Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Justifiable homicide": Cannabis & Tragedy in Humboldt County, 1970

The Eel River in Humboldt County, CA, was the site of a tragic cannabis-related shooting in October 1970.
Everything seemed to be looking up for Patrick John Berti in the fall of 1970. The 23-year-old native of Ferndale, California graduated near the top of his class at Chicago State University the previous fall, and had just spent the summer touring Alaska and Canada. He had applied to law school at San Diego State College and was waiting for a reply.[1]

On October 4, Berti's father, John, enlisted his son to help him carry debris from an old, wrecked store in nearby Waddington. On that Sunday afternoon, Patrick and Jack McCanless, another 23-year-old from Ferndale, took some debris out to be burned on a gravel bed in the Eel River, just east of Waddington near Grizzly Bluff Road.[2]
Two days earlier, Roscoe Rich was following his cows near the same spot on the Eel River when he noticed two four-foot marijuana plants growing in containers on the bed. Rich showed the plants to Humboldt County sheriff deputies Mel Ames and Larry Lema. Ames set up a stakeout to see who would come tend the plants. Two days later, Lema was crouched behind some bushes watching the plants when McCanless and Berti happened upon the containers and began examining them. Like many small-town Americans, Berti knew members of the local police force, including Lema. Berti's back was turned and Lema did not immediately recognize him. But he recognized McCanless, and figured he had caught the youth and a partner cultivating marijuana.[3]

His revolver drawn, Lema stepped out and called to the young men that they were under arrest. Berti, who was crouching next to one of the plants, stood up and turned around. He had taken a small twig from the plant. Lema mistook it for a weapon and fired a single shot into Berti's chest.[4]
It was only after Berti had uttered his final words - "Christ, Larry, you shot me!" - that Lema recognized him. As Berti lay dying on the gravel bar, Lema began handcuffing McCanless, who pleaded with the deputy to let him go get help. They went to the Rich house, where McCanless called an ambulance and Lema told Rich's son, John, to notify the sheriff's department. Berti was dead when Lema and McCanless returned to the gravel bed.

Earlier that day, Lema had witnessed his own child's baptism; his actions that afternoon ensured someone else’s would have a funeral. Presumably from Berti's limp hand, he took the six-inch marijuana twig as evidence.[5]

To understand how a sheriff's deputy could gun down a young man for simply checking out a potted plant, one has to understand the political and cultural context of California, and to some degree the nation as a whole, in the late sixties and early seventies.