MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Northern California’s Russian River is many things to many different people: water source for sections of Sonoma County and its thriving wine industry, summer resort playground, home to a relatively small and diverse year-round population that includes a once-burgeoning, still-influential LGBT community and culture. The river’s main segment is more than a hundred miles long, stretching from its headwaters near Potter Valley to its ocean mouth at Jenner. The American Indian name for it, I’d once been told, was Shabakai—“long snake.”
A sleeping snake in the summer and fall, but at this time of year, late February, it has been known to be as deadly as any reptile when it grows bloated enough from heavy winter rains to exceed its thirty-two-foot flood stage. That happens fairly regularly, the most disastrous in recent memory during the winter of 1997–98 when the river had crested at forty-six feet. Three people died, the entire populations of Guerneville and its smaller resort area neighbors, Rio Nido, Monte Rio, and Rio Verdi, had to be evacuated, and scores of low-lying summer and permanent homes had been swamped with water and/or mud. Most of the residents came back as always—repairing, rebuilding, replacing lost possessions. River dwellers are a special breed, modern-day pioneer stock. The harder they’re battered and the greater their losses, the more determined they become.
It had been a while since Northern Californians had had to deal with chains of storms and constant drenching downpours. The severe drought the entire state has suffered through for four-plus years and counting has seen to that. The previous year’s winter had brought some much-needed rain, enough to partly fill lakes and reservoirs, streams and wells, but though one particularly nasty storm had caused flooding, mudslides, toppled trees, power outages, and several million dollars in damage, the rainfall totals were not substantial enough to put an end to the drought. So far this winter’s El Niño rains had started to do the job.
It was raining the afternoon I drove up to the Russian River from San Francisco, but just the light and misty kind, steady enough, though, with less than an inch altogether expected throughout the region. A gloomy day to be out and about on River Road.
I’d been up here a few times, mainly with Kerry and Emily on visits to Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. But this was a business, not a pleasure, trip. Under normal circumstances, the agency’s investigative fieldwork was handled by Jake Runyon, Alex Chavez, or one of the part-time operatives Tamara and I employed; in my semiretirement I was usually deskbound on the two days a week I came into the office. But we’d lucked into an uncommonly busy period that had everybody available tied up, so rather than bring in someone new and untried, I’d volunteered to take on the Rio Verdi job myself. Does me good to get back into the field harness once in a while, like an old but still-durable plowhorse.
The client was an attorney we’d done some work for in the past, the job interviewing witnesses to a two-car automobile accident the previous fall, the object to gather any new information that might be useful to the plaintiff in a civil suit the attorney had filed on behalf of one of the drivers, a San Francisco businessman named Arthur Clements. Clements and his wife had been on River Road, on their way home from visiting relatives, when the other vehicle sped through a stop sign and slammed into the passenger side of their car, causing grievous injuries to Mrs. Clements that confined her to a wheelchair. It was the Clementses’ contention that driver number two, David Bishop, a Santa Rosa resident who owned a second home near Rio Verdi, had willfully and negligently run the stop sign, making no attempt to avoid the collision. Bishop was just as adamant that he had been traveling at normal speed on the narrow downhill side road from his cottage when his brakes failed and the collision had therefore been unavoidable. He’d escaped the smashup with nothing more than cuts and bruises.
The official reports and witness statements left some doubt as to which version was the true one. There had been two witnesses, neither of whom was willing or able to make a positive statement either way. Field sobriety tests conducted by the investigating sheriff’s and CHP officers had determined that Bishop was not under the influence of either alcohol or drugs, and a subsequent body-shop examination of his vehicle revealed worn brake linings, though no concrete evidence that they’d gone out, so no charges were filed against him. A court judgment in the Clementses’ favor was problematical at best, the more so because they were seeking two hundred thousand dollars in punitive damages, but they’d insisted on going ahead anyway. To the attorney’s financial benefit, and the agency’s and mine, if not to theirs.
I’d gone first to Santa Rosa in an effort to listen to Bishop’s account firsthand, but he’d refused to see me. No surprise there. So now here I was at the Russian River, to make an independent examination of the scene of the accident and talk to the witnesses in the slim hope that one or both might be willing to testify in the Clementses’ behalf. Not an easy task, but then not all that difficult, either. I’d handled similar investigations dozens of times, more often than not with satisfactory results.
I drove through Guerneville, along the winding stretch to Monte Rio, and then the short distance to Rio Verdi—a misnomer, since the river was not green but silt brown throughout the year. It was not much more than a wide spot in the road, with a handful of buildings: mini-market, service station, funky old saloon with a movie western false front, a couple of uninhabited near derelicts, a propane dealership. The river flowed crookedly behind most of the buildings, all except the market and service station; densely forested slopes of pine and redwood, spotted with typically rustic hidden and half-hidden homes, rose on the opposite side and beyond.
The accident had happened at the intersection with Ridgecrest, a narrow side road that climbed the hillside. The first thing I did was drive up Ridgecrest five hundred yards or so and then come back down, to get a look at its configuration and gauge its steepness. For the last hundred yards to the River Road intersection—I stopped and got out into the chilly drizzle to measure the distance—Ridgecrest was closely bordered by trees with grass-rutted verges not much wider than a man’s body. Until you got near the stop sign at the bottom, you couldn’t see more than fifty feet or so in either direction along the highway.
Rio Verdi Propane was the last building on the hamlet’s west side, close to the intersection. One of the witnesses, George Orcutt, worked there. He’d been out in the narrow lot in front at the time of the accident, and from there, I noted as I swung in, he would’ve had a more or less unobstructed view of what had taken place.
I parked near a couple of large commercial tanks, entered a cramped and overheated interior. The man behind the counter was forty or so, lanky, fox faced; strands of long caramel-colored hair straggled from beneath a greasy-looking Raiders cap. He squinted at me out of bloodshot eyes, and his hand trembled when he raised it to scratch at a patch of stubble on his chin. Portrait of a man with a bad hangover.
I asked if he was George Orcutt, he said he was, and I told him who I was and why I was there. He looked at the photostat of my license, looked at me as if I were something with claws and scales that had popped up out the netherworld, and then said, scowling, “Lawsuit? Shit, no! I don’t want nothing to do with that.”
“I’m afraid you don’t have any choice. You were a witness to the accident.”
“I already told the cops I never seen it clear. I ain’t got nothing more to say.”
“Just the same, you’ll be subpoenaed and you’ll have to testify.”
“Ah, Christ. Why come around picking on me?”
“No one is picking on you, Mr. Orcutt,” I said. “The civil suit has already been filed and I’m just doing my job, trying to get at the truth of what happened that day.”
“Yeah, well, you won’t get it from me.”
“Just answer a few questions, all right? In your statement you said the vehicle that came down Ridgecrest barreled through the stop sign without slowing. How fast would you say the driver, David Bishop, was going?”
I thought Orcutt was going to put up more argument or else clam up on me, but he did neither. “Hell, I don’t know,” he said with a twitchy sullenness. “Fast enough to total both cars.”
“Faster than he would be if his brakes had been functioning normally?”
Shrug. “I wasn’t looking when he come down the hill. Couldn’t have seen him clear even if I had been—too many trees and it was foggy that day. Look over there when you leave; see the intersection for yourself.”
“Did Mr. Bishop make any attempt to avoid the collision with Mr. Clements’ vehicle?”
“Slid mostly sideways right into it, that’s all I remember.”
“Mostly sideways? The front bumper crushed the passenger side, breaking both of Mrs. Clements’ legs and damaging her spine. That type of impact indicates a head-on, not a broadside, collision.”
Orcutt had nothing to say to that.
I said, “If you’d been behind the wheel and your brakes went out coming downhill to an intersection at increasing speed, what would you do?”
“Huh? What’s it matter what I’d do?”
“I’d appreciate an answer to the question.”
A little silence. Then he said, “Slam it into low gear. Yank on the hand brake.”
“And then, assuming you saw another vehicle approaching on River Road?”
“Twist the goddamn wheel, if there was enough time.”
“What else is there? Go off the road into the trees, kill myself sure by slamming into one of ’em?”
“What about sounding your horn?”
“Yeah. Sure. That’s what Bishop said he done.”
“Do you remember hearing the horn blow?”
“No. Windy and foggy both, and I wasn’t paying no attention until the smash made a hell of a big noise. I told that to the cops, too.”
“According to your statement,” I reminded him, “you heard a sound that might have been a horn blowing.”
“Yeah, might’ve been. I couldn’t be sure.”
“How fast would you say Mr. Clements’ vehicle was traveling?”
“How fast? I told you, I wasn’t paying no attention.”
“The speed limit through Rio Verdi is twenty-five. Would you have noticed if he’d been doing forty or better, as Mr. Bishop claims?”
“No. Plenty people don’t slow down like they’re supposed to.”
“David Bishop owns a second home up on Ridgecrest. Do you know him?”
“Never saw him before the day of the accident?”
“All right, yeah,” Orcutt said, “I seen him a few times. He bought propane refills when he was up here in the summer. But I never said more’n a dozen words to him.”
“Have you seen him since the accident?”
“Sure about that?”
“What, you think he come in here and tried to get me to side with him? Well, he didn’t. And I wouldn’t of done it if he had.” Orcutt ran an unsteady hand over the beard stubble on his chin, making a sandpapery sound. “Listen, mister, that’s it; we’re done. I got work to do.”
Scratch one witness, as far as Arthur Clements’ civil suit was concerned. If Orcutt knew anything other than what he’d told the authorities and now me, he was not likely to admit it in court. The old, sorry code of noninvolvement.
I left him to his work and his hangover. I’d have been willing to bet that as soon as he closed business for the day the first place he’d head for was the saloon down the road.
Copyright © 2016 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust