By Mark Gutglueck
Nearly five years after Cal State San Bernardino Kinesiology Professor Stephen Kinzey was charged with running a methamphetamine distribution ring, he accepted the terms of a plea bargain in which he pleaded no contest to two felonies in exchange for no prison time, three years probation and $140 in fines. Eight other felony charges against him were dismissed.
The resolution of the case with what translates into the imposition of no actual jail time on Kinzey or his moll, Holly Vandergrift Robinson, would have appeared to be unthinkable when the case first broke in the summer of 2011, when Kinzey seemingly eluded a methodically cinched up dragnet and was deemed by law enforcement officers to be an at-large fugitive considered to be armed and dangerous. His likeness was distributed to national and international police forces, and there was a widespread expectation that he would not be taken into custody alive.
And indeed, Kinzey was never apprehended or taken into custody. Rather, in August 2011 when law enforcement officers began rolling up the individuals in his immediate orbit known or suspected of involvement in drug trafficking and descended on Kinzey’s upscale East Highlands Ranch Spanish-style home, they nabbed Robinson and found a pound of methampetamine, loaded handguns and rifles and Kinzey’s personal effects. But Kinzey slipped the grasp of the agents who had been monitoring him so closely and avoided arrest. A few weeks later, while an international manhunt covering all four corners of the globe was yet ongoing, Kinzey quietly walked into court with his lawyer to surrender, posted $300,000 bond and was released without being arrested, booked, photographed or fingerprinted. Thereafter, the warrant for his arrest was rescinded, and Kinzey for the next 58 months, with the exception of having to make a series of court appearances during which the case against him and the remaining defendants was continuously postponed, he was free to roam around at will.
From shortly after the warrant for his arrest was issued, Kinzey became the focus of widespread attention. A tenured professor of kinesiology at Cal State San Bernardino, Kinzey stood accused of being the kingpin of a methamphetamine manufacturing and distribution ring, not of merely being a functionary within a criminal enterprise but rather the brains behind it.
He was charged with ten felonies, including possession of a controlled substance for sale, being armed with a firearm in the commission of a health and safety code offense, receiving property known to be stolen, participating in a criminal street gang, engaging in a conspiracy to commit a crime, engaging in street gang terrorism, possession of a loaded firearm, a second act of street gang terrorism, conversion of illicit profits, and a third count of street gang terrorism.
Ten other individuals, including Robinson who was described as Kinzey’s live-in girlfriend, were arrested in connection with the case. The remaining nine were Jeremy Disney, Eric Cortez, Edward Freer, Chelsea Marie Johnson, Hans Preszler, Elaine Flores, Wendi Lee Witherell, Christopher Allen Rikerd, and Stephenie Danielle Padilla.
In relatively short order, seven of those charged with Kinzey pleaded guilty to elements of the criminal case brought against them. Witherell pleaded guilty September 2011 to reduced charges. Flores, Padilla, Johnson, and Cortez all pleaded guilty in October 2011 to reduced charges. Freer and Rikerd pleaded guilty to reduced charges in November 2011.
Preszler, who along with Kinzey, Robinson and Disney maintained his innocence for 22 months after the arrests, in June 2013 pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit a crime.
Disney was charged with drug dealing, running a street gang and possessing illegal firearms. Robinson, a former Cal State San Bernardino student, was accused of helping Kinzey run a handful of meth dealing operations in what law enforcement officials saw as a small-time enterprise that was on the verge of expanding. According to investigators and prosecutors, quantities of methamphetamine, believed to be in the pound to kilogram range, would be provided to drug dealers from the home that Kinzey and Robinson shared in a quiet and relatively upscale neighborhood in Highland.
Kinzey, now 50, has a PH.D in kinesiology from the University of Toledo, and previously earned his master’s degree at Indiana State and his bachelor’s degree at Wayne State. He began teaching at the University of Mississippi in 1995 and transferred into the California State University system in 2001 and eventually became the chairman of the San Bernardino campus’s kinesiology department’s curriculum committee.
It was another of of Kinzey’s avocations – his immersion in the world of outlaw motorcycle gangs – that made the already noteworthy circumstance of a college professor being involved in the illicit drug trade even more sensational. Kinzey had an interest in, bordering on an obsession with, motorcycling and motorcycle clubs. A Harley-Davidson owner, Kinzey joined a local chapter of the Boozefighters Motorcycle Club while he was a professor in Mississippi in 1997.
After coming to San Bernardino County, the birthplace of three of what are referred to as outlaw biker gangs – the Hells Angels, the Vagos and the Devils Diciples – Kinzey intensified his biker club associations. Kinzey started two local motorcycle clubs in Southern California while he was teaching at San Bernardino State. Curiously, his status with each of the clubs he founded eroded and it appears he was forced out of both.
In time, Kinzey moved on to form a new chapter of the Devils Diciples, a biker gang that originated in Fontana in 1967 but which now has its national headquarters in Detroit. Kinzey formed a San Bernardino Mountain chapter of the club and until his arrest was actively promoting the affiliation, selling Devils Diciples shirts, helmets and rider paraphernalia from a website.
Taken at face value, the statements of law enforcement representatives with regard to Kinzey’s activities and the case as a whole signaled a seriousness that in time was belied by the seeming nonchalance with which prosecutors proceeded. The case, prosecuted by deputy district attorney Jill Gregory, seemed to languish as the proceedings against Kinzey, Robinson and Disney were postponed or delayed on eleven occasions, with the pre-preliminary and preliminary proceedings, where the prosecutors office would need to present enough information to convince a judge to bind the defendants over for trial but which would also offer the defense an opportunity to question witnesses and examine the nature of the case and get the prosecution to commit to a narrative that would potentially prove problematic for it when the case went to trial, never taking place.
The prosecution was hampered, it appeared, by the consideration that the defendants who had pleaded out and agreed to turn state’s evidence – Cortez, Freer, Johnson, Preszler, Flores, Witherell, Rikerd and Padilla – were not close enough to Kinzey to provide enough damning information about his activities to ensure his conviction. And the three remaining defendants – Kinzey, Robinson and Disney – were sophisticated enough to not turn on one another, which would have allowed the prosecution to exploit Robinson and Disney in getting them to cooperate in making a case against Kinzey. Ultimately, that united front resulted in what appears to have been a very favorable outcome for all three.
Kinzey, represented by attorney James Glick, on July 22 before Judge Collin Bilash pleaded no contest to PC 182, conspiracy to commit a crime, and PC 12022C, being armed with a firearm during a Health and Safety Code offense. The remaining counts – possession of a controlled substance for sale, receiving stolen property, participating in a criminal street gang, three of engaging in street gang terrorism, possession of a loaded firearm, and conversion of illicit profits – were all stricken or dismissed as a consequence of the plea deal. Kinzey was given a one day jail sentence, with his appearance in court to turn himself in and arrange bail being deemed a day in confinement for which he was given credit, meaning he will need to serve no jail time. He was fined $70 for each of his two convictions and given three years’ probation.
Robinson, represented by attorney Stephen Sweigert, pleaded guilty to the same two counts as had Kinzey, and was given the same one day sentence, a $70 fine for each of the two convictions, provided one day credit for time served on her incarceration in 2011 prior to being bailed out, such that she will serve no prison time. She was given three years of felony probation.
Disney, represented by attorney Ann Cunningham, pleaded no contest to PC 182, conspiracy to commit a crime, and no contest to one count of PC 186.22B, engaging in street gang terrorism. Pursuant to the plea deal, possession of a controlled substance for sale, another count of engaging in street gang terrorism and conversion of illicit profits were dismissed. The prosecution also forsook four counts of PC 667.5B, relating to having engaged in criminal activity after having served a prior prison term, and abandoned pursuing a requirement that he register as a drug offender. Disney was given a six month sentence at Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center in Devore, against which he was credited with having already served 45 days in confinement. He is to begin serving the balance of his sentence at noon on August 19, and is eligible for a weekend/work release program. He was given three years felony probation.
The lenient sentencing of Kinzey, after the nearly incendiary buildup of the case when it was first filed, is extraordinary, explicable perhaps by speculative assumptions that Kinzey and Robinson have agreed to cooperate with federal authorities in efforts to shut down the Devil’s Diciples criminal enterprise.
Prosecutors were in possession of information to indicate Kinzey, who went by his outlaw biker moniker “Skinz,” was acting as a prime mover in the effort to traffic in substantial amounts of methamphetamine. There was intense surveillance around Kinzey in the six months prior to the arrest warrants being issued in August 2011, and virtually every move he made was observed or word he uttered was overhead in the final three months of that period.
As the president of the local chapter of the Devils Diciples, Kinzey administered a website that was utilized to promote the club. Agents analyzed the postings to and from the website Kinzey controlled and took particular interest in purchases made, ostensibly for Devils Diciples t-shirts and other regalia, utilizing the website or e-Bay, with law enforcement officials seeking to determine if the sales masked or signaled drug buys or pick-ups.
Agents also shadowed Kinzey during his occasional meetings with Devil’s Diciples members when those confabs took place in public, including ones that took place at Chad’s Place, a bar in Big Bear frequented by bikers of all stripes.
Investigators obtained warrants to listen in to conversations or overlook text messages involving the ring’s members. Several of those communications piqued officers’ attention, giving them leads on Kinzey’s suspected network of drug distributors. For example, one text message sent to a suspected distributor read: “Bring whatever cabbage u got for my soup cuz ingredients are low.”
With the conclusion of the case without a trial or even a preliminary hearing, a window on a long-asked question that has hovered over the case since it became public is unlikely to ever be answered. That question pertains to whether the case was developed organically by local law enforcement or actually originated at the federal level. Phrased somewhat differently, there is a mystery as whether investigators worked the case from the ground up or the top down. Of significance is whether local investigators came across indications of drug dealing activity at the street level and traced that activity up the ladder, ultimately reaching Kinzey or whether an investigation at the national level that had as its overarching target the alleged network of drug manufacturers and distributors working in conjunction with organizations such as the Devils Diciples came across Kinzey as investigators, in this case those with the FBI and DEA, worked their way down the chain of command or geographically across the country to California.
Federal authorities might consider information Kinzey has to provide as valuable enough to justify having local authorities, in this case the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office, cut him a break to induce him into cooperating with them and ensure his cooperation. The FBI and U.S. Justice Department and other law enforcement agencies have been striving, for some time, to make drug trafficking cases against the Devils Diciples. Federal Prosecutors in 2009 charged the club’s national president, Jeff Garvin “Fat Dog” Smith and 17 other Diciples members with drug trafficking, but then dropped the case six months later. In July 2012, 41 members and associates of the Devils Diciples, including Fat Dog Smith and national vice president Paul Anthony Darrah, were indicted on a variety of criminal charges, including racketeering, drug trafficking, illegal firearms offenses, obstruction of justice, illegal gambling, and other federal offenses. Eighteen of the defendants, including Smith and Darrah, were charged with violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.
What is known is that in San Bernardino County, the prosecutor on the case, deputy district attorney Jill Gregory, had not been given the autonomy to conclude such a high profile matter without some consultation with district attorney Mike Ramos. As elected district attorney, Ramos ultimately would have had veto power over the dismissal of the eight charges against Kinzey as well as the district attorney’s office’s acquiescence in such a minuscule sentence as was laid out in the plea bargain.
Gregory was not available over the weekend.
Neither Glick nor Sweigert returned phone calls left on answering machines at their offices by the time this article was posted.