Friday, September 20, 2013

Take That!

Talk about the bleeping arrogance of government. The Southern California city of Perris -- yes, pronounced like Paris, but much dustier than the real one -- takes the cake.

And we mean “take.”

It came to light in a recent case of “eminent domain” -- a couple of dirty words to regular folks. The city decided to build a road across part of a ten-acre vacant lot zoned for light industrial use and owned by a guy named Stamper and his partners. We’ll call them the “Stamper Boys.”

Well, the city (we’ll call them the “City Gang”) moved to “take” the two acres of land it needed for its road under eminent domain proceedings in Riverside County Superior Court. You know what eminent domain is, right? That’s when government takes your land for public projects and pays you something so that it doesn’t look like stealing.

In this case the City Gang offered the Stamper Boys $54,800 -- take it or leave it. The City Gang based the price of the two acres for the road on the vacant land’s value for growing crops. The Stamper Boys, if we may carrying the farming metaphor further, indicated the city was out of its gourd; that the land was zoned to build a factory and worth upwards of $512,000. (They hadn’t just fallen off the turnip truck, you know.)

They soundly argued that the land should be valued at its highest use as industrial property -- its current zoning, which, after all, had been set by the city.

But, what happens when you push a bully back? Like any street thug, the City Gang pulled out a Smith & Wesson in the form of a legal document. They said no matter what the Stamper Boys argued, the city of Perris would never approve the building of a factory on the remaining eight acres owned by the Stamper Boys without first requiring that the two acres the city wanted for the road remain undeveloped until the city built its road. At that point, the city would “take” the land anyways.

Does the concept of extortion come to mind? In brief, the City Gang had the Stamper Boys by their legal short hairs.

The case went to court and a two-pronged process was approved by a Riverside County judge. First he would hear evidence and rule on the constitutionality of the eminent domain “taking.” Then, a jury would be called to determine the amount of money the City Gang had to fork over to the Stamper Boys.

In the first court phase, the judge joined the City Gang, ruling in its favor. As a result, the Stamper Boys surrendered, agreeing to accept only $44,000 for their land, without going to a jury. Why did they capitulate? Because the judge ruled that the jury would have to determine the price of the land on its agricultural value and not on its zoned value for a factory. Essentially the judge tied the hands of jurors, giving them little wiggle room on the dollar amount.

The Stamper Boys rightly appealed, saying the land-taking was unconstitutional.

Recently a California court of appeal weighed in, overturning the case. They sent it back for a jury trial, saying that regular folks should decide whether the City Gang could rustle up the land, and if so, how much they’d pay, while noting the judge “erroneously usurped the role of the jury.”

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Killer Calling

           In the early 1980s a male nurse turned psycho and murdered upwards of 50 elderly people in their hospital beds, heinous crimes that brought health care in Southern California to its knees, and made international headlines. Sometimes even while he held their frail, withered hands or wished them happy birthday, this sadistic killer injected defenseless old people with lethal doses of the heart stimulant, Lidocaine, which caused horrific seizures and death. It's a cardiac drug still commonly used in hospital emergency rooms, and, in the hands of sane medical professionals, has saved millions of lives. I covered the hospital murders for a daily newspaper, and once even interviewed the killer over a bloody plate of beefsteak -- months before his arrest -- where he actually described the last minutes of life of victims.

          Here's a scene from Chapter Five of my memoir "Dinner With A Killer," available at all Web booksellers. The scene shows how a reporter's professional life can spill into minor chaos at home.

“You gave a mass murderer our home telephone number?”

I had just told my wife that I had given our home telephone number to Robert Diaz, the nurse suspected in the hospital deaths.

She was incredulous, and to make her point dramatically sharper in an illustration that shouted “just how bone-headed can you get,” she wrapped her arms around our three-year-old daughter, protectively.

“He only kills old people,” I said, trying to bring a little brainy logic into her much-too emotional state.

“Well that’s comforting.”

“Look, he might be willing to sit and talk; that would be great for my career. It’d be a huge headline. I gave him my home number to show some trust.”

“How about your family’s safety?”

I could see the frightened glazed look of being axed to death in her eyes.

“He’s only a suspect,” I said. It was lame but true. “He hasn’t been arrested.”

“You didn’t hand him our home address along with it, did you.”

I paused, making kind of a mock sweep of guilt with my eyes around the living room. It was all for effect, and that’s what I got.

“You gave a mass murderer our God damn address?”

She was yelling now, and -- as she gathered up the kid as if to run off to mother for safety -- I intervened. “Of course not.” I thought about telling her that it was a simple reporting skill to look up an address in the Crisscross Directory once you had the phone number but held up: why poke the bear, as they say.

“I’m done,” she said. She was calming down I could feel it.


“I’m not answering the phone anymore.”

“Why?” I asked the question but I knew it was rhetorical.

“It might be him.”

I thought about saying, “I hope it is,” but said, “Oh, he’ll never call.”

That night I slept on the sofa, feeling the true depth of her anger.

About a month afterward ... the telephone rang around nine at night. On a morning daily newspaper a late-night call to a reporter from a copyeditor about a story the reporter had written that day was nothing unusual. The call was likely the copydesk, I figured.

My wife answered the telephone, and after a male caller asked for me, she asked, “Who’s calling, please?”

“Bob Diaz,” the voice said.

She hurriedly cuffed her hand over the phone receiver and said in an animated whisper, “It’s him, Diaz.”

I’m sure my eyes were pretty wide open when she handed me the phone. She immediately left the room, probably to make sure our daughter was in bed, and more importantly, safe.

He was calling to set up an interview at his home in Apple Valley for June 15th. It would be the first of two interviews I had with him months before his arrest. Each lasted more than an hour and one was conducted in the restaurant of then-fashionable Apple Valley Inn near Diaz’s apartment. The Inn which was a stone’s throw from where Roy Rogers lived in a new horseshoe-shaped home built by his son, Dusty Rogers, had gained local fame two years before as the location where movie star-director Robert Redford had directed actors Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland in scenes for his hit movie, “Ordinary People,” which won Best Picture Oscar in 1981.
-- From "Dinner With A Killer" by R.D. Byron-Smith.
(Blog readers interested in my "run-in" with Mary Tyler Moore on the set of "Ordinary People" at the Apple Valley Inn during filming can read about it in my new memoir, to be published soon. For a taste, see blog "Getting the Lead Out," 6-10-13, a scene from the new memoir to be published by Pilar Publishing,