Citizens Caught in the Cross-Fire
EARLY morning, Oct. 2, 1992. Thirty lawmen cut the padlock on a gate leading down a dusty road to Trail's End Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains near Malibu.
The platoon-sized task force of local, state, and federal drug-enforcement officers is led along the road by sheriff's deputies from Los Angeles County. They move quickly. Within minutes, seven lawmen surround a barn and garage. Six crouch behind their vehicles. Others move to the front door of the redwood-and-stone ranch house.
Inside, Donald Scott, a multimillionaire, and his wife, Frances Plante, are still asleep. They'd been up late, past 2 a.m. He'd been drinking, and taking valium, and is still intoxicated.
Deputy John Cater Jr. knocks on the door. ``Sheriff's Department!'' he shouts. ``We have a search warrant!''
Frances Plante is the first to stir. Outside, Mr. Scott's 22 dogs are barking. The house shakes as the lawmen pound on the door. She pulls on overalls, but in her hurry, puts them on backwards. She grabs a white blouse and heads toward the front door. Her husband sits on the edge of the bed in a T-shirt.
At that moment, deputies break open the door with a battering ram. Five officers, guns drawn, rush in. Deputy Gary Spencer, the first to enter, pulls Ms. Plante forcefully toward the doorway, or pushes her back into the living room. (Accounts differ.)
Scott, hearing the commotion, picks up a Colt .38 snubnose revolver and runs into the semi-darkened living room, holding the gun over his head. He's immediately confronted by Deputy Spencer, who has dropped to one knee, gun drawn, only 10 feet away. ``Donald, drop the gun!'' orders Spencer. ``Drop the gun! Drop the gun!''
Did Scott, still inebriated, misunderstand? Did he know Spencer was a lawman? Was he trying to comply? No one will ever know. He slowly lowered his gun, but as it came down, the deputy claims it suddenly pointed directly at him. Was Scott's finger on the trigger?
Deputy Spencer fires first. Deputy Cater, right behind him, fires second. Then Spencer again. Scott is killed instantly.
``A Death in Shangri-La,'' one newspaper called it. Spencer, a deputy with a clean, 15-year record, says the incident has ``unjustly damaged my personal reputation.'' Yet months later, questions are still being asked:
Why were 30 lawmen on Scott's property? Did they have a warrant? Why did they smash their way into his home? Why were L.A. County deputies, aided by L.A. city police, conducting a raid in Ventura County, without informing the Ventura sheriff? Why were federal lawmen, including officers from the US Forest Service and the National Park Service, helping to serve the warrant? Why was there talk before the raid of seizing Scott's $5 million, 200-acre ranch? Ultimately, why was he killed?
One thing is certain: The task force found no illegal drugs, even though a confidential informant and a federal agent claimed that marijuana plants were being grown there.
THE Scott case has become a cause cbre in California. It has created a backlash against the L.A. sheriff's office. Stunned by this case and others, the California Legislature recently refused to renew the state's civil asset-forfeiture law.
Critics charge that the raid on Scott's ranch is part of a national trend of lawmen seizing valuable assets to offset tight budgets. In this case, the Ventura County district attorney and other critics say, L.A. County sheriff's deputies were willing to bend the law if necessary to achieve that goal.
Two lengthy investigations have probed the Scott shooting. A war of words has erupted between the Ventura County district attorney's office and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
After interviewing 49 witnesses, District Attorney Michael Bradbury of Ventura County raises a number of troubling questions about the assault on Scott's home, and the motives behind it.
Spencer, an L.A. narcotics officer, initially became interested in Scott when an informant told him that Plante was paying for small items with $100 bills, and displaying a big wad of cash. Plante was traced, through her car, to Scott's ranch.
In September 1992, another informant told Spencer that 3,000 to 4,000 marijuana plants were growing at Trail's End Ranch. L.A. deputies arranged for the California National Guard to photograph the ranch from the air. The photos were inconclusive.
On Sept. 23, a special agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration, Charles Stowell, agreed to fly over the ranch to look for marijuana plants. Agent Stowell reported seeing what appeared to be 50 marijuana plants, not 3,000. He suggested that a ground team confirm his findings.
On Sept. 24 and 25, a US Border Patrol ``C-RAT'' tactical squad entered Scott's property, but failed to find marijuana. On the first entry, at night, they were turned back by the dangerous terrain. The second attempt was foiled by Scott's dogs.
ON Sept. 27, Sgt. Bill Marsh of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department visited the Scott ranch on the pretext of buying a puppy. Scott gave him a tour of the ranch and was friendly. Sergeant Marsh told Spencer that a SWAT team would not be needed to serve a search warrant.
On Oct. 1, Ventura County Municipal Court Judge Herbert Curtis III gave Spencer a search warrant for the ranch. In his statement seeking the warrant, Spencer said: ``The plants appear to be suspended from the large trees. I recognized this method as one occasionally used to hide cultivated marijuana from casual aerial detection or infrared photographic detection.''
Federal law permits seizing property, including land and buildings, used in the cultivation of marijuana. Law enforcement agencies generally split the proceeds.
For that reason, two deputies from the L.A. sheriff's asset-
forfeiture unit were on the raid. A Park Service ranger present on that day says one deputy vowed that if 14 or more plants were found, the ranch would be confiscated. An officer from the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement confirms that statement.
The Ventura district attorney was stinging in his criticism of the police action against Scott. Among his conclusions:
* Border Patrol agents on Sept. 24 and 25 committed civil trespass and ``acted beyond their legal authority in entering the property.''
* ``The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to seize and forfeit the ranch for the government.''
* It is ``probable'' that L.A. County sheriff's deputies failed to notify the Ventura sheriff ``because Los Angeles County did not want to split the forfeiture proceeds....''
* The affidavit upon which the search warrant was based contains ``misstatements'' and serious omissions. These flaws ``make the warrant invalid.''
The DA's report triggered a five-month investigation that was only recently completed by the L.A. sheriff's Internal Affairs Bureau. The sheriff's report denounces the DA study as ``distorted,'' ``inflammatory,'' and ``inconsistent.'' It charges the DA with maligning Deputy Spencer and law enforcement in general.
Sheriff's investigators were particularly incensed by the DA's accusation that deputies snubbed the Ventura sheriff to avoid sharing forfeited assets. ``That suggestion is false - in fact, absurd,'' the sheriff's report concludes.
As for the deputies' motives: ``It is true that deputies discussed forfeiture prior to serving the warrant,'' the sheriff's report says. ``This issue is a consideration in all narcotics investigations involving large quantities of money or property.''
His report continues: ``It is not true that the interest in forfeiture dominated or even rivaled the criminal concerns in this investigation.''
At another point, the sheriff's report also casts doubts on whether Scott's ranch really was free of marijuana, even though none could be found after an exhaustive search. It states:
``Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, a number of factors outlined suggest that marijuana may well have been present prior to the execution of the search warrant.''
The sheriff's report, therefore, seems designed to keep the drug issue alive, even though the DA notes that officers were able to find no ``stems, seeds, ropes, or any other remnants of marijuana cultivation.'' Further, the DA says later investigation on the ground found that the so-called ``marijuana'' was apparently only ivy.
One fact remains beyond reasonable dispute, however. Donald Scott was shot dead by officials of the government for a ``crime'' that all available evidence indicates never happened.