Humboldt Trials and Tribulations
In May 1973, Rolling Stone featured a story about Humboldt County. The relevance of that article to those of us today who participate in regular discussion about current events is obvious. Unfortunately, the article is not on-line.
Humboldt County in the early 70’s was a raucous place. The cultural war on “back-to-the-land” newcomers was like a squawking newborn sucking its first few breaths. It was a time of police shootings, a failed recall attempt, and plump bags bearing letters to the editor while helicopters swirled overhead. Local police hated the District Attorney, and emotions on both sides ran high.
It was a time a lot like now.
The recall campaign targeted Justice of the Peace Charles Thomas, who was accused of being (I kid you not) “soft on hippies.” He was taunted by sheriffs’ deputies as the “Just-Ass of the Peace,” and the campaign operated out of the Garberville Sheriffs substation. The recall failed, but the cultural divide deepened.
The Rolling Stone article is built around a man named Dirk Dickenson who in early 1972 was shot in the back as he ran unarmed from agents who descended on his property on Pratt Mountain from a Huey helicopter. The raid was based on faulty information by deputy sheriff Mel Ames, who claimed he spotted a million-dollar meth lab on Dickenson’s property during an aerial surveillance.
Humboldt County law enforcement’s bias against newcomers tainted officers’ judgment and botched their investigations. Before the raid, Undersheriff Bob Bollman boasted to then-managing editor of the Times-Standard, Dan Walters that the biggest narcotics bust in Humboldt County history was about to go down. Bollman ordered Walters to assign reporters to the bust and insisted they bring cameras. Walters was quoted as saying that “[i]f it wouldn’t have been for Undersheriff Bollman’s ego, chances are the world never would have found out about Dirk Dickenson. Chances are things might have been tidied up.”
The reporters, however, were about as savvy as the cops. They made an extremely unprofessional agreement to limit questioning at the scene to Undersheriff Bollman and Federal Narcotics agent Kenny Krusco. But they were witnesses none the less, and what they saw was chilling. T-S reporter Richard Harris scribbled a sentence in his notebook: “Looks like an assault on an enemy prison camp in Vietnam.”
Dirk Dickenson and his girlfriend Judy Arnold didn’t fear the Huey helicopter and waved back at the plainclothes agents’ seemingly friendly greeting. But when they saw the guns in the hands of unidentified men who kicked down the front door without warning, Dickenson hopped off his back porch and ran for the woods.
The single bullet entered Dickenson’s back just above his waist and beside his spine, and exited from the lower groin. The “million dollar meth lab” was no where to be found. News of Dickenson’s death hit the airwaves before his mother was notified.
The man who pulled the trigger was Lloyd Clifton, an agent with the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD). Clifton had a history of unnecessarily beating people during his time with the Berkeley police. One beating occurred after Clifton pulled over a man for a traffic violation. The man, Clifton said, “smirked at me,” so Clifton beat him with his baton.
Humboldt County District Attorney Bill Ferroggiaro, announced he would take no action until the investigation was complete. And actually, there would be two investigations – one by the US Dept. of Justice and one by the Humboldt County DA’s office.
The Federal investigation began a few weeks after the shooting. US attorney James K. Browning, Jr. announced investigators had “an open mind.” But he added, apparently without fear of appearing biased, that he suspected the shooting would “fall into the category of justifiable homicide.”
At the time, no federal narcotics agent anywhere in the US had ever been charged with violating the constitutional rights of a suspect.
The policy manual of the BNDD stated that “[t]he agent should not shoot at any persons except to protect his own life or that of some other person. The agent will not fire at fleeing automobiles, suspects or defendants.” The manual, it would seem, forbid the very action taken by Lloyd Clifton.
Not surprisingly, the investigation by the DOJ concluded Clifton had not violated Dickenson’s rights by shooting him in the back. The pressure was now on DA Ferroggiaro, who was already under fire for failing to bring charges or win convictions stemming from a string of other violent incidences. One of those incidences involved Patrick Berti, a lifelong resident of Ferndale, who suffered a fatal police shot to the chest for holding a marijuana branch.
The branch was from one of two four-foot plants that were growing in the banks of the Eel River near Ferndale. The plants were the subject of a week-long stakeout by an “ambitious” sheriff’s deputy, Mel Ames, the same man who spotted the mysterious million-dollar meth lab. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Ames was enjoying the weekend off while deputy Larry Lema watched the plants. Lema and Berti were “life-long acquaintances,” but Lema said he mistook the branch for a gun. Berti reportedly saw Lema lean over him and said “Christ, Larry, you’ve shot me,” and died.
In another crazy incident, CHP officer Robert Hahn pulled out his gun to chase a man whose crime was abandoning his motorcycle on the side of 101 near HSU and running through the brush. Upon catching up to the man, Hahn ordered him to stop. William Smith, a 38 year-old employee of Simpson Lumber Company and father of five, stopped and faced the officer, who shot Smith between the eyes with a .38 Special revolver. Officer Hahn fled the scene, and days later was assigned to work on the investigation. Four days after beginning work on the investigation, Hahn confessed to the killing. The DA called it an “accident” and said Hahn was “negligent.” Hahn was charged with the minimal crime of involuntary manslaughter, but beat the rap.
After a Humboldt County Grand Jury reviewed the case of Dirk Dickenson, Lloyd Clifton “became the first agent in the five-year history of the government Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs to face homicide charges.” He also became the first person in Humboldt County history to forego booking into the Humboldt County jail following an indictment for murder.
Clifton was defended in court by James McKittrick, the same lawyer who beat the charges against Officer Hahn. The case ended up in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and in 1977 the Appellate Court sided with Clifton. (Clifton v. Cox, 549 F.2d 722). The outcome has been cited in many other cases against officers as an example of how far an officer can go and still receive “immunity.”
The above only scratches the surface of this story. It is strongly recommended that anyone interested in today’s turmoil get a copy of the Rolling Stone article. A look back is prudent (and fascinating) as we struggle to move forward after the tumultuous events of 2006.