What about all these poor people in prison for pot, smoking pot?
Are there any?
Yes, thousands. Why don’t you write about them?
Okay, here goes.
The first one to go to prison for pot this year was James D. Watkins, 47, of Fortuna, caught with six and a half pounds on Highway 101 just north of Lake Mendocino Drive, last April 16. Watkins said he was driving the weed from a dispensary in Oakland to a dispensary in Arcata.
Transporting weed from Oakland to Arcata? That’s like taking sand to the beach.
The dope he was carrying, Mr. Watkins would explain, is a special strain grown in a warehouse in the city, and apparently desperately needed in Humboldt County because Watkins said he was making $400 to $500 per pound on the deal.
Well, there you go: Some poor guy goes to prison for taking medicine to sick people.
First off, Watkins didn't seem like he was a poverty case. The guy has a Mercedes-Benz, a BMW, and a nice apartment on the estuary of the Eel River in Fortuna. But he couldn’t be placed on probation, the usual consequence for running a few pounds of marijuana to market because he was a convicted felon with a rap sheet that covered his entire adult life. The defendant started playing with guns right out of high school, threatening people with ‘em, and went on probation twice, which he violated both times. Then he stole some meth and got busted dealing it.
Subsequently Watkins, a native of North Carolina, went to prison for breaking and entering with larcenous intentions, twice! Five years each. When he got out he soon got popped for trafficking cocaine and burglary. Another ten years in the stony lonesome. Out of prison again, Watkins was arrested and convicted of forgery, manufacturing and distributing meth. That one cost Watkins two more years, but he was almost immediately busted upon his release for holding a pistol to some Georgia meth supplier’s head. Back inside for another three years, Watkins managed to escape, which earned him 41 months in the federal pen. All these convictions were racked up in North Carolina, where Watkins had apparently become so well known to the cops he decided, in 2011, to relocate to the Emerald Triangle where he was welcomed with 16 months in San Quentin for a Humboldt County burglary.
Watkins didn’t seem to relocate to the redwood forests to find the serenity offered by our pristine vistas, he came here for the same reason lots of criminals come here — to make money in our thriving drug industry.
But wait — didn’t Watkins claim to have a job as “security installer”?
Sure did. And with all his experience at breaking into buildings (and out of prison) he was eminently qualified, if not certifiably trustworthy for such work. Yes, he claimed to have landed a job installing security systems for pot growers at a shadowy company called Off The Grid Tech. This is a brilliant idea for a business, by the way. I’ve been to pot pharms that wouldn’t keep a determined squirrel out, let alone a resourceful burglar with Mr. Watkin’s audacity and talents. Unfortunately, like most businesses in the Emerald Triangle, Off The Grid Tech was non-existent.
An unsigned letter to the court from this “employer” is written in the same longhand Mr. Watkins signed his name with in his own printed letter to the judge. It doesn’t take an expert to see that Watkins still likes to do a forgery now and then. The boss’s letter, written on the same lined paper as Watkins' own letter to the court rather than fake letterhead stationery, points out there’s no public listing for the security business that employed him because “My company is a referral only company…”
By the time Watkins strolled in to the Mendocino County Courthouse for his prelim last week, he'd racked up a total of14 felonies, none of them pot-related, and had spent years in prison. For his appearance in Judge David Nelson’s court, Watkins wore a tee shirt revealing a virtual crime novel of tatoos. “High Life” (with marijuana leaf); “The World Is Mine” (with heart and rose); “Blacksheep Hustler” (grim reaper); “Smile Now Cry Later” (drama masks). Presumably against the advice of his lawyer, Anthony Adams of the Office of the Public Defender, Watkins kept his sunglasses on.
The accused did not present a picture of innocence.
District Attorney David Eyster called his first witness, Officer Christopher Dabbs of the CHP. (And yes, we’re aware that a dose of honey oil is called a “dab.”)
“At just a few minutes before six on April 16th did you see a vehicle that caught your attention?”
“Where were you?”
“I was stopped on the right shoulder of US 101 northbound just north of Lake Mendocino Drive.”
“Did you eventually contact the driver of this vehicle?”
“Is that driver here?”
“Will you tell the court where he is seated and what he is wearing?”
“He’s sitting right there in a gray tee shirt with sunglasses on.”
“Did you identify the defendant by any identification?”
“Yes I did. By his North Carolina ID card.”
“Did he tell you why he didn’t have a driver’s license?”
“I believe he might have said that it was suspended.”
“Did you at some point search his vehicle?”
“Could you tell the court what you found?”
“In total, approximately seven pounds of processed bud marijuana in the trunk; seven grams of honey oil, in the trunk. In the driver’s door compartment there was a gram and a half of honey oil. There was approximately $3,000 in US currency in the driver’s door compartment, and I also located one-point-five grams of honey oil in the subject’s left front pocket.”
DA Eyster then showed Officer Dabbs some photos of the dope to ascertain if it was the same he busted Watkins with, and had the pictures entered into evidence. Eyster did the same with a picture of the cash.
Defense counsel had no questions for Officer Dabbs, and Deputy James Wells of the Major Crimes Task Force was called.
“Were you requested to respond to help Officer Dabbs on the stop on April 16th?”
“Where did you meet up with Officer Dabbs?”
“At the CHP Office [on Orchard Ave. in Ukiah].
“Do you see anybody else in the courtroom today that you also saw at the CHP Office?”
“Yes, Mr. Watkins, seated at the defense table in a gray tee shirt.”
“Did you advise him of his Miranda rights?”
“Yes I did.”
“Did he waive those rights?”
“Yes, he did.”
“Did he tell you where he was getting it [the marijuana]?”
“He gave me the name of a cannabis club in Oakland.”
“Did he tell you where it was going?”
“Yes. It was going back to Humboldt County to another cannabis club.”
“Did he tell you whether he was making a profit on this excursion?”
“Yes. He said he was buying it down in Oakland for $700 to $800 a pound, transporting it back to Humboldt County and making about $1200 a pound.”
“Did he tell you how often he did this?”
“Yes. Approximately every three weeks.”
“Did he tell you how much money he was making every three weeks?”
“I believe he said about $2800.”
“Did you review any messages on his cellphone?”
“Yes I did.”
“Did any of those messages in your training and experience indicate sales of marijuana?”
“Yes they did. There was talk about different strains of marijuana, quantities, and talking about money and the deal going down and meeting people.”
“Based on your training and experience was this marijuana possessed for sale or for some other use?”
“I believe it was possessed for sale.”
“Did the money factor into your decision?”
“Yes. He had about $3,400 in cash. Calculating with the numbers that he gave me he would have needed a little over $5,000 to purchase six and a half pounds of marijuana. And then if he was going to sell it for $1200 he would be making a couple thousand — about what he told me he would make.”
Deputy Wells then gave a little Honey Oil Production 101 seminar and the prosecution rested. Again, defense attorney Adams, perhaps resigned to a hopeless case, had no questions for the witness, and offered no defense witnesses.
Judge Nelson held Watkins to answer on two felony charges: count one, transportation of marijuana and, count two, possession for sale. Arraignment on the information was set for Judge John Behnke’s court on August 10th. From there the two parties came to a deal, a plea bargain, that if by November 13th Watkins pled to the possession for sale count, then the other felony count, transportation, would be dropped, along with the business about the honey oil.
Watkins had been out on bail and was supposed to meet with Probation Officer Daniel Pisano for a pre-sentencing evaluation and report. He never showed up, but somewhere along the line Pisano learned that Watkins, talking to the arresting officers, explained the “unusual circumstance of marijuana coming north on Highway 101 to be sold in Humboldt [Arcata]. Watkins described it as ‘special weed’ that was grown in a warehouse in Oakland. He described it as extremely high-end marijuana that would sell for a high value even in marijuana-saturated Humboldt County.”
In the probation report Watkins calls his employer “420 Installation.” He lists one previous job as a “mixer” at Capitol Records. That was back in his cocaine days. Watkins said he'd been off hard drugs for 10 years. He said his lack of employment was “a result of his gaining income from selling drugs.”
Among his assets, Watkins lists a 2003 Mercedes Benz ML 350, and a 2002 BMW 540.
His apartment in Fortuna rents for $1000 per month. The enterprising Watkins lives there with his fiance and three children, one of them his two-year-old son. A neighbor at the Fortuna apartments wrote a brief letter to the court saying Watkins had seemed a decent guy in the year she’d known him. This letter, with the name, address and phone number, appeared legitimate, unlike the one from Watkins's employing “company.” His own letter to the judge pretty much begged for a break, another chance. Watkins said his family needed him.
“To Your Honor.
“I come to you [and] the courts first off [with] apologies for missing my pre-sentence interrogation report. I was working and my vehicle broke down in the Covelo area [a ripe venue for security installers if ever there was one], where I had no service. My fiancé informed the investigator of my situation. I shattered my screen [and] my phone was out for several days and missed the message of my re-schedule, and when I tried it was too late. Again I apologize, it was fully intentions [sic] to do as the court had asked.
“Again Your Honor I fully apologize and I beg the courts to please show me and family some mercy [and] lenicy [sic] in this situation. My family is fully dependent on me for its survival and well being.
“About myself, I am no angel [and] my past isn’t the best. The last 5 yrs. have been the best of my life. I am full guardian of my fiancé’s girls [names them], both call me Daddy. I passed DOJ guardianship background check, I did classes for A.O.D. [P.]. (Drug abuse prevention.)
“I also have a 2-1/2 yr. old son that brightens my darkest days. Being put in jail for any amount of time would bring hardship, pain [and] real struggle for my family.
“I would also like to inform the courts that I was Humboldt Co.’s first community parolee. My P.O. was Brian Grossman, I never violated, failed a drug test [and] got off 6 months early.
“I am begging the courts for leniency here, by hoping for probation, fine, but no jail time. Jail time right now would be hard on me [and] my family in every aspect of all our lives. I respectfully beg mercy from the courts in hopes that I be granted probation, so I can maintain a livelihood, keep my job, and stay a Dad, Father [and] most of all a provider.
“Sincerely, James D. Watkins.”
Probation was denied, due to the violent nature of Watson’s record, not because he admitted, “If there’s weed around, I smoke it.”
Probation Officer Pisano recommended the aggravated term of three years, and DA Eyster agreed, but Judge Behnke gave Watkins the mid-term, two years, instead.
So there you have it. I am tired of trying to explain that the prisons are not full of innocent pot smokers, and that when somebody gets sent up for a few pounds, there’s more to it than just selling pot. The pot business attracts some unsavory characters, and I agree with Danny Pisano, that this guy is a career felon who knows no other life, and he’s not likely to develop his security business.