Recent revelations about rampant police perjury have made Los Angeles
juries so mistrustful of law enforcement that attorneys for Los Angeles
County are in some cases offering plaintiffs multi-million dollar
settlements, rather than risking the possibility of far larger damage
awards should the cases ever go to trial.
In one of the more infamous instances of alleged law enforcement
misconduct — the killing of the reclusive Malibu millionaire and rugged
anti-government individualist Donald Scott in his ranch house by Los
Angeles sheriff’s deputies in 1992 — county and federal government
officials tentatively agreed last week to pay Scott’s heirs and estate a
total of $5 million in return for their dropping a wrongful death
Furthermore, they made the settlement despite the deep conviction,
says deputy Los Angeles County Counsel Dennis Gonzales, that the deputy
who shot Scott was fully justified and — even though the sheriff was
never able to prove it — that the heavy-drinking Scott was growing
thousands of marijuana plants on his remote $2.5 million Malibu ranch.
Early on the morning of Oct. 2, 1992, 31 officers from the Los
Angeles Sheriff’s Department, Drug Enforcement Administration, Border
Patrol, National Guard and Park Service came roaring down the narrow
dirt road to Scott’s rustic 200-acre ranch. They planned to arrest
Scott, the wealthy, eccentric, hard-drinking heir to a Europe-based
chemicals fortune, for allegedly running a 4,000-plant marijuana
plantation. When deputies broke down the door to Scott’s house, Scott’s
wife would later tell reporters, she screamed, “Don’t shoot me. Don’t
kill me.” That brought Scott staggering out of the bedroom, hung-over
and bleary-eyed — he’d just had a cataract operation — holding a .38
caliber Colt snub-nosed revolver over his head. When he pointed it in
the direction of the deputies, they killed him.
Later, the lead agent in the case, sheriff’s deputy Gary Spencer and
his partner John Cater posed for photographs arm-in-am outside Scott’s
cabin, smiling and triumphant, says Larry Longo, a former Los Angeles
deputy district attorney who now represents Scott’s daughter, Susan.
“It was as if they were white hunters who had just shot the buffalo,”
Despite a subsequent search of Scott’s ranch using helicopters, dogs,
searchers on foot, and a high-tech Jet Propulsion Laboratory device for
detecting trace amounts of sinsemilla, no marijuana –or any other
illegal drug — was ever found.
Scott’s widow, the former Frances Plante, along with four of Scott’s
children from prior marriages, subsequently filed a $100 million
wrongful death suit against the county and federal government. For eight
years the case dragged on, requiring the services of 15 attorneys and
some 30 volume binders to hold all the court documents. Last week,
attorneys for Los Angeles County and the federal government agreed to
settle with Scott’s heirs and estate, even though the sheriff’s
department still maintained its deputies had done nothing wrong.
“I do not believe it was an illegal raid in any way, shape or form,”
Captain Larry Waldie, head of the Sheriff’s Department’s narcotics
bureau, told the Los Angeles Times after the shooting. When Scott came
out of the bedroom, the deputies identified themselves and shouted at
him to put the gun down. As Scott began to lower his arm, one deputy
later said, he “kinda” pointed his gun — which he initially was holding
by the cylinder, not the handle grip — at deputy Spencer who, in fear
for his life, killed him.
Although attorneys for Los Angeles County believed Scott’s shooting
was fully justified, they weren’t eager to see the case go to trial.
Recent widespread revelations of illegal shootings, planted evidence and
perjured testimony at the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart
Division were making the public mistrust the police.
“I’ve tried four cases (since the Rampart revelations),” said Dennis
Gonzales, a deputy Los Angeles County counsel. And in each case, he
said, jurors have told him that the possibility that police officers
were lying was a factor in their vote.
“You have to be realistic as to public perceptions,” he said.
Nick Gutsue, Scott’s former attorney and currently special
administrator for his estate, put it more bluntly: “(Gonzales) saw he
had a loser and he took the easy way out.”
Ironically enough, the county might have had a better chance of
winning a court battle if it had allowed the case to go to trial when
Scott’s widow and four children first filed their lawsuit back in 1993.
The county blew it, says Gutsue. It adopted a “divide and conquer
strategy.” It prolonged the lawsuit’s resolution with a successful
motion to throw legendarily aggressive anti-police attorney Stephen
Yagman off the case. Then it filed a time-consuming motion to dismiss
the estate from the lawsuit.
In the process, says Gutsue, new revelations of police misconduct
began appearing so frequently that the public’s attitude toward law
enforcement began to change. “It was one scandal after another,” says
Gutsue. “(County attorneys) stalled so long that the (Rampart scandal)
came along and their stalling tactics backfired.”
Although county officials still maintain that Scott was a major
marijuana grower who was just clever enough not to get caught, his
friends and widow maintain that his drug of choice was alcohol, not
marijuana. As a young man, Scott lived a privileged life, growing up in
Switzerland and attending prep schools in New York. Later he lived the
life of a dashing international jet setter who was married three times,
once to a French movie star, and who had gone through two bitter and
messy divorces by the time he moved to his Malibu ranch, called Trail’s
End, in 1966.
Although well-liked and generous to friends, Scott drank heavily,
could be cantankerous and deeply mistrusted the government, which he
suspected of having designs on this ranch, a remote and nearly
inaccessible parcel with high rocky bluffs on three sides and a 75-foot
spring-fed waterfall out back.
“You know what he used to say,” his third wife, Frances Plante, told
writer Michael Fessier Jr. in a 1993 article for the Los Angeles Times
magazine, “He’d say, ‘Frances, every day they pass a new law and the day
after that they pass 40 more.'”
To Los Angeles County officials, the fact that Don Scott got killed
in his own house during a futile raid to seize a non-existent
4,000-plant marijuana farm is just one of the unfortunate facts of life
in the narcotics enforcement business. It doesn’t mean that sheriff’s
deputies did anything wrong.
“Sometimes people get warned and we don’t find anything,” Gary
Spencer, the lead deputy on the raid and the one who shot Scott, told
an L.A. Times reporter in 1997, “so I don’t consider it botched. I
wouldn’t call it botched because that would say that it was a mistake to
have gone there in the first place, and I don’t believe that.”
Someone who did believe that was Ventura County District Attorney
Michael Bradbury. Although Scott’s ranch was in Ventura County, none of
the 31 people participating in the massive early morning raid, which
included officers from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, the DEA,
the National Park Service, the California National Guard and the Border
Patrol bothered to invite any Ventura County officers to come along.
Furthermore, once Scott was shot, Los Angeles County tried to claim
jurisdiction over the investigation of Scott’s death, even though the
shooting occured in Ventura County.
To Bradbury, it was easy to see why. L.A. County wanted jurisdiction.
In a 64-page report issued by Bradbury’s office in March of 1993,
Bradbury concluded that the search warrant contained numerous
misstatements, evasions and omissions. The purpose of the raid, he
wrote, was never to find some evanescent marijuana plantation. It was to
seize Scott’s ranch under asset forfeiture laws and then divide the
proceeds with participating agencies, such as the National Park Service,
which had put Scott’s ranch on a list of property it would one day like
to acquire, and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which heavily
relied on assets seized in drug raids to supplement its otherwise
For something written by a government agency, the Bradbury report was
surprisingly blunt. It dismissed Spencer’s supposed reasons for
believing that the Scott ranch was a marijuana plantation and accused
Spencer of having lost his “moral compass” in his eagerness to seize
Scott’s multi-million dollar ranch. As proof of its assertions, the
report pointed to a parcel map in possession of the raiding party that
contained the handwritten notation that an adjacent 80-acre property had
recently sold for $800,000. In addition, the day of the raid,
participants were told during the briefing that Scott’s ranch could be
seized if as few as 14 plants were found.
In order to verify that the marijuana really existed, at first
Spencer simply hiked to a site overlooking Scott’s ranch. Discovering
nothing, he subsequently sent an Air National Guard jet over the area to
take photographs of the ranch. When this also failed to reveal anything,
he dispatched a Drug Enforcement Administration agent in a light plane
to make a low level flight.
The DEA agent, whose name was Charles Stowell, said he saw flashes of
green hidden in trees which he believed were 50 marijuana plants. At the
same time, Stowell was uncertain enough about his observations — which
he had made with the naked eye from an altitude of 1,000 feet — to warn
Spencer not to use them as the basis for a search warrant without
In an effort to confirm the marijuana sighting — Spencer by this
time had decided that Scott was growing marijuana in pots suspended
under the trees — Spencer asked members of the Border Patrol’s “C-Rat”
team to make a night-time foray into the ranch. Despite two separate
incursions, they failed to find anything except barking dogs. The
following day a Fish and Game warden and Coastal Commission worker went
to the ranch to investigate alleged stream pollution and do a “trout
survey” on the dry stream bed. They too failed to see any marijuana. Two
days after that, a sheriff’s deputy and National Park ranger visited the
ranch again, this time ostensibly to buy a rottweiler puppy from Scott.
The Scotts were friendly and gave them a tour of the ranch. Once again
no one saw any marijuana.
This lack of confirmation notwithstanding, four days later Spencer
filed an affidavit for a search warrant saying that DEA Special Agent
Charles Stowell, “while conducting cannabis eradication and suppression
reconnaissance … over the Santa Monica Mountains in a single engine
fixed wing aircraft … noticed that marijuana was being cultivated at
the Trails End Ranch 35247 Mulholland Highway in Malibu. Specifically
Agent Stowell saw approximately 50 plants that he recognized to be
marijuana plants growing around some large trees that were in a grove
near a house on the property.”
To attorneys with a lot of experience with warrants, Spencer’s
affidavit didn’t look like much. “On a scale of one to ten,” says former
district attorney Longo, “I would give it a one.”
Despite the affidavit’s deficiencies — among other things, Spencer
didn’t mention that none of the people participating in any of the
previous week’s incursions had reported any marijuana — Ventura
Municipal Court Judge Herbert Curtis III issued a search warrant which,
in the words of the Bradbury report, became Scott’s “death warrant.”
After Scott’s death, a helicopter hovered over the area in which the
marijuana plants were believed to have been growing. There were no pots,
no water supply, no marijuana. There was only ivy and even that wasn’t
in the location where the marijuana was supposed to be.
Larry Longo, a friend of Scott whose children used to play with
Scott’s children, says it’s absurd to think that Scott had marijuana
plants hanging from the trees.
“I went up there right after the shooting. The trees were 200- or
300-year-old oak trees. The leaves under them hadn’t been raked in a
hundred years.” If Scott had been growing marijuana under the trees, the
leaves would have been disturbed and the tree bark broken. “There wasn’t
a single mark on the trees. There was no water supply.”
Besides, says Longo, “Donald might have been a lot of things, but he
would never be so dumb as to cultivate marijuana on his property.” If
for no other reason, he didn’t need the money. Any time he needed cash,
all he had to do was call New York and they’d withdraw whatever was
necessary out of his trust fund. At the time of Scott’s death, there was
$1.6 million in his primary trust account.
The Bradbury report caused a huge ruckus in Los Angeles County.
Sherman Block, the sheriff at the time, denounced it and issued a report
of his own which completely cleared everyone, and California Attorney
General Dan Lungren criticized Bradbury for “inappropriate and
Cheered by his apparent exoneration by Sheriff Block and Attorney
General Lungren, sheriff’s deputy Spencer subsequently sued Bradbury for
libel, slander and defamation. After a long and bitter fight, including
allegations that Bradbury suppressed an earlier report which concluded
that Spencer was innocent after all, a state appeals court declared that
Bradbury was within his 1st Amendment rights of free speech when he
criticized Spencer. The court also ordered Spencer to pay Bradbury’s
$50,000 legal fees, a development that caused Spencer to declare
bankruptcy. According to press reports, the stress from all this caused
Spencer to develop a “twitch.”
Spencer wasn’t the only one affected by Scott’s killing. Scott’s
wife, Frances, was so strapped for cash, she subsequently told a judge,
she considering eating a dead coyote she found on the side of the road.
According to her attorney, Johnnie Cochran, as quoted in the Los Angeles
Times, she is currently living on the property while she holds off
government claims to seize it for unpaid taxes. In 1996, the massive
Malibu firestorm destroyed Scott’s ranch house and the outlying
buildings. As a result, Frances Scott currently lives in a teepee
erected over the badminton court, albeit a teepee with expensive rugs
and a color TV.
Scott’s old friend and attorney Nick Gutsue recently said he had
mixed feelings about the settlement. While he was glad that Scott’s
widow and children didn’t have to go through the horror of reliving
Scott’s death in a jury trial, at the same time was disappointed that he
never got a chance to clear Scott’s name.
“I asked for an apology and exoneration of Scott,” said Gutsue. “I
never got one. I was told it was against their policy.” That’s one
reason, said Gutsue, he always wanted a jury trial. In a settlement, no
one has to admit any guilt.
“Of course,” said Gutsue, “$5 million is a pretty good sized