VOL.24 NO. 8
April 20 - May 3, 2000

Hancock Pleads No Contest to Drug Charges

By Susan Chasen

The firewood man on Old Topanga Canyon Road, James W. Hancock, has two months to close up his business and find a place to live outside Topanga, according to an agreement reached on Thursday, April 6 in Malibu Superior Court before Judge James A. Albracht.

Hancock, 65, has pleaded "no contest" to charges of possession of methamphetamine for sale, as well as possession by a felon of a firearm--in this case a very old, black-powder pistol--and several unrelated rounds of ammunition.

At a formal sentencing hearing set for Thursday, June 15, Hancock is expected to receive three years probation with the requirement that he stay out of Topanga during that period, except perhaps to see his doctor.

"I just don't want him hanging around that community," said Judge Albracht. "I want him out of that community."

Hancock's attorney explained that his "no contest" plea means that Hancock doesn't want to take the risk of going to trial, even though he maintains his innocence.

"I think this case would have been difficult, even though there were good defenses to both charges" said attorney Richard Herzog, with the Alternate Public Defenders office.
The problem, Herzog said, is that with the gun charge, the jury would hear about Hancock's 1994 conviction on drug charges.

At that time, Hancock pleaded guilty and received probation which, according to Herzog, was successfully completed.
Hancock said of the gun, "I didn't even know it was there."
Earlier during the hearing, a deputy district attorney had agreed to drop the gun charge, but revived it when Herzog insisted on "no contest" rather than a "guilty" plea.
"The promise of probation did not come from us," said Martin Herscovitz, the deputy district attorney in charge of the case. He explained that the plea agreement was a "unilateral" one between the defense and the court.
"The court took the case out of our hands," said Herscovitz. The district attorney's office, he said, supported sentencing Hancock to state prison.


Asked about the evidence that would have been presented if the case had gone to trial, Herscovitz said the only witnesses would have been the police officers who served the search warrant last September 30, when a third-of-an-ounce of methamphetamine was found along with an electronic scale, paperwork alleged to be "pay and owe" sheets reflecting drug sales, the black-powder pistol and six rounds of ammunition for other sorts of guns.
According to a police report of the raid, Hancock told police at the time that he lived alone and that his fingerprints would be on the evidence police were confiscating. There were two unrelated women present at the time.

Herscovitz said fingerprints were not part of the evidence in the case, but Hancock's statements to police were.

"His statements, and the fact that he's the person who lives there and his proximity to the items," said Herscovitz, "is usually proof enough that that's the person who left them there. Drug dealers aren't going to always have it in their front pocket, and if they do they might say they borrowed the pants. You have to look for the most rational explanation.

"He's been convicted of the crime," Herscovitz added. "He could have had a trial if he had wanted a trial."



Hancock's pleading "no contest" instead of "guilty" may be significant in the ongoing civil case relating to his landlord's four-year effort to evict him. Though the terms of his probation obviously mean he will be leaving the property, Hancock's civil attorney, Charles Elias, of Rolling Hills Estates, still holds out a possibility that he could return after the three years.

Hancock moved to the property at 252 Old Topanga Canyon Road 20 years ago and was allowed to live rent-free in exchange for taking care of the property. The last four years, however, have been a battle between the property owner Robert Harris, who wants his land back, and Hancock, who wants to stay and who believes his years of work improving the property have won him the right to stay. "I'd like to end up with the property," said Hancock. "I'd like to live there."

For now, Hancock, who rarely leaves his makeshift house, said he has no place to go. "I haven't even been out and driven around."

The property owner, Harris, could not be reached for comment.

Currently, Hancock and Harris are both suing each other. Hancock is seeking damages from Harris over a $150,000 purchase offer on the property which would have resulted in Hancock having to vacate, but which was thrown out by a judge who ruled that it wasn't a bona-fide offer. Harris responded with a lawsuit alleging that Hancock has violated terms of a 1997 stipulation agreement that allowed Hancock to stay as long as he didn't violate any laws or disturb or annoy neighbors.

According to Elias, Hancock pleading "no contest" and maintaining his innocence may make it more difficult for Harris to establish that Hancock was violating the law.

Elias was present at the April hearing and defended Hancock's decision not to go to trial. "He's looking at the danger of a lot of time," said Elias. "How can you fight that, intelligently?" he asked, given that affluent and relatively conservative prospective jurors might be unsympathetic to a man like Hancock.

"He's a little different. He does do things his own way--like his house," said Elias. "But it doesn't mean he's a drug dealer." According to Elias, Hancock's home is a pack-rat sort of place. "People leave things around there," he said.

Elias explained his involvement saying he is normally a divorce lawyer, but that he is representing Hancock as an old friend. He said his pay is more firewood than he can possibly use.

Elias questions whether there are interrelationships between this case, the efforts of the property owner to evict Hancock, and Hancock's lawsuit against Harris filed just over a month before the raid on the property.
"Why were they trying to throw the book at him?" asked Elias. "I just don't understand that."

With the gun charge and a subsequently-dropped enhancement charge of dealing drugs near a school, Hancock was initially facing a possible 11-year prison sentence if convicted. The three counts Hancock pleaded "no contest" to carry sentences ranging from 16 months to 3 years.


Similarly, Elias questions the involvement of David Carlat, a non-Topangan who volunteered on behalf of un-named friends in Topanga to pressure law enforcement into going after Hancock. "Why is this man doing that?" asked Elias. "It seems suspicious."

Carlat was scheduled a week earlier to give a deposition in Hancock's civil lawsuit, but canceled at the last minute due to illness, Elias said.

Carlat said he thinks the plea agreement is going to anger many in Topanga where, he says, Hancock's dealings are common knowledge. "Obviously, people in the community are infuriated that he wouldn't get anything more than a slap on the wrist," said Carlat. "It seems to be a double standard."

While acknowledging that "we long ago lost the drug war" and perhaps have taken the wrong approach, Carlat still objects to inequity in the justice system and contends that Hancock gets off easy because he is white and lives in Topanga.

"The bottom line in our society is whatever's good for a drug dealer in East Los Angeles ought to be good for a drug dealer in Topanga," said Carlat. "Let's not ignore the reality. Certain elements in the legal system and in the community, including people at the Los Angeles Times, don't have a problem with drug dealers. In Topanga you can get away with being a drug dealer."

Carlat, who was not at the hearing, said he will agree to reschedule a deposition with Elias, but that he will refuse to disclose his connections in Topanga. He repeated that his involvement was prompted by neighbors of Hancock and that he only spoke with Harris after becoming involved.

Carlat said he was assured by the Sheriff's Department that his contacts with the department did not precipitate the raid and he was not told when it was to occur. He said he was convinced that drug dealing was going on at the property, but that he had no details to offer that could have been used to get a search warrant.

Carlat said he understood the Sheriff's Department had a witness. But he speculated that the witness's own drug history may have been a credibility problem.

Carlat also delivered letters and petition signatures from Topangans, concerned about allegations of nearby drug dealing, to the Malibu court and the county probation office. He says he was happy to be a shield for people who were afraid or intimidated to openly voice their concerns, especially in light of the public ridicule that followed in the press.

"They were more right than I thought they were initially," Carlat said. "Not many came to their defense."

Carlat said he was not paid for his involvement in this case, but that in his work as a political consultant he is paid to represent individuals and companies before government agencies. Carlat, 48, said he is retired and does not make a living from his consulting work.

When asked to comment on the plea agreement, Narcotics Detective Tui Wright with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said it seems more lenient than in other cases he is familiar with. "Obviously sentencing is up to the court," said Wright, but he added, "it's been my experience that when somebody receives sentencing of probation for possession of drugs for sale in Los Angeles County--if they receive probation it's always given with mandatory jail time and that mandatory jail time usually ranges from 180 days in County jail all the way up to several years in state prison."

Wright suggested that citizens do have recourse if they question the benefit of sending an alleged drug dealer into another community. "If the citizens are not happy with the way the local courts handle the sentencing of drug dealers in their area then they can contact the courts and let the courts know how they feel," said Wright. "That's their right."


Kathleen Warthen Killed by Hit-and-Run Driver

By Penny Taylor

On Saturday night, April 8 at 11:45 p.m., Topanga resident, Kathleen Warthen was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Chatsworth on Devonshire Boulevard near Variel. At press time Detective Tom Whetzel of the Valley Traffic Division said they still had no leads as to the identity of the driver who hit her.

Kathleen was a familiar face around Topanga's Center with her dog. She was particularly noticeable because of her model's height and her striking good looks. She had a winning smile and a fondness for animals.

Born Donna Kathleen Sammons in Bartsville, Oklahoma on May 3, 1956, she attended college at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcus, Texas and later moved to Galveston where she received the equivalent of a Masters Degree in Microbiology from the University of Texas Medical Branch. Her interest in science came in part because her father, George Donald Sammons, was a rocket scientist working with solid propellants eventually used in the space shuttle.

Kathleen was an enthusiastic collector of antique bullets, and her brother, David, had just recently helped her add to her collection of over 900. She had competed in shooting events when she lived in Texas.
Recently she had been a caregiver for Pamela Ingram who passed away in March.

Kathleen is survived by her mother, Constance Eliaine Sammons, and her brother, David Hamilton Sammons, both of Waco, Texas.

Anyone who wishes to contribute thoughts and memories of Kathleen for the next issue may contact the Messenger.


Top O' Topanga Nails Down Deal

By Susan Chasen

A final agreement was reached earlier this month between residents of Top O' Topanga mobile home park and Hometown America Inc. that sets the stage for up to 92 homeowners to buy the lots under their homes sometime around next December-almost exactly two years after the previous purchase effort fell apart. . .

To read the whole story, buy the current issue of the Messenger!


Is Animal Control Under Control?

By Michele Johnson

The word spread like butter on a hot biscuit--County Animal Care and Control was planning a sweep in Topanga on Wednesday, April 5. "Keep your animals in," Yolande Michaels, leader of the Arteique Road area neighborhood association, warned her neighbors. In other parts of the Canyon, the word went out: "Dogs indoors on April 5!" As it turned out, "We did have a sweep plan," said Animal Care and Control Field Supervisor Frank Bongiorno, "but it never took place."

It took Bongiorno, whose area ranges for many miles from Malibu to Thousand Oaks and down to Topanga, a little prodding to admit a sweep had been planned. When first asked, he would only say that April 5 was "a typical day" with three officers in the field--one in Topanga. Then he reluctantly admitted that, due to a number of complaints, the plan was proposed but subsequently scrapped.

On a "sweep," five trucks from Animal Roping for Safety (ARCH) drive in with ten officers skilled in roping animals. When they do a sweep of an area, they typically pick up anywhere from 70 to 100 animals in a day. "It's easily done in an area like Topanga because everybody pretty much lets their dogs run free." The plan was scrapped after an investigator went out to answer one complaint on Tuesday, April 4, and discovered that at least that complaint had little basis. Two "visiting" pit bulls, "traveling through Topanga," said Bongiorno, were picked up but found not to be aggressive, and were returned to their owners. No tickets were given.

In his seven years on the job, there had never been a sweep in Topanga before. But the times, they are a'changing. Bongiorno would not rule out a sweep in the future. "We must respond to complaints," though usually, he said, "We try to resolve things in a friendly way. We try to work things out with the public we serve.

"If a dog is aggressive, we send in someone immediately. If it's just a nuisance, we like to leave it to the neighbors to solve their own problem."

If your dog is picked up, it could lead to a court appearance and a maximum fine of $250. Charges could include breaking the leash law, presenting a public nuisance, lacking a dog license and failing to get your dog a rabies shot.

Sophie Calisto knows first-hand what it is to be on the wrong side of the pet police. When an animal control officer came onto her property "with a rope in his hand," chasing a neighbor's small dog, Sophie tried to intervene. "I only asked questions--did he have the right to remove the dog from private property? He [the officer] got really defensive." Sophie said it was "the friendliest dog in the universe, a tiny little thing." The dog ran to her and she grabbed the collar. But, she insisted, when the officer became "really violent, completely beet red" and said, "I'm gonna take this dog," she gave up the dog. But she made the mistake of continuing the argument, following him to the car. At that point, he issued her a ticket, which she found out later was a misdemeanor, "interfering with a police officer." She had to go to court. Though the officer wrote on the ticket that she had hit him, the district attorney threw out the misdemeanor charge, but made her pay a $200 fine.

Can an animal control officer legally come onto your private property? The answer is yes, said Bongiorno, with no apologies to the fourth amendment of the Constitution. Animal Control can chase a dog onto private property and can even come on private property just to check to see if a dog has a license. Bongiorno says it's consistent with both state and county law.

Bongiorno insists that loose animals can present a danger to themselves and to the community. Even two dogs roaming together can get into a "pack mentality," he said, threatening people and other animals. "Two dogs could take down any adult," with "bone-crushing ability."

Then there are dogs that endanger themselves and others in traffic, which can lead to tragedy. Bongiorno said. "I've literally had to go to the door to tell someone a loved one was killed because of stray dogs." Up on Arteique recently, Three, a family's beloved third dog, was killed by a speeding UPS truck driver, Yolande Michaels reported.

"A lot of people keep i.d. on their dog, and that's important, because that's their ticket home," advises Bongiorno. If a dog is impounded, he pointed out, at least it ends up in Agoura Animal Shelter "with the best adoption rate in Southern California, the fourth highest in the nation." In fact, an amazing 86 percent of all animals [impounded there] are adopted or returned to their owners. "Most shelters have the opposite," he said. He partially credits the volunteer effort: "We have many citizen volunteers, quite a few from your area, asking, 'What do you need this week?'--they give us puppy food, blankets."

Many Topangans see the dog asleep in the middle of the road as a metaphor for Topanga. This has always been a rural area, operating on rural rules, so why can't Old Blue walk on down a country road? But traffic and high density living is unfortunately changing the landscape of Topanga, and many fear that what was accepted yesterday may not be possible tomorrow.


Officials Talk Topanga Traffic

Photo and story by Tony Morris

Traffic along Topanga Canyon Boulevard continues to increase, as more Valley residents and commuters use it as an alternate route over the Santa Monica Mountains to the Westside. Actual vehicle speeds are now higher than posted speeds, and the risk of accidents along the Boulevard continues to rise.

Residents posting concerns about Topanga's traffic on the Canyon's two popular websites--TopangaOnline and topangamessenger.com's "Mouth of the Canyon"--are suggesting solutions which include a toll road from Mulholland to Pacific Coast Highway, and speed bumps installed along the Boulevard.

On Tuesday, April 4, Laurie Newman, Senior Field Deputy for Assembly member Sheila Kuehl; Sheik Moinuddin, Caltrans Senior Transportation Engineer, and Tetsuo Kohama, Caltrans Transportation Engineer, met in Topanga to observe traffic and road conditions in the heart of town. Moinuddin, responsible for traffic engineering along Route 27 for Caltrans, was asked about turn lanes for the new Pine Tree Circle project, plans for improving existing crosswalks, and Caltrans' plans for the increasingly dangerous junction at Old Topanga and Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Excessive speed at this intersection has resulted in a number of accidents. Drivers entering the Boulevard from Old Topanga routinely "roll" through a posted stop sign as they merge with southbound traffic.

After a two-hour inspection, Caltrans' Moinuddin said that any future plans for the Boulevard in Topanga would require a review which could take several months. Caltrans and Los Angeles County officials will meet to discuss and coordinate that review. The Topanga community's participation in any future solutions is expected, and an opportunity for the community to discuss any future Caltrans plans will be scheduled for this summer.


Park Money Priority: Mouth of the Creek

By Rosi Dagit

Since the last regular meeting of the Topanga Watershed Committee in February lots has happened. First and foremost, Prop 12 and 13 were passed by voters, opening the door for funding to achieve some worthy goals. Prop 12 contained a line item allocating $5 million for the purchase of the Los Angeles Athletic Club property at the mouth of the Creek.

Long known to locals as the Rodeo Grounds, the residential and commercial properties along Pacific Coast Highway have been owned by the Athletic Club since the 1920s. A variety of schemes to develop the area have been floated, including a long-ago plan for a yacht club and marina! Most recently, the Athletic Club has been carefully monitoring the revision of the Local Coastal Plan.

The property extends up Topanga Canyon Boulevard to the Los Angeles city line, which also marks the state park boundary just north of the pullout/overlook in the narrows. At 1,640 acres, it is the largest privately held parcel left in the watershed.

We hope that if this parcel is acquired the community will be included in the planning process so long-time residents and businesses can have a voice in its use. One idea is to retain some of the businesses and historic buildings, using them as a gateway visitors center for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Additional funds will be required in order to cinch the deal, and the project has been proposed for high priority funding from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the Southern California Wetlands Recovery Project and the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Project. The time line for final prioritization and funding allocations is not yet clear. Stay tuned for more details!


Caltrans has also responded to our concerns about slope mowing the upper areas along the road shoulder. No final details were resolved, but we are anxiously awaiting word from them on how they intend to deal with our concerns about the destruction of upslope shrubs by the slope mower, removal of vegetation in the small frog breeding pools along the road shoulder, and the extent and content of the planned corridor study.

The Streambank and Slope stabilization workshop held in early March was a big success. Over 100 engineers, contractors, geologists, landscapers and property owners from Santa Barbara to San Diego participated. The buses provided by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky took us to visit several locations in the Canyon. Brainstorming as the cars whizzed by near "Lake Topanga," the crowd came up with a great strategy to try and stabilize the landslide and restore the creek channel. Another plan to restore the rip-rap slope near Topanga School Road to a more natural condition was also discussed. The Grading and Drainage Best Management Practices Workshop will take place on Saturday, June 10. Call (310) 455-1030 for details.


We have received permission to move forward on removing the wrecked cars from the creek by helicopter. Thanks to a contact provided by Pete Weeger, we have hooked up with Heli-flite, one of the few helicopter salvage companies. They will be checking out the Canyon soon to be sure that their monster Sikorsky S58 can maneuver safely. We are submitting a grant request for $13,000 to cover the cost of fuel, pilots and crew for a day. Trucks to transport the wrecks to the recycling facility are being donated by Richard Sherman of Topanga Underground. The plan is to get the cars out in June, so the students at Topanga Elementary School who helped organize the project can take part.

The next community Watershed meeting will be Saturday, May 13 from 9 a.m. to noon at Topanga Elementary School. The first part of the program will feature the latest septic technology and an update on the impacts of the new septic regulations. The second part will be presentations from the Topanga Citizens Firesafe Committee and the Los Angeles County Fire Department on vegetation management and other issues related to fire safety. Hope to see you there.


Crush That Brush

By Rosi Dagit

On Thursday, March 30, more than 50 people bounced over a two-mile drive along a steep dirt road off Decker Canyon to see the latest "weapon" in fire control unveiled. Representatives of all the regional park agencies, the California Department of Fire Protection, FEMA officers, local politicians, homeowners and Fire Department personnel from near and far gathered on the ridge to watch this monster machine at work. Several members of the Topanga Citizens Firesafe Committee were on hand as well.

The machine consists of a solid roller/crusher 14' long and 7' wide which weighs 10 tons, attached by very strong 750' long cables to a modified D&H bulldozer. This duo is able to travel over rough terrain to access steep hillsides, where the dozer positions itself upslope, letting gravity assist in the crushing process. The goal is to mash living chaparral shrubs to the ground, while theoretically leaving the roots intact to hold the slope in place. It is capable of crushing three to five acres per hour, which is far more efficient than using hand crews that can do approximately an acre per day. The demonstration site on Decker Canyon is private property belonging to Earl Wasserman, who welcomed the opportunity to reduce the fuel load on his undeveloped parcels. Approximately 100 acres along the slopes above Decker Creek were crushed, and a prescribed burn was scheduled for April 11, weather permitting.

Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman began the introductions. "The brush crusher is able to pre-treat large areas, making prescribed burning safer. The dead brush is surrounded by a buffer zone of living moist fuels that are difficult to ignite during the cooler winter months. This provides a wider window of opportunity for burning, and increases safety for the nearby citizens and structures."


Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky next took the podium. "This area is the most disaster-prone area in the entire United States. It is jinxed. Our job is to reduce the jinx. The Los Angeles County Fire Department is on the cutting edge of working to reduce fire danger. We are proud to have developed equipment that will reduce the chance of life and property loss."

Originally a slightly different version of this brush-crusher was developed in New Zealand for use in preparing new timber planting sites. This design was modified to match fire fighting goals, and the one-of-a-kind machine was built by the Supertrak Corporation in Florida for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. The $460,000 machine was funded primarily by a FEMA grant, and will be used to assist the Vegetation Management Program in achieving prescribed burns at optimal times of the year.

During the question and answer period, Topanga Citizens Firesafe Committee member Victor Richards asked about potential erosion problems associated with destroying brush and leaving bare slopes. We all had noted the recent disturbance of the fire road used to access the site, with loose soils piled up along the trunks of oaks along the side, as well as the loose soil generated by the bulldozer treads along the crushed slope. Al Fortune, Los Angeles County Fire Department Equipment Operator, responded that preliminary tests did not indicate any heavy erosion, and that keeping roots in place would hopefully avoid that problem. They are also forbidden from working in riparian zones, which should leave vegetation along the streams intact and able to intercept any sediment moving downslope before it hit the creek.

Representatives of the State and National Park Services who were present were there to explore the possibility of using such a machine to help deal with the extensive boundaries between park lands and private property. Homeowners who live on the downwind side of thousands of acres of mature chaparral are naturally concerned. Prescribed burns are one of the tools that the Park Services like to use, since they not only reduce risk to neighbors, but also mimic the more natural fire regime in an attempt to restore and protect valuable native ecosystems. Frank Padilla, State Park Ranger, was cautiously enthusiastic: "This may be a good tool to help us in our management efforts."


While the goals are worthy and the resourcefulness impressive, it was hard not to notice the actual results of this effort. The heavy machine leaves a swath of destruction in its wake. Close examination of the crushed plants reveals shredded stems and torn root crowns, sometimes ripped deep into the ground. While the natural fire regime would normally destroy the plant shoots, it is not clear how the tears to the root stock will impact the future recovery of the plants.

It is clear that the Fire Department still feels like they are "at war" with the native vegetation, and need to supplement their "arsenal" of weapons to battle the foe. As we walked among the crushed branches, I couldn't help but wish that we could change the metaphor to one more respectful of the landscape in which we live. While I respect and appreciate the efforts of the Fire Department to protect lives and property, perhaps we as residents need to take a bit more responsibility for the risk we place ourselves in when we choose to live in natural areas that are meant to burn. There are many other strategies that can be used to make structures more fire resistant--from class A roof materials to shutters over windows and glass doors, fire resistant siding, and paints that protect wooden decks. More attention to individual efforts could go a long way in reducing risk and allowing us to live more gently in the mountains that we love.

"This is a tool like any other in our suite of solutions to solving the problem of fire risk management," stated David Totheroh, Chairperson of the Topanga Citizens Firesafe Committee. "We just need to be sure that it is used wisely, and not abused. It will be important to remember that vegetation management is not the only way to reduce fire risk. We still need to ask the questions about alternative ways to get there, without destroying the environment."


The Overlook Opens


 Celebrants at the opening of the Top Of Topanga Scenic Outlook on Saturday, April 8 included Joe Edmiston, Executive of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (at left in ranger's hat); environmental activist/actor Ed Begley, Jr. (in shorts); County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (center) and Assembly person Sheila Kuehl (in cap). The $423,000 project provides 16 parking spaces, a handicapped-accessible toilet facility, drinking fountain and picnic area. Rangers patrol the scenic outlook, which closes at 9 p.m. daily.

For full details see the newsstand edition of the Messenger.