For pure verve there’s nothing quite like calling a well-known cop a liar, especially a cop you know, a cop you've worked with when you were a prosecutor, a cop you often see in the small world of the Mendocino County Court House. Defense attorney Keith Faulder was loath to do it, but Faulder goes all out for the person he's representing even if he has serious doubts about that client.
Faulder's client was not as restrained.
Ms. Ashley LaForge took the stand, swore the familiar oath, and immediately called Ukiah’s legendary policeman, Peter Hoyle, a liar.
But the next morning the bold Ms. LaForge had disappeared.
Judge John Behnke told the jury they were not to speculate as to her whereabouts, or what may have befallen her. The wheels of justice would grind on with or without the defendant.
Ms. LaForge was on trial for about $50 worth of drugs — a smidgen of heroin, three proscribed pills, and a little dab of honey oil, having been set up by one of Hoyle’s snitches, the ubiquitous Jeanette Long.
The defendant, within hours of denouncing Hoyle as untruthful, had been arrested not long after she'd left the Courthouse.
There's a small army of local dopers who would gladly contribute to Ms. LaForge’s legal defense fund, along with pinning a medal for valor on her, for standing up to Hoyle because, over the past 40 years, the energetic narc has busted them unto the third generation. And all the way back to Grandpa Stoner every one of them claims Hoyle did 'em wrong.
Curiously, a minor tremor of an earthquake struck the Courthouse just after Hoyle stepped down from the stand after two days of grueling cross-examination by the relentlessly thorough. It felt like a truck had hit the building. Judge Behnke grabbed his desk as though to steady it and — having been shaken out of his focus on the blistering words being exchanged between the lawyers — told the jury to “remain calm, ladies and gentlemen, that was just a Higher Power, perhaps, telling the attorneys to settle down.”
Neither of the lawyers — who’d been at each other’s throats — even noticed the quake, which measured 2.7 and was centered less than three kilometers away below a subdivision just below Lake Mendocino.
Faulder was questioning Deputy DA Daniel Madow’s own honesty at the time of the quake, insisting that Madow had misled the jurors by telling them it was absurd to think Hoyle would lie over a case as insignificant as a couple of misdemeanor drug charges. In fact the charges had been filed as felonies and only reduced to misdemeanors after the passage of Proposition 47 in the November general election.
“Your job,” Faulder lectured Hoyle, “isn’t just to collect incriminating evidence, evidence to show someone is guilty, but to collect all evidence available, exculpating evidence as well, evidence that may show someone’s not guilty as well. Isn’t that so, Agent Hoyle?”
“Yes, that’s correct,” Hoyle promptly replied.
The problem with Hoyle's bust of Ms. LaForge, as defense attorney Faulder saw it, was a little portable safe in her room at Motel 6, along with other items, such as a hash pipe, that hadn’t been fingerprinted. Faulder felt sure these uncollected fingerprints were not his client’s. There were some pay and owe sheets, torn from a notebook, said to be found in LaForge’s car. Faulder wanted to know why handwriting exemplars were not obtained to show the handwritten P&O sheets were not his client’s.
Hoyle answered that this was too minor a case to go to all that trouble and expense over. He’d seen the defendant leave the room and she had a key to the safe — what else did it take to show her guilt?
“Why do you need informants to purchase heroin?” Faulder asked.
“They [the drug dealers] don’t like to sell to strangers.”
“Do you know who the sellers are in advance?”
“No. We provide the money, and the informant provides the targets, the sellers,”
“What’s in it for the informant?”
“Leniency in their own case.”
Informant Jeanette Long had a laundry list of cases she needed leniency for.
“Don’t the informants sometimes get paid for their, uh, services?”
“That’s the idea, but in practice it very seldom happens.”
“Is that because it’s too dangerous?”
“I don’t think so. I’ve never lost an informant or had one get hurt.”
“There are repercussions, though? If they get found out?”
“There could be.”
“They would be compromised to the point of being ineffective, for instance?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“So finding new informants is a constant for the undercover narcotics agent?”
“Yes, you could say that.”
“Is there a profile for possible informants in this community?”
“Yes, I’d say they were the ones usually on the lower end of the food chain, the food chain in the drug world, that is.”
“And as such they’re probably not too reliable, are they?”
“True, you could say that.”
“Do you know Jeanette Long?”
“Do you know where she is?”
“If I did I’d go arrest her.”
“Wasn’t she in room 207 at Motel 6 on March 20th, 2014?”
“What about Roxanne Darr?”
“I’ve heard the name, but I don’t know her.”
“You don’t know her — at all?”
“I know her truck, the only pink camo paint job in the County, but I don’t think I could pick her out of a crowd.”
“Isn’t she also involved in drugs?”
“I thought she was more of a methamphetamine abuser than heroin.”
“You went there on March 20th because someone told you Ms. LaForge would be there?”
“Did you go to the office to find out who had rented room 207?”
“I have since. But there was some kind of computer malfunction and I couldn’t get the records.”
“When did you go?”
“But you know now that Roxanne Darr rented the room, don’t you?”
“That’s what I’ve been told, and I don’t doubt it, but I’ve never seen the records.”
Hoyle explained briefly that often the person who rented the room used someone else’s credit card or a forged check, and Jeanette Long had been involved in a ring — some say she was the ring leader — of a credit card theft and check forging series of crimes involving three local banks and one credit union. For this reason, Hoyle didn’t find it very important whose name was on the registry.
Faulder: “I’m going to show you a document, Agent Hoyle.”
Madow: “I’m going to object, your honor, if that’s what I think it is.”
Judge Behnke: “It’s a little early, but thanks for the warning, Mr. Madow.” (Madow, incidentally, is not related to the insufferable Rachel Maddow, television talking head.)
Faulder: “Ms. LaForge had an outstanding arrest warrant at the time. Is that why you went there? To arrest her?”
“Did you know why she had a warrant for her arrest?”
“No, I don’t believe I did.”
“You had no idea what it was regarding? None?”
Faulder showed Hoyle the document.
Hoyle: “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this document.”
Faulder: “You don’t recognize it?”
“I recognize the form but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this particular one.”
It was an arrest warrant for Ashley LaForge dated March 20, 2014 and it had two addresses for her on it; one in Cloverdale and another in Petaluma. Faulder wanted to know if Hoyle had gone to either address to find her and he said, no, he hadn’t.
“What is the arrest warrant for?”
“It looks like a violation of Penal Code 32.”
“Do you know what that is?”
“I do, yes.”
“Can you tell the jury?”
“It’s for harboring a fugitive.”
“But hadn’t the fugitive in this case already been arrested?”
“I don’t know that.”
“Who was the fugitive?”
“It says Walter Miller.”
Walter ‘Kris’ Miller who was recently packed off to state prison for approximately 180 years for, among other things, attempted murder of a police officer, seems to have had a way with the women, and Ms. LaForge appears to have been ‘sweet on him,’ as the saying goes. (Mr. Miller has written a couple of letters to this newspaper, rightly questioning the length of his sentence.)
“So before you got the search warrant for room 207, Ms. LaForge was in custody?”
“She was in custody pursuant to the arrest warrant for the PC 32, yes, correct.”
“You then got a search warrant for room 207?”
“How long did that take?”
“It was signed by the judge at one o’clock, then I had to drive back down State Street to Motel 6.”
“So, maybe 10 minutes?”
“You arrested her?”
“No. I never laid a hand on her.”
“Sergeant Smith and Deputy Wells. I never even spoke to her.”
“Were you present when her vehicle was searched?”
“I was; that’s correct.”
“Who searched it?”
“Sergeant Smith, Deputy Wells and Officer Partlow.”
“Did you take any photos of the contents of the vehicle?”
“I don’t believe I did, no.”
“Did you evaluate Ms. LaForge to see if she was under the influence of any drugs?”
“The answer is no.”
“Did Smith, Wells or Partlow?”
“I don’t know if they did or didn’t.”
“So how do you know about the pages, the P&O sheets?”
“Deputy Wells told me they were torn from a notebook found in the car.”
“Have you heard of handwriting samplers?”
“I’ve never seen it done.”
“But you’re familiar with the concept?”
“But it was not utilized in this case?”
“No, not on a crime of this level. If someone was laying there dead, then sure, I would have ordered it done.”
“So we had about a half-gram of heroin, three Clonezepam pills and a small amount of concentrated cannabis — so, what we’re looking at is about $50 worth of drugs?”
“That sounds about right, yes.”
Faulder put up a photo of the safe on the motel bed, pointing out the fingerprints clearly visible on the handle.
Hoyle said they looked like smudges, but he’d have ‘em run through during lunch if Faulder wished. He was joking, but Faulder was disappointed when, after lunch, there were still no fingerprints. There was a small digital scale, but no fingerprints had been run on it either.
Faulder next had Agent Hoyle draw a diagram of the motel and vicinity, to show where he’d been parked behind some bushes, on stakeout, to observe the room. Faulder then put up a photo of the same area and asked Hoyle to show his position. Hoyle that the photo, an aerial view, was misleading and that on the ground level, he could see through what, from the air, looked like an impenetrable mass of shrubbery, mostly oleander.
To give the reader a sense of the tension involved, as Hoyle was drawing the diagram Mr. Faulder approached.
Faulder: “I’m coming up behind you, Agent Hoyle, with an evidence sticker to put on your diagram…”
Hoyle: “It’s a good thing you told me. I don’t like people coming up behind me.”
Faulder laughed, Hoyle didn’t even smile.
The jury shifted uneasily in their seats.
Faulder had pulled off a crafty little trick, deftly managing to make Hoyle seem so scary that he just might turn around and knock out an officer of the court! It worked. Some of the jurors were clearly nervous, as was prosecutor Madow.
In his closing summary, Madow practically blurted his remarks, in a rapid-fire succession, chopping the palm of one hand with the blade of the other.
“Agent Hoyle watched the room for 20 minutes. In that time he said he saw the defendant come from the room, and she had the key to the safe. If you believe Hoyle, you must find her guilty. If you think he’s lying — as Ms. LaForge said, and she didn’t enter the room — then you must acquit her. But I want you to go to the police station afterwards and tell the Chief to fire Hoyle, ladies and gentlemen, because we don’t need that kind of police officer. So, it’s a question of believability — the defendant or Hoyle. Now, it’s a common defense tactic to move the focus from the defendant to the officer. It’s a smokescreen being thrown your way to distract you from how ridiculous her story was. And how was it that she could remember every little detail from over a year ago? It’s because she’s had all this time to concoct the story she told you on the stand, to make you believe the officers would go to all that trouble to frame her over a misdemeanor.”
At this point Faulder objected that the charges were originally filed as felonies, and that Madow himself wasn’t being truthful. For his part, Faulder said he wasn’t calling Hoyle a liar, but his client clearly had, and it was up to the jury to decide. The jury, however, couldn’t decide; they hung, and the judge called it a mistrial.
So, where was the defendant?
She'd been busted with nine pounds of marijuana; the DA was not going re-try her on the charges she'd magically got the jury to acquit her on because she also has two other pending trials that are being handled by Jona Saxby, Keith Faulder’s wife.