Update: On January 11, 2000, the U.S. government and the Los Angeles sheriffs department agreed to pay $5 million to the family of Donald Scott, a millionaire who was killed in 1992 when a SWAT team raided his 200-acre ranch in Malibu.
Scott's wife, Frances Plante, suffered many indignities along the way. After her husband was shot and her credibility questioned, their house burned down, and at the time of the settlement, she was living in a teepee on the ranch, fighting off yet another government attempt to seize the propertyóthis time for unpaid taxes.
Plante gave her first full account of the raid to Cynthia Cotts, whose investigation of this phenomenal abuse of the asset forfeiture laws appeared in the Voice in June 1993. The full story is reprinted below.
"They killed my husband to get his land," says Frances Plante, a 39-year-old with miles of fringe on her suede jacket. As we hike through Trail's End, the 200-acre ranch outside Malibu, California, she calls home, her Rottweilers tag along, poking their snouts in the bushes and barking into the wind.
Last summer, Plante married Donald Scott, a millionaire by inheritance. For the last 25 years he had been holed up in his canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains, surrounded on three sides by national parkland. His first wife had left him, and Plante had moved in two years ago. "We were just down-home, country folk," Plante says. "Donald was a real sweetheart." But he didn't trust the park service, which had long wanted to annex his land. "He thought they were trying to terrorize us and get us out of here."
Plante's honeymoon ended at 8:30 a.m. last October 2, when 32 men and women drove up the dirt road to Trail's End. The brigade, led by the Los Angeles sheriffs, included representatives of the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, the National Guard, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory--a NASA subsidiary invited by the sheriffs to collect marijuana pollen on the property.
When Plante woke up, the house was shaking. "It sounded like an earthquake," she says. Plante went to investigate. Scott, who was 61, stayed in bed, unaware that the agents ramming his door had a search warrant or that they expected to find 50 marijuana plants hanging in the trees.
"I got dressed so fast I pulled on my pants backwards and was putting on my shirt as I went into the kitchen," Plante recalls. "Then I saw a face peering at me through the window. I had no idea who it was. As I was buttoning my shirt, a voice said, ` Put your hands down."' Then a voice said, "'Let me go first,' and someone else said, `Yeah, let Gary go first."' Suddenly, deputy sheriffs Gary Spencer and John Cater burst into the kitchen with their guns drawn.
"When I saw all those guns, I backed into the living room and started screaming. My husband ran out with his .38 pointed in the air, and he said, `Frances, are you okay?"' Someone shouted, "Put the gun down! Put the gun down! Put the--" As Scott lowered his arm, they fired. One bullet hit his right arm and lung, another ripped through his chest. A third missed, zinging through the wall behind him.
"He wasn't even looking at them, he was looking at me," Plante says, standing exactly where she had stood when Scott hit the floor. "And when he landed, his face was turned toward me, with one piece of hair curling over his jaw. Then the blood started to come out, the darkest purple I ever saw.
"I started screaming `Don't shoot me! Don't kill me!' Then I felt a hand on my shoulder, draggin' me into the kitchen." A voice said, "Don't worry, we aren't going to kill you." Another voice said, "Get her out."
Plante's handlers left her on the patio, handcuffed and half-dressed, as they began searching the grounds. One man leaned in the doorway, next to a jade tree in a bucket. "So who are you, his girlfriend?" he asked. "Where are the plants?" asked someone else. "There are no plants here," she insisted. "I'm the only Plante here, that's my name."
Inside the house, lieutenant sheriff Richard DeWitt called headquarters to report the incident. Unaware that he was being taped, DeWitt described Scott's so-called threatening behavior. "I told him to put it down.... He had it pointed up in the air originally.... As he brought it down, he was kinda pointing the gun toward the deputy, and I don't know which deputy it is right now."
"Kinda?" asks Frances Plante, as we discuss the tape. "How can you kinda point the gun?" She says her husband wasn't pointing the gun, and he definitely wasn't growing marijuana. "As I sat there on the patio, I realized, these sons of bitches are a hit squad for the U.S. government!" Much to the dismay of the narcs, a thorough search of the property didn't turn up any drugs. Not even a seed.
Outraged, the widow accused the park service of a "land grab." The service denied any role in instigating the raid. But as Plante points out, the sheriffs had the tool to get the job done: the asset forfeiture law.
Under a 1984 federal statute, narcotics agent are encouraged to confiscate property from suspected drug traffickers without bothering to arrest or convict anyone. The law offers a double incentive: an easy standard of proof (requiring only "probable cause" to connect the property to a drug crime) and cash commissions (up to 85 percent on seized assets). As of May , drug agents had seized $3 billion worth of property, and the government's inventory now includes 33,000 homes, cars, airplanes, yachts, and cash deposits. Local agencies are encouraged to spend the booty on law enforcement--training, equipment, informants--but some have used it to buy air conditioners, large-screen TVs, fitness equipment and gifts for secretaries. If Trail's End had been seized and sold for its estimated value of $5 million, the Los Angeles sheriffs might have enjoyed a windfall of $4 million.
The Justice Department calls asset forfeiture a "scorched-earth policy" to wipe out major drug dealers. But given its low-risk, high-yield construction, it's no surprise the law is routinely abused. In 1991, two Pittsburgh Press reporters reviewed 25,000 DEA seizures. Their conclusion: instead of targeting traffickers, the drug statute "mostly ensnares the modest homes, cars and cash of ordinary, law-abiding people." Or, in Donald Scott's case, a 200-acre ranch that guaranteed a promotion to the first cop aggressive enough to grab it for the government.
The mastermind behind the raid was Los Angeles deputy sheriff Gary Spencer, who is 39 and based in Malibu [as of 1993]. Spencer has been described by acquaintances as "a hot shot," "cute and flirty," and a "kid" who "surfs with the guys around here to find out what's going on." Apparently, in this case, he approached asset forfeiture the way young turks on Wall Street approach insider tradingóif you get away with it, you can score big.
Before the raid, Spencer was boasting heavily. According to one acquaintance, "he was bragging to people he was going to be in on the biggest bust, and he was bragging to the park service that they were going to get all this land." A park ranger remembers Spencer saying before the raid that if they seized the ranch, Los Angeles County might give it to the park service. Technically, the park service would have been invited to buy the seized property from the Justice Department.
Spencer declined to comment, and all questions were referred to captain Larry Waldie, who runs the detective division of the sheriff's narcotics bureau. Waldie has friendly blue eyes. But when I sit down in his office, I can't help noticing the two-foot figurine that looks for all the world like Porky Pig in a uniform.
Waldie denies the allegation of a land grab. "I'm really offended at the suggestion that I'm going for people's assets," he says. If I even thought my men looked at something in terms of asset forfeiture, I'd throw them out."
Then he turns to the events leading up to the raid. Last September, Spencer received the tip that set things in motion: according to a DEA informant, Donald Scott had "a couple thousand plants" growing at Trail's End. On September 10, Spencer hiked to the top of the waterfall at the northern edge of the ranch, looking for dope. "The informant was reliable," Waldie says, "but we couldn't locate any evidence via the ground. So we formed a task force."
Within days, a National Guard plane flew over the property to photograph it. Waldie explains, "The first flyover didn't show much of anythingóthat was high altitudeóso we decided to risk a low flyover with an expert." The expert was Charles Stowell, the DEA's point man for marijuana eradication in California. On September 23, Stowell flew over the ranch in a fixed-wing aircraft. Once. Twice. A third time. According to Waldie, "Stowell came back and said, ëHey, I only saw about 50 plants up in the trees.'" The tree method, he says, is a "new process they're doing to avoid detection. They grow them on platforms in trees with the block-and-tackle method." When the plants need watering, they are brought down using an elaborate pulley system.
The next morning, Stowell had second thoughts. He suggested that Spencer get more evidence. No problem! Spencer arranged for four Border Patrol agents, equipped with climbing gear, night-vision goggles, cameras, and weapons, to forge onto Scott's property after nightfall on September 24. But they couldn't find the alleged grow site.
Spencer must have been desperate. On September 30, he called Stowell to tell him the informant had changed his story. According to Waldie, the informant said, "ëHey, it's only 50 plants now, it looks like.'" Immediately, Stowell gave him permission to use the flyover as evidence.
When Spencer drew up the search warrant, he described the flyover and added one tidbit from an anonymous informant: Frances Plante had been seen in Malibu "flashing a very large bundle of currency" and spending $100 bills on small purchases. On October 1, Spencer showed the search warrant to a deputy D.A. in Ventura County, telling him that Stowell had actually seen between 50 and 100 plants. The deputy approved the warrant, and, later that day, a Ventura county judge signed it. Cowabunga!
As you might imagine, Gary Spencer's account of the raid differs significantly from Frances Plante's. In interviews conducted by the district attorney of Ventura County, Spencer and fellow deputy Cater said that on approaching the house they knocked for several minutes, saying, "Sheriff's department. We have a search warrant. Open the door." Spencer went around the back and yelled, "Don! It's the sheriff! You're going to have to open the door or we're gonna have to break it open!"
Plante could not have witnessed the shooting, according to Spencer, because after prying the door open, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her behind him into the kitchen, where she was held by two other deputies. As Spencer looked into the living room, he saw Scott run out, holding his gun by the cylinder.
Spencer fell on one knee and Cater leaned in behind him. Spencer yelled, "Donald, drop the gun! Drop the gun! Drop the gun!" As Scott lowered his arm, he rotated the gun in his hand until his finger was on the trigger. When Spencer was "looking down the barrel" of Scott's gun, he hesitated, then fired twice. Scott died on the spot.
In the hours that followed, the search team could not find a trace of marijuana on the property. No precision scales, no "pay/owe slips" recording the drug sales. And certainly no sinsemilla in the trees. "We found rope!" Captain Waldie protests. "We found a hose!"
In 1989, a poll found that 62 percent of Americans were "willing to give up some freedoms" for the goal of a drug-free America. That may explain why the public has been so complacent about asset forfeiture. But this year, the backlash has begun. Angry citizens are calling the law unconstitutional and demanding the return of their rights.
Civil forfeiture relies on the ancient "legal fiction" that the property itself is guilty of a crime. Because the property is charged, property owners aren't guaranteed their usual rights. That means minimal due process. No presumption of innocence. And the punishments don't fit the crime.
"I don't want anybody else to have to go through what I did," says Barbara Karaoglanyan, who runs a carpet store in suburban L.A. "But I know that every day it's happening to somebody. They can take anything you do or say or have and use it to steal your property."
Last summer [in 1992], Los Angeles sheriffs impounded her house after they found 14 marijuana plants growing underneath it. Karaoglanyan works 12 hours a day, six days a week, and she had no idea her boyfriend was a hydroponics expert. (Only the narcs knew for sure.) She launched a massive letter-writing campaign protesting her innocence. In a rare victory, the feds dropped the action against her.
Just as forfeiture assumes model citizens are guilty by association, it inflicts unfair penalties on small-time criminals. In 1990, South Dakota resident Richard Austin sold two grams of cocaine to an undercover cop. But when the feds seized his mobile home and body shop, he thought it was too harsh a penalty for a single drug sale. In April, his case was argued before the Supreme Court.
A decision is expected in June . If the court rules in Austin's favor, it would be a landmark Eighth Amendment decision, guaranteeing forfeiture victims their rights to a punishment that fits the crime. Moreover, the Court's decision might motivate that 62 percent of the public to rethink one of the canards of the drug waróthat no punishment is too cruel.
"We've adopted this demonology," says Robert Sweet, a federal judge in New York who has become an outspoken critic of U.S. drug policy. "Drugs and drug users are made scapegoats."
Sure enough, after botching the raid on Trail's End, the Los Angeles sheriffs needed someone to blame. That might explain why they tried to smear Frances Plante with what Waldie calls her "historical record of involvement in dope activity."
It all centers on a roach. In 1990, Plante was flying into her home state of Texas. As she walked out of the bathroom, a stewardess saw her drop it. She was later charged with possession of a marijuana cigarette and the case is now on appeal.
So let's see. Barbara Karaoglanyan's boyfriend grew his own herb. Richard Austin sold a night's worth of blow. And Frances Plante might have smoked a joint in the sky. That certainly lumps them in with the drug culture. But as long as we have the constitution, it's no excuse for taking their property. Let alone killing an innocent man.
On March 30, , Ventura County district attorney Michael Bradbury released his Report on the Death of Donald Scott, the result of a six-month investigation into the killing. The D.A. exonerated the park service and accepted Spencer's claim that he shot in self-defense. "But the crux of this issue," said Bradbury, "is those deputy sheriffs shouldn't have been there in the first place."
"Donald Scott did not have to die, and he should not have died," declared Bradbury. "He was an unfortunate victim of the war on drugs."
The D.A. slammed Spencer for obtaining an illegal search warrant in an attempt to seize the property. According to his report, "The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to seize and forfeit the ranch for the government."
The day the report came out, Captain Waldie issued his standard denial. (I had interviewed him a month earlier.) "Forfeiture was never the objective in this case," he said. "That's a slur on all of law enforcement."
On March 31, the D.A. released further evidence: two documents that had been handed out two weeks before the raid at a planning meeting convened at narcotics bureau headquarters in Whittier. The meeting took place on September 22, [1992,] one day before Stowell flew over and "spotted" the marijuana. And yet, participants received a copy of an appraisal indicating that taxes on the ranch came to $1.1 million. They also received copies of a parcel map. Agent Stowell noted on his map, "80 acres sold for $800,000 in 1991 in the same area."
A spokesman for the D.A. explained, "We can find no reason why law enforcement officers who were investigating suspected narcotics violations would have any interest in the value of Trail's End Ranch . . . other than if they had a motive to forfeit that property."
Because the district attorney is held to the highest standard of proof, he didn't conclude that Spencer had lied. But he wasn't sure the deputy had told the whole truth, and he had doubts about the DEA agent, too. Not only was there never any marijuana growing at Trail's End "in the quantity and manner suggested," said Bradbury, but "there is virtually no way that Stowell could have seen through that canopy of trees." When asked to explain Stowell's motive, he said, "I think [he] was under tremendous pressure from . . . Deputy Spencer" to say he'd seen the marijuana.
The D.A. pointed to evidence that indicated Spencer had lied, including a slew of misstatements and omissions in the search warrant. For example, Spencer had sworn that Plante's BMW was registered to Donald Scott, when records show it was not. More significantly, Spencer omitted the series of failed attempts to locate the plants on the ground, including the Border Patrol exhibition, which was technically a civil trespass. "Our opinion," the report stated, "is that all of the entries onto the property . . . should have been reported in the Statement of Probable Cause."
Spencer's coup de grace was delivered by the source on whom he depended the most: his informant.
In an interview with the D.A., the informant confirmed that he had, indeed, claimed there were 3000 to 4000 plants on the ranch. But, contrary to what Spencer told Stowell, the informant denied ever saying there were only 50 plants left.
Based on that denial, the D.A. raised "the possibility that Spencer fabricated this information in order to induce Stowell to agree to use his name in the search warrant affidavit."
Fabricating evidence in a search warrant is illegal, and while the D.A. did not press perjury charges, the accusation prompted the L.A. sheriffs to open a second internal investigation. (The first, in which Gary Spencer took a leading role, had cleared him of any wrongdoing.)
Meanwhile, Frances Plante has hired defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran to represent her. He's about to file a complaint accusing Spencer of wrongfully killing Donald Scott, and of conspiring to violate Scott and Plante's civil rights.
Spencer remains on duty in Malibu, where he is fast becoming a legend. He and John Cater have two other civil-rights suits pending against them. [The Voice has been unable to determine the ultimate disposition of these suits.] In one, an accountant accuses the sheriffs of pistol-whipping him so badly he needed five operations to replace vertebrae in his neck. The other plaintiff is a man whose house was seized when the narcs found drugs in his son's living quarters. The suit accuses Cater of lying in the search warrant affidavit and his team of stealing money during the raid. The sheriff's office declined to comment. Spencer and Cater deny any wrongdoing.
Despite the growing complaints, asset forfeiture is still standard practice for drug agents across the country, and the Justice Department is now promoting it as "the law enforcement tool of the ë90s." But since 1985, this bizarre law has encouraged police to use perjury, false evidence, and excessive force for profit. As Frances Plante says, "It's no longer a war on drugs. It's a war on people."