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> Humboldt sheriff at eye of
> political storm
>
> Oct. 5, 1998
>
> By MIKE GENIELLA
> Press Democrat Staff Writer
>
> EUREKA -- Six weeks ago Humboldt County
> Sheriff Dennis Lewis felt vindicated when a
>
> federal jury in San Francisco deadlocked
>4-4 on
> whether use of pepper spray on Earth First!
>
> demonstrators by his deputies and Eureka
>police
> was excessive force.
>
> "Like the situation we now find ourselves
>in, we
> honestly tried then to do the right
>thing,'' Lewis
> said.
>
> Just as emotions surrounding the pepper
>spray
> controversy were subsiding, Lewis and his
>top
> aides find themselves at the center of a
>new
> controversy.
>
> Even before the Sheriff's Department can
> complete an investigation into the Sept. 17
>death
> of Earth First! activist David Chain at a
>Pacific
> Lumber Co. logging site, Lewis and his
>deputies
> are being accused of showing bias against
> environmentalists and helping Pacific
>Lumber, the
> county's biggest private employer, cover up
>what
> environmentalists characterize as crimes.
>
> "It might as well be the Pacific Lumber
>Sheriff
> Department,'' complained attorney Steve
> Schectman, who represents Chain's Texas
> family.
>
> Chain was crushed to death by a falling
>redwood
> when he and other trespassing activists
>tried to
> disrupt a disputed logging operation. The
> tragedy, the first fatality in a decade of
> anti-logging protests, has rekindled old
> animosities locally. And like the pepper
>spray
> case, it's attracted attention of the
>national media,
> including Time and Rolling Stone magazines
>and
> the Los Angeles Times.
>
> Schectman accuses Lewis of too readily
> accepting Pacific Lumber's explanation that
>
> Chain's death was an accident. "He should
>be
> letting the facts speak for themselves,
>instead of
> treating a possible suspect in a criminal
>case like
> a buddy,'' Schectman said.
>
> Schectman and others are demanding that
> Humboldt County authorities file
>manslaughter
> charges against the Pacific Lumber logger
>who
> felled the tree that killed Chain. Citing a
>
> profanity-laced videotape purportedly of
>the
> logger angrily confronting the intruders
>about 30
> minutes before Chain's death, critics
>contend he
> endangered their lives by recklessly
>toppling
> trees in their direction in hopes of
>scaring them
> away.
>
> Earth First! attorney Jay Moller of Redway
> warned District Attorney Terry Farmer
>shortly
> after Chain's death, "If your office does
>not see
> fit to charge this crime, we will seek help
>either
> through the Attorney General's Office or
>the
> U.S. Attorney's Office, as was necessary in
>the
> South in the 1960s when law enforcement and
>
> juries sided with KKK members accused of
> violence.''
>
> Lewis, who easily won re-election to a
>second
> four-year term during the June primary,
>said the
> escalating rhetoric surrounding Chain's
>death is
> sadly typical of the 10 years of turmoil
> surrounding Pacific Lumber logging
>practices.
>
> "We're coping with a hotbed of dissent.
> Everything we do is viewed with suspicion.
>The
> truth is we're trying to do the best
>professional
> job possible under very demanding
>conditions,''
> Lewis said.
>
> Lewis has 57 deputies to patrol 3,400
>square
> miles, making Humboldt one of California's
> largest and most rugged counties.
>
> "Rural crime is always a problem. We have
>our
> share of drug and alcohol abuse, and
>domestic
> violence. But when we're hit with a major
> environmental protest, we're forced to pull
>our
> deputies off the street and away from
>policing
> such activities. We're often forced to seek
>mutual
> aid from other law enforcement agencies,''
>he
> said.
>
> He said Humboldt County has spent hundreds
>of
> thousands of taxpayers' dollars during the
>past
> decade responding to environmental
>protests,
> which have included tree sits, equipment
> lockdowns and, in the case of Chain,
>trespassing
> activists determined to slow the pace of
>logging.
>
> "I don't think anyone outside the area can
>truly
> understand what we've been hit with, and
>how
> difficult it's been,'' he said.
>
> Lewis repeated promises that the
>investigation
> into Chain's death will be thorough,
>addressing
> all the issues raised so far.
>
> "We're not going to let the politics
>surrounding
> these issues sway us. We're going to do
>what
> we've always done, and that's the best job
> possible,'' he said.
>
> To Lewis, the scenario unfolding around
>Chain's
> death is chillingly similar to what
>happened within
> days of a 1997 incident in the Eureka
>office of
> Rep. Frank Riggs, R-Windsor.
>
> Repeated TV broadcasts of a 30-second video
>
> clip showing officers holding a young
>woman's
> head while her eyelids were swabbed with
> pepper spray created a national uproar and
> brought Lewis and his rural department
>nearly
> universal condemnation.
>
> Critics then brushed aside Lewis'
>contentions
> that pepper spray was a viable alternative
>for his
> officers, who face escalating protest
>tactics,
> including use of sophisticated metal
>devices that
> interfered with deputies' efforts to free
>them from
> chains they used to secure themselves at
>protest
> sites.
>
> But the issue wasn't so clear cut to
>federal jurors
> in a high-profile case that underscored
>local law
> enforcement's struggle to cope with a
>decade of
> divisive environmental protests and
>controversial
> corporate logging practices.
>
> After they viewed hours of police videos
> showing events leading up to the pepper
>spray
> use, and listened to testimony of nine
>activists
> and local officers during a three-week
>trial in
> August, jurors declared themselves
>hopelessly
> deadlocked. Half of the jurors said they
>believed
> deputies were honestly trying to avoid
>injuries by
> using pepper spray, rather than continuing
>a
> practice of cutting through metal to free
> protesters. Other jurors expressed sympathy
>
> with protesters' contentions that the
>pepper
> spray was unnecessary force despite its use
>
> having since been sanctioned by a state
>agency
> responsible for police standards.
>
> Federal Judge Vaughn Walker is now
>pondering
> whether he should grant Humboldt County's
> request for a dismissal of the activists'
>civil rights
> lawsuit or allow the case to be retried in
> mid-November.
>
> Lewis said he's confident his department
>will
> weather the controversy surrounding Chain's
>
> death.
>
> "I believe that when the facts are known,
>and the
> public gets a chance to review our
>investigation,
> it will be clear we did the job we're
>supposed to
> do,'' he said.
>
>
>
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> 1998 The Press Democrat
>
>
>
>
>
>
David M. Walsh
P.O. Box 903
Redway, CA 95560
Office and Fax(707) 923-3015
Home (707) 986-1644



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