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Hail Mary — Courtroom Stadium

CAUTION: People who thought (or hoped) California State Senate Bill 1421 and Assembly Bill 748 would allow defense lawyers to have a field-day with police officers’ personal records may despair reading this report. We state at the outset, all you cop haters (and you know who you are) proceed at the risk of emotional peril. 

Three out-of-town lawyers, representing the home invasion gang from Indiana that ripped off 20 pounds of processed bud from the Slagel home in Brooktrails on October 27, 2017 (see Sheriff’s press release at the foot of this account for details, along with the January 2, 2018 plea bargain of defendant Michael Taylor for enhanced background perspective), were in court with two of the defendants, Diontae Wright and Christopher Bradford, last week to argue a Pitchess motion under the new law to get into the files of all eight law enforcement personnel involved, calling them all — both the sheriff’s deputies and the Willits police officers — “racists.” 

Bradford, Taylor, Wright

The defense: “The eight officers were all lying, falsifying their reports and coaching the witnesses, one of whom [Justin Slagel] made threats against our African American clients and referred to one of our clients as an N-word, and Sergeant Cromer excluded it from his report — he didn’t expect that word to come out when he turned the recorder on…” 

Judge John Behnke said, “Your client used that word, too, counsel.” 

“That’s different, your honor. Then Mr. Slagel, Justin Slagel used the N-word when he was about to make an identification of our client and our client was being taken out of the car. And Deputy Woida didn’t include that in his report. He wanted to conceal Justin Slagel’s use of the N-word.”

“Justin Slagel is the one who jumped out of the closet and gave chase to the armed men?” (The suspects had forced everyone into a closet then fled the scene with 20 pounds of processed weed.) 

“That’s right, your honor. And as to the identification of Diontae Wright, Deputy Woida tried to conceal the witness’s lack of credibility and charge our client with this crime without a lawyer present. Diontae Wright wanted to stop the interview and get a lawyer, but they kept talking.” 

“Did he [Mr. Wright] say anything of note?” 

“I don’t know, your honor. But instead of stopping right there, Deputy Lima could have stopped the recording and…” 

“He [Lima] was recording it?” 

“Yes, your honor. But he might not have been. And when Sergeant Porter took Mr. Wright out of the car, if you listen carefully, there’s a lot of shuffling that suggests Sgt. Porter engaged in excessive force in pulling him [Wright] out of the car so Mr. Slagel could identify him. And then Justin Slagel says, ‘They were up here before with my mom,’ and then the recording stops. And when it starts again the story is completely changed, so the deputies coached him while the recorder was off. I believe they were involved in illegal activity [growing marijuana for sale] but law enforcement only wanted to bolster the testimony of the Slagels and minimize their culpability.” 

“Did you read the transcript where it says, ‘We don’t give a fuck about the marijuana, we’re here for the robbery,’ counsel?” 

“Yes, your honor, but one possible scenario contends that they [law enforcement] didn’t want that [the marijuana] to come up. Also, our plausible scenario is that they [the Willits Police Department who pursued the defendants in a high-speed chase] intended to hit them with the car, and they were going so fast they slammed into the fence. There was damage done to the suspect’s vehicle, and it looks as though it had been slammed into by Officer Labbatts. Curtis Labbatts wrote he got slammed into by the Jeep but our contention is that he ran into the Jeep. Now, with respect to Mr. Bradford…” 

“Didn’t he refuse to speak to the officers?” 

“Your honor, our plausible scenario is Officer Bennett engaged in excessive force to detain him [Bradford] and so we want his [Bennett’s records] also.” 

“What would that show, counsel?” 

“Your honor, we would just like his personnel records because he is going to be testifying in this case and he at one point said that our client [Bradford] was a light-skinned Afro-American male on foot.” 

“I didn’t see anything like misconduct in that, counsel. Ms. Blanton?” 

Assistant County Counsel Brina Blanton for the Sheriff’s deputies rose to speak. “Your honor, Defense’s motion is nothing more than a fishing expedition. Counsel is requesting the files on five deputies, saying they lied because some of the things said in the recording are not in the reports, but it’s not a lie to not have every single statement repeated in a report. So the idea that the deputies are concealing something doesn’t make sense. Counsel alleges that Sergeant Cromer lied because he didn’t include every single word [the N-word] in his report, but the allegation is not plausible considering the supporting documents provided [transcripts of the recordings]. Leaving out a word is not dishonesty, so there is no misconduct. And the scenarios are not specific enough for the standards of the Pinchess motion.”

As to the Miranda rights of Mr. Wright being violated, Ms. Blanton said, “No substantive questions were asked [after Wright decided to lawyer-up], they [the deputies] were just making sure he wanted an attorney present before concluding the interview.” (One thinks of the two detectives at the Park Avenue penthouse in Bonfire of the Vanities, asking again, just making sure, if the rich man really wanted his lawyer, and what he had to be afraid of if he was innocent.) 

Judge Behnke agreed. “Mr. Wright was essentially trying to get the deputies to show their hand, as to what evidence they had against him, and they knew it was all being recorded so I don’t see that as a Miranda violation. As to Deputy Burns trying to conceal it was about the marijuana, I don’t see that. They were all pussy-footing around the marijuana; the victims were pussy-footing around it and it was obvious it was a marijuana robbery.” 

Ms. Blanton said, “I have a declaration from the Undersheriff [Matthew Kendall] regarding a recent change in the law dealing with how personal records can be exposed, Senate Bill 1421; the Undersheriff has reviewed the files of the five deputies and found no evidence of previous misconduct.” 

Blanton then read off a list of the things necessary for the Senate Bill 1421 and Assembly Bill 748 to have any effect. In essence, these points were “fairly narrow and limited” to 1. Involving an officer discharging a firearm at a person; 2. Use of force resulting in great bodily injury or death; 3. Sexual assault of a member of the public; 4. Sustained findings of dishonesty. 

Behnke said, “So even if I don’t deny the Pinchess Motion outright, the dishonesty doesn’t exist. [So the new law won’t apply]. Justin Slagel said at one point that the defendants had been up at the house once before with his mother [Sally Ann Gurule], that ‘she let these people in and now she’s paying the price for it’…” 

Ms. Blanton said, “There’s no attempt to conceal what was said, the recording ends and comes back on and I don’t think there’s any misconduct and there’s been no showing of misconduct by defense.” 

Behnke: “There’s over 50 pages of transcript submitted in Exhibit H which was clearly written after all the suspects were in custody. And Justin Slagel briefly stated that he’d seen one of the suspects before — and he’s [Justin is] insinuating that Sally and Josh let one of the suspects into the house before, and I understand that everything said cannot be included in the summary.” 

The Attorney for the Willits PD, Jim Lane, said, “All of Mr. Rice’s contention is that all the officers are racists, and that’s not plausible. To say that Officer Labbatts swerved into the Jeep and then lied about it — why would he lie about that? To avoid some kind of liability? He would have been justified in ramming the vehicle after a high-speed chase. So the idea that he lied to avoid liability is not plausible. Then there’s the two suspects who fled on foot and were chased by Officer D’Orazio who defense says he tried to run over them, but that’s not plausible, just because the patrol car slid on some loose gravel; that’s just a made-up story. And as to alleging that Officer Bennett falsified his report by omitting that he said they were looking for a light-skinned Afro-American male, just doesn’t seem credible. In fact, all three scenarios lack good cause. In the interview with Mr. Taylor he [Taylor] admits several significant factors. That they all arrived from Indiana in the Jeep driven by Diontae Wright, and that Michael Taylor, armed with a shotgun, told the woman to lie on the ground, none of these allegations of misconduct stand up.” 

Defense counsel said, “It doesn’t have to be credible, your honor, just believable, and we have alleged a scenario in each of these cases that are not contradicted by discovery. We’re alleging that Sergeant Porter struck and dragged Diontae Wright out of the patrol vehicle so Justin Slagel could identify him, and that’s when he said he’d seen him before.” 

Judge Behnke remarked, “These home invasions are rarely instances where people just randomly show up at a residence looking for marijuana to steal.” 

“Your honor, it could have happened in the plausible scenario we are submitting.” 

Behnke: “When you start out on a Pinchess motion there’s usually some indication of the misconduct alleged. Now, Mr. Wright’s defense is that he wasn’t even there and had nothing to do with any of it. But Mr. Taylor said he was Wright’s roommate and that they went there [to the Slagels] together, which is a plausible factual scenario when read in the light of all the relevant documents. And you are right, counsel, that it is not a very high bar you have to meet – but when you take all eight officers and allege they all lied because they are all racists…? Well, it’s hard to lend credence to that. Mr. Wright says he wasn’t there but his wallet was in the glovebox of the Jeep. Officer Labbatts says the Jeep was driving erratically and rammed his vehicle, but it was a high-speed chase after an armed robbery and it is not surprising that the vehicles made contact. Officer D’Orazio skidded into a fence, and that’s not surprising either that this would happen, given the circumstances. The plausible scenario that D’Orazio tried to kill these people – I don’t see that. The Officer Bennett thing about a light-skinned Afro-American male, I don’t see that as misconduct. I don’t see where the officers falsified anything, so the motion as to the Willits officers is denied.” 

As to the Sheriff’s deputies, “Sgt. Cromer left out a slur used by Justin Slagel, the N-word, not by Sgt. Cromer. As to whether I should impart some motive to conceal racism on behalf of Justin Slagel, I don’t see that as misconduct in light of whether he recorded it in the interview and left it out of the report. He can’t be expected to put everything in a written report. And Justin, as I recall, has a smart mouth and made a racist comment in court. I told him at the time I didn’t like it and didn’t want to hear it again, but I don’t see how that reflects on Sgt. Cromer. I find no plausible scenario on the part of Deputy Woida, nor to the idea that Sgt. Porter struck Mr. Wright. Justin Slagel, given the hot-headed way he testified in court, it’s not surprising he’d jump to conclusions [and say otherwise], so the Pitchess motion is denied.” 

The Police Report

“On October 27th at 1:24 AM, Mendocino County Sheriff's Deputies were summoned to a residence in the 23600 block of Primrose Drive (Brooktrails) Willits, for a report of an armed robbery. The victims — Sally Ann Gurule, 64, of Willits, Van Slagle, 39 of Willits, and Justin Slagle, 44 of Willits — reported that three African American male adults, driving a "Burnt Orange" Jeep SUV had robbed them at gunpoint, forced them at gunpoint into a closet, and stole marijuana from them. As Deputies were responding, they passed a similar vehicle as it was coming onto Sherwood Road traveling towards the City of Willits. Police officers from the Willits Police Department located the vehicle, and attempted to stop it. The vehicle fled and a vehicle pursuit ensued. Several suspects exited and fled from the vehicle on Center Valley Road near Bray Road, and the vehicle continued on to where it stopped in the area of South Lenore and Creekside Court in Willits, where the two additional suspects fled on foot. One suspect, Diontae Wright, 24, of Split Rock, Indiana, was apprehended in the area at the end of the pursuit, hiding in a backyard shortly after the pursuit by Willits Police Officers and Mendocino County Sheriff's Deputies. A second suspect, Michael Taylor also of Split Rock, was apprehended in the 1000 block of Center Valley Road by a Willits Police Officer. The vehicle was searched and one firearm, as well as evidence of another firearm was located, along with approximately 20 pounds of bud marijuana. While the investigation was ongoing, a Willits Police officer located a third suspect near Walker Road on Highway 101. This suspect provided a false name, and was ultimately identified as 24 year old Christopher Bradford of Indianapolis, Indiana. After further investigation, all three suspects were arrested and booked in the Mendocino County Jail. All three were charged with kidnapping, robbery, and being armed with a firearm while committing a felony. Bradford was found to have a felony warrant from Indiana for possessing a stolen firearm. The Indiana arrest warrant identified Bradford as "Armed and Dangerous." Their bail is set at $275,000. A fourth suspect, Hugo Mercado, was identified as being involved, and he has yet to be located. Mendocino County Sheriff's Detectives will be seeking an arrest warrant for Mercado. Any persons with knowledge of this case, are asked to contact the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office Communications Center at 707-463-4086 or call the Tip Line at 707-234-2100.”

(Sheriff’s Press Release, October 28, 2017)

[Ed note: There is no record of Hugo Mercado being arrested in Mendocino County.]

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