Citizens Caught in the Cross-Fire
EARLY morning, Oct. 2, 1992. Thirty lawmen cut the padlock on a gate leading down a dusty road to Trail's End Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains near Malibu.Skip to next paragraph
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The platoon-sized task force of local, state, and federal drug-enforcement officers is led along the road by sheriff's deputies from Los Angeles County. They move quickly. Within minutes, seven lawmen surround a barn and garage. Six crouch behind their vehicles. Others move to the front door of the redwood-and-stone ranch house.
Inside, Donald Scott, a multimillionaire, and his wife, Frances Plante, are still asleep. They'd been up late, past 2 a.m. He'd been drinking, and taking valium, and is still intoxicated.
Deputy John Cater Jr. knocks on the door. ``Sheriff's Department!'' he shouts. ``We have a search warrant!''
Frances Plante is the first to stir. Outside, Mr. Scott's 22 dogs are barking. The house shakes as the lawmen pound on the door. She pulls on overalls, but in her hurry, puts them on backwards. She grabs a white blouse and heads toward the front door. Her husband sits on the edge of the bed in a T-shirt.
At that moment, deputies break open the door with a battering ram. Five officers, guns drawn, rush in. Deputy Gary Spencer, the first to enter, pulls Ms. Plante forcefully toward the doorway, or pushes her back into the living room. (Accounts differ.)
Scott, hearing the commotion, picks up a Colt .38 snubnose revolver and runs into the semi-darkened living room, holding the gun over his head. He's immediately confronted by Deputy Spencer, who has dropped to one knee, gun drawn, only 10 feet away. ``Donald, drop the gun!'' orders Spencer. ``Drop the gun! Drop the gun!''
Did Scott, still inebriated, misunderstand? Did he know Spencer was a lawman? Was he trying to comply? No one will ever know. He slowly lowered his gun, but as it came down, the deputy claims it suddenly pointed directly at him. Was Scott's finger on the trigger?
Deputy Spencer fires first. Deputy Cater, right behind him, fires second. Then Spencer again. Scott is killed instantly.
``A Death in Shangri-La,'' one newspaper called it. Spencer, a deputy with a clean, 15-year record, says the incident has ``unjustly damaged my personal reputation.'' Yet months later, questions are still being asked:
Why were 30 lawmen on Scott's property? Did they have a warrant? Why did they smash their way into his home? Why were L.A. County deputies, aided by L.A. city police, conducting a raid in Ventura County, without informing the Ventura sheriff? Why were federal lawmen, including officers from the US Forest Service and the National Park Service, helping to serve the warrant? Why was there talk before the raid of seizing Scott's $5 million, 200-acre ranch? Ultimately, why was he killed?
One thing is certain: The task force found no illegal drugs, even though a confidential informant and a federal agent claimed that marijuana plants were being grown there.
THE Scott case has become a cause cbre in California. It has created a backlash against the L.A. sheriff's office. Stunned by this case and others, the California Legislature recently refused to renew the state's civil asset-forfeiture law.
Critics charge that the raid on Scott's ranch is part of a national trend of lawmen seizing valuable assets to offset tight budgets. In this case, the Ventura County district attorney and other critics say, L.A. County sheriff's deputies were willing to bend the law if necessary to achieve that goal.
Two lengthy investigations have probed the Scott shooting. A war of words has erupted between the Ventura County district attorney's office and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
After interviewing 49 witnesses, District Attorney Michael Bradbury of Ventura County raises a number of troubling questions about the assault on Scott's home, and the motives behind it.
Spencer, an L.A. narcotics officer, initially became interested in Scott when an informant told him that Plante was paying for small items with $100 bills, and displaying a big wad of cash. Plante was traced, through her car, to Scott's ranch.
In September 1992, another informant told Spencer that 3,000 to 4,000 marijuana plants were growing at Trail's End Ranch. L.A. deputies arranged for the California National Guard to photograph the ranch from the air. The photos were inconclusive.