By Lt. Terry Hodges, Retired Game Warden (California Department of Fish and Game)
An excerpt from Warden Force Season 2: Grim Witness
San Quentin State Prison loomed stark and cold, like a medieval castle in the mist. Captain Mervin Hee, California Department of Fish and Game, peered up at the armed guards in the towers and felt a twinge of uneasiness as a huge, steel gate crashed shut behind him. Game wardens Nancy Foley and Roy Griffith felt it too, the unpleasant sensation of being caged. As they continued deeper into the depths of the prison, it was like entering an alien world, a hostile, unfriendly place that reeked of hatred, fear and despair.
A hard-eyed corrections officer led the way through the labyrinth of security chambers and echoing hallways.
"Wait here," he finally said, "They're bringing him out now." Beyond another steel-barred barrier, convicts were present in numbers in an open compound. The wardens studied them with curiosity until a corrections officer appeared, escorting a particularly unhappy-looking convict.
Jonathon Wayne Burgard, doing 18 months for commercial abalone poaching, was indeed anything but happy. He had quickly learned that in a facility jammed with hard-core criminals, many of whom were violent, dangerous men, there was little prestige in being an abalone thief. He had been taunted and tormented from his first day there.
Even now, as the wardens watched him shuffle toward them in his orange coveralls and plastic slippers, a heavily tattooed gang member called out to him, "Hey, abalone boy! We're gonna throw you off the third tier!"
It was Burgard's intense longing to be anywhere but San Quentin that had prompted him to call for a meeting with the wardens who had put him there. He wanted to make a deal, to provide information on the black market abalone trade. Because Burgard was a renown liar, Captain Hee, who was currently running Fish and Game's Special Operations Unit, SOU, held little hope of getting much out of the man. But it was an opportunity he couldn't ignore.
As Captain Hee expected, the hour-long interview produced little. Burgard was evasive from the start, repeatedly dodging questions put to him by the wardens. When he did provide answers, they smacked of fiction. Not far into the session, Nancy Foley feigned disgust, stood up.
"I'm done listening to this garbage," and stomped out of the room. Soon thereafter, Roy Griffith did much the same thing.
"Come on, Mervin, let's get out of here," he said as he walked out. Captain Hee, however, remained. With patience, he played the consummate "soft guy" on this occasion, and Burgard, perceiving his chances for a deal dwindling, aimed his lies a little closer to the truth.
When it was all over and the wardens had gladly left the prison behind, they assessed Burgard's statements. One thing the man had said, almost as an aside, had a definite ring of truth to it. He had said that while operating out of the Sailor's Retreat Hotel in Fort Bragg, he had been solicited by people from a nearby Chinese restaurant who wanted to buy abalone from him.
"We need to put someone in the Sailor's Retreat Hotel," said Captain Hee.
Time and weather had not been kind to the Sailor's Retreat Hotel. The Rip Tide Saloon, which occupied the entire lower floor of the hotel had fared little better. The three-story, ramshackle structure had been built nearly a century earlier entirely of redwood. Warden Tim Olivas peered up at the rows of unwashed windows, some actually boarded shut. He's gotta be kidding, Olivas thought to himself, in reference to his orders from Captain Mervin Hee.
I've gotta stay here?
But Mervin Hee had not been kidding. Olivas, working undercover, was to take a room at the Sailor's Retreat and pose as a sport abalone diver. With luck, he would sooner or later be approached by outlaw abalone buyers known to be operating in the area. Chief among these was Eddie Woo, owner of Woo's Chinese Restaurant, next door to the Sailor's Retreat.
Olivas approached the battered front door of the place, took a deep breath and plunged himself into the dim, smoke-permeated interior of the Rip Tide Saloon. He stood for a moment, his senses adjusting to poor light, bad air, loud music and the raucous communication of two dozen or so patrons. The bar and its row of stools ran the entire length of one wall. Most of the light in the place emanated from the bright-colored neon beer signs in the windows and bare-bulb fixtures illuminating the pool and shuffleboard tables.
The bartender, a lean, sad-eyed man of about 60, looked up from his work as Olivas walked over to address him. Olivas, a sandy-haired, athletic-looking six footer, greeted him with a smile.
"I need a room for a few weeks. Do you have anything?"
The bartender nodded toward a pinch-faced woman wiping down tables.
"You'll have to talk to Deena about that," he said.
Shortly thereafter, Olivas was following Deena, a female version of the bartender, out the front door, around to the back of the building and up a dangerously deteriorated wooden stairway. Upon reaching the second floor, they entered a dank and narrow hallway that smelled of urine. What remained of the carpet, a badly stained lime-green shag, had been installed probably about the time Olivas learned to walk.
They passed doors, a few intact, some shattered and boarded closed, all showing evidence of forced entry. They dodged piles of wrecked furniture, sacked garbage and boxed rubbish until they came to another stairway, narrower than the first, but steeper and every bit as dangerous. Deena led the ascent, and Olivas had to duck to avoid the low ceiling. The third-floor hallway was much like the second, more clutter, more stench, more shattered doors, more lime-green shag. Olivas, on sensory overload, peered around in disgust.
"This is the bathroom," said Deena. Olivas peeked into the small room, then quickly withdrew. It contained the basic elements of an indoor bathroom, he noted, but it somehow smelled like an outhouse. It dawned on him then that this was the only bathroom on the third floor, and he would be sharing it with the dregs of humanity.
At the opposite end of the hall, Deena unlocked the door to room 35, pushed it open and stood aside. Olivas stepped in and stopped dead. The room was little more than a wooden box with two windows. Bare floor, bare walls, no chairs, no table, no furniture except for a steel bed frame supporting a filthy mattress.
A single bare electric bulb dangled from the ceiling on a wire, the room's only electricity. Olivas tugged on the pull cord, and the room suddenly filled with harsh light. A mob of cockroaches scattered, and something small and furry darted under the bed. Olivas wrinkied his nose at the unmistakable aroma of rodent urine.
Catching Olivas' look of revulsion, Deena said, "It's not much, but I rent it cheap."
"What's cheap?" said Olivas, to which Deena answered, "Two-fifty a month."
Olivas pondered the situation, considering his orders: The Sailor's Retreat Hotel made his skin crawl, and it was a fire trap. A drunk with a lighter could spell his doom. So, should he follow orders and live here awhile amid filth, stench and vermin, risking death by fire and disease? Or would he prefer the wrath of Captain Mervin Hee?
Considering this question only briefly, he strolled to a dirty window overlooking a seedy part of town.
"Nice view," he said. "I'll take it!"
In the days that followed, Olivas settled down into something of a routine. He would leave the hotel early each morning and meet with Warden Roy Griffith somewhere along the coast. They would don wetsuits and dive together, harvesting legal limits of four abalone each. Olivas would then take four of the abalone back to the Sailor's Retreat.
A dirt parking lot behind the hotel was shared by several businesses, including Woo's Chinese Restaurant. It was here that Olivas would park his battered Ford Mustang, layout his wetsuit and diving gear and make a show of rinsing them with fresh water. And he would place his abalone out where they could be easily seen by anyone passing by. When he had rinsed and fussed with his gear as long as possible without arousing suspicion, he would pack everything into the Mustang and head for Roy Griffith's motel room a mile up the coast. There he would discuss the preceding day's events with Griffith, then gratefully collapse and sleep for awhile, for he had given up on sleeping at the Sailor's Retreat.
Late in the afternoon, he would drive back to the hotel with the other four abalone and again make a show of rinsing off his gear. When his second parking lot show of the day was finished, he would depart again and leave the abalone with Griffith. With this done he would return to the hotel and hang out at the Rip Tide, shooting pool, drinking beer and gaining the confidence of the locals. At around midnight, he would make the hazardous ascent to the third floor and retire to room 35.
But for Olivas there was no such thing as sleep at the Sailor's Retreat. Because his room had included no bedding, he had made the emergency purchase of a bed sheet, a pillow and a large blanket. But despite these meager comforts, he would remain wide-eyed most of every night. Loud music from the Rip Tide would rattle his walls until the bar closed, and then the blaring boom-boxes, shouts and laughter and general thumping and bumping of some coke-snorting neighbors would continue until almost dawn.
But worst of all was the frequent loud and often violent domestic combat between an evil-tempered biker and his mate on the second floor. The woman bore the marks of substantial beatings, and Olivas worried that he would sometime be forced to abandon his mission and intervene to save her life.
Sometimes, however, just before dawn, the noise would die down to the mere rustling of rodents in the walls and ceiling. It was only then that Olivas could drift away into something approaching sleep.
Through all of this, Warden Roy Griffith had a routine of his own. Assigned by Captain Hee to be case agent for the operation, it was Griffith's responsibility to keep a running log of all that occurred and to coordinate a variety of things including surveillance. At all times when Olivas was doing his act in the parking lot, rinsing his dive gear and showing off his abalone catch, other wardens were watching. And any time Olivas was approached by a possible suspect, the encounter was filmed by a warden with a camcorder.
Griffith had arranged for an old pickup and camper rig to be parked in one corner of the parking lot, and it was inside this camper that the various wardens would spend their shift on watch. Griffith at times did the surveillance work himself. On one memorable occasion, when circumstances had contrived to deprive him of both breakfast and lunch, he was forced to watch from the camper as Olivas held an impromptu barbecue for some of the locals. On a throw-away charcoal grill, Olivas broiled fresh abalone steaks and fed them to his guests on buttered french bread. The delicious aroma of this tasty meal wafting through the open windows of the camper had driven the half-famished Griffith nearly wild.
Days passed. One morning as Olivas was rinsing off his gear, an Asian man whom the wardens recognized as Eddie Woo, the restaurant owner, walked through the parking lot. The surveillance team noted that the man went to the bank. A few minutes later, he returned with a handful of cash. He made no effort to hide it as he walked by Olivas.
"What did you make of that?" Olivas asked Griffith when they met a short time later at Griffith's motel room.
"I think he wanted to let you know he had cash," said Griffith. "I think he wants to buy."
Griffith then hammered on his laptop computer, typing a running account of the day's events wearily recounted by Olivas. When the report for the day was completed, Griffith looked hard at Olivas, whose bloodshot eyes and haggard appearance were beginning to worry him. As usual, they had dove that morning, Olivas on little sleep, and they had packed limits of abalone and their heavy dive gear back up the cliffs. Olivas was wearing down.
"You look beat," said Griffith. "You'd better get some sleep."
"You wouldn't believe that place, Roy," said Olivas, referring to the Sailor's Retreat. "I'd rather sleep in a dumpster." He then flopped down onto the bed and was almost instantly asleep.
Of the many locals who had by now come to know Olivas, a single man he knew only as Dennis sought him out often, too often, in fact, and it soon became apparent to Olivas that the woman of Dennis' dreams might not necessarily be a woman. Dennis enjoyed discussing hunting and diving and confided in Olivas that he had once made a living selling deer jerky in bars. He also claimed to know something of the illegal abalone trade.
"You ought to sell some of those abalone to that restaurant over there," he told Olivas one day, pointing toward Woo's. "They'd probably give you about 10 bucks an ab'. It's a good way to fatten your wallet."
"I usually take mine to San Francisco," said Olivas. "I get 15 for 'em there."
"But you're here. You need a Fort Bragg connection. You should go to the back doors of the restaurants. A cook or a dishwasher will always open the door. Then you ask for the manager. If you go to the front door, they won't talk to you."
Later that day, Olivas discussed Dennis' suggestion with Griffith. It had merit. A week had passed, and Eddie Woo had yet to make a move to buy from Olivas. Should they try going to him? And if they did so, would it be entrapment? Not if Olivas didn't mention buying or selling, they decided. So that evening, Olivas went to the back door of the Chinese restaurant and tapped on the screen door. An unfriendly looking Asian woman of about middle age responded.
"Excuse me, ma'am, but I'm living at the hotel over there, and I was wondering if I could have some ice," said Olivas.
"We don't have no ice machine here," said the woman.
Olivas thanked her anyway, and went back to his car. A few minutes later he returned to the rear of the restaurant, this time bearing three fresh abalone in a cardboard box. This time he was met by Eddie Woo himself, Woo scrutinized him intensely.
"I was wondering if you would be interested in any abalone," said Olivas. "I don't have any ice, and . . . I usually run them down to the city, but . . . ."
"How much do you want?" said Eddie Woo. The woman spoke sharply in Chinese. Woo looked at the woman, then back at Olivas. "I can't buy or sell abalone," he said. "You know, you can get put in jail for that."
"I don't want to get in any trouble. I'm just trying to get rid of these. I usually take them to the city," said Olivas.
Woo and the woman now argued in Chinese, then Woo turned to Olivas.
"I pay 10 dollars. If you want to sell them, walk around for awhile, then put them in the back of that car over there."
He pointed to a white, almost new Mercury four-door sedan. Olivas agreed, then left the restaurant and took a stroll around the block. He then approached the sedan, opened a rear door and deposited the box of abalone on the floor. Woo soon exited the rear of the restaurant and walked toward an alley which led to the main street. He motioned for Olivas to follow.
Warden Griffith, hidden in the camper, had videoed everything up to this point. But when Olivas and Woo disappeared into the alley, he spoke into his radio and performed a "handoff." Another warden took over the surveillance, picking up Olivas and Woo as they reached the sidewalk in front of the restaurant.
"My sister is afraid," said Woo, as the two men walked up the street. "The people who had the restaurant before us got in trouble for buying abalone. I have to be careful." Two blocks north of the restaurant, Woo stepped into the shadows of another alley and pulled $30 cash from his pocket and handed it to Olivas.
"Do you want any more?" Olivas asked.
"Call me at the restaurant tomorrow. My name is Eddie." The two men then parted company, returning to the parking lot by different routes.
Life for Olivas at the Sailor's Retreat had in no way improved. Paul Bunyan Days had come to Fort Bragg, and its residents celebrated. Each night, the Rip Tide Saloon throbbed to the screaming guitars and the pounding rhythms of a band that could well have been from another planet, and the dance floor writhed with a bazaar mix of rocking, gyrating bodies. To Olivas, it was a scene straight out of Star Wars.
Up on the third floor, Olivas was becoming better acquainted with his neighbors. He would pass the often-open doors of some of them as he came or went, or when he journeyed to the bathroom at the far end of the hall. There was Rob, a gnome-like, unwashed, aging hippy who fried dog food on a hotplate in his room. There was Arthur, whose drug-fried brain compelled him to carry on endless and imaginary conversations through a long-dead cell phone. And then there was Rick, the paranoid schizophrenic, who lived with his dog, Rex.
Rex, an odd mix of miniature canines of several breeds, stood only nine inches tall at the shoulder, but through some quirk of nature he had been born with the heart of a pit bull. Upon meeting Rex for the first time, Olivas knelt down and extended a friendly hand. Rex promptly bit him on the finger.
"OW!" cried Olivas, leaping back.
"That's funny," said Rick. "You're not a cop are you? Rex hates cops." And although Olivas was able to convince Rick and the other residents of the Retreat that he was no cop, Rex always knew better. In fact, it became Rex's greatest longing to sink his teeth into Olivas' ankle, a hazard Olivas could avoid only through luck and impressive footwork.
The day following his original sale to Eddie Woo, Olivas phoned the restaurant. Woo was there, and he arranged to buy four more abalone. Olivas made the delivery, again placing the abalone into Woo's sedan. He was paid in much the same way as the day before.
"Do you want any more?" he asked, as he pocketed the two 20-dollar bills. "I have about 10 more in a freezer."
"You call me again tomorrow," said Woo. "I'll ask around."
Following another nightmare night at the Sailor's Retreat, Olivas phoned the restaurant and again spoke with Eddie Woo.
"My sister says one of those abalone was small. She wants big ones," said Woo.
"They were all at least seven inches," said Olivas. "But I've got some bigger ones in my friend's freezer. I think I've got at least 10 or . . . ."
"We'll take them all!" said Eddie Woo.
Later that afternoon, Olivas tugged an ice chest from the trunk of the Mustang, lugged it across the parking lot and placed it in the back seat of Eddie Woo's Mercury. It contained 12 frozen abalone, still in the shell. He then took a short stroll before going to the back door of the restaurant. Woo and his sister were there and invited him in. Woo laid six 20-dollar bills out on a counter and directed Olivas to pick them up. As Olivas did so and pocketed the money, he advised Woo that he had to go to the city on business and would be gone for a few days.
Two days later and 500 miles to the southeast, little Sam Olivas celebrated his third birthday. His mother, Sue Olivas, a remarkably patient Fish and Game wife, planned a party in his honor. He enjoyed a decorated cake, brightly wrapped gifts and a visit from Scottso, the rent-a-clown. Among those present was his father, Warden Tim Olivas. The day was a fine success.
Returning from his five-day absence, Olivas reluctantly resumed his stay at the Sailor's Retreat Hotel. He phoned Eddie Woo immediately upon his arrival.
"Did you go diving today?" Eddie Woo inquired.
"I'm going this afternoon and tomorrow morning," said Olivas. "How many do you want?"
"I want all you catch," said Woo. "I should have about 12 fresh ones, and I have some frozen ones. Can you use about 20?"
"OK, I'll take them all," said Woo.
The following day, two more wardens joined Olivas and Griffith in the morning abalone dive. Olivas phoned Eddie Woo that afternoon. "I've got 16 fresh ones and eight frozen ones," said Olivas. "Do you want them?"
"I want them," said Woo. "Can you bring them to the Safeway parking lot? I can meet you there on the east side of the store at 4:45."
Arriving 10 minutes early for the rendezvous, Eddie Woo paid no attention to the motor home occupying two full parking spaces a few yards from his Mercury. And due to a reflective coating on the motor home's windows, Woo was unable to see the tripod-mounted camcorder that was recording his every move.
Olivas arrived on time and placed three cardboard boxes of eight abalone each in the trunk of the Mercury. As Olivas did the lifting, Woo scanned the area for game wardens, of which there were no fewer than five within 50 yards of him at that moment. And then, like a drug deal in the movies, Woo surreptitiously slipped a dozen 20-dollar bills to Olivas. "Call me again tomorrow," he said.
But there would be no tomorrow for Eddie Woo, at least not in the abalone business. Captain Mervin Hee had followed the case with great interest, and he was of the opinion that it would be difficult to justify extending Olivas' operation at the Sailor's Retreat Hotel. SOU had targeted Eddie Woo and the Chinese restaurant, and Olivas had successfully sold to them. Captain Hee could see no purpose in selling more abalone to Woo, and Olivas, operating under appalling conditions, had served well beyond any reasonable call to duty. The time had come, therefore, to execute the takedown.
Less than an hour following Olivas' final sale of 24 abalone to Eddie Woo, three uniformed game wardens arrived at the restaurant. They told Eddie Woo, his sister and the other employees that they were there to do a routine fish business inspection. What they didn't tell them, at least not initially, was that they had a search warrant for Eddie Woo's home and car.
When the wardens inspected the freezer and the walk-in cold box, they found one whole abalone in its shell, and part of the meat of a second one. When they questioned Woo about sport-caught abalone in a restaurant, Woo grew highly nervous, and when they asked for a peek into the trunk of Woo's Mercury, Woo's knees nearly buckled.
As the wardens were occupied with the recovery of the recently purchased abalone in Woo's trunk, they failed to notice Woo's sister as she slipped away to the telephone. No more than 10 minutes later, Warden Nancy Foley, concealed in shrubbery across the street from Eddie Woo's home, noted the hurried arrival of a red, foreign-made sedan in Woo's driveway. Two young Asian women jumped out and ran into Woo's house, returning a minute later, their arms loaded with freezer bags full of abalone. These they hurriedly dumped into the red sedan, then ran back for more.
"You'd better get over here," said Foley into her radio, and a few seconds later, Warden Russ Gomez wheeled his unmarked Bronco into the driveway, blocking the red sedan. Gomez stepped out, walked to the house and nearly collided with the women rushing out with their next load of bagged abalone.
"Looks like you got us!" exclaimed one of them, remarkably cheerful, as Gomez displayed his badge. Foley, who was engaged in other covert operations in the area, prudently chose to remain out of sight.
The search of Eddie Woo's house yielded 33 abalone, including those removed by the two women. Some of these frozen abalone had been "recycled" by SOU, meaning that they had been sold and recovered several times before. The 16 fresh abalone seized from the trunk of the Mercury, plus the two from the restaurant, brought the total to 51, and it was then apparent that Olivas was not Woo's only supplier.
By the time the last Fish and Game patrol vehicle departed that evening, it was clear to Eddie Woo that catastrophe was upon him. He knew well that the famous "hangin' judges" of Mendocino County would impose a brutal sentence on him. With luck and a good attorney he could possibly stay out of jail, but there would be a crushing fine. It was then that Eddie Woo first considered the mortgaging of his home.
Warden Olivas did not participate in the takedown of Eddie Woo. Instead, he made one last climb to room 35 of the Sailor's Retreat Hotel. There he gathered the bedding he'd purchased and the other few belongings he'd kept there. He then dodged Rex, the cop-hating dog, one last time, dropped off his key at the bar, and promised himself to spend the rest of his life elsewhere.
That evening, at a debriefing called by Captain Mervin Hee, Olivas looked on with the other wardens as Capt. Hee scrutinized his receipt for the purchase of one pillow, one bed sheet, and one king-size blanket.
"Thirty bucks for a blanket? Why did you buy such a big, expensive blanket?" Capt. Hee demanded. "I thought it'd give me better protection against fleas and head lice," said Olivas.
"You're bein' pretty extravagant with the taxpayers' money, aren't you?" said Capt. Hee, stern-faced. Olivas would have been angry had he not noted the twinkle in the man's eye.
"These other wardens think you deserve a medal of valor for staying at the Sailor's Retreat," Capt. Hee continued. "But I've got a better idea."
"Oh yeah? What's that?" inquired Olivas with suspicion, and only then did Capt. Hee break into a grin. "I'm gonna let you keep the blanket!"