THE LAST CIRCLE
by Carol Marshall
Table of Contents:
For the deputies of the Mariposa Sheriff's Department, the awakening occurred on June 24, 1980, when deputy Ron Van Meter drowned in an alleged boating accident on Lake McClure. The search party consisted mainly of three divers, deputies Dave Beavers, Rod Cusic and Gary Estep. Although adjacent counties offered additional divers, sheriff Paul Paige refused outside help, even a minisubmarine offered by Beavers' associate.
In the shallow, placid waters of Lake McClure, Van Meter's body was not recovered that week, and indeed would not be found until ten years later, in September, 1990 when his torso, wrapped in a fish net and weighted down by various objects, including a fire extinguisher, washed ashore a few hundred yards from where Sergeant Roderick Sinclair's houseboat had once been moored.
Van Meter's widow, Leslie, had been at home baking cookies when she was notified of her husband's disappearance. She was an Indian girl who had no affinity with sheriff Paul Paige. The horror began for her that day also. Her home was ransacked and her husband's briefcase and diary were seized by the Mariposa Sheriff's department. Only she and a few deputies knew what Van Meter's diary contained. He'd told his wife he'd taken out a special life insurance policy two weeks before, but after the search that was missing also.
Leslie was taken to a psychiatric clinic for evaluation shortly after the incident. The story surfaced years later, one tiny bubble at a time. The self-involved little community of Mariposa did not cough up its secrets gladly. On March 23, 1984, Leslie Van Meter filed a Citizen's Complaint with the Mariposa County Sheriff's department alleging that the Sheriff's office had been negligent and unprofessional in their investigation of her husband's disappearance. His body had still not been found, despite private searches by Sergeant Beavers and other friends of the missing deputy. She wanted the case reopened.
Paul Paige was no longer sheriff, but newly elected Sheriff Ken Mattheys responded by reopening the investigation. Investigator Raymond Jenkins, a Merced College Police Chief, and retired FBI agent Tom Walsh from Merced, were notified by Sheriff Mattheys in October, 1984 that the Van Meter case had been reopened and he wanted their help in cleaning up the Sheriff's Department.
Their investigation led them straight to the doorstep of MCA Corporation (Music Corporation of America), parent company to Curry Company, the largest concessionaire in Yosemite National Park. A major drug network had surfaced in the park, compelling one park ranger, Paul Berkowitz, to go before the House Interior Subcommittee on National Parks and Recreation to testify about drug distribution by Curry Company officials.
Ed Hardy, the president of Curry Company, was closely associated with Mariposa County officials, in particular, Mariposa District Attorney Bruce Eckerson, County Assessor Steve Dunbar, and Congressman Tony Coelho, whose district encompassed Mariposa and the Park. The annual camping trips that the three men took together was encouraged by the local townsfolk because most of Mariposa's tax base emanated from Curry Company. Coelho and Hardy were regular fixtures around town, seen at most of the social events. Coelho even cooked and served spaghetti dinners for the whole town annually at the Mariposa Fair Grounds, and purchased property in partnership with one member of the Mariposa Board of Supervisors. In fact, Mariposa was one of the first places he bid farewell to after resigning from Congress to avoid an investigation of his finances.
Meanwhile, investigator Raymond Jenkins had followed the drug trail from Yosemite back to the Mariposa airport, where sheriff's deputies were seen regularly loading and unloading packages from planes in the dead of night.
One Indian girl complained bitterly about deputies using the Sara Priest land allottment (reservation) to grow marijuana and operate methamphetamine labs. Jenkins, by now retired from the position of Police Chief of Merced College, was called in to interview the Indian girl. That same day, as a favor, he provided me with copies of his notes. I followed up with a tape recorded interview at her home in Bear valley. Her father and uncle operated a small auto dismantling business on the reservation in Midpines, and after locating them and gaining their confidence, the uncle drove me out to Whiskey Flats, the site of the marijuana and methamphetamine lab operations. That week I rented a horse and rode down into the rocky, isolated valley of Whiskey Flats. Brush and shrubbery tore at the saddle on the horse and at the end of the dirt path I encountered three snarling Rottweiler dogs who put the horse into a frenzied lather.
Nevertheless, I managed to photograph the irrigation system, artesian spring and pond from which the water was supplied as well as various points of identification for future reconnaisance. I later returned in a fourwheel drive pickup truck and managed to view the trailer and lab shack.
The tape recorded interview with the Indian girl, the photos and notes from my discovery were provided to the Stanislaus County Drug Task Force, but jurisdictionally, they couldn't enter Mariposa County without authority of the Mariposa Sheriff's department. It was a catch 22 situation. Ultimately I provided the same information anonymously to several related agencies. It was not until 1993 that the fields were eradicated, and 1994, before the labs were raided. However, no arrests of any deputies were ever forthcoming. In fact, no arrests occurred at all, except for a few non-English speaking Mexican nationals who had handled the "cooking." The head of the Los Angeles Drug Enforcement Agency noted to a local newspaper that the meth lab was part of a large California drug network, but they were unable to identify the kingpins.
On July 6, 1985, Mrs. Van Meter filed a "Request for Official Inquiry" with the State of California Department of Boating and Waterways stating that no satisfactory investigation was ever conducted into the matter of her husband's disappearance.
That same month, shortly after a meeting at Lake McClure with Mrs. Van Meter, Sheriff Mattheys mysteriously resigned from his position at the Mariposa Sheriff's Department. Mattheys revealed to reporter Anthony Pirushki that he had been ordered by two county supervisors and the county's attorney "to stay away from the Van Meter investigation." But that was not the reason he resigned. The whole story would not surface until seven years later when a reporter for the Mariposa Guide interviewed him.
However, while still in office, Mattheys and his internal affairs investigators had learned the reason for Van Meter's disappearance. A few weeks prior to his death in 1980, Van Meter had driven to the Attorney General's office in Sacramento and reported drug dealing and other types of corruption within the Mariposa Sheriff's Department. This, according to his friends whom he had confided in, deputies Dave Beavers, a fifteen year veteran of the sheriff's department, and Rod Cusic, a seventeen year veteran. Both deputies were ultimately forced out of the department and retired on stress leave.
On that same day, reserve deputy Lucky Jordan had driven to the Fresno office of the FBI to report similar information. According to Jordan, they had split up and reported to separate agencies in the event "something" happened to one of them. The crux of the story was State Attorney General Van De Kamp's response to the requested investigation by Ron Van Meter. When Ron returned home from Sacramento, he was confronted by Sheriff Paige. Paige had received a call from the Attorney General informing him of the visit and its contents, and the sheriff was livid about Van Meter's betrayal. Van Meter had been photographing and journalizing drug activity by deputies at Lake McClure. He was part of a California State Abatement Program which involved harvesting and eradicating marijuana fields in Yosemite National Park and adjacent counties. Instead, the harvested marijuana was being stored in abandoned cars and towed out of town by a local wrecker under contract with the sheriff's department. It was also being distributed at a hidden cove at Lake McClure.
On June 24, 1980, frustrated and angry at the Attorney General for betraying him, Van Meter had borrowed a boat and was on his way to arrest the deputies at Lake McClure himself. He never returned. The investigation of Van Meter's "accident" was initially handled by Sergeant Roderick Sinclair, who could not have known on that fateful day that in exactly three years, three months, and nineteen days, he would enter the Twilight Zone where his own private hell awaited him.
The first substantial hint that a tentacle of the Octopus had slithered into Mariposa County occurred on March 5, 1983 when a Mariposa County Sheriff's vehicle scouting Queen Elizabeth II's motorcade route rounded a curve in the Yosemite National Park foothills, crossed a highway and collided head-on with a Secret Service car, killing three Secret Service agents. CHP (California Highway Patrol) Assistant Chief Richard Hanna reported that the collision occurred at 10:50 a.m. between Coulterville and La Grange on Highway 132 about 25 minutes ahead of Queen Elizabeth's motorcade. CHP Sergeant Bob Schilly reported that Mariposa County Sheriff's Sergeant Roderick Sinclair, 43, was driving with his partner, Deputy Rod McKean, 51, when "for some reason, [he didn't] know why," Sinclair crossed the center line and hit the second of the three Secret Service cars, which went tumbling down a 10-foot embankment.
The three Secret Service agents killed in the collision were identified as George P. LaBarge, 41, Donald Robinson, 38, and Donald A. Bejcek, 29. Sinclair, who had sustained broken ribs and a fractured knee, was first stabilized at Fremont Hospital in Mariposa, then transported several days later to Modesto Memorial Hospital.
Years later, several nurses who had been present when Sinclair was brought into Fremont Hospital confided that Sinclair had been drugged on the day of "the Queen's accident" as it became known in Mariposa. For months Sinclair had been receiving huge daily shots of Demerol, "enough to kill most men," according to one billing clerk. Some former deputies who had feared punitive measures if they spoke up, later corroborated the story of the nurses.
Meanwhile, Assistant U.S. Attorney James White in Fresno ordered Dr. Arthur Dahlem's files seized to prove Sinclair's drug addiction. Sinclair's Mariposa doctor and close friend had been prescribing heavy sedatives to him for years. When White attempted to prosecute Sinclair for criminal negligence, he was called into chambers during the federal probe and told by U.S. District Court Judge Robert E. Coyle to "drop the criminal investigation" because Sinclair's drug problem was not relevant to the prosecution and the drug records could not be used in court. Judge Coyle's reasoning was that no blood tests had been taken on Sinclair at the Fremont Hospital on the day of the accident, therefore no case could be made against him.
In fact, the blood tests HAD been taken, but later disappeared. A significant piece of information relative to Judge Coyle's background was passed to me during my investigation of the Queen's accident by retired FBI agent Thomas Walsh. Allegedly, the Judge was once the attorney of record for Curry Company (owned by MCA Corporation) in Yosemite National Park. I later learned, in 1992, that Robert Booth Nichols had strong ties to MCA Corporation through Eugene Giaquinto, president of MCA Corporation Home Entertainment Division. Giaquinto had been on the Board of Directors of Nichols' corporation, MIL, Inc. (Meridian International Logistics, Inc.) and also held 10,000 shares of stock in the holding corporation. MIL, Inc. was later investigated by the Los Angeles FBI for allegedly passing classified secrets to overseas affiliates in Japan and Australia. It is interesting to note, though unrelated, that shortly afterward, the Japanese purchased MCA Corporation, one of the largest corporate purchases to take place in American history.
Relative to the Queens accident, in the civil trial that followed the tragic accident, Judge Coyle ruled that both Sinclair and the deceased Secret Service agents were at fault. Mariposa County was ordered to pay 70 percent of the claim filed by the widows, and the Secret Service to pay 30 percent. The county's insurance company paid the claim, and ironically, Sinclair was subsequently promoted to Commander of the Mariposa Sheriff's Department where he is still employed as of this writing.
In an interview on March 7, 1988, at Yoshino's Restaurant in Fresno, former U.S. Attorney James White recalled that the original CHP report on the Queens accident was sent to the State Attorney General's office (Van De Kamp) in Sacramento. The report was first received by Arnold Overoye, who agreed with White that Sinclair should be prosecuted. But when the report crossed Van De Kamp's desk, he told Overoye and his assistant to discard it trash it.
Van De Kamp then appointed Bruce Eckerson, the Mariposa County District Attorney, to take charge of the investigation and submit a new report. Coincidentally, Bruce Eckerson's disclosure statements on file at the Mariposa County Courthouse indicated that he owned stock in MCA Entertainment Corporation. White added that ALL of the crack M.A.I.T.S. team CHP officers involved in the original investigation either resigned or were transferred (or fired) afterward. The CHP Commander and the Deputy Commander who supervised the M.A.I.T.S. investigation also resigned as did Assistant U.S. Attorney White himself after the coverup took place.
However, White noted that before he resigned, he quietly filed with Stephan LaPalm of the U.S. Attorney's office in Sacramento the transcripts of the trial and an affidavit which listed the "hallucinatory" drugs Sinclair had used prior to the accident. I privately continued with the Queen's accident investigation, interviewing deputies Dave Beavers and Rod Cusic who had been privy to Sinclair's drugged condition on the day of the accident.
Beavers, who was the first deputy to arrive on the scene, maintained four years later, in 1987, that he was cognizant of Sinclair's condition, but when he was questioned by James White he was NOT ASKED about the drugs. (James White had by then been ordered to drop the criminal investigation and stay away from the drug aspect of the case).
In January 1988, deputy Rod Cusic strode into the offices of the Mariposa Guide, a competitor newspaper to the Mariposa Gazette, and stated that he was "told by Rod Sinclair to lie to a Grand Jury" about Sinclair's drug addiction and the resulting Queen's accident. Cusic added that he officially disclosed this to the Fresno FBI on April 26, 1984 and again on October 9, 1987. In 1987, Cusic also noted that he witnessed a boobytrapped incendiary device explode at Rod Sinclair's home during a visit to his residence. Additionally, earlier on, Sinclair allegedly barricaded himself inside his home and boobytrapped the property, as witnessed by numerous deputies who tried to persuade him to come out.
While reviewing old newspaper clippings from the Mariposa Gazette, I discovered an odd sidebar to the story. In December, 1984, during the Queen's accident civil trial in Fresno, U.S. Attorney James White had introduced testimony that Sinclair's vehicle contained "a myriad of automatic weapons including a boobytrapped bomb" when the collision occurred on March 5, 1983. It was not until 1991 that I discovered the depth of the coverup.
A CBS television executive and a Secret Service agent who had ridden in the third car of the Queen's motorcade in 1983, arrived in Mariposa to enlist my help in putting the pieces of the puzzle together on the Queen's accident. The Secret Service agent's best friend had been the driver of the car in which all three agents were killed. I signed a contract with the television executive for the sale of the story then drove them to the site of the accident, then to the site of where the damaged vehicle was stored near Lake McClure. The Secret Service agent broke down at the sight of the vehicle, remembering the gruesome appearance of his dead friend in the front seat. He turned, tears welling in his eyes, and said, "His heart burst right through his chest and was laying in his lap when I found him."
Dave Beavers joined us the next day. As did former sheriff Ken Mattheys. Beavers did not know that the same Secret Service agent whom he was sitting with in the car was the man who had tried to pull Sinclair out of the sheriff's vehicle on the day of the accident. There had been a scuffle, Beavers insisting that Sinclair go to the hospital with "his own people," and the Secret Service ultimately conceding. The Secret Service agent reflected sadly that they didn't know to ask the hospital for blood tests on Sinclair that day, didn't know of his drug addiction. By the time the case went to court, the records at the hospital were gone.
Two weeks after the agent left Mariposa, I received a packet containing copies of Sinclair's drug records for three years prior to the accident. They were the same records that U.S. District Court Judge Robert Coyle had disallowed in the Queen's accident trial. But it was not until producer Don Thrasher, a ten-year veteran of ABC News "20/20," came to town, that I learned of Sinclair's background, or the extent of his addiction.
By chance, at a book signing engagement at B. Dalton Bookstore, I had mentioned to the manager, Shaula Brent, that my next book contained information about the Queens accident. Surprised, Shaula blurted out that she had worked at Fremont Hospital when Sinclair was brought in from the accident. Shaula recounted the following: Rod Sinclair was brought into Fremont Hospital and placed in a room with an armed "FBI" agent outside the door. Sinclair had been receiving huge shots of Demerol in the arm every day prior to the accident, by order of Dr. Arthur Dahlem. Shaula noted that Sinclair was a big man and the amount of Demerol he had been receiving would have killed most men. After the Queen's accident, all drugs were withdrawn from Sinclair, and employees, including Shaula, could hear him raving aloud for days from his hospital room. The employees at the hospital were instructed not to speak about or repeat what took place at the hospital while Sinclair was there.
Because Shaula and her friend, Barbara Locke, who also worked at the hospital, were suspicious about Sinclair's hospital records, they secretly took photostats of the records "before they were destroyed by the hospital." Blood HAD been drawn on Sinclair on the day of the Queen's accident, and he HAD been under the influence, according to Shaula. Shaula gave the names of six nurses who were witness to Sinclair's condition at the time he was brought into Fremont Hospital. When his body was finally drug-free, Sinclair was transported, against his wishes, to Modesto Hospital.
In January, 1992, the final pieces to the puzzle fell into place. Sinclair's background had been the key all along. Producer Don Thrasher had interviewed the Secret Service agent and, although the information he obtained would not be used in his production, he advised me to follow up. The Secret Service corroborated the following profile: Sinclair's father had been a military attache to General Douglas MacArthur during World War II. (I had privately mused how many of MacArthur's men later became arms of the Octopus). In Japan, after the war, Colonel Sinclair (sr.) supervised the training of selected Japanese in intelligence gathering operations.
According to the Secret Service, he was an "international figure," highly regarded in the intelligence community. Rod Sinclair, Jr. attended school in Japan during this time. He later reportedly worked in the Army C.I.D. in a nonmilitary or civilian capacity, allegedly receiving training at Fort Liggett in San Luis Obispo, a training center for military intelligence operations.
Could it have been possible for Colonel Sinclair, Sr. to have called upon old friends in high places to rescue his son, Rod, from the Queen's accident investigation? Did the Octopus have enough power to alter an investigation of the death of three Secret Service agents? According to the Secret Service agent in Los Angeles, it did. And he intended to tell the story after he retired.