When Life Isn’t a Video Game

Mendocino County Courthouse, Ukiah, California

We live in a politically correct world. We don’t refer to people in derogatory terms anymore. We don’t call people eejits, and we are especially careful not to put these hurtful kinds of labels on kids. At least in public.

But still.

At the ripe old age of 18, John Edwards decided to go into the home invasion business. Perhaps he’d exhausted generic means of making a living, the economy being in the ditch and all. So he rounded up some “friends” and went to work, bursting into a house in Willits, equipped with a gun. John Edwards seems to have emphasized his grand entrance by cranking off a round or two, all the while shouting ‘terrorist threats’ as he helped himself to the invaded home’s bounty.

“A terrorist threat,” by the way, is the legal term for saying you’re going to kill someone. It doesn’t have anything to do with a maniac in a burnoose.

Later, when the cops collared the kid, he ‘fessed right up. Not a man to limit himself to half-measures, John Edwards gave the cops a videotaped “walk-through” confession, a dramatized replay of his Willits adventure.

We don’t know what he was thinking. We don’t even know if he was thinking. All we really know is that John Edwards now intends to fight the charges against him, and he’s been appointed a lawyer, a public defender, after having established that neither he nor his family could afford to hire a lawyer.

John Edwards’ attorney, Senior Alternate Public Defender Bert Schlosser, appointed at the arraignment, wasn’t happy with the confession. You’ve got the kid on videotape re-enacting the crime? Good luck reversing that one.

So Mr. Schlosser went to the DA.

“I got on my knees,” he said. “And I begged.”

Begged for a deal to spare this young dummy from spending the rest of his youth in a cage.

One accomplice in the Willits caper had recently been sentenced to 33 years in prison at a court down in Alameda. The other boy, who had functioned as the get-away driver, staying out in the car while the other bandidos ran into the house to do all the stuff they’d seen pretend crooks do on tv, pled to the charges with the understanding that he would be facing anywhere from three to six years in prison.

John Edwards was the brains behind the operation. The guy with the plan, and the guy with the gun. In brief, the guy most likely to get the worst deal.

I asked Mr. Schlosser: “What was the offer you got back from the DA?”

“Nineteen years,” the lawyer answered.

“What did your client say to that?”

“He wouldn’t take it. These kids think it’s okay to come in your house with a gun and take what they want,” Schlosser said. “He doesn’t think he did anything wrong.”

So the boy’s not an eejit, after all; he just has a highly individualistic value system.

John R. Edwards.

Does the R stand for “Retard”?

No, that would be politically incorrect. On the other hand, it certainly doesn’t stand for Remorseful. And it doesn’t appear to stand for Responsibility, as in taking responsibility for one’s actions. Johnny R seems to think his biggest problem is the ability of his court appointed lawyer.

The kid stood in the dock and asked to address the court himself.

Judge Leonard LaCasse said, “Go ahead.”

“I want a new lawyer,” John R. Edwards said.

LaCasse said, “If this is a Marsden Motion, I’m ready to hear it.”

A Marsden Motion is a move made by a defendant to show that his lawyer is incompetent and should be replaced.

“No,” Schlosser said. “He wants to hire a private defense attorney, and he needs time to raise the money.”

“For a charge of this magnitude, he’s looking at over $100,000,” LaCasse said with amazement. “And he’s in jail. How much time does he want?”

With the deference of a man who knows his services are not wanted, Mr. Schlosser said his client’s mother was in the courtroom and the judge should speak to her. Mom was seated behind me and everyone turned to look at her. She appeared to be a woman of modest means. But in Mendocino County, looks can be deceiving. Johnny’s mother said she wanted a couple of months to raise the money.

A couple of months was out of the question, LaCasse said. “This case was filed in May, May 20. I’m willing to go out a couple of weeks, but the People have a right to have this settled in a timely fashion. Isn’t the prelim set for November?” he asked Deputy DA Scott McMenomey.

It was.

And the new lawyer would be asking for even more time to acquaint himself with the case — especially, the part about the walk-through confession.

LaCasse said, “I personally believe it’s beyond their means, but that’s not for me to say. It appears to be a stalling tactic, but he may be able to get a lawyer, so I’m going to give him two weeks.”

“Am I still on the case?” Schlosser asked.

“We’ll put this back on for a status report in two weeks, and I’ll know then,” LaCasse said. “Is the co-defendant here?”

He was.

Jason Logan was on the docket to confirm readiness for the prelim, but his lawyer, Patricia Littlefield, said she’d come to a resolution with the DA. Logan would plea to Count I, robbery of an inhabited dwelling with two or more other persons, she said. LaCasse started to say something but Logan, another kid who doesn’t seem to understand the position he’s in, interrupted him.

“Just let me finish,” LaCasse said.

The judge started to speak again, but again Logan interrupted.

Kids these days. What can you say?

“I won’t tell you again.” LaCasse threatened. The judge was mad now. “You’re going to get no less than three years in prison and no more than six. And this is a strike prior, a first strike, which means you must serve 85% of whatever time you’re ordered to serve.”

Logan’s lawyer was under the impression that it was a second strike.

DDA McMenomey re-checked his paperwork and said, “Well, maybe. His previous conviction may or may not be a strike.”

Judge LaCasse wanted know what happened.

DDA McMenomey read from a page in the file: “The defendant entered the house with two or more others, the victims were tied up, a firearm was discharged…”

Ms. Littlefield said her client never got out of the car, never went into the house. Logan was still muttering something. Apparently, he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. His sentencing was set for November 5.

Logan and Edwards were taken back to the jail.

Jack Hayward was called.

Jack Hayward has lived in the Anderson Valley for many, many years. He was a ground-floor counterculture guy, a seminal communard at the famous Rainbow col­lective on a ridgetop west of Philo, childhood home of Winona Ryder, site of the long haired hijinks of many prominent local personalities from judges to rural busi­ness magnates who went on from their interim of long-haired debauches to prosperous respectability. Jack stayed on in the hills long after the music stopped. He became an angry man, a troubled man, so troubled he’s ‘burnt out,’ as the hippies used to say, everyone who knew him from the days when he was still fun.

There he was, a ragged defendant, tweeking at an age most of his contemporaries are eating lunch at the Boonville Senior Center and looking forward to Bingo Night.

Of course, the whole attraction of methamphetamine is that it unbridles the ego and lets it run roughshod over any and all inhibitions. People don’t take it just for their health, which goes right after the teeth and the liver.

But everybody, Jack included, says he doesn’t use meth.

I’ve sat through a few dozen prelims for people accused of being under the influence of meth and I’ve heard the experts go over the symptoms and behavior of users, so I have a vague idea what to look for. Also, I’ve had personal encounters with tweekers and I know first hand how outrageous and unpredictable they can be. My own guess would be that Jack is, well, “minimizing the truth” about his meth use.

His case had been called earlier, but his lawyer, Angelina Potter of the Public Defender’s Office, had asked for some time to wheel and deal with Deputy DA Shannon Cox.

Ms. Cox said the parties had agreed that Jack would go on probation for 24 months and stay away from Mr. Jamie Chanto and the property on Greenwood Road above Philo, where he and his Rainbow communards once frolicked. Rainbow is now owned by wine people. They scraped off the ridges and planted grapes. They’d let Jack stay on in his old hippie shack, but he became impossible, and now they want him permanently off the property where he’d made his home for forty years.

Some weeks ago, deputy Craig Walker had taken Jack off the Ukiah-Boonville bus and took him up to what was once Rainbow to collect his van and belongings.

Rainbow was over.

Downstairs in Judge Ron Brown’s court, Olen Sowers was looking at 60 months in the California Department of Corrections for “receiving stolen property,” as his public defender lawyer, Dan Haehl, phrased it.

Judge Ron Brown asked, “Is that what you want to do, sir?”

Mr. Sowers faced the music with dignity and said, “Yes, your honor.”

Brown turned to Deputy DA Heidi Larson and asked if receiving stolen property was the theft-related charge.

“Yes,” she said. “On July 30 the defendant broke into a Fort Bragg house and stole the property.”

Mr. Haehl said, “Actually, your honor that’s not exactly what happened. The officers went to my client’s house and found the missing property.”

It often seems like the biggest part of a public defender’s job is just to keep the sly Deputy DAs from blowing everything out of all proportion to the facts, even after they get a conviction. And it appears the probation officers tend to get a little carried away with the old bucket of blemish and blame as well. Both these entities like to pour it on thick when they paint the defendants at sentencing time.

Tosh Larsen-Willis was getting thoroughly soaked at his sentencing on a domestic violence charge. His lawyer, Public Defender Carly Dolan, had a few comments regarding the probation report, saying it looked to her like they had relied rather too heavily on the police report which, you guessed it, had been blown out of pro­portion to the known facts.

Ms. Dolan said, “She told the police he laughed at her after he choked her. But in fact she laughed at him after he put his hands on her neck. And we’re not trying to minimize him putting his hands on her neck. He knows that was unacceptable. But on the other hand he didn’t choke her, and that’s why the attempted murder charge was dropped.”

Ms. Dolan said this last bit with a lingering look at Ms. Larson who, for her part, dropped her eyes and colored slightly, as if she’d been caught dealing off the bottom of the deck. Dolan gave her adversary time to squirm, then moved on.

Then she said, “This is a rare domestic violence case, your honor. My client sat down with the police and confessed to everything. He was truthful and remorseful. Also, the Probation report hints that there may have been violence on his part in the past, which is untrue. They lived with the victim’s parents before and there was no suggestion from them that there had been any instances of violence in the past. So we would ask that the jail time be modified.”

Judge Brown was convinced. He reduced the jail time from 180 to 120 days.

Jordan Nunez was called up for sentencing. The probation officers had attached a proposed order to his report, from Juvenile Probation, recommending gang requirements. His lawyer, Ferris Perviance IV, didn’t think it was appropriate.

Judge Brown said, “I’m wondering if Probation doesn’t have some discretion on the gang requirements?”

“I don’t think so,” Mr. Perviance said. “At least it’s not appropriate in this case. They say it has something to do with having cut his hair.”

Brown said, “What do you mean ‘having cut his hair’?”

There was a commotion in the doorway and I couldn’t hear the soft-spoken lawyer’s answer, but there was a long pause while the judge re-read the Probation report. The defendant was looking out the window at the traffic down on State Street.

Finally Brown said, “He hasn’t had a gang conviction, nor is there a sustained petition anywhere on his record.”

Ms. Larson was at a loss. She said, “I’m going to defer to Probation on that.”

Tim King, the Probation Officer, said, “The people from Juvenile Probation wanted the requirement in there. I’m not the person who made this report out. If we could pass it for a week, I could get it clarified. He was basically breaking into cars and stealing, well, whatever.”

Ms. Larson said, “He broke into a residence wearing gang colors and told the woman he was a gang member.”

Mr. Perviance dismissed that as hearsay.

Brown said, “I’m willing to put it over a week, but based on what I have here, I don’t see a gang connection.”

Given a week, the Probation officers will no doubt find a bucket of red paint; enough to get their gang requirements.

Timothy Rey came next. His case has been in the court for months and I can’t figure out what happened, even vaguely, except that it involved somebody else’s car, which ended up in a field near Pinoleville. But his Probation report was pretty favorable.

Judge Brown said he’d read the report and found the circumstances “unusual” and that he was willing to fol­low the recommendation for probation, rather than prison time.

Mr. Rey’s lawyer, Bert Schlosser, wanted to address the matter of restitution, which was in the amount of $10,000.

He said, “When they retrieved the car they said it was perfectly fine. Then she went out and had the engine rebuilt, saying something about metal shavings in the oil. But the vehicle had been driven pretty hard for years by the daughter. And when you consider what my client told probation — he said, ‘If I tell you what really happened out there, you’ll think I’m minimizing my role’.”

“Minimizing.” Now there’s a word you don’t hear out of many defendants.

Brown said, “Probation was very impressed with his taking responsibility for this whole incident. He has the support of friends and family, the tribal leaders, and I think the case is unusual enough that probation is warranted. They’re asking for 180 days.

Schlosser: “He already has 179, your honor, so if he serves another day, he’s been approved for day-for-day in a treatment program, but a bed is not available at the present time. We’re asking the court to authorize his release into a program as soon as a bed is made available.”

The judge agreed.

“I’ve considered his record which, uh, isn’t good. But I’ve compared that to his attitude toward probation and his willingness to address his alcohol-related issues, so I’m going to follow the Probation recommendation and grant the probation.”

Schlosser said, “Thank you, your honor.”

“Thank you,” Mr. Rey said. “Thank you, your honor.”

Young men doing crazy things, one old man beyond sad. Just another day in the Mendocino halls of justice.

BRUCE McEWEN is court reporter for the Anderson Valley Advertiser out of Boonville, California. He can be reached via the AVA at ava@pacific.net. The AVA’s website is www.theava.com

Photos: First mugshot is John Edwards. Second Mugshot is Jack Hayward.