You could call them the Courthouse Players. Their repertory changes every day and fresh talent? An annual cast of thousands! The Mendocino County Courthouse stages new dramas every working day, but some weeks the material is pretty thin, and last week was one of those thin weeks.
All the other local journalists — the cub from the Ukiah daily, the NBC cameramen, The People Magazine gossip columnist, Oprah’s crew — had hounded the Aaron Vargas story clear out of town, and now the place was pretty quiet. Only the usual suspects shuffled through the halls in their orange jump suits and chains, bailiffs at the ready. The Vargas case had set off a media frenzy that had also attracted a lot of local talent hoping to get the national spotlight to shine, however briefly, on them. For a while there the County Courthouse was like a rural version of American Idol. Some of these aspiring stars even saw humble me and my old fashioned newspaper with its marching columns of gray as a possible first step up to the Big Time. Today, the AVA, tomorrow, Oprah!
One woman gave me a 40 page document so heavily annotated with footnotes and comments scrawled in the margins in such a tight, tiny hand that it took me whole minutes to skim it. It was her précis for a PBS documentary on a Willits witches coven headquartered at Baechtel Creek Village. The evil ones had maliciously loosed feral cats on this poor lady. She'd seen the witches whispering assault instructions to the otherwise harmless little beasties and pointing at her. More ominously, Judge Richard Henderson served as warlock for the cat ops, and wouldn't you just know a man would be directing feline war on this poor soul? Judge Henderson had once sat on the board overseeing the Willits senior living facility, you see, and he was clearly with the witches. The judge and his scheming hags had even duped the alley cats into getting this beset lady out of Baechtel Creek Village where management had also nurtured weeds as fire tinder to burn her out if the cats failed to get the job done. But our victim was not going quietly. She saw through the plot and had alerted the Willits Fire Marshal. Revealed as arsonists, management then devised a system of mud puddles to attract mosquitoes and here comes West Nile Virus!
It was quite a story but kind of complicated.
Then there's the Women Warriors, another potential PBS Special. The Marine recruiter came by in his dress blues and I had an excuse to flee the sad saga of Baechtel Creek Village. “Hey, Sarge! Wait up!” He owed me two bucks, and listening to people who equate justice and dignity with fame and fortune is thirsty work. I sold him another newspaper and went for a beer.
There's a new bartender at the Forest Club, I am happy to report, the charming and efficient Nicolette. But just like the Courthouse across the street, there are also people who feel their stories haven't gotten enough attention.
John Gomez, a friend from Willits, dropped in to say he's donated his Farm Bureau sign to the Marijuana Museum in Philo, along with some other artifacts. Gomez enjoys the distinction of being the first pot grower to join the Farm Bureau, although the bureaucrats would not let him list pot as his crop — he had to call it Herbs and Spices.
A blogger from Lake County updated me on Lake County Sheriff Rod Mitchell's misadventures.
The domestic violence case left hanging from last week still hasn’t reached a verdict, and defendant Johnny Kvasnicka is living the life of a spider, as Jonathan Swift might say, “in suspense.” He’s facing five felony counts arising from unhappy hands-on encounters with his wife. If Johnny The K is found to have behaved as abominably as his estranged wife alleges, he will go to state prison, and when he gets out he’ll come home to a lot of disillusioned people. Like the Irish say, “Always be nice to the people you meet on your way up, ’cause you’ll see ’em all on your way back down.”
The Kvasnicka jury was due to convene Monday but there was trouble. Juror Four called to say his daughter’s Brooktrails residence had been broken into and she’d gone missing. Judge Ron Brown noted that the Willits PD had no idea what had happened, but defense attorney Justin Petersen suggested that Juror Four get some time off to sort things out on his home front.
His Honor agreed, albeit curtly, saying, “Let me finish, please, counsel. For the record…” His Honor resumed in a formal tone, “Juror Four has also informed the Jury Commissioner that he was going to Brooktrails and has not called to inform the court what was occurring. The question of appointing an alternate juror arises. The circumstances, as indicated, have not been verified. Now, Mr. Petersen. You had a suggestion?”
“Yes, your honor. If we could put this off until after lunch, perhaps the juror will call and explain the situation.”
Judge Brown turned to the prosecutor, Deputy DA Heidi Larson, the unyielding, no-nonsense, no excuses Heidi Larson.
“The People request the proceedings move forward,” she said.
The judge scratched His Honor’s Head and said he thought there was enough “ambiguity” to “adopt” the defense lawyer’s suggestion. Justice would wait on Juror Four.
Johnny The K's jury was as of Monday night, but came back Tuesday morning hopelessly hung. There were 8 women on that jury, 4 men. The evidence was overwhelming that Johnny The K is no gentleman. This might be one that's tried a second time. It ought to be.
The County Courthouse is, I’ve come to learn, just one big happy family. They all love and support one another in their own way. When one of their own lands in the dock, El Familia Courthouse slips into diversion mode. Up goes the obscuring screen, on go the disguises to distract courtroom hacks like me from finding out that an officer of the court, a family member, is in trouble. Contempt of court, in this instance, with two priors.
If the legal beagles are all one big happy family, the Public Defender’s Office is the crazy uncle in the attic, the family secret while the not quite as crazy aunt carries on downstairs like nothing's amiss. Mendocino County's senior defense official, the crazy aunt for the purposes of this metaphor, is Public Defender Linda Thompson. She's been accused of acting more like a second prosecutor than a defense attorney and, in the recent high-profile case of Glenn Sunkett, Mr. Sunkett had a heckuva a time getting Aunt Linda off his case before she defended him right into the state pen for the rest of his life.
Last Friday, Deputy Public Defender Attila Panczel, one of Aunt Linda's attorneys, was in the dock facing a series of serious charges — contempt of court. The case was listed under the name of the guy Panczel had failed to show up for, a disguise El Familia Courthouse seems to have resorted to to hide the fact that one of its own was accused of a crime.
And now Aunt Linda was his lawyer.
Panczel hadn’t bothered to show up for court. His clients, the boys in the orange jump suits, had gone unrepresented.
Aunt Linda asked the judge for a couple of weeks delay while she prepared to defend her guy. Judge Richard Henderson was amenable to this request in his own severe way. He granted the continuance with a caveat worthy of a Dutch uncle: “These are very serious charges, Mr. Panczel,” Judge Henderson beamed with a sharp smile. “With very … serious consequences. Do you understand?”
Panczel said he did, and shuffled off in a sulk, as Aunt Linda assured the court everything would be fine.
The tricky thing was, they never put Attila Panczel’s name on the docket. All three charges were listed under the names of the clients he’s dropped the ball on, as if they were somehow on trial again, not young Master Panczel.
Another trick El Familia Courthouse pulled last week was putting Special Agent Peter Hoyle up in Judge Behnke's civil court where a couple of aggressive defense attorneys were grilling the unflappable local law enforcement legend on the highly confidential “Black Asphalt Program.” The Black Asphalt Program ostensibly train agents in the interdiction of terrorists and drug runners, who the cops seem to regard as interchangeable, on the highways and byways of scenic Mendocino County. Back at the AVA Command Post, our paper's S-2 officer, The Major, tried to hack into the program, but it's all very hush-hush, top secret and requires special law-enforcement passwords.
If equivocating were an art form, Agent Hoyle would be, like, Picasso! He's that good. I've seen a lot of skilled lawyers cross-examine him, and Hoyle always comes out on top.
In this one, the defendants' vehicle had come under suspicion because of the license plate frame; it advertised a local dealership. Agent Hoyle was alerted that Sergeant Elmore thought it “odd” that the license plates came back, when Sgt. Elmore ran 'em, to a Santa Barbara address. Hoyle said this inconsistency is the kind of thing the Black Asphalt boys look for.
Attorney Jan Cole-Wilson was representing one of the erstwhile Santa Barbarans.
She said, “So Agent Hoyle: This Black Asphalt is an organization you belong to?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Hoyle said.
“And they teach you the manner in which people transport marijuana?”
“Yes, ma’am. That's correct. There are certain mannerisms that can be indicative of drug trafficking.”
“Did you look in the vehicle, Agent Hoyle?”
“Yes, ma’am, and I noticed the vacuum marks on the seats.”
“But you don't recall the kind of upholstery?”
“Did Sgt. Kendall notice the flakes?”
“Objection, your honor,” Deputy DA Katherine Houston interrupted. “This is not a 1538.5 Hearing,” she protested. A 1538.5 is a motion to suppress the evidence. This hearing was merely to see if there was sufficient evidence to suspect that the nearly $50,000 found in the trunk of the freshly washed and vacuumed car was connected to marijuana sales. Sgt. Kendall had collected some marijuana flakes on a piece of scotch tape. It wasn't much, but it was the nexus that led to the money and Judge Behnke held the Santa Barbarans over.
I was censured this week by an attorney I much regard for his ability. He said, “You never take the side of the defense or tell their story. Why?” he asked?
Odd thing to be accused of as an employee of a paper that devotes thousands of words every month in defense of this, that and the other thing, all of them aimed at conveying the truth of things in this very odd county.
I spotted a dear friend from Fort Bragg. Her son had just been convicted in a jewel heist by a jury. She was waiting to have a farewell glimpse of him and pointed to the door they took him through, saying, “They took him in that room. I’m waiting for them to bring him out.”
I had to give her the bad news. “That door goes down the stairwell to the waiting paddy wagon; he won’t be coming back through.” She said the Public Defender had scarcely had anything to say in her son’s defense. She said she’d been obliged to sue the DA’s office herself for exculpatory evidence, and that the lawyer assigned to the case never responded to her frequent calls. Although I’m forbidden to give legal advice, I suggested she appeal the verdict, merely as the feeble commiseration of a friend, not in any presumed professional capacity.
Then I had to face the mother of convicted killer Brandon Pinola. They had scheduled his sentencing at about an hour after my bus left for Boonville, but she — Brandon’s mother and aunts along with his grandmother and other members of her family had come early; I spoke with them outside in the first sunny weather we’d had in weeks.
Her complaint was that I’d called them Indians. This was stupid of me and I retract it, forthwith, replacing that description with Native Americans. Columbus made the same mistake, and I hope never to repeat it again.
Back in Boonville, Ms. Callahan, candidate for judge, was visiting. She was out beating the streets, knocking on doors, asking people about their concerns, explaining herself. This was all in such stark contrast to a recent visit by the woman running against her for the judgeship that I thought it was remarkable.
When Ann Moorman, the other candidate for judge, came to Boonville it was like Lady La Di Da had arrived to take annual tribute from the peasantry. Lady Ann didn't go door to door. The masses came to Her. When I crawled up to the throne to ask a question, Lady Ann fixed me with a disdainful look and said “judicial ethics” prevented her from discussing anything related to the job. She talked like the job was already hers, like the Ukiah liberals had anointed her and she was already creeping around in black robes. Maybe the job is already Lady Anne's, but Ms. Callahan gets my vote.