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Blight of Other Days 

The end of the trail for the Trail’s End Ranch case

Wednesday, Apr 19 2000
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One thing kept the single most ridiculous police operation in the history of Los Angeles and Ventura counties from also being the funniest: An innocent man was killed. Now comes the final somber punch line to the Trail‘s End Ranch case: a bill to taxpayers for $5 million.

You’ve heard similar stories: Police suspect a drug operation, raid someone‘s house; an occupant raises a gun; officers shoot him; no drugs are found.

On the morning of October 2, 1992, Donald Scott died a death like perhaps dozens of others in local police history. However, he was not a poor young man of color but a rich, white man in the fullness of years. He had no record; he did have a young wife and a multimillion-dollar ranch on the other side of the Ventura County line. And unlike the typical drug investigation (we hope), this was a clown show.

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Just read the official reports: The investigator mistakes a Carson car registration for Carson City, Nevada. A dumpster-pilfered deposit slip for an offshore bank is by itself introduced as evidence of drug trafficking. So, apparently, is the fact that Scott’s wife drives a 5-year-old BMW and spends $100 bills at local markets. Imagine, spending $100 bills in Malibu. Now there‘s a way to stick out.

Nevertheless, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department exonerated the shooter, a Malibu--Agoura Hills station deputy named Gary Spencer. As it happens, Spencer also was the man behind the so-called investigation, which official departmental reports show as a farrago of bad evidence, wild assumptions, hoked-up grudges and dubious surmises. At no point, according to the LASD‘s own reports, did Spencer have any responsible supervision -- what you might call adult leadership. No one second-guessed the deputy or checked out his wild story of marijuana plants dangling from trees in pots rigged to rise and fall with the sun. The hard-charging Spencer was not even slowed by the Ventura judge he went to for a search warrant -- to whom he untruthfully claimed that a marijuana plant had been seen, via binoculars from an aircraft -- on Spencer’s ranch.

Still, the L.A. County District Attorney‘s Office found no police wrongdoing on the part of Spencer or anyone else in a six-agency federallocal task force that included more than 25 officers and investigators. You might have thought there was more than enough blame to go around. But officially, there wasn’t enough for anyone. At least, not according to Los Angeles County.

But the caper didn‘t pass muster elsewhere. Because the 1992 madcap drug-squad escapade culminated in Ventura County, where there was another district attorney involved: Ventura County’s Michael Bradbury. Although the warrant behind the expedition was furnished by a Ventura County judge -- on the basis of some very questionable information -- no one told Bradbury or the Ventura County sheriff what was going down in their territory.

So he responded to the incident with what is perhaps the most damning critique ever made of the Los Angeles County Sheriff‘s Department. In which Bradbury accused Sheriff Sherman Block’s deputies of plotting to seize Scott‘s ranch in forfeiture proceedings, all for its alleged multimillion-dollar worth. I have never seen a convincing refutation of this contention.

An outraged Sheriff Block responded with his own report. But even as Block’s report defended Spencer‘s actions, by enumerating in detail the preceding investigation, the sheriff’s own summary confirmed the ill-supervised, slipshod, sometimes bestially stupid police work that, in large part, brought about the entire tragedy. And most of all, its two-volume, foot-thick bulk demonstrates that no one assumed proper supervision over this very junior officer. This was the fault of the Sheriff‘s Department. Nearly eight years later, the county admits this by paying $4 million to Scott’s heirs -- his widow and three children. The federal government is responsible for the other $1 million of the settlement totaling $5 million.

As this month‘s County Claims Board report puts it, ”A public entity is responsible for the negligent and wrongful acts of its employees and when the acts are committed in the course and scope of their duties. Additionally, a public entity would be liable for a violation of another’s federally protected civil rights.“

Deputy Spencer -- who the last time I looked had three excessive-force civil cases pending against him, including the Scott death -- is no longer with the department, according to the Sheriff‘s personnel people. The Scott Ranch itself burned off in the 1993 brushfires. But in its own response to this week’s multimillion-dollar settlement, the Sheriff‘s Department -- even under new Sheriff Lee Baca -- still claims the shooting was justified. I guess some things never change.

Pre-empting the Pre-emptors

I wasn’t there. So I am inclined not to say anything about it. But so many people who were there have since said a lot. So what really did happen at the neighborhood councils‘ charter-workshop gathering on the evening of March 21 in Echo Park?

Some witnesses contend that the meeting got somewhat out of control as a dozen or more outspoken outsiders took it over. According to this version, these outsiders obstructed the gathering by objecting to a pre-established plan to divide the group of more than 100 into 14 small workshops. And the hindering of these breakout groups prevented the meeting from accomplishing what it set out to do.

Or is the alternative interpretation more valid? That an ossified, overstructured methodology -- designed to get in the way of popular input -- was successfully overwhelmed by concerned activists?

Take your pick.

But first, let us back up and look at where this thing is coming from. The final moments of last year’s Great Charter Fight gave us the ideal of neighborhood councils, without much detailing as to how they were to come about. This was partly because there was no agreement in all the charter officialdom as to how neighborhood councils were to occur or in what form.

For this reason, it seemed like a good idea to leave the final shape up to the various city neighborhoods themselves. So the City Council and the Mayor‘s Office came forth with something called the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (snappy acronym: DONE). Since early this year, this busy little bureaucracy has been out there holding meetings throughout the city’s regions, trying to get some kind of consensus on what is wanted among most of the city‘s residents. Or at least, among those who go to evening meetings such as the ones that DONE hosts. Which can be more than 200 locals. Translators and ”facilitators“ are on hand. The meetings are usually divided into smaller ”workshops.“

What happened at Logan Street Elementary School was different. More than a dozen people unfamiliar to the usual workshop crowd showed up and started speaking loudly on various issues. The newcomers refused to let the meeting be broken up into workshops. They called for a wider outreach, and -- according to some present -- blamed DONE for not doing enough. Most of the new people there reportedly had some connection with the office of local City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg. Sharon Delugach, her chief of staff, said that the insurgents consisted of local people who were concerned that DONE hadn’t done enough outreach. That there wasn‘t enough child care or concern with language barriers.

But if language barriers were a concern, why object to taking the discussion into small groups, with translators?

Delugach also claimed that she herself had heard of the meeting only ”two hours before it happened.“

I reminded Delugach that the official notice of the meeting had gone around City Hall at least five days before it happened. The DONE folks claim to have put out about 20,000 fliers on the event by that time. So why feign surprise? When I reminded her of the City Hall notification, Delugach said she had a hard time keeping up with city paperwork.

Some of those at the meeting say interest intensified once Goldberg’s Stakhanovites started working the room; others mark that juncture as the point when people started walking out. ”I was disappointed,“ said Bennett Kayser, a longtime community activist in Echo Park, who‘d worked on the charter and has run for Goldberg’s seat. Kayser added, ”Had the meeting gone on in its prior format, 160 people might have spoken.“ The official attendance figure was around 200. ”As it was,“ said Kayser, ”only 16 people did most of the talking.“

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