The afternoon of February 12th, a Willits man named Tom Brown placed a rusty old rifle in the corner of his son-in-law’s trailer home only a few steps from the Brown family home on Willits’ Railroad Avenue. Five local cops appeared at the door of Tom and Monica Brown’s house at 7:30pm that night. They were looking for a young man named Jim Colyer, Mr. Brown’s son-in-law. The five policemen had come calling on behalf of the Mendocino County Probation Department to see if young Mr. Colyer was abiding by the strict conditions of the felony probation that governs the young man’s life these days. The visiting quintet, accompanied by a dope dog, can’t help but see the antique rifle in the tiny trailer and young Mr. Colyer is taken into custody for violating his probation.
Tom Brown, Jim’s father-in-law, is distraught. “It’s my fault,” Brown says. “I put the gun there because I wanted Jimmy to un-jam it. It’s not loaded, it doesn’t work and you’d have to drive to Diamond Jim’s in Ukiah to find bullets for it. I don’t want this kid to go to state prison for my dumb mistake.”
The probation search did not, according to the police report, turn up “any other contraband or prohibited items.”
But twenty-year-old Jim Colyer was looking at strike three, which, in his case, could mean he’d spend the next twenty-five years in state prison.
The confiscated gun? It’s described in the police report as a “poorly made bolt action rifle of approximately .30 caliber which appeared to be military in origin. There was no brand name or caliber stamp on the gun. I was unable to enter this weapon into NCIC due to insufficient information regarding this weapon.”
It seems clear that the gun was in no condition to be used as a “weapon.” But a person placed on felony probation cannot have a firearm in, on or anywhere near him. Jim Colyer was taken into custody. Officer Michael Davis described the event this way: “Colyer was arrested for 12021 PC and 1203.2 PC. (Possession of certain firearms by felons and narcotic addicts.) After being advised of his Miranda rights, Colyer acknowledged that the trailer was his primary residence and that he had known it was illegal for him to possess the weapon but figured it most unlikely that he would be caught. He told me, ‘You guys just came on the wrong night.’ Colyer stated that he had taken the gun from Tom Brown to clean it for him and planned to return it to Brown the following day. Tom Brown confirmed that it was his gun and that Colyer had offered to clean it for him.”
Tom Brown insists that the placement of the unlikely weapon in his son-in-law’s trailer was entirely his doing. “I didn’t see how anybody could call the thing a weapon,” Brown says.
How did twenty-year-old Jim Colyer, described by his probation officer as “a big handsome sweetheart of a kid” get his youthful self in so much trouble?
These are the unadorned facts minus the usual theorizing about rural poverty, socio-economic status as crime incubator, the collapse of the nuclear family, the prevalence of drugs and despair in towns like Willits, and all the rest of the extenuating circumstances.
Jim Colyer’s father departed Willits for a new life and a new family in Los Angeles when Jim was in his early teens. Jim didn’t get along with his stepfather and soon found himself bouncing around the homes of friends while he attended Willits High School. “He grew up big, strong and wild,” a cop who has known Jim most of his life describes Jim Colyer’s formative years.
Jim’s friends tended to be the kind of young people who often come to the attention of local law enforcement. Jim was described as “easily led” by adults who knew him when he was a teenager. His criminally-oriented companions made it easier for Jim to rack up an impressive juvenile jacket.
In the company of the same friends with whom he’d gotten in lots of trouble as a minor, but just turned 18 and officially an adult, Jim and his pals committed two armed robberies in a week’s time, one in Rohnert Park, the other in Willits at a service station.
“The armed robberies,” Jim’s probation officer John Weed says, “were pretty nasty. Old ladies on the ground. Camouflage outfits, ski masks. Sawed off shotguns,” but, Weed insists, “He’s not a bad guy. He’s a pretty nice kid.” Weed laughs at his own contradictory assessments of his problematical ward. “I wrote the report on the armed robbery because I wanted to get him on probation. It’s easy to just ship ‘em on into the state prison system. There are a lot worse people in Mendocino County for sure. And Jimmy’s a helluva likeable kid.”
But armed robbery is a serious crime, exactly the kind of thing that the politicians who wrote the Three Strikes laws think will stop what millions of Americans perceive as shore-to-shore mayhem.
The great gift of charm saved Jim Colyer from being packed off with his fellow ski masked bandits to state prison. Weed’s report convinced the court to give Jim a very big break. For the two armed robberies, although counted as strikes one and two, Jim’s sentence was suspended and he was put on felony probation. He’d spent some 9 months in the Mendocino County Jail. Probation officer Weed says, “I don’t want to say he got a break. State prison hanging over your head isn’t a break. But because he’s now violated the terms of the felony probation he received for the two armed robberies, it doesn’t look good for Jimmy.”
Weed isn’t taking any bets that Judge Combest won’t send Jim off to state prison. The DA handling the prosecution of the rusty rifle probation violation chose not to max Jim Colyer out as a felon in possession of a firearm but went for the lesser probation violation instead, which seems fair and proportionate but technically adds up to a third strike.
Probation officer Weed, a no-nonsense guy, and certainly no bleeding heart, says he argued strenuously for County Jail time and felony probation on the armed robbery conviction because Jim “was the least involved” of the mini-gang who committed the crimes in Rohnert Park and Willits. But Weed is clearly exasperated. He points out that the gun in the corner of Jim’s trailer was the third of three violations of the conditions of Jim’s felony probation. One of the other violations occurred when a Willits Police officer spotted Jim and his 17-year-old wife, Monica, sitting on the railroad tracks across the street from their home with a carton of beer. Another one apparently was Jim’s admission to Weed he’d occasionally smoked marijuana.
A hardline judge looks at the record and sees armed robberies, dope, booze, gun. Is this guy serious about staying out of jail?
Weed’s report to Combest’s court neatly summarizes the Colyer puzzle.
“Young Mr. Colyer presents a dilemma as far as a recommendation to the Court. I have been dealing with the defendant since his juvenile criminal proceedings, and his potential for a law abiding life always seemed bright. However, I am not totally convinced that Mr. Colyer is taking his terms and conditions of probation very seriously….. This latest offense is much more serious, especially considering that Mr. Colyer is on probation for two counts of armed robbery. Possession of a firearm, in and of itself, is very serious and this is further amplified when you consider the original crime…. In view of the foregoing information, it is respectfully recommended that James Loren Colyer be sentenced to the California Department of Corrections for the aggravated term of five years on Count Two, with Count Three to run concurrent.”
Less formally, Weed says of his perplexing probationer, “He’s got a couple of possessions of alcohol, he smoked some dope, he didn’t do his community service. Nothing that would trigger prison. But you can’t jump up and down and say he’s the all-time best probationer either. He’s not a monster gangster who’s got to be put away, but I don’t know where to go with him. In terms of the legal system, Jimmy’s a major felon. And now this — The whole idea of a felon in possession of a gun is not supposed to happen.”
And now that is has happened even though the gun possession is a very close call given its antique, inoperative condition, some powerful advocates have rolled out for a young man nobody wants to send off to state prison but a young man who sometimes seems casually inclined to get himself there.
Bill and Linda Meyerhoff own a stunningly beautiful and tranquil ranch deep in the hills between Willits and Laytonville. The Meyerhoffs are friends of Jim’s father-in-law, Tom Brown. Jim and his vivacious new bride, Monica, work for the Meyerhoffs. Jim handles a variety of the outdoor ranch tasks, Monica maintains the Meyerhoffs’ rambling quarters, which are often home to a couple of dozen younger Meyerhoffs. Neither of the Meyerhoffs are naive. They don’t tolerate slackers and they are fully aware of Jim Colyer’s legal history. Bill Meyerhoff says forthrightly, “These two kids are terrific. They work hard, they’re willing to learn and they’re pleasant to be around. I can’t believe this kid might go to state prison. It’s not in anybody’s interest to send him there.” Meyerhoff says he wouldn’t hesitate to testify on Jim’s behalf as a character witness. He also says he didn’t realize his ranch hand was facing state prison time until after the recent hearing on the antique gun violation before a decidedly unsympathetic Judge Combest.
Mr. and Mrs. Brown are also distressed at not being asked by Combest to explain the circumstances which caused Mr. Brown’s museum piece rifle to be in Jim’s trailer in plain view of anybody who stopped by.
Jim is fortunate in his defenders, good people like the Meyerhoffs, a father and mother in law who are so pleased with their daughter’s husband that they didn’t hesitate to put up their home to get Jim released from jail, and a probation officer who’s torn between what the law requires him to do and a kid he describes as “basically a sweetheart.”
It costs the taxpayers about $25,000 a year to keep a person in state prison. The person in question committed two serious crimes just after his 18th birthday. Since, he has been steadily employed and has avoided major trouble. He is married and will soon be a father. He and his wife have a job with kind but exacting employers who describe the young couple in superlatives. He has the wholehearted, unreserved support of his father and mother-in-law. The violation of the terms of his probation occurred because he carelessly allowed himself to be in possession of a gun which does not seem to qualify as a “weapon.” Toting up all the arguments, and conceding that the case of Jim Colyer presents a sentencing dilemma that might exasperate Solomon himself, if the kid is packed off to state prison it might drag him under for good. I think he should get one last chance.
Judge Combest will decide Jim Colyer’s fate on April 29th in the Willits Courthouse.