When you want to find out about what’s going on at the jail, go to the Sheriff. He’ll gladly give you a tour. But, as my friend Franz says, “after the Den Mothers and Cub Scouts leave, the lace curtains come down.”
But people tell me things. Some of these people are inmates, some work in or around the place.
So when I heard about a big fight at the jail, I went to my sources.
“What’s this noise about Michael Taylor getting thumped on at the jail?” I asked a Corrections Deputy.
“It’s very simple,” I was told. “The jail is like high school. Certain groups sit at certain tables for meals. And Michael Taylor came over to one of these tables and tried to hit a guy with his tray. Billy likes to start things.”
One inmate who's been in more lately than he's been out, the redoubtable Captain Fathom, corroborated this estimation of Michael Taylor.
“He thinks he’s Billy The Kid,” the Captain said.
Eventually, the six guys at the table got even with Taylor. They caught him out of his cell when no one was around and put the hurt on him.
These things happen in jail, but they're still considered crimes, and they go to court. Each defendant gets a lawyer, the jail staff get the third degree like they're the criminals, each lawyer gets paid, and the only people unhappy are the taxpayers who foot the bill.
Deputy DA Rayburn Killion was prosecuting the six men who attacked Michael Taylor at the Mendocino County Jail. Killion had a witness on the stand, Corrections Deputy (Officer) Eric Romandia. CO Romandia had been working in a control booth at the time of the attack. He said he'd “accidentally” opened the door to Taylor’s cell at the same time he let the six men into the area known as A Module, or A-Mod.
Killion asked Romandia, “What was the significance of the lime-green jumpsuit Michael Taylor wore?”
One of the six defense lawyers objected to the relevance of this question, but Judge John Behnke overruled the objection.
Killion added, “Is it a policy reason?”
“Yes,” Romandia said. “The color of the jumpsuit means the individual has a violent history at the jail — towards staff, other inmates, or a violent criminal history. The reason for the color is to keep such individuals segregated.”
“After you saw the fight, what did you do?”
“I announced the incident to the other Correctional Deputies on duty.”
“I opened the control door to the hallway to allow the other officers entry into the module.”
At this juncture, Killion wanted to show a surveillance video. Some of the defense lawyers (each defendant had one, each paid out of the Public Defender's budget) objected, but Judge Behnke overruled them.
A view of the “housing unit” (euphemism for cellblock) appeared on the screen. There were a half-dozen round tables with six stools each, everything bolted to the concrete floor. Behind the tables were two tiers of cells. A flight of stairs went up to the second tier. A few of the doors on the bottom tier were open. None of the upstairs doors were open.
One door, 154, Michael Taylor’s cell, was open.
As the video began, another door opened and a handful of men in orange T-shirts filed in. Another man came out of his cell in an orange T-shirt. Michael Taylor came out of his cell, and suddenly all the orange T-shirts were moving in what seemed like fast-forward speed towards Taylor, converging on him. A furious mêlée ensued, then the orange figures scurried into their cells, leaving Taylor sprawled on the floor under the stairs. A moment later the room filled with Correctional Deputies.
It all happened so fast, it took a couple of viewings to tell what had happened.
Killion wanted to fast-forward the video to a certain point, but Judge Behnke, ever ready with a witticism, elicited chuckles by suggesting that the fast-forward wasn’t necessary — if the video went any faster it would become a blur, the judge said. Killion said to CO-witness Romandia, “At some point, you looked out the window [of the control booth] and saw several people kicking and punching another person. Are inmates typically taken out for showers at that time?”
“Yes,” Romandia answered.
The time on the video was 9:55pm, October 29th, 2010. The video only records movement, Romandia said. A viewer would have to be pretty attentive to see the door to Taylor’s cell open, a small movement in the dark corner of a big picture. Taylor’s cell was under the stairs, somewhat in shadow.
Killion: “Did you see more on the video than you saw that night?”
Romandia: “There’s more on the video than I actually saw. I only saw the individuals surrounding Michael Taylor on the floor under the stairs. They were going to the showers; I was told to let them in.”
Killion: “Who told you to let them in?”
Romandia: “Deputy Johnson told me.”
Killion: “How did you let them in?”
Romandia: “A button on the control board.”
Killion: “Is there a button for every door?”
Killion: “Where were they coming in from?”
Romandia: “They came in from the yard door. They were in the yard. The nurse was passing out meds.”
Killion: “Press any other buttons?”
Romandia: “Uhh… no.”
Killion: “Did you know the door to cell number 154 was open.”
Romandia: “Uhh… no. Not at the time.”
Killion: “Do you know how Michael Taylor got out of that cell?”
Romandia: “I had to review how he got out later.”
Killion: “After your review, what did you find out?”
Romandia: “I, uh, that I accidentally opened his door.”
One of the older defense lawyers, Al Kubanis, representing Robert N. Myers, one of the alleged assailants, wanted clarification.
Kubanis said, “Mr. Taylor was standing inside the cell?”
Romandia: “He was partially outside the door looking out.”
Kubanis: “And this was at 9:56 and 28 seconds?”
Kubanis: “And you used a radio to notify the other Correction Deputies of this altercation?”
Kubanis: “How long did it take?”
Romandia: “Just a few seconds.”
Kubanis: “And each of the deputies has his own radio?”
Romandia: “Yes, that’s correct. Each one is assigned his own radio.”
Kubanis: “Do you have any knowledge where they were?”
Romandia: “Yes…” The deputy checked his report and said, “Some of them were at the main jail.”
Kubanis: “Can you estimate how much time elapsed between the call and the time they arrived?”
Romandia: “About 30 seconds. I had to open the doors to let them in. There were five of them, six counting the shift supervisor, Sergeant McCutcheon.”
Kubanis: “The cell Mr. Taylor was in… Are you familiar with the mechanism?”
Kubanis: “Is it possible for an inmate to close the door and remain inside?”
Kubanis: “It appears that Mr. Taylor did not do that, and if anything was said, you couldn’t hear it, correct?”
Romandia: “Yes, that’s correct.”
Mr. Taylor, it seems, is one of these warrior guys. He could have withdrawn into his cell but...
Cory J. Scarioni’s lawyer, Phillip DeJong, had Romandia describe the route the deputies had to take to respond to the incident. The explanation was complex, the route circuitous, the doors they had to get through numerous. Then, after the deputies arrived at the door to where the attack on Taylor had occurred, protocol demanded they wait for their shift supervisor before entering “a hostile environment.”
DeJong: “If an inmate is on the shower log, can the inmate stay in his cell?”
DeJong: “So what happens? You just open the door?”
Romandia: “Generally, we ask if they would like to come out for shower time.”
DeJong: “How are you advised which door to open?”
Romandia: “Usually by another deputy, in this case Deputy Johnson. And he could operate the lock by himself with a key.”
DeJong: “Did you open Mr. Scarioni’s door or did Deputy Johnson?”
Romandia: “I don’t recall whether I did or he did himself.”
DeJong: So you don’t have a recollection whether you opened any of these doors?”
Romandia: “Correct. They’d already been out from their shower time for some time.”
DeJong: “How is it you know that Mr. Scarioni is part of that group?”
“I can see here on the video that his door is open, number 152, right here.” Romandia pointed to the cell door on the video screen.
“So the basis of your assertion that Mr. Scarioni is part of this group is that his cell door is open. Are you currently still employed at the jail?”
“Yes, I’m on my days off. I go to work tonight.”
“Nothing further,” DeJong said.
Jan Cole-Wilson spoke up for her client, Alejandro Ruvalcaba.
She said, “So when your attention was first drawn to the incident on the floor, you were not able to identify who was swinging and kicking?”
Cole-Wilson: “So you’re saying that from this video you can tell which doors are open and which are closed?”
Ms. Cole-Wilson went to the video screen and asked, “Number 153 is closed?”
Cole-Wilson: “Whose cell is that?”
Romandia: “An individual named Short.”
Cole-Wilson used a pointer to indicate a cell, “Is this Mr. Raya and Mr. Ruvalcaba’s cell?”
Cole-Wilson: “So we’ve established that 151 and 152 were open. I have nothing further.”
Donald Lipmanson spoke up for his client, Ricky Lee Renick:
“Do you have a specific recollection of Mr. Renick being housed in cell number 151?”
Romandia: “Well, he’s been in that unit for over a month.”
Lipmanson wanted the witness to draw a diagram of the cellblock, but it was noon and Judge Behnke called a recess.
A diagram of the cellblock. This thing was all the way into farce.
After lunch, Lipmanson asked Romandia, “So you can’t identify who was swinging their arms, or who was doing the kicking?”
“No. That’s correct.”
Patricia Littlefield, representing Ryan A. Raya, said, “Do you use a pencil, on the buttons, when you open the doors, Deputy Romandia?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“And you must have pushed two buttons. Do you remember which one you pressed first?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Does pressing the button open the door all the way?”
“So a person has to make an effort to push the door all the way?”
“As to the nurse passing out the meds – did you see her?”
“Do you know which cells she went to?”
“No. She would have come prior to the incident.”
“You said you were familiar with the people before. Did you know them personally?”
“I knew them by name.”
“Are the buttons labeled?”
“Thank you, I have nothing further.”
The lawyer for Robert Westerfeld, whose name I didn’t get, took his turn. “Were you the first to see the video of the incident?”
“And you didn’t see how the incident began.”
“So you can’t say whether the beginning of the video has been edited, can you?”
“You testified about an individual hitting Mr. Taylor. Do you recall how many times, once or twice, which hand, how much force?”
“Well, other than once with one fist and another with the other fist, no.”
“And about the kicking. Do you recall which foot?”
“The number of times kicked?”
“Recall the amount of force?”
“No, I don’t.”
“No further questions.”
The judge asked Deputy DA Killion if he wanted to re-direct some more questions to the witness. He did not.
Al Kubanis, the first of the defense lawyers to go at the witness, however, had thought of more to ask but the judge limited these questions saying, “When there’s no re-direct by the prosecutor, I’m not going to let you re-open the examination of the witness, counsel.”
Mr. Kubanis abandoned his inquiry, but Ms. Littlefield had something more, and it was along the lines of her previous questions.
She said, “Mr. Taylor wasn’t pulled out or dragged out, was he?”
“Yes,” Romandia said. Romandia had been on the stand quite a while. He meant that Ms. Littlefield's statement was correct.
“And from the video, you know that when he slid out he knew these people were in the room.”
“Yes,” Romandia agreed. He seemed to be annoyed at the word “slid.”
“Does his door have a window?”
“So he could have seen they were out there?”
“So he kinda slid out the door and slipped to the floor…?”
“I’d have to say… I’d have to look at the video again.”
Romandia seemed to be agreeing with the lawyer's meaning but not her stocking-footed verbs.
The senior staff at the jail would already have grilled him on the big fight, although six on one is normally considered an attack, not mutual combat. I wondered if Taylor had been able to get in a few counter-blows on the boys swarming him.
Romandia was tired and the lawyers, well the lawyers were trying to pick him apart, as if he'd been out there whomping on Taylor.
Ms. Littlefield said, “You don’t know what part of this incident Deputy Johnson saw because… I think you said, he’d come in for a drink of water and had his back to the camera…”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
Killion called his next witness, the night nurse at the jail, Cheri Alcorn. Ms. Alcorn had treated Mike Taylor, and said he had swelling and a laceration of the right eye, that he was bleeding and had lumps on his skull. Small lumps, she added by way of qualification. The defendants were big guys for the most part, but jail shoes are more like house slippers than shoes, old sneakers that can't become weapons.
“What did you do?” Killion asked the nurse.
“I stopped the bleeding, determined that he needed sutures and had him transported to the emergency room — after I finished passing out meds.” (That would be the emergency room at Adventist Hospital.)
Lipmanson asked the nurse, “Did Taylor tell you he welcomed the attack?”
The nurse regarded Lipmanson archly. Was this some kind of joke?
“No,” she finally said curtly.
Mr. Lipmanson got his law degree at taxpayer expense after a term in our jail for pot growing. He successfully sued the County for denying him work release so that he could continue his profession as a “stained glass” artist.
Only in Mendo.
The People then called an expert: Deputy Kevin Spears, to authenticate the video.
At this point, deputy public defender Bert Schlosser walked in the courtroom and sat down. I turned to him and whispered, “Where’s Mr. Taylor, your client?” It would have been interesting to hear from Mr. Taylor.
“In the state pen,” Schlosser said.
“Subject to recall,” Killion said of Deputy Spears when the judge asked if he could step down. Apparently Spears had authenticated the video while I was talking with Mr. Schlosser.
The People called another expert: Deputy Zohar Zaied, the jail’s gang classification officer.
I whispered to Schlosser: “Ten to one he’s a retired military lifer, working on a second pension?”
Schlosser wouldn’t take the bet; he just grinned and nodded.
Deputy Zaied had a lot to say, but every word he spoke brought an objection from the defense lawyers.
Gang classification is mostly based on hearsay and speculation. Is a gang a criminal enterprise or merely an association of neighborhood mopes.
In the video of this incident all one notices is the blaze of orange T-shirts spilling through the door, bouncing like marbles in that stop-and-start, frame-by-frame footage of a surveillance camera initiated by a motion detector. The casual viewer doesn’t notice that the inmates are also wearing striped trousers.
Lipmanson thought the figures in the video were all wearing orange. Deputy Zaied pointed out to him that if he looked closely, he would see they were wearing stripped pants, which identified them as gang members.
“Objection, your honor, lack of foundation, speculation, and hearsay.”
“We join in the objection to this foundationless hearsay speculation,” the other lawyers sang in unison.
Only gang classification experts can make Politically Incorrect observations about a person’s looks. Only they can put you in striped trousers and say that makes you a gangster. Hell, the Deputy DA himself could pass for a White Pride gang-banger.
Judge Behnke reserved his ruling. There would be the possibility, a strong one, that everything Zaied said would be struck from the record, but in the meantime Zaied could describe his opinions on the Norteños, Sueños, Skin Heads, White Pride, Hell’s Angles, Charlie’s Angles, Gay Pride, Mendolib, Cone Heads, Los Suertos del Norte, and so on.
Killion tilted his freshly shaved dome to in the glare of the ceiling lights, sneered pleasantly at the witness and asked about Michael Taylor’s gang status.
“He had been classified a Norteño” –
“ObJECtion! Your Honor!”
“I’ll allow him to testify,” the judge said. “But I’m reserving the relevance issue.”
Killion continued, “Do you know the significance of a lime-green jumpsuit?”
“It’s a Level Five, Max Three inmate,” the dour Deputy Zaied said blandly, like the answer was obvious and anyway academic.
It was anything but academic. The “victim," despite his Anglo name, identifies as a Mexican-American. His assailants were Native Americans.
“Do you recall how Michael Taylor was classified?”
Zaied said, “Yes, he was—”
Mr. Schlosser snorted and left. Defense attorney Eric Rennert took his place. He whispered to me: “I’m the union rep for the Public Defender’s Office. We’re going on strike, maybe next week. I have 25 letters signed by local defense attorneys, saying they won’t cross our picket lines.”
We had already heard something like that from Matt Finnegan who's now the lawyer's union's lawyer.
“You’re going to strike?!”
“If we have to."
Judge Behnke was mulling over the objections. He decided that the testimony of Deputy Zaied was not convincing that Taylor was a gang member. The judge just wanted to hear how the jail classified people.
Zaied spent about an hour on the stand classifying all the defendants. Lipmanson finally brought the gang expert to the point.
“You said Mr. Taylor was in lime-green because he had a violent history at the jail?”
“Yes,” Zaied agreed.
“You don’t recall the specifics of any of these incidents? Were there some fights?”
“Well, I know that one was gang-related.”
“And do you know if Mr. Taylor inflicted any injuries in the incident?”
“I don’t recall.”
“Well, do you recall if there were any weapons involved?”
“Uh, well… a dinner tray.”
“And do you recall if Mr. Taylor wielded that dinner tray, Deputy Zaied?”
The deputy couldn’t remember, and nobody seemed to care if he had any more to say. The judge told Zaied he could step down.
The witness list was long and went into the next day; all this for a fight in which nobody was seriously injured.
The defense attorneys were getting tired of the so-called experts. They filed a series of motions to exclude the witnesses — more Corrections Deputies, some jailhouse snitches, and who knows who all.