Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Justifiable homicide": Cannabis & Tragedy in Humboldt County, 1970



The Eel River in Humboldt County, CA, was the site of a tragic cannabis-related shooting in October 1970.
Everything seemed to be looking up for Patrick John Berti in the fall of 1970. The 23-year-old native of Ferndale, California graduated near the top of his class at Chicago State University the previous fall, and had just spent the summer touring Alaska and Canada. He had applied to law school at San Diego State College and was waiting for a reply.[1]

On October 4, Berti's father, John, enlisted his son to help him carry debris from an old, wrecked store in nearby Waddington. On that Sunday afternoon, Patrick and Jack McCanless, another 23-year-old from Ferndale, took some debris out to be burned on a gravel bed in the Eel River, just east of Waddington near Grizzly Bluff Road.[2]
 
Two days earlier, Roscoe Rich was following his cows near the same spot on the Eel River when he noticed two four-foot marijuana plants growing in containers on the bed. Rich showed the plants to Humboldt County sheriff deputies Mel Ames and Larry Lema. Ames set up a stakeout to see who would come tend the plants. Two days later, Lema was crouched behind some bushes watching the plants when McCanless and Berti happened upon the containers and began examining them. Like many small-town Americans, Berti knew members of the local police force, including Lema. Berti's back was turned and Lema did not immediately recognize him. But he recognized McCanless, and figured he had caught the youth and a partner cultivating marijuana.[3]

His revolver drawn, Lema stepped out and called to the young men that they were under arrest. Berti, who was crouching next to one of the plants, stood up and turned around. He had taken a small twig from the plant. Lema mistook it for a weapon and fired a single shot into Berti's chest.[4]
 
It was only after Berti had uttered his final words - "Christ, Larry, you shot me!" - that Lema recognized him. As Berti lay dying on the gravel bar, Lema began handcuffing McCanless, who pleaded with the deputy to let him go get help. They went to the Rich house, where McCanless called an ambulance and Lema told Rich's son, John, to notify the sheriff's department. Berti was dead when Lema and McCanless returned to the gravel bed.

Earlier that day, Lema had witnessed his own child's baptism; his actions that afternoon ensured someone else’s would have a funeral. Presumably from Berti's limp hand, he took the six-inch marijuana twig as evidence.[5]

To understand how a sheriff's deputy could gun down a young man for simply checking out a potted plant, one has to understand the political and cultural context of California, and to some degree the nation as a whole, in the late sixties and early seventies.

California in the late 1960s was a hotbed of drug use and cultural dissent. Yet it was governed by Ronald Reagan, the popular conservative who would win the White House in a little more than a decade and then unleash the U.S. military on cannabis growers in his former home state. Marijuana had been popular among the state’s youth, especially those in southern California and in the cities, since the late 1940s.[6] In January 1967, pot-smoking beat activist Allen Ginsberg, who coined the term “flower power” to describe the aura of the drug-influenced counterculture, joined some 20,000 other hippies who smoked pot openly in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park at a festival known as the Human Be-In.[7] In the following “Summer of Love,” more than 500,000 young people put the hippie lifestyle on display and smoked marijuana in the streets of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.[8]
 
In California, law enforcement had been battling marijuana longer than almost anywhere else, but five decades after the state’s first anti-marijuana laws were passed it could not stop the flow of cannabis into, around, and through the Golden State. In 1971, for example, federal officials took five tons of marijuana valued at $1.4 million - the largest such seizure in U.S. history at the time - off a shrimping boat in San Francisco bay.[9]

Weed grew through the cracks of law and order, but that didn’t mean officers were powerless. To the contrary, their attitude toward drug offenders was more like a vendetta than dutiful law enforcement. For example, when Humboldt deputy Ames and others set fire to a pile of marijuana three years after Berti was killed, they cracked jokes about hippies gathering to smell the burning weed and openly mocked the Humboldt residents whose property they defiled as they took the plants.[10] Such an event demonstrated what had been true for decades in California and elsewhere – when it came to cannabis and other drugs, officers had the full power and support of the state behind them, and they hardly missed a chance to slap the cuffs on anyone associated – or suspected of being associated – with marijuana.

“Flower power” was by no means restricted to the Golden State. In 1968, a seed-sprinkling hippie nicknamed “Johnny Potseed” crisscrossed the nation planting cannabis.[11] Maps made by hippies pointed the way to dozens of wild cannabis patches in Iowa.[12] In 1970, a hippie by the pseudonym Alicia Bay Laurel penned “Living on the Earth,” an illustrated bible for back-to-the-landers that showed and told them “how to plant, nurture, cultivate and cure a [cannabis] plant.”[13] Despite an aggressive joint effort by U.S and Mexican officers, thousands of pounds of marijuana and heroin crossed the border from Mexico and disembarked from ships in the nation’s ports.[14] Meanwhile, American troops in Vietnam smoked so much pot that the military declared a war zone within a war zone: It asked commanders to devote planes, jeeps, and other resources to locate marijuana plants, although “the responsibility for destroying these crops” lay with South Vietnamese officials.[15]

So by the late sixties and early seventies, according to law enforcement even northern California – a sparsely populated region that, compared to southern parts of the state, had been relatively drug-free ten years before – was a cannabis war zone. All this contextual evidence comes to show that in 1970 on a creek bed in Humboldt County, the young, college-educated Berti fit the stereotype of a marijuana user, an identity police hated for decades. Even though Lema knew Berti, Berti was seen examining a marijuana plant and so his identity as a criminal trumped his identity as a well-known local citizen. This explains why Lema, despite personally knowing both men, was quick to draw and fire his gun – to the deputy, the presence of marijuana meant he was in the presence of dangerous criminals, no matter the actual situation.

It wasn’t just police officers who felt this way. Berti had been shot where he stood, unarmed, but the presence of marijuana was enough to convince some local residents that the college-educated youth had it coming. A letter to the editor of the Eureka Times Standard on November 4, after deputy Lema had been reassigned to prison duty at the county courthouse, questioned “what a good guy” Berti was: “This may be so,” the anonymous writer quipped, “but what was he doing out by this marijuana at the time of the shooting? What is our law supposed to be for, if the public does not support it?”[16]

Following the incident, a grand jury investigated the case and declared Berti’s death to be a “justifiable homicide.”[17] Then, in a special meeting of the Ferndale City Council on December 1, Don Richardson, a local Vietnam veteran, admitted the plants were his. "I brought the seeds from Vietnam," he told a stunned mayor and council.[18]

After he shot Berti, Lema was briefly reassigned from the field to jail duty at the county courthouse.[19] But at the time of Richardson’s confession, he was about to be restored to his former job.[20] California in the 1970s was far removed from the “shoot first, ask later” West, but the fact that Berti was shot over a cannabis plant allowed the sheriff’s department to successfully protect its guilty deputy for months after the killing.

The story, however, was far from over. Even though Richardson admitted ownership of the plants, McCanless was still going to go on trial as planned for marijuana cultivation. Berti’s family, meanwhile, apparently did not take the brushing-aside of their son’s murder lightly, and the family’s lawyer demanded the case be reopened the following February.

This story will be continued in a later post.



[1] "Berti's Killing Probed; Rites On Tomorrow," Eureka Times Standard, October 6, 1970.
[2] "Lema: Weed Looked Like Gun," Eureka Times Standard, October 22, 1970.
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] “July Near Record in Drive on Narcotics Violators,” Bakersfield Californian, July 3, 1948.
[7] Martin A. Lee, Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana: Medical, Recreational, and Scientific (New York: Scribner, 2012), 105.
[8] Martin Booth, Cannabis: A History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003), 266.
[9] "Largest Pot Seizure in U.S. on Shrimp Boat," Eureka Times Standard, May 5, 1971.
[10] Harold Kitching, “For a high time, try burning green pot,” Eureka Times Standard, August 24, 1973.
[11] “Johnny Pot Sows Marijuana,” Eureka Times Standard, October 21, 1968.
[12]  “Hippy ‘Treasure Maps’ Show Iowa Marijuana Patches,” Oakland Tribune, October 13, 1967.
[13] Wally Lee, “The Lamplighter,” Eureka Times Standard, April 3, 1971.
[14] “Border Drug Crackdown Said Success,” Eureka Times Standard, October 7, 1969; Dick Werkman, "State Labeled Dumping Site For Marijuana," Pasadena Independent, January 19, 1967; “Ban Eases, Traffic Up At Border,” Eureka Times Standard, October 14, 1969.
[15] “War on Drugs in US Forces,” Eureka Times Standard, January 6, 1971.
[16] “About Larry Lema,” Eureka Times Standard, November 4, 1970
[17] “Lema House Bomb Threat Over Phone,” Eureka Times Standard, October 30, 1970.
[18] Andrew Genzoli, “Ferndale Confession! Resident Says He Grew Marijuana, DA Knew It,” Eureka Times Standard, December 2, 1970.
[19] “Lema House Bomb Threat…”
[20] Genzoli, “Ferndale Confession!…”

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