Last week began with a murder trial, but all the excitement was in civil court.
A dog. An adorable little dog, so adorable people steal him, go to court over him.
Nutmeg is an AKC-registered Shih Tzu. He was born up on Snob Hill, Ukiah, the high rent district. Nutmeg's daddy was a Grand Champion show dog. Nutmeg's social standing is not at issue.
Who owns him has become a major issue.
Nutmeg was originally sold to Wallis Williams as a puppy in 2006 for $1,000, Ms. Williams says. Ms. Williams says she not only owns Nutmeg she was present at his conception.
According to Ms. Williams' chronology of events, “May 5th, 2006: Watched the breeding of Nutmeg's parents.”
Nutmeg's breeder and seller, Aeryn Richmonde, who does not claim to have witnessed the canine carnality that produced Nutmeg but, as owner of Nutmeg's parents, probably was present, says Ms. Williams never paid for the post-partum pooch. Ms. Richmonde said Ms. Williams also owed her for non-dog-related items.
In 2008 retired magistrate David Basner found in favor of Aeryn Richmonde. Ms. Williams had not paid for Nutmeg, and had not paid Ms. Richmonde for the other stuff Ms. Williams had taken from Ms. Richmonde. Magistrate Basner said that Ms. Williams owed Aeryn Richmonde $7,500.
Ms. Williams never paid the $7,500. She couldn't pay because she was in state prison, having been previously popped with a felony bag of cocaine. She lost Ms. Richmonde's small claims action against her by default. (We will get back to that.)
When Ms. Williams went to jail, the suddenly orphaned Nutmeg had no one to look after him. Nutmeg himself was headed for the County's dog orphanage on South State Street, a long way down for a pampered pooch accustomed to the easy life on Snob Hill. At the County's animal shelter Nutmeg would share quarters with all kinds of canine riff-raff — pitbulls, mongrels, untamed dope dogs from deepest Covelo.
But Nutmeg was spared. A person aware that Nutmeg was a very nice little boy took him to Angela Hooper, the owner of the 7-11 Club in Ukiah. Ms. Hooper fell in love with Nutmeg at first sight. She adopted him so wholeheartedly that, like so many people who love their pets, she came eventually to look like him. People remark wryly behind her back that they have the same hair-do, and the resemblance is really quite cute.
Two years went by.
Ms. Williams got out of prison, and came back to her Ukiah home.
She wanted her dog back.
Ms. Hooper didn't want to give the dog back.
Every dog lover who ever lived can understand why Ms. Hooper didn't want to give Nutmeg up. She'd been his mommy for two years. It had been Ms. Hooper's understanding from the beginning, she says, that Nutmeg had been abandoned and was headed for the pound when a dear friend of the incarcerated Ms. Williams stopped at the 7-11 Club to see if Ms. Hooper would foster-mom the forlorn pooch.
The ensuing custody dispute went to court last month.
Judge John Behnke awarded the dog to Ms. Williams.
He said, “If it were a child I'd give Ms. Hooper custody, but by law the dog is personal property.”
Ms. Wallis Williams had a receipt for $1,000 and Nutmeg's American Kennel Club pedigree. Few two-footed Americans can trace their ancestry back more than two or three generations. Nutmeg was aristocracy! And he was hers!
So Ms. Hooper was ordered to surrender Nutmeg to Ms. Williams, thus setting up a classic Over My Dead Dog showdown.
A clerical error postponed Nutmeg's return to Ms. Williams. A notice informing Ms. Hooper that she had 30 days to return Nutmeg to Ms. Williams had been sent out. But Judge Behnke had said that the notice was supposed to go out only with monetary judgments attached. The notice, then, was faulty to the point of non-notice.
In the meantime the stylish Ms. Williams, sporting a Gucci briefcase, filed more papers with the court: a temporary restraining order and something called an intentional tort valued at $25,000. (We'll get back to that, too.)
A little background music.
Wallis Williams came to Mendocino County from Pacific Palisades, a zip-code that makes a positive impression on Mendocino County's Snob Hill set. With her hoity-toity contacts down south, she was in like Flynn with the rustic toffs of an outback town like Ukiah. No sir, Ms. Williams did not begin her climb to a berth on Snob Hill at the Buddy Eller Center and Homeless Shelter.
Dr. Richmonde opened her heart and home to Ms. Williams, and the two women began growing marijuana together. Hey! Even snobs can use some walking around money. Ms. Williams was Richmonde's “caretaker.”
Ms. Richmonde is in a wheelchair, and needed help with things besides gardening, it seems.
Just last Wednesday Judge Behnke convened his court to hear the order restraining Ms. Williams from repossessing her pre-incarceration poodle-tzu.
The courtroom was standing room only.
Ms. Williams began her case with a long, aggrieved, high-pitched lament.
Judge Behnke immediately declared, “Stop!” raising his hands like a frantic traffic cop about to be run-down by a speeding motorist.
After a few confused back and forth moments Behnke had sorted things out. The delayed return of the animal shouldn't have happened, the judge said, but since it had, he wasn't going to take any action. An appeal filed by Ms. Hooper was set to be heard by another judge in two days' time and Nutmeg would remain with Ms. Hooper until then.
“I'm worried about my dog in that bar,” Ms. Williams said desperately.
I've spent merry hours in the 711 Club. I've seen how Nutmeg gets treated there, and I certainly am not worried about his welfare. If human beings were accorded such affection this world would be a much happier place. Everybody who comes in the place during the day knows and adores Nutmeg, and at night, when the bar is hopping, Nutmeg is asleep in the rear on his own little pillow, dreaming happy dog-dreams.
“Ms. Williams,” Judge Behnke said, “I'm not going to issue a restraining order two days before the trial.”
I repaired to the 7-11 Club to talk dog custody with Angela Hooper. Ms. Hooper said she was worried about the outcome of her appeal, that she would probably lose Nutmeg. She said Ms. Williams and her boyfriend, Gino Jacomella, had been following her. One night when she drove home she saw their car parked nearby and the couple was walking away from her house. Her tone of voice implied that the couple was more like skulking away from her house than walking.
More ominously, a friend had told her that Ms. Williams had sent a letter to the editor at the Ukiah Daily Journal claiming that Sheriff Allman had said it was okay for Nutmeg's “rightful” owners to simply steal Nutmeg back from Ms. Hooper.
This communication was apparently deep-sixed by the UDJ editor. It is unlikely that Sheriff Allman, invoked in so many odd contexts he'd need a computer to keep up with all of them, knew anything about Nutmeg-related matters.
I asked about Ms. Williams' claims that Nutmeg had been mistreated at the bar.
Ms. Hooper said that there was an elderly gent who lived upstairs, and that he sometimes took Nutmeg out for a walk. On one occasion another dog had “bumped” into Nutmeg, dislocating Nutmeg's eye. Ms. Hooper immediately hustled Nutmeg to the vet where she was told this was common with the breed because their eyes “sort of protrude.” Nutmeg's jostled eyeball was soon back on track. The only other medical problem with Nutmeg, and this one fleeting, was some flea drops that had inflamed the cosseted little animal's skin. Ms. Hooper was informed by the vet that the drops were too strong for the aristocratic bloodlines of the nobly descended Nutmeg so Ms. Hooper discontinued them.
The $25,000 that Ms. Williams was suing for stemmed from Ms. Williams' claim that Ms. Hooper had been collecting stud fees for Nutmeg. But, Ms. Hooper argued, that was absurd because Nutmeg, priapic as he may be, wasn't up to snuff as a show dog; he lacked “certain conformation qualities.” His only real value was as a pet.
Which still translates as major value on Snob Hill.
On Friday the 13th of August, the Nutmeg matter was again convened. This time Judge Cindee Mayfield was presiding. The courtroom again filled up with a great many locals keen to know Nutmeg's fate.
When Angela Hooper arrived she was delighted to find a surprise witness, a woman in a wheelchair, Nutmeg's breeder, Dr. Aeryn Richmonde.
Dr. Richmonde had brought with her the 2008 judgment by Judge Basner. Dr. Richmonde handed the crucial piece of paper to Judge Mayfield.
Mayfield read the document and said, “Interesting … very interesting.”
“Yes — isn't it?” Doctor Richmonde agreed.
The doctor produced more documents proving that she, Dr. Richmonde, was a breeder and ring judge who had produced some 125 champions.
“But Nutmeg was not one of them,” the doctor said.
Judge Mayfield asked, “So you entered into an agreement to sell the puppy to Ms. Williams?”
“But she never paid?”
“But she got the puppy anyway? Why?”
“I thought she was a friend, but I found out later that she was not a friend at all. She broke down my door, forced me up against the wall and took that dog out of my house.”
“So you took her to court?”
“At any point after the judgment, were you able to get Nutmeg back?”
Ms. Williams, accused of dognapping in open court, suddenly shouted, “I'm appalled. That night you slammed the door on my hand. I had to get stitches!”
“Stop!” Mayfield ordered. “You're arguing with the witness.”
“Everything you're saying is a lie,” Ms. Williams cried.
Judge Mayfield, struggling to maintain basic courtroom decorum, again ordered Ms. Williams to be silent.
Speaking to the seething Ms. Williams, the judge said, “This may be dispositive. You were served with the claim while you were in jail. So the judge ruled in Dr. Richmonde's favor. Then you filed a motion to set it aside. But, unfortunately, you filed it too late. So the judgment is still in effect.”
Ms. Williams said she had a restraining order.
Mayfield looked at it and said, “That is not a restraining order.”
The judge handed Williams the judgment so she could read it herself, but Williams wasn't listening.
“Are you going to look at that judgment?” Mayfield asked.
“It's absurd!” Williams exclaimed on the verge of tears.
“That doesn't matter, a judgment is a judgment,” Mayfield insisted. “But was it for money or was property to be returned? Judge Basner ordered $7,500 but I can't find any order for property to be returned. I'm stuck on whether Basner ordered the dog returned. Is Nutmeg still with you Ms. Hooper?”
“Yes,” Ms. Hooper confirmed.
“I'm going to take a brief statement from Ms. Williams.”
“It's so easy for people to take advantage of you when you're in jail,” Williams sobbed. “I have the AKC registration, I paid for the shots… And he turned out to be a very good dog.”
The judge was unmoved.
“I've read the underlying claim and the way to construe this judgment is, I believe, that it would be appropriate to return the property to Dr. Richmonde. Ms. Hooper, are you willing to give the dog to Dr. Richmonde?”
“Yes,” Ms. Hooper promptly replied.
“Then I'm going to deny Ms. Hooper's claim on the grounds the dog was subject to a prior judgment.”
Ms. Williams tracked me down at the Forest Club to tell me her story in greater detail than I had any inclination to hear. But first she asked the barmaid if any Molochs were around. She was under the impression that Ms. Hooper had set the local bikers on her over the dispute about Nutmeg, and wanted to make sure she wasn't entering their lair.
The barmaid, who happens to be the daughter of one of the club's former presidents and is married to another member, assured Ms. Williams she was safe. The barmaid later told me that the bikers were first of all not concerned with dog issues and, secondly, that they did not do the bidding of Angela Hooper.
Ms. Williams then asked if I was there.
She introduced herself and her friend Gino, and told her tale.
She said she was living with Dr. Richmonde on Snob Hill, Ukiah, growing marijuana and selling it to her friends in Pacific Palisades for a paltry $200 a week.
Ms. Williams punctuates her remarks with a glamorous smile that conveys dismay and innocence. An attractive woman, she knows how to work men.
Ms. Williams said her caretaker relationship with Richmonde went on for quite some time before they had a falling-out.
I didn't ask for clarification, but Ms. Williams wasn't deterred.
“It always happens that way,” she said. “People get too greedy.”
A veteran of the courts, I was ready to share her assumption.
I thought about the time Terry Cohen pumped numerous high powered bullets into his erstwhile pot-partner, Sean Piper, then committed suicide at the end of his first murder trial when his money ran out. That one happened in Laytonville, a town no greedier than any other.
Dr. Richmonde, Ms. Williams continued, angry as she was with her erstwhile caregiver, was still grateful enough for Ms. Williams' assistance to help get Williams into a place next door.
Shortly thereafter, Ms. Williams was busted with 365 grams of cocaine, a year's supply for even the most committed tooter.
The cocaine bust was a set-up, Ms. Williams insists, a set-up by none other than her defense attorney, Bert Schlosser, her erstwhile neighbor, and Ms. Richmonde's neighbor as well. Doctor Richmonde and Schlosser were in cahoots, you see, to grow the 160 pounds of commercial weed that Schlosser's wife was later busted with in Utah on her way to pot-starved Minnesota.
I caught a whiff of big time humbug just as it knocked me to the floor.
It is Ms. Williams style to set out certain pieces of a puzzle, then shoot you that winning smile which says, in essence: you fill in the blanks!
I went out for a smoke.
As soon as I lit up, a posh-looking lady approached, looking like she just stepped off a Masterpiece Theater set. Togged out in a stylish summer dress and big floppy sun hat, this improbable apparition gathered her skirts and sat down next to me on the smoking bench, introducing herself as Dorotheya Dorman, an advocate for the wronged Ms. Williams.
After advising me to quit smoking, Ms. Dorman began her corroboration of all Ms. Williams' claims, adding, “That Judge Mayfield is so right-wing! Wallis was set up to protect Schlosser, and they're all in on it. Wallis doesn't use drugs, she doesn't smoke marijuana, she doesn't even drink!”
Ms. Williams had just knocked back a rum and coke when I met her at the bar.
I finished my cigarette and went back inside.
Ms. Williams started in on me again.
“I don't have a criminal record — except for that one time and the cocaine wasn't even mine. The 365 grams were in Doctor Richmonde's yard on her side of the fence. She has a brother-in-law in Peru, you know. And Peter Hoyle changed his testimony…”
Officer Hoyle is frequently cited as an all-purpose bad boy by those he arrests. Hoyle did it. The perps always say that, but you'd need ten Hoyles to put him everywhere the crooks say he is.
Williams gave me that seductive smile of innocence and dismay that said: “Do you get the picture?!” You dumb ass man, you. I'm charming you here.
With most men it works. It even works with me in certain contexts.
“My record is clean,” Ms. Williams told me, “you can check with INTERPOL, Scotland Yard, the RCMP.”
Very few Ukiah-based crooks invoke INTERPOL, a level of level of law enforcement reserved for big time crooks, not small town smash and grab boys.
Angela Hooper had mentioned to me that Ms. Williams had been jailed in Spain, England and Canada for drug trafficking, but that she'd somehow gotten these impressive priors suppressed. I hadn't repeated this gossip to anyone, least of all to Ms. Williams.
Ms. Williams, perhaps a veteran of continental incarceration, started in on Doctor Richmonde.
“She's not really a doctor; she's a pathological liar, that's what she is.”
I was thinking, Do you agree with Bette Midler, who famously answered, “Who needs an occasion?”
But mainly, I was waiting for some hint, some indication that Nutmeg meant more to her than all this other stuff. Although Ms. Williams was close to tears at times, I heard nothing but rancor, a sense of being cheated, sour grapes, and no mention of dear old Nutmeg.
Where Is The Love? I sang to myself and excused myself to go to the men's room, hoping Gino, Ms. Williams loyal friend, wouldn't corner me in there. I stayed a long time, combing my hair and drumming my fingers on the sink.
When I came out, Ms. Williams and Gino were gone.
* * *
Also in court last week were the two Bulgarian gents who came to Mendocino to grow marijuana. They were featured a few issues back, and when they saw me enter the Courthouse they knew I was the author of Hoyle and the Bulgos. The Bulgos gave me a gastric look of malevolence and snapped, “Got any papers?”
One of the Bulgos fumbled for his wallet as the other tore into the AVA looking for — what? More stomach trouble? Sorry fellows, but you don’t get all the headlines! Other people deserve to have their stories told, too.
Then I saw their respective lawyers, Jan Cole-Wilson and Ann Moorman. The best approbation a man of my calling can hope for is to be snubbed by Ann Moorman, and I was lavishly rewarded.
When the case was called, Ms. Moorman said she’d come to an understanding with the DA’s Office regarding Vasil Ivanhoff and Hristo Kolev. The DA had agreed to reduce the charges and let the defendants off with probation.
It must be said of Ms. Moorman that she is a very effective defense lawyer, highly skilled in negotiating favorable pleas with the Deputy DAs; it might also be apropos to remark, again, that she’s just been elected to be a Superior Court judge and that these same prosecutors have their futures to consider. Better safe than sorry, as mom used to say.
At any rate The People had no objection to the light sentences. The Bulgos would plea to the felony possession, serve a stint of probation and then the felony would be reduced to a misdemeanor.
Judge Ron Brown was puzzled by Deputy DA Kitty Houston’s genial acquiescence.
He said, “Any special reason for this disposition?”
Houston seemed a little embarrassed. “Well, your honor,” she said, “it was not a large amount of marijuana and they are otherwise law-abiding, except for this short term of aberrant behavior.”
“Any thing to add, Ms. Moorman?”
“No,” and Ms. Moorman smiled the smile of easy victory.
Attorney Keith Faulder was also eager to please. He has just bought a new Harley and asked Ms. — er, Judge Moorman if she wanted to go riding sometime. Apparently, the new judge is a motorcycle enthusiast of long-standing.
To mix my clichés a bit: Better safe than sorry cuts both ways.