Last Thursday afternoon a nicely dressed woman carrying three A-2 assault rifles walked out of the DA's office on the ground floor of the Mendocino County Courthouse.
It was two days after Mariano Lopez Fernandez, 31, of Boonville, was shot and killed by three deputies in a marijuana garden in the Cahto country west of Laytonville.
The deputies had used these three guns, the same combat guns American troops use in Iraq and Afghanistan, to shoot Fernandez.
A 60-man, multi-agency patrol had raided several large grows on Cahto Ridge that morning. Fernandez was said to have brandished an AK-47 when five deputies encountered him in a garden. Three deputies fired on Fernandez, and Fernandez was gone.
Several other men ran from the scene. They have not been arrested or identified.
The Sheriff's Department subsequently announced that they'd uprooted 1,980 marijuana plants from the Fernandez garden.
Mariano Lopez Fernandez lived in Airport Estates, Boonville, with his wife, Jessica Waggoner, and the couple's one-year-old son. He has brothers and sisters in Mendocino County, and he had no criminal history.
Sheriff Tom Allman said of the fatal encounter, “At least one AK-47 opened fire and the officers returned fire.”
And now it was two days later in the Courthouse, and the woman carried the three A-2s to a County pickup truck where a detective loaded them up and drove them away. The guns are evidence.
Like fingerprints, every rifle has a signature; the inconsistencies of the rifling in the bore leave an individual mark on every bullet. Every rifle also has a serial number, and the respective officers will have their signatures next to these numbers on a check-out roster at the Sheriff’s armory. There should be little doubt in the end which officers shot the man in the marijuana raid. That’s a given in crime novels.
But sometimes at the crime lab in Eureka, it’s a different story. The lab had 11 bullets in the Laytonville murder of Sean Piper and couldn’t match any of them to the guns the late Terry Cohen admitted he shot Piper with. The .45 and .357 slugs pulled from Piper's corpse were too damaged to be distinguishable, one from the other.
So the investigation into Mariano Lopez Fernandez's last morning on this earth is underway. His sudden departure will be ruled as justified, if not inevitable as the endless armed hills of Mendocino County grow tense at marijuana harvest time until the tension moves inside with the first rains and the home invasions begin.
Meanwhile, an earlier killing has come to trial.
Timothy S. Elliott is on trial for Second Degree murder in the stabbing death of Sam Billy, both of the Pomo Indian Rancheria near Hopland where the killing took place in September of 2008.
There was a big party the night that Sam Billy died, and more than one fight had broken out. The tribal police were called around midnight to break up one the fights, and summoned again around 3am when Sam Billy, who died later that morning in the Santa Rosa hospital, was stabbed in another fight.
The only witness to Sam Billy's fight, the only one who would say anything about it anyway, was Isaiah Vasquez. Isaiah was seven at the time. He's nine now.
For two years the boy has known he would have to testify, tell the truth about what he saw that night, and he's a kid, a little kid, and one has to wonder what the rest of the case can be if it depends on the testimony of a child, a child from a small place where everyone knows everyone else, with tough guys always watching.
Judge Richard Henderson, the most grandfatherly of Mendocino County judges, asked the boy, “Are you a bit nervous?”
“Yes,” Isaiah said.
“Do you remember what we talked about last week?”
“Can you remember to listen carefully and tell the truth?”
“Do you remember how last time I told you we are all trying to find out what happened?”
“Okay. Raise your right hand.”
Judge Henderson personally swore the boy in; it's usually done by the court clerk.
Deputy DA Rayburn Killion began his questioning.
“Do you know why you're here?”
“Did you know Sam Billy?”
“How did you know him?”
“He was a friend of my mom's.”
“How well do you draw?”
“Not that good.”
“Well, I'm going to ask you to draw a picture of your house and the parking lot.”
Isaiah drew the picture of his house and the parking lot where Sam Billy was stabbed.
“Put an x where your house is and point to the parking lot.”
The boy drew his x and pointed to the parking lot.
Killion asked, “Do you know the defendant?”
How many 9-year-olds know what a defendant is? This 9-year old knew what a defendant was, and he knew the name of the defendant, too.
“Yes. Timothy Elliott.”
“Do you know his nickname?”
“Okay. I'm going to talk about the night Sam Billy died. Did you see a fight?”
“More than one?”
“Yes. I was playing with my dog by the fence and there was a fight — I don't actually remember that one, the other one.”
“Did you go to bed that night?”
“Did you see Sam Billy?”
“Where were you?”
“In my room.”
“Was there a light on outside?”
“No, I mean, yes.”
“One outside my house and one in front of my friend's house.”
“When you saw Sam Billy you were in your bedroom. Were you looking out your window?”
“I was just being nosy, I guess. I heard a lot of noise — ”
Isaiah suddenly burst into a rapid-fire explanation about a conversation with his mother and had to be stopped. Judge Henderson got him calmed down and the questioning resumed.
“So when did you see Sam Billy?”
“Well, he and Coke were talking…. Sam wasn't saying anything. Only Coke was and after he punched Sam in the belly Sam was falling down and Coke said to Derek…”
“Wait wait wait,” Judge Henderson said. “You're going too fast for the court reporter. She has to take down everything you say. Take a breath and try to go a little slower.”
Killion asked, “Did you see how this fight started?”
“Sam was drinking; they were talking and Coke punched Sam in the stomach and Coke fell down. Derek came and Coke said, 'look at your man over there fading on the ground.' Then Derek tried to give him CPR. He kept trying and trying.”
“Did you see the police arrive?”
“They came before and then after. There were like seven people over there trying to help Sam. I said, 'Mom, What happened?' And she said, 'Go back inside'.”
“What were you doing before this all happened?”
“Playing a game on Play Station 2.”
“What's that about?”
“You can go on missions, kill each other. You can choose Domination, Death Match… I was playing Death Match 2”
“In your room?”
“I was downstairs. I was sharing my bedroom with my little brother Ricky. That night he was in my Mom's room. I went to check on my sister and looked out the window and saw Sam and Coke.”
“When you say, 'Coke punched Sam' — how long before Derek gave Sam CPR?”
“I don't know. He kept trying and trying.”
“When you saw Coke punch Sam, was anybody else there?”
“How long before Derek came?”
“I don't know. He said, 'Look at your man over there fadin' down'.”
Killion showed the young witness a picture of his yard and asked if he recognized it. He did. Then Killion asked how dark it was.
“It wasn't so dark I couldn't see.”
“When Sam went down, where was he?”
Isaiah pointed to a spot on the picture.
Killion asked, “Was the light on?”
“I don't know, but I'm gonna guess yes.”
“You don't get to guess on this one.”
“Well, I don't remember, then.”
“Did you see what Coke did after that?”
“He ran to Jessica's house.”
“Where did Coke live?”
“With my cousin, Priscilla Knight.”
“Did you see Coke go in Priscilla's house?”
“And she lives with — who?”
“Gabe. Gabe Mendoza.”
“Do you know Jessica's last name?”
“Hoaglin. Jessica Hoaglin.”
“Did you talk to any police officers?”
“Do you remember what you talked about?”
“Okay, thanks Isaiah. Ms. Thompson's going to ask you some questions now.”
Public Defender Linda Thompson is defending Timothy “Coke” Elliott.
From Play Station's mayhem to a diminutive woman in a man's three-piece suit, young Isaiah, a little warrior if there ever was one, looked at Thompson who, of course, had the unenviable task of trying to shake a small boy out of what he'd seen.
Ms. Thompson put the photo of the apartment complex and parking lot on the screen and briskly asked Isaiah to point to his bedroom window. Isaiah's bright enthusiasm to do the right thing seemed to change into apprehensive brooding over what he'd gotten himself into, through no fault of his own. The pressure was on the kid. The courtroom was packed with people from the Hopland Rancheria, most of whom had refused to help with the investigation, much less testify. Isaiah seemed a very lonely little boy, even with a family member sitting behind him for, as Judge Henderson put it, “moral support.”
Isaiah took up a pointer and touched the screen where his window looked out over the fateful parking lot.
“Do you recall if your window was open or closed?”
“I don't remember.”
“Is that the area, the blue handicap parking spot, where you saw Sam and Coke?”
“Close to it.”
“Did Coke have his back to you?”
“And the light was behind them?”
“Was it darker than in this picture?”
“Were there any other lights on in any of the other apartments?”
“I don't know.”
“Do you know Betina?”
“Yes. Betina Torres.”
“Where did Betina live?”
“I don't know.”
“Where did Priscilla live?”
“Was there a car there?”
“I don't know. I don't remember.”
“Now, do you remember how old you were in 2008?”
“In September of that year you were living with your Mom, your Dad — is your Dad still living with you?”
“No. He was then, but he's not now.”
“So you were living with your Mom and Dad and your brother and sister. Did this happen on a school night?”
“I don't know.”
“Did you go to school the next day?”
Isaiah answered, “Yes.”
Thompson was pacing casually, one arm folded, her other hand poised thoughtfully at her chin. The Public Defender seems to have watched a lot of lawyer movies.
“Did you have a bedtime?”
“Yes, but not on Friday.”
“So it wasn't a school night, then?”
“I guess I don't really remember,” the boy said anxiously.
“So that night you were staying up with your Dad. And you were playing video games. Was there a certain time you were supposed to go upstairs and check on your sister?”
“Did you know how to tell time?”
“I don't know.”
Would all these people think him stupid? Probably, his downcast eyes said.
“But didn't you have a microwave, and didn't it have numbers? Couldn't you read it?”
Now his ears were glowing and he wouldn't look up.
“I don't know,” he repeated softly.
“Well, you went upstairs to check on your brother and sister; were they okay?”
“Yeah,” he murmured.
“Do you remember getting in trouble because your TV was too loud?”
Isaiah looked confused. So was I. Who'd said anything about a TV? But Ms. Thompson had been given a copy of the police interview from two years ago, much of which Isaiah had forgotten. Especially the part about watching a movie, something about a Snow Angel, far more suitable to a seven-year-old than Death Match 2, and here we get a glimpse of what witnessing a murder will do to a kid.
“N-no,” he stammered. “I… I don't remember.”
“Okay. But weren't you watching a movie that night — wait, strike that.” Thompson paced a few steps and finally began to ask relevant questions.
“So you went upstairs to check on your brother and sister and you saw a fight. Was this the first or second fight?”
“There were a lot of fights,” Isaiah said.
“Can you tell me how much time passed between them?”
“I don't know. No.”
“Did you see anybody fall down in the first fight?”
“In the first fight everybody fell down.”
“How often did you go to check on your brother and sister — every hour, every 30 minutes?”
“I went to check every 30 minutes.”
“But you said you couldn't tell time. Did you go because it was time or because your Dad told you to?”
“My Dad told me.”
“Did you see Wilma?”
“Did her car alarm go off?”
“No… uh, no.”
“Were your windows open?”
“Yeah. They were open half the night.”
“I don't know.”
“Did you ever go to sleep that night?”
“I went — he, my Dad, turned off the Play Station because Sam got hurt. I think I stayed up there for half of the first fight.”
“Before Sam fell, did you see the tribal police?”
“No — well, after all those other fights, I think I did see 'em”
“Ms. Thompson,” Judge Henderson said, “I think we'll take a break. He's been up there for over an hour now.”
A criminal defense lawyer gave me a ride back over the hill to Boonville.
“You have to careful,” he said, “cross-examining a kid — anybody for that matter. There's a point when the jurors, especially the women, will think you've gone too far. After that, they side with the prosecution.”
The trial resumes next week. But the worst part, I hope, is over.