Bess and James Sanderson, a young couple with two children, had no visible means of support, not that invisible incomes are unknown in Mendocino County.
But even by Trustafarian standards the Sandersons had been living well, living well in a $3 million dollar oceanview home near Mendocino but also drawing food stamps and other welfare benefits the day Mr. Sanderson took delivery of a FedEx package containing $80,000 in cash. That oceanview home, incidentally, was described in court as belonging to the husband of “a world renowned artist.” Mendocino County seems to resound with renown.
Unfortunately for Mr. Sanderson, the day the $80 thou arrived the police were looking on. The cops knew the money was payment for the pounds of Mendo Mellow Sanderson had shipped to the pot-starved east, also by FedEx.
Advertised as a Phi Beta Kappa by his attorney, Richard Petersen, Mr. Sanderson had also been involved in an odd incident in Willits that saw him tumble drunk out of a stolen vehicle at the Willits Burger King. The police also watched that one on Burger King video, and we still haven't heard from the straight-A student what the heck he was doing falling drunk out of stolen truck in Willits.
For a Phi Beta Kappa the guy sure seems to do a lot of dumb stuff.
With her Phi Beta hubby packed off to the County Jail, Mrs. Sanderson was left alone with the two little Sandersons, and there she was rattling around in the big house by the sea wondering at her sudden misfortunes. She’d recently given birth to her second child when her husband took a nose dive off the honor roll.
With James Sanderson in jail, and Bess herself looking at criminal charges arising from the couple's adventures with Welfare and FedEx, the young mommy went out for a couple of stress-relieving drinks at Dick’s Place in Mendocino.
It was about 10pm when Bess hit Dick's. She'd left her kids outside in the car, one to be discovered in a urine-soaked blanket, the other recovered in a dirty diaper. We're talking very small children here, the age and size requiring constant supervision. The kids, left alone in the ocean chill of night time Mendocino, had begun crying and, after a while, passersby took them from the car to the plush safety of the nearby Mendocino Hotel.
And called the police.
A tsunami of public disapproval washed over Bess Sanderson.
She was in court last Tuesday trying to get her bail reduced so she could get out jail and get her kids back from Child Protective Services.
Judge Ron Brown listened solicitously.
Mom stood in the dock looking contrite and hopeful at the same time. She’s young and pretty with long brown hair. You sit there hoping for her, hoping she's learned from all this harm she's done to herself, hoping she'll pull herself together, hoping she and ol' Phi Beta make real lives for themselves outside Gatsby-like fantasies of big houses on the sea.
Mark Kalina, Mrs. Sanderson's attorney, presented two letters from Ms. Sanderson’s undoubtedly aghast family in Long Island, New York. Kalina handed the letters to Judge Brown. Brown began to read. After a moment he paused to ask some questions.
“Wait a minute,” the judge said. “Isn’t this the case where they were sending thousands of pounds of marijuana to New York?”
“Yes,” Kalina admitted quietly.
“And they were getting payments of something like $80,000?”
“And at the same time they were collecting welfare?”
“Yes,” Kalina said almost sheepishly.
Judge Brown’s neck stiffened perceptibly and his expression turned sour. He resumed reading the letters in the light of these dark facts.
Bess Sanderson hung her head, veiling her pretty face with her long hair. She looked like she was trying to disappear into herself, the very picture of remorse.
Bess’s husband, James Sanderson, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from State University of New York-Stonybrook. Maybe it was at Stonybrook that he learned the sport of binge-drinking because he'd been observed on a surveillance video inebriated to the black-out stage as he fell out of that stolen pickup at the Willits Burger King, an hour east of the big house on the sea in Mendocino where the little woman and the kids waited for him to come home.
Mr. Kalina was telling the judge that before Mrs. Sanderson’s “incident” at Dick’s Place, he almost had a resolution worked out with the DA’s office.
“If she paid back the $5,048 to welfare, the other charges would be dropped,” Kalina explained. “Mr. Sanderson got 440 days, he was responsible for the felonies; his was the greater culpability. Mrs. Sanderson knew her husband was selling marijuana through Fed-Ex, but she didn’t get involved in any of that.”
Except to live in the 3 mil oceanview house and otherwise enjoy the benefits of large amounts of tax-free cash.
Judge Brown squared the letters neatly on his desk, and listened skeptically to Kalina’s pleadings.
“She’s only 24 years old, your honor,” Kalina continued. “She has two children, the ones left unattended for only 21 minutes in the child endangerment case. She’s ready to go to family reintegration classes with CPS, and she has many friends and acquaintances willing to provide support. Mr. Durkner, who has a framing shop in Fort Bragg, is here. He indicates he’ll help Ms. Sanderson with Bible study. He’s become very attached to the family. And a Ms. Hollins is willing to help with the children. Another party is willing to enter into a rental agreement with my client. Marilyn Wallace, her mother in Long Island, will do whatever it takes — send rent and deposits, that sort of thing… Mr. Sanderson came up with these schemes. Bess knew, but didn’t participate. I think she’d be in a better position to participate in the family reintegration classes if she were out of custody.”
Mr. Kalina had hoped to get Mrs. Sanderson released on her own recognizance, but there was an instance in the recent past where she’d failed to appear in court when ordered to do so.
Kalina had some new explaining to do.
“They were late on the day they weren’t in court, your honor. They were in the building, but didn’t get to the courtroom on time.”
Judge Brown scowled.
Kalina, seeing that the judge was skeptical, moved on.
“She cannot very well participate in the re-unification program in custody,” he said.
Deputy DA Brian Newman was even more skeptical.
“Your honor, she’s not under Mr. Sanderson’s influence now,” said Newman. “He’s in jail. But she’s still continuing her criminal behavior. She went out drinking and left the children in the van — one in a wet blanket, the other in a dirty diaper — and passersby were alerted by the squalling kids. She didn’t come forward when they were looking for the mother — and it was longer than the 21 minutes Mr. Kalina said; it was probably over an hour. The People’s position, based on her continued criminality, is that she shouldn’t be released.”
Kalina for the defense.
“It was a mistake on her part, but it does not seem feasible that the situation would repeat itself. To punish her by keeping her in custody places the burden on the state to take care of the children. And there is no possibility she will not attend court in the future.”
DA Newman disagreed.
“She’ll go back to New York if she has her children.”
Judge Brown decided to set bail at $15,000 in each of the previous criminal cases, and $25,000 in the child endangerment case.
Newman pointed out that there were two victims in that case, and Brown increased the bail to $50,000, meaning Bess and her Long Island family will have to come up with a mere $5,000.
Kalina entered a Not Guilty plea for his client and a preliminary hearing was set for the following week.
And Bess Sanderson got out of jail.
* * *
“This was a horrendous type of crime,” Judge Richard Henderson said at the sentencing of Juan Espinoza, and it certainly was that.
“Seven people,” the judge summarized, “advised that Mr. Stanley had a substantial amount of money, burst into the home during a time when they knew the family would be there — at dinner time — some with weapons and masks; they began running around ransacking the home, terrorizing the family, locking the children — who were four and six — in the bathroom. They tied up Mr. Stanley in such a way the family could see him, tazered him, stabbed him with a fork, and finally took him out where the money was hidden.”
It was indeed a horrendous crime of the home invasion type, the kind of nightmare event many back country Mendo people live in dread of because home invaders aren't overly scrupulous about the addresses they visit. They make mistakes. There can be collateral damage.
It seems that Juan Espinoza worked for a man named Whitman. Stanley seems to have owed Whitman some money. Or at least Whitman claimed that Stanley owed him. Whitman was having trouble collecting so Whitman hired Espinoza to find some muscle of the ruthless type to recover the debt.
Espinoza proceeded to recruit some thugs he knew from Southern California, and they all planned an armed invasion of the Stan-
ley home off Branscomb Road west of Laytonville.
And then they did it.
The bi-ethnic team of home invaders – two white guys and five Mexican-Americans – stormed into the dinner time Stanley home, overpowered Mike Stanley and tied him up. One of them grabbed Nicole Stanley by the hair, jerked her head around and showed her a stun gun. Then they shoved her into a bedroom with the kids and stationed one of the gang, called ‘Youngster,’ to guard them while the others went to work ransacking the house, taking TVs, computers, cameras, and many other items.
Then the invaders went to work on the man of the house, Mike Stanley.
“I heard my husband scream like a girl,” Nicole Stanley testified. “At that point, I was in the bedroom with my children. I kept asking the one who spoke English, ‘What’s he saying?’ We were very confused.”
“Did he wear a mask?”
“He had a wife beater on.”
“What’s a ‘wife beater’?”
“A tank-top T shirt. Then he took it off. It looked like they cut it up and used it for masks.”
“How long were you kept in the bedroom?”
“About an hour and a half. We were sitting on the bed and they were ripping out the TV stand. The one we called ‘Teeth’–because his teeth were horribly ground down — said if he knew the children were there he wouldn’t have come. They wanted to tie the children up. I begged them with everything I had not to tie the children up. They were only two and six. ‘Gold Shirt’ wanted to do it. He was ordering everybody around. I walked the children into the bathroom and told them to be quiet when they were getting ready to tie us up. They propped a Lazy Boy chair against the bathroom door. They brought a chair into the bedroom, then they walked Mike in. They tied me to the chair.
“Describe how you were tied up.”
“Gold Shirt got in my face and shoved a dirty sock in my mouth and taped my mouth. They taped my arms and legs real tight, cutting off the circulation. Mike had his face planted in the bed and they tied him from behind. Then they somehow tied him to the chair. I heard my husband’s truck drive off. He got up somehow, his face all taped-up. He broke free, got a knife and put it where I could cut his hands free. Then he went to get his brother and took off.”
In pursuit of the men, I suppose you could call them, who'd just violated him, his home, his wife, his kids.
Mike Stanley and his brother caught up with one vehicle north of Willits and called for the police. This was the vehicle containing Juan Espinoza. Four others in another vehicle got away. The police had no idea who they were.
Caught after a high-speed chase, Espinoza decided to cooperate and turn state’s evidence. He was looking at 15 years in prison so he gave up the names of the rest of the crew and agreed to testify against them. Since then Espinoza has been housed in the Lake County jail for his own protection.
Espinoza took the stand on January 27th, nearly six months ago now, during the trial of one of his co-invaders, Mr. Fernandez.
Deputy DA Brian Newman asked, “Mr. Espinoza, do you know who I am?”
Espinoza said he did.
“But you and I have never spoken with one another prior to today?”
Espinoza agreed they were freshly acquainted.
Espinoza's lawyer, Berry Robinson, was seated next to Espinoza at the witness stand and Newman continued.
“You spoke with the DA’s office in May of ’09 after you entered a No Contest plea in this case and you sent me a letter. What was in that letter?”
“That I was willing to come forward in this case.”
“Did you ask for anything?”
“Didn’t you ask for leniency?”
“Did you have hopes for anything in your own case?”
“Not that I remember.”
“In late August, early September of last year, what were you looking at?”
“A life sentence — I really was.”
“Did you change your plea from Not Guilty?”
“Yes. I changed it to No Contest.”
“Was anything offered in order for you to enter that plea?”
“Any promises made to you?”
“No. There were no deals on the table. It was voluntary — the DA said it was the right thing to do so I did it. They said if the information was useful I might have to testify.”
“Sometime late last year, between the time of the preliminary hearing and the first letter, did you have any conversations with Mr. Robinson? When did you learn there’d be a possible deal?”
“He told me there would be no deal — that anything I said would be voluntary.”
“But didn’t you think there might be a deal?”
“Well, before you changed your plea you wrote a letter to Ms. Lintott —”
At this point, Judge Henderson interrupted to tell Mr. Robinson to turn the microphone off. Robinson was advising his client in stage whispers the whole courtroom could hear.
“So you wrote these letters with just a hope?”
Are you expecting to get a lighter sentence in exchange for your testimony today?”
“No, ‘cause they — my attorney — told me no deals were offered.”
So Espinoza had testified with no hope for himself and three of his friends already packed off for long stays in state prison.
Last Friday afternoon, Espinoza faced his own sentencing.
Probation was recommending 12 years in prison.
Espinoza's lawyer, Mr. Robinson made a motion for probation.
Robinson made his case.
“I know the court is familiar with this case. Mr. Espinoza has been to court to testify against the co-defendants in the case. Since the crime against the Stanleys, he’s done everything he can do to make amends. I know when a defendant says he’s sorry, what he really means is he’s sorry he got caught. But my client is different. He continues to show this is the dumbest thing he’s ever done. And it could have gotten a lot worse if some of the others had gone overboard. [Espinoza had argued against tying up the children.] And I’m not sure Mr. Stanley is completely blameless in all this. It was a case where my client worked with Mr. Whitman and was hired to recover whatever debt he [Stanley] owed Whitman. He recruited the others from Southern California to come up and commit this robbery. There were only three defendants originally charged. He knew the situation was bad, that he was going to go to prison for a maximum of 15 years with a minimum of four years in prison. But if there was ever a case of unusual circumstances, this is it. He worked with the police, gave a full and complete confession — he didn’t hold back anything — gave the names of the others, the four others who got completely away — the police had no idea who they were. My client came up with the names, including Mr. Whitman, who started all this. Whitman entered a plea and received 11 years in prison. The second person, Mr. Melendez was my client’s wife’s uncle, the one known as Gold Shirt. He was the torturer, the one in charge, and the police had no idea who Melendez was, but he was eventually brought to Mendocino County and sentenced. And Mr. Fernandez, the one arrested with my client, driving the get-away vehicle, he didn’t make any deals: My client testified against him. As a result, he was convicted on all counts and is now doing life in prison. There were two others, one fellow named Graham, and they intend to pursue him in fairly short order. My client will continue to testify against Graham and the one they called Youngster. He picked a doozy for his first crime, but he has come to the forefront, put his actions where his mouth is, so to speak. I know the Stanleys were in favor of a leniency for my client, for his assistance in bringing this to closure.”
The tall, lanky Mr. Robinson paused to let his words sink in.
“The Fernandez case was in this court a long time. Whatever leniency my client might deserve — Mr. Newman wouldn’t go record as offering anything, because the DA wouldn’t allow it no matter what Mr. Newman might have thought personally. Mr. Espinoza went on the stand with no written promise — it was implied by Newman there could be a grant of probation but we never got that far. Once Fernandez was finished we agreed to house my client in the Lake County jail for his own protection. He was responsible for putting three people in prison and sending him to prison now could be a potential death sentence, with two people serving life sentences. We are asking the court to consider everything he’s done. There are still two people waiting to be prosecuted and I see nothing to be gained by sending Mr. Espinoza to prison. I know Mr. Newman is going to recommend six years in prison — His office has told him not to recommend probation; that’s what he’s been told to stand here and argue. But I think the court could do a number of things. You can grant probation for as long as you can send him to prison. His mother is here, and his wife and child. He hopes to make a home here, and I’ll submit it on that.”
Mr. Newman rose.
“Mr. Robinson is correct about the six years. The people are asking for the mid-term on the robbery and to run the other counts concurrent. I never had the authority to offer probation. All the senior attorneys round-tabled the issue and decided against probation. He’s as guilty as Fernandez, who got 35-to-life. Melendez got 16-to-life. This is the fifth man in this robbery. I would concede that the information he provided led to the apprehension of Melendez and the conviction of Fernandez. But I don’t believe he testified entirely truthfully about his part in the kidnapping of Mr. Stanley. The victim says he was there. Still, his actions do make it unusual. My office, however, concluded he’s not a good candidate for probation. Mr. Espinoza was the organizer — he came up with the muscle to get the money from Stanley. Overall, his help and assistance is not enough. We feel that six years is sufficient for his conduct.
Mr. Robinson then asked for four years instead of six.
Judge Henderson, final adjudicator, summed up.
“I think Mr. Espinoza minimized his role. He denies he was present in the group that took Mr. Stanley out to get the money when Mr. Stanley says otherwise. But what I’m especially concerned with is the fact that Mr. Espinoza organized the crime. And I think the attack was decently well planned with some sophistication. The other four people – Whitman, Fernandez, Melendez and Salazar – all went to prison. It’s unlikely they would have if Mr. Espinoza had not put himself at considerable personal risk. However, I’m unable to find unusual circumstances. He was involved from Day One. It would never have gone forward without him. I’m going to deny the probation and sentence Mr. Espinoza to the mitigated term of three years because of his co-operation. That’ll be the principle term, and the subordinate terms will run concurrent, with an additional one year for the arming clause, for a total of four years.”
Juan Espinoza had a total of 438 days credit for time already served. If anything happens to him in state prison, the perps won't be hard to find.