VOL.23 NO.26 Dec. 16, 1999 - Jan. 12, 2000

 The James Hancock Story: Getting at the Truth

By Michele Johnson

It seemed a simple story at the beginning. As reported in the October 21—November 3 edition of the Messenger, on September 30, 1999, James Hancock Sr, 65, a local firewood salesman living on Old Topanga Road, was arrested for possessing methamphetamines for sale. The arrest was made by Lost Hills Sheriff’s Narcotics Division after a search warrant turned up 9 to 10 grams of meth, a scale and $2,500 in cash, said Narcotics detective Sgt. Gloria Gressman. Hancock was subsequently charged with possession of methamphetamines for sale and possession of a firearm and live ammunition by a felon. According to L.A. County Deputy D.A. Martin Herscovitz, the charging documents allege that the weapons charges were based on a 1994 conviction for possession of illegal drugs for sale. Over the objections of the detective in charge, Tui Wright, prosecutors decided not to charge Hancock with selling drugs within 1,000 feet of Topanga Elementary School because his shack was on private land not open to the public. Hancock is pleading not guilty to the charges. In the most recent court hearing on Thursday, December 10, the case was continued at the request of the defense until January 13. The continuation was expected, said Herscovitz, who is prosecuting the case. "This case by criminal justice standards is still young."

THE L.A. TIMES REPORT

Now enter an L.A. Times article that appeared in the Metro and Valley sections on December 9. That article alleged that Hancock’s arrest was a direct result of one man’s lobbying of the Sheriff’s department—and that man, a "political consultant" named David Carlat, did not even live in Topanga. The Times also claimed that this outsider "coordinated" a petition that was circulated at Topanga Elementary School and eventually signed by 139 people urging the authorities to prosecute Hancock "to the full extent of the law." The Times article enraged many in Topanga. The chat room of the local Website, TopangaOnline.com, was filled with complaints, citing the article. One writer called Carlat "a demon from hell." Another message warned, "Come on, if everyone blew the whistle on their neighbors, innocent or not, we’d have a civil war here in no time." The messages became so vitriolic that Gary Meyer of TopangaOnline was forced to excise some, warning that no profanity is allowed on the site. One caller to the Messenger who identified herself as a 25-year resident added, "I’m disturbed that we have new residents turning in their neighbors for real and imagined infractions."

DETECTIVE IN CHARGE SPEAKS

To begin to sort out the truth, the Messenger spoke to the Narcotics detective in charge of the case, Tui Wright. He states, "Before Mr. Carlat ever got involved in this…I had an active investigation going on for selling narcotics." The investigation was "based on citizen complaints," Wright continued. Hancock’s name, Wright continued "has come up for several years, and my investigation has been going on for several months." When asked how many complaints of suspected drug activity he had received, he couldn’t give a number, but said there had been "direct phone calls to myself and to the sheriff’s station." Detective Wright said he could not go into details that would prejudice the case, but said there "was enough probable cause for a judge to order a search warrant," and "believe me, it’s not easy to get a search warrant." He said the warrant was "based on quite a few things including information from the public." He added that although he told all this to the Times, "Nothing I told the Time s reporter was in the article. It didn’t fit the story they had in mind."

JAMES HANCOCK DENIES CHARGES

On the advice of his attorney, James Hancock would not speak to the Messenger . His criminal attorney, Richard Herzog told the Messenger, "We’re not going to give a statement to you." He advised us to refer to the "very accurate article" in the Times, which he said correctly outlines Hancock’s position. In that article, the Times states: "Hancock denies the drug charges. He claims that the third of an ounce of methamphetamines that authorities found…belongs to one of those acquaintances who come and go at his place—free-spirited people like him whom he occasionally helps out." Detective Wright explained that .02 grams is considered a dose of meth, so that the third of an ounce or 9-10 grams found in Hancock’s possession constitutes about 500 doses. The discovery of that amount alone would not necessarily lead to a charge of Possession for Sale, he says. But the charging documents also allege other criteria to bolster that charge, Wright confirmed. Those criteria include the discovery of a scale, individually packaged amounts of meth and the discovery of $2,500 in small bills. Hancock claims that the money was received in firewood transactions. Wright admits that the weapon involved is an "antique type replica firearm of the musket type" and that the found ammunition does not match the weapon. But, he insists, any possession of a firearm by a felon is a crime.

"POLITICAL CONSULTANT" SPEAKS

David Carlat, the self-styled "political consultant" who made it his business to call the police said, "The Times headline should read, ‘Evil Political Consultant Picks on Poor Helpless Hippie.’" He calls the article, "90 percent fiction." He admits he made two calls—one to the Sheriff’s station at Lost Hills and another "downtown," but claims he "spoke to people I did not know and never met as any citizen could do." Carlat says he phoned the Sheriff’s offices only "2 1/2 to 3 weeks before the raid." Carlat also insists that he "did not write, dictate or circulate the petition." This is confirmed by the Topanga mother who says she, together with other Topanga parents, came up with the idea for a petition, wrote it and circulated it through the school. Fearing reprisals, she wishes to remain anonymous, but says she heard about the case "from the property owner," long-time resident Bob Harris. "He’d talked to the principal and left a message at the school to let us know what’s going on." The woman says she became involved because the volatile "combination of weapons and drugs" so close to the school "concerns me." Also, she had once moved out of Topanga for a year and a half after a meth user "had been violent with me and my family," so she believes she knows first-hand what the drug can do. "It’s more dangerous than anything else on the streets," she believes. "It makes monsters out of nice people." Carlat did volunteer to take the petitions to court and see that all concerned parties had a copy of them. "After the petition was circulated, I indicated to a person at the school that I would gladly take the petitions to court and the probation officer, and that’s exactly what I did." The Times also reported that Carlat, "Turned up the heat on the Probation Department," speaking with the probation officer involved. They quoted him as saying, "If she wants to put in writing he’s competent for probation, God help her career." Now Carlat insists he never said that, and that the Times report of that statement is "an outright, flagrant lie." He admits he called the probation officer in question, but says she told him that she had not received the petitions, and that she had already filed her report. "She already told me she was not going to recommend probation, so why would I make that statement?" Carlat asked. The probation officer in question could not be reached for comment. Carlat complains, "The L.A. Times would like it to seem that I’m some puppetmaster in some big building looking over the sea, but that’s just ridiculous…I have seriously contemplated how I will respond, but I tell you what I will not do. I will not be scared off." When asked what his interest is in a purely local matter, Carlat repeated again that he was told about Hancock by Topanga friends—a couple he will not name—and "expressed concern." He agreed to put his "30 years of dealing with the system" to work and complain to the authorities. "If that makes me a horrible guy, I just guess I am." He identifies himself as a former Reagan appointee, the Chairman of the Juvenile Justice Committee for the California Advisory Committee on Youth and says he has "a 30-year history of vehement opposition against serious drug use and sales."

LANDLORD/TENANT DISPUTE

Muddying the waters further is the land dispute that pits Hancock against the owner of the land he occupies, 25-year resident of the Canyon, Bob Harris. This is how the story goes. Hancock arrived in the Canyon in 1979 and soon settled on land next to the creek belonging to Harris. "In the ’60s," said Harris, "I was a leather worker and ran my business there." In the early ’80s, "He asked if he could park his truck there and I said fine…He was an upstanding guy at that point," Harris continued. For 15 years, Hancock lived on the land without paying rent, but acting as caretaker. He added "improvements," says Charles Elias, Hancock’s civil attorney based out of Rolling Hills Estates. "He put brick down and made it kind of usable," Elias added. Harris agrees. "I had no reason to bother him for 15 years. People said, ‘Why don’t you get rid of him?’ but I said, ‘He keeps the weeds down, and he’s nice and neat.’" Then a few years ago, Harris took out a loan on the land. Later, in an effort to pay off the loan he decided to sell the land and gave Hancock a 30-day notice to vacate. Hancock went to court in 1997 to fight the order, convincing the judge that he had had an agreement with Harris that he could stay on the land indefinitely. Harris denies that, but says he "didn’t want to spend money on a jury trial," so he agreed to a stipulation that Hancock could stay on the property until a bona fide offer came in, and gave him first right of refusal. Last summer, Harris claimed he had an offer of $150,000 for the site. But a Santa Monica judge ruled that the purported sale to a friend of Harris’ was "a subterfuge." Elias says the court denied the claim of sale and he eventually received $6,000-$7,000 in court costs from Harris. Last August, Elias says, Hancock then filed suit against Harris for Malicious Prosecution and Abuse of Process. "I had overwhelming evidence that it was a b.s. sale and now somebody is pushing my client around again." Harris admits the land has been impossible to sell with Hancock on the propert y. He says no realtor he’s spoken to will list it for that reason. Elias has "suspicions" but offers no proof that there is a connection between the suit and Carlat’s involvement in Hancock’s current legal troubles. Both Harris and Carlat deny any connection to each other. They each said they have spoken to each other only once, after Carlat made his tip to the Sheriff’s office. In fact, Carlat claims Harris blew him off and suggested he speak to his attorney instead. Harris does admit that if Hancock is found guilty, he will have the leverage to get him off his land. Part of the stipulation agreed to in ’97 stated that Hancock could stay if he was not convicted of an illegal act or became a public nuisance. Lawyers for both Hancock and Harris confirm this. As for Harris, he is planning a cross complaint. "Most people are appreciative," he says, "if you let them stay on a property for a number of years. "Then he turns around and sues me with a big-time Rolling Hills attorney. I’d given him enough time, I mean what the hell—you have no idea what it’s doing to my family. "To create this issue and make this whole thing like I’m the villain—I mean, it took more money for me to fight this thing than I paid for the land." Jayni Shuman Converse, a parent who also works at the school and signed the petition agrees. "I’m a property owner. It’s horrifying to me that that can happen here." But beyond that, she believes the Times missed the point entirely. "It’s the combination of drugs and weapons. It’s not that we don’t like scruffy-looking men. We’re all married to scruffy-looking men." Detective Wright makes another point. "I have arrested several suspects in Topanga who were convicted for selling drugs, but only one has done any jail time." In other parts of L.A. County, he says, conviction of sales is punishable by a minimum of 180 days in jail. "If people are not held accountable, it makes my job a lot harder." And so the saga continues.

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Home Burns as Water Pressure Fails

By Tony Morris

For David Hayano and Dihanne Sherman, residents of 21240 Summit Road, this
holiday season will not be a time of celebration. On November 24,
Thanksgiving eve, fire destroyed their Summit Road residence and took the
lives of the family’s two cats. According to Los Angeles County Fire Station
69’s Captain Mike Johnson a call was received at 6:35 p.m. from a resident
living on the east side of the canyon who reported flames coming from a
residence on the west side of the canyon. Station 69 equipment and personnel
were dispatched to the fire in addition to units from Malibu, Calabasas, Las
Virgenes and Westlake LACFD stations.
Arriving at the intersection of Summit Road and Hillside, fire crews
connected hoses to a hydrant on Hillside. Water volume at that hydrant was
too low to use. Firemen also attempted to connect to a 50,000 gallon water
storage tank on Hillside and an underground connection adjacent to the
storage but the tank was on the same elevation as the home, so there was no
pressure and the fire department did not have proper equipment for hook-ups.
A LACFD water tanker with 1200 gallons was utilized to transport water to the
fire’s location. With a 1200-gallon capacity the water tanker’s load was used
within minutes. Fire crews finally succeeded in connecting to a hydrant
several hundred feet down Hillside. With serviceable volume from this
hydrant, water was then pumped up Hillside to the fire. Local residents
helping to extinguish embers from the fire expressed alarm at the lack of
adequate water volume at fire hydrants. Fire victim Hayano stated that it was
"more than forty minutes before fire fighters were able to get enough
pressure to fight the fire."
Station 69 personnel estimate the delay to have been approximately
twenty-five minutes.
Had the fire occurred two nights earlier with high wind conditions, the
situation on Hillside could have developed into a major fire emergency.
Following the fire, Station 69 requested a meeting with County Waterworks
engineers to determine the cause of the low volume at the Hillside hydrants.
Waterworks engineers informed Station 69 personnel that a 1980 landslide had
damaged the 8-inch water line serving hydrants along Summit Road. A section
of the 8-inch main was removed and replaced with a 2-inch line. Information
regarding this change was not available to Station 69 prior to the fire.
According to Captain Warren Chase, "We don’t have anyone at the station today
who was on regular duty in 1980."
Fire crews fighting the blaze on Summit Road were unaware that the hydrants
on upper Hillside were supplied by a 2-inch line, and could not supply
sufficient water volume. Station 69’s Chase stated that in any future
emergency in the area fire crews will connect their hoses to fully
operational hydrants on lower Hillside. As for the replacement of the 2-inch
line with an new 8-inch main, the Messenger has learned that this work is not
considered a priority by the County Waterworks management at the present time.
Waterworks officials claim that the 400 other fire hydrants serving Topanga
do provide sufficient pressure to fight fires despite the problem encountered
on Hillside. Every year fire department personnel inspect Topanga’s fire
hydrants. The inspection is, however, limited to a check for water at the
hydrant but does not verify exact pressure or total water flow. It appears
that verification of adequate water flow at hydrants throughout Topanga would
require a survey and inspection with additional measuring equipment. Station
69’s Chase also indicated that the large water storage tank in Topanga State
Park not far from the main parking lot is not equipped for emergency
connections in the event of a fire.
Reaction to news of low water volume at Hillside fire hydrants prompted area
residents to organize an emergency meeting. Topanga Mesa homeowners met with
LACFD, T-CEP, DRT and Arson Watch representatives at the home of Catherine
McClenahan to ask questions and address the need for individual evacuation
plans in the event of a fire emergency.
According to Fred Feer, DRT representative, residents were concerned that
their means of exiting the area in the event of a major fire is limited to
Hillside Drive. Station 69’s Captain Warren Chase advised those assembled
that they were actually in a safer location on the Mesa during a fire than
attempting to leave the area. With a 225,000-gallon pond, and required water
tanks of five and ten thousand gallons, the neighborhood is better able than
some to withstand a fire.
Mesa residents discussed efforts to complete diagrams of each property and
work on individual safety plans. DRT’s Feer advised, "Topangans need to
reconsider how we are organized so that we coordinate our efforts with all
the organizations and jurisdictions operating in Topanga."
The day after the fire, Red Cross Disaster Specialists Paul Wicker and Greg
Contreras met with fire victims Hayano and Sherman to provide assistance in
securing basic necessities. Wicker said, "There are more than 60,000 such
events nationwide each year" and the Red Cross is there to "fill the gaps.
All of the assistance is a gift from the American people."
For David Hayano, a retired professor of Anthropology at Cal State
Northridge, the fire destroyed a collection of 10,000 slides gathered during
the course of his work. A book which he was writing on the Greek and Spanish
Mediterranean islands was also destroyed in the blaze. When asked if he
thought he would be able to start over again Hayano said he doubted that it
could be done.
Sheriff’s Arson Unit investigators suspect that the blaze on Summit Road
started with the spontaneous combustion of rags saturated with linseed oil
which had been left under an exterior wood deck. Station 69’s Warren Chase
advised Topanga residents to remove all linseed oil rags from any structures
after use, spread the rags to dry in the sun and enclose them in a metal
container with a secure top.

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Key Information Flows at Watershed Meeting

By Michele Johnson

Fifty people put off Christmas shopping and Hanukah preparations to come by
on Saturday morning, December 4, to another meeting to discuss the fate of
the Watershed. It was an information-packed event at which organizers called
for them and all Topangans to lend their expertise to solve some very thorny
problems.

EVERYTHING’S COMING UP ROSI

Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (RCDSMM)
biologist Rosi Dagit led the meeting off. She began with announcements.
First, the L.A. County Planning Commission will soon be discussing an
ordinance that would extend protection of trees beyond oaks to other native
species in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Also, big news. People can now apply for an Impact Prevention Loan of up to
$20,000 from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to fireproof homes,
provide flood resistance or earthquake proofing. Those interested can call
FEMA at 1-800-722-6643. The Watershed Committee suggests those applying check
with experts to be sure they’re not creating more environmental problems than
they are fixing before they begin work.
A helicopter run is being made to scout out accessible locations to place a
crane and a winch that could pull cars out of the creek. Since permission for
the removals must still be gotten from the Park Service, no work will
probably happen until the Spring.
As part of the development of L.A. County’s Local Coastal Plan that will
take over from the Coastal Commission’s plan, Significant Environmental Areas
(SEAs) are being identified that would be slated for extra protection under
the County’s plan. Those interested in adding their input, should work with
the Watershed Committee.
Dagit followed the announcements with a slide presentation. She held the room
in thrall for an hour while she discussed what’s at stake. Not all the
information was new, but her passion was infectious. She reeled off the facts
as pictures of the watershed flashed behind her.
Most immediately, soon the state Water Quality Control Board will impose
tough new standards throughout California. So the question is, "How do we
direct the process?" asks Dagit. Then she got specific about upcoming
challenges.

PROJECTS IMPACTING THE WATERSHED

Along Old Topanga Road, Caltrans has seven creek projects planned that would
add 200 linear feet of cement to the stream bank. To mitigate the impact on
wildlife, Dagit and the Watershed Committee asked Caltrans to put crevices in
the cement so that wildlife could get a foothold. She also is working to save
the present wooden bridge at Red Rock Road. Recently, too, the Watershed
Committee asked roadside maintenance crews who were taking out shrubs holding
up hillsides to alter their practices. Also, Dagit is educating the crews
about where to place soil currently placed in berms on the side of the road
so that it doesn’t smother the roots of trees. That led to this question:
"Where does the soil go? We need a creative way to dispose of it," Dagit says.
Discussions on the "stealth wall" on Topanga Canyon Boulevard near Hillside
will continue, she said, in order to answer the question, "How do we
stabilize the hill without creating a monstrous wall?"
Then there’s the question of tree trimming. Four agencies now come into
Topanga to trim trees. They’re being encouraged to talk to each other so the
same trees are not being trimmed unmercifully. Another agency has added
mosquito fish to the creek to control mosquitoes, but unfortunately these
fish seem to be controlling a lot of other species as well, Dagit noted.
She went on to discuss her "pet thoughts," including the idea of making a
detention basin for water runoff from the upper Topanga watershed at the site
of the old Corral. A basin would allow water to "seep out more slowly,"
saving homes downstream from being flooded out. In her dreams, Dagit also
sees Topanga Center as a floodplain park, allowed to flood during the rainy
season as nature intended it to. Of course, owner Joe Gerson may have other
ideas, she acknowledged.

ZEV’S REPRESENTATIVE SPEAKS UP

Dagit then turned the meeting over to a panel of guests for comments and to
take questions from the audience. Laura Shell, a representative from
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s office, led off.
She discussed both the Local Coastal Plan (LCP) and the North Area (once
called the Ventura Corridor) Plan now being drafted by the County that will
guide land use in Topanga and throughout the Santa Monica Mountain areas. The
LCP will cover Topanga from the ocean to Cheney and the North Area plan will
rule land use from Cheney to Mulholland. Each is approaching the final stages
before the County Supervisors vote on whether to adopt them.
Some members of the Planning Commission have been pushing to change the N20
designation in the North Area Plan allowing only one house per 20 acres for
the most inaccessible locations to N10, allowing one for each 10 acres. Zev
believes in keeping the N20 designation, so she is "contacting activists to
educate the Planning Commission." But Shell said, "Overall it’s an excellent
plan," reducing density in the area by a potential 2,000 homes. Though it’s a
County plan, the surrounding cities have been part of the plan development,
so the hope is that they will incorporate the ideas into their own plans.
The main concern Shell has is "new ideas by commissioners cutting into the
integrity of the plan."
She concluded by inviting listeners to a public workshop on the North Area
Plan after the plan is drafted but before it’s submitted to the Planning
Commission. The workshop will be held in early Spring at a date to be
announced.
She then said the most important event for the Watershed will be the March
primary when Proposition 12, a $2.1 billion bond issue for parks acquisition,
will be on the ballot. If that initiative passes, the Santa Monica Mountains
Conservancy will come into a bonanza of funding to buy up properties in key
areas slated for development.
Shell announced that Zev has been appointed the supervisor who will represent
five southern coastal California counties as a part of the national Wetlands
Recovery Project

CALTRANS UP TO BAT

An amazing three representatives were there from Caltrans—Paul Caron, Bill
Gunn and Kit Flom. Flom pledged to "communicate more and have some
continuity. You’ll see some of the same faces here."
They went into a number of issues. They will look into doing a traffic
corridor study, using GSI mapping supplied by the Watershed Committee to
address transportation problems with environmental components. Then Caltrans
will do its best to eradicate Arundo, or giant bamboo—that grows willy-nilly
throughout the watershed, crowding out native species. They will start the
process at the headwaters and work their way to the coast.

Then they will look into the culvert system, and try to widen culverts under
the roads to allow wildlife to use them as a corridor. They also pledged to
look into the newest environmental friendly slope stabilization techniques
and incorporate them as soon as it is feasible. "It’s kind of a long
process," admitted Caron, but they mean to adopt some of those innovations.

WATER QUALITY CONTROL BOARD REP SPEAKS UP

Shirley Birosik, the regional watershed coordinator of California’s Water
Quality Control Board spoke next. She said the water samples taken in Topanga
Creek are "fairly typical" for such an area, except for high levels of
ammonia showing up occasionally. She stressed that the samples are not being
taken to pinpoint certain areas, but to evaluate "overall health."
Questions to the panel elicited more information. Laura Shell said that one
proposal for the LCP is that a metered signal be set up at the north end of
Topanga Canyon Boulevard to stop and start cars coming into the Canyon in
order to relieve congestion.
She was asked if a tract housing project has been approved for Medley Lane
and what is the optimum population for Topanga. She replied that Topanga "has
probably already passed it," but said there are "hundreds of legal lots not
yet developed." She adds that while no new tracts have been approved "in the
last year or last three years," that is, no formal applications are in the
pipeline, an individual who owns several legal lots on Medley is applying to
build on them.
The Caltrans representatives were asked about the invasive exotic plant
German Ivy. They said they are aware of the ivy and will work to control it
on land that is publicly owned.
Before Dagit turned the meeting over to Septic engineer Richard Sherman, she
asked for more volunteers to participate in monthly sampling of the creek,
one Saturday a month from 9 a.m. - 12 noon.

NEW RULES FOR SEPTIC SYSTEMS

Sherman then stepped up with a passel of interesting information about septic
tanks.

The big news is that new rules and newly enforced rules for building and
repairing septic tanks are being put into force by L.A. County under orders
from the state. The County is alarmed because there have been too many
failures of septic systems less than 20 years old. A septic system should
last 20-30 years before it needs to be replaced or repaired.
Among the new and newly enforced rules are the following:
-- Plot maps must be made, showing the exact location of a new septic system.
Though this takes about $1,000 more up front, it’s much cheaper than hiring
experts to find your tank when it needs repairs.
-- Soils must be tested, not just guess-timated. That will cost $500-$700 for
a soil geologist.
-- Two holes must be drilled to test the soil instead of one at an extra cost
of $500-$600.
-- Then there’s the most expensive new rule. Starting this Spring, if a
seepage type system is put it, a system to pre-treat effluent between the
septic tank and the pit must be put in place. Eventually, the county will
require all sewage to be "pathogen free before it hits the ground." For that
reason, Sherman says, "The septic system business is going to change." The
County Health Department will apply the rules to repairs, so that it may cost
$12,000 just to fix a broken system. Even more alarming, some houses "can’t
meet the requirements," said Sherman. He said he knows "a dozen houses" in
Topanga that won’t be able to fix their systems, including one on Old Topanga
built in 1983 that has been empty for 30 months while a solution to septic
failure is sought. All in all, Sherman did not present a pretty picture for
Topangans facing septic troubles. Some months ago, at the Watershed tour,
Senior Aide to Zev Yaroslavsky pledged that the County will not let any
homeowners go under because they cannot afford to fix their septic system.
Hopefully, the County will remember its pledge and step up to the bat.

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