By this time three consecutive grand jury foreman's had sought help from the Attorney General, to no avail. It came to pass that one of the deputies, Dave Beavers, was having trouble obtaining his "stress leave" pay and hired a Jackson, California lawyer to represent him in the case. The lawyer, Ben Wagner, not only interviewed Beavers, but began interviewing other deputies who corroborated Beavers' story. Most of them, thirteen in all, had at one time or another testified before the grand jury and subsequently been forced out of the department. Interestingly, none of the deputies knew "why" the others had been been placed on stress leave or resigned until Wagner finally assembled them together and the story was aired.
At that point some of the former grand jury members were called in to confirm the testimony of the individual deputies. Most refused to speak up, but a few corroborated the deputies' story. Ultimately, after numerous meetings, the group of deputies and grand jurors formed and later incorporated an organization they called D.I.G. (Decency in Government).
By now, Wagner was carrying a gun inside and out of Mariposa for the first time in his life and writing letters to the Attorney General, the FBI, and even President Ronald Reagan. One response was forthcoming, from a special agent at the Fresno Department of Justice, Division of Law Enforcement. This agent listened to Kay Ritter, a former grand jury foreman and several deputies after reviewing Wagner's evidence.
Wagner was contemplating a huge civil rights lawsuit against the county of Mariposa, but it was imperative that he first understand "why" the attorney general refused to help these people. When the special agent drove to Sacramento and reviewed the files within the attorney general's office emanating from Mariposa, and talked to some of the office staff there, he learned that everything pertaining to Mariposa was automatically "trashed" when it crossed the A/G's desk.
Disgusted, the agent called Ben Wagner and told him "Go ahead with the lawsuit." He had no idea why all the grand jury documents had been trashed, but he was convinced no help would be forthcoming from the attorney general's office.
On November 20, 1987, Wagner filed with the U.S. District Court in Fresno the first of two lawsuits, later revealed in a Sacramento newspaper to be the largest civil rights lawsuits ever recorded in California history. Newspaper reporters and television crews flocked to Wagner for interviews. In one instance, Wagner, former Sergeant Dave Beavers and others stood in front of the Fresno FBI building while being interviewed by Channel 3 Sacramento News.
On camera, without hesitation, Beavers recalled observing deputies carrying packages of drugs from the Gold Coin Saloon, a notorious drug hangout, and placing the packages in the trunk of their patrol car. A subsequent raid indicated the drugs had been stored by the owner in a historic underground tunnel once used by the infamous bandit, Juaquin Murietta, to escape the sheriff's posse.
Meanwhile, on February 10, 1988, attorney Wagner filed at the U.S. District Court in Sacramento a Writ of Mandamus against John Van De Camp, the State Attorney General; George Vinson, regional director of the Fresno FBI; George Deukemejian, then Governor of California, and David F. Levi, United States Attorney for refusing to investigate corruption in Mariposa County.
The citizens of Mariposa were choosing sides, writing letters to the editor, arguing amongst themselves, and being interviewed on the sidewalks by news media. D.I.G. was the talk of the town. On February 17, 1988, Capitol News Service in Sacramento ran a story entitled, "Law & Order Failing on Hill County," by Jerry Goldberg. The article noted that Capitol News Service had had discussions with several Attorney General staff members who "stonewalled questions about any investigation of charges or direct answers on the willingness of Van de Kamp to meet with the citizen's group [D.I.G.]."
Goldberg mentioned the "Queen's accident" in his article: "The Fresno case charges destruction of records on individuals [Commander Rod Sinclair] involved in the case. This includes possible information about the fatal accident which occurred in the area [of Mariposa County] when an escort vehicle involved in the visit of Queen Elizabeth in 1983 [crashed.]"
Goldberg went on to note that "several people had received threats about dangerous things happening to them if they continued to stand up to the sheriff and district attorney." A San Joaquin County official, who asked not to be named, told Goldberg that a key element to the problems in Mariposa County "related to the fatal accident which occurred to Queen Elizabeth's escort vehicle."
On February 19, 1988, Ben Wagner's wife, a legal secretary, sent a letter to President Ronald Reagan at the White House. The Wagners did not live in Mariposa County, indeed, lived far away in Jackson County, unfettered by corruption, yet they saw fit to take it upon themselves to write for help. That emotionally gripping letter was headed, "Restoring Equal Rights to the Citizens of Mariposa County." It read as follows:
"Dear President Reagan:
I am writing to you not only as the wife of an attorney, but as a citizen of the United States. My initial concern is that you personally receive this letter and enclosures, as many residents of Mariposa County have literally placed their lives, and the lives of their families in jeopardy by coming forth to expose the local government corruption detailed herein. I understand that your time is at a premium, however, your immediate attention regarding these matters is of the utmost importance, and respectfully requested.
"In August, 1987, our office was approached by several ex-deputies and individuals from Mariposa County requesting assistance in redressing unlawful and corrupt activities by officials and departments within their local government, and failure on the part of the State Attorney General John Van De Kamp, the Office of the Attorney General, and our Federal agencies, to investigate these alleged activities.
"What we found through our initial investigations and accumulation of evidence into these allegations was appalling. It took us time to realize that in fact, the Constitution of the United States had been suspended in this county.
"The organization, Decency in Government [D.I.G.], was formed, and on November 20, 1987, the first multimillion dollar Civil Rights suit was filed in Fresno. We felt media coverage would lay a solid ground of personal safety for other complainants to come forth. This coverage proved to be successful, and on February 11, 1988, the second Civil Rights suit was filed, along with the filing of a Writ of Mandamus in Sacramento.
"I have enclosed copies of these suits, including several newspaper articles regarding the situation. Since 1979, many residents, including individuals, sheriff's deputies, groups, organizations, members of Grand Juries and Grand Juries have taken their complaints to the Office of the Attorney General, State Attorney General John Van De Kamp and Federal authorities for investigation.
"These agencies have continuously and blatantly failed to redress the grievances of these citizens. What appears to be a consistent procedure of one Arnold O. Overoye, of the State Attorney General's Office, is to refer the complaints directly back to the local agencies to whom the complaints were made.
"Over the years, this has perpetrated threats, intimidation and fear by these local officials to the complaining individuals. There has also been questions regarding the disappearance of citizens possessing incriminating evidence, and the incompletion or failure to investigate `homicides' and `suicides'.
"Further, it has recently come to our attention, that Mr. Overoye's `procedure,' and the inaction of State Attorney John Van De Camp and Federal agencies is not limited to Mariposa County, but in fact, expands to a number of foothill counties who are experiencing the same types of local corruption.
"The grievances of these citizens, as you will note in paragraph IV of the WRIT are:
(1) Violation of Individual Civil Rights
(2) Abuse of discretion in the prosecution of criminal complaints
(3) Intentional obstruction of the due course of Justice
(4) Malicious prosecution
(6) Intimidation of Grand Jury members and witnesses
(7) The deprivation of property
(8) Illegal and unlawful land transaction
(9) The failure to arrest and prosecute those involved in illegal drug sales, including individuals employed by the County of Mariposa
(10) Violation of Property Rights
(11) Conspiracy to impede and obstruct criminal investigations
(13) Attempted homicide
"Why Mr. President, are we bound to the laws of this country, and our officials are not? Life in Mariposa is as if the citizens were being held in detention, and the local agencies, the criminals, were running the county.
"Needless to say, residents feel it is a way of life to literally arm themselves and their homes against their government! I have been in these people's homes, and have witnessed the arsenal of weapons they feel they must possess to protect themselves and their families.
"My husband must travel in, around and out of this county [Mariposa] with an armed escort. He is transported during `the midnight hours' to interview Plaintiffs and witnesses.
"I ask you, Mr. President, what country are we living in? We should certainly make sure that our backyard is clean before we boast to the Soviets regarding the Civil Rights of Americans.
"On January 19, 1988, my husband took two witnesses, Kay Ritter, a former Mariposa Grand Jury Forewoman and Robert Ashmore, an ex-deputy, to Mr. [George] Vinson, the Regional Director of the FBI in Fresno. The testimony, both oral and documentary, took approximately 3 hours to present. To this date, the FBI has failed to redress the grievances of these complainants, and Mr. Vinson did not even have the courtesy to return my husband's phone calls. It came to our understanding, through a reliable source, that Mr. Vinson felt the complaints had `no substance.'
"Mr. President, my husband has been a trial attorney for 14 years. He certainly wouldn't waste his time or expertise, or the time of these witnesses, if he felt there was `no substance' to the contents of their testimony. However, this attitude by Attorney General Van De Camp, his office, and Federal agencies is typical and consistent.
"Shortly after this incident, a major drug dealer contacted our office with valuable information detailing the sale of illegal drugs to county officials, and wanted information regarding the Federal Witness Program. Mr. Vinson, knowing this by telephone messages, again failed to return my husband's inquiries.
"There is evidence by another credible witness, who was informed by the FBI, that should they get involved now, it would be `bad publicity,' and `they have let the problems in Mariposa get too far out of hand.'
"You may wonder why my husband and I became dedicated to the citizens of this county. We certainly don't foresee large amounts of money at the end of this case. Our investment in time and expenditures exceeds $40,000 to date. What we do see are people, just like you and I, who have been suppressed by their own `elected ' officials, with no help or assistance from Attorney General Van De Kamp, his office, or Federal agencies. If someone doesn't help them, they will continue to live under these conditions, which I could never imagine would exist in America.
"My husband is not a righteous individual, nor is he perfect. None of us are you know. He also doesn't believe that he can solve the problems of the world. However, being an attorney, he is an officer of the Court, and he feels a professional obligation to uphold the laws of the State, and to maintain the freedom of the citizens of this country.
"This is, however, more than I can say about a number of `representatives' and officials, who have failed to perform their appointed duties of their office, and are paid by the taxpayers. Through my involvement in this case, I have found, to my repulsion, that my lifelong conception of our government's representation of the `people,' its vested authority and ability to uphold Civil Rights, and its duty to maintain the laws and the Constitution, has been only an shattering illusion.
"Our system has failed, Mr. President. And by its failure, has crushed and destroyed the lives of many innocent, law abiding people. Why? There is an answer. And we will utilize every legal avenue to find it. We will not be discouraged, or give up in our effort to restore the Constitution of the United States in Mariposa County, and other foothill communities. We will continue until the answer is found. Even if it means presenting the problem to you, Mr. President, on the steps of the White House.
"Our best regards to Mrs. Reagan. Respectfully yours,
Vivian L. Wagner."
Shortly before Ben Wagner's first scheduled appearance in U.S. District Court in Fresno on behalf of D.I.G. (Decency in Government), Wagner received an obscure response from "Chuck" at the Reagan White House. Wagner excitedly called Kay Ritter and Dave Beavers, myself and a few others to note that a meeting with "Chuck" was scheduled that week. It was to be a somewhat secret meeting as requested by the White House.
However, the day after meeting with "Chuck," Wagner unplugged his phone and walked out on his law practice and his home in Jackson, California, taking nothing with him except his clothes and his wife, never to be seen again. I was later told that Jerry Goldberg of Capitol News Service did the same, on the same day, and I was never able to locate either of them again.
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