August Stuckey didn't know Tai Abreu and Aaron Channel well. They regarded him as "goofy" and "at least ten degrees off." But Channel had a generous way about him that made allowances for outcasts. He was kind to them, defended them, and Channel felt especially sorry for the friendless Stuckey. He, too, had been harassed in the public schools for being different. As had Tai. Channel has always prided himself on his pacifism, his tolerance, his patience with oddballs. He often signs his letters from the state prison at Susanville, "In loving kindness."
Stuckey had been found by the same helping pros who'd helped destroy Abreu's childhood to be suffering from personality disorders ranging from paranoia, to "elements of autism," a short attention span, and an ongoing inability to distinguish reality from fantasy. A slightly built young man, Stuckey had always had trouble in school from bullies. In defense of what was left of himself, Stuckey had occasionally physically attacked the children who tormented him. His mother successfully sued the Fort Bragg schools over the school district's failure to provide a suitable academic environment for her son.
"How crazy is Stuckey?" Mendocino County District Attorney Norm Vroman wonders. "Obviously, he's unbalanced. But I don't know how crazy he is. I think that anybody who kills somebody except in self-defense has got a screw loose. I was never able to understand just because you have a screw loose why that makes the person who is dead any less dead. Maybe there's a difference in how you treat them, but they have to be locked up either in a prison or a hospital. Stuckey's going to prison. You know, his defense withdrew the not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity in Stuckey's case."
Stuckey was placed in protective custody in the County Jail while he waited for trial. He was at first believed to be suicidal and generally crazy. He was accused of engaging in sexual relations with other inmates. In a letter to President Bush scanned by jail staff, Stuckey said he was the victim of Channel and Abreu. He said they'd stabbed him "100 times" with an ice pick and had crushed one of his hands with a ballpeen hammer, and had threatened his sister if he didn't obey them. "Either you're crazy or they are very bad dudes," a disbelieving investigator commented to Stuckey.
August Stuckey was certainly a problem inmate. He was constantly stuck in the safety cell where he was clad only in a safety smock he couldn't rip up and use to hang himself, although the county jail's skeptical "Mental Health evaluator" wrote of him, "Inmate doesn't talk about suicide except as a tool to get his needs met." Contradicting that evaluation, the evaluator stated that August's behavior was "erratic and unpredictable," and that he was "unable to accept relationship of his behaviors and their consequences."
Stuckey continued to throw tantrums, often over little things like being given eggs for breakfast and not liking the way they were prepared. Once, in a faux suicide note, Stuckey wrote that getting beans for a meal was the reason he was pushed to act crazy. When he was out of his safety smock he would bang the walls and doors of his safety cell and yell incoherently. Then he would calm down, behave, take his medication, and eventually be let back into the regular population. There, he would solicit other inmates to try his wares, so to speak, for the price of a candy bar. This behavior continued until other inmates complained of his behavior and he was sent back to the safety cell for the umpteenth time. Mental Health evaluators decided eventually that Stuckey would have to be held permanently in isolation, commenting, "We need to keep him under the camera."
The Stuckey family still seems to think he was the victim of Channel and Abreu when, as the known facts of the case make clear, he was the author of the crime. He might be half-cracked, but Stuckey wasn't stupid and, by any reasonably objective standard, he wasn't fully crazy. Stuckey's account of Perez's execution is similar to Abreu's, but in Stuckey's edition it is Stuckey who was up on the road as lookout man.
"I was ordered by Abreu and Channel to clear a path down the embankment to large green tree. I did that with a shopping cart, and then I cleared an area by the tree. When I finished, I went back up the embankment to where Channel was standing guard over Perez while Abreu went back across the bridge to get the truck. When I got to the top of the embankment, Abreu and Channel took Perez down the bank. I went to the truck where I was supposed to stand watch. A few minutes later I heard scuffling and gurgling noises. A few seconds later Abreu and Channel came up the bank and Channel was wiping blood off the silver colored dark handled knife." Stuckey said the three of them "got into the truck and drove east aways" before one of them "ran into the bushes and buried stuff."
Aaron Channel kept promising his family to go on to college. Abreu and Stuckey, too, had vague plans for getting their lives on track. But the three of them, despite their abilities, weren't doing much of anything other than wandering around the Fort Bragg area, tapping friends and family for small loans to get through their immediate waking hours. And they were smoking a lot of dope, dropping unwholesome amounts of acid, listening to hours of negative music, spending as many hours playing video games heavy on violent images.
A formidably bright young woman named Jennifer Wolchik, a close friend of both Channel and Abreu, had been camping at the [fish] egg taking station with the inept conspirators in the aimless days before their murder move on Perez. She had no idea the three planned to commit a big crime. (Jennifer would be challenged by police when she unwittingly put up $1,000 to bail out a jail house acquaintance of Abreu's named Rogers, allegedly so Rogers, at Tai's request, could throw the murder weapon into the ocean and raise money for Tai's defense.)
Jails these days are teeming with snitches, and they were lining up to rat on their three young and inexperienced cellmates to enhance their own legal prospects.
Ms. Wolchik, a single mother who now lives in Santa Rosa, was more than a match for police interrogators, masterfully swatting back questions as if they were the most obvious, most tedious impertinences, at one point advising detective Bailey to "use your head, Bailey." She succinctly summarizes the lives of many young Coast people as she remembers the hazy days surrounding the death of Donald Perez.
"They're very intelligent young men," Jennifer begins, "but none of them have much commonsense. No sense of place. They didn't know where they were going. August is an incredibly disturbed young man, though. I think I can see them robbing someone, but I find it difficult to believe they'd kill anyone. They're typical Fort Bragg kids. Stoners. It's the number one hobby in Fort Bragg. Most of us were always pretty broke, but we got by. They knew if they asked me I could help them out. Tai had his grandma, Aaron was capable of working because he had worked in the past with no problem. They liked material things but not as much as most people. They were perfectly happy sitting out in the woods in the rain, just sitting around being guys and hanging out. We were camping when this whole thing happened. Tai and I got in a fight one time and he got very angry but he punched a tree, He didn't hit me, he hit the tree. I was with Tai for a year and a half. We argued all the time but he never ever laid a hand on me. I never saw or heard of Aaron hurting anyone. I was working at Denny's the night they arrested Aaron. The cops asked me if I felt Tai had any problems with homosexuals. I just laughed at them. I'm like, nooooo. Sometimes Tai was home with me and sometimes he was out with boyfriends.
"I never had a problem with it."
Jennifer says Stuckey was a different story.
"According to my friends, August would bring over tapes of school girls being tortured, like this was a cool thing to watch. But I really don't know him well.
When I went to see him in jail he told me Tai and Aaron did horrible things to him like stab him with ice picks, and that they made him touch drugs so his fingerprints would be on it, which is all bull.
When he told me he was getting vegetarian meals in jail I asked him, 'Didn't you just have a hamburger with me two weeks ago?' He said, 'Yeah, but the vegetarian food in here is better'."
Aaron Channel's parents divorced in 2000. It wasn't a friendly parting. The former Mrs. Channel alleged that Mr. Channel had "raped" Aaron and his sister Jennifer. The allegations were stoutly and credibly denied by the alleged victims, her own children.
These days, Aaron's mother operates a daycare center out of her home on Todd's Point. Aaron's father, Steve, is in his middle forties. He has worked for Georgia-Pacific even after the big mill in Fort Bragg closed. The former couple's other two children, a boy and a girl, live with their father in Fort Bragg. Dad runs a happy home. Kids are in and out of the place all day. There is lots of laughter until the awful subject comes up of Aaron's 19-year sentence for his involvement in the Perez murder. All the family can do is speculate. They're as perplexed by Aaron's apparent role in the ghastly crime as everyone else is who knows him.
"I'll always be in kind of a state of shock," Steve Channel says. "I still can't believe it. I never did know where Aaron was in the legal process. It was impossible to talk to anybody over in Ukiah. They never call you back. I went over there for what I thought was a trial, but what they were doing was sending Aaron off to prison for 19 years. In Aaron's school records, if they'd bothered to look, they would have seen a portrait of a student that teachers liked, who was always helpful, and generally in the upper percentile in terms of intelligence. I don't think they had enough evidence on Aaron to even send him to a military boot camp. That's what they used to do if you screwed up."
Aaron's boyhood friend, Shayne Cowell was as staggered as Aaron's family when Aaron was arrested for murder.
"Aaron has always been a complete pacifist. If he got pissed off he'd go deal with it and go ahead. He's never been a violent person, never struck out against anybody, never really held a grudge. He's pretty much a total pacifist. I can count more times that I've blown up than he has.
"He was having a conflict with his mother about where his life was going to go. He always had trouble holding a job for one reason or another. I never knew why, he just couldn't. His mom was getting really frustrated with him. All he did was stay out in his shed out behind her house on Todd's Point and come in to eat, no different from the year that preceded it. I think his mom had concluded that Aaron needed to find his niche in society, find something to do. She threatened to kick him out a couple of times, but he took over the shed with all his stuff. I told him myself that he needed to get off his ass and do something. I can't believe he'd take the fall for a murder he didn't commit, but Aaron's always had martyristic tendencies, though. He'll put himself on the line for a friend who needs help. But murder? If he knew Tai or August did a murder I don't think he'd put himself out there for them. If he did it he'd plan it much better and he'd make himself responsible, not anyone else."
The night he was arrested, Aaron remembers sitting at Dennys at about 2 a.m. with Jennifer Wolchik and Clarissa Frey when officer Karen Harris of the Fort Bragg Police Department arrived to talk to Miss Frey about a pending legal matter involving the young woman. The officer, noticing Aaron sitting at the counter, asked, "Aren't you Aaron Channel?"
"I greeted her amicably," Aaron recalled in a letter to his new wife, Galina Trefil, "but I noticed she seemed pretty tense, but I thought it was just due to her having a hard night. I didn't think it had anything to do with me."
A few minutes later, Aaron remembers in his letter to Galina, "Three rows of two detectives each, all very large and with hands resting menacingly on their firearms told me to come with them. I said that it was very late and I'd had a long day, and I'd rather not go with them because I was tired. I suggested they try to contact me in the morning."
The cops told Aaron that it was very important and that he had to come with them; wouldn't take but a minute.
"One detective even went so far as to say that I would be back in time to eat any food I had ordered! So I went. Once there, I was treated reasonably well. I don't remember too much about the interrogation except that it lasted forever and I was tired and having difficulty following some of the things they said. I remember at one point the fat ugly detective actually got right down in my face and started yelling at me that I had to confess 'for the sake of Mr. Perez's family.' Next, I was taken to the hospital to give blood for DNA testing, which I consented to. They handcuffed me to a gurney and the doctor, or whatever he was, said that I needed to sign a form consenting to have my blood drawn. I told him I'd sign a form, but I couldn't honestly say I wanted to have my blood drawn. I was just doing it to try and appease the cops. Then, I was transported to the county jail in Ukiah. It was a long ride. My hands were cuffed behind my back way too tight and there was no seatbelt that I could put on.
"Once at Low Gap [the site of the Mendocino County Jail], I was verbally bashed by a group of 5-7 cops who got in my face and called me names. I remember at one point being asked, 'So it took three of you to kill him? You're some big men, aren't you?' I also remember being told that I'd better do everything they told me to do right when they told me to do it or they'd beat the shit outta me. I was stripped and my possessions, consisting of clothes, boots, and a rose — at the time I made a habit of always carrying a rose on me — were taken away. I was put into a large glass cell with a huge Samoan, who I assume was drunk because he snored incredibly loud. And there I was in nothing but a t-shirt and pants and shoes. I was really cold. I pressed the intercom button and asked if I could be brought a towel or a blanket because I was cold. They refused. I guess they thought I might use it to hang myself.
"After about 5 hours or 6 hours, or maybe 9 or 10, I was called back out to talk to the detectives again. I hadn't slept a wink in this entire time as I was cold and there was nothing to sit or lie on but cold metal and concrete. I remember that the time I spent in that cell was incredibly long. It seemed like days. I was genuinely miserable and, honestly, I might have tried to kill myself given the opportunity. I remember considering drowning myself in the commode, but decided against it for my family's sake.
"So I was escorted across a hallway by a guard. I was very friendly with him because I was trying to acquaint myself with someone — anyone. But he was very rude and told me 'to shut the hell up and keep walking.' My hands were once again cuffed way too tight. I was marched across the hall to where the cops were.
"I don't know if this conversation was videotaped or not. It was short, at most 10 minutes. In it, I repeatedly said I wanted a lawyer. I told them I refused to say another word until I talked to a lawyer. I even said at one time that I didn't want a single word I said recorded until I had talked to a lawyer. They kept badgering me to talk to them, but I kept refusing until they finally gave up. I was then taken back to the main jail and given a cot and a blanket and marched over to my cell. Tai was in the cell across the hall, and I could talk to him, but we didn't say much. I almost immediately went to sleep, and when I woke up they had moved him.
"For the next couple of days, I barely ate and I slept all day. I didn't call home or call anyone else for that matter. I just waited for my first court date and waited for my lawyer to get there as one of the detectives had said that he would make a call to have a lawyer come and see me during my second interrogation. At this point I didn't realize that I had to be arraigned and then assigned a lawyer.
"About four days later I was put into handcuffs with Tai and put into a squad car. We both immediately became manic from both of us finally seeing a friend after so much hardship."
The squad car was wired. Tai and Aaron were transported together so the police and the prosecutor could listen to whatever they might say about the crime. The audio tape didn't specifically incriminate either Tai or Aaron, but it hardly casts them in a sympathetic light. They are giggly and seemingly unaware of the seriousness of their position.
Although much of the recording is inaudible, it begins with Tai saying to Aaron, "OK, you realize once we're sitting back here they can barely hear us up front as long as we keep it quiet."
Aaron and Tai then admit to seeing "the body," and Aaron says about the relationship of August Stuckey to Perez, "I'm saying it was a weird sex thing. They were boyfriends. That's what I think was going on anyway." Aaron tells Tai, "We didn't know it was a murder... Whenever we saw the body, we freaked."
"We freaked," Abreu agrees. "And then we got out of there as quick as we could."
Murder One was an odd charge against the defendants because exactly who did exactly what what was not known, and no evidence of premeditation, beyond Stuckey's and Abreu's changing stories about staying up all night in the woods the night before to plan a robbery, was ever produced. Both Abreu's and Stuckey's accounts indicate that the fatal knife to Perez's throat was done on an impulse by Channel, but the pathology report states the cause of death as unknown because the forensic analysis of Perez's remains seems to favor as cause of death, "suffocation by abandonment."
When the DA offered Aaron his plea deal — 19 years, 8 months in state prison — it was, as prosecutor Kevin Davenport later told the judge, "because there are several evidentiary problems that are associated with the case of People vs. Channel, and the people anticipated some difficulty with some of the evidence coming into a jury."
In other words, the case against Aaron was weak, very weak.
Jan Cole-Wilson is a brisk, matronly Ukiah attorney employed by a private firm with offices down the street from the County Courthouse. She was assigned to be Aaron's lawyer via Mendocino County's "alternate public defender's" office, an arrangement cynics have dubbed, "The Mendocino County Full Employment Act For Starving Lawyers." On the vaguest of alleged conflicts of interest, private local lawyers are paid out of public funds to represent defendants the public defender's office says it can't defend out of a scrupulous regard for the rights of the accused.
Aaron says of Cole-Wilson, "She came to visit me sporadically over the eight months or so that I was incarcerated in the county jail in Ukiah. I saw her maybe 15 times in that period. I wrote out a copy of what happened, but she said she didn't want to issue any statement and I'd best just sit tight. "
Aaron's new bride, Galena Trefil, wasn't happy with the disposition of her husband's case.
"During all that bad press that Aaron got," she says, "Aaron's lawyer advised his family and friends not to respond. She said that making Aaron look better to the public wasn't important because the public didn't have any say-so in whether he was convicted or not. However, people phoned law enforcement from as far away as New York, demanding that Aaron get the death penalty. Few facts were published by a wildly sensational press, so Aaron gave up on the idea that he would ever find a local jury that would not be biased. That is why he took the plea.
"Worse than the fact that she wouldn't file for change of venue, his lawyer, Ms. Cole-Wilson, was not apparently doing very much of a job on the case. She never even went to the crime scene. She told Aaron's family, and mine too, that character witnesses make no difference in such cases and so she didn't bother asking her investigator to question even one of Aaron's friends or even one relative, despite the fact that he had both in ample amount who would be willing to testify for him, and despite the fact that these were the people who he'd been with after allegedly committing a murder. To this day, I have not met one person aside from herself who ever met her investigator — and I am Aaron's wife! Cole-Wilson was incredibly insensitive, making family members virtually corner her before she was willing to speak to them, even though Aaron wanted her to, and when she did speak to us, she compared Aaron to a man that stalked and slit a 17-year-old girl's throat — right to Aaron's mother's face, nearly putting her in tears.
"In many ways, Cole-Wilson gave the impression that she did not care about winning the case at all. She did no background check on Aaron, no lie detector test even though he wanted one. Because of that, I felt I could not trust her so I went out and got several character letters from upstanding members of the community on Aaron's behalf. When she saw them she changed her mind about them not being valuable and subpoenaed many of the people whom I'd presented her with. The fact that she was a lawyer and I was having to do her job for her made me very uneasy.
"She also flat out admitted to my family that she had lost a great deal of the evidence long before Aaron ever took the plea; she told us this when Aaron wrote her telling her to surrender copies of all the files and photographs to us. She wasn't able to do this she said, because she had lost them a long, long time ago. She also was reluctant to give us anything until we reminded her that it was her legal obligation to do so.
"When we went to pick up the evidence, she produced only half of it, refusing to surrender nearly all court documents, because, she said, it would be too much trouble for her secretary to find them. We asked several times for the documents which Aaron wanted us to have, but in the end we had to give up; she wouldn't budge.
"From prison Aaron wrote us that the reason he had agreed to the plea was because his lawyer not only told him he'd get life if he didn't, but also she told him that his mother wanted him to take the plea. Aaron's mother says she never discussed the possibility with his lawyer. Aaron asked for an hour to consider the plea, but Cole-Wilson said, 'No, you have to choose now, and you won't get a second chance.'
"So he pleaded to, among other things, voluntary manslaughter, which was supposed to have been carried out by means of a rock, which Stuckey alleges Aaron beat Perez on the head with. There is no forensic evidence to back this up; in fact, Dr. Trent, the coroner said, 'There is no evidence of subdural hemorrhage or any traumatic perforation of the skull.' Dr. Reiber of UC Davis said, 'Certain forms of obvious trauma can be excluded by the autopsy, such as blunt force.' He continued, 'I agree with Dr. Trent that the cause of death in this case is undetermined.' Despite the rumors of slit throat, no one knows how Perez really died."
For her part, Cole-Wilson says she got Aaron the best possible deal he could get given the circumstances of his obvious involvement.
"Stuckey will have to go before a parole board before he can get out," Cole-Wilson begins by way of a reply to charges that Aaron was under-represented. "Abreu got life without the possibility of parole. Aaron will serve his sentence and leave prison. There was no ambiguity in that each of them did something to contribute to the death of Donald Perez."
Cole-Wilson makes a strong case for her work on the case.
"In California, aidor and abbettor is all inclusive. If you go out there and assist in a robbery or even a prank which results in someone else with you committing murder, you're as guilty as the person who did it. Aaron and I discussed that a lot. His new wife is up in arms, but Aaron wasn't married to her at the time. Aaron's mother and I talked a lot, though. We were ready to go to trial, and if they had not made me an offer that included light at the end of the tunnel for Aaron we would have gone to trial. Aaron will be out of prison when he's in his middle 30's; going to trial would have been a real gamble, especially after what happened to Mr. Abreu."
The attorney emphasizes her affection for Aaron, explaining at length her defense strategy.
"I found Aaron to be a really likable, very smart, very soft spoken young man. Speaking with Aaron after he went to prison, and talking to his mother and his wife, it was my recommendation they let it rest because he got a reasonably good deal, but if he wanted to go in and say that I was ineffective that's his right. If he was able to show that, which I don't think he could — but I wouldn't discourage anyone from seeking legal options — but if you do that you go back to court on all of the counts, and you have to defend on all of them, which means you take the same chance of being convicted like Mr. Abreu and going down forever like Mr. Abreu did. I talked to both Aaron and his mom and we agreed on not challenging Aaron's sentence. But I'm not perfect; maybe there's something I missed. But before we entered his plea his mother came in and we went through all the documents looking for inconsistencies, looking for things that we could bring up to help him. It just wasn't there. It was really hard for his mother, but she was on board for this resolution. She cried a lot when she saw a lot of it and read a lot of it and heard the recordings.
"We've calculated that Aaron will be out when he's 36. That's not old. When you get out at 36 you can get out with two degrees, with some job training. Lots of doctors and lawyers don't finish their educations until that age. The world is still available at 36. Compare what Aaron got to life without the possibility of parole. If he wasn't involved, if he was just there when it happened, or just heard about it, then he should have gone to the police and said, 'My friends were involved in a murder.' He didn't do that.
"Aaron was fully aware of his options," Cole-Wilson insists, before adding that Aaron knew that Abreu, Stuckey and Michael Johnson might testify against him if he went to trial. Perhaps even more damning was the incriminating tape recording of Tai and Aaron the police made in the transport vehicle. Cole-Wilson rightly feared the effect the tape would have on a jury.
"A juror," she says, "could easily infer a consciousness of guilt. Aaron's mother and I listened to an enhanced version that the DA hadn't bothered to have transcribed. It is clear from the recording that Aaron was at least somewhat involved in some of the related illegal activity. The tone of it was not attractive, either. There was a lot of laughing and giggling. A jury would not like it. Maybe Mr. Abreu would have come in and testified against him — there was no guarantee that he wouldn't. He'd already been to trial. And he might have decided to testify against Aaron to help his chances for an appeal, or improve his chances on sentencing. The fact was that there was evidence that Aaron may have been the actual murderer, although I'm not saying he was. I'm not saying there was proof positive because if there was the DA would never have given me the deal he did.
"Aaron's father did say, 'I love my son. I'll do whatever I can for him,' but the father wasn't in court every single time like Aaron's mother was,' Cole-Wilson observes, ever more annoyed that her role in the plea deal is being questioned after the fact. She's almost incredulous when she points out that her critics keep saying that Perez had child pornography on his computer, as if that somehow justified his murder.
"He may have been some kind of sexual deviant," Cole-Wilson argues, "and he was homosexual, but all that is extraneous to what happened to him. There were letters to the editor that perhaps it was a hate crime because of the porno found on Perez's computer. We all agreed that he may have been a vile person, but you can't kill him. And there was no evidence that in any of their conversations or in any of their statements that Perez was killed because he had done something really awful to one of them at that time. I know that Stuckey, it appears, had had other contacts with him that may have been sexual in nature. It's true that Stuckey was a minor then, but just barely, maybe 17, but that hardly makes Perez a child molester."