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A Willits Business Dinner

Going back a few weeks to the preliminary hearing for the three defendants from Oakland accused of a Willits home invasion robbery early last July – yes, it was about marijuana. In the first installment we gave an abridged version of the two witnesses for prosecution, Feather Sullivan and Michelle Mack, who said they had come to the pre-invaded residence to cook a big dinner between midnight or 1:30 in the morning – they differed on this point of time, and when questioned by defense they said they didn’t pay any attention to time, dismissing the clocks enslaving most of us in an airy, philosophically detached way. Lots of stoners are above such mundane concerns as the time of day, the day of the week, month of the year, or even what year it is. These two also differed on what they cooked and served as well:  Feather said shrimp Scampi, Michelle said fettuccini Alfredo.

Ms. Sullivan took the stand first and testified before the lunch recess, then she went to lunch with Ms. Mack, who would testify after lunch.  Did they talk about what Feather had already said under oath, and what Michelle should say to make their stories match?  “Nah.”  And since they couldn’t agree on the menu, let alone the time of night their dinner guests suddenly produced guns, it’s probably unlikely they spent much time synchronizing their stories.

The details of their account are in our archive so I won’t rehash it all over again here, but basically, there were a bunch of people at a trailer house having a dinner party at a truly Californian pot growers’ hour (they’re just going to bed when the rest of us are going off to work) and some guys who’d dropped by went out to their car and came back in with guns, arguing that the owner of the allegedly invaded house on Crest Street, a Mr. Royce Welters, had first pulled a gun on them (the guys from Oakland). A struggle for a duffle-bag of pot ensued. Feather was sitting on it and she got struck with a gun-barrel, she said, by Mr. Samuels, to make her give it up, and then the three Oaklanders took off and the cops were called.

It was unclear whether a pistol shot had punctuated the fine dining, but these kinds of late night business meetings have been known to end badly.

Deputy J. Woida was called to the stand.  Woida said he’d been dispatched to back up a Willits Police officer making a stop on a gray Mercedes, and when he got there it sped off.  Woida gave chase, reaching speeds over 100 mph and at last he caught up to the car when it turned off Highway 101 and came to a stop in front of a locked gate.  Woida arrived just as the occupants were footing it over the fence and fading into the night.  One suspect, Mr. Lovely, was arrested at the gate.

One of the other Oakland visitors was caught later, after daybreak, and that was Mr. Venters who had $9,000 in cash – ostensibly, the money the alleged home invaders had carried north from Oakland to buy the pot with. Venters was walking on the shoulder of the road, Highway 101. He said he was from Oakland; and when asked how he got to Willits, he said he walked, explaining that he liked to get lots of exercise.  But there was a camo backpack in the Mercedes with his ID in it.

A dog was used to track the third suspect to a hiding place beneath the Willits bypass. At 7:50 am Mr. Samuels surrendered.  This was the suspect whom Feather had said struck her with the gun to get her up off the bag of pot.

Lovely, Samuels, Venters

It was never made clear what happened to the pot. Was it in the car?  No one asked.  And certainly if the Willits people wanted to frame the Oakland people, they would have got the pot outta there before the police arrived at around 3:00 am (plenty of time from 1:30 to 3:00 to hide the dope).  And there was a huge cast of characters, many of whom we will never hear from, as they have taken the Fifth, and refuse to take the stand on the usual grounds that they might incriminate themselves in a crime.  So if the buyers from the city still had the money, but not the pot – had a crime been committed other than the smack to the side of Feather’s head?

Deputy Woida said the suspect he thought was the driver of the Mercedes went over the fence wearing red sweatpants with yellow stripes down the legs.  Pictures of the suspects, taken at the time they were detained, showed that none of them were wearing garish sweats.  This was a problem for the prosecution, and during recess a meeting of the minds may well have taken place in the DA’s office because when the hearing resumed, a new plea offer was made:  If the defendants would waive any further prelim, good things would come to them.  We couldn’t hear what was being said, but the faces of the defendants were lighting up with smiles, and excited discussions ensued.

First the lawyers went to their clients and told them about the new offers. Then the lawyers went into the hall with family members of the defendants to discuss the offers.  Then the lawyers went back to the defendants and told them what had transpired in the hall.  Then, after another lengthy consultation, it was back to the hall with the families.

Then there was what appeared to be a counter-offer to Deputy DA Scott McMenomey, and more trips to the hall.  Every once in a while Judge Ann Moorman would emerge from her chambers and see how things were going. They were going well (for the defense), but more time was needed, more refinements to the deal that was being crafted.

The purpose of a prelim, to my small understanding, is for the judge to determine if there is enough evidence to hold the defendants for trial.  So, conceivably, the whole case could be thrown out if the State fails to provide sufficient evidence of a crime, and as to that, the credibility of the two women, while not entirely suspect, was at least a bit inconsistent on some points (the time and the menu), and very vague as to others, such as what was being said between the Willits people with the pot and the Oakland buyers.

As a result of the apparent plea-deal, certain fascinating questions will go unanswered.

First: Who was involved? Of all the people present at this late-night/early morning dinner party, and so many have been mentioned in testimony that it is almost inconceivable they were all crammed in the invaded house trailer, and of them all – not to mention all the participants standing  outside or driving by -- we have heard from only six:

a. Two women witnesses

b. Three male defendants

c. A deputy who responded

Second. The purpose of the dinner party, the guest list aside, went unsaid, despite repeated suggestions that it was:

a. A dope deal that went bad

b. A dope deal that went south

c. South went bad dope

d. The dope wasn’t that bad, and/or…

e. There wasn’t the promised amount

3. What about the dope?

a. Was there any?

b. Did the ‘bad guys’ get it?

c. Did the ‘good guys’ save it?

d. Or Sub. (a.) Was it worth saving?

4. Who ordered the linguini and clam sauce?

a. One or both of the women?

b. Two or three of the defendants

c. None of the above

5. What are the odds that this will all go quietly away with no accounting of the pot itself. And maybe a charge of assault with the gun.

a. Five to one?

b. A dollar against a doughnut?

c. Even?

d. Ask your bookie.

e. Hedge your bets.

f. The young men from Oakland were merely curious about the lives of outback hippies, and had come north on a kind of informal anthropology expedition. 

* * *

NOTES: The Jeffery Settler murder case resolved three more defendants this morning, as Governor Brown having signed the State Bill felony murder rule last night, and the jury trial for Fredrick Gaestel, Jesse Wells and Michael Kane was set to begin this morning, District Attorney David Eyster entered the courtroom with offers for the defendants and after a long consultation with their lawyers the three defendants took the offered plea deals. Mr. Kane went first and pled "Guilty" to count one, which had been reduced from first degree murder to voluntary manslaughter, for 11 years in prison, with an additional one year for admitting he personally used a hatchet to strike Jeffery Settler in the head; and, count two, robbery in concert of an inhabited dwelling, for one-third of the mid-term of six years (two years) for a total of 14 years in the state prison. Fredrick Gaestel and Jesse Wells both pled "Guilty" to count two, robbery in concert of an inhabited dwelling, for three years each in the state prison. Judgment and Sentencing for Mr. Kane will be on October 26th at 9:00 am; Geastel and Wells on November 2nd at 9:00 am. The fourth defendant, Mr. Gary Blank will be offered a deal similar to Mr. Kane's, and his trial date will undoubtedly be moved up, since the other three have pled out. As for the three who have already pled to robbery in concert for 11 years each, we expect those defendants to file appeals in light of the new felony murder rule, and look forward to seeing them back in court soon. 

RANDOM THOUGHTS ON TODAY’S PROCEEDINGS As for the three who have already pled to robbery in concert for 11 years each, we expect those defendants to file appeals in light of the new felony murder rule, and look forward to seeing them back in court soon. And these guys, Zachary “Zach” Wuester, Said “Richie”  Mohamed and Gary “Giggles” Fitzgerald, who are waiting to testify against the others as part of their plea deals will be fervently praying every night as they kneel by their bunks, “Please, God, help ‘Cricket’ [Gary Blank] see the wisdom of taking this deal …so we don’t have to take the stand and make snitches of ourselves… amen.” It is widely felt among the defense lawyers that the wrong guys were given the best deals in this case and that the way it was handled led to the resignation of Mendocino County Sheriff’s deputy, Matt Croskey.  

P.S. Tom Hine, P.I. for Al Kubanis (Gary Blank's lawyer), and Ukiah Daily Journal columnist complaining just this Sunday, in print, about the “slobification” of Ukiah was the worst-dressed personage in the courtroom — old faded Levis and "stressed" jean-jacket, work boots and a plaid shirt, hadn't had a haircut in over a year — everyone else, even the investigators for the other lawyers were all formally attired, all but Mr. Hine and several of those in attendance made a point of mentioning it to him in no uncertain terms!

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