HSU Student Sentenced to One Year for DUI Manslaughter; Ruling Upsets Supporters of Convicted Man and Victim Alike

Rhonda Parker / Wednesday, Feb. 22 @ 4:06 p.m. / Courts

A Humboldt State University student was handcuffed in court and taken to jail today to begin serving a one-year sentence for running over and killing an Arcata man while driving drunk.

Bergeson.

Robert Willard Bergeson III had asked to have his jail sentence postponed until June, so he could complete this semester at HSU. But Judge John Feeney ordered him taken into custody today, as Bergeson’s mother cried and pleaded “No!”

The sentence, which includes four years of supervised probation, was also a disappointment to the grieving friends and family of Alan Gradwohl, the man struck and killed in a pedestrian crosswalk on Sept. 4. They believed Bergeson deserved to spend the entire four years behind bars.

In fact, Gradwohl’s brother Jeffrey Garami, speaking at the sentencing this morning, said it was a “lucky break” for Bergeson that he was charged with manslaughter instead of murder.

Garami pointed out that Bergeson never braked until after Gradwohl was hit and thrown onto the hood of the van, fell off and was run over by the front tires, and finally crushed under the rear tires. Until the final blow his brother had been alive and screaming for his life, Garami said.

“Bergeson killed my brother because he continued to drive and finish the act, ” Garami said.

Kevin Johnson read a statement saying that losing their dear friend has forever changed life for him and his partner, Lisa. The day of his death Gradwohl had spent most of the day with them pressing apples for cider.

Now Lisa has withdrawn from her activities and friends, and “is pummeled by her sadness and guilt,” wishing she would have asked Gradwohl to stay for dinner or just to chat.

Johnson said that about two weeks after the killing he saw Bergeson and two of his friends at The Alibi bar in Arcata. Bergeson wasn’t drinking, he said, but his friends were.

“Robert and his friends have a lifestyle of drinking, and he is probably going to drink and drive once again,” Johnson said.

Bergeson, 24, was driving with a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit when his van hit Gradwohl, 55. He pleaded guilty last month to vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.

Facing Gradwohl’s friends and relatives, he cried as he read a statement expressing his remorse.

“If I could take the pain away from you and place it on myself I would in a heartbeat,” he said.

Bergeson’s mother, Erin Wallace, also wept as she talked about how her son has no prior criminal record and has been doing well at HSU. She said her son is “heartbroken” over the death, and she asked the judge for mercy.

Although at least a half-dozen of Gradwohl’s friends and family members attended the hearing, an even larger group accompanied Bergeson to court. And Bergeson had received 29 letters of support, which Gradwohl’s brother called “an insult.”

Judge Feeney expressed his sympathy to those grieving for Gradwohl.

“In 19 years on the bench I’ve seen too many of these cases and it never becomes easier,” he said, “much less for those impacted by (the death.)”

Feeney noted that Bergeson is the latest of several young defendants in DUI-related fatalities. He said in those cases he had ordered community service consisting of speaking to young people about the dangers of drinking and driving.

Feeney did the same for Bergeson today, ordering him to complete 100 hours of community service speaking at high schools or to youth groups. He told Bergeson he believes he will succeed on probation, and he doesn’t expect to see him back in court again.

Under California law, drunken drivers can only be charged with murder if they have a prior conviction and have been warned they could face murder charges if they are convicted again.

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Maxx Robison Held to Answer on Murder Charges; Defense Says He Only Intended to Shoot Up Empty Car When 19-Year-Old Women Was Killed

Rhonda Parker / Wednesday, Feb. 22 @ 2:15 p.m. / Courts

Maxx Carson Robison says murder wasn’t part of his plan when he opened fire on a car parked outside Room 12 at the McCullen’s Motel on June 30.

“There wasn’t supposed to be anybody in there,” Robison told his girlfriend during a tape-recorded phone call he made from the jail. “There was just supposed to be a car. I was aiming at a car.”

Robison.

Whatever his intent, those bullets fired from a semiautomatic rifle killed 19-year-old Rihanna Skye McKenzie, who was sitting in the Chrysler 300 with her boyfriend Elisha Mansell. He wasn’t injured, but later a Eureka police detective pointed out the bullet hole in his ballcap.

Today Judge Dale Reinholtsen held Robison to answer on charges of murder, attempted murder, shooting from a vehicle and firing at an occupied vehicle. He also must answer to several related weapons allegations.

Robison, 22, called his girlfriend from jail shortly after he was arrested. He told her about the confrontation he’d had with a man at McCullen’s Motel, saying the man had tried to scare him by firing a couple of shots from a small handgun.

He admitted he had then gone home to get a gun, and he returned to the motel.

“I obviously made my own decision to go back and do the same thing,” Robison said. “I guess I’m going to be in prison for the rest of my life.”

Robison said he felt that because the other man had shot at him, paying him back “was handling business.”

The tape-recorded phone call was played today at Robison’s preliminary hearing, held to determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant a trial. His arraignment was set for March 8, when a trial date will be set.

Robison was accompanied that night by Calvin Aubrey and Matthew “Bolt” Adams-Johnson. Aubrey testified during the hearing that Robison was on a mission to find drugs and had gone to the motel to get some. But the transaction ended poorly, with a man (presumably Mansell) following Robison back to the car and cursing at him.

During the phone call from jail, Robison told his girlfriend that he asked the man “What are you going to do? Shoot me or stab me?” The guy reportedly responded “Maybe, if you don’t shut your mouth.”

“… I shot the shit out of his car,” Robison told his girlfriend. “And it turned out some poor innocent lady got hit by a stray bullet.”

Under questioning today by Deputy District Attorney Roger Rees, Eureka police Detective John Gordon said there were bullet holes in the passenger side of the Chrysler, where McKenzie was sitting, and also in the driver’s side. He said those were apparently exit holes.

After the shooting Mansell drove to St. Joseph Hospital, with Eureka police Officer Dustin Nantz in pursuit. Nantz said Mansell was running stop signs and driving at speeds up to 60 mph. In the emergency room parking lot, Mansell jumped out of the car.

“He was crying and asking me to help his girlfriend who had been shot,” Nantz testified. He said he initially pulled his gun, ordered Mansell to the ground and handcuffed him. Another officer went into the emergency room to get help.

McKenzie was pronounced dead within minutes of arriving at the ER, Nantz said.

Before Reinholtsen made his ruling today, Deputy Public Defender Jennifer Dixon argued that Robison’s only intention was to commit “felonious vandalism against a vehicle.” She said he had no idea anyone was in the car.

Reinholtsen said Robison’s intent will be the ultimate issue in the case. But using the “probable cause” standard applied in a preliminary hearing, he held Robison to answer.

Robison recently turned down a second-degree murder deal that would have put him in prison for 37 years to life. He remains in custody on $1.6 million bail.

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Be Warned! It’s Totally Snowing on Highway 299 at Berry Summit

Andrew Goff / Wednesday, Feb. 22 @ 1:46 p.m. / Traffic

UPDATE, 2:09 p.m.: Well that was quick. Myles checks back in to let us know that the chain restrictions have just been lifted. 

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UPDATE, 1:58 p.m.: Caltrans public information officer Myles Cochrane lets us know that chains or snow-tread tires are now required for those attempting to traverse the summit.

“In these inclement weather conditions it’s definitely good to check your route before you head out,” Cochrane says. “Make sure your rig can handle it, turn your headlights on, make sure you can see clearly through your windows, and most of all slow down.”

Now you know.

# # #

Caltrans

Original Post: Well, would you look at that? Early this morning our local National Weather Service warriors told us that today’s showers combined with cold air had the potential to result in “light snow accumulations” in areas of Humboldt, Del Norte and Trinity counties above 2000 feet.

Make it so! Let it snow! 

A quick glimpse at Caltrans’ webcams in Highway 299 near the top of Berry Summit, about 10 miles west of Willow Creek, reveals a blanket of the white stuff, notably on the roadway. In both sets of images, above and below, the first image was taken around 7:30 a.m. this morning while the second image was taken around 1:15 p.m. this afternoon. Winter!

While we’ve not yet received word of any snow-related road closures, motorists would be wise to be wary. Already, as chronicled on LoCO’s CHP Watch, there is report of a driver of a grey Nissan being stuck in snow blocking both lanes on Titlow Hill Road.

We will update this post with pertinent information when and if conditions worsen. 



Sheriff’s Office Provides Cause of Death for Eureka Transient Man Whose Body was Found Under a Bridge

Andrew Goff / Wednesday, Feb. 22 @ 10:27 a.m. / News

PREVIOUSLY: 63-Year-Old Man Found Dead Underneath a Myrtle Avenue Bridge, Where He Lived

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The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office sent out a short update Wednesday following up on the unexplained death of Sam Whitney, a known local transient whose body was found last week under a Eureka bridge where he lived. Press release below:

 

Sam Whitney was found deceased February 11th under the Ryan Slough Bridge. Whitney was dressed adequately for the weather. A thick sleeping bag was found nearby.

During the autopsy on Wednesday, February 15, 2017 Whitney’s cause of death was determined to be heart failure. Whitney appeared to have died three to ten days prior to being found. Drowning and trauma were ruled out as causing or contributing to Whitney’s death.




(VIDEO) Eureka, City of Art! Council Approves Five-Year Plan to Help Revamp and Nurture Local Arts Culture

Sierra Jenkins / Wednesday, Feb. 22 @ 7:39 a.m. / LoCO Video Reports

Click video to play. Problems on iPhone? Turn your phone sideways.    

Eureka has an array of the arts throughout the city, and the belief is that this is essential for quality of life and the economy. But there’s a general consensus that the arts need to be revamped and nurtured.

“It’s actually a pretty robust part of our economy. It turns out that the arts is as large of a contributor to our economy as the fishing industry is. So it’s important for us to see what we can do to promote them,” said Community Development Services Director, Rob Holmlund. “And arts and culture also has the added benefit to beautify the city, improve the aesthetics, and make it a more fun place to live.”

So with efforts of city staff, Eureka’s Arts & Culture Commission, community stakeholders, and feedback from a public meeting and online surveys, the Strategic Arts Plan was born. The plan includes 35 projects to help activate the city’s environment, connect diverse groups, discourage blight, encourage tourism and generate revenue.

The plan was brought before council on Tuesday night and received gracious remarks and a unanimous approval.

“It supports what’s already happening in Eureka,” said Councilmember Natalie Arroyo. “We have so many artists in Humboldt and Eureka in particular and we have a lot of organizations to partner with. So it really plays on our community strengths.”

In this LoCO Video Report we learn about some of the new projects, including the Phantom Art Gallery, the F Street Corridor, the Second Street Pedestrian Plaza, and the highly anticipated Opera Alley revamp, along with current projects that need to be upgraded, like wayfinding banners and signage.

“This is a way for us to have our identity presented in a strong statement that can be experienced,” said Susan Bloch-Welliver, Vice Chair for the Eureka Arts and Culture Commission. “So that people want to live, work and visit our town.”



McCullens Motel Murder Trial: While Witnesses Detail the Boring Night of Drug Jonesing That Led to Shooting of 19-Year-Old Girl, Additional Victim Refuses to Testify

Rhonda Parker / Wednesday, Feb. 22 @ 7:23 a.m. / Courts

Murder suspect Maxx Robison rolled down the car window, leaned out and fired multiple rounds, a witness testified today at Robison’s preliminary hearing.

But so far it’s unclear whether Robison was purposely firing at anyone, let alone the 19-year-old girl who was killed that morning in a car outside McCullen’s Motel.

Robison.

Witness Calvin Aubrey testified that he and a friend, Matthew “Bolt” Adams-Johnson, spent many hours with Robison the night of June 29 and the morning of June 30. During that time Aubrey ate some dinner, drank a few beers, smoked a little pot and just hung out at the High Street home where Robison lived with his grandmother.

While the three were sitting outside around a bonfire, Aubrey said, Robison told them he was a drug user and it was “a major problem in his life.” Aubrey began feeling “weird vibes” when Robison seemed to become agitated, pacing back and forth and constantly on his cellphone. At one point Robison left them alone and went into the house. After 20 to 30 minutes, Aubrey and Adams-Johnson went in to check on him.

“There were two guns on the table, on his living room table,” Aubrey said. “He asked me and Bolt if we had any money. He started picking up one of the guns; he asked if we wanted to buy it.”

When they weren’t interested in guns, Robison asked if they wanted to buy mushrooms or weed, Aubrey said. He kept after them, and finally the discussion awakened Robison’s sleeping grandmother, Barbara Berry.

“She came out and she asked that me and Bolt leave because it was getting late,” Aubrey said. He estimated this was about 2 or 2:30 a.m. “That’s when the defendant asked Bolt to take him down to McCullen’s.”

They left in Robison’s car, with Adams-Johnson driving, Robison in the passenger seat and Aubrey in the back seat. It was only a few blocks to the motel. Aubrey said Robison’s goal was to buy some drugs, “get his fix.”

Unknown to Robison, his worried grandmother called the police when she saw his car leaving. She testified today that she assumed he was driving under the influence, and she feared he would hurt himself or someone else.

Aubrey said that when they arrived at the motel, “Maxx got out of the car and was gone for about 10 minutes.” He returned with an angry man following him. Aubrey described the man as Caucasian, tall and wearing a ball cap and a white T-shirt. He was cussing at Robison. At one point he said something such as “Do you want to take this up to the graveyard?” in a possible reference to the nearby cemetery.

Aubrey said he and Adams-Johnson were terrified and were yelling at Robison to get in the car. The angry guy was pulling at his waistband like he was trying to get something out.

Robison got in the car and yelled “Punk bitch!” at the man. When Aubrey looked out the back window, he saw the man standing in the middle of the street and extending his hand. He saw a flash and heard a loud “pop.”

Back they drove to Robison’s house. Aubrey said Robison went in the house and came back to the car. This time he had a rifle.

Aubrey recalled Robison racking the rifle and issuing a command: “McCullen’s. Now.”’

Police investigate the shooting the morning after. Photo: Andrew Goff.

During this time the grandmother had called police and told them her grandson was safely home, then called back and said he was gone again and his guns were missing. She was terrified that Robison, upset that his girlfriend had recently left him, was going to shoot himself.

Instead Robison was on his way back to McCullen’s Motel, with Adams-Johnson driving and Aubrey in the back seat.

Aubrey said he was shaking in terror and trying to hide. When they arrived at the motel he only saw Robison roll down the window and lean out. He heard the shots, and then Robison saying “Let’s get out of here.”

They drove to the Little Fairfield Street home where Bolt lived with his uncle. There, he said, Robison laughed and bragged about how he “let off five shots.”

But the night wasn’t over yet. They drove around town, with Robison pestering Adams-Johnson about where he could get drugs. Finally he dropped them off. Aubrey said he walked to his friend Liz’s house and went to sleep. The next morning a woman staying with Liz was talking about a shooting and saying a girl had died.

“I started crying,” Aubrey said.

It’s not clear whether the man who argued with Robison at McMullen’s Motel was Elisha Mansell, who was sitting in the car with 19-year-old Rihanna McKenzie when Robison allegedly opened fire. Mansell escaped injury and drove McKenzie to the hospital, but she died from her wounds.

Mansell was scheduled to testify today, but appeared to be suffering from emotional problems and eventually was dismissed as a witness.

Before the hearing started this morning, Mansell could be heard announcing to Deputy District Attorney Roger Rees that he constantly relives the incident and “My symptoms are getting worse.”

Once in court but still in the audience, Mansell kept making unsolicited statements to attorneys and to Judge Dale Reinholtsen. He told Deputy Public Defender Jennifer Dixon that “I have a bunch of papers here that could help your client a lot.” He said he planned to give the papers to Dixon and the prosecution.

He complained to Rees that he had never received a police report on the incident, and said he has had no cellphone since it was taken as evidence the night of the killing.

Mansell took the witness stand and seemed to waver on whether to speak. He wanted to testify because “My girl was murdered,” but on the other hand he was afraid of the district attorney.

“The DA is out to prosecute anybody and everybody in any situation,” Mansell said.

Judge Reinholtsen appointed Deputy Public Defender Marek Reavis to counsel Mansell, and Reavis advised him to plead his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination and not testify. Mansell apparently was not satisfied with Reavis because he believes a victims’ rights organization is going to appoint him a lawyer.

Prosecutor Rees offered Mansell immunity but eventually gave up on him. He was excused as a witness and most likely won’t be summoned again.

The hearing was scheduled to continue this morning, with defense attorney Dixon cross-examining Aubrey. He has already admitted under cross-examination that his memory of some events is hazy. One possible issue is his timeline of the evening. He believes he and Adams-Johnson first met up with Robison between 4 and 5 p.m., when he said the sun was setting. In June the sun would have set quite a bit later.

Also at question is why he didn’t part company with Robison much earlier, considering how frightened he was.

Robison, 22, is charged with murdering McKenzie and attempting to murder Mansell. He was recently planning to accept a plea deal that would have put him in prison for 37 years to life, but changed his mind at the last minute. He remains in custody on bail of $1.6 million.

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OBITUARY: Harold Arthur Oliveira, 1948-2017

LoCO Staff / Wednesday, Feb. 22 @ 7:02 a.m. / Obits

Harold Arthur Oliveira passed away peacefully on January 21st, 2017 in the comfort of his home in Hydesville. In his final days he was surrounded by family and friends. His courageous battle with cancer is now over, and God has him in His arms.

Harold lived a life filled with more than 68 years of love, honor, integrity and hard work. Harold was born on September 2, 1948 in Scotia and was raised in Fortuna. He attended local schools and was a Mill Wright at PALCO for nearly 40 years. He was married to Corinne Oliveira for 28 years. They had a wonderful marriage and raised three children together. After his wife’s passing, Harold was blessed to find love again and his world lit up when he got to know JoAnne Frick. Harold married JoAnne when he realized he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her by his side.

Harold lived a life full of love, courage, compassion, and faith. He loved going on long walks with JoAnne, spending time with family, spending time on his ranch, making people laugh with his great sense of humor and having weekly outings with his brothers and their wives. He was a devoted and loving husband, father, brother, uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather.

Harold is survived by his wife JoAnne Oliveira; two daughters Sara (Andrew) Newville and Katie (Ian) Gustafson; and son Matt (Tina) Oliveira; three brothers Fred (Raemel) Oliveira, John (Vivian) Oliveira and Clarence (JoyDel) Oliveira; sisters-in-law Carolyn Eldridge (Ron) and Marilyn Lewis (Dennis), seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren as well as numerous other relatives. He is also survived and cherished by JoAnne’s family.

Harold was preceded in death by his wife Corinne Oliveira, his parents Joe and Ruby Oliveira, nephew Brian Oliveira, and mother-in-law and father in-law Gwen and Chuck McLin.

Harold will be greatly missed by those who knew and loved him and his memory will forever live on in our hearts. A celebration of life and memorial will be held on Saturday, February 25th at 11 a.m. at Hydesville Community Church, located on the corner of Highway 36 and Rohnerville Road. All are invited to the Fellowship Hall following the service to gather and rejoice in the life of Harold Oliveira remembering how he touched our lives and to share the many wonderful memories that we cherish of him.

The family wishes to acknowledge all the compassion extended to all of us by Hospice of Humboldt and Hydesville Community Church. We would also like to thank all those who have offered their expressions of condolence, offered prayers and support at this time for our family. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made in Harold’s memory to Hospice of Humboldt, Hydesville Community Church or a charity of your choice.

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The obituary above was submitted on behalf of Harold Oliveira’s family. The Lost Coast Outpost runs obituaries of Humboldt County residents at no charge. See guidelines here