It was the video seen 'round the world, seven minutes of Keystone Kops-worthy exploits that exposed Santa Ana's sham of a medical-marijuana system once and for all.
The first image on the grainy footage, taken from a secret camera in the upper-right-hand corner of an empty hallway, is a hand-held battering ram smashing through the front door of Sky High Holistic Collective. Weapons drawn, a rush of plainclothes and uniformed police officers–most of them wearing hoods or motorcycle helmets–charge offscreen. A camera inside the dispensary's lobby captured officers pointing their guns at customers and employees, ordering them to lie down on the floor.
The officers arrest everyone inside the dispensary without incident, including wheelchair-bound amputee and legendary medical-marijuana activist Marla James (see "OC's Matriarch of Medicinal Marijuana," March 20). After a female officer wheels James out of the lobby, the video shows her crowbar-wielding partners ripping cameras from walls and dismantling a DVR machine. "Can we break some fucking cameras and make the boss happy, please?" one of the plainclothes officers shouts.
"Did you punch that one-legged bonita?" one of the male cops asks the female officer a few minutes later, mocking James' appearance by using the Spanish word for "pretty lady."
"I was about to kick her in her fucking nub," she answers, laughing.
After taking inventory of Sky High Holistic's seized cache of dried marijuana and cannabis edibles, one of the officers remarks that there are some chocolate bars in the back room. A muscular cop with a shaved head and thick beard puts one in his mouth and tosses a small package to his partner, who asks "what flavor" the item is. Moments later, the second officer, speaking with his mouth full, says, "These candy bars are pretty good. I kinda feel lightheaded, though."
Near the end of the footage, inside the pot club's lobby, Santa Ana police supervisor Alex Sanchez talks with another officer. "You ever work with John Fish, the DA?" Sanchez asks, referring to the Orange County Superior Court judge who previously worked as a narcotics prosecutor. "He's the judge that signed our warrant. . . . He's the fucker that pulled into a gas station on our way to the Staples Center and goes, 'Let's buy some beers and drink 'em out of a red cup. I go, 'That's not going to be obvious.' There we are at an ampm, getting Styrofoam cups and pouring our beers into them. That fucking blew me away!"
The May 26 raid was old hat for the Santa Ana Police Department; since last year, they've raided and torn apart dozens of clubs, nearly all of which operate in compliance with state law but without a city permit. Because of the high value of medical-grade cannabis and the presence of large amounts of cash, Sky High had secret cameras to capture any employee theft or burglaries–as well as bash-happy police.
On June 10, attorney Matthew Pappas released the footage to both OC Weekly and the investigative website Voice of OC. Two days later, both outlets published the videos online. From there, the videos went viral, producing headlines such as "Cops eat edibles, play darts during raid" and "Cops joke about kicking amputee's 'nub'" in publications ranging from the Huffington Post and New York Daily News to Reason magazine and the British tabloid Daily Mail.
Faced with an unprecedented barrage of bad publicity, the Santa Ana PD did its best to control the damage. "Obviously, we are concerned with what we see on the video," said Chris Revere, a Santa Ana police commander in charge of internal affairs. "I'd like to see the unedited video to get a clearer picture of what is happening." Revere refused to name the officers in the video but stated they would not likely be drug-tested. "If it's an ugly baby, it's an ugly baby," he said. "Let's move on."
Inside a conference room on the second floor of the Westin Hotel in downtown Long Beach on June 15, Pappas took the stage. He announced that hours earlier, he had filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Santa Ana. By breaking down Sky High's door instead of announcing themselves by knocking, by destroying the cameras and other equipment, and otherwise using rough tactics during the raid, the police had violated the civil rights of the patients who were arrested that day.
Onstage with Pappas was retired Los Angeles Police Deputy Chief Stephen Downing, who pointed out that–with the exception of James, who couldn't be housed at the city jail, and her husband, Dave–everyone had been imprisoned until the following day for violating what Downing, a somber drug-reform advocate dressed in a suit and tie, described as merely "a municipal code violation."
Pappas then accused the city of carrying out a corrupted cannabis-enforcement campaign by targeting marijuana collectives such as Sky High Holistic that had either lost or not participated in the city's Feb. 5 lottery that allowed for 20 lucky winners to receive permits. The lottery followed the passing of the city's Measure BB, which raised more money and soundly defeated Measure CC, a grassroots-backed and more expansive legalization initiative the city opposed.
"We have evidence that the mayor has a financial interest in one of the collectives that won the lottery," Pappas told the crowd of reporters and marijuana-legalization activists. "The mayor has a pecuniary interest in one of the collectives. Prior to the election, there were limousine services and gifts provided to officials. We have evidence of that. People were approached to pay a $25,000 amount and were told they would win the lottery."
Pappas would provide no further details. Pressed by a skeptical reporter, he insisted he would make further announcements soon, but for now, he had shared his information with federal law-enforcement investigators whom he said were examining political corruption relating to medical marijuana throughout Southern California. Besides Pappas, two other lawyers who represent medical-marijuana dispensaries said FBI investigators had questioned them about the behavior of officials in Santa Ana and other cities.
Both Mayor Miguel Pulido and Santa Ana city attorney Sonia Carvalho, who in a June 8 email to Pappas asks for him to share evidence of alleged corruption with her office, failed to respond to interview requests. Alma Flores, a city communications manager, wrote in an email to the Weekly, "The city of Santa Ana does not comment on pending litigation."
An investigation by the Weekly uncovered no direct evidence that Pulido or any other Santa Ana official directly solicited bribes from prospective marijuana-dispensary operators in return for guaranteed lottery success. In fact, the city contracted the lottery to a well-respected private, certified, public accounting firm, and it appears to have been properly carried out. That doesn't mean the lottery was perfect, however.
Rather than forcing lottery players to go through a lengthy background check, something that might have greatly reduced the number of applications, city officials allowed individuals to submit an unlimited number of applications per location on behalf of various corporate entities. The city's somewhat-cynical operating theory is that corporations are people, and thus each one, no matter how fictional or freshly conceived or who actually owned it, has the right to its own lottery ball.
Not surprisingly, an astounding number of applications flooded in–648 to be exact, earning the city $1,490 apiece. Even though it rejected several applications and just 627 balls went into the machine, the city still earned more than $1 million from the lottery. Predictably, most of the 20 winners were deep-pocketed entrepreneurs, some of whom purchased 100 or even 150 balls to increase the odds of winning. The winners included some high-profile names such as Cypress Hill's B-Real (see "B-Real of Cypress Hill Wants to Bring Dr. Greenthumb to Santa Ana," April 1). Many winners formed legal partnerships, raised money from investors and paid the city with money orders; the Weekly also interviewed eyewitnesses who described successful applicants who drove to City Hall in flashy cars with their girlfriends in tow, hauling shopping bags stuffed with enough cash to purchase dozens of lottery balls.
The Weekly also uncovered allegations of attempted influence peddling by Pulido's personal attorney and former Orange County Democratic Party chairman Frank Barbaro, as well as aggressive solicitation of campaign donations by both Pulido and powerful Democratic Party operative Melahat Rafiei, whose brother is among the 20 winners. Furthermore, to raise cash for the Measure BB campaign and thus lay the groundwork for the lottery, the city worked with Randall Longwith, a prominent medical-marijuana attorney whose brother-in-law, David Dewyke, happens to manage the Clinic Patient's Association. The large-scale dispensary operated in Santa Ana without a permit for several years, until it was finally shut down by the police in late May–one of the last such dispensaries left in the city.
Campaign-contribution records obtained by the Weekly show Dewyke was by far the largest contributor to Measure BB, writing checks totaling $57,000–single-handedly footing nearly a third of the roughly $181,000 campaign bill. (Dewyke also gave $10,000 to the Measure CC campaign.) According to limo-company operator and custom-car designer Vini Bergeman–who lives in a 20,000-square-foot mansion in Panorama Heights and is a former associate of John Gotti, as well as a former business partner of Dewyke's–Dewyke frequently borrowed his vehicles, saying he needed them to wine and dine city officials involved in Measure BB.
"I heard about it from the drivers, and he told me himself," Bergeman says. "I remember that when Dave's store got raided, Dave told me that he was on the phone with the mayor, that he owns the mayor, that he's not supposed to get shut down. He was supposed to be the last one shut down."
At first, nobody recognized the bearded, bespectacled, silver-haired man buying pot each week at the Aloha Community Collective Association, a now-shuttered marijuana dispensary in Santa Ana. But the man quickly–and frequently–introduced himself, telling anyone who would listen that he was none other than Frank Barbaro. "I don't remember exactly when he started coming in," said a budtender who asked to remain anonymous. "But I know it was before we were raided the first time and arrested."
As the Weekly reported last year, city police raided Aloha and numerous other dispensaries in August 2014, arresting dozens of people (see "Santa Ana's Great Pot Raid," Aug. 14, 2014). "He would come in as a customer and introduced himself to me as Pulido's lawyer, shamelessly, like, 'I'm Mayor Pulido's lawyer.'"
After a few visits, the budtender continued, Barbaro "started saying, 'I'm going to be the guy who decides who gets to stay after the vote.' He would lightly drop it: 'Hey, man, let me just tell you I am the guy you need to talk to.' It was all open-ended. 'I'm the guy that fixes the problems, the guy who picks the winners in the end.'"
The budtender said he "never entertained the banter because I know better than that. It's either entrapment or a shakedown, and it looks like a shakedown because we didn't pay and we got raided and arrested by the city." The budtender immediately brought Barbaro's statements to the attention of Aloha's manager. "I'm not stupid," he explained. "When you introduce yourself as the lawyer to the mayor of the city and you're in a business that is illegal, that doesn't make sense. That's an immediate concern. I immediately smelled a fish."
Aloha's manager, Mike, who asked to be identified only by his first name, confirmed the budtender's account. "That guy Frank [Barbaro], he would come in weekly," Mike recalled, adding that Barbaro repeatedly made it known he had direct access to the mayor, saying, "'Hey, you guys are great, if you want to move forward when all this is over, talk to me.'
"He would always preach on about if you want to get a spot in the lottery, you need to work with him, and he would make it happen," Mike continued. "At first, it was like he wanted a free deal from the dispensary, but then he became more and more aggressive in bringing up his relationship and influence with Mayor Pulido. He would claim that all the time: 'As you know, I am Mayor Pulido's attorney, and when all this mess is over, you are going to want to work through me if you want to ensure a spot in Santa Ana.'"
Worried by the encounter, Mike says, he had been in regular contact with the Santa Ana city attorney's office at the time. "I had meetings with them and was talking to them at the time, and I said, 'This guy is coming in saying he's Pulido's attorney and trying to get a deal.' They were like, 'No comment.' Are we supposed to make a deal with him then?" he wondered. Following that conversation, Mike says he informed his attorney, Christopher Glew, who told him that under no circumstances should he have any such conversation with Barbaro, much less pay him for a spot in the city's lottery.
In an interview with the Weekly, Glew confirmed Mike's story and said it wasn't the first time he had heard such allegations. "I started getting clients coming in and saying, 'Hey, there's some guy claiming to be Pulido's right-hand man going around saying, 'We will guarantee you a spot for x amount of money,'" Glew recalled.
Glew didn't believe the stories at first, but then he kept hearing the same account from different dispensaries. "First, it was one client, and I dismissed it as BS, then two, then three, then everyone had been approached in one shape or form."
Glew said he figured Pulido should be made aware of what was happening. "I called the city attorney's office and said, 'Look, you need to know there are some people running around,' and their approach was, 'We don't know anything about it; tell him, don't tell us.'"
Glew added, "I advised my clients to stay away," telling them that even assuming Barbaro was capable of making such a deal, which he doubted, it would be illegal.
Mike, the Aloha manager, says he was dismayed at Barbaro's conduct, especially after the city raided his collective and 23 others in August 2014, arresting 68 people for violating the city's anti-marijuana code. "I helped to start Measure CC and spent two and a half years on that; the city took all my ideas, gave me the finger and got me arrested," he remarked. "I'm so glad I didn't waste any more time or any more money."
While it's unclear whether Pulido had any knowledge of Barbaro's alleged activities at the time, the mayor was soliciting contributions from current and prospective dispensary owners to fund Measure BB. In October 2014, just a month before the election, Pulido met with medical-marijuana activist Doug Lamphere and attorney and entrepreneur Aaron Herzberg, both of whom were interested in opening dispensaries in the city. As the Voice of OC recently reported, also in attendance at the meeting were Barbaro and Rafiei.
According to that article, Pulido asked if Lamphere and Herzberg had money that could help him make marijuana legal in Santa Ana. As a result of the meeting, Herzberg paid $10,000 to the California Homeowners Association PAC. Herzberg says he gave the money to his next-door neighbor, Adam Probolsky, a well-known Republican operative who denies his role in the money transfer; at Pulido's direction, Lamphere also provided $5,000 to the PAC on the same day.
In an interview with the Weekly, Herzberg said that he made the contribution because he felt the mayor was sincere about legalizing cannabis. That said, it seemed Pulido was desperate for cash for his legal defense fund. "The mayor was extremely aggressive," Herzberg says, adding that Pulido "contacted me on a subsequent occasion and solicited another contribution and asked if I could find other contributors."
Rafiei soon chimed in via email. "Need to get $4K to the mayor ASAP," she wrote in a March 9 email. "Can you help with that today? We can take $1K for different entities/people. . . . Thanks for your help. Miguel really appreciates it."
Herzberg wrote a check to Pulido's re-election campaign for $1,000–the legal limit. He also convinced his business partner, Chris Francy, to make a similar contribution. Rafiei, a Long Beach-based political consultant, former executive director for the Democratic Party of Orange County and registered agent for lottery-winning Menmee Inc., did not respond to an interview request for this story.
Unlike Herzberg, Lamphere changed his mind about doing business in Santa Ana. Lamphere grew up in Orange County and was one of the first activists, along with Marvin Chavez and David Herrick, to be prosecuted and sent to prison for trying to open a collective shortly after Proposition 215 passed in 1996. His experience with Pulido led him to leave the county altogether and move to Oregon, where he has been able to open three legal dispensaries in the past few months. "What's happening in Santa Ana is corruption at a whole new level," he says. "It's ridiculous to expect a business to go in there and become corrupt. So I said to hell with it."
Outside the courtroom of Orange County Superior Court Judge David R. Chaffee on June 19, a motley mix of lawyers, medical-marijuana activists and nervous lottery winners milled around in small groups. It was late morning already, and Chaffee was still busy clearing other civil cases off his schedule before hearing oral arguments on whether he should grant a permanent injunction against the city's Measure BB lottery process. A few weeks earlier, on May 30, Chaffee had granted a temporary injunction in response to a lawsuit filed by applicants who either lost or didn't qualify for the lottery and who claimed the city's guidelines allowing multiple lottery balls was unfair.
The crowd included a veritable who's-who of the Santa Ana pot industry. Although B-Real wasn't there, his attorney, Glew, was present. So was Longwith and some of his lottery-winning clients, including his brother-in-law, Dewyke, who took out his cell phone and showed a reporter several photographs of the recent raid of his collective, which appears to have been thoroughly trashed.
"They vandalized the building," Dewyke complained. "We were seeing 500 patients a day when we got raided." Assuming Chaffee would allow Santa Ana to issue permits to lottery winners, Dewyke said, his new store was ready to open for business immediately. "It will be the crown jewel of Santa Ana," he promised.
A few hours later, Dewyke's wish came true. Chaffee announced he was not going to issue a permanent injunction against Measure BB, meaning Santa Ana officials were free to move forward and issue permits to the lottery winners.
A closer look at Dewyke's financial situation suggests that the sooner his new store can open, the better. He has declared bankruptcy twice in recent years, filing for Chapter 11 protection in 2009 and Chapter 13 in 2013. Bankruptcy records from the latter case show Dewyke owed creditors–including Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker–$3.9 million, as well as $340,000 to the IRS. That year, he declared an annual salary of just $29,000, despite having $1.9 million in assets, including a $1.6 million home in Yorba Linda; a rental property in Fort Worth, Texas; a 2005 Lamborghini; two trucks; two motorcycles; and a 36-foot boat valued at $55,000.
Dewyke doesn't seem to be short of cash at the moment, at least not based on a conversation he had with another lottery winner the Weekly was trying to interview outside Chaffee's courtroom.
Brandi Trotta, a single mom pushing her 2-year-old in a stroller, claimed she had purchased just one lottery ball from the city and was amazed when her number was called. "I felt lucky," she said. "It was a lot of money for me to put down, and then I'm reading about all this corruption, and maybe this judge is going to shut everything down. Now I'm worried I'm going to lose it all."
"I'll give you half a million dollars if you want to give me your spot," Dewyke interrupted.
Trotta laughed nervously, assuming Dewyke was joking.
"I'm serious," Dewyke said. "Cash. Today. I can get it right now."
Trotta paused a moment to think it over.
"No, I really want to do this," she answered. "I really believe in medical marijuana."
"Okay, how about $600,000?"
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).