Criminal trials for the most part follow a well-established trajectory. First there’s the arrest, then the arraignment, then the detention arrangements, then the pre-trial motions, then jury selection, then the trial itself, and then, finally, the verdict and sentence. A frequently overlooked follow-up to this ball of wax is the social fallout once the trial is over. What happens to the affected community after the defendant is found either not guilty (not be confused with innocence) and walks out the courtroom doors or is led out of the courtroom in shackles to serve out a prison sentence? When the legal part is over and done there are those left behind who have to keep on living their daily lives as if nothing happened. They’re the friends, family, and others who loved the victim and still miss him, as well as those whose lives have been stunted in bitterness toward the defendant, even toward the justice system itself.
The aftermath of the Charlie Reynolds criminal trial from nearly a year ago is still very much on the minds of many Laytonville folk these many months after he was convicted of killing popular native son 29-year-old Kenny Fisher. Reynolds sucker punched Fisher on the side of his head with a single blow and left him to die between two pillars on the wooden porch that fronts the Laytonville bar Boomers. “What makes a person do that?” mused Reggie, a Boomers regular who preferred to go by only his first name. “Fisher was just a wonderful kid, very good and a real bookaholic.” Reggie said he was at the Reynolds trial every day at the courthouse in Ukiah and that he understands intellectually why Reynolds’s prison sentence couldn’t be longer than six years. He said he also understands why Reynolds could not legally be charged with murder. But he also said that he has his doubts about whether the punishment fit the crime, whether six years in prison is long enough to change much about Reynolds himself. “I don’t think it will do much good,” he said. “He’s a real hothead.”
“This guy should have been caught way before Kenny,” said Boomer owner Kaye Kuykendall, sitting in her office adjacent to the bar doing paperwork. “Reynolds was well known around here, he ran with several guys who are equally notorious, and the sucker punch was his M.O. Why did he get away with multiple assaults in the first place?” She told me that Boomer’s regulars are good about heading off trouble before it gets out of hand, but that Fisher’s death happened so fast there really wasn’t time to react. “They were only outside the door 22 seconds,” she said.
Local bartender Corky Stockton, who was serving drinks for a friendly and orderly crowd at Boomers on a recent weekend, said, “Everybody is doing the best they can to carry on” despite the fact that “everybody was affected in some way.” She called Reynolds’s sentence “trivial.” She agreed with Kuykendall that violence at the bar is rare. “Laytonville is a tight community and we try our best to nip violence in the bud,” she said. Her face clouded when she said that what still bothered her most about Fisher’s death was that he died alone. “He [Reynolds] just left him out there,” she said.
Boomer regular Rod said that he knew Fisher well for “about 10 years. Everybody liked him, he was a good kid.” Rod said he disagrees with what he sees as the lesser charge (assault with intent to do great bodily harm) against Reynolds, and that he believes the charge should have more appropriately been second degree murder. Like others sitting around the bar, he said he’s worried about rising violent crimes in and around Laytonville. “There’s been a ten-fold increase in crime, mostly due to pot,” he said. Rod raised his right arm to illustrate its limited range of motion. “Eight months ago I was shot in the arm in a home invasion,” he said, adding that the invaders “wanted my plants.” Kuykendall added that she, too, worries about violent crime but also about the broader underlying social problems faced by local young people. “There are no jobs and people don’t have a purpose in life,” she said.
Jeremiah Pollson of Spyrock, who’s in the U.S. Air Force, said that Fisher “was the best of all of us.” He said darkly that Fisher’s murder was a sort of community wake-up call. “Everybody is a lot more cognizant of letting shitty people in our community,” he said. When asked how they could legally go about getting rid of them he didn’t give any specifics but left the clear message that there are ways to go about it. Joe, sitting at a table next to the bar with a friend, agreed that the community needs to take some kind of harder line on crimes like the Fisher assault. “Reynolds should have gotten life,” he said. “He needs his arms cut off at the shoulders when he gets out.”
The lack of a consistent law enforcement presence in Laytonville was a common theme at Boomers the weekend I stopped by. What law enforcement could or could not have done in a situation like the Reynolds assault, which pretty much came roaring out of nowhere and lasted only a minute or so, is an open question. Boomers owner Kuykendall said that she gives county sheriff Tom Allman a heads up when an upcoming local event could attract trouble makers, and that Allman is always responsive in sending out a county deputy to keep an eye out. But a daily law enforcement presence just isn’t there. The last resident deputy retired a few years ago and has never been replaced.
Twenty-three miles north of Willits and close to hugging Humboldt County’s southern boundary, with a population of only slightly more than 1,200, covering Laytonville is a stretch for the county sheriff, who by virtue of the distance and budget allocations focuses on the county’s major population centers. Mendocino County’s total population is nearly 90,000. But even given its relatively small population and small-town community spirit, violent crime is on the rise. Laytonville’s violent crime rate (murder, non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) is high, almost double the rate of either the state or the nation.
Despite the continuing emotional fallout of the Reynolds trial and lingering sorrow over losing one of its most popular residents, there is clearly a sense of mutual support in Laytonville. A juror on the Reynolds trial, who I’ll call Anne, said that Fisher’s friends and family faithfully attended the eight-day trial. “At one point his supporters had t-shirts,” she said. “And when the verdict was read those supporters cheered, hugged each other, and I could hear crying.” Reynolds’s past was inadmissible, of course, and the charges against him were proscribed by circumstance and the boundaries of law, but Anne said that despite those constraints she thinks that the case against Reynolds was very thorough, and that “everyone thought they had heard enough evidence” to reach the unanimous guilty verdict that they did. Like the Laytonville residents who spoke with me, Anne said that some of the more cold-blooded actions attributed to Reynolds in court were decisive factors for her fellow jurors. “For some jurors it was a deciding factor that he just walked away,” she said. Just as it’s still a factor, a year later, in why Fisher’s friends and family find it hard to get over his death.