask a question out of the blue. As a result, many laypersons, like myself, tend to think that the rules of evidence were designed specifically to keep anything resembling a fact from ever entering a courtroom. At any rate, Foundation is the reason the lawyers go into a repetitive series of questions every time they call a witness to the stand, no matter how many times it has been said before, it has to be said again.
Consider the legendary officer, Peter Hoyle, who has been taking the stand in the Mendocino County Courthouse since 1976 when he joined the Ukiah PD.
Deputy DA Abrams was prosecuting Philip Forger for meth sales. She called Special Agent Peter Hoyle of the Major Crimes Task Force.
Abrams: “Do you have any experience with methamphetamine, Agent Hoyle?”
Hoyle: “Well, let me see. Over the past 30-odd years I’ve had occasion to arrest hundreds of tweakers, if not thousands. I’ve bought, sold and made more methamphetamine [than all you people put together have ever even seen], and I have been qualified as a meth expert in this courtroom more times than I can remember.”
Hoyle knows more about methamphetamine than most of the people making, selling and using it.
Another cop who is feared by the, ah, sporting class would be Deputy Orell Massey of the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department. An imposing ex-Marine at a fit 6'5" and the only black police officer in the County, Deputy Massey makes so much in overtime pay he's among the highest paid County employees, if not the highest paid. You might see him in the morning transporting the catch of the day to court and you'll see him again at midnight rounding up a tweaker at Lake Mendocino.
One day Massey screwed up and Court Clerk Bonnie Miller let him know about it.
“You’ve brought the wrong in-custodies (prisoners) again, and I could kick you right in the knee,” she said as a chain gang of forlorn defendants looked on.
The retired Marine hung his head as Sgt. Miller laid it on him. “You’ll definitely be buying my lunch today and, if it happens again, I will kick you in the knee.”
We hear about Massey a lot. Mexicans are so convinced Massey singles them out for special attention that when a rumor started in the Anderson Valley that Massey was going to become the resident deputy, petitions soon circulated protesting the move.
From the libs you'll hear, “He yelled at me! I’ve never had a cop yell at me! I felt like he didn’t like me personally — and I like black people. I really do! I’m not a racist, I tried to tell him that!”
And from the criminal element, "I don't know his name but it was the black cop who hassled me, and I wasn't doing anything! Coupla beers maybe...."
Jonathan Wolf was one of the prisoners Massey had mistakenly hauled to the Courthouse from the County Jail. Sgt. Maj. Miller had to reshuffle the schedule, and at last Judge Behnke came out and took Wolf's case out of order.
Behnke said, “I’ve just been handed your file and it seems you’ve violated your parole a staggering number of times. Is there anything you want to say, before I pass judgment, Mr. Wolfe?”
“I’ll get half-time, right?”
Mr. Wolfe was eager as a puppy, smiling at the judge as he waited for a judicial pat on head. The judge chuckled and said, “That’ll be up to the Department of Corrections, Mr. Wolfe, but I can tell you the Probation Officer is re-calculating your credits and you’ll come out wayyyy over the originally estimated number of 446 days — your half-time, Mr. Wolfe — but all three terms will run consecutively, that’s the bad news. Where’s Mr. Schriner?”
Ms. Miller, with a glowering look at Deputy Massey, said, “He’s not been transported yet.”
As a court clerk, Miller had her wages cut back in 2009 and she moonlights on the south side waiting tables to keep her family fed and clothed. Other Courthouse people have taken similar moonlighting positions. She probably resents Massey for all the overtime money he racks up, but you can't say he doesn't earn it.