On September 1st of last year, Ukiah Police Officer Isabel Madrigal was dispatched to the laundromat in the 500 block of North State Street where she'd been summoned by Mr. Vincent Gianvito. Gianvito told the officer that he’d had a dispute with a neighbor, a certain Ms. Van Arsdale, a dispute that soon escalated into mutual pepper spraying.
“She sprayed me so I sprayed her back,” the gallant Gianvito explained.
Officer Madrigal was on the witness stand telling the court why she'd arrested Mr. Gianvito, who had called 911 from the laundromat, having fled his home at 214 Norton Street, he said, in fear of Ms. Van Arsdale and her pit bull.
Gianvito seemed to be the victim since he’d been the one to call for help, but something about him made Officer Madrigal suspicious. Officer Madrigal had had some experience with pepper spray at the police academy, but when she met Gianvito at the laundromat, Gianvito didn’t appear to be suffering from the effects of a chemical designed to repel a grizzly bear. Also, the “pit bull” turned out to be a puppy weighing less than five pounds.
The initial Ukiah Police Press Release on the incident had it this way: “On September 1st at about 10:20 AM Ukiah Police Officers responded to 214 Norton Street for a report of a neighbor dispute in which one neighbor assaulted another with pepper spray. Upon officers arrival they contacted 47 year old Ukiah resident Vincent Gianvito and his neighbor. While interviewing the two it was determined that Gianvito had become upset over his neighbor’s dog defecating on his front porch. When the neighbor attempted to clean up and apologize to Gianvito for the dog’s actions, Gianvito assaulted the neighbor with pepper spray. Gianvito was arrested for improper use of tear gas.”
Mr. Gianvito’s lawyer, Lindsay Peak of the Office of the Public Defender, hired an investigator, Manny Lopez, currently with the Marin County Public Defender, but formerly of Mendocino County, to look into the matter. Mr. Lopez said the pit bull was large and aggressive, and had charged him when he went to the location in January.
A dog can put on a lot of weight – as well as a lot of attitude – in the course of four or five months. And Ms. Van Arsdale, who described Mr. Gianvito as “a fucking weirdo,” said he had struck her puppy with his cane back on September 1 — which may explain the animal's evolved “viciousness” investigator Lopez encountered in January.
It was clear Van Arsdale and Gianvito did not agree on anything but that Van Arsdale's dog had defecated on Gianvito’s porch.
Prosecutor Daniel Madow tried to get the true story from Officer Madrigal, who didn’t have a dog in the fight, as the saying goes.
“Did the defendant tell you anything about the dog defecating on his porch?
“Yes, he said it was an on-going problem; the dog pooped on his doormat and he yelled at her [Van Arsdale] to come and get her dog and clean it up.”
“Have you had any experience with pepper spray?”
“What kind of experience?”
“A really bad one.”
“We had to get sprayed at the police academy, as part of our training.”
“Did the defendant appear to have been sprayed?”
“Did he tell you he ran away?”
“Why was that?”
“He said he feared for his safety.”
“Did he describe the pit bull?”
“He said it was a vicious, gray dog.”
“So, knowing what you know about pepper spray, did you confront him?”
“Yes. I said he didn’t appear to have been pepper sprayed, and he admitted he hadn’t.”
“Did you ask him why he’d lied to you?”
“Yes. He said he didn’t know why.”
Officer Madrigal then went to see Ms. Van Arsdale who displayed all the signs and symptoms of having been pepper-sprayed.
“Did you see the dog?” the officer was asked.
“How big was it?”
“Small. Maybe a foot long.”
“Appear to be vicious?”
“Not at all.”
“Did you return to the defendant and confront him about the inconsistencies in his statement to you?”
“Oh, yes. He said Ms. Van Arsdale had pushed him against his stomach, where he has a hernia, a hernia the size of a volleyball, it appeared to me.”
“Had he mentioned any of this the first time you spoke with him?”
“No, he hadn’t”
“Did he show you the hernia?
“It appeared to be wrapped. I didn’t see all of it.”
“What happened next?
“I ended up arresting him.”
Because of his hernia the jail wouldn’t admit Gianvito. He was not photographed and booked, but instead taken to the hospital and examined for injuries, cited for assault for pepper spraying Ms. Van Arsdale and released.
When Gianvito appeared in court for arraignment on the assault charge he was assigned a public defender, Ms. Peak, and she went to work on a self-defense story for Gianvito. A Ms. Cathy Bennet, a friend and neighbor of Van Arsdale’s, had come to court out of the blue and — claiming to be a witness — took the stand and called Gianvito “a fucking asshole.”
The ladies of Ukiah tend to be blunt in their neighborhood assessments.
Ms. Peak showed Officer Madrigal a photo of the pit bull taken by her investigator, Manny Lopez, on January 7th and asked if it looked like the same dog.
“Yes, it does.”
“But it’s bigger than five pounds, isn’t that correct?”
“Not at the time it wasn’t.”
“Did you weigh it?”
“I did not, no.”
“Were you aware Ms. Bennet was a witness?
“No, I wasn’t.”
“When did she come forward saying she was a witness?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been out on medical leave.”
“And Ms. Bennet never came forward while you were on leave?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
“Was the dog restrained on the day you were there?”
“In your report you don’t say anywhere that Mr. Gianvito admitted he lied about being pepper-sprayed?”
“No, he corrected himself. I asked him if he could possibly have gotten some of the pepper spray on his nose when he sprayed Ms. Van Arsdale and he said, yes, that could be it.”
“Did he ever deny spraying her?”
“No, he didn’t.”
Deputy DA Madow removed the pepper spray canister from an evidence bag, had Officer Madrigal identify it, and entered it into evidence. At this point, the prosecution rested.
Ms. Peak put Manny Lopez on the stand who said he talked with Cathy Bennet who lived about 30 feet from Gianvito’s porch. As he was talking to her a gray pit bull started barking at him and seemed “somewhat aggressive. It actually charged at me,” Lopez said.
Madow said, “You came in here knowing that self-defense was the defense in this case, correct?”
“You had talked to Ms. Peak and you knew it was your job to establish that the dog was vicious?
“No, that’s not true.”
“But there was a discussion between you and Ms. Peak?”
“And you didn’t write a report?”
“And you don’t know what state the dog was in on September 1st, do you?”
That was all for the day. Ms. Peak had a medical expert who came in the next day and testified that having a hernia the size of a volleyball can cause pain and the pain can cause confusion. The expert also said it was possible Mr. Gianvito got some of the pepper spray he used on Van Arsdale in his own nose. This expert opinion established that between the pain from the hernia and the discomfort from ambient pepper spray confused Gianvito to the point he thought Van Arsdale had sprayed him first.
Most of the lawyers from the Office of the Public Defender came to watch portions of the trial as, it seemed, a cheerleading section for Ms. Peak. The defense seemed pathetically weak to a layman, but the trouble and expense of bringing in the investigator and the medical expert must have given the lawyer an inordinate amount of confidence that this one could be won.
Prosecutor Madow called Gianvito “a bald-faced liar, trying to save his own behind.”
“There was no capsicum from the pepper spray anywhere to be found on the defendant, whereas Ms. Van Arsdale’s white shirt had turned orange from being soaked in it. … What upset this guy was a little poop on his doorstep. It gets him so angry he pepper sprays her. It’s as simple as that.”
A little poop on his doorstep? And a hernia the size of a volleyball? Gianvito was under some serious stress here.
Ms. Peak, for the defense, said Van Arsdale and Bennet were “storytellers.”
“When they got on the stand, they made up this little play, making it up as they went along: It was a lovely day, my puppy was out playing and goes over to this creep’s house and he comes out and beats it with his cane. She’s the protagonist. He’s the antagonist. They make it sound like Mr. Gianvito’s porch is communal property. When he asks her to do something about the dog crapping on his porch, she comes running at him screaming, ‘You touch my dog old man and I’ll fucking kill you, you fucking weirdo. She shoved him in the stomach where he has this awful hernia and he pepper-sprayed her in self-defense.”
Apparently, Ms. Bennet wasn’t even dressed. She was in her house making coffee when Officer Madrigal arrived, and hadn’t seen anything — Ms. Bennet only came forward when she heard her friend Van Arsdale was going to court “to get that fucking weirdo…”
Madow said, “Cathy Bennet didn’t want to get involved; that’s why she didn’t come out and talk to Officer Madrigal.”
Judge Ann Moorman intervened, although no one would have been surprised if Jerry Springer had suddenly appeared on the bench.
“I don’t think the defendant could have reasonably felt himself in imminent danger, in reference to the self-defense theory being advanced by defense, so I’m going to find him guilty on count one. The reason is, he gave conflicting statements to the officer who responded to the call, as well as in court. Although there is considerable acrimony between these people, I don’t believe the dog was attacking the defendant, or that Ms. Van Arsdale was attacking him. She was trying to retrieve the dog when he ran into the house and came back and opened the screen and sprayed her. So I do find him guilty. Waive time for sentencing?”
Ms. Peak said yes, and Moorman asked Madow what he was asking for. Madow said he wanted two years probation, “because it’s just wrong to spray your neighbor with pepper spray, and 30 days in jail for lying.”
“He’s no longer at that residence, your honor, and jail’s no place for someone in his medical condition.”
Madow was amenable but wanted a stay-away order.
Moorman said, “I’m not gonna impose jail-time because of his medical condition, although that doesn’t mean it’s not inexcusable to spray your neighbor with pepper spray. And you must stay away from Ms. Van Arsdale …I can’t remember her first name… Debbie?”
There’s a Mandy Van Arsdale listed in the Court Case Index file as a civil case plaintiff. We assume that’s her, although Ukiah's teeming with Debbies.