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The Last Circle
Danny Casolaro's Investigation Into the Octopus and the PROMIS Software Scandal
By Cheri Seymour
Trine Day LLCCopyright © 2010 Cheri Seymour
All rights reserved.
The historic Mariposa Gazette offices resembled an old-time black and white Spencer Tracy movie, except the newspaper was older than Spencer Tracy, older than movies with sound tracks. The typesetting and printing equipment was ancient, there was no central air-conditioning or heating so the employees sweltered in the summer and froze in the winter, and the pay was low but no one complained because they had ink in their blood and it was a privilege to have a job in a town of only 1,500 people.
To flatlanders, Mariposa County might have been situated in outer Siberia. Nestled in the foothills of Yosemite National Park, it was the smallest county in California with a population of 15,000 mostly retired folks. The old western town consisted mainly of small businesses; a couple of gas stations, mom and pop restaurants and markets, a courthouse and a history center. The residents of Mariposa were obliged to entertain themselves. There were two saloons in town and no theatre, the county fair was the biggest event of the year. The nearest metropolis was Fresno, approximately 80 miles down a 2-lane highway to the south.
Across the street from the Gazette loomed the old courthouse, a relic from the California gold-rush days, but still operational as the hub of county government. The ruling faction congregated here, a clique of county officials and sheriff's deputies who controlled the life's blood of Mariposa.
In the Fall of 1986 I received a note at the Gazette office from a sheriff's deputy who had relocated from Los Angeles a few years earlier. The note read: "Cheri, meet me in the back room of the Gold Coin Saloon after work. Don't tell anyone about this meeting. Come alone." This was uncommon since my reporter's beat ordinarily covered Board of Supervisors meetings at the courthouse. I shared a small cluttered office with the managing editor, who frequently interacted with the sheriff's commander, the district attorney, or Board members daily, but the note had asked me not to apprise her of this meeting.
That afternoon, in the back room of the Gold Coin Saloon, I listened to a chronology of long-standing corruption, murder, threats and harassment. For the deputies of the Mariposa Sheriff's Department, the awakening occurred on June 24, 1980, when Ron Van Meter, a fellow deputy, drowned in an alleged boating accident on Lake McClure. Those whom he confided in believed he was murdered after uncovering and reporting drug trafficking within the sheriff's department.
The dilated fear in the deputy's eyes as he told the story, the way he'd looked under the table to search for listening devices, convinced me that this story was way off my beat, and the Mariposa Gazette, a family newspaper, would never publish it. As I emerged from the dusky saloon into the Fall sunlight, I felt no warning bells for the deputy's plight, just pity that his idyllic life in Mariposa had turned ugly with intrigue and murder conspiracies. These things didn't happen in Mariposa. As I drove home, my mind wandered to more pleasant thoughts; the planned afternoon horse ride with members of the Mariposa Mountain Riders, the creak of the saddle, the cool breeze and the scent of pines wafting through the valley.
But the seed had been planted. The following week I found myself rummaging through old news stories and files. Official reports listed Ron Van Meter's death as a drowning from a boating accident on Lake McClure. The search party consisted mainly of three divers, deputies Dave Beavers, Rod Cusic and Gary Estep. In subsequent interviews with these deputies, I learned that adjacent counties had offered additional divers, but Sheriff Paul Paige refused outside help, even a mini-submarine offered by Beavers' associate.
Van Meter's widow, Leslie, had been at home baking cookies when she was notified of her husband's disappearance. She was an Indian girl who had no affinity with sheriff Paul Paige. The horror began for her that day also. Her home was ransacked and her husband's briefcase and diary were seized by the Mariposa Sheriff's department. Only she and a few deputies knew what Van Meter's diary contained. He'd told his wife he'd taken out a special life insurance policy two weeks before, but after the search that was missing also.
The story surfaced one tiny bubble at a time. On March 23, 1984, Leslie Van Meter filed a Citizen's Complaint with the Mariposa County Sheriff's department alleging that the Sheriff's office had been negligent and unprofessional in their investigation of her husband's disappearance. His body had still not been found, despite private searches by Sergeant Beavers and other friends of the missing deputy. She wanted the case re-opened.
Paul Paige was no longer sheriff, but newly elected Sheriff Ken Mattheys responded by re-opening the investigation. Deputies Frank McCoy and Lonnie Hammond, both former cops from the Southern California area, were appointed to handle the internal affairs aspect of the case.
In October 1984 Sheriff Mattheys also recruited private investigator Raymond Jenkins, a former Merced College Police Chief, and retired FBI agent Tom Walsh from Merced, to investigate the Van Meter disappearance and help him clean up the Sheriff's Department. These investigators subsequently concluded that Ron Van Meter was murdered when he obtained evidence of drug trafficking within the sheriff's department.
Their investigation also led them straight to the doorstep of MCA (Music Corporation of America), parent company to Curry Company, the largest concessionaire in Yosemite National Park. A major drug network had surfaced in the park, compelling one park ranger, Paul Berkowitz, to go before the House Interior Subcommittee on National Parks and Recreation to testify about drug distribution by Curry Company officials.
Ed Hardy, then president of Curry Company, was closely associated with Mariposa County officials, in particular, Mariposa District Attorney Bruce Eckerson, County Assessor Steve Dunbar, and Congressman Tony Coelho, whose district encompassed Mariposa and the Park. The annual camping trips that the three men took together was encouraged by the local townsfolk because much of Mariposa's tax base emanated from Curry Company. Coelho and Hardy were regular fixtures around town, seen at most of the social events. Coelho even cooked and served spaghetti dinners for the whole town annually at the Mariposa Fair Grounds, and purchased property in partnership with one member of the Mariposa Board of Supervisors. In fact, Mariposa was one of the first places Coelho bid farewell to after resigning from Congress to avoid an investigation of his finances.
On July 6, 1985, Mrs. Van Meter filed a "Request for Official Inquiry" with the State of California Department of Boating and Waterways stating that no satisfactory investigation was ever conducted into the matter of her husband's disappearance.
That same month, shortly after a meeting at Lake McClure with Mrs. Van Meter, Sheriff Mattheys mysteriously resigned from his position at the Mariposa Sheriff's Department. Mattheys revealed to reporter Anthony Pirushki that he had been ordered by two county supervisors and the county's attorney "to stay away from the Van Meter investigation." But that was not the reason he resigned. The whole story would not surface until seven years later when a reporter from the Mariposa Guide interviewed him.
However, while still in office, Mattheys and his internal affairs investigators had learned the reason for Van Meter's disappearance. A few weeks prior to his death in 1980, Van Meter had driven to the Attorney General's office in Sacramento and reported drug dealing and other forms of corruption within the Mariposa Sheriff's Department. This, according to his friends whom he had confided in, deputies Dave Beavers, a fifteen year veteran of the sheriff's department, and Rod Cusic, a seventeen year veteran. Both deputies were ultimately forced out of the department and retired on stress leave.
On that same day, reserve deputy Lucky Jordan had driven to the Fresno office of the FBI to report similar information. According to Jordan, they had split up and reported to separate agencies in the event "something" happened to one of them. The crux of the story was the State Attorney General's response to the requested investigation by Ron Van Meter. When Ron returned home from Sacramento, he was confronted by Sheriff Paige. Paige had received a call from the Attorney General informing him of the visit and its contents, and the sheriff was livid about Van Meter's betrayal. Van Meter had been photographing and journalizing drug activity by deputies at Lake McClure. He was part of a California State Abatement Program which involved harvesting and eradicating marijuana fields in Yosemite National Park and adjacent counties. Instead, the harvested marijuana was being stored in abandoned cars and towed out of town by a local wrecker under contract with the sheriff's department. It was also being distributed at a hidden cove at Lake McClure.
On June 24, 1980, frustrated and angry at the Attorney General for betraying him, Van Meter had borrowed a boat and was on his way to arrest the deputies at Lake McClure himself. He never returned.
* * *
In September 1990, in the shallow, placid waters of Lake McClure, Van Meter's body was finally recovered. His torso, wrapped in a fish net and weighted down by various objects, including a fire extinguisher, had washed ashore a few hundreds yards from where Sergeant Roderick Sinclair's houseboat had once been moored.
It was at this juncture that I joined forces with investigator Ray Jenkins. I was no longer working as a reporter at the Mariposa Gazette, but working on a book. Through Jenkins I learned that the investigation of Van Meter's 1980 "accident" had initially been handled by Sergeant Roderick Sinclair, who could not have known on that fateful day that in exactly three years, three months, and nineteen days, he would enter the Twilight Zone where his own private hell awaited him.
* * *
The first substantial hint that a tentacle of the Octopus had slithered into Mariposa County occurred on March 5, 1983 when a Mariposa County Sheriff's vehicle scouting Queen Elizabeth II's motorcade route rounded a curve in the Yosemite National Park foothills, crossed a highway and collided head-on with a Secret Service car, killing three Secret Service agents. CHP (California Highway Patrol) Assistant Chief Richard Hanna reported that the collision occurred at 10:50 a.m. between Coulterville and La Grange on Highway 132 about 25 minutes ahead of Queen Elizabeth's motorcade. CHP Sergeant Bob Schilly reported that Mariposa County Sheriff's Sergeant Roderick Sinclair, 43, was driving with his partner, Deputy Rod McKean, 51, when "for some reason, [he didn't] know why," Sinclair crossed the center line and hit the second of the three Secret Service cars, which went tumbling down a 10-foot embankment.
The three Secret Service agents killed in the collision were identified as George P. LaBarge, 41, Donald Robinson, 38, and Donald A. Bejcek, 29. Sinclair, who had sustained broken ribs and a fractured knee, was first stabilized at Fremont Hospital in Mariposa, then transported several days later to Modesto Memorial Hospital.
Years later, several nurses who had been present when Sinclair was brought into Fremont Hospital confided that Sinclair had been drugged on the day of "the Queen's accident" as it became known in Mariposa. For months Sinclair had been receiving huge daily shots of Demerol, "enough to kill most men," according to one billing clerk. Some former deputies who had feared punitive measures if they spoke up, later corroborated the story of the nurses.
Meanwhile, Assistant U.S. Attorney James White in Fresno ordered Dr. Arthur Dahlem's files seized to prove Sinclair's alleged drug use. Sinclair's Mariposa doctor and close friend had been prescribing heavy sedatives to him for years. When White attempted to prosecute Sinclair for criminal negligence, he was called into chambers during the federal probe and told by U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Coyle to "drop the criminal investigation" because Sinclair's drug problem was not relevant to the prosecution and the drug records could not be used in court. Judge Coyle's reasoning was that no blood tests had been taken on Sinclair at the Fremont Hospital on the day of the accident, therefore no case could be made against him.
In fact, the blood tests had been taken, but later disappeared. A significant piece of information relative to Judge Coyle's background was passed to me during my inquiry of the Queen's accident by retired FBI agent Thomas Walsh. Allegedly, the Judge was once the attorney of record for Curry Company (owned by MCA) in Yosemite National Park
Relative to the Queens accident, in the civil trial that followed the tragic accident, Judge Coyle ruled that both Sinclair and the deceased Secret Service agents were at fault. Mariposa County was ordered to pay 70 percent of the claim filed by the widows, and the Secret Service to pay 30 percent. The county's insurance company paid the claim, and ironically, Sinclair was subsequently promoted to Commander of the Mariposa Sheriff's Department.
In an interview on March 7, 1988, at Yoshino's Restaurant in Fresno, former U.S. Attorney James White related that the original CHP report on the Queens accident was sent to the State Attorney General's office (Van De Kamp) in Sacramento. The report was first received by Arnold Overoye, who agreed with White that Sinclair should be prosecuted. But when the report crossed Van De Kamp's desk, he told Overoye and his assistant to discard it – trash it.
Van De Kamp then appointed Bruce Eckerson, the Mariposa County District Attorney, to take charge of the investigation and submit a new report. Coincidentally, Bruce Eckerson's disclosure statements on file at the Mariposa County Courthouse indicated that he owned stock in MCA Entertainment Corporation. White added that all of the crack M.A.I.T.S. team CHP officers involved in the original investigation either resigned or were transferred (or fired) afterward. The CHP Commander and the Deputy Commander who supervised the M.A.I.T.S. investigation also resigned as did Assistant U.S. Attorney White himself after the cover-up took place.
However, White noted that before he resigned, he quietly filed with Stephan LaPalm of the U.S. Attorney's office in Sacramento the transcripts of the trial and an affidavit which listed the "hallucinatory" drugs Sinclair had used prior to the accident. I privately continued with the Queen's accident investigation, interviewing deputies Dave Beavers and Rod Cusic who had been privy to Sinclair's drugged condition on the day of the accident.
Beavers, who was the first deputy to arrive on the scene, maintained four years later, in 1987, that he was cognizant of Sinclair's condition, but when he was questioned by James White he was not asked about the drugs. (James White had by then been ordered to drop the criminal investigation and stay away from the drug aspect of the case).
In January 1988, deputy Rod Cusic strode into the offices of the Mariposa Guide, a competitor newspaper to the Mariposa Gazette, and stated that he was "told by Rod Sinclair to lie to a Grand Jury" about Sinclair's drug addiction and the resulting Queen's accident. Cusic added that he officially disclosed this to the Fresno FBI on April 26, 1984 and again on October 9, 1987. In 1987, Cusic also noted that he witnessed a booby-trapped incendiary device explode at Rod Sinclair's home during a visit to his residence. Additionally, earlier on, Sinclair allegedly barricaded himself inside his home and booby-trapped the property, as witnessed by numerous deputies who tried to persuade him to come out.
Excerpted from The Last Circle by Cheri Seymour. Copyright © 2010 Cheri Seymour. Excerpted by permission of Trine Day LLC.
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