by Sarah Miller
In May of 2015, Deputy Sheriff Jason Mackey and Assistant District Attorney Glenn Jennings met outside the courthouse in Nevada City, California. Jennings, in his late 50s, was tall, with greying dark hair and a neat mustache: Charles Bronson with three-quarters of Bronson’s menace drained out of him. Mackey, a cross between a NorCal bro and an Amish farmer, had been with the Sheriff’s Department since 2005, and, for almost a year, a member of its Narcotics Task Force (NTF).
In Mackey’s hand was a search warrant he had written the previous January to search the home of Andrew Bell for methamphetamines. The search had turned up 1.82 grams of methamphetamine, a little over a hundred dollars’ worth. Bell was placed under arrest. What had brought Jennings and Mackey to court that day was that Bell’s attorney had challenged the warrant authorizing the search in the first place. Mackey had been called on to testify in its defense, but had refused. “I can’t take the stand,” he told Jennings.
“Why not?” Jennings asked. The deputy pointed to the warrant and said, “I didn’t have this address at the time I wrote the warrant.” Jennings—who, in his twenty-plus years as a prosecutor, had never heard the words “I can’t take the stand” from a law enforcement officer—promptly dismissed the Bell case, his quarter-Bronsonness likely bringing a slight scowl to his face as he did so.
There are people in this county who will try to tell you that it’s not really a big deal that Jason Mackey said “I can’t take the stand” that day. They will say that he was young—he’s in his 40s—that he made a mistake, that everyone makes mistakes. One of these people is our incumbent DA, Cliff Newell, Glenn Jennings’s opponent in the fast-approaching District Attorney election; the two men will face voters next week, on June 5th.
Newell, sixtyish, aggressively genial, a less-aware Lumbergh from Office Space, has said during the campaign, “It would have been easy for me to say, ‘This cop made a mistake on a search warrant’… A young man, wife, new kid… For political expediency, I could have kicked him to the side and we would never have had to address any of this.”
This past February, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to go see this guy Glenn Jennings, who was running for DA, address a group of Nevada County Republicans.
“Do you like him?” I asked my friend.
“Yes,” my friend said.
“Why?” I said.
“Because he’s not Cliff fucking Newell,” my friend said.
I’d always had a perverse desire to see the inside of the Nevada County Republican headquarters, and it did not disappoint. There was a mini Christmas tree (really just a branch) hung with homemade Trump meme ornaments. An older lady wearing a sweater asked if I was a Republican. “I am not a member of any political party,” I said, “Are you a Republican?” and she said she was, and that she was on the school board in Penn Valley. “God I should really run for a school board,” I thought to myself as I counted American flags (more than sixty).
It was a few days after Parkland. I overheard some people talking about how even though it was too bad all those people died, the Second Amendment was basically the most important thing in the world. When they started to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I felt I should just stand, so as not to stick out, but I found that I just couldn’t.
Glenn Jennings appeared with his arm in a sling. He referred to an accident that I assumed was car-related (I later discovered it was motocross) and offered a brief, very square bio: Chico State, Santa Clara Law, “beautiful wife Tammy for 36 years,” children, grandchildren. His voice was very matter of fact, masculine but with a slight tenor, and though he is from California, he seemed soothingly Midwestern.
Jennings then told the rest of the story I started above.
He began with a little lesson on sealed warrants. The whiteboard easel was broken so one of the Republicans had to hold it. It turns out a grown man playing a whiteboard easel is pretty funny and we all laughed and I felt guilty for having fun with gun-loving Republicans.
Jennings explained that a sealed warrant has a public portion, which anyone can see, containing the address to be searched, the officer’s qualifications, and the illegal substance or activity present at that address. Then there is a sealed portion, which only judges, cops and district attorneys see, and this contains information about confidential informants.
He asked us to set that aside because he’d be returning to it later, and went on.
After Jennings retired from the Butte County District Attorney’s office in 2012, Newell brought him in to work part-time in Nevada County’s smaller satellite office in Truckee, which had been neglected for some time, and had a backlog of cases needing attention. Jennings caught up on the work, apparently well enough that Newell shipped Anna Ferguson, his long-time ADA, to Truckee, and promoted Jennings into her spot.
Immediately after Mackey said “I can’t take the stand,” Jennings met with his boss, Newell, as well as chief DA investigator Randall Billingsley, and the three agreed that an investigation of Mackey was in order. Newell tapped Billingsley to do the job. With Jennings observing, Billingsley interviewed three sheriff’s deputies, all of whom stated that they would not sign warrants written by Mackey. Additionally, a Grass Valley police captain told Jennings and Billingsley that he would “watch himself” around Mackey and money. When, months later, I asked Newell about this, he said “we call that gossip … 8th grade stuff.” But this wasn’t the 8th grade. It was law enforcement officers conducting official interviews.
Based on the information gathered in the interviews, Jennings drew up a plan to look at the sealed portions of Mackey’s warrants to see if there was any evidence of wrongdoing. Newell and Billingsley both agreed this was a reasonable next step. But things did not proceed reasonably.
A few days later, Newell spoke to Sheriff Keith Royal and Captain Jeff Pettit in the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office. Shortly thereafter he told Jennings, who had not yet pulled Mackey’s warrants, that he wanted the investigation stopped.
“Now he’s my boss at the time, and I said, ‘Okay,” Jennings said, his free, uninjured arm swerving out from his upright form in a gesture that was at once cynical and helpless. “What else can I do?”
In time, Jennings said, Newell presented him with a document stating that the Nevada County District Attorney’s office had conducted a complete and thorough investigation into Mackey and found no wrongdoing. Jennings refused to sign it.
Newell then told Jennings that Mackey, who was now on what the Sheriff’s office called “rehabilitation,” was going to write all warrants for the Narcotics Task Force. Other officers would vouch for his affidavits. “Common sense tells you that’s crazy,” Jennings said. “But if another officer is going to sign off on every part of that, I said, it’s a little strange, but I will go along with it.” (When I talked to Newell later, he would repeatedly describe the issues with Mackey as “personnel issues.”)
Some days later, deputy district attorney Oliver Pong called Jennings and said that Mackey had shown up with a warrant for him to approve, and had named an officer who, it turned out, would vouch for parts A and B, but not C. Jennings told him not to sign it. Newell himself had said that Mackey’s warrants were supposed to be completely verified by other officers.
Mackey arrived in Jennings’s office a couple of days later with a warrant for him to sign. Jennings asked Mackey if another officer had signed off on it, and Mackey looked at him like he had no idea what he was talking about. “At that point,” Jennings said, “I knew the fix was in.”
A while later, Newell asked Jennings to come to his office. “You pissed off the Sheriff,” Newell said. Newell told Jennings he could either quit, or Newell could fire him. “I didn’t want to make a scene,” Jennings said, “So I quit.” Shortly thereafter, Jennings returned to his old office in Butte County, where he is currently working.
In addition to stopping an investigation of the Sheriff’s deputy when the Sheriff requested it, Jennings explained, Newell hadn’t tried a felony case in twelve years, and many of the cases he’d tried before that were DUIs. This lack of know-how led to a lack of mentorship that in turn led to a lot of turnover in the office—there had been five ADAs in three years, and deputy DAs didn’t stick around, either.
Jennings promised if he were elected the DA he would know which cases to try, and which cases not to. He said he would mentor and train staff, and keep people around long enough that the office would run smoothly.
At this point, someone asked Jennings where laws came from. Without hesitation he pointed up to the sky and said, “From God.”
The Gold Rush pretty much started here in Nevada County. After that there was logging, farming and ranching. There’s still some ranching and farming, but a lot of the latter is organic stuff that can’t possibly make a lot of money, and is made possible by parents, or other jobs, or just by the willingness to be poor. There’s some tech and tourism, but if you go into a supermarket, K-Mart, or any bar in town and ask people what they do—provided they answer—a lot of them are going to say that they grow pot. The pot growers vary widely on the respectability spectrum. There are people with jobs and gardens on the side, there are big, increasingly professional cannabis collectives, there are corporate-flavored big grows, and there are big grows guarded by people with guns buried in the most rural areas of the county.
Nevada County is between Sacramento and Tahoe. It is rural but it’s not completely cut off from all civilization. We have good coffee and food. Women here get boob jobs. We have a cadre of hipsters who could hold their own against Brooklyn or Silver Lake’s finest.
The population is about 100,000, and about 93 percent of those people are white. Liberals here wring their hands about this, but keep their hand-wringing mostly on the DL when in public, especially, perhaps, on their porches, in view of their gun-loving, pickup truck driving, concealed-carry-permit-carrying neighbors. Jennings himself has a concealed carry permit, and so does Newell. Democrats recently gained a very slight lead over Republicans in the county voter rolls. Crime rates here are fairly low. There are some meth labs. There are some murders connected to the drug trade, and some to people just murdering each other sometimes. When there is a murder here it surprises people, but it doesn’t shock them.
The backstory of Deputy Mackey’s troubles is pretty much all about the pot industry, which is in sort of a weird place right now. Prop 64 made pot legal in California and in Nevada County, and measure W, a ban on outdoor cultivation, was voted down. But towns and counties do have some jurisdiction over how Prop 64 works, and the Nevada County Board of Supervisors have dragged their feet about changing their policies. “Sheriff Royal personally and professionally disagrees with the legalization of marijuana and has been aggressive about pursuing prohibition, even though the voters of California have decided to go in another direction,” said Stephen Munkelt, a local defense attorney. Local law enforcement in Nevada County is broadly thought to have used its influence to delay and obstruct these new laws.
The Bell warrant at the heart of the Newell/Jennings/Mackey imbroglio was for methamphetamines, but most of Mackey’s warrants concerned pot. That’s partly because of Nevada County, but also because pot was Mackey’s meat and drink. In a court affidavit written in 2018, we find that, “In 2013 Mackey was assigned to the Marijuana Abatement Team… he authored more than 20 civil abatement warrants, abated more than 4,000 marijuana plants, and investigated no less than 145 marijuana gardens.” As Newell said to me later, with admiration in his voice, “Mackey was very prolific with the marijuana stuff on the task force, and they went to him to get a lot of search warrants.”
The first DA debate on the campaign schedule was in Rough and Ready, a community of about 1000 people just east of Grass Valley. Rough and Ready seceded from the Union for three months over mining rights in 1850, and the town still has a rangy, don’t-tread-on-me, pioneer feeling. Sitting above it all behind a veil of oaks, very on brand, is the community’s white-clapboard, tin-roofed Grange Hall.
There were a lot of older white couples, women in neat skirts and pantsuits and men in plaid shirts and baseball hats – no MAGA action, just a lot of hats from various feed stores. It was weird seeing Newell up close for the first time. After thinking about him and reading about him so much, to be presented with him in person, to see that he was a person, kind of freaked me out—like you might feel when seeing an idol, but in reverse. He was wearing a brownish suit that somehow had four buttons on it instead of two or even three. It looked like he was wearing an envelope. Jennings’s suit was also too big, but it was a normal looking suit.
After an awkward coin toss, Newell went first. He played to the crowd, talking first about how he’d been “a good steward of money.” Then he talked about crime; recidivism was down in Nevada County, he said. Crime was decreasing, not increasing.
I’ve heard people who support Newell over Jennings say they think Jennings is too conservative. Jennings is certainly conservative—he has put young offenders in jail, he has defended police use of force, he calls violent criminals “the worst of the worst”—but within just minutes of hearing Newell speak, it was easy to see that his politics were pretty much indistinguishable from Jennings’s. He complained about AB 109, as well as propositions 47 and 57, modifications to the California penal code that make it more difficult to incarcerate people. “Criminals know they can get away with it when it’s always a misdemeanor,” Newell said. “The max you can put them in jail is 480 days and they can do that standing on their heads.”
When Jennings’s turn came, he didn’t focus on the misconduct he’d seen in the DA’s office. He mentioned it, then concentrated on Newell’s lack of experience, and the turnover in the office during his tenure. “What will I bring? I will bring my experience. I’ll lead by example. Not only will I talk the talk and walk the walk, I’ll earn their respect… They will stay here. They will learn because number two, I will mentor them… I promise I’ll work the whole four years and earn every paycheck.”
There were a few questions, and a long debate about dead chickens at a feed store, which went on so long the moderator had to stand up and tell the feed store owner, “I think we need to stop with this problem.”
Then someone got up and asked Jennings about the corruption he’d heard about.
Jennings was obviously pleased to have been asked this question, and he told a short version of the story. Eventually he got around to the part where Newell had asked him to sign a document saying that the investigation of Mackey had discovered no wrongdoing.
Newell said the document was not as Jennings characterized it. “I took a paper into Mr. Jennings’s office, it was my signature line at the bottom of the paper. I was quoting him as to what something he said outside the courtroom, and I wanted to make sure the quote was fine. I asked him to verify that what I attributed to him was correct.” He described the document at great length.
Now Jennings squared himself to the audience. “So what he’s saying is that he didn’t come into my office and put a document on my table that said, ‘After a complete and thorough investigation we find no wrongdoing on behalf of this narcotics officer.’ One of us is telling the truth, and one of us isn’t. OK? Because that happened.”
“As regards that search warrant,” Newell interjected. “Just that search warrant. Not his overall interactions with the agency.”
“Okay,” said Jennings. “Alright, so I guess he’s now saying it did happen.”
Heather Burke, a Nevada City cannabis attorney, is 40, with lots of swinging brown hair, and serious tattoos. Her latest Facebook update reads, “Today seems like a good day to smoke some great weed.”
Burke said that while working on the Matthew Wilkes case in 2014 she had heard some rumors about Mackey, but hadn’t given them much credence until the 2015 growing season, when deputy DA Oliver Pong let her know there was an Internal Affairs issue with Mackey.
Mackey hadn’t written the warrant for the Wilkes case, but he’d been one of the officers who showed up to bust it, and, according to some of his fellow officers, Mackey reported that Wilkes had admitted to selling marijuana, when in fact other deputies present had heard nothing of the kind, and had instead heard Wilkes take his Miranda rights.
“An admission is a big deal,” Burke said, her voice rising to an indignant pitch. “You can’t say someone admitted it if they didn’t.”
We met in her sunny, breezy office. There was a light reggae soundtrack; the decor, heavy on local tribal art. She went to get tea and commiserate with a colleague about the office pet, a fish that had lived only one day, before returning to the tale.
Around January 2016, she started hearing from other defense attorneys that the DA’s office was filing requests for an ex parte in camera hearing with judges—a closed meeting without the presence of defense attorneys.
Burke filed a slew of objections to the closed hearing, and she and Newell briefed back and forth for a while. “It was a changing argument,” Burke explained. First it was “We don’t have [the documents you want].” Then it became, “We don’t agree we have to disclose.”
Munkelt, who had also gotten these strange notices, also communicated his displeasure to the DA’s office. In April, Judge Robert-Tice Raskin finally granted a hearing to Burke, Munkelt, and several other defense attorneys who were alarmed by Newell’s “unconstitutional and unusual” (Burke’s words) tactics. “The whole defense bar came to watch,” Burke said.
Newell’s version of this story is that all he was trying to do was give defense attorneys a redacted copy of the Bell warrant so they could just “have all the information I had. It was almost comical, because I was trying to do something for them, and they were trying to hold me to task for doing something sneaky,” he told me in a phone call.
Burke doesn’t find this explanation any more convincing now than she did then. “After all this argument and all this prep, and briefing and briefing and briefing, and objections to our briefing, I mean, we are fighting. And then we get in there and Newell says, ‘We’re not fighting, I will give them what they want! That’s why I am here!'”
But how does “We don’t have it” and “We don’t have to disclose” suddenly become “We intended to disclose all along”? As Burke put it, “[Newell] had multiple opportunities to give it to us. Everything they said—everything they did for three months—almost contradicted what was [finally] said in the courtroom that day.”
In the end, Judge Tice-Raskin ordered the Bell warrant unsealed, and accompanying the warrant was a memo from Newell to Sheriff Royal explaining why he believed Mackey had been unable to take the stand in the Bell matter.
No one should be surprised to hear that Burke, Munkelt and a number of other defense attorneys were disinclined to accept the Sheriff’s own investigation as the last word on Mackey. Burke continued to press for more information, gaining a little ground every few months, including some 130 heavily redacted pages from a 900-page Internal Affairs investigation of Mackey that had taken seven months to complete and had resulted in a complete exoneration.
Finally, in February of 2018—two years after defense attorneys had begun to demand disclosure of records in the Mackey case—Judge Tice-Raskin granted a hearing in the 2015 Gonsman-Connor case, in which Mackey had written the warrant. The defendants had been charged with what was then felony possession of marijuana—a crime that is now, post-Prop 64, a misdemeanor—but which, given the political climate in Nevada County, the district attorney’s office was not going to let go.
The Gonsman-Connor hearings went on for five weeks in the old art deco courthouse on a hill at the top of town. I attended three times. Steve Munkelt wore slick, sometimes shiny suits and smiled with uninhibited pleasure when he scored points. Burke wore western boots into the building, switching them for pumps a few seconds before court was called to order. Representing the DA’s office was Newell’s new right-hand man, ADA Christopher Walsh, 32, a graduate of Oak Brook College Law School with good suits and a lot of gel in his hair. He moved up here from the Bay Area with a wife and three young children, and apparently took up almost immediately with a bailiff, which set tongues wagging. I see her and Walsh, both fit, young and good looking, jogging at the gym sometimes.
People who work in the court system seemed just as concerned about Walsh’s character as they were about Newell’s, if not more so. He was very much disliked. No one would speak on the record, but everyone told me to call a defense attorney named Greg Klein, who they said would be willing. I called him a few times, with no result.
Jennings himself came in to testify in the third week of hearings. He told his story, from “I can’t take the stand” to quitting, all the way through, again. In cross-examination, Walsh repeatedly asserted that Jennings “went around” lying about Mackey and the Bell warrant.
It was a wild situation: Newell’s former ADA being questioned by his current ADA, who would be out of a job if the man he was questioning won an election that might hinge on the outcome of these proceedings.
When at one point Walsh accused the defense of being “political,” Munkelt replied “You’re the one who is making it political, dude.”
Deputy Sheriff Jason Mackey testified on the last day. At the start of his testimony, he broke down on the stand, recalling an operation his son had to correct hearing loss. Mackey claimed that the stress of this operation led him to make “errors.” I almost always tear up when other people cry, but faced with this performance I remained entirely unmoved. It was about his kid being sick and though I bought that his kid was sick, I didn’t buy that he was still upset about it; it felt like an act. Mackey ended his testimony by examining the Gonsman-Connor warrant.
Mackey had attached to the affidavit four aerial photographs. Two of them were a view of a clearing in the forest, one closer, one farther away. The other two were satellite overlays, showing the parcel owner, number and address. None of these photographs was of marijuana. Mackey had written in the warrant that he had “observed large marijuana plants under cultivation in six large greenhouses.” He went on to say in his affidavit that “the marijuana under cultivation was easily visible” and that he’d “photographed marijuana under cultivation,” but on the stand, asked whether he could see what he was describing as marijuana in the photographs, Mackey stated, “No sir, not from the photograph.”
This, from the judge’s decision: “In addition the Detective offered no further explanation as to why he made the statement that he ‘photographed the marijuana under cultivation.’”
Judge Tice-Raskin ruled that Mackey had “provided false and misleading information to the judicial officer issuing the search warrant,” which meant adios search warrant, and therefore, adios case. Though when I mentioned this to Newell he said “We have not dismissed it Sarah. We are going back with another motion on that case.”
Steve Munkelt gave me my second lesson in sealed warrants over an open-faced Monte Cristo at Three Forks Bakery and Brew Pub in downtown Nevada City. Munkelt is 68, tall, thin, with a matching thin mustache: Billy Bob Thornton plus a goofy laugh and minus the tattoos. I see him at the gym a lot too.
All search warrants contain an affidavit, Munkelt said. The affidavit explains probable cause, the available evidence for conducting a search. The affidavit is supposed to be open to the public, which creates a level of oversight and is supposed to keep the whole process honest and transparent. That all changed with the drug war and the introduction of something called a sealed warrant.
“In California, and to be fair, most other states,” Munkelt told me, “over the course of this drug war kind of approach to things… the courts have authorized a procedure for presenting all the relevant facts of a search warrant to the court in a sealed document that the public never sees, and that the defendant never sees. You’re relying on the integrity of the officer and the judge and nothing else.” You’re relying, in other words, on someone who may or may not think it’s enough to say, in a warrant: I saw a greenhouse in Northern California, it had green stuff in it, I’m a policeman, let me search it for weed.
According to Munkelt, courts are increasingly allowing law enforcement to conduct searches where the defendant never really knows what allowed for a search warrant in the first place. “Bye bye oversight. Hello, Mackey,” I thought sadly.
One of the indirect checks on misconduct in this process is that prosecutors have a constitutional duty to disclose evidence potentially favorable to the defense—even if the police haven’t written it up in a report—known in certain circumstances as a Brady duty. This duty extends to the sealed portion of a warrant. So if a DA were to see something untruthful in the sealed portion of the warrant, Munkelt told me, he or she has a duty to say to the defense, “Hey, there’s a problem, you should look into it.”
Munkelt has been in Nevada County a long time, and he says Newell was lucky enough to run unopposed, and then stayed. “And the result is that our court system here has suffered,” he said.
The day I had lunch with Munkelt, he knew that Jason Mackey’s warrant in the Gonsman-Connor case was bad, but he didn’t know that Mackey would fail so colossally on the stand. He hadn’t known how Mackey would react to photographs of invisible marijuana. But something else extremely bizarre had just happened, which was that they had found, in the court, another, totally different version of the Bell Warrant.
In Mackey’s original warrant, written in January 2015, he wrote that the Confidential Informant had told him there was meth at 332 Second Street. In fact, though, the Confidential Informant had told Mackey to look for a specific car on Second Street, and Mackey would identify the place by finding the car. This discrepancy would not be a big deal in normal life, but on a warrant it is. You have to say what happened as it happened.
So Mackey’s sealed warrant and his unsealed warrant said different things about how this address had been obtained: In one the address was explicitly stated, and in the other it could be inferred by the presence of a certain car. Anyway, Mackey’s supervisor had told him to amend the record so the unsealed warrant and sealed warrants would be in sync with each other and the truth, and he had done so. But later, when Mackey went to retrieve his warrant off the NTF computer in order to testify, the changes weren’t there. This was why he’d said he couldn’t take the stand.
So the warrant that Mackey had supposedly corrected and filed just sat there for three years. Chris Walsh was the one who discovered it, and boy, coming into the court with it was he proud. He presented it with a flourish, as only a man who loves hair gel and treadmill workouts could. “He was so smug,” Burke said. According to Walsh, this discovery of the second, corrected warrant was proof Mackey hadn’t lied. Theoretically, it was indeed proof that he’d made the changes he was supposed to make. Except it didn’t explain why he’d said, “I can’t take the stand.” Nor did it explain why, over the course of this supposedly extremely thorough Internal Affairs investigation, no one had ever thought to fish up this extremely relevant document.
Judge Tice-Raskin agreed with Walsh, insofar as Mackey appeared to have made the required changes. But he still thought the Gonsman-Connor warrant was crap, and that was what mattered.
“The focus when you’re representing a client is outcome for the client,” said Munkelt. “But there are situations that occur that have a wider impact, and affect thousand of cases. When those cases arise, you’re trying to benefit your client, but of course, you’re trying to benefit other people.”
There are currently two more Mackey cases up for similar hearings.
One of the reasons this story is so complicated is that one risks getting bogged down in the Bell warrant, the ur-warrant in Mackey’s demise. Because if you tease through all the convoluted threads of that particular mess it’s possible to make the case that Mackey just made a mistake.
In the best-case scenario, Mackey was simply incompetent. He flubbed details. He didn’t hit fucking Save and then he didn’t tell the right people at the right time that he didn’t hit Save. He said he saw marijuana when all he saw was greenhouses, but in his mind they were the same thing. He thought a CI telling him that there was meth in the house with a black car parked in front was, you know, pretty much the same thing as the CI giving him the address of that house. His colleagues were just gossiping when they said his warrants were garbage, or that they wouldn’t leave him alone with a pile of money – as Newell said, 8th grade stuff.
But even if the Bell warrant had never existed, there’s ample evidence that Mackey was bad at his job. The Gonsman-Connor warrant is garbage, for example. It’s safe to assume there is more to come, since Burke has been granted hearings in two other marijuana cases for which Mackey wrote warrants.
Then there is the worst-case scenario, which is that Mackey would have deliberately lied about all these things until that day when he was finally forced to say: “I can’t take the stand.”
Every single defense attorney I talked to about this case said that yes, absolutely, Newell should have told the defense bar right away about the DA investigation into Mackey and should never have put a stop to it. But these defense attorneys were prejudiced, right? It was in their interest to take that position. I sought the perspective of an experienced prosecutor.
“[Newell] sits back and waits for things to go away,” according to local attorney David Alkire, who is somewhere in between “doesn’t suffer fools” and “terrifying.” He is 70ish, grim and gruff, went to Yale Law School, and drives a big truck. He lost to Newell by just a few thousand votes in the DA race in 2014. He recalled that in 2011, the Sacramento Bee wrote a story about Newell having dragged his feet on prosecuting Nevada County businessman Phil Lester, because Lester had loaned Newell money. At the time the Bee was doing their story, Newell had complaints about Lester’s brother, David, sitting on his desk. He said he had declined to prosecute for lack of evidence—but when the Bee called him, he told the paper he’d reconsidered, and passed the case on to the attorney general.
“It was only when the information was about to become public that he acted,” Alkire said. “It’s the same pattern with this warrant stuff. He was aware of his ethical lapse, that’s why he tried to get Jennings to sign that piece of paper.”
When I feel a little bad about sitting in judgment on Cliff Newell, all I have to do is read what he said back in 2014, when the Nevada County Deputy District Attorney and Public Defenders Association endorsed Alkire: “We have made demands that all employees work to their full potential; most do but some may be resentful for being held to that standard,” the implication being that members of his own staff had endorsed his opponent because they were lazy, and he, Newell, made them work. This comment enraged me to the point of tears. I know many people employed in both offices, and they all work their asses off, and they all try cases, unlike Newell, who is, in his 60s, routinely doing the sort of court work generally reserved for an intern, like managing the court calendar.
I asked Alkire why, considering this story has gotten so much attention, so many people continue to respect Newell.
“Newell is superficially personable and presents well in public,” he said. “It’s a real conundrum.” He went on to suggest that people can’t understand that a nefarious and lazy person can present so well. “They expect [such a person] to look sleazy or talk sleazy.”
Later on, I laughed remembering that Newell had once been quoted admiring Jason Mackey’s “integrity” and saying that we should thank Mackey for “bringing the entire issue of the [Bell] search warrant to our attention,” as if what had brought it to our attention was not, in fact, Mackey’s own incompetence. Thanking Mackey for bringing the Bell search warrant to our attention is like thanking Osama bin Laden for inspiring the construction of the new World Trade Center.
My phone conversation with Cliff Newell made my head hurt. I asked him why he hadn’t given defense attorneys the information about Mackey right away, and he kept using words like “as soon as,” and “straightaway” and “right after we started telling people that there were allegations made that he had done something dishonest we started giving out that information.” And my mind was exploding, because this was precisely what I’d wanted to ask him about, and he just kept saying that he had done everything exactly like he was supposed to, and after 7 1/2 minutes of back and forth like this, and me sweating in my kitchen, he said, “So that’s correct, that happened after 2015,” and I said yes, that’s an entire year of people filing motions to get this material, my understanding is it wasn’t just given to them, and Newell said, “You’re mixing your apples and your oranges up, Sarah.”
I asked him if Jennings’s version of events about how things had gone down between them was true. “It’s not true,” Newell said. As the race heated up, Newell kept coming up with new reasons why Jennings had left the office. First, he said, Jennings had refused to participate in an ongoing murder investigation. Then he said Jennings had gotten in a fight in Truckee. Later, during our phone call, Newell also claimed that Jennings’ former boss had said he had been “passed over” for management positions and added, “I thought maybe I could mentor him into a leadership role.”
Step by step, I tried to find corroboration of Newell’s version of events. Jim Phillips, a recently retired deputy who worked with Jennings, told me that Jennings had by no means refused to participate in the murder investigation. (Phillips, who ran against Newell in 2006, added that he had gotten along fine with his former boss; he also told me that Jennings was the person in the office with whom he’d gotten along best.) I called Jennings’s boss, Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey, to ask whether Jennings had ever been passed over for a promotion. “I didn’t say that,” he said. “I said, ‘He’s a great guy, you’ll be very happy with him. I may have said he was up for a job someone else got, but he certainly wasn’t passed over. He [is] always helping less experienced attorneys with cases.’”
I couldn’t find anyone in Truckee to say anything bad about Jennings, and the Truckee police have endorsed him. Looking for an article about Jennings, ironically, I instead stumbled on one about a judge in Truckee yelling at Cliff Newell for failing to prosecute an assault. This had happened in early 2015, right before Newell hired Jennings.
One of Newell’s supporters told me, as if she were sharing juicy gossip, that no one in the office liked Jennings, but only two people currently in the office were even there during Jennings’s time—one of them being Oliver Pong, who openly supports Jennings.
The Nevada County Deputy District Attorney and Public Defenders Association has endorsed Jennings, as they did Alkire in 2014. James Morris, a deputy DA and former president of that organization, wrote a letter in support of Jennings that was printed as a campaign ad for Jennings in the local paper. Just a few weeks later, Walsh “reassigned” Morris from felonies to misdemeanors.
I am not an experienced investigative reporter. I didn’t know anything about the law until two months ago, and I barely even knew what a District Attorney was or did, and I definitely barely cared. I wrote this story because no one else was writing it, and I wanted the people of the county where I live to know what the District Attorney no one ever thought about, including me, was actually like. I wanted people to think about how government goes wrong, how boring and small and easy to ignore that can be, and why, although it can often seem like the system is so corrupt that everything is just one corrupt flavor, that lying is real, and people are still allowed to react to it.
But even as I was finishing the story and pretty satisfied with it, I was still annoyed that I couldn’t get a stronger refutation on the claim that Jennings had refused to participate in a murder investigation. I mean, honestly, Jennings is a born prosecutor. I bet he wishes every single minute of his life could be spent trying a murderer.
Then, one afternoon, I saw the defense attorney I’d been trying to contact, Greg Klein, walking down the street. The trial for the murder investigation Jennings had supposedly refused to participate in was going on now, and Klein was defending one of the accused. I ran to catch up to him. “I’m Sarah Miller,” I said. “I’ve been trying to call you.”
“What do you want to know?” he said. He was in his mid-50s, carefully dressed, especially for these parts, with a cheeky pink tie and slick silver hair, a brasher, stockier, Richard Gere. “You have got me between here and the courthouse.”
“About Chris Walsh,” I began.
“I called him a liar, that’s on the court record, and I’d like to add that, in my opinion, he’s morally bankrupt.”
The gold clock showed it was one in the afternoon, and he went inside to defend his client.
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