As of Monday morning, Jack S. Towers was looking at 14 felony counts related to the beating of his girlfriend, loving her nearly to death, you might say.
As of Tuesday morning, Jack S. Towers had pled guilty to two felonies: corporal injury to a spouse and kidnapping the spouse to do it.
The People alleged that Towers was responsible for, among other assaultive things, of repeatedly striking Ashley Asti, a tall brunette beauty, tying her to a 52-pound iron workout ball and chain, choking the 19-year-old Covelo girl with an extension cord, and generally beating on her.
For two days.
Towers was 35 at the time of the August 2008 episode; his lovely buddy Mr. Rodney Harty was 31.
Ms. Asti's 48 hour ordeal at the hands of these gentlemen ended when Ms. Asti made her way to the safety of the home of a Tribal Council policewoman. She was almost dead when she got there.
Miss Asti had suffered internal bleeding so massive she nearly died.
Jack Sunny ‘Sol’ Towers’ apparently thought he could beat the charges with less effort than he beat Ms. Asti, but maybe thought he better settle before the jury heard all there was to tell. If the jury heard it all, and if it was a jury with people on it who had daughters, Jack Sunny Sol Towers would go away for as long as the jury could put him away for.
So Towers copped a plea.
Towers’ long-time friend and “business partner,” Rodney Harty, was also looking at 19 years in prison when he decided to plead out in exchange if he took the stand against his old friend ‘Sol.’
Which he did.
“I signed a deal with the DA to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” he said.
The prosecutor was Deputy DA Rayburn Killion. Killion's a big man like defendant Towers and, like Towers, a man who shaves his head.
Harty is shorter then Killion and Towers, but big in the chest and shoulders. Put the three of them together and you've got three linebackers.
Mr. Harty was nervously kneading his fists on the witness stand, his voice a kind of un-linebacker-like nervous whine.
“I’ve known Sol since I was 15, 16 years old,” Harty said. “I saw him that afternoon at my mom’s house on Red Mountain Road.”
“Is that in Mendocino County?” Killion asked.
“Yeah. It’s out past Covelo, on the border.”
“Do you live there?”
“Yeah. I’ve got a cabin there, but I owed my mother money and she’d cut off my power.”
“Did you have a marijuana garden?”
“Yeah,” Harty said, “about 300 plants.”
“So Sol came out there with Ashley?”
“Yeah. He was going to loan me some money. But when they got there they were fighting. They’d been arguing on the way. Ashley walked past me and went into the cabin to talk to my girlfriend, Sharla. She wanted to use the phone. She called her mom and begged her mom to come and get her.”
“What was Jack Towers doing?”
“He was mad, and when Ashley got off the phone, he flipped out.”
“What did he do?”
“He took her over to the ravine, threw me his keys and said to get rid of his truck.”
“What did you do?”
“I said no, I refused. I tried to calm him down. I showed him my plants and he calmed down.”
“But he was still mad?”
“Yeah. He grabbed her by the arm and started going to the ravine. He dragged her by the arm and said, ‘You’re going down there; it’s your fault, you called your mom’.”
“Did he make any threats?”
“Yeah, all kinds of stuff. He said he was going to kill her, hurt her; and he took her into the ravine. He was hitting her, shaking her, yelling at her.”
“You told the investigator that he brandished a pistol.”
“I knew he had a gun, a 9mm. I didn’t know if he had the gun on him or left it in the truck.”
“Did they eventually come out of the ravine?”
“Yeah, they finally came up. There’s a nylon rope tied to a tree to help get up from the creek. When they got up from the ravine Sol sat on a weight bench in front of the cabin and I was standing with Ashley and he had me put an extension cord around her neck… He was crazy!”
“Did he have a gun?”
“Well, that’s just it, you see. I didn’t know if he had the gun or not.”
Harty was nearly in tears, his voice tight with what sounded like fear.
“Sol was telling me I owed him for taking care of things while I was in prison. He plugged an extension cord in and threatened to shock her with the bare ends.”
“You had an extension cord around her neck. Did you choke her with it?”
“No. It wasn’t tight!”
“Did Mr. Towers say anything?”
“Yeah. He wanted his money back. Ashley had run off with a bunch of money.”
“Did you hit her?”
“Yeah, I hit her. I struck her.”
“Did you threaten her?”
“Yeah. I said if she said anything about my pot I’d hurt her, her family. I said I’d kill her. Then they both apologized. They hugged and kissed. Then they left.”
“Did you hear from Mr. Towers again?”
“Yeah. He called me the next day. He said he beat her up, pistol whipped her, tied her up and went to sleep. When he got back she was gone.”
“Then what happened?”
“The next day, I got busted. They found out where I was and came and got me.”
Towers’ attorney, Andy Martinez, rose to cross-examine Rodney Harty.
Martinez said, “So, you’ve changed your testimony, then, haven’t you?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I did.”
“So, you weren’t living up to your agreement with the DA, to tell the truth, were you?”
“It slipped my mind. I don’t like all these questions,” Harty complained.
“It slipped your mind that you put the cord around Ashley’s neck?”
Harty fidgeted, his head down.
Mr. Martinez paced across the courtroom and said, “You lied to the deputies in Willits, didn’t you?”
“I don’t know, I can’t remember.”
“Didn’t you tell the deputies you were responsible for punching Ashley?”
“But you admitted it later?”
No… I can’t remember. I’m not used to so many questions, my brains are rattled.”
“Did you ever hear anybody say what Ashley was going to testify to?”
“I don’t know, I can’t remember.”
“Did you have a lawyer at the preliminary hearing?”
“Yeah, I did. Linda Thompson.”
“And did she tell you what the evidence was against you.”
“I can’t remember what she said. All I remember is I waived my rights.”
“Did you know what the witness was going to say?”
“No! I knew I was in trouble with Sol.”
Harty shot a worried look at the fearsome Sol, quickly cutting his eyes away from Sol's stony glare.
“So what was the real reason Ashley came to your house?”
“Objection,” Killion declared. “The question calls for speculation on the part of the witness.”
Judge Brown sustained the objection.
Martinez tried again.
“Did you talk to Sol about him bringing his dogs over for breeding?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t know. I can’t remember.”
“But weren’t your dogs in heat at the time?”
“No, I asked him to the house to borrow money, my power was off, I needed to pay my mom.”
“So you knew there was no power when the cord was plugged in. Who plugged the cord in, the cord you were going to shock Ashley with?”
“I can’t remember.”
“But you couldn’t see him, could you?”
“No, I don’t know whether he did or not.”
“Then why did you tell the police he did?”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember.”
“Are you sure you didn’t plug it in?”
“No, I didn’t do it! It wasn’t me!”
Judge Brown called a recess.
The DA gave Harty 13 years off his likely sentence for this? For I can't remember?
Then it was Ashley Asti’s turn to testify, but there were also questions about the value of her testimony. It seems that Ashley is still sweet on Sol, which would seem to mean that love is truly blind even when it's black and blue.
Ms. Asti’s Lawyer, Jan Cole-Wilson, told the court that the inconsistencies in Ms. Asti's statements were a problem, a serious problem. But these inconsistencies, in Ms. Cole-Wilson’s opinion, did not rise to the level of perjury.
He damn near beat me to death but, golly, I still love the big lunk.
Judge Brown said the tapes of the phone calls between Ms. Asti and Mr. Towers could make her a co-conspirator in the case. Cole-Wilson said Ms. Asti was a victim of intimidation.
Brown wanted to know if Ms. Asti understood the consequences of going forward with her testimony.
Prosecutor Killion said, “I don’t know what she’s going to say today. She may or may not be offered immunity.”
The court decided to go forward with a hearing, outside the presence of the jury, to see if the tapes of the phone calls from the jail would be deemed admissible as evidence.
Ms. Asti was called in and sworn. The jail tapes were played and at the end of each Ms. Asti was asked to identify the voices on the tapes. The voices on all six, she said, belonged to her and Jack Towers.
I couldn’t make out much of what was being said on the recordings. Towers’ voice was a low murmur, and Ms. Asti’s was weepy. Towers repeated often that he was facing back-to-back life sentences, and Ms. Asti kept saying she had nearly died and she had medical bills over $30,000. At one point she said, “You sat there and watched Rodney beat the shit out of me; you were going to butt me with 220 volt wires.”
I left the courtroom wondering at a man, any man, who could mistreat a woman as lovely as Ms. Asti, and I wondered at any man who would beat a woman, any woman, almost dead.
And I wondered at a woman who would even consider defending a man who did all this to her.
But it ended Tuesday. Lover boy and his assistant torturer are being packed off to the state pen for a likely six years or so, and Ms. Asti is going home to Covelo no wiser than she was two years ago.
* * *
Meanwhile, across the hall in Judge Henderson’s court, the preliminary hearing for the suspects in the Chicken Ridge shoot 'em up was beginning its second week.
Three rappers from LA are alleged to have attempted to rob three rappers from Sacramento with one of the Sacramento rappers getting shot in the head.
All six may be entertainers, but there was nothing entertaining about what happened that morning on Chicken Ridge, Covelo.
A gang expert from LA was on the stand, telling what he knew in theory about the three LA defendants who, it is alleged, had driven up to Sacramento, met three men there and had proceeded to Covelo for a weed deal that went bad.
The expert testified that Clifton Jacobs was a known member of the East Coast Crips, a violent street gang in LA; and that Darvel Blackwell was a member of another gang called the Eastside Hustlers, known for committing robberies out of their immediate neighborhood.
How did the expert know they were gang members, the defense lawyers wanted to know.
With Jacobs, the expert said, because of his tattoos.
Blackwell didn’t have any tatts.
Doesn’t matter, the expert said. Blackwell been stopped in the company of another known gang member.
What most of us understand as human relationships is that they are infinitely varied and poignant with ambiguity. These same relationships are known by criminal investigators as simply a series of incriminating associations. The mapping of “known associates” — done with Field Interview cards — is an old and powerful investigative technique — known variously as “social-network analysis,” “link analysis,” or “contact chaining.”
The third defendant, Mr. Walker, seemed to defy the expert's specific expertise, although by the guilt-by-association logic of the testimony he was also a gang guy because he was at Chicken Ridge with the other two alleged LA guys.
The third defendant, Marquis Walker, didn’t have any known gang affiliations, but Walker's presence with Jacobs and Blackwell made the expert suspicious. The expert was saying that he could make further inquires before the trial and find out, but it wasn’t necessary, Walker soon plead out. He had been the driver, he said, not one of the perps. He’d cop a plea to accessory after the fact, testify, and get himself released on his own recognizance.
Walker said he’d been on weed runs with Blackwell before. They’d each put up half the money and go buy the product, but this time he was just driving for Blackwell and Jacobs. He’d get paid $1,000. He was a good driver, good with directions, he said.
“So when you got to the Sims house on Chicken Ridge you pulled in behind. Had you ever been to Covelo before?”
“Never heard of it until I saw the sign,” Walker said.
“When you got there?”
“So you followed Jackie Slade and Troy Sims in his white Audi? And you were driving the blue KIA van with Robert Long and Darvel Blackwell and Clifton Jacobs?”
“So when you got to Sims’ house, you pulled in behind him?”
“Did you get out?”
“After a while. But it was cold. It was freezing, so I got back in the van.”
“What did the others do?”
“They went inside after a while. ”
“What did you do?”
“I tried to get some sleep. They’d slept on the way up but I was tired.”
“But you did go in at one point?”
“See anyone with weapons?”
“Yeah. Sims and Long. Sims was putting bullets in his pocket, saying, 'Don’t worry, they shoot out here all the time.'”
“See any marijuana?”
“Yeah. Hanging in a back room, drying.”
“So you went back to the van to get some sleep. You let Sims out about 8:30. You back the van back in after he leaves. Then Blackwell comes out to the van to use his cell, and sometime later both Blackwell and Jacobs come out to the car and reached for their guns in the back. Then Slade came out and yelled, ‘Did they want to smoke another blunt.' Did you get out?”
“Then you heard shots. Four or five shots. You were thinking target practice. You’d seen shells laying around on the ground. Then Blackwell and Jacobs came running, yelling they were being shot at. What else?”
“Open the doors, man! And drive, man, drive!”
“Were Blackwell and Jacobs carrying anything?”
“No. Darvel was sick though, he was dry-heaving. I just drove.”
Marquis Walker’s lawyer, Tom Mason, asked Walker, “Eventually you found your way out, back to 101. Why did you run when the police pulled you over in Willits?”
“I had weed in the car.”
“Maybe a eighth.”
“Why were you reaching into your waistband?”
“I was wearing sweats. They kept falling down.”
Officer Michael Globe of the Willits Police had collared Walker. Jackie Slade, victim, who'd merely come to Covelo at the invitation of Mr. Sims to earn some extra money cleaning up Sims' property after marauding bears, had remembered the license plate number of the blue KIA van Walker was driving. Sims had relayed the license number when he called 911 after the shoot-out on Chicken Ridge.
It takes 45 minutes to an hour to drive west and then south to Willits from Covelo. You can also escape from Covelo north on the Mina Road and come out in Alderpoint, Humboldt County, not far east of 101 and Garberville. Or you can drive east on 162 and come out at Willows on I-5.
As it was, the KIA took the usual route out of Covelo and the cops were waiting for it.
Officer Globe was sitting at the Chamber of Commerce sign at the north end of Willits when Walker’s blue van blew into town. He followed the van and pulled it over in front of ProFlame Propane.
“The driver ran,” Officer Globe said. “He kept grabbing at his waistband, running behind the Evergreen Shopping Center. I had my weapon drawn and ordered him to stop. The parking lot was full of people. He ran through the breezeway. A CDF firefighter saw the chase and came to help. I jumped on the back of a pickup. Somebody yelled, ‘There he is!’ He’d been hiding in the back of another pickup. He took a swing at the firefighter. I wrestled him down and cuffed him.”
“Did the other two run?”
“Yes. Sgt. Arrington captured Jacobs. They went to the ground while Blackwell climbed a fence. Then Sgt. Arrington took my car and went for Blackwell.”
Walker insisted he was just the driver. He ran because he had a little weed and was “nervous about the whole situation.”
For a fact, it was a nervous-making situation, what with gun fire in the hills of Covelo then the mad dash for 101 and then a bunch of .357 Barney Fifes running around in this Willits place or wherever it was.
At the Willits Police station the officers had a hard time figuring out who was who. They kept putting the black witness, Mr. Slade, in handcuffs as if he were one of the suspects.
Walker's lawyer said, “You’ve entered into a resolution of your case. You’ll be allowed to plead to accessory after the fact. Did you receive a note from Blackwell when you were in jail?”
“Did you perceive it as a threat?”
“Not at first, but later I did.”
Blackwell’s lawyer, public defender Carly Dolan, objected. She’d never seen this note. She wondered if it even existed.
Deputy DA Matt Hubley produced the note.
Judge Brown said Walker could read the note to refresh his memory, but not read it out loud to the court.
Walker reviewed the document and said, “I’d asked Blackwell to write a letter saying I had nothing to do with this. He wanted me to come up with the money for his lawyer. Then there was a witness at the jail who was afraid to testify. Blackwell told me he needed to come up with $10,000 to pay him.”
“So it wasn’t the note, but different conversations you heard in the jail that made you take it as a threat?”
“And you’re still friends with Blackwell?”
Walker had returned to Valencia in Southern California where he and his Missus are expecting a baby. Blackwell and his Missus are also expecting a baby, but Blackwell and Jacobs went back to the County Jail to await fatherhood and fate while their lawyers decide how to proceed. The hearing is scheduled to resume April 23rd.
* * *
I was napping in a quiet courtroom one rainy afternoon last week when I awoke to the cheery voice of Special Agent Peter Hoyle. Hoyle was testifying in a pot-bust case. My notebook had slid to the floor, but I found it and picked up the proceedings in mid-sentence.
“…any inducements given Mr. Benjamin?” defense attorney Andy Martinez was asking.
Hoyle: “Not that I’m aware of.”
Martinez: “Were you ever advised he wouldn’t be released from the hospital to law enforcement?”
Hoyle: “He didn’t have any choice; he was under arrest.”
Martinez: “How many conversations did you have with other officers regarding Mr. Benjamin?”
Hoyle: “I only remember one.”
Martinez: “You don’t know whether any inducements were discussed?”
Hoyle: “I don’t.”
Martinez: “What did Mr. Benjamin tell you regarding the .22 Marlin rifle?”
Hoyle: “He said he’d had a home-invasion robbery and had gotten the rifle even though he was a felon.”
Mr. Martinez: “Did you ask him about his marijuana grow?”
Hoyle: “Yes. He said he’d sold last year’s to a medical marijuana club, but he didn’t want to talk about this year’s.”
Martinez: “Were all the conversations with Mr. Benjamin recorded?”
Hoyle: “I don’t know.”
Martinez: “Have you listened to the interview?”
Martinez: “Ever read the transcript?”
Martinez: “Did you do the search of the property?”
Hoyle: “I didn’t do the complete search, but I was there.”
Martinez: “Did you find any medical marijuana cards?”
(It’s been my observation that all the agents on the task force do their best to ignore the Proposition 215/Medical Marijuana card issue. The pot laws being in constant flux, the cops are as confused as the growers, the small-time growers that is.)
Hoyle: “I don’t remember. I can look at my inventory, if you like.”
Martinez: “Please do.”
Hoyle scanned a page and cheerfully reported: “Nope.”
Martinez seemed dismayed: “Don’t you usually ask for 215 cards?”
“It’s my policy, yes. If there’s one there, I take it.”
“But you didn’t see one in his wallet?”
“I don’t remember going through his wallet.”
Martinez wasn’t expecting this answer. He pulled thoughtfully at his full salt and pepper beard, then asked Hoyle to describe the grow room.
“It was about 10 x 10, feet. Numerous plants in one-gallon buckets. Kinda stark. Only one light on.”
“Were the other lights even capable of operating?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, do you know if it was even capable of operating?”
“It was operating that day.”
“How many plants?”
“How many times have you seen 40 plants under one light?”
“At that stage, it’s not uncommon.”
“Were you with Ms. Keegan when she made her rounds?”
“Not all the time.”
(Ms. Keegan is an investigator from PG&E. The meter at the house on Central Avenue in Redwood Valley had been jimmied then fit with a piece of wood to retard the wheel on the meter. Martinez wanted an inventory of the kitchen appliances, but the prosecutor, Deputy DA Katherine ‘Kitty’ Houston, objected. Martinez asked about there being two meters, and Hoyle said it was a fair assumption.
Martinez: “Now, the meter attached to the house – there is a house?”
Hoyle: “Yes, there is.”
“And the grow room is in that building?”
“It’s right next to the house, probably a garage.”
“So you don’t know if the meter was tampered with for reasons other than growing marijuana?”
“People tamper with meters for a number of reasons, mostly for growing marijuana, though.”
Martinez pulled at his beard again. Hoyle, who clearly enjoys matching wits with attorneys, and usually comes out ahead, looked back at Martinez, eager to resume the dialogue.
Martinez asked, “You spoke to the other gentleman, Mr. DeGrassi. Did he tell you there was an indoor operation at this Central Avenue location?”
“I don’t think so, no. Mr. DeGrassi told me he’d helped grow marijuana there before.”
“Did you ask him what kind of operation it was? Didn’t he say it was a medical marijuana grow?”
“He didn’t volunteer, and I didn’t ask.”
“How many times had it been used as a grow room?”
“How many times do I have to answer this question? I don’t know.”
“But wasn’t Mr. Benjamin just trying to recoup his losses?”
“Your client told me he was selling the marijuana for $3,000 a pound. I don’t believe it costs that much to grow marijuana.”
“But according to Ms. Keegan the stick was used to slow down the spin of the meter. The meter spins very quickly with a 1,000 watt grow light, does it not?”
“Yes. They go very quickly.”
“Ms. Keegan said it was in contact with the spinning dial, slowing it down. Did she tell you how long it had been like that?”
“What was done with the 6.1 pounds of marijuana?”
“It’s in evidence.”
“Did you ask where the money came from.”
“Did you know that he also grows grapes on the property?”
“Yes, I may have noticed some grapes.”
The court found sufficient evidence to hold Benjamin on Count 5, possession and cultivation of marijuana for sale; Count 6, theft of utilities; Count 7, possession of a firearm by a felon; Count 8, using a firearm for the protection of marijuana for sale.