Murder, He Wrote, Mendocino-Style
Bruce Anderson of Mendocino County was jailed for refusing to obey a prosecutor's subpoena
Mendocino County seems a placid corner of the earth: redwood forests crowding down to ocean cliffs, quiet towns of clapboard houses, and acres of grape vines marching in spring-green lines up gentle hills.
But the scene belies a culture of divisions. Here, environmentalists are engaged in permanent warfare with loggers. Aging hippies barely speak with rodeo-watching ranchers. And most of the county's 85,000 residents harbor ill-concealed ire at the most recent wave of migrants - wealthy suburbanites in search of a 500-acre Shangri-la, hot tub included.
This unmelted pot forms the backdrop for a battle between a feisty local newspaper and the county authorities over a controversial murder case involving local native Americans.
"There are wildly diverse people butting heads up here," says Bruce Anderson, owner and editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, a weekly named after the valley, not the man.
He ought to know. In this fractious land, the bearded editor has managed to offend every warring tribe around. That's probably why few here were surprised when Mr. Anderson found himself in the county lockup for almost two weeks for refusing to comply with a subpoena to hand over a letter to the editor.
The letter was from Eugene "Bear" Lincoln, a native American accused of killing a sheriff's deputy in an April 1995 shootout on an Indian reservation. Anderson's alternative weekly has devoted extensive coverage to the case, questioning the authorities' account of the incident and championing the cause of the Indians.
"It's just been a steady drumbeat of criticism of the whole Mendocino County apparatus," Anderson said with unconcealed pride, talking in his Anderson Valley home after his release on June 6. "This Bear Lincoln case just brought out how incompetent and malicious they are."
Anderson's unvarnished words are typical of the pages of his self-described "country weekly," whose style is captured by the two quotes that grace its masthead:
"Be as radical as reality." Lenin
"Newspapers should have no friends." Joseph Pulitzer
Anderson espouses a left-wing populism that takes aim at the local establishment, from lumber barons to the police and prosecutors. But he also loves to spear the "MendoLibs," a label for what he sees as self-righteous liberals ranging from the local public radio station to lukewarm environmentalists.
Even Anderson's supporters question his interpretation of Pulitzer's famous call for journalistic independence.
"Bruce seems to think if you're a big enough jerk to have no friends, that must mean your newspaper is good," wrote Charles Peterson, an environmentalist on the county's Board of Supervisors, in a public letter supporting Anderson and the rights of a free press.
The case against Anderson is only a sideshow in the larger drama of the Lincoln murder trial, set to begin in August. That story dates to the evening of April 14, 1995, when Arylis Peters, a Wailaki Indian, shot Reginald Britton, another Indian, near the Round Valley reservation in northern Mendocino County. (Mr. Peters was later convicted.)
The shooting stemmed from a long-standing dispute between two rival factions in the Indian community, a conflict between native American traditionalists and assimilationists, the latter led by the Britton family.
About four hours after the shooting, two deputies on a remote mountain road shot and killed Leonard Peters, apparently believing he was his brother, Arylis. Leonard Peters and Bear Lincoln were armed in expectation of retaliation by the Brittons. In an ensuing gun battle, the circumstances of which remain hotly disputed, Sheriff's Deputy Bob Davis was killed.
Dozens of law-enforcement officers descended on Round Valley reservation searching for Lincoln. The invasion led residents to accuse authorities of widespread brutality, now the subject of a civil suit.
Lincoln turned himself in last August at the office of San Francisco attorney Tony Serra, a well-known defender of radical causes who has taken up Lincoln's case. Mr. Serra gained attention for his successful retrial of Patrick Croy, a California Indian convicted of murdering a police officer. Mr. Croy was acquitted on grounds of self-defense in the context of a history of anti-Indian bias and violence, the same strategy to be used in the case of Bear Lincoln.
"There was major, nasty coverage for a long time" in the Lincoln case, recounts Ukiah attorney Philip DeJong, who also represents Lincoln. "It was the usual theme of troublesome ... Indian kills heroic cop. Racism is a major issue in this thing."
"Bear Lincoln and his friends, including Mr. Anderson, would like to turn this into a racial incident," retorts district attorney Aaron Williams. "The bottom line is whether Mr. Lincoln murdered deputy Davis at 10 o'clock at night."
In January, the Advertiser published a letter, purportedly from Lincoln, containing a brief account of what he called a police "ambush." In March, Mr. Williams subpoenaed the original letter, claiming he needed it as evidence.
To make matters more murky, Anderson has a history of manufacturing letters, even of fabricating interviews with prominent figures. "Bruce's past history of being a little loose with things has led to a little skepticism," says his attorney, Dave Nelson. "It's coming around to bite him now that he's telling the truth."
A defiant Anderson refused to hand over the letter, invoking the California Reporter's Shield Law that establishes the right of journalists to protect sources and unpublished notes. The Mendocino County judge ruled that the letter had to be turned over but not the unpublished envelope, a ruling upheld in appeal.
Anderson went to jail on May 24, vowing not to provide the letter. He relented a few days later and turned over a typed, unsigned letter. It took more than a week before the judge, one of Anderson's frequent targets of attack, accepted the claim that this was all the paper had received and released the editor.
Meanwhile, on the steps of the Mendocino courthouse, cops and lawyers are still talking about Anderson's release. "We're a little short on entertainment here," says lawyer DeJong. "We're mostly entertained by one another."