District Attorney Vroman saw the case against the three young co-defendants who were involved in the murder of Donald Perez as emphatically open and just as emphatically shut.
"Each one of them was charged and the implication was different in each one. We got an L-WOP (life without the possibility of parole) on Abreu. The other two got 15 to life [sic] by pleading. Abreu was offered a plea and he didn't take it. Taking cases to trial is never a slam dunk so we were very happy with all three of the sentences in this case."
(Aaron Channel plead to a determinate sentence of 19 years, 7 months; Stuckey's plea got him 15 indeterminate years. Channel will do his time and get out. August Stuckey will have to convince a parole board he is no longer a menace to society. Tai Abreu got life without.)
Instead of being tried in Fort Bragg where their families and friends all lived, the whole show was conducted in Ukiah. The parents, families and friends, not to mention possible defense witnesses, were never informed of exactly where Stuckey, Channel and Abreu were in the legal process, all of which was carried out an hour and a half from Fort Bragg over a narrow, twisting country road.
Linda Thompson is the lead defender in Mendocino County's historically weak Public Defender's office. Tai Abreu isn't the first indigent defendant Thompson has represented right into life without the possibility of parole. For Tai, a 19-year-old charged with first degree murder, Thompson managed a defense that put him away for life. She did not challenge a single prospective juror, she called no witnesses on Tai's behalf and, wrapping up, agreed with the prosecution's denunciation of Tai as a remorseless killer and all-round bad guy. Tai's deluded defense attorney advised her doomed client to turn down the DA's offer of 15-to-life and take his non-case to a jury of his peers. Thompson told Tai she could get him off because detective Bailey had interrogated him without a lawyer present. On his end, the 19-year-old Tai thought he was innocent period because he'd been up on the road as lookout man.
Public defender Thompson spent her several hours of Tai's one-day murder trial arguing that Tai was not properly advised of his right to an attorney, concluding her presentation with an unfounded assessment of Tai's personality she seems to have derived directly from the DA's office.
The only evidence against Tai was his own sweetly coerced confession, Stuckey's easily discredited multiple accusations and the property stolen from Perez that Tai led the police to where Tai had buried it in the woods. The murder weapon was never found. With Stuckey unlikely to be a credible witness, Tai not testifying against himself, and Channel saying nothing at all, it is unlikely that Tai would ever have been convicted of murder one in any other venue. Not that Tai had a case, really. There was enough there to put him away for a long time, especially if he got bad legal advice. But he got the worst possible advice from Ms. Thompson.
Rather than grasp the offer from the DA and thank the lord for 15-to-life, Ms. Thompson, convinced Tai to take his non-case to trial. The hapless Abreu apparently didn't know that the law that says he was as guilty of the Perez murder as whichever young man it was who slashed Perez's throat. So Tai said Yes to the worst possible legal advice he could get in his situation:
Yes, take me to the jury, Ms. Thompson. I didn't kill the man. I was lookout up on the road when the other two were down in the bushes killing the guy. I didn't know they were going to kill him.
Ms. Thompson said nothing to change Tai's mind. She didn't say anything to change the jury's mind either. The tiny woman who dresses herself in men's suits thought she could talk a conservative, rural jury into an acquittal for Tai.
So Tai went to trial. He got one whole day before an unchallenged jury not of his peers. Tai's jury consisted mostly of older retired people, the kind of people who don't refer to non-specific others as "dude." Worse, one of his jurors may have been hostile to Tai for reasons having nothing to do with the accusations against him. This juror was a Fort Bragg man hostile to Tai because he disapproved of a relationship Tai once had with his daughter.
Tai Abreu's Ukiah jury wasted no time finding Tai guilty of murder in the first degree. A few months later Tai was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole by Judge Richard "Rickey" Henderson, an undistinguished Republican from Ukiah appointed to Mendocino County's uniquely over-large superior court for reasons unrelated to his legal abilities, let alone whatever commitment to proportionate justice he may possess.
(Mendocino County's far-flung population of less than 100,000 people supports nine superior court judges, a figure that does not include the dozen or so judges who've "retired" from the Mendocino County bench but double dip as part-time, fill-in judges around the state. Henderson is only one of many starving outback lawyers promoted to instant prosperity by a fortuitous change in the state law which, by legislative fiat in the middle 1970s, elevated the County's one-session-a-week justice court judges to full-time, full pay and benefits superior court judges.)
About the same time that Linda Thompson was putting Tai away for the rest of his life, a popular Ukiah firefighter by the name of Bruechler murdered his layabout, drug-abusing son with an ax. Bruechler's son was asleep when pop took the ax to him. Bruechler was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. He did a year in prison.
Aaron Channel and August Stuckey, having seen what happened to their co-conspirator Mr. Abreu, quickly decided to plead guilty to lesser charges. Aaron received a determinate 19-year sentence, meaning he'll be free before he's forty. August got 15-to-life, meaning he, too, will probably be free before he's forty, although August will have to convince a parole board that he's no longer criminally disposed before the state lets him go.
If Tai is telling the truth about his part in the murder of Donald Perez, he was the least involved participant, but he'll never get out of prison while Perez's true killer will get out.
Linda Thompson killed Tai Abreu as dead as Donald Perez.
Detective Bailey summed up his theory of the case well after the three perps were packed off to state prison.
"Any of the three, taken by themselves, is completely harmless. The problem is that these guys were all social outcasts. Their social circle was the three of them. If these are the only people you have that you can count on and you get yourself in that situation, you certainly don't want to walk away from them. I think that's what happened. They got themselves so far into a situation that nobody wanted to be the one that chickened out. They were playing a lot of violent video games, listening to a lot of hard music, things like that."
"According to these guys Perez could hardly see without his glasses, so the whole point of slapping him the first time was to knock his glasses off, to help render him somewhat defenseless. That's why he couldn't just take off. He wanted those glasses. 'I need my glasses back.' Perez appeared to be in pretty good shape, good enough to be capable of defending himself. But without his glasses and three on one... These guys were lucky and careful at the same time. They admit to wiping the truck down. They admit to changing and destroying their clothes. But we never recovered the murder weapon. I went out to that area several times with a metal detector trying to find it. And Abreu was actually soliciting inmates to get out on his behalf and go get the murder weapon and get rid of it. Maybe someone did get rid of it. We don't know."
Detective Bailey's theory of the case matches that of Kevin Davenport's, the young prosecutor who would take it into court.
"They were in a spot up the road from the bridge," Davenport says, "maybe a quarter mile up there. This is only according to Tai, but he said he and Channel hid in the bushes, and what they were going to do was wait for Stuckey and Perez to come by. Somehow the vehicle would stop. They waited and waited there, and then, about 9am, they estimate, they thought Perez and Stuckey weren't coming or they'd missed the truck and were tired of waiting. So they climbed up onto the road and started walking back towards town. They went around a couple of bends in the road and saw Perez's truck. It had stopped before it got to where they were waiting in hiding. So, they're walking along when they encounter Stuckey and Perez standing by Perez's truck. Channel and Abreu walk up to the vehicle, and now they've put the socks on their hands and have their hands in their pockets, according to Abreu, when they approach Stuckey and Perez.
"So they've already decided, 'Let's go through with it.' They get up to the vehicle. They have this exchange, there's a sort of introduction. 'These are my friends,' Stuckey says to Perez. And so forth. According to Abreu they chat for 10 or 15 minutes about job prospects in the Fort Bragg area and about the College of the Redwoods, and all of a sudden while everyone is sort of waiting for something or somebody to make a move, according to Abreu, Stuckey pulled a big knife out of a sheath that he has on him and says, 'All right. We can do this the hard way or we can do it the easy way,' or some corny movie line like that. It's not exactly clear what happened. They knocked his glasses off early on. They all start walking towards Fort Bragg, a fairly long walk from where they started from. They end up just before the bridge when, according to Abreu, Perez just stops walking. He says, 'You know what? I can't do this without my glasses on. Gimmee my glasses.' And they say, 'We'll give you your glasses if you give us your wallet.' So he kind of steps back and they say, 'We'll do a swap.' Perez puts his wallet down. And then he steps back and they, according to Abreu, put the glasses down. They take the wallet and put the glasses down.
"Perez already has his hands duct-taped in front of him.
"Perez bends down, gets his glasses, then he tries to run towards Fort Bragg. He's trying to run and put on his glasses at the same time, but his hands are taped so he has a balance problem.
"He takes four or five steps and then kinda goes down on one knee. At that time, according to Abreu, Channel hits him on the head with a rock, and it all goes from there.
"They didn't plan that spot. Once they hit him with the rock they probably just kind of stiff-walked him the rest of the way down off the road. The whole thing took who knows how long. Three guys walking down the road with one guy's hands taped and someone waving a knife around a mile from the police department! And they didn't go down the road embankment. They went around to the gate to that pasture and sort of came back parallel to the road to the spot where Perez was taped to the tree."
Tai Abreu had the most tenuous family, the fewest resources, financial or familial, of the three young men charged with the murder. Tai's mother had been adopted by the large Abreu clan, a family with deep roots in Mendocino County, but Mom had veered off the tracks in early adolescence, succumbing to the easy availability of drugs and the ubiquity of people who use them in Mendocino and Lake Counties. Medical records indicate that Tai's mother was 22 when Tai was born on January 2. She was addicted to methamphetamine during her pregnancy with Tai, and almost immediately disappeared back into the drug life within days of Tai's birth in Lakeport.
Tai's father, Darrell Reno, like Tai's mother, had also been adopted, but, unlike mom, dad worked and stayed away from drugs. He was left alone with his son, the living consequence of his brief romance with Tai's troubled mother. Dad did the best he could with Tai, once remarking that he'd "rolled my life into a little paper ball and threw it away" to care for his son.
Backed up by his adoptive mother, Esther Nelson, Darrell Reno did the best he could with Tai until Tai was 12. The schools had always had trouble controlling Tai's "hyperactivity" and were constantly complaining about what they claimed was Tai's unmanageable school room behavior. The schools had put Tai on Ritalin, a pharmaceutical amphetamine, because a combination of school psychologists and Mendocino County "helping professionals," as the county's small army of therapists and social workers grandly describe themselves, had concluded that Tai was educable only if he were placed on the right combinations of drugs.
Tai wasn't helped. When the boy was 12, his father was persuaded to place Tai in an institutional setting and Tai was soon on his way to Sunny Hills, a treatment center for disturbed children in San Anselmo, Marin County.
Tai's capable and hard working father, who'd been a commercial fisherman out of Fort Bragg, soon left the country to begin a lucrative new career in the Middle East as a captain of sea going tugboats. He has since become a full time resident of Egypt, has converted to Islam and has married a young Muslim woman. When Darrell Reno learned that Tai had been arrested for murder he wrote his son off, but has since resumed contact.
Tai's closest, most consistent relative remains his grandmother, Esther Nelson, now of Ukiah. She lives alone in a small, tidy senior apartment just off Low Gap Road. There are pictures of her many foster children — "73 of them" — on the walls, and many pictures of Tai at various stages of growth. Esther is confined to a wheelchair from a stroke.
Tai's grandmother says Tai "just happened."
"His mother only saw him twice that I know of," she says. "She saw him when he was born and she saw him when he was in jail in Ukiah 19 years later. And she only saw him in Ukiah because she was at the jail visiting another of her sons. He was six months old when his father got full custody. Later, when they put Tai on all those pills, he hated to take them. I'd have to stand there and watch him swallow or he'd throw them away.
"I thought he was just a regular little boy. My goodness if you can't handle a child, an 8-year-old without drugs... Well, I refused to give them to him myself."
Grandma Esther visits Tai at the state prison in Soledad when she can, and she scrimps on creature comforts for herself to send Tai a few regular dollars "so he can at least have something in there."
Compounding her sorrow at Tai's fate, when Grandma Esther approached Donald Perez's mother to express her sorrow at the murder that had brought the two grandmothers into one courtroom, Perez's mother loudly told a bailiff, "Keep that old bitch away from me. I don't want to have anything to do with any of these people."
Tai remembers his formative years this way:
"I was 12 when I was placed at Sunny Hills in San Anselmo, but that wasn't the beginning. When I was seven I was placed in Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute in San Francisco. That was the beginning of my exposure to the crazies. Off the wall loons, every last one of them! During my stay there as a little kid I was taken off Ritalin in two days. Anyone who knows two shits about medicine knows that two days is hardly an appropriate detox time for any medicine, let alone for a seven-year-old on a double-adult dosage of Ritalin. I was then placed on iamipramine and basically told to kick rocks back to Fort Bragg. Then there was Sunny Hills for three years, from age 12 to age 15, during which time I was placed in Ross Mental Hospital three times because I refused to take my meds. Then off to Fort Bragg again. Don't get me wrong. None of this is meant to be an excuse. It was my own stupid fault for going along with the whole thing, and I accept that. Yet my history was obviously a series of cries for help. I guess now I'm crying for the last time."
Tai's friends were shocked when he was arrested and charged with murder.
"I'm an acquaintance of Tai Abreu, but I knew him as Tai Reno," an old friend of Tai's recalls. "I went to school with all three of the young boys who are being accused of killing Donald Perez. I remember being in the 6th grade with Tai. He was always hyper and funny. I know and believe that if Tai knew there was a dead body or knew someone was about to die he would not have tolerated it or stuck around. The same goes for Aaron Channel. Isn't it a possibility Tai and Aaron were at the wrong time and place, lured there by the third member and a fourth unmentioned member that snitched to free himself of his wrongdoing? We know that Tai and Aaron were given public defenders who did nothing to defend them in this unjust justice system. These defenders prejudged them as guilty because it was being called a hate crime. Why is it called a hate crime when these four boys weren't all straight themselves? And one public defender is gay herself. She didn't know the sexuality of her client?
"Did you know that Mr. Perez was a pornographer of children, and the so-called stolen equipment of cameras was for that purpose, and that Mr. Perez had pornographic photographs of children on his computer that were destroyed by the police to save face for the Perez family? I'm not saying what happened to Perez was right, but I know Tai and Aaron couldn't have killed him."