Tate Laiwa Did Not Kill Joe Poe

(Ed Note: This story appeared in 2002. It still strikes me as one of the more grotesque miscarriages of local justice.) 

* * *

Martin "Tate" Laiwa remembers the day he was formally accused of the murder of Joe Poe.

"David Eyster saw me in the jury box prior to being arraigned that day back in 1992, and he comes up to me and says, 'Tate, I read the case and they want me to take it. I told them no, and from what I read there is no evidence and I know you did not do it.' I broke down and started to cry, and he says, 'I believe you and you should be home as soon as the investigation is over.' I believed him, and I was surprised to hear that come from his mouth because he didn't like me and I didn't like him much. I was sure that the truth would clear me, and I would be home soon. Even a man who didn't like me could see that I was not the one who killed the man, and he read the reports!"

David Eyster was Mendocino County's famously tenacious lead prosecutor at the time, and not a man known to sympathize with persons he even suspected were on the other side of the law. Eyster was also the office's major crime guy, and murder is a major crime, but Eyster passed on this one. A less scrupulous fellow named Robert "Bob" Hickock was tapped to prosecute Tate Laiwa, and a uniquely evidence-free case proceeded against the 31-year-old Point Arena man as if the people had caught him in the act.

Writing from his cell at Folsom Prison, Tate Laiwa is ten years older and a thousand years wiser.

"The day it happened back in August of '92 I was on my way to finding out the harsh realities of how the justice system works in Mendocino County. I, like a big dummy, was always led to believe that the truth would always be brought out in a criminal trial no matter what, and that if you were in fact charged with a crime that you did not commit then the court would, through investigations and lawyers, seek out the right party to the crime and free the wrongfully accused. Almost ten years later I'm still trying to do just that -- trying to prove to the courts, Hey, you have the wrong man here! But they answer back, You had your day in court. Do your time. No, I have not had my day in court, and I'm not going away and I'm not keeping my mouth shut until I get justice."

Who Killed Joe Poe?

It's about four in the morning of August 15th, 1992. Seven men are sitting in Tate Laiwa's trailer on reservation land northeast of Point Arena. All of the men in the trailer have been drinking. Five of the men are Indians, two are white.

The Indians know each other or of each other. They are either related by blood or by marriage or have relatives living on the Point Arena rancheria.

One of the white men is Jerry Fleming. Fleming's aunt is Tate Laiwa's mother. Fleming, then, is his host's cousin. Fleming knows most of the people on the Point Arena res because he has often visited his aunt, Mrs. Laiwa, and, as roughly the same age as Tate, has grown up with the Laiwa boys.

The other white man, and odd man out, is Michael Stewart. Stewart has been driven to Point Arena from Windsor by his friend and Windsor neighbor, Fleming. Stewart doesn't know anybody in the trailer except for Fleming. He later says that he thought some of the people in the room didn't seem too hospitable, although the host, Laiwa, was amiable enough.

Michael Stewart is an alcoholic and a diabetic. He travels with an insulin kit and a blood machine. Stewart claims to be affiliated with the Hells Angels and tells his new acquaintances biker tales his fellow guests don't find particularly believable or interesting. All the men in the room have their own stories, and they're plenty adventurous enough without inserting the Hells Angels into them to boost their excitement quotient.

Stewart is the kind of man that law enforcement describes with terse understatement as, "He's known to us." Stewart once did 13 years in state prison for a shooting; his life outside prison had been, well, eventful, to be diplomatic about it, and has since died of medically unwise exertions, specifically, drop-fall drinking and drugging on top of terminal diabetes.

This diabetic, alcoholic ex-con and self-alleged Hells Angel, became the people's primary witness to the 4 am murder of Joe Poe in Tate Laiwa's Point Arena living room.

Here we are then, on the Point Arena rez, very early the morning of August 15th, 1992. The seven men are gathered in the Point Arena trailer home of Tate Laiwa, a 31-year-old Pomo Indian of the Manchester-Point Arena Band of Pomo Indians. It's about four a.m., maybe a little earlier, and Joe Poe is about to take his last breath.

Poe was sitting on a bucket talking about fishing with Jerry Fleming when a man with a deer rifle walked up to the seated Poe and shot him dead, point-blank, the big bullet entering Poe's unsuspecting head just under his left eye.

Poe died instantly. His head, the coroner wrote, "was extremely deformed."

Jerry Fleming had been sitting next to Poe when the shooter stuck the rifle three inches away from Poe's face and pulled the trigger. Fleming said the shooter wore a red shirt. Fleming also said that he'd received "bad vibes" from the man in the red shirt, and the vibes got so bad after Poe's head exploded, Fleming assumed he was next and ran for the door.

Fleming said he saw "a rifle come up from the side or something like that. I just seen the barrel, a pair of legs and it come up, and that was it. When the gun went off, I jumped up in front of the guy holding the rifle." But, Fleming said, he "wasn't sure who it was. I'm not positive. All I remember is just jumping up and heading for the door... I just have a red shirt sticking in my mind and that's about it. Like I say, I don't know if it was my cousin or the boy that was wearing the red shirt."

Poe's blood was everywhere in the room.

None of it would be found on Tate Laiwa -- not on his clothes, not anywhere on him. Tate says he was in the bathroom to the rear of the trailer when the shooting occurred. Almost immediately after Poe was shot, he remembers, a man in a red tank top ran out the door with the murder weapon.

The man in the red tank top was a famously violent man named David "Hippy" Bechtol. Bechtol would later deny he was the man in the red shirt. He would not deny he ran out the door with the murder weapon.

At the time, Bechtol was on parole for an armed robbery. Ten years later he's fresh out of prison on parole for another crime. He's a very tough guy with a violent history.

Only hours before Joe Poe was murdered, Hippy Bechtol, the un-flower child, had twice rammed Poe's unoccupied car as it sat not far from Tate Laiwa's trailer.

Five days after the murder, Bechtol at first told the police he'd simply run out the door because, as a parolee, he knew he'd be a suspect and, besides, he'd violated the conditions of his parole by drinking. Then he said that he had taken off with the gun but had thrown it into "a pond" at the bottom of the hill near the rez pump house. Bechtol said the man with him, Eldon Miller, was passed out drunk in Bechtol's car while Joe Poe was being murdered, and that Miller was still passed out in Bechtol's car when the rifle was thrown into the pond at the bottom of the hill.

The rifle never has been found, but it's said to be alive and well in Lake County.

When the gun went off in Joe Poe's face, the man who would become the people's primary eyewitness, Michael Stewart, was double-drunk, if not half-dead. He'd been soaking his diabetes in wine coolers, beer, whiskey, and maybe even shots of tequila for fifteen hours, beginning his medically suicidal binge the previous morning in Windsor.

Stewart says he'd been drifting in and out of sleep and "insulin shock" when the shooting occurred, but that he was wide awake at the moment of Joe Poe's summary execution. Stewart said his diabetes and all the strangers in the house had combined to disturb his sleep. Fifteen hours of drinking, to hear Stewart describe his state of being at the time of the murder, had left him unimpaired, his powers of observation undiminished.

Stewart said he saw Tate Laiwa shoot Joe Poe.

The man who ran out the door with the gun, Hippy Bechtol, said he saw Tate Laiwa shoot Joe Poe.

And Jerry Fleming said he thought he saw somebody in a red shirt who might have been his cousin shoot Joe Poe.

Although Poe had been shot in the face by a high-powered rifle from three inches away, no blood from Poe's exploded head was found was on Laiwa or his clothes. A man just out of state prison for an armed robbery went out the door with the gun, lied about it to the police when they caught up with him five days later, tried to run out the back door of his Upper Lake house when the police knocked on his front door when they did catch up with him, and never did explain why he took off with the murder weapon.

And the man who would become the people's sole disinterested witness against Laiwa was a half-dead diabetic who'd been drinking since the morning of the previous day.

The implausibilities kept on piling up, all of it unaccountably falling on the head of the least likely man on the premises to have killed anyone.

The police said Tate Laiwa confessed to killing Poe five hours after Poe died. The investigating officer, Tim Kiely, said Laiwa asked him to turn the tape recorder off so Laiwa "could tell him what happened." Kiely said he turned the recorder off, Laiwa confessed, Kiely turned the tape back on but did not confirm on tape the confession he said he'd just heard.

Tate Laiwa says he asked Kiely to turn the tape recorder off so he could tell the officer who had killed Poe without people thinking he was a snitch which, in the context of the Point Arena rez in 1992, was a sensible precaution to take when discussing rez events with law enforcement. It had not yet occurred to Laiwa that the cops had homed in on him as the responsible.

The prosecution's case was simple, if not simpleminded. It would claim that Laiwa shot and killed Joe Poe in the living room of Laiwa's in-the-process-of-being-remodeled house trailer on the Point Arena rez, that he'd committed the murder because he wanted to be a Hells Angel, that an ex-con-drop-fall-drunk- of-a-terminal diabetic said he saw Laiwa do it, that Laiwas and Poes didn't like each other from way back, that Tate Laiwa had confessed to all of it while the cop's tape recorder was off.

Reasonable people would see reasonable doubt begin about a mile back, which is why prosecutor Eyster, the Javert of the Mendocino County District Attorney's Office, refused to have anything to do with the case.

Laiwa said right along he didn't do it, but his public defender, Ron Brown, didn't seem to believe him. Brown advised Laiwa to plead guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter, telling Laiwa that his sentence would be 3-5 years in state prison if he'd roll over and say, "I killed Joe Poe."

But Laiwa refused. He said he wouldn't confess to a crime he hadn't committed. He'd take his case to a jury of his peers.

The jury of his peers turned out to be 12 white people, most of them elderly, one of them a man who'd lost a relative to murder, none of them partial to the outlaw Indians conjured for them by the prosecution.

A guilty man, in these circumstances, would be likely to opt for three to five years in prison. An innocent man would be more likely to take his case to a jury. A defense attorney, one would think, could easily establish reasonable doubt in the minds of fair-minded jurors, given the known facts of People v. Laiwa.

Tate Laiwa thought there was no way a jury, once they heard the non-existent case against him, would come back with a guilty verdict.

But they did.

Tate Laiwa's public defender, Ron Brown, now Judge Ron Brown of the Mendocino County Superior Court, was unable to convince a single juror that there was, at a minimum, reasonable doubt that Martin Laiwa shot and killed Joe Poe. He couldn't manage to convince a jury that there was only one witness to Laiwa's confession, and that confession was made while the witness’s tape recorder was turned off,

Death In a Beautiful Place

How could such an ugly event occur in such a beautiful place?

Bad things have been happening in Mendocino County's beauty for 150 years, longer than that even, if the hazy accounts of 18th century Spaniards and Russians passing through small settlements of Northcoast Indians. But bad things accelerated by 1850 when white settlers began arriving in California in significant numbers, and by 1900 it is estimated there were about a quarter of a million Indians remaining in the all the United States, and not many Indians at all in Mendocino County.

Census figures for early Mendocino County were not reliable until about 1910, but it is known that local Indians were killed nearly to the point of extinction.

But they weren't killed off, and as the years rolled by Mendocino County Indians, their terrible histories passed on down through the generations from elder to child, have reappeared, making their way back to the land the old ones remembered as theirs.

By the millennium, there were two million Indians in America, and there were Indians throughout California, the state whose official policy it had once been to hunt Indians with state-reimbursed bullets for state-paid bounties.

Some Indians never left Point Arena, perilous as their stay must have been in the last half of the 19th century.

Having survived the white onslaught, today's Indians, stuck away on rural parcels of mostly unwanted land, tend to turn on each other, and there isn't a reservation in Mendocino County where Indians aren't at each other's throats.

The reservation system as it exists in Point Arena and elsewhere in the county, made the event that sent Tate Laiwa to prison almost inevitable. That system, and Tate's place in it, is expressed accurately and well by a white Point Arena old timer named Dorothy Halliday.

"I am of the fourth generation of the south Mendocino Coast. For more than 50 years I lived on a ranch that was neighbor to the Point Arena Indian Reservation on Windy Hollow Road. Many of its members were my good friends, as well as my neighbors.

"There have been many changes in the world during my lifetime, and I've seen changes and additions to the Indian affairs in our area. Yet, in my opinion, one thing that does not change is that these 'set aside' facilities are more a 'ghetto' than a 'community.' The good people who live there are 'set aside' from the main stream of society.

"I am particularly concerned with the mental and social effects on the youth who are gathered there. They must struggle, not only with the effects of discrimination from the outside circle of society, but from the reservation and the degradation that too often comes with it. The whole reservation and, especially the youth, are badly affected by the collection of persons who are entitled to live on this reservation.

"Too many of the angry and the wicked, who may not survive in the outer economy, come back to the reservation. They pour fuel on the troubled 'inner fire' which always burns beneath the surface of this segregated place.

"Consequently, little good can be accomplished by the hard working, caring folk who live there. The young people, growing up in this troubled atmosphere, are hard put to thrive there, and many of them show the effects of this separated society.

"Martin Laiwa Jr. was one of those youth!

"Among the reservation friends whom we knew best was the Laiwa family. They were well-respected in the community as local, long-time citizens. Martin and his two brothers were sometimes hired on our neighboring ranch to help fix fences, cut weeds or brush, or other jobs that needed extra hands. They were 'good kids' to have around.

"Martin was the oldest of five and he had an especially hard time growing up, having extra pressure from all sides of society.

"At a crucial time in Martin's life his mother became ill. For a time the children were separated from her and from one another. (One sister never was brought home again.)

"Their father, also Martin Laiwa, was a good man, loyal and caring of his family. He was an expert gardener and landscaper. He was doing well with his own business in Santa Rosa. Yet, because of the family's need for more help, he gave up this good work and moved them back to the Point Arena Reservation where his parents lived. Although this did bring his family back together, it was far from a 'trouble free' situation.

"Prejudice is not a one-sided affair and because the children's mother was NOT INDIAN these children were 'put down' by both some Indians and some whites, and Martin, being the oldest was pushed around the most. It is no secret that many young folk, especially males in the process of growing up, are likely to be on the edge of trouble. When they are 'out together' they may be led to doing acts they would not do alone. Neither is it a secret that these 'young folk in trouble' are, too often, treated according to their 'CLASS.' Where boys from 'the Res' were 'taught a lesson,' the sons of 'higher class' citizens were merely lectured to 'go and sin no more.' Consequently, these 'lower class' boys, after time served in Juvenile Hall, would now have a 'bad name' and therefore a 'prior record.'

"Their risk of a repeat offense would be greater and their trouble more likely to continue.

"In Martin's case this record would be distorted and used against him by both 'whites' and 'Indians.' Martin is presently in Folsom Prison. He struggled and fought his way there and now he needs and is working hard to 'fight' a very different and better way to be out and to build a life.

"There was a drinking party and a scuffle of some sort where a man was shot and killed. This is not an uncommon event of these reservations, which are like any other ghetto.

"This death was not a 'cold blooded murder' in any event, and, it is not unknown in these cases for the 'Reservation People' to 'clump together,' and answer the legal questions 'Indian fashion.' They let the 'white law' puzzle out the possible details. It is not unlikely that Martin was 'framed' by both sides. He has, in any event, served a considerable time and it is high time he was released and enabled to live a real life.

"One of the black marks against him was that he ran away and hid. This would not necessarily be an act of guilt. It could just as well be of fear. For some years Martin and I have corresponded and I have great respect for his effort to educate himself and his attempt to work his way out to freedom. He has educated himself and he is, like his father, an expert gardener and landscape man.

"He needs to be given a chance to build a new life while he still has time and strength to use for this effort. I would like to begin a 'Free Martin Laiwa' movement and begin a fund to help accomplish this."

Mendocino County's justice system doesn't like the people it sees as outlaws costing it a lot of time and money in jury trials, especially a jury trial for first degree murder because the law says a murder defendant has got to be provided with every reasonable form of assistance.

It's also hard to get a jury together these harried, hectic days, let alone a jury in Mendocino County composed of people who might be considered peers of a 31-year-old Indian from Point Arena. Just about the only people who can take a month or two off to be jurors are retired white people, and they tend not to be very understanding of young male pot growers stuck away on an outback Indian reservation. What could a sedate jury of mostly senior citizens possibly make out of a case involving a bunch of Indians and a white lowlife who says he's a Hells Angel sitting around in a trailer on the Point Arena res getting drunk on a Friday afternoon? And most of the drunks ex-cons and tough guys at that?

Pick one and send him away for half his life.

Tate Laiwa got picked.

* * *

Tate Laiwa did more than 17 years in state prison for a crime there was zero evidence he committed. He was paroled in 2009 and is now married, living in Santa Rosa, and working as a chef in Petaluma.

Tate Laiwa displaying an impressive catch off the Sonoma Coast recently.

3 Responses to "Tate Laiwa Did Not Kill Joe Poe"

  1. AbraKaDebra   December 30, 2015 at 12:30 pm

    Thanks for the article on Tate.

  2. Lacie   June 7, 2017 at 11:35 pm

    This picture doesn’t look like my uncle Tate

  3. Bruce Anderson   June 8, 2017 at 4:46 am

    When’s the last time you saw him, Lacie?


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