By Mark Gutglueck
After eight-and-a-half years as San Bernardino County sheriff, John McMahon today announced his retirement effective July 16, a bit less than a year-and-a-half before the term he was last elected to in 2018 is set to expire in January 2023. McMahon will be the third consecutive San Bernardino County sheriff to end his elected tenure as sheriff prematurely.
There are varied perspectives on McMahon and his performance as sheriff.
Indeed, McMahon has been a study in contrasts.
Low key or relatively so in terms of personality, he was sheriff when the department was put to the test with several high profile events or cases, including one quite early in his tenure that originated elsewhere before spilling over into San Bernardino County, proving to be among most intensive and dramatic showcases of law enforcement action in American history.
As sheriff in San Bernardino County, the largest such jurisdiction in the lower 48 states spread over a 20,105-square mile territory larger than Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut and New Jersey combined, McMahon held by default the most powerful political post in the region, one which former sheriffs had exploited to make themselves virtual kingmakers in decades past, influencing with what was seemingly a mere flick of their wrists who was elected to Congress, the state legislature, the board of supervisors, district attorney or various city councils. Yet for most of his time as sheriff, McMahon was unwilling to get directly involved politically other than in a few notable cases where his personal acquaintances living in the desert community were running for municipal office, where funding directly or indirectly to his department was involved or in assisting Republicans or others with whom he had established a bond were seeking elected office.
At various times, in the evolving social context of the Third Millennium, with seemingly ubiquitous cameras and personal communication devices capable of video and audio recording all playing against the backdrop of burgeoning and multiplying social media platforms that make containing revelations about the untoward behavior of law enforcement personnel impossible to contain, the transgressions of a significant number of the officers under McMahon’s command came to light, dimming the reputation of his department. Nevertheless, in at least a handful of cases, when misdeeds by some department personnel came to light, McMahon acted forthrightly by straightforwardly firing or dismissing those deputies instead of reflexively and blindly moving to protect them as had been the department’s wont in the past.
John Patrick McMahon was born on December 7, 1963 in Arcadia. His parents moved to the High Desert and in 1982, he graduated from Apple Valley High School. He immediately went to work as a truck driver, obtaining his commercial vehicle driver license within three months after graduating. He enrolled at Victor Valley College, where over the next three years he earned an associate of science degree in administration of justice. Among the courses he took early on in obtaining that degree was one in traffic enforcement in 1983, which dovetailed with his job as a truck driver. In 1985, he enrolled at and completed the 720 hours of training at the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Academy.
Upon graduating from the academy, he was hired by then-Sheriff Floyd Tidwell and put to work as a jailer at the Needles Sheriff Station. He remained in that assignment for two years.
McMahon had an interest in transportation issues, and relatively early in his law enforcement career much of McMahon’s focus was on the elements of traffic patrol, control and safety. He took special interest in the traffic accident investigation course at the academy and he returned to Victor Valley College in 1990 for a 40-hour course in skidmark analysis, and that same year was detailed to the sheriff’s academy where he served as a driving instructor. In 1991 he immersed himself in vector sum analysis in studying traffic accident reconstruction while attending an 80-hour course in that discipline at the University of North Florida before attending a conference on railroad collisions in Reno that same year. He became an expert certified with regard to vehicle occupant kinematics, passenger restraint systems and boating collisions and safety by 1992. In the same timeframe he received further training at the sheriff’s academy with regard to drug influence and recognition. In 1993, he was given 400 hours of training to serve as a field training officer, another 56 hours instruction on specific officer training and then 32 hours on leadership and supervision.
At various conferences and seminars in California, Arizona, Nevada, Texas and Florida, he obtained a level of expertise and/or certification in headlight and taillight examination, collision damage analysis, critical speed accuracy/work zone accidents, accident reconstruction, bicycle/pedestrian accident reconstruction, the application of physics for accident reconstruction, low speed rear end collision analysis, low speed impact dynamics, low speed staged collisions, and motorcycle collisions.
Meanwhile, McMahon served as a deputy in the patrol division in Victorville from 1987 to 1989 and then the traffic division in Victorville from 1988 to 1989, the patrol division in Hesperia in 1989 and the traffic division in Hesperia from 1989 to 1991. In 1991, he returned to Needles as a field training officer, leaving that assignment to go to Victorville to become a field training officer in the Victorville traffic division in 1993.
Paralleling this, he was a member of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Major Accident Investigation Team for the High Desert Area from 1990 to 1998.
Beginning in 1992 McMahon moonlighted as an associate for Collision Consultants, Inc., a position outside the department. In that capacity, over the years he consulted for Carl Warren & Co, Adjusters, Farmers Insurance, Wawanesa Insurance, Western United Insurance and the 21st Century Insurance Company.
While engaged in the study of and experimentation with regard to low speed collisions and staged collisions, vehicle crush measurements, sudden vehicle acceleration, determining accident causation and biomechanics, McMahon participated and witnessed over 70 low speed collisions in which vehicles were occupied by test subjects, and was personally the test subject in 20 experimentally staged collisions.
In November 1994, in the last stage of Sheriff Dick Williams’ tenure at the head of the sheriff’s department and while Gary Penrod was the de facto leader of the department as sheriff-elect, McMahon was promoted to sergeant and assigned to the West Valley Detention Center, where he remained until August of 1995. He then was a supervisory sergeant at the Glen Helen Rehabilitation Center in Devore until June 1996. Subsequently, he was assigned to the Victorville Station, which billet lasted 15 months until September of 1997. His last seven months as a sergeant were spent with the department’s employee services division, whereupon in April 1998 Penrod promoted him to lieutenant.
McMahon also found time to obtain a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice management from Union University.
McMahon’s first assignment as a lieutenant at the department’s regional training center lasted three years and three months, until July 2001. Thereafter, Penrod assigned him to the Fontana Station, where he was the executive officer, managing and supervising patrol operations and scheduling.
After just three months as a lieutenant in Fontana, Penrod promoted McMahon to captain, at which point he was made the commander of the Central Detention Center in San Bernardino, overseeing 140 employees and over 700 inmates.
In 2003, McMahon returned to his hometown, serving as the station commander of the sheriff’s operation in Apple Valley, i.e., de facto Apple Valley police chief, from 2003 to 2007. Penrod thereafter promoted McMahon to deputy chief, from which assignment he oversaw desert patrol and the detentions and corrections bureau.
In January 2009, Penrod abruptly resigned as sheriff, recommending to the board of supervisors that Rod Hoops succeed him. The board of supervisors complied with Penrod’s wish, and in 2010, as an incumbent and with the full force of the county’s political establishment behind him, Hoops successfully ran for election in his own right, defeating his two opponents, Paul Schrader and Mark Averbeck.
That same year, Hoops promoted McMahon to the position of assistant sheriff, the third-highest ranking position in the organization after himself and the undersheriff.
In November 2012, Hoops, near the midpoint in his then current term, announced he would abdicate as sheriff. Stepping over Undersheriff Robert Fonzi, Hoops asked that the county board of supervisors select McMahon, then a resident of Phelan, to succeed him.
That move provoked objections and protests. It was noted that the sheriff’s department, including its administration and its union leadership, were tied into the county’s political and governmental leadership, and that an electoral/political advantage had been conferred upon Hoops in the 2010 election as a consequence of his appointment the previous year, which had allowed him to seek election to the office of sheriff in the status of incumbent.
Paul Schrader, who ran against Hoops in 2010 and was intent on running for sheriff in 2014, suggested that the county should consider appointing someone who would not seek election in 2014, thereby avoiding providing an unfair advantage to the earnest candidates seeking the office of sheriff in that race. Former San Bernardino County Marshal Keith Bushey, who had been a commander with the Los Angeles Police Department, weighed in on the issue as well. Bushey, whose marshal’s position was absorbed into the sheriff’s department when the board of supervisor’s merged the marshal’s office with the sheriff’s department in 1999, served as a deputy chief in the sheriff’s department for six years before retiring in 2005. In a letter to the board of supervisors, Bushey said he was himself contemplating running for sheriff in 2014, and referenced a “universal perception” throughout the sheriff’s department “that sheriff Hoops has already brokered an agreement with the board to ensure the appointment of John McMahon as his replacement.” He requested that the board not conform with Hoops’ expressed preference, as the appointment of McMahon would endow him with the power of incumbency and give him a leg up on any and all opponents he would face in the 2014 election.
The board of supervisors, nonetheless, perceived maintaining continuity and the status quo in the sheriff’s department to be a positive rather than negative consideration, and had come to recognize McMahon as a department loyalist. When McMahon confirmed that by telling the board he had every intention of running for sheriff in 2014, that heightened rather than lowered his stock with the board of supervisors, who unanimously approved his appointment.
He was sworn in as sheriff on December 31, 2012.
Less than three months later, McMahon underwent his baptism by fire as sheriff. Former Los Angeles Police Officer Christopher Dorner, after experiencing problems with a training officer and testifying against her for using unjustifiable and unnecessary force against a detainee, had been subsequently fired on the grounds that he had made false statements in his report about and testimony against the training officer. Insistent he had acted ethically, responsibly and had told the truth, Dorner failed in his effort to be reinstated as a police officer. Out of frustration, he went rogue. After publishing an 11,000-word manifesto justifying the action he was taking, he embarked on a spree in which he engaged in revenge shootings, killing a couple in Irvine, shooting and killing a Riverside police officer and wounding another, before heading into the San Bernardino Mountains. There he abducted a husband and wife in Big Bear and carjacked a scout camp caretaker, then slayed San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Detective Jeremiah McKay and wounded Deputy Alex Collins as they closed in on him. Other sheriff’s department deputies pursued Dorner, and he holed up in a cabin in Angelus Oaks. Further department resources were brought in, and after efforts including the deployment of tear gas were used in an attempt to get Dorner to surrender, the cabin caught fire and Dorner, just before being engulfed in flames, used a handgun to take his own life.
The matter garnered international attention.
In April 2015, eleven sheriff’s department deputies and higher-ups were videoed by a Los Angeles television station helicopter as they beat Francis Pusok. Pusok, who, mistakenly assumed a team of deputies were coming for him when they came to a residence that was not his own to serve a search warrant related to an identity theft investigation, fled in a vehicle and led pursuing deputies on a chase through the unincorporated area of Apple Valley, the town of Apple Valley and further into the unincorporated area of Hesperia. Pusok abandoned the vehicle southwest of Bowen Ranch and fled on foot, thereafter stealing a horse from someone near the Deep Creek Hot Springs. The NBC Newschopper video showed Pusok atop the horse in the rough mountainous desert terrain as a sheriff’s department helicopter hovered nearby and deputies on foot made slow but steady progress over the scrub vegetation-strewn hillside toward Pusok. When the close encounter with the sheriff’s department helicopter spooked the horse, which led to Pusok being thrown to the ground, he at first sought to hide behind a clump of chaparral. Within seconds first one deputy, then another and in time several other deputies closed in on him. Tased by the first approaching deputy, Pusok initially appeared on the video to be compliant, laying out prone on the ground, with his arms and legs spread. When he was tasered again, Pusok reacted by springing up momentarily, but immediately laid down once more, prone and spread out. As he complied with the deputies’ commands by placing his arms behind him at the small of his back while he was lying face down, one of the deputies kicked him in the head. With the horse nearby, the two deputies then kicked and struck him him and then pummeled him on the head, neck and upper and mid-torso with the taser gun or their fists. Two other officers came into the camera’s field of view, one of whom slapped the horse on the rump and moved it away from the fracas. Initially, one of the arriving officers pulled one of the deputies back from Pusok but only seconds later, he too began to stomp and beat Pusok. The rough treatment of the suspect continued for roughly 14 seconds more, at which point two other deputies moved in to join the swarm over Pusok, and then two more. One of the officers appeared to continue to kick him about the head while four others tried to pin him to the ground. At one point, the concerted beating appeared to to have stopped, and with six deputies hovering over him, an effort to handcuff or tie Pusok appeared to be progressing. Thereafter, one of the deputies gratuitously stomped on him. Thereafter, a last unequivocal overt display of physical force against Pusok could be seen on the video when two other deputies punched and kicked him.
Ten deputies were initially suspended by McMahon in the aftermath of the broadcasting of the video, and the matter was considered by the district attorney’s office.
Twelve days days after the April 9 incident, on April 21, 2015, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors consented to pay Pusok $650,000 to settle a claim he was pursuing against the county, the sheriff’s department and deputies involved in his beating.
Despite the consideration that eight of the ten deputies could be seen on the video in some fashion to a greater or lesser extent striking, hitting, punching, kicking or stomping on Pusok, the district attorney’s office limited its filing of assault under the color of authority charges to deputies Charles Foster, Michael Phelps and Nick Downey. When the matter went to trial in 2017, Foster, represented by attorney Heather N. Phillips, was convicted on March 30 in a unanimous verdict. Two-thirds of the jury – eight of its 12 members – deadlocked 8-to-4 in favor of conviction against Phelps, represented by attorney Kasey A. Castillo, and Downey, represented by attorney Michael Schwartz.
Four days later, with the district attorney’s office and the two defendants’ attorneys set for a pre-trial hearing on a second trial, Phelps and Downey entered guilty pleas to misdemeanor disturbing the peace charges, and the case, minus a yet-to-be-filed appeal by Phillips of Foster’s conviction, was brought to a close.
At the time of Foster’s scheduled sentencing, Judge Dwight W. Moore granted a motion for a new trial filed by Phillips. Instead of going to trial, Foster entered into a disturbing the peace plea agreement indistinguishable from those accepted by Downey and Phelps.
In 2018, McMahon consented to Foster being reinstated with the department.
McMahon was sheriff when the bodies of the victims in the infamous McStay Family murders, believed to have been perpetrated in San Diego County in February 2010, were discovered in and around shallow graves in the desert area between Victorville and Oro Grande in November 2013. His department investigated the matter, and in November 2014 arrested Charles “Chase” Merritt of Rancho Cucamonga, the business partner of Joseph McStay, the patriarch of the murdered family, which included McStay’s 4-year-old and a 3-year old sons and his wife. Ultimately, Merritt was convicted in 2019 after a trial in which the integrity of the evidence and investigation was subject to question, and according to some, remains in doubt.
In 2014, when information surfaced relating to the abuse of prisoners at the West Valley Detention Center, McMahon fired seven deputies. In 2019, when information that a deputy at West Valley had staged fights between inmates, McMahon fired him.
Though he was never a detective, McMahon was well-versed in scientific analysis with regard to traffic issues and accident reconstruction. He is articulate though not eloquent, and more interested in factual analysis, data and science than art. He is direct and blunt. Despite being the most powerful political personage in the county, he was not particularly politically oriented himself and either did not fully appreciate nor understand the political nuance of what he signed on to in becoming sheriff or was not particularly interested in it. He is the latest manifestation of the Frank Bland Political Machine, which has remained dominant in San Bernardino County for well over a half century.
The first political machine to hold sway over the sheriff’s department and by extension San Bernardino County over the multiple terms of different sheriffs was that one which took root with the election of Walter Shay in 1918. Walter Shay began his law enforcement career in 1899 as a deputy sheriff under then-San Bernardino County Sheriff Charles Rouse. In 1903 he was elected San Bernardino marshal and in 1905 was appointed by San Bernardino Mayor Hiram Barton as the City of San Bernardino’s chief of police. He twice vacated that post to serve as a railroad company investigator, which paid more money at that time, but was twice induced to come back as San Bernardino police chief. He was working as the chief special investigator for the district attorney’s office in 1918 when he was elected county sheriff, succeeding J.L. McMinn. He was re-elected thrice, in 1922, 1926 and 1930. In 1931 he succumbed to cancer. It was at this point that the Shay regime became a dynasty in the true sense of the word, when his brother, Ernest Shay, was chosen by the board of supervisors to complete his term. Ernest Shay did so, and in 1934 stepped aside so his nephew and Walter Shay’s son, Emmett Shay, could run in his stead. Emmett Shay was elected and he served three full terms in his own right. In 1946, Emmett Shay was defeated by Jim Stocker, bringing the Shay family’s hold on the sheriff’s office to a close.
Jim Stocker’s tenure as sheriff lasted but a single term, when he was defeated by Upland Police Chief Eugene Mueller. Mueller suffered a similar fate, losing to Frank Bland in the 1954 election after serving one term. Bland was the police chief of Needles and a one-time FBI agent, and he campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, calling for the closure of the houses of prostitution that existed in the urban and rural areas and the pinball halls sprouting up like weeds in the county’s cities where they were distracting teenagers from doing their homework. Upon election, Bland held true to his word and embarked on an effort to shutter the county’s various dens of iniquity, major and minor. Bland would be reelected six times. In the course of his tenure as sheriff, he would establish a political machine that held a cinch lock-hold on the office of sheriff, consisting of scores of political donors who filled his campaign coffers and made running against him successfully a virtual impossibility. He further dedicated detectives assigned to the sheriff’s administrative echelon to gather intelligence on prominent county citizens, judges and elected officials. Bland’s political invulnerability drew to him even more support as time went on and nearly every mover and shaker in the county would pay homage to him, either in the form of political contributions or endorsements or both. Bland would return the favor, endorsing candidates of his liking and putting the arm on his donors to in turn support his political choices. His kingmaking status extended to members of the bench. While the governor had the power to appoint judges, state judges did not serve indefinitely, and had to seek reelection every sixth year. Bland withheld his endorsement from those judges who demonstrated themselves to be in his estimation soft on crime and anything less than solid supporters of law enforcement, and would instead vector as much money and electioneering assistance to any lawyer with the right attitude who would run against them. Rarely did a judge remain on the bench if Bland was determined to see him removed.
So powerful was Bland as a political, social and legal entity that he twice overcame political disasters that would have very likely felled any other candidate.
In 1966, information surfaced that Bland himself had pilfered thousands of dollars from a fund that had been set up to provide his deputies working the vice/narcotics detail with money for drug buys, to place bets with bookies or make the monetary exchanges needed to arrest pimps and prostitutes. Despite the revelation, Bland remained in office and was never molested by the district attorney as he was able to bury the negative publicity under an avalanche of positive-sounding political mailers and handbills, and gain re-election.
In 1978, Bland again dodged a mortal bullet when a scandal enveloped his campaign that showed 24 years after his maiden campaign for sheriff based upon eradicating the county of the scourge of prostitution, his department had become mired in questionable ties with ladies of the evening. At a Bland campaign fundraiser in April of that year at Sweeten Hall in Rancho Cucamonga, donors and others in attendance with Bland were offered the services of prostitutes inside a trailer within the hall’s parking lot. A bust of the proceedings corralled a couple of the girls, a member of the sheriff’s department and one of Bland’s supporters. The ensuing case was prosecuted by Deputy District Attorney Bill Parker, leading to revelations about the matter that came too late to prevent Bland from being elected to serve a seventh term.
In 1982, an increasingly alcoholic Bland had been weakened by the revelations from the Sweeten Hall incident as well as a scandal over his department members’ appropriation of stolen goods recovered in the course of his department’s operations. At that point, Bland, then 69, stepped down, intending to hand off the reins to his second-in-command, Undersheriff Floyd Jones. But Jones had a heart condition. Instead, the Bland Political Machine swung in behind Bland’s second choice, Floyd Tidwell, an inspector and assistant sheriff with the department.
The development community had long before demonstrated itself as a powerful element in the sheriff’s electioneering team. In 1982, Garry Brown, the executive director of the Baldy View Chapter of the Building Industry Association, served as Tidwell’s campaign manager. Tidwell handily defeated his opponent, a one-time sheriff’s captain, Chuck Callahan, who was considered a renegade with the department for defying Bland’s will.
Just prior to the 1986 election, Garry Brown was caught on tape telling undercover operative David Kenneth Thomas that he and another key Bland political supporter, James Hunter Price, could arrange for Thomas and those Thomas was associated with to get licensing for and open massage parlors that would be fronts for brothels. The owners of those establishments could prevent arrests of their employees and evade prosecution of themselves and their businesses’ operators through the delivery of large-scale campaign contributions to the sheriff, Brown and Price told Thomas, who was wearing a hidden sound recording device. That money would provide the bordellos’ operators with advance warning of the time and place of vice operations, Brown and Price said.
Brown and Price, as well as Herschel Jennings, the operator of two such operations in Bloomington and Adelanto, were arrested and charged with activity relating to keeping a house of prostitution, along with several girls who worked in the massage parlors. That scandal did not prevent Tidwell from being elected in 1986, but revelations about the case, including Thomas’s alleged suicide during an armed standoff with 27 sheriff’s deputies in 1988, threatened Tidwell’s prospects for reelection in 1990. He stepped down and the political machine that Bland had created was made available to Tidwell’s hand-picked designee, Dick Williams.
Williams cruised to an overwhelming victory and served one term as sheriff. Williams, however, was not a horseman, as had been Bland and Tidwell before him. This clashed with a central element of the department’s culture. Williams handed the political machine over to Gary Penrod, at that time a deputy chief with the department who was a cowboy and a roping partner with Tidwell on the rodeo circuit. Penrod used more than $500,000 in campaign money provided to him by the Bland machine to hold off challenges by six other candidates in the 1994 race. Penrod was reelected three times before he retired halfway through his fourth term in 2009, as he was about to be engulfed in a scandal relating to his sale of honorary deputy status for political contributions. Penrod recommended Rod Hoops as his successor. The board of supervisors complied with his wishes, and when Hoops opted to retire, that ritual was repeated when he recommended McMahon.
It is worth noting that in the cases of Penrod, Hoops and McMahon, their decisions to leave office each came at the point at which they had maximized the pensions they could receive. As law enforcement veterans, each was entitled to a pension equal to three percent of his maximum salary while employed times the number of years he had as a law enforcement officer. Thus, after reaching the two-thirds mark in their 34th year as a law enforcement officer, each was eligible to draw a pension equal to 100 percent of his salary/pay as sheriff. Thereafter, that pension is subject to an annual cost of living increase capped at three percent per year.
At present, Penrod is drawing an annual pension of $240,563.74.
Hoops is drawing an annual pension of $328,988.18.
McMahon is now receiving total pay and benefits of $490,566.99, of which $307,923.78 is salary/pay. Thus, McMahon will be provided with a $317,161.49 annual pension next year.
McMahon was generally against involving himself in politics simply for the sake of being involved in politics. He was also stung in 2014, when some of those whose endorsements he claimed in his elective effort disavowed having endorsed him. McMahon would endorse some candidates, particularly those who had a demonstrated affinity for him or his department, more often candidates for state legislative office than those in local government, certain incumbents and those in a position to help his department financially. He considered betting on unknowns risky, and sought to avoid having endorsed the opponent of a candidate who won. He was sparing of his endorsements in local races, with the primary exceptions being the assistance he offered to his friends and acquaintances on the town council in his hometown of Apple Valley or for Measure O, a tax measure to fund public safety programs in Apple Valley. While he would share his presence at certain community events and public forums, he was reluctant to raise money for anything other than his own races. Though he was for the most part partisan in his support where he did provide it, gravitating toward Republicans, he did assist certain Democrats, such as James Ramos, who had worked with him in his first six years as sheriff when Ramos was on the board of supervisors, or Connie Leyva, whose California Senate district is so thoroughly Democratic that a Republican has virtually no chance of capturing it.
Despite his having eschewed being caught up in politics, action McMahon took beginning earlier this year was widely considered to be political in nature, which relates to an issue that is to have a bearing on his legacy and reputation as a major San Bernardino County public official.
In 2016, California voters’ passed Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, which legalized the use of marijuana for its intoxicative effect throughout the Golden State, pursuant to local control and yet subject to local prohibitions as to the drug’s cultivation, processing, alteration and its sale. San Bernardino County’s governmental structure and that of its two incorporated towns and seventeen of its twenty-two incorporated cities resisted going along with the new trend. Only five cities made any shift, with San Bernardino, Adelanto and Needles consenting to allow the plant to be commercially grown and altered into edible and otherwise applicable palliatives, liniments and salves, and for those to be distributed and sold at both the retail and wholesale levels. Barstow has made preparations to permit sales. Hesperia has allowed businesses distributing and delivering the product to exist within its confines.
The continuing prohibition of marijuana and its commercialization elsewhere in San Bernardino has resulted in those looking to profit by cultivating and selling it, either under or outside of the regulatory schemes governments are permitted to engage in under Proposition 64, to try their hand at becoming marijuana cultivators or entrepreneurs. Recognizing that there is a tremendous appetite for the drug and that the collective resolve of San Bernardino County officials together with officials in the towns of Apple Valley and Yucca Valley and the cities of Chino Hills, Chino, Montclair, Ontario, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana, Rialto, Colton, Grand Terrace, Loma Linda, Highland, Redlands, Yuciapa, Big Bear, Twentynine Palms and Victorville to prevent its production and restrict its availability is artificially boosting its price, daring individuals have undertaken to cultivate it in small, medium, large and gargantuan quantities in many places where they believe they can do so undetected. As a consequence, unlicensed marijuana farms over the last several years have flourished in the more remote areas of the county, in particular the vast reaches of San Bernardino County’s Mojave Desert.
Put upon by these operations, residents in those areas have made objections to them. The sheriff’s department, as the law enforcement authority in the county’s unincorporated areas, made some effort to deal with the issue in the 2017 to 2020 timeframe, but put only a small dent in those operations, and the illicit farms continued to flourish. The sheriff’s department, somewhat unfairly, was criticized for ignoring the problems the cultivation operations entailed, which involved in many cases excessive water use, contamination of the desert aquifer as a result of the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, trespassing, intimidation, threats of violence and actual violence against nearby property owners or those traversing the area near the cultivation operations, the use of explosive devices and bear traps, booby traps and the like around the periphery of those farms, and the presence of armed individuals intended as sentries near, around or at the operations.
Beginning earlier this year, the sheriff’s department stepped up its enforcement and eradication efforts against those enterprises. While the department has succeeded since then in raiding dozens of operations and uprooting literally tens of thousands of plants, the sheriff’s department’s energetic efforts in this regard have resulted in few substantive criminal prosecutions. This has created some degree of controversy.
Moreover, the sheriff’s department’s enforcement efforts was vectored exclusively toward unlicensed and unpermitted marijuana growing operations, which had the effect of benefiting businesses that went through the permitting processes particularly in Needles, San Bernardino and Adelanto. In Adelanto and San Bernardino, those obtaining commercial marijuana licenses engaged in several rounds of graft – including the delivery of bribes and kickbacks to the elected decision-makers in those cities. Those bribed or otherwise corrupted in this process included former Adelanto Mayor Rich Kerr, former Adelanto City Councilman Jermaine Wright, former Adelanto City Councilman John Woodard and current San Bernardino Mayor John Valdivia. Wright in 2017 was arrested by the FBI and charged by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with accepting bribes in exchange for assisting marijuana entrepreneurs in setting up operations in his city. He was removed as a councilman as a consequence of his arrest. In 2018, both Kerr and Woodard failed to gain reelection after the FBI began a serious investigative effort targeting the marijuana-related graft in Adelanto, including serving search warrants at City Hall and Kerr’s home along with raids elsewhere around the city and at offices of those providing money to city officials. In San Bernardino, there have been recurrent reports and even signed affidavits relating that Valdivia, in exchange for money, committed to provide applicants for commercial marijuana operations with the permits and licensing they needed to establish their operations and get clearance to initiate business in the county seat.
Former County Supervisor Bill Postmus, who was chairman of the board of supervisors, the chairman of the San Bernardino County Republican Central Committee and later was elected county assessor, was subsequently arrested, forced to resign from office and prosecuted for 14 felony political corruption charges, including conspiracy, fraud, bribery, soliciting bribes, accepting bribes, misappropriation of public funds, conflict of interest by a public official and perjury. In 2011, he pleaded guilty to all 14 charges and was ultimately sentenced to three years in state prison for his crimes. His conviction on the public official conflict of interest charge prohibits him from ever holding elected public office in California again.
Postmus has resolved to remain in the political game, however, and has created a Wyoming-based company, Mountain States Consulting Group, LLC, which he uses to engage in political money laundering for California elected officials, particularly ones in San Bernardino County. Relying on his experience in being caught, prosecuted and convicted of bribery as well as taking advantage of the lax reporting requirements Wyoming has for limited liability companies based there, Postmus has devised a formula by which Mountain States Consulting Group takes in money from those with an interest in decisions to be made by elected officials in local government and that money is then conveyed to those elected officials with the proviso that the suppliers of the money will get their projects, licenses, permits, contracts or franchises approved by those elected officials.
Postmus and his associates, including John Dino De Fazio, who has an interest in a licensed marijuana cultivation operation in Needles, are working through Mountain States Consulting Group on behalf of those who have obtained marijuana-related business permits in San Bernardino, Adelanto and Needles to ensure they are not interfered with by any competitors. A comprehensive business plan Postmus is pursuing includes those entities that have already established a toehold in the San Bernardino County marijuana industry in San Bernardino, Adelanto and Needles to move to the next phase, which involves opening the rest of San Bernardino County up for a limited number of commercial marijuana operations, which Mountain States Consulting Group’s clients are given exclusive licenses and permits to run.
Postmus, through Mountain States Consulting Group, has begun to filter money to Chairman of the Board of Supervisors Curt Hagman, First District Supervisor Paul Cook and Third District Supervisor Dawn Rowe to get them to accept the next step in the process, which is intended to confer a monopoly, or a near monopoly, on those who have established cannabis-related operations in San Bernardino and Adelanto through bribery, as well as on De Fazio and his associates, in the areas of the county where commercial marijuana activity is now prohibited but will later be permitted. To this end, Postmus has formulated a timetable that would have the county move to allow making commercial cannabis activity to take place within the unincorporated areas of the county, roughly 94 percent of the 20,105 square mile jurisdiction by 2022. The estimated half of a billion dollar initial revenue stream this would create would be spread around to the decision-makers to be brought in on the deal, such that Hagman, Cook and Rowe would be guaranteed no less than $1 million each.
In setting the county’s budget for 2021-2022, the board of supervisors earmarked $10.4 million to deal with nettlesome land use and code enforcement issues in the county’s unincorporated areas, the most significant of which consist of unlicensed marijuana farms.
The supervisors’ commitment to fund more sheriff’s department efforts against unlicensed marijuana cultivators served as a signal to Postmus that county officials are agreeable to the timetable he has worked out with Hagman and County Chief Executive Officer Leonard Hernandez to provide the marijuana-related business operations that are Mountain States’ clients with the limited number of permits the county will issue when it undertakes to legalize marijuana-related commercial activity less than two years hence. The arrangements Postmus is pursuing in getting his clients permits to operate at the county level will ultimately give those entities an inside track in establishing cannabis-related businesses not only in the 18,899-square mile expanse of the county’s unincorporated territory, it will give the cartel Postmus represents an advantage in obtaining marijuana cultivation and cannabis-related product commercial entitlements in the eleven other county municipalities besides Adelanto, Hesperia and Needles where the sheriff’s department fills the role of police department, Postmus believes, those being Chino Hills, Rancho Cucamonga, Grand Terrace, Loma Linda, Highland, Big Bear Lake, Yucaipa, Yucca Valley, Twentynine Palms, Apple Valley and Victorville.
The timing of the sheriff’s department’s stepped-up operations against illicit marijuana cultivation operations in the desert, corresponding as it did with Postmus’s efforts on behalf of the cartel that has established itself in San Bernardino, Adelanto and Needles, was interpreted as a sign that McMahon was on board, along with Hagman, Cook, Rowe, Supervisor Janice Rutherford, Supervisor Joe Baca, Jr., Hernandez, County Chief Financial Officer Matthew Erickson, County Counsel Michelle Blakemore and Chief Assistant County Counsel Penny Alexander-Kelley, in allowing the cartel that has retained Postmus to achieve its marijuana cultivation and cannabis-product related monopoly.
McMahon, who throughout his professional law enforcement career engaged in arresting marijuana users and traffickers, the Sentinel is informed, was angered at the insinuations that he was involved in any way with the effort to marijuanify the county and make cultivation of marijuana or the production and/or sale of cannabis-related products a significant part of San Bernardino County’s future economy and culture. An individual close to the sheriff who did not want to be identified or quoted verbatim said that McMahon’s essentially apolitical nature prevented him from recognizing the political manipulation that was afoot over the last several months, and that he had only learned of the deal-cutting Postmus was involved in after public discussion relating to his and his department’s efforts to clear the decks of the competition to the enfranchised cartel that has taken hold in San Bernardino, Adelanto and Needles. McMahon was not until recently, McMahon’s contact insisted, aware of Postmus’s ties to the marijuana industry, and the sheriff further had no knowledge of the money Postmus is laundering to Hagman, Cook and Rowe. McMahon was appalled to learn of the deal that Postmus had arranged and was “floored” by the evidence churned up by the detectives attached to the sheriff’s department’s executive command indicating that Postmus was providing money to Hagman, Cook and Rowe, said the source, who insisted that any suggestion McMahon was a recipient of money provided through Postmus was patently untrue.
The damage McMahon is likely to sustain to his reputation if he remains as sheriff and involved in marijuana suppression efforts against the unfranchised marijuana producers while the cartel Postmus represents solidifies its hold on the county, the Sentinel was told, was a major factor, along with his having now maximized his pension, that went into McMahon’s decision to retire.
In an announcement posted to Twitter this afternoon, McMahon said, “Today, I’m announcing my retirement as sheriff of San Bernardino County, effective July 16th of this year. For the last 36 years I’ve been blessed to work with some of the most dedicated and hard-working law enforcement professionals. The eight-and-a-half years serving as your sheriff has been an honor and a privilege, a responsibility that I have taken very seriously. It is now time for me to focus on things in my personal life that require the attention of my wife, Shelly, and I. The community support this department experiences is not taken lightly, and we are very grateful for it. We have a talented and well-prepared executive management team that is ready to take our department into the future.”
McMahon made no indication of which member of that executive management team he will recommend to the board of supervisors as his replacement. The obvious candidates are Undersheriff Shannon Dicus, Assistant Sheriff Robert Wickum and Assistant Sheriff Horace Boatwright.
By Mark Gutglueck