If your name is Jim Chellberg and the FBI pounds on your door at 7 am, here’s what you can look forward to for the rest of the day. And the next two years. And, likely as not, the rest of your life.
The FBI came pounding on Mr. Chellberg’s door in Noyo Harbor, Fort Bragg, at 7 in the morning on Wednesday, April 18th, 2002. The Chellbergs own the Cleone Gardens north of Fort Bragg. They work hard at running the attractive little motel. They were taking their first day off in weeks when the government came calling.
The FBI had come to believe that Mr. Chellberg was an internet pirate. He wasn’t and he isn’t, but he’s down in the big government book of bad guys all the same.
The Fort Bragg Advocate printed the government’s press release on Mr. Chellberg’s arrest on its front page.
Mrs. Chellberg was not arrested, but the Chellbergs local reputation was not enhanced by the publicity.
The government press release said an undercover operation seeking “to identify dealers in counterfeit software” had netted James Chellberg, 43, of Fort Bragg, and twenty-six other people, most of them residents of the Bay Area, as a result of “Operation Cyberstorm.”
The arrested persons were alleged to have sold counterfeit software to an undercover agent. The indictments said that each of the defendants had also “engaged in criminal copyright infringement.”
“When they beat on my door, I only had time to get my pants on,” Jim Chellberg recalls. “I had no underwear on, no shirt on, and boom here they were holding a big mug-shot of me. ‘You’re under arrest! Turn around!’ I just started laughing at them. I thought it was a joke at first. My wife was so embarrassed.”
Two female FBI agents and two male G-men, reinforced by officers from the Fort Bragg City Police Department and deputies from the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department, led the raid on the Chellbergs.
Mr. Chellberg was handcuffed behind his back and stuffed into the back seat of an FBI sedan, and away he went, all the way to San Jose. Four agents in two cars. The Fort Bragg cops and the Mendocino County deputies went back to sleep, figuratively speaking.
“The cuffs were so damn tight they cut into my arm. I’m almost 300 pounds. I’ve never been so humiliated or treated so much like crap in my life. I’d never been arrested or in trouble before. They wouldn’t give me anything to eat for 33 hours. I’m a Type II diabetic. They wouldn’t give me my pills for 33 hours. I was saying to the nurse in the jail, ‘Ma’am, I gotta have these pills. I’m not feeling good.’ She says, ‘Shut up and sit down.’ And she tested my blood and it was at 450 and she wouldn’t give me my pills.”
Mr. Chellberg was held all day and all night in the federal holding facility in San Jose. His coed cellmates were mostly Asian. The newspapers said he was one of 27 people who made up “an international software piracy ring that has cost Microsoft $75 million in lost sales.” The FBI called the arrests “Operation Cyberstorm.”
“They took me to the Santa Clara County Jail for two days after the federal place. I got out on Friday. They waited for the Greyhound bus to leave because they knew I had to ride it to get back north. They waited for it to leave and then they cut me loose without a dime to my name!”
The feds think of everything.
“What happened? I was on Yahoo Option. It’s like EBay. A guy had a bunch of CDs on Yahoo Option. I emailed him and asked if he wanted to trade. He said, ‘Sure.’ We were trading games for programs. My programs. We’re trading back and forth and he says, ‘Hey, I want to get 20 copies of this and 30 copies of that and give a bunch of them to my friends. I said, ‘OK.’ He said, ‘Figure out what it costs to do a copy.’ I said, ‘By the time I get a CD, a label and a case, plus the cost of my time to do it all, I figured it was worth $10 a piece. I told him a bunch of stuff and the next thing I know it’s FBI. I’m under arrest.”
“They said I was running three warehouses down in the city that were making counterfeit CDs; that I had a $40,000 hologram machine and I was making counterfeit CDs and Microsoft couldn’t tell the difference between their CDs and the CDs I was making of my own stuff. When they arrested me, this one lady agent kept saying, ‘Where’s your off-shore bank account number? We need it.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I was laughing at her. I thought it was funny. She didn’t say another word. When we got to Santa Rosa — they hauled me from Fort Bragg to San Jose — we get to Santa Rosa and she says, ‘James, you really need to be serious with me. You need to give me your off-shore accounts.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She says, ‘We know for a fact you gave your wife a million bucks to buy a motel. We also know you gave her brother a million bucks. We know for a fact you’ve got $2 million offshore’.”
“I said, ‘Lady, Number One, you don’t know me. I don’t know you. Number Two, I wouldn’t be driving a rusty piece of shit Camaro. I wouldn’t buy a motel, and I’d have 50 beautiful women doing fun things to me in the backseat of your car.’ And she totally flipped on me and I was ordered to remain silent, so I never said another damn thing all the way to San Jose.”
The insulted and now silent federales stopped in Santa Rosa for a bathroom break before resuming the trip south to San Jose.
“I spent two days in jail in San Jose. My wife had to come all the way down from Fort Bragg to bail me out. My bail was $100,000. The prosecutor looked at my wife and said, ‘We know he gave you a million bucks, and my wife says, ‘Bullshit!’ That property’s been in my family since the 50s. Those guys didn’t do their homework. They were trying to say I was part of this organization, this conspiracy. The next thing you know I get home and the Advocate News writes this big ass story that says I’m getting 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. It really pissed me off because I didn’t do anything.
“I’ve been jacked around for two years even though the prosecutor knew I had nothing to do with it. He finally just threw it out of court. I wasn’t fined, and I didn’t go to federal prison because I did nothing wrong. Here I am taking pictures with my digital camera of the ocean and redwood trees and putting it all on my label under my own name. You can totally tell it’s a copied CD. It didn’t look original. I didn’t try to make it look original. Other people were making Counterfeit Windows 98, Windows XP. I wasn’t. I was doing ocean vistas and my own things.
“I had to sign these papers saying I wouldn’t sue the FBI or they wouldn’t drop their non-case against me. I just wanted it to be over. I’m still very pissed me off about the way they treated me and the way the Advocate News wrote the story like I’m some kind of ax-murderer. The feds bad-mouthed my wife and me both. We had just bought the business in Cleone, and here’s my wife on the front page of the local paper married to some damn criminal. I’d never been arrested in my life. And I’d never been so humiliated and treated like shit in my life before this happened.
“They took my computer. They told me they were taking it when they took me. They wouldn’t tell my wife what I was charged with. Then they came back and said they wanted my computer because ‘We know you’re doing bookkeeping on your computer.’ I have a $3200 game computer. All I did was play games on it. They’ve had it this whole time. They told me they’d give it right back. By the time they checked me into the federal hole in San Jose they said I was coming home that night, that they’d put me on a bus and I’d be out of there. Total bullshit. They totally lied to me. I let them take my computer voluntarily because I had nothing to hide. It’s all totally ridiculous. I don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t do drugs. I don’t do anything and here’s this so-called task force at my door.
“They took my driver’s license, my passport. Took all kinds of stuff from me. I needed identification to go into the federal building. They made me check into this pre-trial services crap for a year and a half. I had to drive from Fort Bragg to Santa Rosa every month and call in every week. For what? I didn’t do anything, but I have to go down there for them to look at me and say, ‘OK, you can go now.’ They sit and hassle me because I don’t have any identification because the feds took it when they arrested me. But I’ve still got. eight other ID’s but they want my driver’s license. I said, ‘You guys have my driver’s license.’ They say, ‘We can’t let you in the building.’ I say, ‘Wait a minute. What is this? I just drove all the way from Fort Bragg.’ They say, ‘We don’t care.’ I say, ‘Well, I’m going up upstairs for my appointment or you’re going to bring that pre-trial services person down here because I’m not leaving.’ They say, ‘You can’t do that, sir.” I walked right in their building and they were all over me before the pre-trial services lady told them to let me come upstairs.
“Then they told me to go get a new driver’s license. If you live in Fort Bragg like I do you have to go to Willits and pay $35 for a driver’s license. But I got a Class I license, my medical’s expired, so it’s gonna cost me another $100 to go to the doctor to get cleared for a new license, so I gotta pay $135 for a driver’s license when they got my damn driver’s license and it’s good until 2005! I refused to get a new one.
“I was treated like I was a murderer. When they first brought us into the cage in the federal prison in San Jose there were three cells, 20x13 with a little 4-foot cement wall with a toilet in there. They locked women in with the men in all three cells. On the front side with the bars there were mirrors. And this one woman — there were 99 people there arrested in these three cells. One woman was pregnant who had to go to the bathroom. She had to do it in front of all the guys. All the men in the other cells were staring at her through the mirror. I totally felt sorry for her. And there was no ventilation so it just totally reeked! It was disgusting. That’s the federal holding cell. Toilets were all plugged. They don’t care.
“The government said they were gonna drop all the charges against me in June of last year. We drove all the way to San Jose to get charges dropped, get my computer back and so forth. That’s what my attorney told me to expect. But we get down there, we spend the night, cost us $200 to go down, my wife and me. We show up for court exactly as scheduled. But my attorney’s 15 minutes late for court and the judge threw us out and said, ‘You can come back another date if your attorney can’t show up on time.’ She was only 15 minutes late. She was in another court but the judge just jumps her. We left, and that’s the end of it and we’ve never been back since. It all lingered on for another year with nothing happening.
“I’ve got a paper saying they released me. I was never charged with anything. But if you type my name into the internet it pops up as “SOFTWARE PIRACY.”
I had to sign a paper saying I wouldn’t sue the FBI for the way I was treated. That’s the only way they’d drop their non-case against me.”
Mr. Chellberg estimates that his federal adventure cost the taxpayers “probably $100,000 or more. They gave me a public defender. They had to pay for that and the judge’s time and all the related costs.”
There hadn’t been that many FBI agents in Fort Bragg since the Fort Bragg fires, and that time twenty-plus federal cops somehow managed not to discover what the Fort Bragg Police Department already knew — that a Fort Bragg restaurateur and motel owner, helped along by a bank manager, an accountant, and a corpse robber formerly employed by the San Mateo County Coroner’s Office, all of them involved in capital accumulation via cocaine importation and sales, had torched the Piedmont Hotel, the Ten Mile Court and the old Fort Bragg Library, all in one grand pyro night. No one was ever arrested or indicted for the crime, a massive FBI investigation notwithstanding.
Which is the other side of life in Mendocino County, the non-whaling watching side. Who gets arrested and prosecuted and who doesn’t is entirely a matter of who’s connected to whom.
The Chellbergs were not connected.