Mendocino, CA 95460
By Andrew Scully
The Mendocino Undercurrent
April 25, 2023
The murders of Ruby-Sky Montelongo and Nick Whipple were not in any sense the first time tragedy has touched Round Valley. Indeed, the horrors of the past seem to hang with a heavy hand on this isolated and remote place and it’s little town of Covelo, population 1300.
After the white settlers came to California 175 years ago, they rounded up what was left of the native Americans in Mendocino County, army troops herded them up into places like Round Valley and finished them off. After the settlers and the government came, a way of life that had existed for thousands of years gradually disappeared, and an entire people very nearly vanished. Any last resistance was crushed, and the remnants of the Yuki people settled in and around Covelo, where their descendants live to this day.
The troubles continue. The echoes and reverberations of the past are felt today. Vandalism and property crime like burglary and car theft; bullying and harassment in the schools; violence inside the homes and out on the streets. And worse: human trafficking, kidnapping, rape and murder. It’s heard on the street outside Buckhorn’s bar and around the county: these are commonplace events in Covelo.
The murders of two young people – senseless though they were – weren’t unusual in the context of Covelo. Yet something about Nick’s death in late March and the shocking slaughter of Ruby-Sky just two weeks later, only 16 years old and a member of the Round Valley High School basketball team, galvanized this small community, sparked things over to a flashpoint of hopelessness and despair and outrage. Anger at the lack of law enforcement, of jobs, lack of caring of basic government services, lack of hope.
So the tribal council convened in an emergency session on the day after Montelongo’s murder, last Sunday April 16th, and declared that Round Valley and the town of Covelo are in a State of Emergency. The leaders of the Round Valley Indian Tribes – the first level of government here – declared Mayday, a Code-Red call for help.
In issuing the declaration, the Council called out and called upon local law enforcement – including most particularly Mendocino County Sheriff Matthew Kendall, the California Highway Patrol, California Department of Fish and Game, and other federal and state partners, namely the entities responsible for governance beyond the tribal council: the state of California and federal government. These are the agencies and the people charged with “the duty to protect” in the words of Round Valley Tribes personal director Rosento Cordova.
As a former Tribal Police officer, indigenous Round Valley Tribal member, and longtime resident of Covelo, Cordova seems well placed to observe the Valley scene. And he’s seen a lot. So far, he says, the response of the different agencies and people, including Sheriff Kendall, Congressman Jared Huffman, Assemblyman Ramos, the CHP and others has been “hopeful”. But he said that while expressions of support, sympathy, even of outrage and solidarity are welcomed and needed, the true test will be an actual resource commitment and delivery in the long term.
One senses he speaks for many in the Valley when he says people here have seen it all before: The initial response to the “All-Call”; expressions of outrage over the lawlessness, of support and solidarity, these are encouraging. But then after the initial show and tell, nothing really ends up changing on the ground. There’s no additional police presence, no regular patrols, nobody that seems to care. Sometimes, he said after an event like this, there will be a heavy-handed armed response of law enforcement, rolling out with a riot-squad show of force, an “enhanced enforcement” agenda for a couple of weeks that may do more harm than good by driving the true predators into hiding and hassling people you need to have on your side.
Then, a slow fade back to normal. Predictably, the cycle begins again.
According to Rosento Cordova, basic law enforcement is missing in action much of the time here. He says the sheriff’s department answers calls for service, yes, but just that. There are no regular sheriff patrols of Covelo, no presence beyond emergencies. Covelo suffers, in his view from the “lack of calming Patrol presence. “The calming effect of deputies that live and work and actually want to be in the community.” He wonders “why Covelo doesn’t get the same level of attention as Ukiah and Willits and more settled high profile areas of the corridor?”
One urgent need according to Mr Cordova, is “a lot more police presence, on a regular basis. Covelo needs a much more visible and calming presence of law enforcement”.
The man most responsible to answer that call and provide those services is Mendocino County Sheriff Matthew Kendall. In an exclusive interview with The Undercurrent, Kendall said he shared the community’s sense of outrage over recent events and is committed to solutions. He is angered by the criminals and predators that seem to run wild out there. Yet he said he faces a set of intractable and seemingly insurmountable problems and challenges.
In framing the recent events, Kendall said that there had been “two murders in the last month.” Sheriff Kendall noted, movingly, as he often does, that he is “from Covelo”. He was born there, raised in that place and cares deeply about it. He said he feels for the people that are stuck there and preyed upon by vicious criminals. “I would love to take those people off the streets,” but says he is hamstrung by many factors, factors that contribute to the lawlessness, crime, hopelessness and despair, and that essentially tie his hands, including:
Rife and rampant alcoholism and drug addiction that completely paralyzes and casts a spell over the community. It makes it difficult for people to live there, work there and for people to claw their way out.
He notes that “since the Mill closed back in the 60’s”, a very long time ago now, there’s been no regular source of employment or jobs in the area, so people are left to fend for themselves essentially.
“Decriminalization of laws” and other problems coming out of Sacramento that “tie my hands and my deputies.” Kendall said that because of these changes his “deputies are unable to to arrest someone with a ball of heroin that a few years ago would have been a felony and resulted in a state prison term.”
On top of all this, Sheriff Kendall has major, multifaceted staffing problems. For a start he says he can’t find enough qualified applicants that are willing to take the job and pass a background check. “Even when we get qualified people otherwise only two or three out of 10 pass the background.”
Then there are the recruitment bounties and bonuses being paid by neighboring agencies like 75k he said is currently being offered by Alameda County. There’s competition from neighboring counties like “Sonoma, where it might be nicer to work. These agencies lure my people away after a couple of years here in Mendocino.”
“We are well-paid.” Sheriff Kendall puts a convincing cherry on the top of his staffing argument when he says he believes that he and his deputies are in fact well paid. “I am well paid and my deputies are well paid. The problem is I can’t compete with 75,000 hiring bonuses.” Put that way, it does seem an intractable and insurmountable issue.
With a set of problems like that on the table, and few solutions, it does seem a murky path forward. Rosento Cordova, for his part says that what’s needed is is the “Regular calming presence of patrols in our neighborhood. The sheriff’s office responds to calls for service out here, but then they go away until the next call for service. No regular patrols like other area of the counties enjoy.”
Cordova says that “years ago, three or four deputies were stationed and lived here, in the Valley, in Covelo, and that type of community police model and presence is needed now.” But, he says it’s been years since anything like that’s been the case: “It’s been many years since we’ve had the benefit of patrols, regular patrols by deputies who want to be here. And we can tell the difference between people who want to be here and people that are just answering service calls.”
“At one time, people in the valley felt they did have people that cared, deputies like Hank Stolfi and Trent James.”
Trent James is a man familiar to many County residents, both for his service as a Mendocino County sheriff’s deputy for over 7 years, five of those as the resident deputy in Covelo, and because he ran – unsuccessfully – against Sheriff Matthew Kendall in the primary election last year.
Since Cordova mentioned him by name for his service in Covelo and because of his prior experience in the county, we reached out to James for comment and reaction to the events in Covelo.
He observed that Sheriff “Kendall dished a laundry list of excuses and problems but didn’t offer any solutions per usual.”
On alcoholism and drug addiction:
“Instead of using that as an excuse and blaming the culture of poverty, drugs and alcohol, why not at least attempt to offer a solution? I never thought of it in that manner. Yes, those things can statistically contribute to crime rate, however, this comes back to the community policing model and starting with the younger generation.”
On the Tanked economy:
“Again that’s a problem everywhere in the county and it’s also affected by the overall health of a community. But that is also affected by the health of the community obviously and deputies can help set that tone.”
On Kendall’s staffing problems:
“Low staffing has plagued the sheriffs office for decades. This is absolutely nothing new and isn’t some magical revelation. When I was assigned to Covelo before I even moved there, it was also myself and 1 other deputy, or 1 other deputy and a sergeant. But I was able to make it work. So, how was I able to go into Covelo for years and get to know the community intimately, when the staffing was still exactly the same, but now they can’t? The other reason is Covelo would get deprioritized by the command staff. And Covelo is still looked at the same way today by these people running the show there.”
On the decriminalization of laws:
“This isn’t anything new. Crimes have been decriminalized for quite some time and the laws were exactly the same when I lived in Covelo. Instead of making excuses for crimes being decriminalized, I tried to find a solution and I was still able to be effective in combating the crime rate. So, how can I do it by myself when the laws were exactly the same, but all of a sudden it’s a major problem as to why deputies can’t do their jobs? Decriminlaiztion can play a role, but another major role is the DA’s office being unwilling to prosecute a lot of these crimes and Kendall obviously won’t admit that. Another factor in this that Kendall won’t address, is the jail refusing to accept people arrested of certain crimes.”
David Eyster is the Mendocino County District attorney, who’s come under fire recently for what many feel to be inadequate charging against rogue criminal police officers, including Kevin Murray, an ex-Ukiah police sergeant that raped a woman in a Ukiah hotel room. In closed-door negotiations with Murray’s legal team, David Eyster dropped and reduced the most serious felony charges against him. and cut a plea-deal with Murray. After the sentencing hearing last August when Mendocino County Judge Ann Moorman rubber-stamped Eyster’s sweetheart plea deal with Murray, a long-time Mendocino Sheriff deputy observed:
“David Eyster’s name and badge are on every grocery store checkout aisle in the county, warning people not to write bad checks. If you do, he’ll come down on you like a redwood log slide. But on major dope violators, predators and rouge cops? Yeah. Not so much.”
On deputy recruitment:
“I know for a fact they are not marketing the sheriffs office. They haven’t gone to academies for quite some time and even when the did the effort was minimal. I was once part of that process and I had a lot of ideas that they would refuse to listen to, since they have the personality type of “I know more than you”. Instead of making an excuse about an agency having a higher signing bonus, why not critically think about a solution? Start by marketing, yes going to academies on a consistent basis, showing them the high paying job that Mendocino has to offer, the fact you can get a speciality assignment very quickly. At competing big agencies it can take 10 years, and here one to three l. Recruit local, I know for a fact there is a lot of local qualified people. A lot of these people reached out to me when I campaigned and told me they would apply if I got hired, but wouldn’t work with the current crew. “
On Sheriff patrol assignments:
“Ultimately what Covelo needs is resident deputies. Right now the county offers a pathetic resident deputy bonus of $20, it needs to b $60k or more, with free housing and free medical. There has to be more of an incentive to get guys to move to a very isolated area of the county and police it for a long period of time.”
“Matt Kendall is always saying always talking about how he’s from Covelo. Well just being from a place doesn’t mean much. What Covelo needs is not people from there but people that ARE there. Now. “
Rosento Cordova, the formal Tribal Police officer who’s now personnel director for the tribe, has seen the pattern before. The familiar pattern of crisis and initial response of concern and expressions of outrage And then a rapid return to the miserable status quo.
He’s waiting hopefully this time to see if resource allocation actually happens on the ground.