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Sheriff's Calls

Nancy Mullane

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Sheriff Deputy Richard Johnson
(Nancy Mullane)
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This weekend, in the bohemian, pastoral enclave of Northern California known as West Marin County, there will be a Shostakovich piano concert at the Point Reyes Dance Palace, and a few miles away, a concert by Afro-Pop dance sensation Zulu Spear. These and other weekend events are listed in the local newspaper, the Point Reyes Light. But what most people turn to first in that paper are the more nefarious happenings, reported in a weekly column called Sheriff's Calls. Reporter Nancy Mullane has been a long time reader of the column, which manages to be consistently charming and a little bizarre. Recently, she got a behind the scenes look at how the column gets made each week.

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You may get your news on the radio, or maybe you turn on the TV every once in a while, but for people living in one small town out on the Western edge of the country, the local paper has the best and juiciest news around.


"Tomales… 11:16 a.m. A man said that a leaf blower and a power drill had been stolen from the Church of the Assumption
Point Reyes Station… 4:18 p.m. Several cows were in the road. Ranch hands herded them back inside the fence.
Muir Beach…4:22 p.m. Upset caller reported two men were acting inappropriately while filming a video. They were wearing a wig and a hat and there were children in the area. Deputies responded."

These are the sorts of things that show up every week in the Point Reyes Light. It's a tiny, but Pulitzer Prize winning paper and it's got an impressive team of investigative reporters. But the most read part of the paper is the Sheriff's Calls column on page three. For locals, it's half news, half gossip, and before a juicy or bizarre item lands in the column, it lands in the lap of local law enforcement like Marin County Sheriff Deputy Richard Johnson.

Sitting in his office, he looks through one of the most recent issues of the Point Reyes Light, stacked on the table, "We will sit in here and look at these things and a lot of times go, 'Hey I was on that call. Hey wait a minute here, that's well, that's kind of what happened.' And you look at how they phrase it and their wording kind of makes it funny."

Everyday, the Sheriff's Department faxes an account of most of their calls to the newspaper. An editor picks over them, distilling the accounts down to a kind of social haiku.

Looking over the 60 calls reported in the Calls column, Deputy Johnson points to one about a giant cloud of sand that blew across the highway. "OK. I was on this one," he says. He describes the moment he heard about the sand. "So here's a lady who came in and said 'There's somebody sandblasting down here on Point Reyes Road.' We drove down there."

When Deputy Johnson drove down the road and around the corner, he was shocked. "Holy crap," he said, "it looks like it's snowing."

"It was like thick fog was moving in. Pretty funny, but like we told the guy, 'If there'd been a wreck out here, you probably would have been responsible.'"

Most of the calls the Marin County Sheriff's Department responds to don't qualify as criminal acts. Even so, when the sheriffs do go out on calls, they're loaded down with serious firepower. They have guns, tasers and handcuffs. After 25 years on the job, Deputy Johnson says he's learned to be prepared for the worst. But, he says, most of the time, people are just knuckleheads.

A call has come over the radio that a man's gotten into a fight in a town down the road. So Deputy Johnson gets in his car and heads 30 minutes south. Driving through the town, he spots the man and calls out to him, "Chad. Were you arguing with Ricky earlier?" Convinced the argument is over, Deputy Johnson heads back north. The next week, the call makes it into the Sheriff's Calls column:


"Bolinas 12:15 p.m…two people who were yelling and screaming at each other were urged to go their separate ways…"

However, not every sheriff's call gets in the newspaper, and that's a sore spot with the locals. For many it's an honor for their brush with the law to show up in the Sheriff's Calls column, and when it doesn't, they remember the one that got away.

Gail Coppinger runs a fruit stand in Point Reyes Station. She says a friend of hers stopped to help a woman who was parked on the side of the road.

"He gets to the window and he looks in, and she has a baby skunk in her arms, and she's nursing the baby skunk with breast milk. And he says, 'Do you need any help?' And she says 'No, I'm fine.' So he quickly turns around and runs to his truck and drives to the nearest pay phone to call the sheriff because he wants the sheriff to come see this so it'll make the Sheriff's Calls. Even though the sheriff did make a stop and make sure she was OK…and she was still nursing the skunk, it didn't make the Sheriff's Calls."

Across the street at the Sheriff Station, Deputy Johnson is sitting, waiting when another call comes over the scanner: "Southbound 101, a report of a Mercedes, dark color, driving with a man riding on top of the vehicle."

Deputy Johnson is stunned, "On top of the car? I've not heard that one before." We'll have to check the Sheriff's Calls next week to see if that call made it in the paper.

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  • By Mandy Hannan

    07/21/2014

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