Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Mr. Jason Ress, credit card counterfeiter and meth distributor, busted by a store detective at Freidman’s and subsequently arrested at a Fairfield Inn luxury suite with his pretty wife, who gave her address as Santa Cruz before she “absconded,” as the District Attorney described her absence.
But Jason Ress was in court again last week and, having been jailed some weeks ago, was now sporting a luxurious beard so I didn’t recognize him. I was looking for an accused murderer — and I use that adjective advisedly, since the guy, Joshua Ruoff by name, committed the murder in front of an eye-witness — and Ruoff and Ress are both thirtyish, barrel-chested bullet-heads with beards.
Alert readers will recall that the credit card scammer, Mr. Ress, was represented by one of the ablest activists in the public defender’s stable, Mary Le Claire. She subscribes to The Nation to read Patricia J. Williams’ column, Diary of a Mad Law Professor, with the same dedication AVA readers once subscribed to The Nation to read Alexander Cockburn’s column Beat the Devil. All of which is to say, Ms. Le Claire is a devil’s advocate. She won’t hear of evil, malice, duplicity or spite present in a defendant’s nature. You could cut her purse and spend her money, and she would fight for your right to do it to her with her dying breath. There’s altruism for you!
Judge Behnke: “Let’s call the matter of Jason Ress."
DA: “David Eyster for the People.”
Judge Behnke: “Mary Le Claire for Mr. Ress who is present and in custody. Your honor, I’ve just been given a letter from my client’s employer. There’s an address in Willits, where he has been offered a place to stay. Mr. Ress’s employment there is mentioned, along with assurances to the court that Mr. Ress is a valued employee at this construction company and”—
DA: “The People object, judge. We don’t know where this letter came from.”
Judge Behnke: “Please, just let her [LeClaire] finish, Mr. Eyster.”
LeClair for the defense: “Your honor, as I was saying, my client has ties to the community, as evidenced by this letter, and a right to O.R. or reduced bail under Humphrey, and we’re representing to the court that Mr. Ress qualifies.”
Judge Behnke: “Yes, and let me just stop you right there, counsel, if I may, to refresh what I’ve just read on Humphrey, which, if I’m not mistaken, went into law on January 25th and is therefore applicable in any case currently before the court…”
The lawyers had been discussing a new piece of case law regarding a defendant’s ability to pay and how it would affect the setting of bail in cases involving court appointed lawyers, and Ms. Le Claire felt that her client, Jason Ress, would be an ideal candidate for release under the new law, since he had no legally visible income — his reason for being jail was all the credit card fraud equipment he’d been caught with. And now he had come up with this letter from a Willits construction company.
Le Claire showed the letter to DA Eyster, then gave it to the judge to read. Meanwhile, Eyster was going over Ress’s rap sheet, which started in San Diego’s North County suburban sprawl area of Vista, with multiple arrests and convictions in the late 1990s. In 2000, Mr. Ress’s record moves north to Richmond, Livermore, Santa Cruz and, in the last two years, Sonoma and Shasta Counties.
DA Eyster: “The defendant does not qualify for bail reduction under Humphrey, judge. He is a flight risk, a menace to the community, and as to his income we have no evidence that he is indigent. His wife made bail and has not returned to her Santa Cruz residence, and if Mr. Ress is released on reduced bail it’s the last we’ll see of him. When I was a practicing defense attorney pot growers would often come to me saying they couldn’t afford my fees, but when I told them they still had to pay, they [went out back and] somehow dug up the money.”
Defense attorney LeClair: “My client can only afford $5000, your honor. That’s all the money he has.”
DA Eyster: “He was arrested with half a pound of meth, judge. That stuff doesn’t come cheap. If he can finance a purchase like that, then he has access to” —
Ms. LeClair: “Your honor, it was only a quarter pound.”
Judge Behnke: “I was at the prelim, you may remember, and counsel is right, it was only a quarter pound found in the truck, but there was more in the room at the Fairfield Inn, and the defendant was basically living on the fraudulent credit cards, and it seems to me the only reasonable means we have of securing his appearance in court being monetary, as he is facing similar charges in other jurisdictions, I’m reluctant to release him on O.R.”
Ms. LeClair: “My client has no record of failure to appear, your honor, and we have a letter from his employer in Willits with a promise of a place to stay, so he has ties to the community.”
DA: “Judge, I’d like a copy of that letter.”
Judge Behnke: “The court will keep the original in the file and give copies to both parties. I won’t O.R. the defendant due to the public safety considerations; the defendant has a rap sheet that covers the breadth of California, from San Diego to Redding, but I’ll reduce bail from $95,000 to $55,000 under Humphrey.”
At this point, that other bearded defendant, the Ress look-alike, Mr. Ruoff, was brought in by the corrections officers. I learned the next day that the letter had been forged at the jail by Mr. Ress’s cellmate.
Deputy Chief Investigator Andrew Alvarez took the DA’s copy of the letter and went to work over the lunch break. Alvarez traced it to a bogus Brooktrails address, and the supposed construction company was in Plano, Texas, rather than Willits; the parent company was supposed to be in Arizona, but that address came back to an apartment complex. As a result, Mr. Ress’s bail was increased and now, not only has Ress made a fool of his perhaps overly idealistic lawyer (who will never believe another word from him again, if she as any sense at all) but the devious fellow has placed his trusty cellie in unwanted legal difficulties, as well.
Back to Joshua Ruoff: He’s accused of the murder of Timothy Sweeting with whom Ruoff and others had been growing marijuana near Dos Rios, land of outlaws in eastern Mendocino County. Timmy Sweeting’s loyal dog had dug up his master’s hand where his murdered body had been hastily buried in the yard of a marijuana grow near Dos Rios. I don’t know the real dog’s name but it was a female and she is the one that found the body and thereby started the investigation that led to Mr. Ruoff subsequently being extradited from New Hampshire — where he’d fled after bashing Sweeting’s brains in with an aluminum baseball bat.
Timmy Sweeting’s mother has been coming to court these many months, faithfully appearing over and over, time and again for nearly two years now as the trial of her son’s alleged killer has been set and reset and postponed to accommodate his defense lawyers. First the Public Defender, Linda Thompson, who waited until just before trial last October 4th to declare a conflict of interest. Then the case was assigned to the Office of the Alternate Public Defender, and for some reason it took over a month before it was assigned to Jan Cole-Wilson. Finally, it was set for trial on February 26th, but last week at the pre-trial conference, Ms. Cole-Wilson asked for a continuance.
Judge John Behnke was “frustrated,” to use his own euphemism for the difficulty he was having in suppressing a geyser of spleen. “First off, it was not properly noticed. The law requires the request for continuance to be in writing and submitted at the very least two days in advance, whereas I received this only yesterday. Then we have the psychological evaluation being postponed because of the ‘holidays’ and I don’t know what this refers to since it was back in early October. This is a homicide case and it has been pending for a long time, and we have not been properly noticed on this request for a 1050 [continuance], so to come in a couple of weeks before trial and — well, I must tell you, I am adamantly opposed — it is really unfair to everyone but the defendant, and I’ve just gotta say I find this very upsetting. There seems to be this attitude that ‘oh, not to worry, I’ll just come in on the eve of trial and ask for a 1050,’ and I’ll tell you right now I intend to put a stop to this kind of thing and — go ahead, counsel, I’ll hear what you have to say.”
DEFENSE/Jan Cole-Wilson: “Your honor, I didn’t get the case until November, and I told the court at the time I wouldn’t be ready but the [Assistant] DA [Richard Welsh] insisted on an early setting and”—
COURT: “You were not assigned the case until 35 days after your office got it?”
Cole-Wilson: “I was busy with other cases and, as your honor knows, we have a very small [not to mention elderly] staff, and I‘ve been working on this as quickly as I can, but there are critical witnesses on the East Coast I need to meet with; but I think the court knows I am diligent and responsible.”
ADA Welsh: “It’s a relatively simple case with an eye witness, your honor.”
Cole-Wilson: “It may be simple from prosecution’s standpoint, but it certainly isn’t simple for defense.”
Judge Behnke: “I recognize that it is a hard go for the defense, as they will probably form a defense of intent, so they need to explore any possibility of excusing what on the face of it is a pretty horrific crime. My frustration in cases like this is that we have Mrs. Sweeting (the victim’s mother) present and we would like to bring things to a conclusion in a reasonable amount of time, so I find it very frustrating. But when you have counsel — and very competent counsel, I happen to know personally, saying she’s not ready, it builds in an automatic appeal and the need to do another trial… So that’s not good either, and it makes my job very frustrating when I’m faced with two bad alternatives… My preference is to do the trial once… I don’t know whether I should relieve the Alternate’s Office and reassign the case…”
Cole-Wilson: “I’d ask the court not to take that step, your honor. It could only lead to further delays.”
Judge Behnke: “I don’t think it would be appropriate; there’s too much water under the bridge. I’m gonna take a recess and ask the two of you to confer on a trial date.”
The trial date set was for June 18th. March was unavailable because of the Jewel Dyer murder trial (accused of brutally beating his father Sanford Sternick to death in Longvale in March of 2016); April was taken up with the Caleb Silver murder trial (accused of murdering Dennis Boardman in Fort Bragg in January of 2016); May would be the Stephen Ryan murder trial (accused of murdering D’Shaun Davis in Ryan’s Ukiah driveway in December of 2016); so June 18th was set for the Joshua Ruoff murder trial.
The murder trial for Oscar Carrillo Alvarez, accused of the stabbing death of the much older Salvador Hernandez at the Toplak Apartments, Ukiah area, back in April of 2016, which was supposed to start February 12th was kicked further down the road to sometime in October.
The four remaining defendants in the murder of Laytonville pot grower Jeffery Settler in November of 2016 are still awaiting trial.
And don’t even ask me about the latest accused murderer, Andrew Crowningshield, who has already managed to have even his arraignment postponed for three weeks.
Murder trials take practically forever as the slightest attempt to hurry them along results in automatic grounds for appeal.
Correction: The defense lawyer justly praised for winning her first jury trial (People v. Beverly Ann Sherman) was Chelsie Thurmond — not Chelsie Abramson as I mistakenly said in my earlier report.