How many times have you resolved to exercise every day, ban sugar from your diet and write no matter how many crazy things are going on around you?
I’m certain I’ve made those pledges every year since I started writing down my resolutions in 1902. Correction: 1962.
Have I succeeded? While I’m sleeping on New Year’s Eve I’m pure as the driven snow. But come January First, when I’m supposed to be eating black-eyed peas, I spot a chocolate croissant at Starbucks or a friend tells me I can’t miss the best TV series ever made that is about to air or I get reach into my top drawer for hiking socks and find I simply must clean out the entire closet between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when I’d planned to walk and write.
This year I know my resolutions will stick. After all, COVID is still a life-threatening menace despite the new vaccines — how the heck do you get one?— despite the masks, despite the social distancing we attempt going the wrong way down the aisle at the grocery store.
This year will be different, I’m sure. After all, if the nasty virus strikes us down, and we haven’t achieved our life’s goals, we’ll be miserable. I know I won’t die happy if my life plans are sitting like the dirty laundry in the basket in my closet?
This year COVID will help me say “no” to that croissant, no to that thrilling TV show and no to that sudden project that sabotages my writing and walking.
It shouldn’t be hard. I’ve frozen the cake and cookies left over from Christmas. I’ve used up all our WiFi gigs watching “The Queen’s Gambit” anyway. And I’ve found hiking boots that don’t hurt my feet. I’m on my way. How about you?
A small but dangerous adversary hijacked a once-in-a-lifetime Asian cruise my wife Erin and I booked on the Holland America ship Westerdam.
For two weeks during February, five countries refused to let our ship dock despite the cruise company’s repeated assurances that none of us — 1,455 guests and 747 crew— had COVID-19 — the novel coronavirus.
Some media outlets dubbed the Westerdam “Pariah Ship” as the governments of the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Guam, and Thailand turned us away.
When we finally debarked, the challenges continued when an 83-year-old Westerdam passenger tested positive for the virus. She is recovering in Kuala Lumpur, but her case threw in to turmoil travel home for the ship’s 1644 passengers.
The first two weeks of our cruise were a blast. Boarding in Singapore Jan. 16, we snorkeled in Koh Samui, Thailand; took selfies with the golden Buddhas of Bangkok’s Royal Palace; watched the sun rise over the haunting temples of Angkor Wat and visited the so-called Hanoi Hilton, the infamous French-built prison where Sen. John McCain spent five nightmare years and countless Vietnamese political prisoners were held by the French Colonial government from 1886 to 1954.
Our ship’s tangle with the novel virus began soon after we left Hong Kong, where nearly half of the ship’s guests disembarked Feb. 1, as scheduled, and about the same number of new passengers came aboard for the second leg of the trip to Manila, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. Shanghai, the intended final port of call, had already been scratched from our itinerary because of the coronavirus outbreak there. The revised plan was to debark in Yokohama and fly home from nearby Tokyo.
We soon found the welcome mat pulled up as the virus outbreak on the Diamond Princess forced that ship to quarantine in Yokohama Feb. 4. (To date, 542 out of 3,711 Diamond Princess passengers have tested positive for the virus, making the ship the site of the most infections outside of China.)
Our itinerary got weird. Our two-night stay in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, was cut short without explanation Feb. 5. South Korea was scratched without explanation and the ship headed north toward Japan when the ship Captain Vincent Smit announced we could not stop anywhere in Japan and were heading east toward Guam. Many of us joked that with luck we’d end up on a beach in Hawaii.
A day later, the captain announced that we were heading westward again. Gwam was a no-go. An electronic map of the ship’s course and positions showed a bright yellow line zig zagging through the South China Sea.
Half laughing, half crying, our friend and shipmate Holley taught us the words to an African song Art Garfunkel made famous:
“We are going,
Heaven knows where we are going . . .
And we’ll get there.
Heaven knows how we will get there.
But we know we will.”
We were disappointed to miss so many ports, but not worried. The captain had assured us there were no coronavirus cases aboard. The food was great, and we had many diversions, including daily Asian history lectures, dancing to live soul music in the B.B. King Lounge, an Oscar party on the Main Stage, and nonstop TV coverage in our staterooms of the impeachment vote, the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses. If none of those appealed, we could gamble in the casino or read on our balconies as the ship steamed off to nowhere under sunny skies.
To much applause, the captain announced Feb. 12 that Thailand had agreed to let us land near Bangkok. Passengers nearly crashed the ship’s Wifi trying to book flights home and contact families. Adding to our cheer was the news that Holland America would refund our fares and give us 50 percent off another cruise if we booked in the next twelve months.
Up in the Crow’s Nest Observation Deck one morning after a capuccino, I spoke with Jan Kennedy of Yorkshire, England, who loved the first leg of the trip but was not happy with Holland America’s handling of the crisis after Hong Kong.
“When Holland America decided that we were going to go to Hong Kong,” Kennedy said, “We were all quite alarmed because by that time we already knew that there was a [COVID-19] problem brewing there, so we were quite shocked that they were going to take us to Hong Kong and let a lot of people on potentially bringing on the virus with them.
“And then after that there was very poor communication. The ship itself is wonderful, the crew have been fantastic and looked after us, but we’ve been very disappointed with Holland America for the communications or lack of communication. I know they’re trying to rectify that but of course it will have spoiled the cruise for most people, I think.”
As we drew closer to Thailand, an ominous lookingThai naval ship with a cannon on its bow began to follow us. No worries, the captain announced. The ship was escorting us to port. A couple of hours later, Captain Smit announced we were not landing in Thailand after all but heading east to Sihanoukville, Cambodia, where we would disembark. Holland America would book our flights home and pay for them. All of this, he said, might take a few days since passengers hailed from many countries. Most of us were from the USA and Canada and Holland.
On Feb. 12, in waters off Sihanoukville, several dozen Cambodian officials boarded the ship to sort through our passports and health records, confirming that there were no coronavirus cases aboard and double checking to be sure that no one aboard had traveled to mainland China before boarding. We had the “all clear!”
At 6 a.m. the next day, the captain woke us up asking passengers us to go immediately to the port side of the ship, donning the scarves left on our beds the night before. The scarves, he said, were a gift from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was landing soon by helicopter to welcome ashore the ship’s first passengers. We waved, as directed, to the prime minister; media outlets from around the world documented the disembarkation.
On Valentine’s Day, when I returned from my cappuccino in the Crow’s Nest, Erin was beside herself.
“Where have you been?” she cried. “Holland America has booked us on a charter flight to Kuala Lumpur. Finish packing!” We would stay there in a hotel, she said, and fly to Singapore in the morning.
“But our final destination is San Francisco not Singapore,” I said. The staff said not to worry. Malaysian Airlines in Kuala Lumpur would book us through to SFO.
On our bus to the airport and our flight to Kuala Lumpur were a man with a wretched cough and his 83-year-old wife.
On landing in Kuala Lumpur, masked flight attendants pulled off the elderly woman and her husband while the rest of us waited on the plane, for what we didn’t know. Someone walked down the aisle spraying us with an unnamed aerosol disinfectant. Erin kept her head under her blanket.
Then our trip got really weird. Instead of preceding to our flights, officials in the airport held us in a freezing transit lounge (It was in 80 degrees outside!) for more than three hours. Shivering, with police and unsmiling airport personnel watching us, we waited. Some people missed their next flight. Others were allowed to go to theirs. Finally, someone appeared with blankets and pillows and airline dinners.
Miraculously, a can-do retired nurse named Linda from Denver took control of the situation, calling Holland America’s Seattle headquarters and the American consulate in Kuala Lumpur to find out why were being held. She relayed news from Holland America, the consulate and Malaysian officials back to the rest of us over the P.A. system.
“Someone from the consulate will be coming soon to help us,” she announced.
Then later — “No one will be getting their luggage tonight because your luggage has gone to customs and immigration; we cannot go there, since we are in transit, and we are not going through immigration. You will pick up your luggage when you reach your final destination.”
Erin and I were alarmed. “We don’t have a final destination,” we told the nurse “Our ticket stops in Singapore.
“I’ll ask about,” she promised.
“What about the hotel?” we said. “Those of us leaving in the morning were told we’d have a room.”
“No one is staying at a hotel,” Linda said over the P.A. system. “That isn’t happening. But the airport is trying to find a more comfortable place for you to spend the night.”
No suitcases. No hotel?
At long last, officials escorted us through much of the airport and aboard an airport train to the Golden Lounge, where we would spend the night.
The Golden Lounge was great — a cavernous room for first-class tourists with a free 24-hour buffe, beverages, chairs, bathrooms and showers. Tucked away in a small alcove, Erin found a woman’s “napping lounge” and nabbed two couches for us. We took showers set our alarm clocks for 5 a.m., when, the nurse said, a Malaysian airline representative would escort early departures like us to the transit ticket desk. We were booked to fly to Singapore at 8 a.m.
As we waited for our boarding passes the next morning, a woman showed up from the American Consulate in Kuala Lumpur.
“I don’t usually work on airline tickets,” she told me, “But this is an unusual situation.”
“What happened?” I asked. “Why have we been held here?” “I’m trying to sort it all out,” was the gist of what she said. We felt better knowing that someone from our government was on the case.
Amazingly, when we got to the head of the line, the Malaysian ticket agent gave us a boarding passes for Tokyo, a five-hour trip, and from Tokyo to SFO, a 12-hour trip. All was not lost.
In Tokyo, we dashed to our flight, with just enough time to text our friends Holley and Liz from the ship. They said the 83-year-old corona virus case had thrown travel plans for the rest of the passengers into chaos. Holland America had flown them and about 300 others on a charter plane to Phnom Penh, where they were staying in a luxury hotel awaiting full coronavirus testing. A number of airlines and countries would not take them without full health clearances. The prime minister of Cambodia was now in trouble for letting the Westerdam land. It would take several days for everyone in Phnom Penh to be tested. Meanwhile, back on the Westerdam, she said that Holland America was testing more than 200 guests still there as well as the entire staff.
We made it to SFO at about 8 a.m. the next morning, and took BART to El Cerrito, where we planned to spend the night before driving home.
Nearly simultaneously on BART, Erin and opened e-mails and texts we had not seen while traveling. The 83 year old on our flight, the media reported, had tested positive for the virus although her husband was negative.
“Oh, shit.” Erin texted our friend. “We may have been exposed to the virus.”
The three of us stood awkwardly at the BART station.
“I don’t think you should stay with me,” our friend said. “I am so sorry.”
By this time we had been in transit for 48 hours.
“We can’t go home,” Erin said. “We’re too tired to drive and besides my daughter is there with two friends taking care of the dogs.”
“Can you stay in a motel?” our friend asked.
“Of course,” I said uncertainly.
“I’m too tired to look,” Erin said. We ate Thai lunch at a restaurant in El Cerrito as I searched online for a motel.
“Let’s treat ourselves to a nice place,” Erin said.
It was Saturday of Valentine’s Day weekend. Every hotel or motel we could think of was booked.
“Let’s drive to Novato,” I said. “We’ll find a motel there.”
In Novato we found what must have been the last room in the Bay Area.
We were freezing and exhausted. My down jacket was in my suitcase. But where was my suitcase? Not with us.
From the motel, Erin called UCSF Emergency Department hoping we could resolve this matter of our possible exposure to coronavirus once and for all, with a test.
“Do you test for coronavirus?” she asked.
“Only if you have symptoms,” replied someone from the Emergency Department. “Do you have fever? Cough? Difficulty breathing?” “I’m fine,” she said.
“We won’t test you. Don’t come in.”
She called Marin General. Same thing. They didn’t test unless someone was symptomatic.
“Guess what?” I said, staring at a text. “The woman I was talking to from our flight to Kuala Lumpur texted me that her brother, who is still in Phnom Penh, says the positive test in Kuala Lumpur is believed to be suspect. Malaysia has refused to allow the CDC and the World Health Organization retest her.”
“That explains it,” Erin said. “How else could her husband and every other passenger be negative.Let’s go to a movie,” Erin said. “It’s 6 p.m. Too early to go to bed.”
We bought a giant popcorn and saw a movie, thinly plotted but riveting, which kept us awake until 10 p.m.
“How do you feel?” I said as we drove north to Mendocino Sunday.
“Fine,” Erin said. “Do you feel short of breath, feverish?”
“You know I don’t,” she said. “That woman was a false positive. I know it.”
“Should we quarantine ourselves?” I said.
“We need groceries ito self-quarantine.”
We decided only one of us would go briefly into Trader Joe’s and only after we’d cleaned our hands with Purel.
Erin called her daughter. She and her friends were leaving. They would not take the chance of being exposed to us.
“I understand,” Erin said. “But just so you know, we’re not sick.”
We passed her daughter and her friends on our road, blowing kisses to them.
We were thrilled to be home. We called the Mendocino public health, part of County Health and Human Services. The message machine was full.
A couple hours later, some called and read us the protocol stating that if you have no symptoms, you did not need to be stay in quarantine.
“Fine,” Erin said, explaining that we thought the 83 year old’s positive test was bogus.
Soon we got a call back from the county. They changed their mind and would like us to stay in quarantine at home.
“Sure,” Erin said, explaining that some thought the woman’s test was a false positive.
“That does seem odd,” she said. “Do you need anything? I live nearby. I can bring you groceries.”
“We’re fine,” Erin said. “But thank you.”
Friends brought our mail and more groceries. The nurse called every day that week to check on our temperature and symptoms. We had nothing to report. Everything was normal.
On Sunday, Feb. 23, seven days after our plane ride with the alleged corona virus case, we received an email from Holland America’s president, Orlando Ashford. He said that the woman who tested positive was now clear of the virus and that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun doubted the accuracy of the initial test.
“Based on information provided for the reported single confirmed case of COVID-19,” he wrote, “the U.S. CDC does not recommend isolation or quarantine for guests returning home from Westerdam. If for some reason you have been asked to self-quarantine by your national, state or local health authority, please let us know.”
We sent the letter to the county. The nurse agreed that we were probably fine and said she would not call every day, unless we wanted her to. She reminded us that our quarantine was voluntary.
We went shopping on Monday and had dinner with a friend.
The world is on alert. China is on virtual lockdown. The U.S. stock market is plummeting.
Meanwhile, all of us are supposed to wash our hands well and often; never touch our faces and mouths with our fingers; cover our mouths when we cough and wear a mask if we are sick.
We are grappling with COVID-19.
Erin and I are healthy. More than fourteen days have passed since we traveled in an airplane with a woman who was suspected of having coronavirus but does not have it.
By Jane Futcher California Lawyer Magazine July 23, 2010
When federal agents arrested ten Hmong leaders in California last year, did they foil a terrorist plot—or entrap a group of delusional exiles?
Early last year, at a popular Thai restaurant in Sacramento just a few blocks from the state capitol, a trim, 60-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel named Harrison Jack met Steve Hoffmaster, a former Navy SEAL, for the first time. A seemingly pleasant guy in his 40s, Hoffmaster described himself as a part-time arms dealer, and said he was following up on a call that Jack had made to a private defense contractor in Arizona about buying hundreds of AK-47s for a group of insurgents halfway around the world. Now, as they sat together at the restaurant amid an array of gold-painted Buddhas, Hoffmaster promised to get Jack everything he wanted–and more.
That conversation, along with as many as 30 others both in person and over the phone, serves as a road map to an astonishing and thoroughly implausible plot to overthrow the Communist government of Laos–a government toward which the United States is officially neutral, despite its deplorable record of abuse of the native Hmong. These fiercely independent people, who still live in the mountain jungles of Laos and who, historically, have had little to do with the lowland Lao, are now said to number less than 15,000. They are also said to be the target of a brutal military campaign that can be traced back to the 1960s, when the Hmong sided with the Americans in a CIA-supported “secret” war against both the Laotian and North Vietnamese Communists.
One of the most charismatic figures in that war was Gen. Vang Pao, who for 13 years commanded an army of Hmong irregulars. Today, at age 78, the former general lives in Orange County, where he is still a revered figure. “Gen. Vang Pao is George Washington to this community,” says Blong Xiong, a Hmong activist who serves on Fresno’s city council.
However, as Jack’s remarks to Hoffmaster over the coming months would suggest, Vang Pao never completely let go of the idea of someday returning to Laos. In fact, at their first meeting in Sacramento, Jack told Hoffmaster he worked directly for Vang Pao, who wanted, along with other Hmong leaders in the immigrant community, to promote free and democratic elections in their home country.
Hoffmaster asked if the leaders were “willing to use force to try to get it.” “Preferably not,” was Jack’s response.
Eventually, Jack asked Hoffmaster for 125 M-16 rifles, smoke grenades, ammunition, and two Stinger missiles, all to be delivered to “staging areas” or “safe houses” in Thailand. But that was just the beginning of a deal that would grow to $9.8 million and include 24 special-ops mercenaries to blow up key buildings in Vientiane, the Laotian capital, and a 5 percent “finder’s fee” for Jack.
Then, on June 4, 2007, the negotiations–all surreptitiously taped–came to an abrupt end when, just before dawn, federal agents armed with guns and warrants surrounded Jack’s home and the homes of nine Hmong exiles, mostly in central California.
Needless to say, Hoffmaster–not his real name–wasn’t the friendly arms dealer he said he was. Rather, he was a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agent working on a sting operation dubbed “Tarnished Eagle.”
Among those arrested that Monday morning were Jack’s 34-year-old confidante, Lo Cha Thao, a ambitious pilot and political consultant from Clovis; Youa True Vang, 60, the founder of the Hmong International New Year’s festival in Fresno; Hue Vang, 39, a former Clovis police officer and director of the United Lao Council for Peace, Freedom and Reconstruction; and Lo Thao, 53, of Stockton, the president of United Hmong International, a Fresno-based charity also known as the Supreme Council of the 18 Hmong clans. For the Hmong community, though, the most shocking arrest was that of Gen. Vang Pao.
The defendants, held without bail for five and a half weeks, were charged with conspiracy to violate the U.S. Neutrality Act; conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim, and injure people in a foreign country; conspiracy to receive and possess missile systems designed to destroy aircraft; and two other weapons-related felonies. In all, the charges could put them behind bars for the rest of their lives.
“The simple fact of the matter is that the law of the United States, going back nearly to the founding of the Republic, is that private citizens cannot lawfully undertake [hostile] actions in foreign countries,” observed McGregor W. Scott, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, whose office worked closely with the ATF on the sting operation. “In other words, foreign policy is the province exclusively of the federal government. It is not the province of private citizens. And these folks–of their own volition-developed a plan, contacted persons who could help them carry out the plan, and took very real steps in furtherance of that plan, all of which is in violation of federal law.”
As news of the arrests spread, the tens of thousands of Hmong whose families had come to the United States via refugee camps in Thailand, mostly under the Refugee Act of 1980, expressed shock and disbelief. Who could have authorized such a sting? they asked. Was the Bush administration trying to curry favor and good trade relations with the government of Laos–human rights be damned? And if the motive wasn’t political, why didn’t the Justice Department simply pick up the phone and call Jack or the general to explain that sending arms to Laos was against the law? That might have nipped the whole scheme in the bud, saved hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, and freed the ATF to pursue real terrorists. But, of course, that’s not the way sting operations work.
“The arrest of General Vang Pao is unjust because half of his people died for this country during the Vietnam War,” says Pobtusa Thao, a 37-year-old Hmong nurse who lives in Sacramento. “No matter what he did, they cannot put this guy in jail and lock him up until he dies.”
Philip Smith, the director of Lao Veterans of America in Washington, D.C., whose wife is Hmong, goes further. “I feel very strongly that the U.S. government should immediately drop the case,” he says. “It’s a farce, a horrible farce.”
Defending Vang Pao pro bono is John Keker, the San Francisco trial lawyer who has represented such high-profile clients as investment banker Frank Quatronne, plaintiffs lawyer Bill Lerach, and former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. A former Marine platoon sergeant himself, Keker was wounded in Vietnam but knew little about Hmong history and politics before the general’s family sought him out. “I think the whole case is a result of a deeply foolish undercover agent and a deeply foolish U.S. Attorney’s office that permitted this agent to run wild,” he says. “If this case ever goes before a jury, they’ll jump out of the jury box and chase the prosecutors down the street for having brought it.”
Even U.S. Attorney Scott says he takes “no joy” in prosecuting this case. “In my many years as a prosecutor, there’s a certain satisfaction and almost elation when you’re able to bring charges against some very violent or notorious criminals,” he confides. “In this case I can’t say that. It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances.”
By the time of his arrest, Jack, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, had launched a number of businesses, some of them more marginal than others. At one point he sold bottled water at traditional Hmong festivals and celebrations. He also worked with troubled Hmong kids and struggling Hmong refugees, consulted with the state on military base closures, and planned joint military-civilian natural disaster responses for the National Guard. And he founded HERO–the Hmong Emergency Relief Organization–a humanitarian group for which he hoped to raise $200,000 by putting together an air show in Fresno.
According to the indictment, Jack’s interest in supplying arms to the Hmong dates back at least to November 2006–two months before he met Hoffmaster at the Thai restaurant–when he asked about purchasing 500 AK-47 machine guns. The prosecution also alleges that, after several conversations with Hoffmaster, Jack and the Hmong exiles began to consider far-more-powerful weapons, including shoulder-mounted Stinger missiles for shooting down Laotian helicopters.
During the period leading up to the arrests, though, Hoffmaster spoke directly with Vang Pao only once. That was during a February 2007 luncheon, which included seven other Hmong leaders. According to the prosecution’s transcripts, the general said only a few words to the agent during that meeting, and he made no mention of an arms deal or a coup plot. However, after the lunch, the agent announced that he had a “surprise” waiting for the group, then led them to his parked recreational vehicle. Inside, he displayed some of the heavy metal he had to offer: AK-47 and M-16 machine guns, C-4 explosives, light antitank rockets, grenade launchers, and Claymore mines.
It was an impressive arsenal, and with the easy financing Hoffmaster promised–not to mention the mercenary soldiers–the vague outlines of a plan to take the Laotian capital by storm began to take shape.
Not that there weren’t reservations. In fact, at one point Jack asked a friend to run a background check on Hoffmaster. (The results of that check weren’t disclosed in the transcripts provided by the prosecution.) Also around then, Lo Cha Thao sought the advice of a former Wisconsin state senator named Garry George, who had been a friend to Hmong causes and who, according to the prosecution, was serving a four-year federal prison sentence for “public corruptionrelated charges.” George told Lo Cha Thao that if the arms dealer would agree to be paid overseas, he was probably legitimate.
Hoffmaster readily agreed to take payment in Bangkok–as long as Jack and Lo Cha Thao could quickly provide him with a detailed weapons order, delivery dates, locations, well-marked maps, and specific orders for his mercenaries.
The scheme the defendants ultimately came up with–code-named Operation POPCORN, for “Political Opposition Party’s Coup Operations to Rescue the Nation”–would be surprisingly easy and nearly bloodless, according to Lo Cha Thao: During the first week of June, with Hmong clan leaders in Laos ready to strike, Lo Cha Thao and the others would fly to Bangkok, where the weapons would be distributed. Hoffmaster’s mercenaries would land near Vientiane at dawn to blow up eight key government buildings, then “melt” into the jungle half an hour later. As the buildings toppled, the ruling elite would quickly flee the country, the disgruntled (if not bribed) Lao military would change allegiance almost instantly, and university students would join the rebellion as well. In short order, the Communist rulers of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic would be replaced with a democratically elected government, quite possibly led by Lo Cha Thao himself.
“Lo [Cha Thao] is not a [U.S.] citizen,” Jack told the undercover agent in March, “and neither is General Vang Pao. And the reason is, they can’t go back to Laos being U.S. citizens and expect to run things when they take it back over.” (In fact, Vang Pao is a U.S. citizen, and Lo Cha Thao has legal resident status.)
“Wow,” the undercover agent responded.
Gen. Vang Pao is a stout, bald man with military bearing and a dazzling smile that can still light up a room, even though he now has health problems (he suffers from both diabetes and heart disease). In fact, early in his incarceration at the Sacramento County Jail he had to be rushed to the UC Davis Medical Center after complaining of chest pains. Two other defendants also were hospitalized during their incarcerations–Seng Vue, 68, who suffered a stroke, and Chong Yang Thao, 54, who was treated for “stroke-like” symptoms.
Ultimately, though, when on July 13, 2007, U.S. Magistrate Dale A. Drozd ordered Vang Pao and nine other defendants released on bail after 39 days in custody, it had nothing to do with their health. Rather, Drozd concluded that the defendants weren’t as dangerous as the prosecution had claimed. (Several days later, he released the eleventh defendant, Lo Cha Thao, as well.) Under the original terms of their release, all were to be under electronically monitored home detention and could communicate only with family members, their physicians, and their lawyers. But the conditions of their bail have since been loosened substantially, and they are freer to move around.
Last April Vang Pao made a court-approved public appearance at a gala honoring Hmong veterans who had served in the CIA’s secret war in Southeast Asia. Several hundred Hmong from across the state filled Fresno’s Veterans Memorial Auditorium that day, and nearly half lined up to kneel at Vang Pao’s feet and wind strands of white yarn around his wrist–a traditional Hmong blessing of good fortune, health, and prosperity. Several others also received the blessing, including two American veterans and both of Vang Pao’s wives. (He is legally married to only one, of course, but in parts of Southeast Asia polygamy is still a common practice.)
Addressing the attentive crowd through a translator, the general seemed genuinely touched. “I want to take the time to thank each of you for the love you have bestowed on me and my family during this time of crisis,” he said. “I will remember that as long as I live life in the world.”
Vang Pao began his storied military career as a teenager, carrying messages during World War II for the Free French resistance in Indochina. Later, he trained as an officer for the Royal Lao Army to fight alongside the French against Hanoi’s Viet Minh invasion of his country. He rose quickly through the ranks, and by the early 1960s, with American troops starting to pour into the region, he had achieved enough prominence to become the CIA’s point man in Laos. A brilliant tactician and military strategist, he and his soldiers–some as young as ten years old–kept the Communists at bay until U.S. forces pulled out of Laos in July 1973.
One year later, with the Communists closing in, more than 10,000 Hmong flocked to Vang Pao’s key air base at Long Chien, desperate to board planes that would take them to safety. But there was no evacuation plan. After the government fell, the Communists promised to abide by a 1973 cease-fire agreement forbidding “acts of revenge and discrimination” against those who had cooperated with the Americans. But it wasn’t long before the Communists openly declared their intent to wipe out the Hmong. To escape, thousands of Hmong risked the dangerous climb over rugged mountains surrounding the Plain of Jarres region to reach refugee camps across the Mekong River in Thailand (see “A Grim Picture Gets Grimmer,” right). In all, 40 percent of Vang Pao’s 40,000-man army was killed, and no doubt many more died trying to escape.
The story for Vang Pao himself, however, was quite different: Because of his relationship with the CIA, he was whisked away on a special flight out of Laos. He had already sent two of his wives and their children to Thailand; the rest of his family would come later. After spending a number of harsh, cold winters in Montana, he eventually ended up in Orange County.
Once in the states, Vang Pao helped create a chain of Lao Family Community centers to assist the thousands of Hmong refugees who flocked to America. He also used his influence to mediate clan disputes and to pressure both the federal and local governments to provide more services to his people. Most of the refugees were penniless when they arrived in the United States, spoke no English, and were traumatized by years of war. Meanwhile, at traditional Hmong festivals and celebrations, Vang Pao continued to express hope for a return to a democratic Laos someday. According to news accounts, he even tried to raise money by offering for sale prospective commissions and political appointments to the democratically elected government he envisioned.
But Vang Pao seemed to have a major change of heart in 2003, when he offered to establish economic ties with the Laotian government–at least implicitly recognizing its rule. The decision set off intense debate within the Hmong community in America–and it may have led to the torching of the Minnesota home of one of the general’s sons.
Did Vang Pao have another change of heart in 2007, when, as the prosecution alleges, he endorsed Operation POPCORN?
No way, says Keker, his lawyer, who maintains that his client never was part of any conspiracy to retake Laos. “The general was absolutely appalled at what Lo Cha [Thao] was even talking about” in early 2007, Keker says, adding that, “I think Harrison Jack was a seriously deluded man. The stuff about how they’re going to walk into Laos without firing [a shot] was just ridiculous. It was bar talk. But what’s offensive about it was they arrested a bunch of people who weren’t even in the bar. [Vang Pao and others] didn’t have anything to do with [the plot], and disapproved of it, and thought it was nuts and thought the guys were nuts. And they were nuts.”
While most of the attention naturally has focused on Vang Pao, in the prosecution’s taped conversations it was Lo Cha Thao and Harrison Jack who did most of the talking.
“Lo Cha does not speak for the general,” insists Jane Hamilton-Merritt, an Asian scholar and former war correspondent who has written a definitive history of the relationship between the Hmong and the United States entitled Tragic Mountains (Indiana University Press, 1993). “[Lo Cha’s] never been a soldier,” she points out. “He’s not an officer who fought with the general or worked with him on past projects.”
So what was Lo Cha Thao’s role in the alleged arms deal? According to Lo Cha Thao’s own lawyer, Mark Reichel, he’s “a hustler and a half,” though hardly a terrorist.
In fact, to explain Lo Cha Thao’s conversations with Hoffmaster, Reichel suggests that his client thought that the Bush administration actually wanted his help in overthrowing the Laotian government. And to underscore the point, Reichel hearkens back to the secret war in Laos, when Americans gave the Hmong military support that couldn’t be officially acknowledged because it violated the 1962 Geneva Accords, which affirmed Laos’s status as a neutral state. Says Reichel, “The Hmong know the CIA is capable of black operations all over the world, in Iran, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. … Now this guy [Hoffmaster] comes in and says, ‘my agency,’ and allows them to refer to him as the Navy SEAL, and as the military guy. Why would he have pitched that persona to these people? Because he knew they’d buy it. And he knew he could expand it. And if you can expand it and make a terrorism case out of this [for the government], that’s victory.”
It’s unlikely the defendants will be tried before 2010. But if and when they are brought to trial, the defense will portray the government’s sting operation as designed to ensnare a group of law-abiding refugees.
Keker emphasized this at a bail hearing last year in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento. “The coup plan was a fantasy,” he told Magistrate Drozd. “They had no weapons, no money. It’s like us sitting around planning an attack in Darfur or something.”
But as prosecutor Scott points out, a conspiracy doesn’t have to be a good or smart plan to be a crime: “The legal obligation we have is to show that there was an agreement between two or more people to launch a military or naval expedition in a foreign country or to kill, maim or injure people, or damage property in a foreign country.”
Prosecutors also dismiss out of hand any suggestion that the defendants were illegally entrapped. As Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert M. Twiss observed, “There’s no way a [former] lieutenant colonel in the United States Army could possibly think that he could buy a single AK-47, let alone 150 or 200 or 500 AK-47s, from anybody. … There can’t be a scintilla of possibility that Harrison Jack thought he was engaging in legitimate activity at this point in time.”
No matter how the case ends, the Hmong community will, no doubt, continue to wonder what the government was thinking when it authorized Operation Tarnished Eagle. But from a broader perspective, perhaps the most important question suggested by this case is whether operations such as Tarnished Eagle send the right signal to our allies abroad, especially in a time of war.
Philip Smith of the Lao Veterans of America thinks not. “How can they trust the CIA or the National Security Council to be sincere if this is how America treats the Hmong and is treating General Vang Pao?” He adds, “It has the stench of betrayal that hangs over the Bush administration, that hangs over the CIA. Is this how America treats its friends?”
I learned recently that General Vang Pao, a former Laotian Hmong military leader and staunch American ally during the Vietnam War, died in January of pneumonia in Clovis, Calif. He was 81.
The general was revered by many of this country’s nearly 200,000 ethnic Hmong, whose first-generation elders here fled the mountains of Laos to escape the Lao Communists’ genocidal persecution of the Hmong that began when the United States pulled out of Vietnam in 1973. That persecution continues today.
The U.S. Army declined to bury Vang at Arlington National Cemetery despite requests from his family and supporters, who believed he deserved the honor for having fought for13 years with the U.S. in the CIA’s covert war in Laos. Vang Pao led his army of 40,000 Hmong soldiers against the Viet Cong, attacking their supply lines from North Vietnam to the south, through Laos, along the Ho Chi Min Trail.
Despite Vang Pao’s heroic status in the American Hmong community, his life took a shocking turn in 2007, when he, along with 11 others, was arrested by U.S. marshals for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Communist government of Laos.
The charges were a stunning rebuke for Gen. Vang Pao, who had long enjoyed an exalted status among the Hmong, an ethnic minority in Laos. He raised money for Hmong causes in the United States and had been outspoken in his desire for a democratic government in Laos. His arrest set off protests, including demonstrations in Sacramento and Fresno, which have large Hmong communities.
Three years ago, when California Lawyer Magazine asked me to write a story about Vang Pao and the events that led to his arrest, I’d never heard of him and knew nothing about the Hmong role in the Vietnam War.
The project meant delving into what was for me an irresistible combination: the defining military engagement of my generation, the ever-maddening Central Intelligence Agency, and an improbable ATF sting that was stranger than fiction.
Like a lot of Baby Boomers, I’d opposed the war in Vietnam, believing it to be illegal, wrong-headed and hopeless. I’d marched on Washington to bring the troops home, demonstrated at the American Embassy in London when I was a student there, and got myself arrested in Boston with dozens of other college kids for blocking buses taking Army recruits to their induction physicals.
My feelings about the CIA were just as negative. I hated the fact that the agency spent billions of taxpayer dollars interfering with other countries’ governments and conducting far-flung wars hidden from the American public and over which we had no control.
Learning of Gen. Vang Pao’s death last month triggered memories not only of those tumultuous days protesting the Vietnam War but of the general and the Hmong Americans I met while reporting the story. Theirs is a traumatizing tale, from brutal persecution at the hands of the Lao Communists to the challenges of transitioning from their nomadic tribal life in Asia to the alien, high-tech, English-only culture of cities such as Minneapolis, Fresno and Sacramento, where there are large Hmong communities.
The court documents in the government’s case against. Gen. Vang Pao et al. read like the script of an action thriller. “Operation Tarnished Eagle” was the name the federal department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms gave its sting against the general and his alleged co-conspirators. Most of the government’s evidence for its charge –that the defendants had violated the Neutrality Act by planning a military attack on a country with whom the U.S. was neutral — came from that sting and conversations in 2007 that Vang Pao and eleven other defendants had with an undercover agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
In those conversations, the government argued, the defendants outlined a $25-million dollar plan to provide the means and manpower for insurgents to bomb government buildings in the Laotian capital, Vientiane, and shoot down Laotian military planes with Stinger missiles.
The indictment listed a raft of weapons and equipment that defendants plotted to supply to insurgents, including antitank rockets, mines, explosives, night-vision goggles and medical kits.
Several of the most damning conversations with the ATF agent, who went by the alias of Steve Hoffmaster, were tape recorded at a popular Thai restaurant in Sacramento a few blocks from the state capitol. It was there that Harrison Jack, a trim, 60-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel with deep sympathy for the Hmong, met Hoffmaster, a former Navy SEAL, for the first time. A seemingly pleasant guy in his 40s, Hoffmaster described himself as a part-time arms dealer, and said he was following up on a call that Jack had made to a private defense contractor in Arizona about buying hundreds of AK-47s for a group of insurgents halfway around the world. As they sat together at the restaurant amid an array of gold-painted Buddhas, Hoffmaster promised to get Jack everything he wanted–and more — to overthrow the Communist government of Laos. That conversation, along with as many as 30 others both in person and over the phone, served as a road map to an astonishing and thoroughly implausible plot to overthrow the government of Laos– a government toward which the United States is officially neutral, despite its deplorable record of abuse of the native Hmong. These fiercely independent people, who still live in the mountain jungles of Laos and who, historically, have had little to do with the lowland Lao, are now said to number less than 15,000. They are also said to be the target of a brutal military campaign that can be traced back to the 1960s, when the Hmong sided with the Americans in a CIA-supported “secret” war against both the Laotian and North Vietnamese Communists. As news of the arrests of Vang Pao and the other defendants spread, the tens of thousands of Hmong whose families had come to the United States via refugee camps in Thailand, mostly under the Refugee Act of 1980, expressed shock and disbelief. Who could have authorized such a sting? they asked. Was the Bush administration trying to curry favor and good trade relations with the government of Laos–human rights be damned? And if the motive wasn’t political, why didn’t the Justice Department simply pick up the phone and call Jack or the general to explain that sending arms to Laos was against the law? That might have nipped the whole scheme in the bud, saved hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, and freed the ATF to pursue real terrorists. But, of course, that’s not the way sting operations work. “The arrest of General Vang Pao is unjust because half of his people died for this country during the Vietnam War,” said Pobtusa Thao, a 37-year-old Hmong nurse whom I interviewed in 2008 at a Sacramento rally in support of the defendants. “No matter what he did, they cannot put this guy in jail and lock him up until he dies.” Philip Smith, the director of Lao Veterans of America in Washington, D.C., whose wife is Hmong, went further. “I feel very strongly that the U.S. government should immediately drop the case,” he told me. “It’s a farce, a horrible farce.” The feds weren’t buying. Not then, anyway.
“The simple fact of the matter is that the law of the United States, going back nearly to the founding of the Republic, is that private citizens cannot lawfully undertake [hostile] actions in foreign countries,” said McGregor W. Scott, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, whose office worked closely with the ATF on the sting operation. “In other words, foreign policy is the province exclusively of the federal government. It is not the province of private citizens. And these folks–of their own volition — developed a plan, contacted persons who could help them carry out the plan, and took very real steps in furtherance of that plan, all of which is in violation of federal law.” Despite McGregor’s stance, a year later, for reasons the feds did not disclose, the government dropped all charges against Gen. Vang Pao, who had spoken only once to Hoffmaster, when the agent had taken him and several other alleged conspirators to see some sample weapons Hoffmaster had stored in his van, parked near the Thai restaurant in Sacramento.
Gen. Vang Pao’s lawyer, John Keker, told another reporter in 2009 that the decision to drop the charges was a full retreat by government. “It’s a reflection that the government recognized this was a deeply flawed prosecution,” Mr. Keker said.
According to that reporter, Gen. Vang Pao, who was 79 at the time the case was dropped and had been living in Southern California, under house arrest, told his lawyer that he was grateful and relieved that the government finally recognized his innocence but was concerned that several of his friends — and former co-fighters in Laos — were still under indictment.
Several of the defendants named in the new indictment work with Laotian-American groups in the Central Valley of California.
Harrison Ulrich Jack, a West Point graduate and retired lieutenant colonel from the California National Guard, is still under indictment.
But the big kahuna in the case, the one the feds hoped to nail, was Vang Pao, who began his storied military career as a teenager, carrying messages during World War II for the Free French resistance in Indochina. Later, he trained as an officer for the Royal Lao Army to fight alongside the French against Hanoi’s Viet Minh invasion of his country. He rose quickly through the ranks, and by the early 1960s, with American troops starting to pour into the region, he had achieved enough prominence to become the CIA’s point man in Laos. A brilliant tactician and military strategist, he and his soldiers–some as young as ten years old–kept the Communists at bay until U.S. forces pulled out of Laos in June 1973.
A year later, with the Communists closing in, more than 10,000 Hmong flocked to Vang Pao’s key air base at Long Chien, desperate to board planes that would take them to safety. But there was no evacuation plan. After the government fell, the Communists promised to abide by a 1973 cease-fire agreement forbidding “acts of revenge and discrimination” against those who had cooperated with the Americans. But it wasn’t long before the Communists openly declared their intent to wipe out the Hmong. To escape, thousands of Hmong risked the dangerous climb over rugged mountains surrounding the Plain of Jarres region to reach refugee camps across the Mekong River in Thailand. In all, 40 percent of Vang Pao’s 40,000-man army was killed, and no doubt many more died trying to escape.
Vang Pao’s own departure was quite different: Because of his relationship with the CIA, he was whisked away on a special flight out of Laos. He had already sent two of his wives and their children to Thailand; the rest of his family would come later. After spending a number of harsh, cold winters in Montana, he eventually ended up in Orange County, with additional homes in Fresno and Minneapolis.
Once in the states, Vang Pao, who seemed to have plenty of money, helped create a chain of Lao Family Community centers to assist the thousands of Hmong refugees who flocked to America. He also used his influence to mediate clan disputes and to pressure both the federal and local governments to provide more services to his people. Most of the refugees were penniless when they arrived in the United States, spoke no English, and were traumatized by years of war. Meanwhile, at traditional Hmong festivals and celebrations, Vang Pao continued to express hope for a return to a democratic Laos someday. According to news accounts, he even tried to raise money by offering for sale prospective commissions and political appointments to the democratically elected government he envisioned.
But Vang Pao appeared to have a major change of heart in 2003, when he offered to establish economic ties with the Laotian government–at least implicitly recognizing its rule. The decision set off intense debate within the Hmong community in America–and it may have led to the torching of the Minnesota home of one of the general’s many sons. Did Vang Pao have another change of heart in 2007, when, as the prosecution alleges, he endorsed the overthrow plans, dubbed Operation POPCORN? No way, said Keker, Vang’s lawyer, who maintained that his client never was part of any conspiracy to retake Laos. “The general was absolutely appalled at what Lo Cha [Thao — one of the alleged conspirators] was even talking about” in early 2007. Keker added: “I think Harrison Jack was a seriously deluded man. The stuff about how they’re going to walk into Laos without firing [a shot] was just ridiculous. It was bar talk. But what’s offensive about it was they arrested a bunch of people who weren’t even in the bar. [Vang Pao and others] didn’t have anything to do with [the plot], and disapproved of it, and thought it was nuts and thought the guys were nuts. And they were nuts.”
Be that as it may, Vang Pao’s arrest and legal battle against the charges took a toll on his health. Already suffering from diabetes and heart disease, after his initial release he endured electronically monitored home detention, allowed to communicate only with family members, physicians, and lawyers. Although the conditions of his and the other co-defendants’ bail were loosened substantially, the humiliation and sense of betrayal by the American government was profound.
Some of those feelings changed when the government dropped its charges against him.
“He was just overwhelmed and there were tears of joy, of course,” Chi Neng Vang, the youngest of Vang Pao’s 25 children, told a Twin Cities StarTribune reporter. “You could see it was a rebirth for him at that moment. We all hugged. He was acting like he was somebody again instead of someone who he knew he wasn’t. He’s been living in this dark period of time, and now we can finally move on with our lives.”
Gen. Vang Pao was a free man and an American citizen when he died on Jan. 6 of this year.
We’ll probably never know what, if any, his role was in the alleged plot to overthrow the government of Laos, a plot that most likely would have been quickly forgotten had it not been encouraged by the ATF sting designed to send the alleged plotters to jail.
But the Hmong community will, no doubt, continue to wonder what the government was thinking when it authorized Operation Tarnished Eagle.
From a broader perspective, one important question suggested by this case is whether operations such as Tarnished Eagle send the right signal to our allies abroad, especially in a time of war, when, in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and beyond, the U.S. government regularly enlists ethnic minorities to fight with it to bring about peace and democracy. Do operations such as Tarnished Eagle generate trust of the USA?
Philip Smith of the Lao Veterans of America thought not in 2008.
“How can they trust the CIA or the National Security Council to be sincere if this is how America treats the Hmong and is treating General Vang Pao?” He added, “It has the stench of betrayal that hangs over the Bush administration, that hangs over the CIA. Is this how America treats its friends?”
Vang Pao is not MY hero, and I wish he’d told the CIA in the 1960s to look elsewhere for help in fighting its secret and doomed war in Laos. That didn’t happen. He did help, and thousands of his people died because of it. So why, thirty-some years after the war did the American government run a sting on the man who did its bidding for 13 years? As I’ve said, it would have been far cheaper, not to mention compassionate, for the ATF to call Vang Pao or Harrison Jack or the other Hmong “plotters,” thank them for their service to this country in the Vietnam War and tell them to drop their improbable overthrow plot.
In the meantime, Hmong in Laos people are still being persecuted by the Lao government. And Hmong Americans continue to face incredible challenges making it in the U.S.A. Poverty, illiteracy and racism hold back many Hmong Americans.
It’s a strange story and a sad story. It’s an American story. And the beat goes on.
Our dog Woody died of mast cell cancer on Jan. 31, one year ago. He was thirteen years old. Last December, he became so lethargic that Erin and I asked the guys who work for us to dig him a grave so we’d be ready when he was. But later that month, Woody was so much better that we filled in his grave and planted Narcissus bulbs in the soft dirt where he would have gone.
Woody was our love child. He was sweet, sensitive, funny and maddening. When we’d gone to the breeder to pick out a miniature long-haired dachshund puppy, I’d told Erin I wanted a red one, like the doxie my cousin Laura had when we were kids.
At the breeder’s, one red puppy was left in the litter of eight, and three black ones.
When Erin picked Woody up, he wagged his tail and sank into her arms, his handsome, square head resting placidly on her shoulder. “Ah,” said breeder, “That’s Ian. He was the last one out of his mama. He’s a good little boy.”
“Can I hold Ian?” I said, as the red dog we’d already agreed to buy squirmed in my arms.
“Maybe we’ll have to get two,” Erin said, kissing his head and handing him over to me.
My heart glowed with the weight and warmth of his body.
Erin turned to the breeder. “Would two be…”
“Wonderful,” she said. “They’ll be companions for life, never ever lonely. The red one has excellent confirmation, but she’s a little high strung — too nervous to show.”
Luna and Woody became notorious in the hills behind our house in Marin County, where they would bark furiously at all other dogs and dash into the woods in pursuit of squirrels or skunks or their very favorite prey — horses. I was late for work any number of times as we frantically scoured the trails. Inevitably, both returned, Luna always first and Woody much later, tail wagging, not a clue how much his joyful hunt had frightened us.
At two years old, Woody changed. He hesitated in front of doorways, sometimes slipped as he jumped on the couch where he slept, and no longer manically chased his sister around the house or yard. The vet had awful news. Woody had advanced retinal deterioration, an irreversible congenital eye disease common in doxies and for which there is no cure. He was nearly blind, and in a few months, he would lose his sight completely. There was nothing we or any doctor could do to stop its progression.
Erin and I were devastated. We didn’t understand how our innocent, tender, crazy little boy could be blind. It wasn’t fair.
Woody adjusted to his disability more quickly than we did. He still hunted wildly through the hills of Marin and then Mendocino counties, where we bought 160 acres. He’d tear off the moment we let him off the leash and, putting fear in our hearts, sometimes disappear for hours. The real country wasn’t as forgiving as the suburbs. Woody was kidnapped once by coyotes, who nearly ate him for dinner. A couple of weeks later, he was knocked senseless by one of the wild horses on our land. After several paw operations, Woody was fine. He limped a little, but he was ready to chase horses, coyotes or anything that moved.
At home, Woody was docile, snuggling down under the covers and for years practically pushing Erin off the bed he slept so close to her. No matter how sad or worried or anxious we might be about something, holding Woody would calm us, making difficult things seem manageable. “Don’t worry,” he’d say, tail wagging, his still beautiful brown eyes gazing up at us. “Everything’s fine. I’m fine, too. Keep petting me.”
Our friends greeted Luna with respectful restraint when they’d visit; Woody they wanted to hold and hug and kiss.
At age 11, Woody started to slow down. That was a relief. We often wondered how many concussions he’d suffered over the years as he collided into table legs, shoes, furniture or fence posts without complaint.
Woody’s cancer advanced, and his energy waned, but his tail still wagged incessantly, and he took long walks with us almost to the end.
“Should we take him to the vet?” Erin would say on days when he didn’t leave his bed by the wood stove. “Do you think it’s time to, you know…”
“Let’s keep him here,” I said. Erin was a hospice nurse. If she could help people stay at home to die, the two of us could surely do the same for Woody.
The last weekend of January 2010, our friend Kate, who’d just spent more than a month beside the hospital bed of her younger sister, was staying the weekend with us. We al sat in the living room, Luna on the couch, Woody in his bed by the stove, barely able to open his eyes, breathing heavily, for once in his life not interested in food. The morphine Erin gave him relieved whatever pain he felt and let him to sleep. Erin and I took turns lying in our big easy chair by the fire, holding him in our arms, telling him we loved him, thanking him for his life, for being such a brave, courageous, sweet, happy guy, He would sigh heavily, wheezing as he breathed, his tail moving slightly, acknowledging our love and loving us back. On Sunday morning, as I lay next to his bed, Woody took his last breath.
“He’s gone,” I said.
“Woody?” Erin called his name but he lay still. She sat next to me and stroked his head and waited for his chest to rise and fall as it had for thirteen years. He did not move.
That afternoon, we carried Woody up to the new grave the guys had dug, next to his first one. As Luna sniffed the ground by the hole, we buried our little boy near the tree which held the ashes of Erin’s mother, Maggi, and of her stepfather, Joseph.
We chanted and prayed and watched his loving, tail-wagging spirit rise up and up, up toward the skunks and squirrels and gophers and the wild horses he so loved dearly to chase.
“Goodbye, sweet boy,” we said again and again. “We’ll never forget you. May you be happy and safe on your journey.
Earlier this month, a friend who knew Woody emailed us that he’d learned of a black, mini, long- haired dachshund rescue puppy named Miles who was a year old and needed a new home.
We didn’t want another long haired dachshund. They’re too small and low to the ground and collect too many burrs and are too easily snared by the coyotes that live in the hills of Mendocino County.
We’ll just stop by the vet’s where he’s living, we told ourselves, and meet him on our way next week to Sonoma County. That’s all. We’ll take a look.
Our visit to Miles never happened because someone adopted him before our visit. That was a good thing for Miles and for us. There will never be another Woody. We may get another dog some day, but it wouldn’t be, couldn’t be as funny and dear and vulnerable and maddening and brave as Woody von Woodruff Woodpecker, III.
Today, on the anniversary of Woody’s death, I say again, “Goodbye, little boy. Goodbye, goodbye. Thank you for your life. Thank you for your courage. Thank you for your huge heart and for following your bliss no matter what… and for sharing that bliss with us.
by Jane Futcher San Francisco Chronicle Magazine Sunday, Jan. 30, 2008
39-year-old Kevin Henry of Albion was beaten stabbed 17 times. Was it a hate crime?
It was close to sunset on Nov. 2, 2005, when two Ukiah men flying high on crystal meth drove a white Toyota pick-up to Lake Mendocino a few miles east of town. Trevor Conley, 23, had been tweaking for days when he met Nathan McWilliams, 22, a regular methamphetamine user who worked at a local hardware store.
The guys stopped at an overlook above the South Boat Ramp, a popular picnic area and gay-cruising spot with a spectacular view of the water and the mountains. They struck up a conversation with 39-year-old Kevin Henry, an amateur actor who was 6’1”, with blonde hair and a winsome smile. Henry had grown up in nearby Lake County and had recently moved from Seattle back to Albion, on the Mendocino coast with his long-time friend and roommate, Nancy Farris. That morning, he’d driven to Ukiah for two doctor’s appointments and had cashed his paycheck from the Albion Deli.
The three men snorted meth in Henry’s car, using rolled bills from their wallets as straws; when the younger men took off, Henry found McWilliams’ wallet in his car and his own wallet gone. Roaming Ukiah in search of the men, Henry reached Conley by telephone late that night, arranging to meet them at a local bar to exchange wallets. Afterwards, all three men drove up a mountain road outside of town, where one or both men knocked Henry unconscious; they stuck his body in the trunk of his car and drove it to another remote location to dispose of his body or finish him off.
In Redwood Valley, where they stopped, the trunk of the car popped open and Henry ran for his life, the two men right behind him.
“McWilliams stated that Mr. Conley had gone psycho on Mr. Henry,” a sheriff’s detective testified in court. “That Mr. Conley had cut Mr. Henry’s throat. And that Mr. Conley had begun to stomp on Mr. Henry’s face and head.”
Conley and McWilliams dragged Henry’s lifeless body into a ditch, covering it with a rug and some firewood. The next day, with Conley’s girlfriend along for the ride, they dumped Henry’s car down a steep ravine west of town.
Henry’s body was found nine days later. He had been stabbed and slashed 17 times; the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head and two stab wounds, one in the chest, one in the back.
“Of the 17 wounds, only two were lethal,” the medical examiner testified at the preliminary hearing. “Somebody was playing games with this man.”
Henry’s killers might never have been caught if McWilliams had not withdrawn $425 from a bank account registered to Nancy Farris, using an ATM card they’d taken from Henry. A week after Henry’s body and car had been found, a sheriff’s detective brought McWilliams in for questioning Nov. 18, aided by a tip from an informant and a video of McWilliams at the bank.
McWilliams offered detectives several versions of what happened that night, ultimately sticking with the story that Henry had offered them cocaine at the lake, which they’d accepted, and propositioned them, which they’d declined. When Conley’s girlfriend called, they left quickly, Conley telling McWilliams he wished he’d “jacked” Henry for his cocaine.
Unaware of McWilliams’ confession, Conley admitted only to having done drugs with Henry at the lake, meeting up with him later to retrieve McWilliams’ wallet and smacking Henry in the face when Henry grabbed his crotch.
The case against Conley and McWilliams never went to trial; both men pled guilty to second degree murder; on Aug. 31 of 2007 each was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
“There isn’t a day that I don’t thank God that Conley and McWilliams aren’t free to take the kids of any other family,” Henry’s niece, Jennie Bennett, told Conley in court at the sentencing.
“If it were my justice system, I would carve your liver,” said Dan Howard, a friend of the Henry family.
Despite the brutality of the crime, few in Mendocino County know much about the case.
“To this day, after all this time’s gone by, if you ask a lot of people, you go over there and somebody says something, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, they killed a gay guy didn’t they?’ That’s all it is,” said Suzan Spangler, 62, a close friend of Henry’s from Albion. “It was never really put out exactly how awful it was. I mean, it was almost like Ukiah just wanted to keep it, ‘Oh, there was a guy murdered by a couple of youngsters,’ not that it was a massacre, that it was overkill, and how ugly and premeditated it seemed to be. And when I read reports on it from the newspaper in Ukiah, they don’t seem to touch on any of that, how they saw Kevin just sitting, mindinghis own business out at the lake and drove by and said, “Oh, we should have jacked him, and then they turn around and go back. To me, that’s a plan. That’s premeditated. I’ve seen more articles in there about other things that they run day after day after day, like they’re going to fix a pothole or some place needs a speed bump. And they didn’t really make a big splash about it. That was the only reason people went over there with picket signs and got in the newspaper after this happened because nobody really was talking about it. And I mean, to me this isn’t a run of the mill, if there is such a thing as a run of the mill mugging, this was pretty danged nasty and planned out and they don’t touch on it. I’m sure there’s a lot of people around the county now who just think it was oh, something that just happened, you know, it was over drugs. He was over there making a drug deal right. The newspaper doesn’t ever clear that up. That was never proved. I think the second time they had a chance to run into him with the wallet. If they were so afraird of this big mean gay guy, when he called and said I found your wallet, all they had to do say was leave it at the bar, we’re scared of you, we’ll go pick it up tomorrow. But in my mind they just kind of went, whoa, this is manna from heaven, now we’ve got another chance.” The inconsistencies in the perpetrators’ stories have raised as many questions as they’ve answered.
Why did Conley and McWilliams kill Kevin Henry? He was not armed nor known to be violent or dangerous. If McWilliams had already taken the cash from Henry’s wallet at the lake, as he told the Chronicle he did, what more did the men want from him when they knocked him unconscious later in the evening?
Why would Henry want to use drugs with Conley and McWilliams, and they with him?
Did his sexual orientation, not robbery, motivate the murder?
Should the prosecutor have dropped the initial charge of hate crime, stating as he did in the preliminary hearing that there was not enough evidence to support that allegation?
And what does the crime say about progressive Mendocino County, with its reputation for its tree-hugging environmentalists, marijuana growers and aging hippies?
On the night Kevin Henry disappeared, two people were beside themselves with worry. One was Nancy Farris, 49, a travel agent who had lived and traveled with Henry for more than twelve years. The other was Spangler, who had helped Henry get a job at the Albion Deli and had just launched a firewood delivery business with him.
On Nov. 2, Spangler and Farris knew something was very wrong when Henry didn’t return home before dark, as promised, in time to help Spangler back a trailer she’d bought for their firewood business down her steep driveway.
“He would have called, he always called,” she said. “Even if he’d met someone and planned to stay over he would have called. He would have nothing to hide. We weren’t his lover or his mother.”
Spangler’s first thought was that Henry had driven his car, a blue Honda Accord registered to Farris, off the Boonville Grade on Highway 253, a narrow, twisting road between Ukiah and Boonville. She and Farris phoned the sheriff that night, asking if any automobile accidents had been reported Ukiah and the coast. Then she called the local hospitals looking for Henry.
“By morning, we knew this was serious,” she said. “We called a psychic they knew in British Columbia who told us Kevin was not with his car, that she could see his car off a cliff and that he was in the woods.’”
Frustrated by the slow pace of the sheriff’s investigation, Farris and Spangler joined with Henry’s family, posting flyers with his photograph around town and offering a $5,000 reward through the Carole Sund/Carrington Foundation for information leading to his safe return.
On Nov. 11, the same day Henry’s body was found, 40 of Henry’s friends and family picketed in front of the Motel 6 in Ukiah, where Henry was last seen at 11 p.m. the night he was killed.
Today, Spangler is more furious — at the perpetrators, whom she’s convinced fabricated the story that Henry offered them cocaine and propositioned them, and at the “condescending” way she and Farris were treated by the criminal justice system. Once detectives made contact with Henry’s family in Upper Lake, Spangler said they dismissed her and Farris.
“I was more upset at the fact that the police only wanted to talk to the family, once he was found. We turned him in as being missing, we gave them as much as we could, and once we said, “oh, his family lives I Upper Lake, then they said, ‘oh, we’re just going to talk to them. They weren’t even interested that the family didn’t know he’d moved back to California. …They treated us like casual roommates,” she said. “He called us ‘The Fam.’ We knew him. He barely spoke to his family… I think everything I’ve ever seen on television or in the movies or read in books or anything, is that iff someone goes missing, they swoop on the last feople that had anything to do with the guy, and say, where were they going, what was their frame of mind, what were they talking about. They just said, ‘Sorry, we’ll deal with the family.’ And I really don’t know what the family could have told them except stuff from years ago? Because Kevin considered himself estranged from his family….They wouldn’t have been able to identify the clothes he was wearing, they wouldn’t have been able to tell them what kind of car he was driving, they wouldn’t have been able to ID any of his Cds in his car, the watch, they had to call Nancy and ask him what kind of watch he was wearing. …when something’s real pertinent, then Ok, those people over there actually do know something. Had printed up flyers. his watch. The family was looking in bars for him. We said, ‘Kevin is gay. He wouldn’t be there.’”
“Right after he was found, they swooped on him and wouldn’t even tell her what they were going to do with the body, where the ashes were going to go, they wanted all his belongings packed up, they wanted all of his stuff. These are people who haven’t seen a lot of him. But, he’s still in the morgue or the coroner’s office and they’re on the phone wanting…a list of things. The woman has just spent how many years with this guy, she’s complete Jell-o and she’s supposed to pack up all his stuff to give to them… WE decided not to argue with them and we did and we packed up.”
Farris, who had not only lost her best friend but her car and her scant savings, moved almost immediately to San Diego, where she had lived before and was offered a job at a travel agency.
“I just can’t bring myself to talk about it,” she wrote in an e-mail, declining to be interviewed for this story. “I just want to keep my memories for me. Maybe that is selfish, but I can’t help it. I am very sad all the time.”
Spangler insists the murder was not a hate crime. She believes Conley and McWilliams murdered Henry to get his wallet, not because he tried to grope them. “He never would have gone for those two guys,” she said. “They drove by and saw him sitting at the lake minding his own business. They saw a victim with out-of-state plates, did a U-turn and went back. As far as I’m concerned, they made up their mind. It was premeditated. They were going to mug him…. They didn’t know he was gay. They picked that up later to justify what they did.
“I’m still angry about it because some little do-nothing trash punks, they weren’t going to school, they weren’t contributing to society that I could see, except doing drugs and hanging out, mugging people for money. They’re still here and somebody like Kevin isn’t. I just can’t get over that, the injustice of that. Now, to top it all off, I’m going to have my tax-paying dollars so they get three meals a day. It’s not bad enough they did that to Kevin. I’ve got to support their asses.”
Although Spangler says Henry was estranged from family in Lake County, in part because they never accepted his sexual orientation, Henry’s mother, brothers and sister, who attended every court date from the arraignment of Conley and McWilliams to the sentencing, often with Henry’s nieces and nephews in tow, paint a very different picture. All appear to have adored him.
“Kevin and Mom were very close,” said Rachelle Henry, 45, who works for the Upper Lake Water District. “You almost couldn’t not be close if you knew him.”
“If there was something going on he was in the middle of it, and everybody would be laughing,” said his mother, Dorothy Henry, 73, of Upper Lake. “He was one of the teachers’ favorites. He always had fun. You’d listen to his stories about where he’d been and where he was going. He loved travel.”
Farris and Henry took many trips to Europe, later taking one three-month trip to Bali, Malaysia and Thailand, backpacking and having adventures along the way. Kevin sent postcards wherever they went.
“He was always going here and there,” said his brother Bill, 53. “We said, ‘When are you going to settle down and get a job?…But he got to see the world and we were stuck here in Upper Lake.”
Kevin met Nancy Farris in Santa Barbara, doing amateur theater together. “She said he was so good for her because he was so good to travel with,” said his aunt. “And she did take good care of Kevin for a long time. She kept tack of him. She made him eat right. Everything was about keeping him well.”
His mother said she always knew he was gay, and that didn’t matter to her. “I asked him and he said “No,’ he had friends that were,” Dorothy said.
“He fought it really hard,” said his aunt, Laura Denman, 66, of Los Osos. “He didn’t want be gay. He was so afraid that we weren’t going to love him anymore. He never brought any boyfriends here. He was very ashamed of being gay, and it’s so sad.”
When Kevin came out to his family in 1996, he brought news that was far more devastating.
“Nancy called and told me that he had been in the hospital and he had pneumonia, in Seattle,” Rachelle said. “He didn’t tell Mom till he got here. I was fixing dinner when he started to tell her. He said he had AIDS, and it was like he just kept stirring the gravy, and I was just always afraid that was a possibility. Maybe that’s when he said he was gay.”
Laura Denman does acknowledge that two of her daughters were shocked to learn his sexual orientation. “Diane and Laurie just wouldn’t believe it,” Denman said. “One brother in law said there’s no way Duber could be. He was afraid to be that way in front of people.”
Before Farris and Henry moved to back to Mendocino County, a month or two before he died, Dorothy spent two weeks at their home in Seattle taking care of their dog Ruby and their garden. She helped pay for the blue Honda Accord he was driving the night he was killed. It was registered to Farris, she said, because Henry thought that on SSI he couldn’t have a car. Dorothy also gave him money to help him move.
“I talked to him on Halloween, and he was so happy about his job at the Deli in Albion,” Dorothy said. “He made a cheesecake that day and he wanted my fresh apple cake recipe…Nancy called me on the 4th and said Kevin is missing. I said, ‘What do you mean missing?’ She said he went for doctor’s appointments on the 2nd and he didn’t come home. “
Like Spangler, Henry’s family believes Kevin was sitting at the Overlook smoking pot when Conley and McWilliams approached him. They swapped wallets when they cut lines of cocaine.
“He went back to the Motel 6, he had no gas money, nothing to stay over. He told the girl at the Motel 6 he was stranded. He had hoped the people would remember him from when he and Nancy had stayed there a month earlier. At the Motel 6, the girl said this Nate told Kevin it was an accident (about the wallets) and Kevin was…looking for Nate.”
“He was too trusting,” Rachelle said. “Kevin believed everyone was as good and trusting as he was. Kevin was a big guy, 6’1”. If his height wasn’t a deterrent, his smile should have been. How anyone could have done this for no reason.”
Kevin’s murder has made his family hyper-vigilant, even paranoid, they say, when any of them travel away from Upper Lake. “It’s affected how we all come and go,” Rachelle said. “It’s the going that makes it hard because you know what other people are doing out there…. My 11-year-old has a cell phone. Bennie won’t sleep in his room with the windows open. He thinks someone would come in.”
As to why the Victim Witness Program didn’t include Spangler and Farris in their meetings, the Henrys said the service was just family members. “Nancy never went to court,” Rachelle said. “They found him on the 11th and Nancy left at the end of the month so she wouldn’t have to pay rent again.”
Despite tensions between the Henrys and Farris, who they say was jealous of Kevin’s relationship with his mother, they were disappointed she did not attend the memorial for him in Upper Lake.
“She had been with Kevin for 12 years,” Dorothy said. “I asked her to share some of these stories of her time with him…There is no doubt I my mind that Nancy worshipped him, but it’s been really hard to deal with the fact that she kept Kevin away from us, she kept him away from other relationships. When she brought his stuff by, we said, ‘You had the best years and we need to know about them. We loved him, too.’ She should have appreciated more that Kevin was as loved as he was. None of us was a threat to their relationships/”
One of the family’s happiest memories of Kevin is the day he performed karaoke at the Harvest Festival in Upper Lake in 1994 singing a Garth Brooks song called the “The Dance” that seems eerily prophetic when they play him singing for a visitor:
Looking back on the memory of The dance we shared ‘neath the stars alone For a moment all the world was right How could I have known that you’d ever say goodbye.
And now I’m glad I didn’t know The way it all would end the way it all would go Our lives are better left to chance, I could have missed the pain But I’d of had to miss the dance
Marc Tosca, 65, of Ukiah, read about Conley’s murder in the local paper.
“I thought it was a hate crime without question,” said Tosca, 65, who proudly identifies himself as gay, and has read transcripts of the preliminary hearing at the courthouse, and was particularly disturbed by one version of McWilliams’ confession to Detective Jason Caudillo.
McWilliams told the dectective that the night of the murder he’d been drinking at the Pub on North State Street in Ukiah, left his wallet behind and received a phone call from Kevin Henry saying he’d found McWilliams’ wallet. McWilliams, Caudillo told the court, “returned to the pub, retrieved his wallet, declined an offer from Henry to use cocaine. Mr. Henry had propositioned Mr. McWilliams in regards to a sexual act for money. Mr. McWilliams declined, Mr. McWilliams left. Went back to Mr. Conley’s where he advised Mr. Conley that there was a faggot at the Pub with cocaine and money.”
Tosca said he was dismayed but not surprised that the medical examiner did not check Henry’s stomach and colon for semen.
“Of course, they had sex. They don’t want to check for semen,” Tosca said. “The county will cover it up as best they can. They do not want the publicity of a hate crime. This is a very corrupt little town.”
Tosca says he’s experienced firsthand the homophobia of the Mendocino County’s criminal justice. In September of 1998, he was the target of an undercover decoy/sting at his home: convicted felon, sex offender, rapist and robber convinced local law enforcement, with the district attorney’s blessings, that Tosca had forced him to have oral-genital sex.
Tosca fought the charges, going to federal court in 2000 to argue that the four officers who handcuffed him and ransacked his house had violated his civil rights. In 2002, the suit was settled: Mendocino County did not pay damages or Tosca’s sizeable legal fees, but the officers involved in the sting were required to apologize to Tosca, and the entire raid team had to take tolerance training.
“I’m shit disturber,” Tosca said. “I fight back, and you’re not supposed to.”
Tosca wrote to Kevin Henry’s brother Larry in November of 2006. “Homophobia runs rampant in Mendocino,” he said. “It’s unequivocally clear that sexual activity had taken place. If ever a hate crime be, indeed, (it’s) the Henry case.”
When men who are insecure about their own sexuality have sex with other men, Tosca told Larry Henry, they may feel profoundly guilty afterwards and can become “viciously physical.”
“Murderers must be made to comprehend (that) killing is unacceptable; their victim being a ‘faggot,’ Mendocino or not, does not alter that blatant fact,” Tosca wrote. “Do not permit your brother’s murder being slipped under the rug by those in Mendocino, who wish nothing more than that.”
Former Mendocino County District Attorney Norman Vroman was one of the many county officials whom Tosca believes wanted to slip the homophobia underlying the sting against him and Kevin Henry’s murder, under the rug.
“Everybody assumes that when somebody kills somebody like (Henry) it’s because they’re gay, and I think that’s a false assumption,” Vroman told the Chronicle in April 2006. “It just happened to be they were hand and they died.
“I understand the hoopla surrounding the enactment of that (hate crime) law. But it was just that, hoopla. My main goal is to prosecute people for the crimes they committed and get them the maximum sentence I can get, and when you get a life or a 25 to life or 15-year to life sentence on somebody that’s killed somebody, it seems superfluous to me to try to add two more years to that thing because of a hate crime, if we can prove it.
“I’ll be frank with you. I’m not going to waste a lot of time trying to prove a charge like that that only gets a two-year enhancement when I’ve got a tough job finding the evidence to prosecute him for the crime that we’re prosecuting him for. That’s a waste of my time. Not a waste, but it’s a small county and I’ve got to manage my resources. It’s not a good use of my resources, and it’s not going to stop them because all that does is come into effect after the fact, after somebody’s dead. No, it won’t stop it. You think somebody’s going to pick up a law book and say, ‘Oh, my goodness, if I murder somebody I’ll get 25 to life, but if I sexually violate them, or I do it because they’re a queer, I’m going to get two more years? Oh, I better not do that.’ That’s nonsense. Besides, no crook ever looks at a law book before they commit a crime because none of them ever think they’re going to get caught.”
In September 2006, Vroman, who served time in federal prison for income tax evasion, died of a heart attack just as federal agents were preparing to raid his Hopland home to search for marijuana plants and a possible stash of illegal weapons.
“Calling (hate crime legislation) ‘hoopla’ is inappropriate, dismissive and very ill-informed,” said Shannon Minter, an attorney and executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco. “If there is evidence of hate crime, let the jury decide. Hate crimes have a very negative effect on other gay and transgender people and ultimately on the whole society.
“We don’t’ want to live in a world where people in particular groups have to be fearful of being assaulted or attacked. So it’s important that the laws send a message that we don’t condone it and that you will pay an extra price if you engage in this very social destructive act…You’re not allowed to kill someone because they’ve sexually assaulted you.”
Chris Daley, director of the Transgender Law Center in San Francisco, said prosecuting hate crimes sends a strong message to the community that violence against protected minorities will not be prosecuted.
“I certainly don’t think it’s helpful for us to tell a prosecutor exactly what his or her strategy should be,” he said. “But it’s a little troubling that, at least as presented, that this DA seemed to have dismissed it to out of hand.”
Defending oneself from a sexual assault is entirely justified, Daley said, but when the danger is over, the right of self-defense ends.
“The whole thing that underlies the gay panic defense is, ‘Oh, in the heat of the moment this is when I did this.’ Well, it sounds like they stuff (Kevin Henry) in the car and drove for some period of time, and the idea that the heat of the moment continues during that drive and beyond is pretty impractical.”
Karen Ottoboni, a lesbian activist in Mendocino County and founder of a local gay community group called the Billy Club. She defended Vroman’s record said violence against gays in Mendocino County is very rare.
“We have a DA’s office that takes this very seriously,” she said in an interview before Vroman died. “If they felt they had enough evidence and they could nail somebody on this they would have no hesitation whatsoever to go for hate crimes.”
Ottoboni said that only three gay murders have come to light in the 28 years she’s lived in Mendocino County.
In 1998, Louis Pearson, a 44-year-old gay man from Aptos, whowas attending a Billy Club retreat in hopes of kicking his meth habit, went up to the overlook at Lake Mendocino, the same gay cruising spot where Kevin Henry met Conley and McWilliams. He met up with three men who would later beat him to death after he allegedly tired to “fondle” one of the men. All three perpetrators were arrested and sent to prison but none were charged with a hate crime.
In September 2001, Donald Perez, 39, of Santa Ana, was lured to Ft. Bragg by a young Mendocino County man with whom he’d been briefly involved. He was found by police three weeks after his death pinioned to a tree near the Noyo River. He had been robbed, hit over the head with a rock, dragged down off the bridge, forced into the brush, duct- and possibly stabbed in the throat by 18-year-old August Stuckey and two of his friends. The murderers were apprehended and sent to prison, but none was charged with a hate crime.
In the Kevin Henry case, Trevor Conley told detectives that he hit Henry because Conley grabbed his crotch. He never admitted murdering Henry and would only discuss the case with the Chronicle if he were paid. As a consequence, he was not interviewed for this story.
Nathan McWilliams, held in protective custody in Mendocino and Lake county jails, spoke to the Chronicle about half a dozen times. McWilliams. He said Henry’s being gay didn’t bother him but he acknowledged getting angry when Henry repeatedly offered to give him a blow job up at the lake.
“He goes crazy with propositioning me,” McWilliams said. “I declined as respectfully as possible. I’m starting to get mad. I was already high on meth. In retaliation, I pulled out his money….Robbing is to take forcefully. Petty theft is what I did. It wouldn’t have happened if the guy hadn’t kept trying to get sex out of us… We went back and Trevor was boasting, we could beat that fag up, something along those lines, because he was really persistent.”
Keith McWilliams, Nathan’s father, who is 47, lives in Willits and has recently started a business providing home repair and maintenance to seniors, looks younger than his age and is soft spoken like his son. He blames Henry for much of what happened that night but does not believe the murder was a hate crime or that Conley and McWilliams singled him out because he’s gay.
“What happened was Henry’s from Albion and he came over to Ukiah, basically, to do his dirty deed,” Keith said. “He’s a full blown AIDS patient and he was taking a lot of medicine for it, and was going to be dead any day anyway. But he came here and pulled himself together and was very persistent and wanted to pay them for sex and he tried everything he could. He gave them coke and I’m not sure what else. And he was pretty adamant about it. That irritated both the boys.
“He has AIDS, had AIDS, and he didn’t tell the boys that he had it or anything. He was just trying to solicit them, and that’s how this whole thing started. And then Conley hit him with his fist, and that’s what started the whole thing right there.”
Keith McWilliams also blames methamphetamine for Nathan and Conley’s behavior that night.
“They didn’t do anything right. They still had all the clothes with blood on it. That was from the drugs. Drugs, I think, make you really not care or in a fog basically….They weren’t the smartest, uh, murderers. They basically they left all this evidence.’
According to Keith McWilliams, the public defender told his son not to say anything about Henry having AIDS because “it might turn into a hate crime. But then they ruled out hate crime, and then they ruled out the death penalty. Now it’s like a lot easier to talk about it.”
Keith McWilliams believes Henry himself was a killer because he had AIDS and wanted to have sex with his son and didn’t tell Nathan about his diagnosis. “(The newspaper) made Henry look like this saint, and they made the boys look like trash, like murderers, which they are, but, well Conley is. But it just wasn’t fair that they were doing all this when Henry was actually the one that caused all these problems. Like, you know, what if he would have infected the boys? There was blood all over the place…Had they sliced their own skin with all that blood there, they would have been dead. I would much rather them be in jail for life than have AIDS.”
Conley’s lawyer, appointed by the court when the public defender representing him removed himself from the case, was criminal defense attorney Don Lipmanson of Ukiah.
“Here’s a guy taking medicine to control his HIV and he is going around propositioning left and right,” Lipmanson said. “The tragedy is that these guys just didn’t have the insight to walk away from it. You get a rage reaction.”
Still, Lipmanson said, this wasn’t a hate crime.
“I don’t think it’s a hate crime in that I don’t think that was their intention to roll and rob a gay guy because he’s gay.”
Lipmanson, who said Conley has a serious addiction to methamphetamine, believes McWilliams, not his client, killed Kevin Henry.
McWilliams had the ATM card, the watch, used the car, had the blood on the clothing. That was all compelling. What disturbs me is the police taking so much at face value. The physical evidence against Trevor wasn’t that compelling.”
Like Keith McWilliams, Lipmanson also blames methamphetamine for Henry’s death and many others in the Mendocino County.
“Nearly all my really violent cases involved methamphetamine,” he said.
Methamphetamine use is rampant among criminal offenders in Mendocino and all other California counties, according to the California Department of Alcohol and Other Drugs Program. California nearly rippled between 1991 and 2001, according to AODP.
In 2003, the number of arrestees in four California cities who tested positive for meth use was even greater, ranging from 28.7 percent in Los Angeles to 37.6 percent in Sacramento males. In females, the positive rate ranges from 18.5 percent in Los Angeles to 47.1 percent in San Diego.
Of California inmates in prison-based “therapeutic community” treatment programs, 55 percent reported having used methamphetamine. The average age of use at the time was 20. Forty-one percent repported using meth daily in the six moths prior to their incarceration. Fifty three percent reported methamphetamine as their primary drug. Return to prison statistics reveal that meth addicted individuals are among the highest at risk for re-offending and being returned to prison.
“Not everyone who gets addicted to meth moves into the wild-eyed stereotype of the tweaker on a run,” said Helen Falandes, 50, a therapist and program administrator in Mendocino County who for the last 12 years has worked in drug and alcohol treatment programs. “Those who do get addicted to meth the brain is deeply affected – disorganized thoughts, paranoia, memory loss, concentration loss and difficulty structuring time. It takes two years before your brain is probably going to hit its bottom?
Falandes believes that Mendocino’s relaxed attitudes toward marijuana have contributed to the prevalence of meth. “Meth use is on the decline in California, but it hasn’t dipped in Northern California – Lake, Humboldt and Mendocino counties,” she said. “I don’t think you can have the vast infrastructure in Mendocino of growing pot and not have a pathway.
“The very casual multigenerational acceptance of drug use is the norm.”
In families such as McWilliams’ and Conley’s, where one or both parents used drugs, addiction can begin at an early age.
“They don’t go to school, they can’t work, so selling and using drugs is an easy out,” Falandes said. “Emotional maturity is a factor. You can’t function in the adult world if you’re high on impulse and low on social skills. That leads to using more and getting into trouble.”
Nathan McWilliams, who was prescribed Rittalin for ADD at age eight, said that meth is small but steady doses, helps him function.
“It’s a rush,” he said. “It’s a good and enjoyable thing for a while. Coming clown is bad. I would do it for a little while and then take a break. So many people I know lost a lot of things to speed. First you lose your job, then you lose friends, then you lose your car, it just goes in succession. I wouldn’t let if affect my job.”
Det. Andrew Alvarado, who headed the murder investigation, said the killing of Kevin Henry probably wasn’t the result of “grabbing or anything like that. It was an escape attempt by the victim that ultimately led to his death out there.”
“They’re going to try to put Kevin Henry on trial,” Alvarado said before both men pled second-degree murder. “They’re still going to put his lifestyle on trial because ultimately statements are going to come out and again, as far as I can see in this case, it was just the fact that there wasn’t enough evidence to say, yes, without a doubt, Kevin was killed because of his sexual orientation.”
Was methamphetamine the culprit on the night of Nov. 2, 2005?
“We’ve known lots of people that do meth that would never dream of killing anybody,” Rachelle Henry said. “It’s no different from alcohol. It’s no excuse.”
Although Rachelle and her family are relieved and that Conley and McWilliams are behind bars, the pain of his loss and the violence of his death continue to haunt them.
“It’s the worst possible ride you can be taken on,” Rachelle Henry said. “There is no closure. We walk away and nothing’s changed. There’s no making this right.”
Jane Futcher Sunday, January 7, 2007 San Francisco Chronicle Magazine
We had hoped to see bears in Alaska and British Columbia, but the most exotic land mammals we encountered were two newlyweds we visited on a small island six hours and three ferry rides north of Vancouver.
Annie is a statuesque, 6-foot, blue-eyed beauty whose ex-husband started an organic potato chip company and whose new man, Merv, is a nearly toothless, half-Iroquois songwriter who plays six instruments, maintains Annie’s fleet of motorboats and can tell you how to grow killer marijuana without irrigation, fertilizer, imported dirt or hassles with police.
“Hurry, before we lose the light,” Annie yelled as we yanked a duffel from the rental car. We had missed the last ferry to her island, and, at twilight, she’d insisted on crossing the channel in her motorboat to pick us up. “Keep your eyes out for big logs. Can’t see a thing with my glasses fogging up. We’re headed for that blinking green light.”
The faint green light and dark silhouette of land across the straits seemed frighteningly far away as the bow of the little skiff slammed into 4-foot swells, and rain pelted our faces. My partner, Erin, and I glanced wistfully at the orange life vests piled in a wet, unreachable heap behind us.
Erin sang sea tunes to bolster our spirits, which soared when at last we neared the blinking green light, then sagged when our nearsighted captain told us that unless we found two unlit buoys quickly we’d crash on a bunch of rocks.
“Over there,” I cried, pointing a dark object off the bow. “The other’s just beyond it.”
“Right on,” Annie shouted. “Now to the two rock islands, then the gorge and the oyster beds and we’re home.”
“Should we ask Merv to turn on your dock light?” I said, squinting at the shore.
In an instant, Erin found her cell phone and dialed; miraculously, the thing worked, and Merv answered, promising to wave us in with flashlights.
Later that night, as we sat around Annie’s cozy kitchen table, our hostess shook her long white mane and poured a little more Amarula liqueur into her chai. “I’ve never crossed when it was that dark before,” she laughed. “But we made it, didn’t we, girls?”
“Right on,” Merv said. “A toast to the travelers.”
Five days later, we flew back to San Francisco, and, car crammed with luggage and groceries, we headed home in the dark to Mendocino County, chuckling about our wild ride with Annie. We were cresting the long grade between Ukiah and Willits on Highway 101 when a huge, unearthly creature appeared in front of us. There was no time to scream or to swerve. Bam! We collided. The airbags deployed, the windshield shattered, the horn blared maniacally into the night.
“What happened?” Erin whispered from the driver’s seat.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Are you OK?”
“I think so.” She edged the car forward onto a turnout as the airbags fizzled and smoke seeped from under the dash.
“We might be on fire,” I said, reaching for my seat belt with trembling hands. “We should probably get out.”
As we huddled by the highway watching traffic roar by, a bearded man with gleaming eyes jumped from his pickup. “You all right?”
“They hit a bear,” said a woman who had stopped to check on us. “A big one.”
“A bear?” Erin gulped. “Is he OK? Is he …?”
“Died instantly,” the woman said. “Some boys are pulling him off the road.”
A Highway Patrol officer approached carrying a megaphone and herding gawkers away. “What happened here?”
“They say we hit a bear.” Erin wiped her eyes. “He came out of nowhere.”
“I need your license, proof of insurance and registration,” he said.
Erin looked uncertainly at the battered Ford Taurus. The left fender was smashed, the hood was curled and the windshield was a spiderweb of fractures. “It’s in the car. We saw smoke and thought we might blow up.”
“That’s the powder they put in the airbags to keep them from sticking,” the officer said. “Looks like smoke, but it’s not. You’re safe to go in.”
The guy from Triple A, a boy, really, craned our car up behind him and dropped us at a 24-hour cafe in Willits. “You were lucky,” he said. “The Chippie’s hunted bears all his life and said that’s the biggest he ever saw. I’ve towed four bear accidents myself but never one that big.”
Our friend Melinda drove us home, jamming on the brakes to stop for a kangaroo rat that darted across the road.
On Monday morning, I called Caltrans. “The CHP said you removed a bear we hit on Highway 101 near Ukiah Saturday night. Do you still have him? We’d like to come visit, maybe do a little ritual for him. It happened so fast we never really saw him.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “We buried the bear already. He was a big old guy. Measured 5 feet from paw to shoulder and weighed about 500 pounds. You were very lucky. I wouldn’t have wanted to run into that bear, not on the road, not in the woods.”
But run into him we did, which may be why they say be careful what you wish for. We cruised Alaska looking for bears and were very nearly killed by one 20 miles from home.
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