Born again Cynic! Cops Grumpy's hall of Shame

“Civil Asset Forfeiture”,


By Paul Ciotti
© 2000

Recent revelations about rampant police perjury have made Los Angeles juries so mistrustful of law enforcement that attorneys for Los Angeles County are in some cases offering plaintiffs multi-million dollar settlements, rather than risking the possibility of far larger damage awards should the cases ever go to trial.

In one of the more infamous instances of alleged law enforcement misconduct — the killing of the reclusive Malibu millionaire and rugged anti-government individualist Donald Scott in his ranch house by Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies in 1992 — county and federal government officials tentatively agreed last week to pay Scott’s heirs and estate a total of $5 million in return for their dropping a wrongful death lawsuit.

Furthermore, they made the settlement despite the deep conviction, says deputy Los Angeles County Counsel Dennis Gonzales, that the deputy who shot Scott was fully justified and — even though the sheriff was never able to prove it — that the heavy-drinking Scott was growing thousands of marijuana plants on his remote $2.5 million Malibu ranch.

Early on the morning of Oct. 2, 1992, 31 officers from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, Drug Enforcement Administration, Border Patrol, National Guard and Park Service came roaring down the narrow dirt road to Scott’s rustic 200-acre ranch. They planned to arrest Scott, the wealthy, eccentric, hard-drinking heir to a Europe-based chemicals fortune, for allegedly running a 4,000-plant marijuana plantation. When deputies broke down the door to Scott’s house, Scott’s wife would later tell reporters, she screamed, “Don’t shoot me. Don’t kill me.” That brought Scott staggering out of the bedroom, hung-over and bleary-eyed — he’d just had a cataract operation — holding a .38 caliber Colt snub-nosed revolver over his head. When he pointed it in the direction of the deputies, they killed him.

Later, the lead agent in the case, sheriff’s deputy Gary Spencer and his partner John Cater posed for photographs arm-in-am outside Scott’s cabin, smiling and triumphant, says Larry Longo, a former Los Angeles deputy district attorney who now represents Scott’s daughter, Susan.

“It was as if they were white hunters who had just shot the buffalo,” he said.

Despite a subsequent search of Scott’s ranch using helicopters, dogs, searchers on foot, and a high-tech Jet Propulsion Laboratory device for detecting trace amounts of sinsemilla, no marijuana –or any other illegal drug — was ever found.

Scott’s widow, the former Frances Plante, along with four of Scott’s children from prior marriages, subsequently filed a $100 million wrongful death suit against the county and federal government. For eight years the case dragged on, requiring the services of 15 attorneys and some 30 volume binders to hold all the court documents. Last week, attorneys for Los Angeles County and the federal government agreed to settle with Scott’s heirs and estate, even though the sheriff’s department still maintained its deputies had done nothing wrong.

“I do not believe it was an illegal raid in any way, shape or form,” Captain Larry Waldie, head of the Sheriff’s Department’s narcotics bureau, told the Los Angeles Times after the shooting. When Scott came out of the bedroom, the deputies identified themselves and shouted at him to put the gun down. As Scott began to lower his arm, one deputy later said, he “kinda” pointed his gun — which he initially was holding by the cylinder, not the handle grip — at deputy Spencer who, in fear for his life, killed him.

Although attorneys for Los Angeles County believed Scott’s shooting was fully justified, they weren’t eager to see the case go to trial. Recent widespread revelations of illegal shootings, planted evidence and perjured testimony at the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Division were making the public mistrust the police.

“I’ve tried four cases (since the Rampart revelations),” said Dennis Gonzales, a deputy Los Angeles County counsel. And in each case, he said, jurors have told him that the possibility that police officers were lying was a factor in their vote.

“You have to be realistic as to public perceptions,” he said.

Nick Gutsue, Scott’s former attorney and currently special administrator for his estate, put it more bluntly: “(Gonzales) saw he had a loser and he took the easy way out.”

Ironically enough, the county might have had a better chance of winning a court battle if it had allowed the case to go to trial when Scott’s widow and four children first filed their lawsuit back in 1993. The county blew it, says Gutsue. It adopted a “divide and conquer strategy.” It prolonged the lawsuit’s resolution with a successful motion to throw legendarily aggressive anti-police attorney Stephen Yagman off the case. Then it filed a time-consuming motion to dismiss the estate from the lawsuit.

In the process, says Gutsue, new revelations of police misconduct began appearing so frequently that the public’s attitude toward law enforcement began to change. “It was one scandal after another,” says Gutsue. “(County attorneys) stalled so long that the (Rampart scandal) came along and their stalling tactics backfired.”

Although county officials still maintain that Scott was a major marijuana grower who was just clever enough not to get caught, his friends and widow maintain that his drug of choice was alcohol, not marijuana. As a young man, Scott lived a privileged life, growing up in Switzerland and attending prep schools in New York. Later he lived the life of a dashing international jet setter who was married three times, once to a French movie star, and who had gone through two bitter and messy divorces by the time he moved to his Malibu ranch, called Trail’s End, in 1966.

Although well-liked and generous to friends, Scott drank heavily, could be cantankerous and deeply mistrusted the government, which he suspected of having designs on this ranch, a remote and nearly inaccessible parcel with high rocky bluffs on three sides and a 75-foot spring-fed waterfall out back.

“You know what he used to say,” his third wife, Frances Plante, told writer Michael Fessier Jr. in a 1993 article for the Los Angeles Times magazine, “He’d say, ‘Frances, every day they pass a new law and the day after that they pass 40 more.'”

To Los Angeles County officials, the fact that Don Scott got killed in his own house during a futile raid to seize a non-existent 4,000-plant marijuana farm is just one of the unfortunate facts of life in the narcotics enforcement business. It doesn’t mean that sheriff’s deputies did anything wrong.

“Sometimes people get warned and we don’t find anything,” Gary Spencer, the lead deputy on the raid and the one who shot Scott, told an L.A. Times reporter in 1997, “so I don’t consider it botched. I wouldn’t call it botched because that would say that it was a mistake to have gone there in the first place, and I don’t believe that.”

Someone who did believe that was Ventura County District Attorney Michael Bradbury. Although Scott’s ranch was in Ventura County, none of the 31 people participating in the massive early morning raid, which included officers from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, the DEA, the National Park Service, the California National Guard and the Border Patrol bothered to invite any Ventura County officers to come along. Furthermore, once Scott was shot, Los Angeles County tried to claim jurisdiction over the investigation of Scott’s death, even though the shooting occured in Ventura County.

To Bradbury, it was easy to see why. L.A. County wanted jurisdiction. In a 64-page report issued by Bradbury’s office in March of 1993, Bradbury concluded that the search warrant contained numerous misstatements, evasions and omissions. The purpose of the raid, he wrote, was never to find some evanescent marijuana plantation. It was to seize Scott’s ranch under asset forfeiture laws and then divide the proceeds with participating agencies, such as the National Park Service, which had put Scott’s ranch on a list of property it would one day like to acquire, and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which heavily relied on assets seized in drug raids to supplement its otherwise inadequate budget.

For something written by a government agency, the Bradbury report was surprisingly blunt. It dismissed Spencer’s supposed reasons for believing that the Scott ranch was a marijuana plantation and accused Spencer of having lost his “moral compass” in his eagerness to seize Scott’s multi-million dollar ranch. As proof of its assertions, the report pointed to a parcel map in possession of the raiding party that contained the handwritten notation that an adjacent 80-acre property had recently sold for $800,000. In addition, the day of the raid, participants were told during the briefing that Scott’s ranch could be seized if as few as 14 plants were found.

In order to verify that the marijuana really existed, at first Spencer simply hiked to a site overlooking Scott’s ranch. Discovering nothing, he subsequently sent an Air National Guard jet over the area to take photographs of the ranch. When this also failed to reveal anything, he dispatched a Drug Enforcement Administration agent in a light plane to make a low level flight.

The DEA agent, whose name was Charles Stowell, said he saw flashes of green hidden in trees which he believed were 50 marijuana plants. At the same time, Stowell was uncertain enough about his observations — which he had made with the naked eye from an altitude of 1,000 feet — to warn Spencer not to use them as the basis for a search warrant without further corroboration.

In an effort to confirm the marijuana sighting — Spencer by this time had decided that Scott was growing marijuana in pots suspended under the trees — Spencer asked members of the Border Patrol’s “C-Rat” team to make a night-time foray into the ranch. Despite two separate incursions, they failed to find anything except barking dogs. The following day a Fish and Game warden and Coastal Commission worker went to the ranch to investigate alleged stream pollution and do a “trout survey” on the dry stream bed. They too failed to see any marijuana. Two days after that, a sheriff’s deputy and National Park ranger visited the ranch again, this time ostensibly to buy a rottweiler puppy from Scott. The Scotts were friendly and gave them a tour of the ranch. Once again no one saw any marijuana.

This lack of confirmation notwithstanding, four days later Spencer filed an affidavit for a search warrant saying that DEA Special Agent Charles Stowell, “while conducting cannabis eradication and suppression reconnaissance … over the Santa Monica Mountains in a single engine fixed wing aircraft … noticed that marijuana was being cultivated at the Trails End Ranch 35247 Mulholland Highway in Malibu. Specifically Agent Stowell saw approximately 50 plants that he recognized to be marijuana plants growing around some large trees that were in a grove near a house on the property.”

To attorneys with a lot of experience with warrants, Spencer’s affidavit didn’t look like much. “On a scale of one to ten,” says former district attorney Longo, “I would give it a one.”

Despite the affidavit’s deficiencies — among other things, Spencer didn’t mention that none of the people participating in any of the previous week’s incursions had reported any marijuana — Ventura Municipal Court Judge Herbert Curtis III issued a search warrant which, in the words of the Bradbury report, became Scott’s “death warrant.” After Scott’s death, a helicopter hovered over the area in which the marijuana plants were believed to have been growing. There were no pots, no water supply, no marijuana. There was only ivy and even that wasn’t in the location where the marijuana was supposed to be.

Larry Longo, a friend of Scott whose children used to play with Scott’s children, says it’s absurd to think that Scott had marijuana plants hanging from the trees.

“I went up there right after the shooting. The trees were 200- or 300-year-old oak trees. The leaves under them hadn’t been raked in a hundred years.” If Scott had been growing marijuana under the trees, the leaves would have been disturbed and the tree bark broken. “There wasn’t a single mark on the trees. There was no water supply.”

Besides, says Longo, “Donald might have been a lot of things, but he would never be so dumb as to cultivate marijuana on his property.” If for no other reason, he didn’t need the money. Any time he needed cash, all he had to do was call New York and they’d withdraw whatever was necessary out of his trust fund. At the time of Scott’s death, there was $1.6 million in his primary trust account.

The Bradbury report caused a huge ruckus in Los Angeles County. Sherman Block, the sheriff at the time, denounced it and issued a report of his own which completely cleared everyone, and California Attorney General Dan Lungren criticized Bradbury for “inappropriate and gratuitous comments.”

Cheered by his apparent exoneration by Sheriff Block and Attorney General Lungren, sheriff’s deputy Spencer subsequently sued Bradbury for libel, slander and defamation. After a long and bitter fight, including allegations that Bradbury suppressed an earlier report which concluded that Spencer was innocent after all, a state appeals court declared that Bradbury was within his 1st Amendment rights of free speech when he criticized Spencer. The court also ordered Spencer to pay Bradbury’s $50,000 legal fees, a development that caused Spencer to declare bankruptcy. According to press reports, the stress from all this caused Spencer to develop a “twitch.”

Spencer wasn’t the only one affected by Scott’s killing. Scott’s wife, Frances, was so strapped for cash, she subsequently told a judge, she considering eating a dead coyote she found on the side of the road. According to her attorney, Johnnie Cochran, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, she is currently living on the property while she holds off government claims to seize it for unpaid taxes. In 1996, the massive Malibu firestorm destroyed Scott’s ranch house and the outlying buildings. As a result, Frances Scott currently lives in a teepee erected over the badminton court, albeit a teepee with expensive rugs and a color TV.

Scott’s old friend and attorney Nick Gutsue recently said he had mixed feelings about the settlement. While he was glad that Scott’s widow and children didn’t have to go through the horror of reliving Scott’s death in a jury trial, at the same time was disappointed that he never got a chance to clear Scott’s name.

“I asked for an apology and exoneration of Scott,” said Gutsue. “I never got one. I was told it was against their policy.” That’s one reason, said Gutsue, he always wanted a jury trial. In a settlement, no one has to admit any guilt.


“Of course,” said Gutsue, “$5 million is a pretty good sized admission.”






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