"Oh crap," I thought to myself as my old pickup truck rattled to a stop in front of the barn, "This ain't good.” It was early morning on November 2nd, 2015, and the reason for my alarm was that the barn door was wide open and the lock was laying on the ground-there had obviously been an unwelcome guest overnight. I had seen my security light come on around 11:00 pm the night before but heard nothing but the heavy rainfall when I opened the front door of my home, so I went to bed without further investigation.
A quick check inside the barn revealed that things had been rummaged through but nothing obvious was missing, so I went next door to my shop, where the situation was quite different. Not only had it been broken into, but stuff was missing – LOTS of stuff. All the toolboxes were open and many had empty drawers that had been packed-full with a lifetime's collection of tools the day before. Everywhere I looked there were things missing, the TIG welder was gone, so was the giant tubing bender and many other pieces of equipment, along with over a thousand dollars worth of new and used car parts. The total came to around $3,500 worth of tools and parts missing, so I did what any normal person would do and called the Sheriff's department, and they sent a deputy over in short order.
When deputy Jake Steely arrived I was immediately impressed with his whole persona, all-business and built like a prizefighter, very intense and slightly intimidating. We quickly walked the 200 feet over to the shop, where upon a brief inspection he declared to my girlfriend and I "You know we never get any of your stuff back,” I nodded and said that I knew that but just wanted the cops to know a burglar was in the neighborhood so somebody else might be spared the grief I was experiencing. Steely said to put a complete list together of the missing items and he'd do what he could, and together we walked back to his patrol car. As we neared the house he glanced sideways and said "Do you have a grow?" I replied "We had a grow, it was by-the-book and we never had any security issues with it.” That seemed to satisfy the deputy, and he said nothing more about it as he got in his car and drove off.
I tried to work on the list that afternoon but couldn’t, as it was too heartbreaking, every time I looked around it was apparent something else was gone, probably for good and nothing was insured. The next morning I still couldn't face the mess, so I got in my truck and spent an hour driving around the neighborhood looking for some of the usual suspects, with no success. But when I turned into my driveway there was a patrol car parked in front of the house and a deputy was standing there with my girlfriend Cheryl, so my hopes rose on the belief that maybe they had found some of my stuff. Those hopes quickly faded as I encountered deputy Rochester, a massive, pear-shaped man who had a very odd demeanor. Cheryl informed me that the cops had indeed recovered some of the missing booty, but any joy in me over that news was strongly tempered by the bad vibes this deputy was radiating – something was obviously wrong with this picture. Rochester asked if we knew a guy named Lonny Scott, who they had found with some items similar to our stuff, to which we replied "No.”
Rochester said we had to stay RIGHT where we were because other deputies were on their way with the recovered items, and the bad vibe intensified inside me – it seemed almost like we were being detained. We made small talk with Rochester but the vibe didn't change, until I saw a dark grey Ford pickup and a patrol car slow and turn into the driveway. The appearance of the truck in question rang alarm bells in my head and I immediately thought to myself "that's the pot eradication unit and we are going to jail,” they wouldn't be here if that wasn't the case.
In the summer of 2014 Lake County's pot growing regulations solidified into what is know as "measure N,” which severely limited where you could grow and how much could be grown. I had a very rare parcel that was suitable under the regulations for a legal collective: there were more than twenty acres, it was zoned "Ag,” it had a home on it occupied by a documented caregiver, there was abundant water from my ag well and plenty of room for the large setbacks demanded. So to help my friends who could no longer grow at their own homes we threw a grow together at the last minute with a lot of help from the friends, and we ended-up with 36 small plants for 8 patients. We could have had as many as 48 mature plants under the county regulations, but in 2015 we lost one patient and grew better plants, so we scaled-back to 26, roughly half of what was allowed.
When the truck and patrol car stopped in the driveway two odd looking characters dressed in street clothes stepped-out of the truck, deputies Dennis Keithly and Steven Herdt. They were quite the pair, Herdt was short, fat and balding, while Keithly (AKA "Scruffy") was tall, skinny and had a long, full beard that made him look exactly like one of the "Duck Dynasty" clan. The bad vibes ratcheted-up several notches upon contact with these new deputies, and it became more and more clear that we were in fact being detained. I decided to cut to the chase and said "Is this about the grow"? This began the questioning, which lasted around half an hour. At about the halfway point the fourth deputy approached us and held-out a cell phone at Keithly, and simply said "It's Brian.” I knew the only person named Brian who could interrupt a bust was our sheriff Brian Martin, and Keithly quickly snatched the phone and strode-off out of earshot.
When Keithly returned the questioning got more aggressive, though it quickly became clear we didn't have the answers they wanted. I offered to take them into the house and show them the 215 prescriptions for all the patients, along with the legal contracts between the members and I that described the distribution and other details – but the deputies refused to even look at them. I offered to let them into my home and show them the emails to the former sheriff in June of 2014, which informed him that I was starting the collective and also informed him that I didn't want his cross deputized DEA agent officers to claim that in my case the county regulations didn't apply – and again they refused my offer. I told them that I had in person invited the undersheriff Chris Macedo to come at any time and do a compliance check, provided he arrived in a marked patrol car and was wearing a regular uniform instead of camo-clad mystery people in an unmarked vehicle, as had been their habit. Nothing we said had any impact, the fact that we were following the county regulations to the letter made no difference, and Keithly angrily declared "measure N means nothing to us, it's meaningless!”
I mentioned that both the current sheriff and undersheriff had publicly stated that measure N was the law of the land, and asked Keithly why he wasn't on the same page as his bosses, this only increased Keithly's level of annoyance and sure didn't change his plans. Herdt looked around and made a comment about how nice it would be to have a ranch like mine if only one could afford it, I pointed out that I'd had it for decades and bought it for a song, that I had only hung onto it by working seven days a week for months on end – and none of it came from pot money. I also told him about our patients, all but one was a senior citizen, and that patient had severe epilepsy. I told him the names of all of them, and that one had terminal pancreatic cancer, again it made no difference. I told them I had a number of chronic health issues myself, and in March of 2015 had been diagnosed with severe degenerative disc disease, which caused me so much neck pain that I had to stone myself to sleep every night just so I could get a few hours of rest.
They hadn't made much headway with us and Keithly finally said, "Look, you don't seem like a bad guy,” and went on about how we should just tell us how much pot was in the bags he had seen in the small cottage behind my house. The answer that I didn't know because I had never weighed them didn't satisfy him, but as our ride to the jail arrived the mood seemed to change a bit, as the big bust they thought they had stumbled on wasn't going quite as they had expected. Other than an inappropriate remark about deputy Rochester's eating habits made by Cheryl, we had been model suspects so far, no yelling, no cursing, all calmness and answers for every question. Even Rochester began to lighten-up, and when I mentioned that I expected my walnut shaker to arrive at any minute he asked if I wanted him to tell the shaker anything, so I gave him some instructions to pass along.
Inside the cottage they found about 21 pounds of roughly trimmed pot in 27 bags, and a plastic tub with about another ten pounds of shake. Each plant had gone into a separate bag, plus one bag had some select big buds in it, most bags were closed but a few were still open in order to let them fully dry. There was no doubt about how many plants we had grown, as the growing bags and irrigation system was still in place inside the grow compound next to the house. The grow itself was a testament to our skill as scroungers, as three sides of the compound were made from used redwood fencing we bought for $100, the fourth side was made from dozens of wooden fruit bins stacked three-high, and the dirt was from abandoned grow sites around the county. This was as low-budget you could get, and fit right in with the rest of the ranch – the 400 square foot home that had been a labor camp bathroom, my 50 year old pickup truck and 58 year old farm tractor, there were no new things here or other signs of pot growing profits.
On the way to jail we passed obviously illegal grow after obviously illegal grow, and Cheryl leaned-over and whispered in my ear "they never read us our rights.” She was correct, and I wondered how could it possibly be that maybe the most legal grow in the whole Big Valley was busted while dozens of obviously illegal grows went untouched. I had been the current sheriff's biggest public critic, had supported his opponent in the previous year's election, and had brought public attention to his failures during the Valley fire incident – so that might have had something to do with, it I figured.
The arrival at the sally port of the county jail was a first for me, as for 57 years I had led a reasonably law-abiding and completely arrest-free life, so I braced for the worst. It was a nice surprise then to find that most of the correctional officers were pretty decent, and they generally treated inmates better than they deserved. Cheryl and I were placed in a holding area by ourselves for the time being, there were no bars, just rows of stadium type plastic seats and a TV on the wall playing some action flick. We were soon joined by a large and very disheveled looking man, who flopped himself down on a seat and seemed to go into some sort of trance. A few minutes later our cellmate got up to use the phone, I didn't pay much attention to his conversation, but after listening for a bit Cheryl leaned over and whispered to me "It's the guy!” "Oh my God." I thought – she's right! This was the guy they had just collared with our stuff – Lonny Scott! At this point Lonny's sagging jail pants finally had slid down so far a CO yelled, "Hey, pull your pants up!” which he did but not before we got a glimpse of the vast majority of his hindquarters, of which a large portion was an very unnatural and frightening shade of blue!
After finishing his phone call Lonny again flopped into his seat and leaned his head back against the wall, closed his eyes and stuck both hands down the front of his pants. This guy was starting to scare me, as he was at least 60 pounds heavier and five inches taller than me, and his behavior plus the deadness in his eyes didn't help matters. "You having heroin withdrawals Lonny?" a correctional officer shouted at him from the guard station in the center of the room, to which Lonny replied with an affirmative grunt. Obviously this guy was a frequent flyer at the Hill Road Hilton, as the county jail is locally known, as he was on a first name basis with all the COs. Another inmate joined us and we were then split-up, with the three men placed in the rubber room and Cheryl put in a small cell by herself, while the cleaning crew mopped the floor. Being in the small, locked room away from the guards made me nervous, as Lonny shuffled around and around with his head hung down as he let out an occasional groan.
But it soon got worse, as for some unknown reason just Lonny and I were moved to what was labeled a "dressing room,” which consisted of a toilet with a little standing room next to it and a locked door with a VERY tiny window! Now I was downright alarmed, as the guards couldn't see in unless they were right next to the door, and Lonny still had his hands down his pants, as he sat there on the toilet with his eyes closed while he continued to groan in rhythmic pulses. A half hour later I was finally taken to the guard's station to be processed and to meet my bondsman, who in this case was a rather cheerful and efficient woman. It was a huge surprise to find I also now had an attorney working for me, a lawyer friend of mine who heard about the bust through the grapevine and had come to give me a ride home without even being asked. Cheryl refused to pay the $1,500 bail and opted to wait for a judge to hopefully give her OR (he didn't so she spent three days in jail and still had to pay the bail!), so she stayed behind despite my pleas to let me bail her out using my credit card. Ten hours in custody was like a lifetime, but going home was a worrisome proposition too, as I knew the house was going to be a mess.
We arrived back at the ranch and my friend and I entered the house, and while my fears were confirmed in part by the mess, I was also almost overcome with the shock of what I didn't expect to see – my guns! Laying on the couch was my Browning 1919A4, a belt fed, tripod mounted machine gun used by the infantry and on tanks and aircraft from WWII to Vietnam. I had built it from a parts kit several years ago with all the semi automatic modifications to make it a legal, registered weapon, which it was. But everywhere else I looked there were guns and parts, my collection of WWII deactivated machine guns and parts to build more, though when I checked the two gun safes both were missing real guns – but they left my two pistols! None of this made sense, could they have been so dumb as to not know the real ones from the display guns that I make for re-enactors, collectors and the film industry? Apparently! They had taken my 22.cal plinker rifle, my two bolt action Mosin rifles and my AK rifle, all of which were legal and registered to me. Around a thousand dollars in gun parts were missing too, all legal, including complete parts kits for an assault rifle and light machine gun.
With the house trashed by the cops and the shop trashed by the thief, I avoided the more disheartening problems by sitting down at the computer and checking my email. After deleting an ad and sending a couple of emails off to friends I called my brother and explained what happened and what a spot we were in, then cleared enough of my clothes the cops had thrown on my bed to lay down and get some sleep. An inspection the next morning of the cottage revealed another unhappy sight, but what got me the most was on the floor of my tiny office were my medical records scattered around. They must have seen them, and even a glance would have shown that my health problems were for real, and that there were lots of them. The other big concern of the day was the harvesting of my walnut crop, all this right on top of my busiest week of the year!
I was angry enough to send an email off to the sheriff Brian Martin, in which I asked what his policy was on measure N, and in which I also griped loudly about his deputies treatment of my home. I also asked to have a meeting between him, myself and local attorney and cannabis activist Ron Green, in order to clarify his office's cannabis cultivation policy. I got the response almost exactly an hour later, in the form of a press release and NIXLE alert. Suddenly Cheryl and I were in every newspaper in the region, from Solano County to the Press Democrat, and of course all the local Lake County media outlets as well. Many local residents received the NIXLE alert too, so word got out fast that Lake County government's most persistent annoyance had been busted for a pot grow, along with his girlfriend. There were 270,000-odd plants seized in Lake County in 2015 and twenty-six were ours, yet only two other raids rated NIXLE alerts, and they were busts of several hundred pounds each. In fact, in the entire history of the NIXLE system in Lake County our pot bust was the very smallest to rate an alert, by a VERY wide margin.
The NIXLE and press release were multi-faceted annoyances, as much of what was in them was either a lie by omission, or just your regular straight-up deliberate misinformation. They claimed that we admitted the pot was ours but refused to answer further questions – which was absolutely false. No mention was made of the fact that we had all our collective's legal papers on hand and up to date (which they took as evidence), or that none of the pot was packaged to be sold, and was in semi-trimmed condition in bags of various weights because even though we were obviously drug dealers for some reason we had no scale. There was no other evidence of any sales having occurred, no money, no phone calls to or from dealers – nothing, but that wasn't mentioned either. It looked pretty bad on the face of it in the press release, a total of six felonies between us, firearms and drugs seized — apparently we were some pretty bad actors.
Friends began to drop by to lend support, and when I described the leaders of the raid one said, "you do know Keithly lives right down the street from you?” The news hit me like a mule kick in the head – how could I have been so dumb? Now it all made sense, Keithly was the angry redneck who had been glowering at me for months as he drove by, and his wife was the angry woman who also glowered at me as she headed past the ranch twice a day. All summer I had been baffled as to why two people for some unknown reason were upset with me, as I walked along the nearly half mile of county road that ran through my ranch and picked up trash every day. Well, now I knew!
Cheryl got a useless public defender who never responded to voice or text messages, emails or registered letters. By a stroke of extraordinary luck I got the best pot attorney in Lake County assigned to me, Mitchell Hauptman. Hauptmann actually stood up in court and interrupted the judge before I was about to get stuck with a terrible attorney, and volunteered his services. Once we finally got a police report my concerns were further amped-up by what I read, as nearly every word in it was a lie. Somehow the entire story got changed, now Rochester was not the first on the scene, but he wrote the report and did the interrogation! I had barely talked to him, and deputy Herdt had completely disappeared from the raid, in spite of his major role in questioning us. Supposedly the other deputy was sent over to the house from several miles away at the site of Lonny's bust, to tell me they found some of my things. Why didn't they just call? Who knows? But a better question is why did this deputy feel obligated to go behind the house to the cottage, where he claims to have smelled pot – which is apparently now enough probable cause to start peeking through windows. The report also didn't jibe with the NIXLE and press release, there is no mention of us refusing to answer questions in the report – but the public was told we did refuse in the NIXLE and press release.
The evidence photos of the blinds they had to peek through showed just what it took to see inside, if you had your face right up to the glass at just the right angle you could see a few bags, in a building 200 feet from the nearest public road that was completely out of view. They had searched my home without a warrant while no one was home, with a bogus reason for even being there, as I couldn't legally be shown the recovered items to ID them until I had completed and filed the theft inventory report.
Things were weird in court too, as Cheryl's arraignment took three days and mine took over two full months – with the exact same charges of illegal cultivation, possession for sale and firearm enhancements for both of us, for a total of six felonies. We had to appear several times before a judge who I had bad history with, over supporting his opponent in an election and being jerked-around on jury duty. The other judge we appeared in front of twice was the Sheriff's father! We kept going back to court every two or three weeks for months for seemingly meaningless reasons, and in another only-in-Lake-County move they had assigned a deputy DA to our case who like my attorney and myself was also a programmer at our local community radio station, KPFZ. Eventually they realized the conflict of interest and replaced her, but not before we were offered a deal – I would take a $600 fine and some community service on a misdemeanor charge, and Cheryl would walk.
Obviously that plan didn't work for me, and as soon as the new DDA saw the case he told my attorney that he wanted to dismiss the charges. But it wasn't quite that simple, because the dismissal needed the approval of the DA Don Anderson, who was yet another person in the local LE community that I was on the bad side of for a multitude of reasons. That unhappy history wasn't the only problem either, because in March I had filed papers to run for the district four supervisors race in Lake County, and the DA had endorsed one of my opponents and was actively campaigning for him. The DA kept dragging his feet on the case until an attorney friend of mine who knew him pointed out how bad it looked from a political standpoint to be sitting on the dismissal until after the election. So finally, just days before the election the entire case including all six felonies was dropped, and the nightmare was over for Cheryl and I.
There was still more work to do, like trying to get the guns and pot back, and filing a complaint with the grand Jury over the misuse of the NIXLE system. But the main thing was our records were clear again, not even a traffic ticket in over thirty years. So what REALLY happened here? Could it have been the story I wrote that ran in the AVA and on the Lake County magazine website just days before the bust, in which I blame the Sheriff in part for the disastrous response to the Valley fire? Or was it my letter in the Record-Bee a couple weeks before the bust that complained the department heads like the sheriff who failed during the Valley fire had just gotten huge raises, along with secret raises for the county supervisors? Or was it the appearance before the BOS with a house packed with state emergency response and FEMA people, along with the Sheriff, where I made all the same points during public input? Or that I have been the Sheriff's most vocal critic and backed his opponent in the last election?
Or was it that I PO'd the wrong neighbor, who turned my burglary into an opportunity to abuse his power as a deputy? I'll probably never know, as things are rarely what they seem here in this cartoon we call Lake County – they are usually worse! A few days after the bust I was harvesting walnuts at my ranch when I saw a patrol car slow and turn into the driveway, it was deputy Jake Steely again, and in no way was I prepared for what happened next. He got out and we talked for about twenty minutes, before we shook hands and he left. He had come to apologize to me, "I'm sorry for getting you into trouble the other day,” he said, the words left me nearly speechless. I explained to him exactly how I tried my best to follow the rules, he looked at the ground and said, "I don't even know what the law is.” I had never heard of a cop apologizing for getting someone busted, so it was incredibly sad to hear the news that he had drowned off the Mendocino coast this earlier year as he tried to save his eleven year old son, who had been swept into the sea by a wave.
Everything about this case was a waste, the Press Democrat ran two big stories on my bust, but only one small blurb hidden away between the ads about the dismissal. Cheryl was laid-off her job of 14 years as a caregiver at the same company for the seven months the case took to resolve, and for many people in Lake County we will both be considered permanent drug-dealing scum. We lost $3,000 in bail, about $3,000 in the burglary, and the cops did a fair amount of damage breaking into things like an empty safe and an old motorhome. I'll never look at cops the same way again, no more automatic trust for them, the local criminal justice system didn't do much to instill confidence either. A couple of days after the bust I checked my computer for the emails I had sent to the previous sheriff about the grow, and was shocked to find they had gone missing. I checked my trash file where there should have been 250-300 emails, but found just a few – and the first one was that spam I deleted the night I got out of jail! The cops had obviously gone on my email account (which used no password), and deleted those four emails and dumped the whole trash file, and I kicked myself for even mentioning them during the bust. We spent $1,000 to recover them in case we needed to use them in a trial, and it could have been a fear of this criminal conduct being exposed that led to the dismissal. Oddly enough the search warrant went into great detail about all the digital data storage devices it covered, but nowhere is the computer or any other digital device even mentioned in the police report!
The bust also didn't do much for my political career either, as I finished fourth in a five-way race, but there were a few nice surprises. One was the correctional officers at the jail, they had some tough people to deal with and they did it well, there was compassion and dignity for everyone. The office staff at the superior court were excellent too, polite and efficient, and everyone was treated with respect. My neighbors were also a boost, as I got more smiles and waves than ever before, a lot of people apparently figured I was finally paying for the years of free speech I'd been enjoying. In a somewhat ironic twist the county has just unveiled a new set of pot growing regulations last week, which turns the business into a government cash cow that in theory will raise $1,000,000 annually from fees charged to growers.
So what was considered a crime and huge drain on the county by some is now part of the system, because apparently the money was going to the "wrong" people, and now the "right" people have control and are skimming the cream while deciding by themselves who gets the permits and who doesn't. The sheriff now subjectively decides who gets the permits based on their criminal background, there is no set rules and this is not by accident because certain key people would be excluded in any rationally structured system. This is the way in Lake County, where the system is rigged from top-to-bottom against those who question or try to change it, with no change on the horizon. The examples of the treatment of those in the system vs those outside are endless, you can literally murder someone and still become mayor of our biggest town, as the city of Clearlake has shown us.
My advice is to stay off the radar screen if you live here, never get involved in politics or anything that is controversial and public, and for God's sake NEVER write or say bad things about the cops!