Man With a Mission

AP/Wide WorldAs Mike Reynolds and I enter his rambling Fresno home, he gestures for me to take a seat in one of the several antique barber chairs that furnish his living room. Then the founding father of California’s 1994 "three strikes" law steps over to his VCR and pops in a 30-second "prevention video" about the new legislation he conceived and spearheaded into law late last year: AB 4, the "10-20-Life" bill. The video, he tells me, features Alan Autry, a fellow Fresno resident and the actor who played the cop Bubba in the TV show In the Heat of the Night.

The public-service spot begins with the wail of a police siren as Autry suddenly appears in front of some police cars with their cherry tops flashing. "California has just begun enforcing the toughest law in the land on criminals who use guns," Bubba intones. "So if you know a punk with a gun who thinks he’s tough, let him know this law is tougher. If you’re 14 years old or older, and you pull a gun to commit a crime, you’re going to get an extra 10 years. If you pull the trigger, you’re going to get an extra 20. And if you shoot someone — live or die — you’re going to spend the rest of your life in prison." Then the offscreen voice of an announcer fades in: "‘10-20-Life’ — the law is here," he says to the reverberations of a jail-cell door clanging shut.

"I’ve got tapes in Spanish, too," Reynolds informs me as he slides a second version of the same message into the VCR, this one showing grainy surveillance videos of actual armed robberies in progress, and ending with Bubba saying, "Use a gun and you’re done."

"If these had been produced by a commercial firm, it would have cost close to $100,000," says Reynolds, a self-employed wedding photographer who’s become California’s most successful citizen-activist since Howard Jarvis shoved Proposition 13 down the throats of Jerry Brown and the state Legislature in 1978. "But we did them for nothing. And they’ll run all over the state as soon as funding comes through. Requests have been made" — with accompanying letters from Governor Pete Wilson, Attorney General Dan Lungren and Secretary of State Bill Jones — "asking all the major TV stations to run the tapes for free. But," Reynolds adds, "almost nobody is airing them. In L.A. we’ve even had [District Attorney] Gil Garcetti walk us into TV stations, but nothing’s worked. So what we have to do is make a buy."

At 54, Reynolds, a short, bald, big-bellied man, is full of such grand ideas, which he will promulgate, unsolicited, at a moment’s notice. Unlike most big talkers, however, Reynolds delivers. To make the videos, for example, he persuaded a small local production company to shoot the commercial for free, and got Autry to recite the script Reynolds himself had written.

During the past six years now, such issues have not just been Mike Reynolds’ crusade; they’ve been his obsession — ever since the murder of his 18-year-old daughter, Kimber. In the summer of 1992, as she was opening her car door outside a fashionable Fresno restaurant called the Daily Planet, two men on a stolen gray Kawasaki motorcycle pulled up next to her and grabbed at her purse. When she resisted, one of them shot her dead in the head with a .357 Magnum.

Since then, a video of her death has been playing endlessly in Reynolds’ head, compelling him, as he puts it, to "sweep the criminal garbage off the streets." The passage of both the "10-20-Life" law and California’s "three strikes" statute are living testaments to the depth of his commitment.

Mike Reynolds’ "three strikes" law is distinguished from those of other states by its imposition of a radical form of preventive detention that locks up often young, often nonviolent petty criminals for decades. ("During the time," Reynolds points out, "when they would have, or easily could have, committed violent crimes.") Today, more than 35,000 inmates — almost one-quarter of California’s prison population — are currently doing time on second and third strikes. Over 80 percent of those now serving ä 25-to-life on a third strike are doing so for a nonviolent crime — for stealing a pair of sunglasses, say, or possessing a small amount of drugs, or writing a bad check.

"10-20-Life" is equally draconian. Under its provisions, just as Bubba tells it in the TV spot, anyone pulling a gun during the commission of a crime will have an additional 10-year "enhancement" tacked on to whatever sentence would have been handed down for the actual crime. And, like the "three strikes" law, "10-20-Life" mandates that the individual circumstances of a crime not be taken into account by judges, resulting in throw-away-the-key sentences. (Judges are forbidden to grant probation or suspend a sentence.) Moreover, the law specifically targets young offenders, who can be labeled gang members under a very lax standard, then found "vicariously liable" for the actions of a companion, even though the accomplice in question did not personally use a gun, or even know that a fellow "gang member" was carrying a gun.


Still, Mike Reynolds couldn’t be prouder of the law, which he refers to as his "puppy." Even more his, he says, than "three strikes": "Because this one they can’t lay off on Polly Klaas [the 12-year-old Petaluma girl whose murder-kidnapping inflamed the nation and catapulted ‘three strikes’ to decisive victory], or on a lot of emotion and a big wave of money. ‘10-20-Life’ was put together right here," says Reynolds, pointing at his living-room floor.

To actually write the "10-20-Life" bill, says Reynolds, "We once again used our team of judges." He’s referring to the same team that wrote his "three strikes" law, a team that includes Jim Ardaiz, now presiding judge on California’s 5th District Court of Appeals. Reynolds also got technical assistance from "a couple of key people from the District Attorneys Association.

"From there," continues Reynolds, "we made an attempt to drive the bill as a ballot initiative. But we couldn’t qualify. We only got about 200,000 signatures. We didn’t have a Polly Klaas. When Bill Cosby’s kid got murdered, we asked if he’d help and got a form letter saying he wasn’t interested. But at the same time, we were driving the bill legislatively. We knew we had the hottest-button issue in California, much hotter than ‘three strikes.’" So hot that with an election year coming up, the bill — opposition to which would almost certainly have amounted to political suicide — passed, on September 27, 1997, with only a couple of abstentions.

"This is Route 41, probably the artery through Fresno," announces Reynolds, who’s now busy driving me around in his battered white van to all the sites related to his daughter’s murder. "It’s perceived as a ‘crime belt,’ but when these little punks have wheels, they go all over. They don’t go downtown anymore, because there’s nobody there to rob and mug."

Reynolds is something of an expert when it comes to his native Fresno — a flat, sun-bleached Central California city that was his entire world prior to his daughter’s murder: Asthma kept him out of the draft at the height of the Vietnam War, and after high school he briefly attended a local community college.

Yet despite his limited experience of the world outside the San Joaquin Valley, Reynolds has managed to radically transform California’s criminal-justice laws twice within four years.

Today, he announces as we continue the tour, he’s concentrating on a $5 million allocation from the state Assembly to sponsor television broadcasts of his "10-20-Life" videos. "Before ‘three strikes,’" he says, "us getting funding on a package like this wouldn’t have happened. We had no credibility, no track record. Nowadays, shit, I walk through the Capitol, everybody knows me. They may love me or hate me, but they know who I am." (And in fact, by evening’s end Reynolds’ request for money has cleared its first Assembly committee, and his bill has been placed on the Assembly docket for further consideration, though it will later be denied.)

Reynolds proceeds to sell me on "10-20-Life," pointing out how, since passage of the law and the "deliberate program to let people know about it," Fresno has experienced "the greatest quarterly crime drop ever in any county in California."

When I check Reynolds’ figures with the Fresno Police Department, I find that gun crimes indeed dropped significantly in the city from January to August 1998. (Assaults, robberies and homicides with firearms declined by 43 percent, 48 percent and 54 percent respectively.) What Reynolds fails to point out, however, is that Fresno’s crime rate, like that of the state, has been dropping significantly since 1993, a year before "three strikes" and five years before "10-20-Life." And while Lieutenant John Fries, the administrative assistant to Fresno’s chief of police, does feel that "three strikes" and "10-20-Life" have helped, he points out that there were other factors involved in bringing crime down in Fresno: SWAT officers patrolling the streets, the introduction of helicopter response and the addition of one-third more sworn officers to the department.

Because of his passion in promoting "10-20-Life," I assumed Mike Reynolds would be part of the growing gun-control chorus. He quickly sets me straight.

"Look," he says, "my daughter was murdered with a .357 Magnum. They placed it in her ear. What I want is that kind of conduct stopped.

"Let’s talk about some of the [gun-control] proposals," Reynolds continues. "Banning cheap handguns wouldn’t be effective. That would just end up putting more reliable guns out on the street."


I ask about assault weapons. "It depends on what’s an ‘assault weapon.’ You can get around a clip-size ban by taping two clips together and reversing them — you’ve walked around the law with nothing but a piece of tape. So while it may feel good, is it making things safer?"

I press him further. Is he going after assault weapons?

No, he replies. He is "going after the people who use the guns. Machine guns are against the law in California, yet I just had an opportunity to buy one. The question is, have gun-control laws been effective in stopping machine guns? The answer is, they have not. Drugs are illegal, and has that stopped them? Hell no it hasn’t."

What struck me most about Reynolds’ convoluted logic was its similarity to that of his political allies — outgoing Republican Governor Pete Wilson and the state’s ultraconservative attorney general, Dan Lungren. Earlier this year, for example, Wilson vetoed bills to control Saturday-night specials and assault weapons, while Lungren, then running a losing one-issue gubernatorial campaign based on "three strikes" and "getting tough on crime," supported both vetoes. Lungren didn’t like the way assault weapons had been defined in the legislation, he said, zeroing in, like Rey nolds, on the issue of clip size. And he didn’t like the bill to make Saturday-night specials safer, because it didn’t make them safe enough, while the bill to amend the loophole-infested 1989 ban on assault weapons wasn’t "clean" enough. All this seemed to boil down to a rationale that no gun control is better than less-than-perfect gun control, and that there is always a reason why such legislation can’t be perfect. Democratic state Assemblyman Don Perata, the author of one of the gun-control bills recently vetoed by Wilson, called that line of logic "just-off-the-shelf NRA babble."

Clearly, Wilson and Lungren don’t want to alienate the National Rifle Association, a key Republican constituency, and neither does Reynolds. It was the NRA’s initial contribution of $40,000, after all, that kept Mike Reynolds’ "three strikes" campaign afloat in the early days before the Polly Klaas murder, when his legislation was clearly going nowhere.

The NRA certainly got its money’s worth. Mike Reynolds’ "three strikes" law — anticipating "10-20-Life" — began shifting the focus from the ready availability of the instruments of death to the culpability of those who wield them.

Earlier in the day, Reynolds and I visited the Daily Planet — the restaurant where his daughter was gunned down. Inside, Reynolds introduced me to the owner, a middle-aged woman who seemed not altogether pleased to see him. I went to the restroom, and when I returned, Mike Reynolds was fuming. The owner, he informed me on our way back to the van, had just reminded him that it was six years since Kimber’s death, that all this attention was hurting her business, that Reynolds should stop taking people like me on tours and get a life.

"Sure, it’s hurt her business," says Reynolds bitterly. "But it’s wrecked our lives. ‘When will this be over?’ she asked me. I told her it will be over when my daughter comes back."


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