By clicking on the blue portal below, you can download a PDF of the April 19 edition of the San Bernardino County Sentinel.
By Mark Gutglueck
In what was perhaps the most dynamic round of testimony so far in the Charles Merritt murder trial, an expert witness brought in by the defense severely undercut a crucial element of the prosecution’s case, casting considerable doubt upon, if not outright obliterating, what has been offered by the district attorney’s office as the motive in the brutal McStay family killings.
Moreover, testimony by that witness, computer forensic analyst Bryan LaRock, taken in conjunction with testimony by PayPal custodian of records Sarah Kane, definitively established that the individual the defense team alleges is the actual murderer had obtained fraudulent access to one of the victim’s business accounts and the funds therein after the homicides occurred.
In addition to solidifying the defense’s assertion that this alternate perpetrator, Dan Kavanaugh, had motive for killing the family, LaRock offered a compelling indication that Kavanaugh was actually in the San Diego area when the murders occurred. That controverts the alibi that Kavanaugh had previously asserted and which law enforcement officials heretofore have accepted, consisting of his claim that he was in Hawaii when the McStay family was killed.
According to the prosecution’s version of events, Charles “Chase” Merritt, driven by financial desperation that grew out of his unbridled gambling addiction and utter lack of fiscal discipline, engaged in a series of thefts from Earth Inspired Products, the company owned and operated by his business associate, Joseph McStay. Through that company, Joseph was selling high end decorative water features – artificial waterfalls and fountains – which he and Merritt designed and which Merritt manufactured out of steel, glass, rock and other components based upon the specifications outlined by the company’s customers and passed along to Merritt by McStay. The prosecution’s theory, presented during the initial nine weeks of the trial that began on January 7 of this year, is that Merritt fraudulently obtained access to the QuickBooks accounting system McStay had set up for the Earth Inspired Products enterprise and on February 1 and February 2, 2010 wrote himself $7,495 worth of checks.
When he learned of what Merritt was up to, either shortly before or perhaps even on February 4, 2010, Joseph McStay traveled to Rancho Cucamonga, where Merritt was then living, and confronted him about his larceny, threatening to alert authorities, prosecutors allege. After Joseph McStay returned home to north San Diego County, the prosecution’s theory continues, Merritt that evening drove to the McStay residence in Fallbrook where he killed Joseph McStay, his wife Summer and their two sons, four-year-old Gianni and three-year-old Joseph, Jr.
Merritt then secreted the bodies for two days, in the meantime again fraudulently accessing Joseph McStay’s QuickBooks account for Earth Inspired Products, the prosecution maintains, and on February 4, 2010, February 5, 2010 and again on February 8, 2010 issued himself checks made out to himself for a total of $23,855.
Merritt then transported the corpses up into San Bernardino County’s High Desert, an area with which Merritt was familiar from having grown up in Hesperia where he attended Apple Valley High School for three years in the 1970s, according to prosecutors. There, in a remote area between Victorville and Oro Grande on February 6, 2010 he buried all four of his victims along with the three-pound sledge hammer he had used to bludgeon them in shallow graves he dug in a wash off a rarely-traveled dirt road, according to the prosecution. To confuse the situation, throw authorities off his track and delay a serious investigation into the matter, the prosecution maintains, Merritt then drove the McStay family’s 1996 Isuzu Trooper, which yet contained the child seats for Gianni and Joseph, to San Ysidro, where he left the vehicle in a shopping center parking lot roughly a quarter of a mile from the Mexican border.
The case against Merritt is a largely circumstantial one. What physical evidence does exist in the case is not in and of itself implicative but must be tied into and intricately connected with other equally slender evidence and assembled into a conclusion contexted within a set of assumptions. As with all murders and crimes in general, the three factors that investigators must satisfy in order to establish the viability of an individual as a confirmed suspect consist of assigning to him motive, means and opportunity. If investigators determine that someone had a realistic reason to engage in the crime – motive – together with the tools, effects and ability to carry it out – means – and if they cannot rule out that the suspect was present at the scene of the crime when it occurred and thus had the opportunity to commit the crime, they will then collect and catalog all evidence supporting those determinations. The investigative case file is then turned over to prosecutors, who upon their discretion and based upon further determinations can potentially elevate the suspect to the status of a defendant by lodging charges against him and utilizing the facts in the investigative file to inform the narrative of guilt presented against him in court.
In the case of People vs. Merritt, many of the facts are vulnerable to divergent, varying or even contradictory interpretation, and the prosecution since the onset of the trial has labored to illustrate that its interpretation of those facts and the cascade of events surrounding the murders and their aftermath are more reasonable and therefore compelling and convincing than the competing constructions and alternative theories of the defense.
With regard to the motive, the prosecution maintains that it was Joseph McStay’s confrontation of Charles Merritt on February 4, 2010 about checks Merritt had surreptitiously written against the Earth Inspired Products business account accompanied by McStay’s stated intention to contact law enforcement authorities over the matter that threw the defendant into a panic, prompting him to murder his business associate to keep his larceny under wraps. The circumstances of Joseph McStay’s murder which included the presence or proximity of his family or at least their knowledge of Merritt being with Joseph at the time, the prosecution has implied, were such that Merritt had no other choice but to dispose of them as well.
That element of the prosecution’s theory, however, hinges upon Merritt having actually forged the checks in question. In seeking to establish Merritt did just that, the prosecution has relied upon peculiarities in the way the February 1 and February 2 checks were drafted. Of note is that Joseph McStay for several years had two QuickBooks accounts for the Earth Inspired Products enterprise, each of which was tied to separate email accounts. The most frequently used of these accounts prior to and up until early 2010 was that associated with the email address email@example.com. In drafting checks pertaining to his business, Joseph McStay’s demonstrated pattern with only a single exception going back to 2007 was that when he generated checks on a computer printer for the account associated with firstname.lastname@example.org he would capitalize the first letter of the first and last names of the payee, capitalize the first letter of each word in the memo line and capitalize the first letter of the payment amount. For virtually all of Earth Inspired Products’ operations from 2007 until 2010, according to the prosecution and sheriff’s department investigators, the email@example.com account was used to keep track of the income flowing into the company and the payments going out, consisting primarily of payments to vendors and suppliers as well as payments to Merritt for his participation in the operation, which consisted of designing, fabricating, shipping and installing the water features. The list of entities either making payments to or receiving payments from the firstname.lastname@example.org numbered in the scores.
After years in which the QuickBooks account associated with email@example.com was used to handle accounting and check drafting for the company’s income and expenditures, on February 1, 2010, just three days before the family’s disappearance, Joseph McStay’s other QuickBooks account, the one associated with the email address firstname.lastname@example.org which had long lain dormant, abruptly transitioned into the platform from which the financial activity relating to the company was handled. That account had far fewer entities listed in its customer and vendor list. The sudden onset of activity included the issuance of two checks made out to Charles Merritt created on February 1, 2010 bearing February 1 dates, each for $2,500; another check to Charles Merritt created February 2 and bearing the date of February 2, 2010 for $2,495, another check made out to Charles Merritt created February 4, 2010, bearing the date of February 4, for $4,000; another check to Charles Merritt created on February 5, 2010, backdated to February 4, for $4,500; a check to Metro Sheet Metal created on February 5, 2010 and backdated to February 4 for $1,650; another check to Metro Sheet Metal created on February 5 and backdated to February 4, for $250; another check to Charles Merritt created on February 5 and backdated to February 4, 2010, for $6,505; a check to Charles Merritt created on February 5, 2010 and backdated to February 4 and bearing a different check number than was indicated in the QuickBooks history, for $2,350; and another check made out to Charles Merritt created on February 8 and backdated to February 4 for $6,500.
Metro Sheet Metal is an Azusa-based metal fabricating concern which included a foundry out of which Charles Merritt operated in manufacturing the waterfalls and fountains for Earth Inspired Products.
Those ten checks created on February 1, February 2, February 4, February 5 and February 8, the prosecution alleges, were not created by Joseph McStay but rather were forgeries by Merritt. Supporting that contention, according to the district attorney’s office, is that the checks were all created using the QuickBooks account tied to the email address email@example.com rather than the account associated with the email address firstname.lastname@example.org, as was previously Joseph McStay’s consistent practice. Even more damning evidence that the checks are forgeries done at Merritt’s hand consists, the prosecution maintains, of the consideration that the checks themselves do not utilize the capitalization scheme Joseph McStay previously incorporated with virtually all of the checks generated on the Earth Inspired Products account.
On each of the February 1, February 2, February 4, February 5 and February 8 checks the first letter of the names of the payees are not uppercased. Thus, the checks to Merritt are made out to “charles merritt.” The checks to Metro Sheet Metal are made out to “metro sheet metal.” This is a telltale indication that Joseph McStay did not issue the checks, the prosecution maintains, and a giveaway that Merritt, whom the prosecution has sought to portray as unfamiliar with the use of QuickBooks and the process for issuing and printing checks using that system, botched the format for the checks he was writing to himself during his embezzling caper.
It is a central tenet of the case against Merritt that McStay became aware of the thefts from his business account and confronted Merritt about it at an early afternoon meeting they had at a Chick-fil-A fast food restaurant after Joseph left his Fallbrook home late in the morning of February 4, 2010 to drive to Rancho Cucamonga, where Merritt lived at the time. It is the prosecution’s contention that at that meeting Joseph McStay threatened to report the thefts to authorities, and that because Merritt had previous convictions for nonviolent offenses that were nevertheless felonies, his arrest, prosecution and conviction on charges relating to the fraud would subject him to a substantial prison term and California’s Three Strikes Law. This prospect threw Merritt into a panic, and to avoid that eventuality, the prosecution avers, he resolved to silence Joseph McStay, and he sojourned to Fallbrook that evening, where he carried out the heinous deed, along with the collateral killings of the rest of the family.
Bryan LaRock, whose pedigree as a forensic computer analyst includes both a bachelor of science and master’s degree in computer science from USC and full credentials as a certified computer examiner granted him by the International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners, was recruited to work on Merritt’s legal defense in 2015, predating the hiring of the legal team representing Merritt during the trial, which consists of James McGee, Raj Maline and Jacob Guerard.
LaRock’s testimony, coming as it did at an advanced stage of the trial, in the 14th week of testimony, the fifth week into the defense’s presentation of its side of the case after nine weeks of the prosecution’s exposition of its evidence and witnesses and on the 40th, 41st and 42nd day of the trial, had the effect of recontexting significant elements of the proceedings.
LaRock said while he had not been entrusted with the actual items, he had been provided with the “forensic images” extracted from something close to 30 electronic devices that were seized by law enforcement personnel in the course of their investigation into what was initially considered to be the disappearance of the McStay family and which subsequently was learned to have been their murders. He said those devices included “eight or nine” computers, as well as hard drives, thumb drives, mobile phones and other items. LaRock said it was his intent to look at the electronic data contained within those devices and their history to extract as many pieces of evidence relating to the disappearance as he could find and thereby “basically add some context as to what happened.”
He said that of those devices and items “some stood out in terms of relevance” in relation to the effort “to figure out what had happened at the time of the disappearance.” LaRock indicated directly, and his testimony bore out, that the device containing the most illustrative information was an Emachine desktop computer that was one of the home computers in the McStay household.
LaRock was also provided with access to other information deemed relevant to his investigation, including phone records, which he considered in conjunction with the activity on the digital devices he was able to trace. LaRock said that where it was appropriate he had cross-referenced information gleaned from the different electronic devices, in some cases comparing activity on two of the devices at the same time. In this way, LaRock said, he had unearthed indications that ran counter to the prosecution’s theory of the case.
One example of this, he testified, is the information extracted from Joseph McStay’s cell phone records for the late afternoon of February 4, 2010 and his simultaneous activity on the Emachine.
LaRock said his analysis of data on the Emachine demonstrated that on the afternoon and into the evening of February 4 Joseph McStay had been utilizing a three-dimensional drawing program on his computer known as Google Sketchup which had been accessed using the web browser from 4:10 pm. to around 5 pm.
February 4 is the day the prosecution maintains Merritt murdered the McStay family. According to LaRock, however, the electronic data indicates that McStay and Merritt were in a cooperative mode relating to their shared water feature manufacturing venture after McStay departed Rancho Cucamonga following the lunch meeting at the Chick-fil-A at which the prosecution claims Joseph was threatening to report Merritt’s alleged check forging activity to agents of the law.
“In the afternoon of February 4th  there are several calls showed as being made to Chase Merritt’s phone number,” LaRock said in reference to Joseph McStay’s cell phone records.
Those calls occurred at 3:03 p.m. while Joseph McStay’s phone was in contact with a cell phone tower in Ontario and another call was placed to Merritt at 3:32 p.m. when McStay’s phone was in contact with a cell tower in Norco, LaRock pointed out. At 4:18 p.m. another call was made to Merritt with McStay’s cell phone pinging off of a cell tower in Fallbrook, an indication that Joseph McStay was back at his residence at that time. That call occurred some eight minutes after the data from the Emachine shows Joseph McStay had initiated his Google Sketchup activity, according to LaRock.
“This 4:18 p.m. call was made to Chase Merritt while the Google Sketchup activity is occurring,” LaRock testified.
“And why was that significant?” Maline asked.
“That’s of significance to me because… it looks like the user is traveling toward the Fallbrook house…” LaRock began.
”Objection, calls for speculation, lacks foundation,” Supervisng Deputy District Attorney Britt Imes interrupted him.
“Overruled,” Judge Michael A. Smith said.
“Simply taking the location information listed here,” LaRock went on, “over the different times we see Ontario, followed by Norco, followed by Fallbrook, and then working on design information, so the Sketchup design program looking at house information, design information, so it has the appearance to me of Joseph working on a drawing…’
“Objection, that calls for speculation,” said Imes, preventing LaRock from following through with his observation that it appeared that at that point McStay and Merritt were involved in a cooperative exchange relating to the designing of a water feature. Given the context, LaRock’s suggestion was that the activity seemed to contradict the assertion that McStay was on the verge of reporting Merritt to law enforcement authorities.
Judge Smith sustained the objection and instructed LaRock’s answer to be stricken from the record.
Maline, however, was able to get before the jurors LaRock’s testimony regarding the cooperative nature of the relationship between McStay and Merritt which followed as a consequence of the designing of the water features.
LaRock said that his forensic analysis of the Emachine showed that for approaching 40 minutes from 8:43 p.m. until 9:21 p.m. on January 31, 2004, Joseph McStay was engaged in using the Sketchup design program on a drafting project, the file name for which referenced both Merritt and a customer designated as “fred,” in lower case, presumably a water feature Merritt was working on, and that in the middle of that session at 8:59 p.m., Joseph called Merritt on his cell phone, and then sent him a text message with a photo, nearly an hour later, at 9:56 p.m.
The circumstances surrounding McStay’s design session on February 4 during which he was in telephonic contact with Merritt was in virtually all respects similar to the design session he was involved in on January 31 when he called Merritt.
According to LaRock, there was another phone contact between McStay and Merritt at 5:47 p.m. in the early evening of February 4. LaRock also referenced a last phone call placed from McStay to Merritt at 8:28 p.m. that evening, which Merritt did not answer.
Previous testimony in the trial established that the 8:28 p.m. call was the last call ever made from Joseph McStay’s cell phone. Prosecutors allege the murders occurred at some point that evening following that phone call.
With regard to that evening, Maline asked LaRock, “Was there internet activity after 5 o’clock that you documented and in your opinion was significant?”
“Yes,” said LaRock.
‘”And what was that?” Maline asked.
“There was additional internet activity around the hour of 8 p.m,” said LaRock.
“What specific internet activity are you talking about that was significant in your opinion?” Maline asked.
“A user on the computer logged onto QuickBooks online, and activity there,” responded LaRock.
LaRock said there was data contained on the Emachine’s temporary internet files to show that someone had logged into the QuickBooks online site at 7:56 p.m. At the same time, Maline displayed on the courtroom’s overhead visual monitors the computer read-out of the activity being referenced.
“What is it we’re looking at here?” Maline asked.
“This appears to be a debit-input screen for entering information for a check.” said LaRock. “This is part of QuickBooks online.”
Thereafter another exhibit was displayed for the jury, a read-out from the Emachine’s activity registry. “This is another web page entitled ‘print checks,’” said LaRock. “The file name is ‘select print1.htm.’”
“Is there a time that is associated with this file?” Maline asked.
“7:59 p.m.,” said LaRock.
The next internet registry item on the Emachine, LaRock testified, over an objection by Imes, related to actuating the printing of the check.
“This is entitled ‘print checks set up,’” said LaRock. “It is a web page entitled ‘print checks,’ and it shows a payment listed, type of check, to Charles Merritt.”
By his testimony, LaRock refuted the prosecution contention that the February 4 check to Charles Merritt for $4,000 had been a forgery.
LaRock pointed out that there was an accompanying screen to the one relating to the one pertaining to the drafting of the check that showed the amount of money in the Earth Inspired Products bank account upon which the check was drawn.
“It reads current balance a little more than $89,000…[$89,724] nearly $90,000,” said LaRock.
Unlike the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s computer analyst, Detective Jason Schoeder, who said he could not access the print spool files that were triggered with the effort to print the check written near 8 p.m. on February 4, 2010 because they were garbled, LaRock said he succeeded in opening the file.
“I was able to open these spool files to see what the contents were,” said LaRock. Both were generic alignment pages for QuickBooks online to set up the printer, he said.
LaRock told the jury he was able to draw a broader parallel between McStay’s cell phone usage and his QuickBook and check drafting activity, a significant element of which controverted the prosecution’s narrative of guilt implicating Merritt. Joseph McStay made a consistent practice of phoning Merritt shortly after writing him a check, what LaRoock said was “a pattern that I noticed. There is absolutely a correlation between checks that are issued in the QuickBooks online records followed by calls from Joseph to Chase Merritt. I did compare the QuickBooks online records and the checks that were issued that were listed to Charles Merritt or Metro Sheet Metal. I compared that with the phone records of Joseph McStay because I wanted to see if what I noticed in terms of a call being made to Chase after a check was issued was consistent. What I found was, for the period of time for which I have the phone records, that a phone call was made to Chase every single time that a check was issued for the QuickBooks online records.”
This was true with regard to the checks issued to Merritt on February 1, February 2 and February 4, 2010, LaRock testified.
LaRock’s testimony in this regard ran counter to the prosecution’s assertion that the checks written to Merritt on those days were forgeries by Merritt and that the checks were not written by McStay.
LaRock’s forensic analysis of the Emachine turned up other evidence which cast further doubt on the prosecution’s allegation that Merritt forged the February 1, February 2 and February 4 checks, he said.
Maline displayed the activity log for the QuickBooks account associated with the email address email@example.com, which showed that someone operating from McStay’s Emachine computer had added Charles Merritt as a vendor on February 1, 2010 at 12:24 p.m. Maline drew attention to the capitalization, or lack thereof, in that entry, as it was spelled “charles merritt.’
“You had indicated a vendor had been added, Charles Merritt, all lower case, correct?” Maline asked.
“At 12:24 p.m., correct,” LaRock said.
“What’s the next thing in progression that occurs?” Maline inquired.
“We see two additional sign-ins followed by two checks,” LaRock said.
“And those are at 12:34 and at 12:37,” Maline said.
“That’s right,” LaRock said. “I’d like to point out that at 12:34 p.m. user Joseph McStay added check to Charles Merritt, all in lower case, and at 12:37 p.m. user Joseph McStay added check to Charles Merritt, all in lower case.”
The incontrovertible computer-stamped date of those entries and the consideration that the checks were drafted on the McStay family’s household computer three days before the family’s disappearance would appear to indicate that it was indeed Joseph who drafted those checks, ruling out a central premise of the prosecution’s case against the defendant, that being the assertion that Merritt had forged the two February 1 checks and the February 2 check. If no such forgery occurred, the prosecution’s further contention that McStay had confronted him about those forgeries on the afternoon of February 4, precipitating Merritt’s sledgehammer-wielding, homicidal frenzy, collapses.
Further data LaRock was able to mine from the computer files subjected yet another prong of the prosecution’s case to question.
LaRock said there were “very detailed” records pertaining to Merritt’s work on features for Earth Inspired Products contained in an electronic folder within the Emachine. LaRock said that there was consistency between the QuickBooks entries that Joseph McStay made relating to the transactions Earth Inspired Products was engaged in with its customers and vendors and a separate ledger he kept in which those transactions were listed.
At least by inference, those books bring into question the prosecution’s suggestion that killing Joseph McStay was in any fashion in Merritt’s financial interest. Those books show that Joseph’s company, Earth Inspired Products, was more than just a meal ticket for Merritt, and that it represented a significant source of income, indeed one that if not offering him wealth, then significant comfort.
Earth Inspired Products was doing well, particularly before the full effects of the economic downturn that manifested during the first decade of the Third Millennium. According to information previously introduced during the trial, Merritt and Joseph divided the gross revenue between them along a roughly 60 percent to 65 percent/40 percent to 35 percent split, with the lion’s share going to Merritt, though with the proviso that the materials and equipment needed to manufacture the water features were paid for from Merritt’s share of the proceeds.
According to a spreadsheet that Joseph had created and which LaRock recovered, Earth Inspired Products in 2007 had a total income of $330,375.97, of which $204,666.98 was paid to Merritt.
In 2008, according to a spreadsheet that Joseph created and which LaRock recovered, Earth Inspired Products had a total income of $342,099, of which $224,615 was paid to Merritt.
The spreadsheet that Joseph prepared for 2009 that LaRock recovered from the computer was incomplete, running only as far as the end of January of that year. However, LaRock was able to find a spreadsheet that cataloged the company’s 2009 activity that Joseph McStay had uploaded to Google Documents. It showed total income of $297,954, with $158,210 going to Merritt.
LaRock offered testimony about an issue of considerable mystery and not-yet fully determined significance in the case, which had been brought up previously during the testimony of Detective Jason Schroeder, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s forensic computer analyst.
LaRock said that in the early morning hours of February 8, someone had attempted to access the Emachine and another of the McStay family’s household computers, a Hewlett-Packard that was used primarily by Summer McStay.
According to LaRock, in between 2:05 a.m. and 2:07 a.m., Google searches were run on the Emachine which involved bringing up sites or activity that had previously been undertaken or visited on the computer, one of which included QuickBooks online.
“The user ran six of the searches.” LaRock said. “My opinion is that the user opened Internet Explorer and used most likely this drop down [menu] to click on the searches. Each of these six searches had been run in the past.” Neither QuickBooks online nor any of the other sites was fully accessed from the computer at that time, according to LaRock, although he indicated the computer’s history registry might have been looked over. At 2:09 the Hewlett-Packard was turned on and a search initiated, LaRock said.
Because the Hewlett-Packard computer had been factory reset on January 23, 2010, whoever was seeking to determine what internet activity had taken place on that computer probably did not glean much information, LaRock said, since the Google tool bar on it had been emptied.
Whoever intruded into the McStay home that hour of the morning most likely remained there for nearly two hours, LaRock said, as the user “affirmatively shut down” the Emachine at 3:55 a.m.
LaRock said that based upon his analysis of activity on computer programs, including entries into spreadsheets, it appeared that Joseph McStay was using a laptop which had been provided with the name “Josepe,” which was never recovered. Much of the accounting and design work that Joseph McStay did with regard to Earth Inspired Products was carried out on the Josepe laptop, according to LaRock.
The majority of the testimony LaRock offered under direct examination was oriented toward Maline’s efforts to undermine primary elements of the prosecution’s case pertaining to his client’s activities and alleged direct involvement in the murders. Maline did, however, guide LaRock along one tangent that bore no direct relationship to Merritt but rather propounded the defense’s alternative perpetrator theory involving Dan Kavanaugh.
According to Maline as well as the other two members of Merritt’s defense team, James McGee and Jacob Guerard, the individual best fitting the profile of the murderer of the McStay family is Dan Kavanaugh, and the investigators in the case wrongfully focused on their client early on and then failed to make a thorough investigation of other potential perpetrators, Kavanaugh foremost among them.
Kavanaugh, who has a level of computer literacy and facility with the internet such that he is known to many as “Dan the Hacker,” was assisting Joseph McStay in his promotion of his water feature business, essentially by assisting in marketing the water fountains and artificial waterfalls by means of the internet, which included ploys to move Earth Inspired Product’s website to the top of search engine listings. Kavanaugh’s efforts on Joseph’s behalf dated back to before Joseph’s arrangement with Merritt for the designing and completion of customized features. In large measure, before Merritt arrived on the scene, Joseph was essentially dealing in obtaining ready-made water fountains and water features available from wholesalers which he then packaged and delivered to interested customers. For the service Kavanaugh was providing, Joseph had agreed to provide Kavanaugh with a percentage of sales made over the internet.
With the initiation of the customized products line constructed by Merritt, McStay had continued to deal in prefabricated water features, paying Kavanaugh in accordance with whatever sales he made via the internet of those products. But he had not shared with Kavanaugh any of the revenue stream from the water features Merritt was delivering. When Kavanaugh learned of this in the spring of 2009, he grew resentful, and confronted Joseph over having been deprived of the percentage of the ongoing profits for Earth Inspired Products to which he felt he was entitled. There was some degree of back-and-forth between McStay and Kavanaugh over this, which included threats by Kavanaugh that he would ruin the business, and route internet traffic coming into the Earth Inspired Products website to porn sites, unless Joseph agreed to cut him in on the customized product end of the company’s activity. McStay at some point in mid-2009 agreed to buy whatever interest Kavanaugh claimed to have in Earth Inspired Products out, which was done by McStay signing over to Kavanaugh title to a BMW and making a series of payments to him, the last of which was due to be made at the time the family disappeared.
Subsequent to the family’s disappearance, Kavanaugh approached Joseph McStay’s mother, Susan Blake, and Merritt, and the three became involved in an effort, which also included Joseph McStay’s half-brother Mike McStay, in keeping Earth Inspired Products afloat until Joseph McStay made what was hoped would be Joseph’s eventual return. Ultimately, Kavanaugh took well over $100,000 out of the business for himself and then horned in on the ownership of the company, ultimately selling it in June 2011.
McGee, Maline and Guerard contend that Kavanaugh had motives for killing Joseph McStay in the form of revenge and greed, which Merritt did not possess. The two law enforcement agencies that dealt with Kavanaugh on issues relating to the McStay family – the San Diego Sheriff’s Department which was looking at the matter as a multiple missing persons case in 2010 and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department which focused on it as a murder investigation after the family’s bodies were found in 2013 – satisfied themselves that Kavanaugh was not involved based upon his claim to have been in Hawaii at the time of the family’s disappearance.
In 2009 and 2010, Joseph McStay and Dan Kavanaugh had PayPal accounts, which they used for both receiving and making payments via the internet. LaRock was provided with the records of their transactions using the PayPal system, which contained data relating to each individual transaction, the amount, the entity being paid or paying, the amount of the transaction, the date and the internet protocol address, also known as an IP, from which the transactions are made. An IP address provides the location of the device using it to access the internet.
With Kavanaugh’s PayPal records for 2010 being displayed on the courtroom’s overhead display monitors, Maline asked LaRock about the IP address – 22.214.171.124 – of the computer Kavanaugh was using on January 14, 2010, when he made three contacts with PayPal.
“Is that IP address associated with a region?” Maliine asked.
“Yes,” said LaRock.
“And what is that?” Maline asked.
“That IP address is associated with Hawaii,” responded LaRock.
“What about the next entry?” asked Maline. “It looks like there is a 12-day gap.”
“That’s right,” La Rock said. “January 26 is the next entry.”
“The time is 4:47,” said Maline.
“4:47 a.m.,” said LaRock.
“And now we have a new address, 126.96.36.199,” Maline said. “What area is that IP address associated with?”
“The San Diego area,” LaRock said.
The document showed Kavanaugh having contact with PayPal using the 188.8.131.52 IP address nine times in total on January 26; once on January 27, 2010 using the 184.108.40.206 IP address; having contact with PayPal once on February 5, 2010 from the 220.127.116.11 IP address; once on February 6, 2010 from the 18.104.22.168 IP address; having contact with PayPal once on February 8, 2010 from the 22.214.171.124 address; having contact with PayPal once on February 10, 2010 from the 126.96.36.199 address; having contact with PayPal three times on February 11, 2010 from the 188.8.131.52 address; having contact with PayPal once on February 12, 2010 from the 184.108.40.206 address; having contact with PayPal three times on February 13, 2010 from the 220.127.116.11 address; having contact with PayPal twice on February 14, 2010 from the 18.104.22.168 address; having contact with PayPal three times on February 15, 2010 from the 22.214.171.124 address; having contact with PayPal four times on February 16, 2010 from the 126.96.36.199 address; and having contact with PayPal once on February 17, 2010 from the 188.8.131.52 address, after which point his contact with PayPal is made from a completely different IP address, 184.108.40.206, a T-Mobile address associated with Southern California in general.
Throughout the period from January 26 until April 17, when he begins using an IP address associated with an area in Washington State, Kavanaugh’s interaction with PayPal takes place from IP addresses in California.
Thus, in his testimony under direct examination by Maline, LaRock appeared to controvert the alibi Kavanaugh asserted, and which the law enforcement agencies dealing with the McStay family matter seemed to have accepted, which was that Dan Kavanaugh was not in Southern California or the San Diego area at the time of the murders.
In cross examining LaRock, Supervising Deputy District Attorney Britt Imes attempted to erase the impression that LaRock had provided relating to Kavanaugh’s presence in the San Diego area at the time of the murders. Projecting on the courtroom’s overhead display monitors Kavanaugh’s cell phone records from January and February 2010, he asked LaRock, “Are you familiar with what the 808 area code is?”
After LaRock said that he was not, Imes called upon LaRock to use his electronic device to ascertain the geographical region associated with the 808 area code. After defense objections, there followed a sidebar conference among the defense team and the prosecution with Judge Smith, after which Judge Smith agreed to take judicial notice that the 808 area code pertains to Hawaii. The page from Kavanaugh’s phone records which Imes displayed showed 19 phone calls, 15 outgoing and four incoming on the dates of January 31 and February 1, 2010, of which 16 had the 808 prefix. The three others reflected the 805 area code associated with San Luis Obisbo and its environs, the 949 area code associated with San Diego County and the 707 area code, associated with the San Francisco Bay area.
At another point in his cross examination of LaRock, Imes explored whether a VPN – a virtual private network – could obscure the actual location of a computer user logged onto the internet, in fact hiding the user’s IP address.
“A virtual private network will reflect an IP address for the network, not the device using the network, correct?” Imes asked.
“Generally speaking, that’s true,” LaRock said. “A virtual private network can be more complicated than that, but in general, yes.”
“And a virtual private network is commonly used by individuals to mask their IP address and location, correct?” Imes asked.
“It frequently is, yes,” responded LaRock.
Imes got LaRock to acknowledge that those logged into a virtual desktop environment or a VPN can use an IP address of a centralized network and not the IP address of the user’s individual device, and that there is a “plethora” of technologies to “mask” IP addresses and “spoof” IP addresses.
Imes suggested LaRock, a servant of the defense bar, has crossed over to the dark side, and is a tool of criminals and murderers, with whom he is on good terms. Imes said LaRock had lost his objectivity, which was reflected in LaRock referring to Merritt as “Chase.”
“So being that familiar with someone and referring to them by their nickname, that’s not very objective is it?” Imes asked LaRock.
“Actually I believe that is objective in this case,” responded LaRock.
Imes noted that LaRock used what he called “subjective” terminology in his reports, such as the word “notably” and the phrases “potentially very important” and “especially significant,” as well as “good business relationship” along with “significant source of income.”
“Using words like significant, especially and notably – those are subjective terms, aren’t they?” Imes asked.
“I suppose they can be defined that way,” said LaRock. “I think that in the context of my reports it was entirely proper to use those.”
In many of his questions, Imes implied or directly stated that LaRock had not done a thorough and complete analysis of all of the evidence. Imes also referred to a list of issues that LaRock had put together highlighting the areas he had investigated which he anticipated he would be questioned about as his “trial script.”
Imes explored the amount of money LaRock had made off of the case.
“How much are you getting paid for your services since 2015?” Imes asked.
“My company is charging $350 per hour,” LaRock answered.
“And how many hours have been billed since 2015?” Imes asked.
“I don’t have an exact number,” said LaRock. “It’s definitely more than 300. I believe it’s more than 350.”
“$122,000 since 2015,” said Imes, disgust welling in his voice.
“That’s correct,” said LaRock. “To my company.”
“In the world of criminal cases, you’ve handled how many cases?” Imes inquired.
“I’ll give an estimate,” LaRock said. “I’ve personally probably worked on I’d estimate between 75 and 100 criminal cases.”
“How many were for the Federal Public Defender?” Imes asked.
“I don’t know that as I sit here,” said LaRock. “I could try to estimate.”
“It’s important on your resume to list the scope of work you have done over the years,” Imes said. “Would that be fair to say?”
“I think it’s important to list examples of the work I’ve done,” LaRock said.
“And so in the criminal world you’ve worked for the Federal Public Defender, the Orange County Public Defender, the Riverside [County] Public Defender and several private defense firms,” said Imes. “Is that correct?”
“That’s a portion of the work I’ve done, yes” said LaRock.
“And has your firm ever been used or utilized by a law enforcement agency?” Imes asked.
“By a law enforcement agency? No,” LaRock said. “Not to my knowledge, at least.”
“Or a prosecutorial office?” Imes added.
“Same answer,” said LaRock.
LaRock’s testimony began late Tuesday and lasted through Wednesday and Thursday. There was no testimony on Monday because Merritt had been routed by the jail system to undergo a medical examination that day.
Early Tuesday Annette Dron, who had been a customer service representative supervisor for QuickBooks in 2010, was called to the witness stand by the defense. Her questioning by Maline was intended to attenuate the damage that had been done to his client by the testimony provided earlier in the trial by one of the QuickBooks customer service representatives Dron supervised, Ryan Baker. Baker had fielded a call from an individual purporting to be Joseph McStay on February 9, 2010, a day after the same individual, whom the prosecution has implied and the defense has all but conceded was Merritt, had made a call to another QuickBooks customer service representative, Sean Augustine, on February 8, 2010. Baker testified the caller had asked to have the account data deleted, which the prosecution maintains was an effort by Merritt to destroy evidence of the checks he had forged. The defense has countered that with suggestions that Merritt was merely acting on Joseph McStay’s desire to move the company’s account information off of QuickBooks’ online system, which McStay was concerned might be hacked by Kavanaugh, onto a more secure desktop program, which Kavanaugh would not be able to get access to. The defense maintains Merritt’s’ interaction with Augustine was a request to obtain the desktop program, known as QuickBooks Pro, and get it up and running and transfer the account data from the online program into it. His call to Augustine thus provided the proper context for the call to Baker and the request made of him, the defense contends.
Maline asked Dron if it was common for people to want to make the transition from the online version of QuickBooks to the desktop version.
“In the beginning people were very nervous about having their data somewhere else, and they were worried maybe someone would hack into it or the data would get deleted or corrupted, and so they would decide they wanted to go to QuickBooks Pro,” Dron said.
“Was it uncommon for somebody that had QuickBooks online to request QuickBooks Pro?” Maline asked.
“No,” said Dron.
“That happened all the time,” Maline said.
“Yes,” said Dron.
“Was it uncommon for a person who did that, who switched from QuickBooks online to QuickBooks Pro, to then cancel their QuickBooks online?” Maline asked.
“Objection, speculation,” Deputy District Attorney Melissa Rodriquez said.
“Overruled,” said Judge Smith.
“Yes,” said Dron.
“And why would that be?” Maline asked. “Why would that be not uncommon?”
“For the same reasons,” Dron said. “Where someone may be cancelling the subscription, they don’t want to pay for the subscription, they want to back up their data. QuickBooks online didn’t have all the features QuickBooks Pro had, so sometimes they found the online version wouldn’t work for them, and they wanted to go back and use something they were more comfortable with. There were many, many reasons.”
“And would customers not only cancel their QuickBooks online subscription, but ask that that information be deleted?” Maline asked.
“Objection, speculation,” protested Rodriguez.
“”Overruled,” Judge Smith said.
“Yes,” Dron answered.
“And why would that be?” Maline asked.
“I don’t remember a whole lot, but it was a pretty common thing,” Dron said. “Most of the time it was because they just didn’t feel comfortable with their data online at that time.”
“And what did you tell Detective [Troy] DuGal about this transaction?” Maline asked, referring to the San Diego County sheriff’s detective who was investigating the disappearance of the McStay family in 2010.
“I couldn’t find anything that was out of the ordinary from the cases I had seen,” said Dron. “It was all normal behavior.”
On cross examination, Rodriguez asked, “When somebody would call into QuickBooks and get information, is it fair to say that only the master administrator could request that the company be deleted?”
“That’s correct,” said Dron.
“And so when somebody called in and gave the telephone number of Joseph McStay and said they were Joseph McStay, was able to provide specific company information, the person receiving that call would essentially take that at face value, right?” asked Rodriguez.
“Correct,” Dron said.“There was a call, then, on the 9th to delete some of the data, right?” Rodriguez asked.
“Correct,” Dron said.
“And you have no way of knowing whether that company had actually been transferred onto a desktop version when that call came in on the 9th, right?” Rodriquez asked.
Don acknowledged that was the case.
“And so if that data had not yet been transferred, would it be a little more unusual to have somebody requesting to delete an entire company without transferring the data?” Rodriguez asked.
“People didn’t always transfer their data and then delete, but it would be more unusual,” Dron said.
Sandwiched between the testimony of Dron and LaRock on Tuesday was that of Sarah Kane, a custodian of records and a law enforcement fulfillment analyst for PayPal.
Kane went through records pertaining to the PayPal accounts of both Joseph McStay and Dan Kavanaugh, consisting of both transaction logs and activity logs relating to those accounts, shedding light on what the data contained in those records demonstrated.
In a seemingly straightforward response to questions being put to her by Maline, Kane, like LaRock would do after she left the stand, brought one of the elements in the case that the prosecution is relying upon to impute Merritt’s guilt into doubt. She confirmed that when Joseph McStay sought to add his wife as a third party to the PayPal account on February 3, 2010 using the Italian-sounding last name Martelli, he had entered it as “summer martelli,” using lowercase letters entirely. This registered with at least some courtroom observers as another indication that the prosecution had overreached in assigning responsibility to Merritt for having written the February 1, February 2, February 4, February 5 and February 8 checks based upon the way in which the payee’s names were left uncapitalized.
Kane’s testimony ran in Merritt’s favor in an even more pointed way, however, in that she advanced, more than LaRock had, the defense’s alternate suspect theory.
During her testimony with regard to both the activity and transaction logs on Joseph McStay’s PayPal account, she explicated how on February 10, 2010, six days after the McStay family’s disappearance, there was a failed log-in attempt on Joseph McStay’s PayPal account. That was followed by the resetting of the password for Joseph McStay’s account, carried out from a device with the 220.127.116.11 IP address, that corresponding to Dan Kavanaugh, on February 12. Thereafter, Joseph McStay’s PayPal account sent an $800 payment to Dan Kavanaugh.
Kane’s testimony appeared to have gotten under Imes’ skin.
In cross examining her, he did not miss the opportunity to suggest that the defense team or its members might have altered evidence Kane had presented in their client’s favor.
“Do you know exactly how these records are prepared?” Imes asked.
“Yes,” said Kane.
“How?” Imes asked.
“We have a series of systems, passive systems, and when we get a request we process it by searching for the item as provided,” Kane said. “So we pull the records, we have to log into the transaction log and put it into the form of an Excel spreadsheet that is provided.”
“You provide some information in a secured PDF, correct?” Imes asked.
“Yes,” Kane said, “the subscriber information, that is provided.”
“But the transaction stuff is sent in a spreadsheet,” said Imes.
“An Excel spreadsheet,” said Kane.
“It’s not protected, is it?” Imes asked.
“When we send it, yes,” said Kane.
“It is?” Imes intoned incredulously. “The ones that were sent – the ones I see here aren’t protected, were they?”
“I do not know,” Kane said.
“So, if I hit delete, I can make transactions disappear,” Imes said, and then hit the delete button on his laptop computer, thereby deleting elements of the spreadsheet that was visible on the courtroom’s viewing monitors.
“You just did,” said Kane.
“Did you or Mr. McGee or Mr. Maline have to enter a password to get into that spreadsheet?” Imes asked.
“No,” Kane said.
“So then it could be altered in some way by anyone, correct?” Imes asked.
“Objection,” McGee protested. “Calls for speculation.”
“Overruled,” said Judge Smith.
“If it’s not password protected, that information could be corrupted, couldn’t it? Imes pressed.
“Potentially,” Kane said.
“Potentially?” said Imes. “Did you have an opportunity to go over line by line, sheet by sheet to make sure the information provided was exactly the same as was found in the exhibit?”
“Yes,” Kane said. “I reviewed all of the records.”
“Well, one is like 600 pages long,” said Imes. “You went through all 600 pages?”
“When I pulled the accounts, I made sure they were there, yeah,” Kane said.
“So you compared every line of transactions and every sheet of every document you sent to make sure they were the same as those that were transmitted by PayPal,” Imes said.
“Not in detail,” said Kane, “but when we pulled from our systems, it has all of the transactions and all of the activity between the dates we request.”
At one point, in a show of the utter disdain he had for the witness, Imes said, “At this point, Your Honor, I move to strike her testimony. She’s an incompetent custodian of records.”
“Overruled,” said Judge Smith.
Present for much of this week’s testimony was Joseph McStay’s mother, Susan Blake. When she was asked her reaction to the evidence and testimony relating to Kavanaugh, Blake told the Sentinel, “I don’t have a statement at this time.”
Hesperia City Councilman Bill Holland has begun to seriously rethink the move he made last July to engineer the appointment of Jeremiah Brosowske to the city council.
With Republican politics, and notably, a particular brand of Republican politics, having grown dominant in Hesperia, Holland’s calculation was he would be solidifying his position as one of the pillars of the community by installing Brosowke onto the council following the death of Mayor Russ Blewett last May. But now that it turns out the new generation of the Grand Old Party’s leadership has different ideas about how things should be run and wants to ease him out the door, Holland is talking counter-revolution.
Last summer, things were different. Holland’s almost blind loyalty to a narrow definition of what is good Republicanism led him to go along with a plan hatched by then-incumbent Councilman Paul Russ to arrange for Jeremiah Brosowske’s elevation to the council.
Brosowske had what a circle of Republicans believed were impeccable GOP credentials.
Homegrown in the Victor Valley, Brosowske graduated from Granite Hills High School in Apple Valley and he enrolled at Victor Valley College, where he was elected to the Associated Student Body Council and Senate, serving in the post of parliamentarian and ultimately rising to the position of ASB vice president. He became thoroughly involved in campus politics at Victor Valley College, including serving as a member of the budget committee and facilities committee. In addition, he served as the student representative on the Victor Valley College Measure JJ Oversight Committee, which was chartered to monitor the expenditure of $297.5 million in general obligation bonds to upgrade, expand, and construct school facilities passed by more than fifty-five percent of Victor Valley’s voters in November 2008.
From there, Brosowske was drawn into what has been a continual life in politics, Republican politics specifically. He became involved in a number of election or reelection campaigns. In 2013, Curt Hagman, who had served on the Chino Hills City Council as both a council member and mayor before garnering election to the California Assembly in 2008, was nearing the end of his allotted six years in the Assembly based on the term limit regulations in place at that time. He orchestrated a silent coup to move then-San Bernardino County Republican Party Chairman Robert Rego out of the county party’s top spot and assume it outright, better positioning himself to make a run for San Bernardino County Fourth District supervisor in 2014. Once he had acceded to the county party chairmanship, Hagman had repeated contact with the then-22-year-old Brosowske, who exhibited an uncommon enthusiasm and energetic intensity in his involvement on behalf of the party. Under Hagman’s tutelage, Brosowske was given one challenging assignment after another, which he dutifully fulfilled, gaining Hagman’s confidence.
Consequently, Hagman hired Brosowske at the age of 23 into the post of executive director of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee. Brosowske, who was referred to by San Bernardino County party loyalists as “a young man with a plan,” sought to demonstrate his value to the party by pushing to staff party headquarters from 9-to-5 on weekdays and to bring in party volunteers to man the office on weekends. He involved himself in eight campaigns for Republican candidates. Hagman credited Brosowske with guiding all eight of those candidates to victory.
While he was in that executive director position in 2016, Brosowske made a political move on his own behalf, seeking election to the Republican Central Committee, upon which there are eight allotted slots representing the First Supervisorial District, eight allotted slots representing the county’s Second District, nine allotted slots representing the county’s Third District, five allotted slots representing the county’s Fourth District and three representing the county’s Fifth District. The county’s First District encompasses a major portion of the county’s desert region. Eleven people ran in that election, including then-Hesperia councilmen Eric Schmidt and Paul Russ, Hesperia Unified School District Board Member Eric Swanson and his wife, Rebekah Swanson. Though Brosowske had considerable experience by that point functioning in political circles, he had little in the way of name recognition among the electorate and he finished eleventh in the race.
Unfazed by his temporary setback at the hands of Republican voters, Brosowske remained loyal to the party. Hagman, as San Bernardino County’s Fourth District Supervisor, offered Brosowske a position with his office as an analyst. Brosowske, who had managed Paul Russ’s successful 2014 campaign for Hesperia City Council, remained active in promoting Republican candidates in local races, including that of Rebekah Swanson for Hesperia City Council in the 2016 race.
Despite Brosowske’s inability to vault electorally into a position on the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee, there was a recognition among a core group in the local GOP that Brosowske possessed the charisma, attitude, perseverant dedication and temperament the party needed in its leadership and elected office holders to offset the increasing gap favoring the Democrats over the Republicans in San Bernardino County in terms of voter registration numbers. Among the Republican Party’s current crop of office holders including Hagman, a consensus had grown that Brosowske should be groomed for higher office, including supervisor, state legislature and Congress.
It was in 2016 that Mountain States Consulting Group emerged onto the San Bernardino County political scene. Without fanfare, the company put the 25-year-old Brosowske to work by contracting with Brosowske’s company, Next Generation Holdings LLC, securing for him his ability to support himself, while leaving him at liberty to pursue his political interests.
Eleven months ago, in May 2018, Hesperia Mayor Russ Blewett died. Rather than hold an election to fill the resulting vacancy or simply leaving the position unfilled until the November election when Blewett’s term was due to expire, the council, after elevating Councilman Bill Holland into the mayor’s position, invited residents of the city to apply for appointment to fill in the council gap.
Brosowske, along with Brigit Bennington, Victoria Dove, Russell Harris, Linda Holder, Robert Nelson, Anthony Rhoades, Veronica Rios and Chester Watts, applied for the council position. The competition was a ruse, as the outcome was predetermined. The fix was in. Brosowske was going to be the new councilman any way it shook out. After making a show of considering the applicants and interviewing all of them except Watts, who was infirm and could not attend, during a specially-scheduled meeting on the evening of July 11 the council voted 3-to-1, with Paul Russ, Bill Holland and Rebekah Swanson prevailing and councilman Larry Bird dissenting, to appoint Brosowske.
Holland, a former law enforcement officer, has a reputation for being somewhat intellectually challenged, slow on the uptake, vulnerable to manipulation by those who flatter him and making a show of embracing those espousing so-called conservative values whether that sentiment is sincere or not. He has a demonstrated history of making wishful interpretations.
The degree to which Holland understood the nature of Brosowske’s relationship to Bill Postmus, Mountain States Consulting Groups’ principal, is unclear.
Postmus, like Brosowske, was the political boy wonder of his day. Having associated himself in the early 1990s when he was then in his early twenties with the likes of then-California Assembly Republican Leader/later California Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte and Assemblywoman Kathleen Honeycutt, Postmus founded with Brad Mitzelfelt and Keith Olberg the High Desert Young Republicans. In 2000 while running as a conservative Christian-and-family-values Republican, Postmus was elected First District Supervisor, representing all of San Bernardino County’s desert communities. At the age of 29, he was the third youngest supervisor to ever serve in San Bernardino County throughout its then-147-year history.
Postmus continued to make a mercurial rise in political and governmental status and stature following his election as supervisor. In 2002, Paul Biane, a slightly older member of Postmus’s generation, was elected supervisor in the county’s Second District. Biane was like Postmus a Republican, and the two quickly formed a firm political alliance.
2004 was a watershed year for Postmus. In addition to being reelected as supervisor, he was chosen from among his peers to serve as chairman of the board of supervisors and was also elevated, as a member of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee to be its chairman. Simultaneously, Biane had likewise been elevated to vice chairman of the board of supervisors and the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee. By virtue of his electoral office and the accumulation of seniority, rank and primacy pursuant to the offices he held combined with his political alliances, Postmus at that point bestrode San Bernardino County like a political colossus. In the summer of 2004 then-President George Bush invited Postmus to be among the select group of Republican Party members sharing the stage with him as he gave his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. As San Bernardino County’s GOP leader, Postmus adhered to a hardcore pro-law enforcement and national defense Republican line, touting fiscal and social conservatism, bemoaning the corrosive influence of liberalism and assailing Democrats at every turn.
In 2005, Postmus in tandem with Biane, orchestrated a power play to consolidate their power, inducing the central committee’s members to assent to surrendering to the central committee’s executive board the power to act, through a majority vote of its members, with the full authority of the central committee. Postmus and Biane then installed as members of the executive board both of themselves and, with a single exception, individuals who were employed by them as members of their county board of supervisors staffs. They thereafter had a complete lock on the San Bernardino County Republican Party apparatus and control of how local party money would be spent, rendering themselves virtual kingmakers.
In 2006, Postmus while he was still in seeming command of San Bernardino County’s political and governmental reins, spent slightly more than $4 million, which still stands as a record for the most money ever spent on a San Bernardino County electoral campaign, in a successful effort to replace the incumbent county assessor, Don Williamson. As assessor, Postmus had become the primary taxing authority in the county, with the discretion to cut landowners and business owners a break on the amount of property and asset taxes they are to pay on their land and equipment/vehicles/factories, by reducing the assessed valuations on that land and assets. For such favors, those large landowners and business owners provided him and candidates he designated with political contributions in return.
Before departing as supervisor to become assessor, Postmus prevailed upon his board colleagues to appoint Brad Mitzelfelt, his chief of staff and one of his closest political associates over the years, to serve out the remaining two years of his term as supervisor.
Less than two years into his term as assessor, there ensued a succession of revelations about Postmus that would dash forever his political prospects. The conservative persona he had exhibited publicly was in actuality diametric to every aspect of his private self. A severely drug addicted homosexual who wantonly engaged in a so-called P & P, or Party and Play, lifestyle, Postmus would on a daily basis troll specialty internet sites for men he had never before met interested in hooking up for one night stands in which they would engage in dawn-to-dusk methamphetamine-fueled sodomy marathons. Postmus’s methamphetamine use was prodigious, involving converting it into a liquefied form and using a syringe to inject it. He also had an affinity for amyl nitrate, as well as huffing, that is, engaging in the inhalation of chemical vapors from such sources as industrial solvents, paint thinner, gasoline, felt-tip markers, nail polish remover, glue, spray paint, aerosol sprays and nitrites, all for their euphoric effect these afforded. Top ranking county officials knew of Postmus’s drug use by his last year as supervisor, but had kept quiet about it, at least in part because of the tremendous authority and power he wielded over them.
Ultimately, after Postmus’s secrets were revealed and it became known that he had hired into high-paying assessor’s office positions no fewer than 13 of his political associates and/or one-time boyfriends who had no experience or expertise in the real estate industry nor skills with regard to property appraisal or taxing policy, he resigned from office. He was criminally prosecuted, pleading guilty to 14 felony public corruption charges. No fewer than eight of his political associates were likewise arrested and charged with various crimes relating to the abuse of the governmental system and violations of public trust growing out of their activities in conjunction with Postmus. Four of those were convicted.
Among the 14 felony political corruption charges Postmus pleaded guilty to were conflict of interest while holding public office, which carried with it his being banned for life from holding political office in California. The sentencing on those charges was postponed while Postmus cooperated with prosecutors in testifying against several of those with whom he had been involved in his depredations. As the trial for several of those was delayed for more than five years, Postmus remained free. Meanwhile, he longed to get back into the political game, but because of his conviction on the political conflict of interest while in office charge, he was unable to do so directly. Instead, he made his way back into politics indirectly, through associations with politicians who were in office or hopefuls intent on gaining election. To them, Postmus would serve as an advisor and spearhead their fundraising efforts, using his knowledge of how those who have a dog in the hunt when it comes to government regulations or government decisions relating to permitting projects or granting licenses are willing to pay money to influence votes. He used Mountain States as a laundering mechanism for them, taking money in from individuals or business entities that anticipated having to get government approval for this or that down the road, and then passing the money along to the office holders running for reelection or challengers seeking office, with the secret proviso that the recipients would take official action while in office that would meet with the original donors’ expectations. At the same time, Postmus involved himself in greasing the skids for speculators and investors looking to get involved in the nascent marijuana industry that was about to launch into the financial stratosphere based upon the 2016 passage of Proposition 64, the California’s Adult Use of Marijuana Act. Postmus embraced the marijuana culture despite the consideration that it was absolutely antithetical to the conservative Christian family values he had propounded when he was an office holder. The money to be realized by jumping on the cannabis bandwagon and the opportunity that money provided to promote the candidates he was working with outran any such moral principles.
After Blewett’s Death, when Russ approached him and Councilwoman Rebekah Swanson with a plan to ensure that Brosowske would get the appointment, Holland, who had been put into the mayor’s post, went along.
On the day when Bennington, Dove, Harris, Holder, Nelson, Rhoades, Rios, Brosowske and Watts were to come before the council for interviews, it was arranged that Brosowske’s interview would be scheduled toward the end of the session. Former Hesperia Mayor and Councilman Bill Jensen, a Russ, Holland and Swanson ally, was present during those interviews, which were conducted such that any of the candidates who had yet to be interviewed were excluded from the room, a precaution ostensibly taken to prevent the candidates from seizing an advantage by either plagiarizing from the competition or using the heads-up to formulate an articulate or eloquent response. After listening to the questions, Jensen then left the council chambers and went out to report to Brosowske the questions being asked, giving him an opportunity to formulate what would sound like contemplative responses to each of those questions. Armed with that advantage, Brosowske came in and knocked ‘em dead, acquitting himself admirably, and providing Holland, Russ and Swanson with cover to do what they were going to do in any event, which was to appoint the 27-year-old to the council.
The appointment conferred on Brosowske the advantage of incumbency, which he used to his advantage in the upcoming November 2018 election, in which the seats to which Holland, Russ and Blewett had been elected or reelected in 2014 were to be contested. 2018 would be the first year in its history that Hesperia would hold district as opposed to citywide elections. As chance – or arrangement – would have it, Holland resides in District 2, which had its council seat up for election that year; Russ is a resident in District 3, which by chance or purpose had its council position up for election in 2018; and Brosowske is a resident of District 4, where a third city council contest was set for 2018. When their campaigns kicked off in July, just after Brosowske’s appointment to the council, the three endorsed each other. As November approached, however, some form of contretemps developed between Brosowske and Holland, and Brosowske withdrew his endorsement. Ultimately, Brosowske and Holland prevailed in their contests, each gaining a berth on the council for four more years. However, Russ, who considered himself to be an ally to both Brosowske and Holland, was turned out of office in the same election. Also in November, Postmus, after more than a seven-year delay, was at last sentenced, garnering a three-year term in state prison. Gone with him was Mountain States Consulting Group, and its ability to serve as a laundering agent for the money flooding into the coffers of local politicians from what many considered to be questionable sources, such as the cannabis industry. Indeed, Brosowske, despite his longtime association with the Republican Party, during the campaign had made clear that he was not opposed to Hesperia participating in the now-materializing marijuana bonanza, and taking part in the revenue stream taxing sales of the substance will produce.
After the election, no rapprochement between Holland and Brosowske took place. In fact, their differences widened. Then, last month, an effort to recall Holland from office materialized. Without citing exactly how it was that he knew, Holland said that Browsowke was behind the effort to remove him from office.
This week Holland doubled down on that assertion, simultaneously representing himself as being on the side of righteousness and virtue, law and order and all that is decent in Hesperia and the world; Browsowske, he said, is a disciple of the devil’s weed and the moral decay cannabis represents. It was true, Holland conceded, that he had been lured into allowing the distribution of medical marijuana in Hesperia, but that was only done out of compassion and with the approval of Blewett, whom Holland practically deified.
With Blewett now ascended into heaven, Holland said, those left on earth must come to terms with the fact that marijuana has its roots in hell. He was deceived, Holland said, when “a series of folks got up and talked about how necessary it was, how meaningful it was to their health and wellbeing. And there was an older couple who got up and spoke about having to drive in the night some fifty or sixty miles to obtain the medical cannabis. I’m a retired law enforcement officer of 31 years. At that point I was staunchly against. But like Mayor Blewett, my mind was changed, and we allowed cannabis deliveries.”
Holland sized up the degree to which the cannabis underworld, which he said includes its political consiglieri Brosowske, has wrapped its tentacles around Hesperia. “I believe there is six locations currently that distribute, and yet I’ve heard from the mayor as well as others in the education field that cannabis at school sites in rampant,” Holland said. “We’ve had several incidents of folks in the application process being bad actors and committing both administrative and criminal violations during the process. It was even an election issue. So, this has gone back and forth, and I met with a gentleman and his wife just before council who asked if there was any possibility of additional licenses coming from the city. I said the only reason that I approved the first and only license type was because I believed then it was medically necessary. However, that is not what is being requested. It’s not what is being pushed for, to be frank.”
It’s a battle of good vs. evil, between those who are virtuous such as himself against those of Brosowske’s ilk, a battle of those who want to ruin their lives and those of others with marijuana and those who will fight it, between those who uphold the law and those who break the law, Holland said. “That’s what this is about,” he said. “I was just served for recall. You might ask why do I make that comment now. I said about a month-and-a-half ago that my fellow council member Jeremiah Brosowske was behind it and I didn’t get proof of that until a couple weeks ago when Jeremiah said in a bar, bragged to several folks, one of which is a person I know well, that not only is he behind the recall, which is contradictory to what he said in that public setting, he has put $20,000 of his own money toward the recall and he’s here to bring the cannabis industry to the City of Hesperia in a big way, in every way possible.”
Holland said he is now Hesperia’s last hope in keeping the city from being consumed by the scourge of dope, and he characterized the fight against his recall as a crusade to prevent infidels like Brosowske from defiling the Holy Land of Hesperia. Divine guidance had led him to say what was true before and he is speaking with the authority of the Gospel now and in league with everything that is good and right about Hesperia, Holland said. “If I remember correctly, that is exactly what I said that night, that this is cannabis-driven, cannabis-related,” Holland said about the move to get him out of office. “I can tell you now: the proof’s in the pudding, folks. I only had that information second-hand. But the gentleman who sat and listened to Jeremiah, who by the way was actually bought a drink by Jeremiah, has written an affidavit to such. He can’t be here tonight, but at a future meeting will read the same.”
Holland’s critics and political opponents have long characterized him as being in the pocket of the development industry, and that he has put the interests of land speculators, contractors, builders and financiers above those of Hesperia’s residents, who have to commute using streets that are overburdened by traffic during rush hour or begin those commutes at the wee hours of the morning to avoid them. Holland, however, set aside any such suggestions, insisting that those who would profit by the sale of marijuana are the true greedy destroyers of the community, seeking to pump poison into the lungs of the populace for thirty pieces of silver, not he or the development community. .
“When an industry believes they [sic] can control a city by controlling the council – and by controlling the city means they control how the city functions – you’ve got a big problem,” Holland said. “You’ve got a council member who during that bragging talked about bringing in his own city manager. There’s no mistaking that our current city manager is also a retired law enforcement officer, as is the assistant city manager. And the cannabis industry views us as a threat. If I’m not mistaken, Mr. Brosowske also claims some if not healthy earnings from the industry in consultation with many of his corporations or subcorps. So, in any event, I will tell you now, officially my position has changed on the cannabis delivery and all cannabis businesses, and from this moment forward I will be a resounding ‘no.’ And in fact, it might just be high time to bring the delivery service issue back before the council, at a future date.”
For the first two years Larry Bird was on the city council, Holland had little use for him, largely because he considered Bird to have been an obstructionist when it came to dealing with developmental issues, particularly Bird’s resistance to increases in the density of residential development. Holland’s political persona as a creature of the building industry consistently left him sharply at odds with Bird and his support network. Last year, when Russ and others were pushing for Brosowke’s inclusion on the council because of the perception that he would be a rubberstamp for the building industry, Holland followed suit. Bird provided the lone vote against elevating Brosowske to the council. At this point, however, Holland finds himself in league with Bird, who through the traditional rotation that takes place in Hesperia, is now the mayor.
“The mayor has termed this really a battle for the soul of Hesperia, not to put too fine a point on it,” Holland said. “You now have a young man who has finagled his way onto the council, fooled a lot of people, but now the light’s shown on him, and it’s going to get bright.”
Noting that Larry Nava, who was one of the candidates who ran against him in the November 2018 election and whom Brosowske has now befriended, served the recall papers on him, Holland said it is clear who the forces lining up against him are.
“This recall petition is simply a battle to change the quorum on this council as was bragged about in a public setting by Mr. Browsowski,” Holland said. “It is strictly geared to allow the cannabis industry to come full force into this city and create what it has already created in Adelanto. If that’s what you wish, then I’d say get behind this, but if not, the choice seems fairly simple. But I challenge you, Mr. Brosowske, to tell me, or tell the audience or tell the public that what I’ve said is untrue.”
Brosowske responded, “I definitely will. It seems like personal insult after personal insult. Mr. Holland’s claims are a little bit unfounded. Number one, I’m not trying to fire our city manager and I think we’ve had dialogue on that. Number two is I’ll make a commitment right here, right now, if Mr. Holland is recalled, during two years I will not make a vote on any cannabis items, because Mr. Holland wants to continuously make this about attacking me, attacking me, attacking me. This isn’t about attacking me. This is Mr. Holland’s personal issue with a developer. An item has been added to the agenda about apartment sizing and him [sic] and this developer went back and forth, back and forth. I have a relationship with that developer, but no different from other electeds who have a good relationship with that developer. So I think it’s unfounded to come up here and say ‘Cannabis. The city’s going to go up in smoke. The soul of the city [will be lost] without me being here.’ I think that’s a politician in a narcissistic way making a comment to make it about themselves [sic]. Cannabis is not my number one issue. I obviously campaigned on that and said I’d be for that, but number one, I think we have to look at how we develop the city, how do we bring the city forward. I think water rights are an important thing that on the council we’ve worked on, trying to get more water rights for the city. I’m not going to sit here and demonize the cannabis industry, though. Some cities in California, a lot of cities, have gotten on board with that. So, I’m not going to go to conferences and say negative things about that. And number two, to say, ‘A bar. You’re in a bar sitting.’ I mean, Bill, I just don’t understand how it’s always a personal attack on me.”
“Jeremiah, do you deny the comments?” Holland asked.
“I never said the comments,” Brosowske said.
“You deny the comments,” Holland said, skeptically.
“Have I put twenty grand toward your recall?” Brosowski asked, rhetorically. “I mean, go look. I advocate you go look for that paper trail, if I put twenty grand in to recall you. I would think a council member would maybe reach out to me and say ‘I want to see. Did you say “Hey, did you say ‘X, Y and Z’?” Instead it’s always this show of ‘Poor me,’ on this dais, and I don’t get that. I mean, if you have issues with me, reach out to me, have a conversation with me. Don’t take it to the dais and continuously whine and complain. I grew up in a household that you didn’t whine and complain. You went out there and you did things. And that’s what I continue to do. I don’t bring up my issues or my frustrations. I go out into the community and I reach out to residents. I go door-to-door in my district still, even after the election’s over, to hear peoples’ concerns. Do I think there’s a divide between City Hall and some of the average residents? Yeah, but I don’t blame that on the city manager. I blame that just as much on the council. You have to go out there and hear peoples’ concerns. And that’s not just Hesperia. I think that’s every government. So, I hope we can kind of work together and not just continuously throw jabs at me. ‘Oh, I heard from such and such. And I heard from such and such.’ I mean, it’s no big secret we haven’t gotten along for a long time, but that was with you doing your theatrics on the dais. ‘Oh I must pull my endorsement from…’ I mean, it’s not me throwing jabs at you in a public setting, so that’s what I’m disappointed in. I would think that the city is a business. I would hope that we could keep all this drama behind the scenes. Realize the city is a business, and we want people to come to Hesperia and businesses to come here. So, again, I hope the council would be mature enough to not continuously say this is all about the cannabis industry.”
Brosowske continued, “Like I said, I’ll commit to a year, maybe two years, if somebody wants to hold me to a year, if Mr. Holland is recalled, of not voting for any cannabis item, because if he’s recalled, that’s not what it’s about. It’s not me running the recall, and you can even ask the proponents of the recall if I’m behind it. I’m not. But I most certainly am going to get behind a candidate if you are so recalled, and I may give money out of my campaign committee to that candidate, because you have continuously blasted me again and again and again instead of trying to work with me. Now, Mr. Bird, on the contrary, has come to me several times and said ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ or tried to find commonality. And I just wish you could do the same thing.”
Recently, Brosowske spoke with the Sentinel. During that exchange he offered some insight on how it is that he has embraced the cannabis industry, in seeming defiance of conservative elements of the GOP.
Brosowske said that marijuana represents a new arena of entrepreneurship in California, and those who do not recognize that and adjust to it will be passed by. He said that despite his strong identification as a Republican, “I’ve always been a libertarian.”
City Manager Andrea Travis-Miller utilized former County Chief Executive Officer Greg Devereuax, who was serving in the capacity of the City of San Bernardino’s management consultant, to assist her in negotiating a legal settlement with the East Valley Water District in 2017, despite the consideration that Devereaux was also working for the water district. A majority of the San Bernardino City Council is intent on citing Miller’s toleration and encouragement of that conflict of interest as the grounds for her termination, the Sentinel has learned.
By firing Travis-Miller for cause, the city will avoid having to pay her the $430,000 she would otherwise have to be paid as a severance under the three-year contract she was provided with when she was hired in August 2017.
At the time of Travis-Miller’s hiring, the council lavishly praised her managerial talent, which was based in a certain measure on her having served in the capacity of San Bernardino’s assistant city manager just prior to that hiring, a stint as Covina’s city manager in 2015 and 2016, more than two years as the executive director of the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments that began in 2013, and seven years as La Mirada city manager from 2001 to 2008. Perhaps most important in the council’s decision to hire her was that she had gone to work for San Bernardino in 2011 as an assistant to then-city manager Charles McNeeley, who in the face of significant and overwhelming financial challenges to the city, in April 2012 resigned. At that point, Travis-Miller was elevated to the position of acting city manager. In tandem with then-finance director Jason Simpson, Travis-Miller made a review of the city’s financial books, the conclusions of which were so startling that the city council in July 2012 resolved to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection on the basis of a 45-page report from Travis-Miller recommending the city do just that. The city did so the following month. Travis-Miller gamely soldiered on as acting city manager, disregarding the negative associations that attended her continuing association with a city in bankruptcy. Travis Miller’s standing as a law school graduate, a member of the California Bar and her practice with the law firm of Manning & Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, Trestor from 2008 until 2011 also stood her in good stead with the council, members of which indicated they believed Travis-Miller had the breadth and depth of experience to handle the city’s top managerial assignment on her own.
Less than two month later, however, Travis-Miller requested and the council granted her permission to hire Greg Devereaux as a management consultant at $10,000 per month through a $120,000 per-year three-year contract with his firm, Worthington Partners, “for consulting services related to strategic planning and organizational development” and to engage in “mentoring employees and council members” by participating in “strategy development discussions… and developing operational goals and objectives and helping us to arrive at performance metrics for departments” during the city’s budget process.
Travis-Miller said she calculated that Devereaux would make “hourly $100 to $120 for about 20 to 25 hours of work per week.”
Devereaux’s hiring raised with many individuals immediate red flags. Her declared need for top-flight managerial assistance to get her arms around the 215,000-population city’s intractable problems was an acknowledgment that the celebration of her managerial expertise at the time of her hiring was a bit overblown. Moreover, Travis-Miller’s stated expectation that Devereaux would be available to devote as much as 20 hours a week to San Bernardino was absolutely unrealistic, given that he at that point had a commitment to remain as a management consultant with the County of San Bernardino through early 2020 for which he was to be paid $91,000 per year, had a consultancy contract with the Ontario International Airport Authority for which he was being paid $240,000 annually, had a consultancy contract with the East Valley Water District, for which he was being paid $120,000 per year, and consulting contracts with at least three other entities at that point.
In April 2016, which was prior to Miller being hired as assistant city manager as well as Devereaux’s departure as San Bernardino County’s chief executive officer, the City of San Bernardino, based upon direction provided to the city attorney the previous month, filed a lawsuit against the East Valley Water District and the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District relating to East Valley’s Sterling Water Recycling Plant project to be built near Indian Springs High School, which the city claimed was beset with major questions and problems. That project was projected upon completion to discharge roughly 6 million gallons of treated wastewater into the local groundwater basin per day. The East Valley Water District was utilizing the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, a regional water wholesaler, to act as the lead agency on the project and carry out the environmental certification by inspecting and ratifying the environmental documents for the undertaking that had to be filed in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act.
Historically and currently, under a joint powers authority formed in 1958, untreated wastewater originating within the jurisdiction of the Highland-based East Valley Water District has been and is treated by the City of San Bernardino at the San Bernardino Municipal Water Department-run Margaret H. Chandler Water Reclamation Plant in San Bernardino, and then the rapid infiltration and extraction tertiary treatment facility in Colton, which is jointly owned by Colton and San Bernardino, but operated by San Bernardino. The purified water is then discharged into the Santa Ana River.
San Bernardino alleged there was no comprehensive cost analysis and total price tag for the Sterling project and the true cost, including the escalation of local water rates, and that the environmental impact report was inadequate in its provision of “substantial evidence or analysis” assuring the project would not substantially degrade water quality in the Bunker Hill Basin and would not harm the Santa Ana River sucker fish. The public health and cost implications of the project were exacerbated, the city claimed, by the absence of a process for “de-salting” groundwater, that is, the removal of nitrates and other untoward contaminants from the water. Moreover, the suit alleged, the project did not take into consideration that the City of San Bernardino, through its water department, had arranged to make water treatment services available to the district, was continuing to make water treatment services available, was about to embark on its own wastewater recycling plant project, the San Bernardino’s Clean Water Factory, to recharge groundwater, and that if East Valley departed from the longstanding arrangement and began treating its own wastewater, then the San Bernardino’s water provider would stand to lose no less than $4.5 million annually for 20 years.
In response, both the Highland-based East Valley Water District and the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District asserted that the $128 million project, which was dubbed the Sterling Natural Resource Center, offered the best future arrangement for water treatment and local groundwater recharging as well as the best protection for ratepayers within the East Valley Water District, the cities of San Bernardino and Highland, and unincorporated San Bernardino County as well as the larger service area of the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District. The two entities in a joint statement called the lawsuit “politically motivated” and expressed “full confidence in our plan and a vision for the Sterling Natural Resource Center.”
In June 2016, San Bernardino followed up with a second lawsuit in which the East Valley Water District was the sole named defendant, alleging the district had violated state law in circumventing the disclosure process in the pubic scoping arrangement for the proposed sewage plant. The city maintained the East Valley Water District was proceeding with the project despite not having licensing or authorization to provide wastewater treatment and disposal services, and that it had neglected to seek that authorization from the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission, which is charged with ascertaining jurisdictional boundaries relating to the provision of infrastructure and public services.
In January 2017, both the East Valley Water District and the San Bernardino Valley Muncipal Water District asked San Diego Superior Court Judge Joel R. Wohlfeil, who was hearing the case against them, to dismiss it. Wohlfeil at that time rejected the motions. But after further hearings and considerations, Wohfeil ruled “The CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) process was adequately undertaken such that the lead agency and the public were reasonably able to analyze the costs and the benefits” of the Sterling Natural Resource Center.
The lawsuit against the East Valley Water District relating to the violation of the process that included excluding the San Bernardino County Local Agency Formation Commission from looking into which entity would most logically be able to carry out the function of regional water purification and groundwater recharge proceeded.
In the fall of 2017, Travis-Miller took up the matter in earnest, looking to find a way to negotiate a settlement that would conceivably involve having the East Valley Water District abandon its plan to complete the Sterling Natural Resource Center and come to an accommodation by which San Bertnardino would continue to provide the regional water treatment service, facilitating the eventual construction of the city’s San Bernardino Clean Water Factory.
Travis Miller, however, turned to Devereaux to assist her in the negotiations with East Valley Water District. Either ignoring the consideration that Devereaux was also working for East Valley or perhaps hoping that he would use his influence with East Valley to craft a settlement that was favorable to the city, Devereaux drove the settlement negotiations toward an outcome that included East Valley simply being able to walk away from the 1958 joint powers agreement and no longer be required to use San Bernadino’s water reclamation services. San Bernardino would simply accept the loss of the $4 million in revenue it previously previously realized in the contractual deal with East Valley, but would be in some measure recompensed by the San Bernardino Valley Water District, which is the water wholesaler for the cities and communities of San Bernardino, Colton, Loma Linda, Redlands, Rialto, Bloomington, Highland, East Highland, Mentone, Grand Terrace and Yucaipa. Under the deal, the San Bernardino Valley Water District agreed to deliver 3,000 acre-feet of state water project water annually to San Bernardino for a period of 10 years, which is estimated to save the city at least $450,00 and perhaps as much as $600,000 over the next decade. East Valley also agreed to convey to the City of San Bernardino ownership of 22 acres it owns at the intersection of Sterling and Third streets near San Bernardino International Airport which was previously purchased for but never used as a new district headquarters site, for the city to develop as it sees fit. That property is hamstrung by contamination issues relating to fuel, solvent and other chemical spillages near the property while it was in use as an Army Air Corps and later Air Force base.
San Bernardino is to pay East Valley $8 million that the city over the years has collected from East Valley’s customers, under the terms of the joint powers authority agreement, for the future expansion of a large sewer line, contingent upon development in East Valley’s jurisdiction.
The City of San Bernardino also agreed to divert 3 billion gallons of water annually, which is used for regional recharge of the Santa Ana River and which could be marketed for as much as $8 million, to the Bunker Hill basin.
Over the last year of former Mayor Carey Davis’s tenure, a degree of dissatisfaction with Travis-Miller’s performance as city manager had developed on the council, though the level of discontent never reached anything approaching the needed four votes among the council’s seven members to put her job in jeopardy. With the November 2018 election, Valdivia displaced Davis and two of Valdivia’s allies – his cousin Ted Sanchez in Ward One and Sandra Ibarra in Ward Two – acceded to the council. While as mayor Valdivia has no direct vote, he can break ties or veto items that are passed by a three-to-two or four-to-three margin. Valdivia, when he was yet serving on the council in Ward Three, had gravitated toward a dislike of Travis-Miller. As mayor he is now gunning to oust her. With the support of Ibarra, Sanchez and Valdivia’s other council ally, Councilwoman Bessine Richard, placing Travis-Miller on administrative leave was effectuated last month when Valdivia voted to break a tie over the issue after councilmen Henry Nickel, Jim Mulvihill and Fred Shorett voted in closed session to keep Travis-Miller in place.
The current council is one member short, as Valdivia’s vacancy in Ward Three has not been filled. Valdivia’s ally, Juan Figueroa, has outspent his opponent, treasure Ortiz, in the mail-in ballot race, which is to conclude on May 7, to choose Valdivia’s Third Ward replacement. If Figueroa prevails, four solid votes to cashier Travis-Miller will be in place. The only issue is that she will be due another 15 months of her salary and benefits if she is set free before her contract expires in August 2020. The only way that payout can be avoided if she is fired is to make her departure one that was done for a stated reason.
Accordingly, the council contingent Valdivia heads has refocused its attention to something observers had picked up on in December 2017, when the settlement with the East Valley Water District was forged. While Travis-Miller’s insisted at the time “We need to get along with people who are our neighbors,” there was the perception that the settlement was in no way a good deal for the City of San Bernardino. Through the litigation, San Bernardino had already raised issues that convinced the state to begin withdrawing funding for the Sterling project, including a $15 million water recycling grant. San Bernardino, with its existing water treatment facility in place and the joint powers authority mandate, possessed leverage the water district simply did not. That Travis-Miller allowed Devereaux, whose loyalty to San Bernardino was compromised by his contractual relationship with East Valley, to take part in the negotiations now forms the basis for terminating Travis-Miller with cause, the Valdivia-aligned contingent on the council believes.
Steve Peltier, the City of Adelanto’s community safety manager, returned to work Monday for the first time since he was placed on paid administrative leave in February.
Peltier’s reinstatement to full duty came after investigators detailed to look into allegations leveled by Development Services Director Charles Rangel that Peltier had run afoul of city procedures and had engaged in activity that resulted in a hostile work environment impacting other city employees were unable to sustain the reports.
Peltier’s rivals had sought to exploit an incident in which Peltier had jostled a chair that had been displaced among other pieces of furniture from the code enforcement division in compliance with Rangel’s order to locate different divisions of the community services department in close proximity to one another. The rearranging of the furniture had taken place without Peltier having been informed beforehand it would take place.
The loud report and commotion of the chair being bounced about had startled another employee. Investigators determined that Peltier’s reaction, while ill-advised, was not a violation, per se, of any city rules or regulations.
It was also alleged that Peltier had engaged in intimidating behavior by glaring at another employee and engaging in some indistinct verbalization that was construed as a threat. When the individual against whom this was alleged to have been directed was either unwilling or unable to confirm the incident, the investigators had nothing upon which to proceed, and the matter was dropped.
There is a backstory to the circumstance involving Peltier.
Peltier was employed with the city for nearly seven years when in November 2014, a clean sweep of the incumbents up for election that year – then-Mayor Cari Thomas, and councilmen Charles Valvo and Steve Baisden – was effectuated with the respective victories of Rich Kerr, John Woodard and Charles Glasper. Shortly after they moved into office, both Kerr and Woodard joined forces with incumbent Councilman Jermaine Wright in an effort to reverse the city’s longstanding ban, which was identical to 22 of San Bernardino County’s other 23 cities, preventing entrepreneurs from invoking the provisions of 1996’s Proposition 225 The Compassionate Use of Marijuana Act to set up medical marijuana dispensaries or clinics in the city. Asserting the city stood to reverse its financial problems by getting in on the ground floor of California’s liberalization with regard to the use of marijuana for both medical and intoxicative purposes, Kerr, Woodard and Wright passed an ordinance to allow a set number of marijuana cultivation operations in the city’s industrial park district. Over the next three years, a multitude of city employees, including former City Manager Jim Hart, former City Engineer/Public Works Director/interim City Manager Tom Thornton, Senior Management Analyst Mike Borja, Conservation Specialist Belen Cordero and Public Works Superintendent Nan Moore, former City Clerk/City Manager Cindy Herrera, former City Manager Gabriel Elliott, former City Attorney Todd Litfin, former City Attorney Julia Sylva, former City Attorney Curtis Wright, former interim City Manager Brad Letner, former contract City Engineer Wilson So; former Assistant City Engineer Aaron Mower; former Senior Planner Mark De Manincor; former information technology division employees Ben Pina, Ibriham Abudluld and Adam Watkins, and a former public works employee, Jose Figueroa, left of their own volition, were forced or persuaded to leave or were outright fired as the troika of Kerr, Woodard and Wright pursued an even more aggressive program of bringing in cannabis-related businesses of all stripe – including cultivators, wholesalers, retailers and product manufacturers into the city. As cannabis-related business applicants lined up at the planning counter in City Hall, many of them toting briefcases full of cash, questions began to emerge about exactly how and why top ranking city officials were pushing the agenda so hard, including waiving fees and certain regulations relating to the businesses. Word was spreading that several city officials were on the take, including Kerr, Woodard and Wright, along with Jessie Flores, the contract economic developer the city had hired to facilitate the marijuanficatioin of Adelanto. Many found confirmation of those rumors when Wright was arrested by the FBI in November 2017 and charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with taking a bribe from an undercover FBI agent posing as a marijuana distribution business applicant in exchange for a promise to protect the applicant from city regulators.
Unchastened by what had befallen their council colleague, Kerr and Woodard pressed on with their mission of licensing and permitting as many cannabis-related operations within the city as possible, ultimately promoting Flores to the position of city manager, and installing Rangel as development services director, confident both would carry our their directives.
Meanwhile, Peltier defied orders to have the city’s code enforcement division stand down in its enforcement of the city’s codes pertaining to cannabis-related enterprises and carry out only token inspections of those businesses. In response, Kerr, Woodard, Flores and Joy Jeannette, who was elected to the council with the financial assistance from cannabis-related business applicants in the special election held in June 2018 to replace Jermaine Wright, brought in the contract firm of JAS Pacific to carry out several key municipal operations with the actual intention of shuttering the city’s code enforcement department and having JAS take on that function, and laying Peltier off.
Ultimately, however, in a development reminiscent of what had happened four years previously, a complete changeover on the city council was made pursuant to the 2018 election, with Glasper, who is in the early throes of dementia, having been convinced to forego seeking election, and Kerr and Woodard turned out by the voters.
In the aftermath of the installation of the new council, which included Mayor Gabriel Reyes and councilmembers Stevevonna Evans and Gerardo Hernandez, the advocates of staying the course with regard to transforming Adelanto into the cannabis capital of California are counting upon Flores and Rangel being able to remain in place to facilitate the establishment of more than 80 marijuana related businesses.
For them, Peltier represents a threat on several levels. His encouragement of the officers serving below him to assiduously enforce the city’s codes with regard to cannabis businesses would end the free ride many of those applicants had come to rely upon in the hope they could establish their businesses on the cheap without having to go to the expense of coming into full and actual compliance with the city’s codes. Having Peltier in place carries with it the danger that he or his officers will take note of actual incidents of bribery that have occurred in conjunction with the applications for those business licenses. Peltier also represents a threat against the continuing tenure of Flores, who on more than one occasion has played fast and loose with the rules. Flores remaining in place is considered crucial to the concept of completing Adelanto’s transition to a marijuana-based economy.
As Peltier has defied the efforts to remove him and he has withstood the shots taken at him over and over, he has grown ever stronger. Reports now are that the cannabis industry has settled on seeking to filter money to the city’s current political leadership as part of an effort to get a majority of the council to replicate the atmospherics that existed under the Kerr-led council. Some have interpreted a proposal by Councilwoman Evans to form as a division at City Hall what is to be called the cannabis department, which is to be overseen by Rangel, as yet another effort to maneuver around Peltier’s dogged insistence on integrity in the application of the city’s codes.
Observers believe the way in which the lines of authority will be laid out if that proposal goes forward will be an indication if rumors circulating in the city to the effect that graft has seeped its way into the current council is true, the litmus test being whether Rangel will be allowed, or ordered, to exclude Peltier from participating in the future enforcement of the city’s codes relating to and inspections of cannabis-related businesses.
Fontana’s March 12 approval of the West Valley Logistics Center, a 3.4 million-square-foot complex at the city’s extreme southeastern corner, has resulted in San Bernardino County and a coalition of environmental groups filing two separate lawsuits against the 212,000-population city and its political leadership.
For many of the reasons proponents touted the massive warehouse complex as a boon to the city, the project’s opponents found it to be antithetical to the interests of those upon whom it will have the most direct impact: residents of the unincorporated community of Bloomington and city of Jurupa Valley, which lies south of the San Bernardino County border with Riverside County.
The West Valley Logistics Center is to entail seven high cube warehouses for a total space of 3.4 million square feet, to be built within the West Valley Logistics Center Specific Plan Project Area, bounded on the north by a Southern California Edison (SCE) Utility Corridor, on the west by the Jurupa Hills, on the south by residential properties within the City of Jurupa Valley, and on the east by residential uses within Bloomington.
The project applicant, Red Rock Development, obtained a recommendation on the project from the planning commission on January 15 by a vote of 4-to-1, with Commissioner Laura Vasquez dissenting. The commission’s majority voted counter to planning staff’s call for the project to be rejected.
At the council level, the project was approved by a 3-to-1 margin, with Mayor Acquanetta Warren and her council allies, Jesse Armendarez and Phillip Cothran, Jr., supporting it. The project was opposed by Councilman Jesse Sandoval. The project would have been supported by Councilman John Roberts, another Warren political ally, but he recused himself because he owns property within a stone’s throw of the project.
Either by coincidence or prearrangement, the separately filed lawsuits were lodged on Friday, April 12, one month to the day after the project was approved. Both suits accuse Fontana of running roughshod over state environmental laws in its approval of the project.
The project upon completion will result in some 6,000 daily vehicle trips or more through the immediate area, with a significant number of those entailing delivery by means of heavy trucks, resulting in even greater air pollution, noise and traffic than those living in the area are already subject to. This impact is a primary issue taken up in the lawsuits, one of which was filed by San Bernardino County and the other by a coalition of the Center for Biological Diversity, The Sierra Club and The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice.
The county’s suit deals in the main with land use issues, zoning and use compatibility and the intensity of use, while the environmental groups’ suit broadens to include impacts of the project that go beyond how it will affect residents to include harm to both fauna and flora in the area and their habitat.
In the seven-year time frame during which the project has been under discussion and on the drawing boards, county officials, including those at the administrative, legal and land use levels, had contact with both the project proponent and the City of Fontana, which included discussion about scaling the project down and limiting the truck traffic that would burden the district’s streets, according to the county’s suit. The city made no tangible response to the overtures to lessen the impacts, according to the county.
In addition, the county, which is represented by the law firm of Meyers Nave, also claims Fontana violated the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state’s open meeting statute by “undisclosed revisions to the project’s development agreement prior to the city council meeting.” Also, the city failed “to provide adequate notification to the general public of these substantial revisions before considering and approving the project,” according to the lawsuit.
The county wants the court to direct Fontana to rescind or otherwise vacate its approval of the project and undertake an adequate environmental impact report, subject to the California Environmental Act.
County officials indicated they felt it regrettable that legal action against another governmental entity had to be taken, explaining that the decision was necessitated by the extremity of the situation brought on by the City of Fontana’s intransigence. “The county considers litigation filed against another public agency, especially a neighboring city, as something to be avoided unless all other options have been exhausted,” according to a statement from the county.
According to the environmental groups, the city paid no heed to the harm the project represents to critical habitat for the coastal California gnatcatcher, an imperiled bird, and destruction it will do to a wildlife corridor along which animals indigenous to the area move between the Jurupa Hills and Rattlesnake Mountain, two of the last remaining refuges for animals increasingly encircled by a hostile urban environment. The city was equally disregardful of the health risks to humans associated with the project, the coalition’s suit propounds.
“The cities of Bloomington and Fontana continue to face the onslaught of diesel emissions brought forth by warehouse development, causing residents to contract asthma, respiratory illness, heart disease and birth defects,” said Andrea Vidaurre, a policy analyst at the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. Vidaure said it was “unconscionable that the city is adding to the pollution burden for this community in order to line the pockets of a developer.”
Fontana offered no reaction to the suit. Last week the council made a further refinement of the plans for the West Valley Logistics Center, relating to seven warehouses to go onto 290 acres.
According to real estate industry analysts, despite the sharply escalating square-footage of warehouse space in the Inland Empire, the demand for that space is increasing. Some local politicians, such as Fontana Mayor Acquanetta Warren, advocate meeting the demand for ever more warehouse space, maintaining this is boosting the economy. Others have disputed that claim, pointing out that employment opportunities in the warehouse industry carry with them low pay. They say by continuing to cater to those building warehouses, local politicians are turning the Inland Empire into a magnet for the underpaid, creating a class of citizens working full time who are yet living below the poverty level, requiring that they and their families’ incomes be augmented with social services paid for by taxpayers. This class of residents, those critical of warehouse construction contend, has created a population base with virtually no disposable income and very little purchasing power, which is causing the local economy to stagnate. For politicians like Warren, however, such differences and debate are irrelevant, as she, as is typical of other local politicians, has accrued a campaign war chest exceeding $300,000, which has rendered her virtually invulnerable at the polls. Much of that money has come from those interested in further warehouse development. The sobriquet “Warehouse Warren” has been applied to her, disdainfully by those who coined the name and are most likely to use it. Warren, however, considers the label to be one of accomplishment and advantage, as it signals to those wishing to develop warehouses that her votes for them can be counted upon, which brings in for her ever more money in terms of political donations.
Status hearings on the case brought against Fontana by the environmental groups are set to be heard on June 12 in Department S-23 in San Bernardino Superior Court and on June 17 in Department S-26 in San Bernardino Superior Court. A status hearing on the case brought against Fontana by the county is set to be heard on June 11 in Department 26.