When It Comes to Crime, Meth Can Mean The Difference

louis martin
cns news & features

WHILE THE CITY of Fort Bragg in Mendocino County boasts the highest crime rate on the North Coast of California, the City of Point Arena can take pride in that it is not far behind. With a little more effort by the local criminal element, and some help from unruly tourists, it could easily catch up with its neighbor to the North.

Consider a recent Friday night in August.

NIGHT SHIFT for Mendocino's South Coast sheriffs begins at 6 PM and goes to 2 AM. The substation is located in the rear of the Arena Justice Court, a long yellow building at the north end of town that looks more suitable as a bowling alley. The substation is not advertised by any sign, perhaps because additional business is not wanted. They get plenty of calls without fancy fliers or brochures.

Now at most places of employment, workers show up at an appointed hour but the real work does not begin immediately. There is coffee, there is fussing, there is mentally gearing up to the job.

But on the Friday in question, the first call came in at 6:01. No time for coffee, no time for reports, no time for nothing. A trespass was in progress in the Anchor Bay area.

Now Fort Bragg has its trespasses--some quite blatant ones involving firearms and campfires and loud parties--but, still, this was a pretty good one. And while most of Fort Bragg's criminals are locals, according to Fort Bragg police chief Tom Bickel, this violation had the distinction of involving tourists.

The property involved was the B. property just north of Fish Rock Road, an area noted for producing some of the highest quality pot in Northern California.

Deputy Hermann decided that a code 2 response--urgent but no siren and flashing lights--was adequate on the winding road that leads south from Point Arena to Anchor Bay. "You never can tell," he says with a curious smile, "what people are going to do when you come up behind them." He is rapidly approaching a car from the rear. "Sometimes they just stop in the road in front of you."

The actual trespass was not that big a deal by Fort Bragg standards, but it was not without interest. Three young men from Fremont, who were staying at the Anchor Bay campground, were unable to build the type of fire they wanted in the designated campground fire pits--they wanted a really big one--so they trespassed across the B. property to the north. First through a gate with a sign saying No Trespassing, then along a trail through the woods that ran by the B's house, then down the side of a cliff to the beach below. There they began to stack logs, Indian style, for a fire.

At any other time of the year this might not have caused such alarm, but August is the height of fire season, and an enormous fire, such as they had in mind, could send sparks up the cliff and ignite the dry grass above.

"Do you want to press charges?" Mrs. B. is asked by deputy Hermann who is admiring the view: deep blue waters and giant rock formations in the bay.

"No," she says. She just wants them off the property.

A shout from deputy Hermann fetches all three young men up the cliff. After a brief lecture from deputy Dressler, who has just arrived, they are allowed to go. He warns them not only about fire danger--"Locals don't even make fires now"--but also about walking into someone's marijuana garden. The later can have deadly consequences this time of year.

Further south, the banks of the Gualala River are a popular summer hang out spot. Kids come down and park by the river. Deputy Dressler drives slowly across the broad gravel bank on the north side of the river. He passes two Mexican males parked oddly--closer to the woods than the river. They glance at the jeep uneasily.

"A lot of people are very nervous this time of the year," he explains. Marijuana which was planted in the Spring is reaching maturity; plants are large and valuable. He says he can see an edginess in people who are by nature easy going.

He distinguishes between two types of growers: hippie growers who have been doing it for twenty years or so, and who would not shoot you over their marijuana patch; and a new breed of hired Mexican growers who would. Back in late July one Mexican grower in the Comptche area opened fire at close range on a sheriff's deputy who was eradicating a marijuana patch. Shots were returned but no one was hit. "Nerves," explains Dressler.

JUST THEN a call comes in for a "415F"--domestic disturbance--on Fish Rock Road. A Mr. M. and his wife had gotten into it, and Mr. M., who had been assaulted, called 911 to report it. Now that the sun had set, it was not an easy location to spot.

The house in fact was but a short distance off the road, on a small strip of land that sloped down to the creek. In an area where most houses are built off the road on larger parcels, it was a little unusual. It was as if someone had tried to cheat by putting a house on a piece of land that wasn't large enough.

"This guy is a criminal scum bag," said deputy Dressler, pulling his jeep part way into the narrow drive way where deputy Hermann's vehicle was already parked. Hermann, who either spotted the numbers or knew the place from previous calls, had the situation in hand though not resolved. The warring parties stand separated at a corner of the house--one around the right side, the other around the left--separated though still in ear-shot. Both were well lubricated, as is usual in most domestic disputes.

"Almost invariably there's alcohol or drugs related to a domestic violence incident," says Bickel of Fort Bragg, a man who knows.

Says Mr. M, "He started this whole thing. I was just trying to take care of his tickets."

Mr. M. has a bushel of outstanding tickets and drives an unregistered vehicle on an expired driver's license. "Yes, you can get away with that," says Dressler later. "Until some judge gets mad and issues a no bail warrant." The "system" is just too overloaded to deal with the likes of Mr. M's vehicular record.

Mr. M. is also an abalone poacher, says Dressler with disdain. And passes bad checks. And . . . But tonight the focus is Mr. M's domestic problems.

It is the reverse of the usual situation. It is Mrs. M. who has popped Mr. M. And it is Mrs. M. who has also broken plates and turned over the dinner table. According to custom, it should be Mr. M. popping Mrs. M. and breaking the dishes. But in this matter the M's appeared to be law breakers as well.

There are marks on Mr. M's face that could lead to the arrest of Mrs. M., but the county jail is a long way away--Ukiah-- and there is a more practical solution at hand: separation for the evening. There is a trailer somewhere on the property, and it is agreed that one party or the other is going to spend the rest of the evening there. The question is who.

"It would be a lot easier for you to go down there than us," says Mrs. M. poking her head around the corner of the house at Mr. M. There is a child involved also. Mr. M. doesn't agree, and since Mrs. M. is the one who had caused the disturbance, he has the upper hand. Should he choose, he could have her arrested. She agrees to occupy the trailer.

"Try talking it out in the morning," suggests a departing deputy.

"No, it is over this time," says Mrs. M., her voice loud so that Mr. M. can hear.

IN THE SUMMER crime increases along the coast, and it is no vacation for those who have to deal with it. While tourists come to relax and play, county sheriffs draw overtime.

Most visitors who come to the coast are decent people just trying to get away; they are a gentler breed, for the most part, than the local inhabitants. But some come to the coast to be rowdy. They see the jagged edge of coastline between redwood forest and untamed sea--the wild, rugged environment--and they think it is a place without laws, a place to be rowdy.

Mr. Lawrence Murphy of Hayward apparently had that view of the coast in mind when he entered the Gualala Hotel bar earlier in the evening.

Now maybe the rules are different on the coast, but there are still rules and it pays for a visitor to take heed and learn them.

But Mr. Murphy's learning ability may have been impaired by a six pack of beer and hashish. Partaken of earlier in the evening, they may have not mixed well.

While Gualala Hotel manager Linda Opperman was poised to call 911--something she doesn't like to do, preferring to handle hotel problems herself--deputy Dressler happened through the rear door of the hotel on his usual evening rounds. But not totally ignorant of the situation inside.

On the rear porch, Dressler had been informed by a customer that there was someone inside causing a disturbance.

The customer described Murphy's appearance--red and black plaid shirt, jeans, and a baseball cap--but said, "You'll be able to hear him."

An hour earlier Murphy, in wholly fitting attire for the Gualala Hotel, walked into the bar and tried to strike up a conversation with two young women sitting at the end of the long wooden bar. They didn't care for his vibes and waited in icy silence for him to move on.

Murphy moved down the bar, then made the mistake of grabbing for some money that wasn't his. He got called on that move by the bar tender.

Then, moving further down the bar, and striking up a conversation with a tolerant guy in a T-shirt, Murphy made the mistake of telling the guy that he, Murphy, was the devil. He quickly learned that doesn't create a good first impression.

Murphy, whose voice is normally loud, increased his volume, hoping to become the center of attention, which, in a way, he did.

Though all could hear him, no one cared to converse with the 44-year-old East Bay Water worker who had come to the coast to celebrate his birthday, get away with his son, and dive for abalone.

Now the Gualala Hotel is not a quiet place. In theory, Mr. Murphy and his loud voice might have fit in just fine there--at least on a Friday night. Refinement is not a requirement at the Gualala Hotel. Photographs of old-timers with prize -winning fish adorn the walls. Near the front door two ferocious boars' heads are mounted high up on a wall, curved tusks aimed toward the ceiling. With reattached bodies and unfrozen eyes, they look like they could destroy all life at the Gualala Hotel within minutes. It is a place, in short, where guys--and these days women--can speak their minds and usually do. There is a rosy glow to the room that fits with the constant buzz of conversation. There are "heavy-duty" guys who regularly hang out there. Occasionally voices are raised in the heat of conversation. But voice levels rise, then fall again. There is maybe just one rule of the Gualala Hotel: Don't be obnoxious. And Murphy broke that rule.

Linda Opperman, manager of the Gualala Hotel, asked Murphy to leave, which he did--following two women out the door. Outside he began to tell the women his problems, which, to no one's surprise, included two divorces, and when they did not appear interested and began to drive away, Murphy beat on the window of their car and shouted insults. That did not make a good impression either.

Now Murphy might have just gone home and slept it all off --might have gone "abing" in the morning and told himself what a bunch of jerks live in Gualala. But instead he decided to go back into the hotel--the first in a series of more serious errors of judgment.

"COULD WE have a little talk?" asked deputy Dressler. Murphy acquiesced to deputy Dressler's request to step outside on the front porch. Maybe Murphy thought that he had at last struck up a real conversation. But with a request to see his driver's license, Murphy grew testy. While a moment before Murphy might have just been asked to leave--might have even gotten a ride home--now he was escorted to the Sheriff's jeep. There he was handcuffed and placed in the rear. He wasn't comfortable and let it be known. Loudly.

On the ride to the station, Murphy might have gone silent; might have thought about why he was not winning friends or influencing people, other than to move away. Instead Murphy screamed obscenities.

Or Murphy might have simply relaxed, let it go, said "screw it." Instead he kicked at the separation panel between front seat and rear. In that act Murphy, a tall, curly-haired Irishman, proved his considerable strength. He put a one-inch dent in the panel.

Or having gotten it, or at least something, out of his system, Murphy could have cooled it, even shown some respect; instead, he threatened to kill deputy Dressler when released from county jail, which of course was where he was now headed. Like a good journalist, he was quite specific: a 45 caliber handgun would be the weapon.

Murphy was told several times to settle down or he would be maced. It was an hour drive to county jail in Ukiah, and an hour of kicking, screaming, and yelling wasn't going to be tolerated. Deputy Dressler spelled out for Murphy the unpleasant aspects of being maced. He was blunt: "Your eyes will burn, your face will sting . . . You can ride over like a man or we can mace the shit out of you and hog tie you like an animal . . . Which do you prefer?"

But Murphy didn't settle down so Murphy got maced. But that didn't do it either. Murphy kicked out a window of the jeep and he spit on deputy Dressler. Backup was called in to help subdue visitor Murphy. Two Point Arena sheriffs, one from Bonneville. At last Murphy had some attention.

Eventually, Murphy lay at the side of Mountain View road, face down, handcuffed from the rear, tied at the ankles, with a nylon strap connecting handcuffs and ankle ties so that he could no longer move. Not a pleasant sight, and certainly not pleasant for vacationer Murphy.

A photograph was taken, but it's not one you're going to see in some visitors' guide to the Mendocino coast.

And could Fort Bragg match the likes of Murphy? Probably. But surely not every day.

WHILE THE PAPERWORK on Murphy is being processed, a call comes in on a disturbance at the Indian Rancheria in Point Arena. A youth named C. is drunk and disorderly in front a neighbor's house. The neighbor is drunk too. One drunk disturbing another drunk--an old pattern.

Deputy Hermann takes the call. He says that every time he sees C., C. tells him to "get f----d." He says he has tried to be friendly but it makes no difference with this youth. He says Point Arena is a small community and he makes a real effort to know everyone and be friendly, and it hurts at times to be treated that way.

Windy Hollow road leads out of downtown Point Arena and up to the reservation where about 400 people live. Despite the amount of land on the reservation, people live close together in several blocks of modest houses.

Another problem, says deputy Hermann, is that every time he tries to approach the youths on the reservation they run away. He says he can understand the feelings. It is true that the Indians have been "screwed over." But he thinks there is a limit using that as an excuse.

One time, he says, he was in court over a traffic violation involving an Hispanic male. The Hispanic male told the judge that the only reason he was pulled over was that he was Hispanic. The judge told him, "You had better try another excuse," pointing out that deputy Hermann himself is Hispanic.

In front of a small blue house with lawn and walk way leading to the door--an urban developer's conception of neighborhood housing but having little to do with Native American culture or rustic Mendocino County--stands a man built like a bear. A bear who has been drinking. A bear with an addled brain. He is the disturbed neighbor come out of his house.

No, he says, C. is not there. The disturber has gone, vanished into the night. The elusive C., clothed in darkness, around the corner, perhaps. C.-- or the legendary Coyote the Trickster. But not visible in the beams of a spotlight, white man's or Hispanic male's.

BACK AT THE STATION a call has come through concerning the whereabouts of some stolen property. The theft was reported on August 4th by two members of the band Makka. George Abrams, a member of the band, has left a message that he knows where the property is, and deputy Dressler calls back to say they will check it out.

Latter in the week everything is recovered by Dressler, only the thief has skipped out.

The thief, it turns out, was a guy who was hanging out next door to housemates Abrams and Alan Williams of Makka. "He was mooching off the next door neighbor," says Abrams, and casing the place out.

He waited until Williams and Abrams went out of town, then broke in, taking a music keyboard and disc player, CDs, two bikes, and a telephone answering machine. A common list of disposable goods.

"He was a speed freak," says Abrams.

Methamphetamine--"crank" or "speed"--can be smoked, snorted, or injected. The high last for hours. And compared to cocaine, it is cheap. California is the biggest producer. It can cause psychoses involving paranoia and auditory hallucinations. Depression and suicide are the downside of the high. It is relatively cheap to manufacture, but the process can be dangerous because the chemicals are volatile; hazardous by-products are created in the manufacturing process. It is an addictive substance that can make users desperate to support their habits.

Says Abrams, "I've seen people get onto the stuff and a few months down the road their hair is falling out, their teeth are falling out, they've got acne on their face. . . And then they turn to crime because they can't hold down a job anymore." He says the drug is worse than heroin. "I've seen it first hand, and it's not pretty."

There is a lot of methamphetamine in Mendocino County. Many arrests involve the use of it. But Abrams claims the problem is acute in Gualala and Fort Bragg.

About Point Arena, Abrams clams up:

"Point Arena is a little bit not quite as affected by it, seems like; 'cause people here, I don't know, I , but . . ."

His reluctance to verbally commit himself may be understandable. He lives there.

AND THEREIN may lie the competitive edge that Fort Bragg has over Point Arena: methamphetamine. Meth keeps you awake for days in a row; moreover, it makes you ornery as hell, just like Mr. Murphy. Or murderous. Remember the Hardin boys from Wilits? Now there's crime for you!

Should Point Arena want to compete seriously with its neighbor to the north, Point Arena had better get real. Subsidize methamphetamine labs? Create meth enterprise zones? Why not! So what if the whole town goes bald. That's what caps are made for. Either that or be second rate in crime.

(But don't tell the deputies; they think they're overworked.)

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