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Home Free Home: A History of Two Open-Door California Communes

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Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25

Chapter 22
A Friend Retires & The Big Dope Raid

In the spring of 1971, Judge Sheidecker, the kindly old man before whom so many of the Morning Star and Wheeler's residents had appeared so many times, retired from the municipal bench. He always had tried to be fair, and hated to put people in jail. A dinner was held in his honor, and about thirty Ridgefolk attended as well as a group from Morning Star after an anonymous donor made one hundred and fifty dollars of tickets available for their use. The dinner was attended by all the Sonoma County bigwigs, lawyers, judges and politicians. A discernible ripple went through the distinguished gathering when the hippies arrived, some present even thinking there was going to be some sort of trouble. Later it was rumored that Clara O'Brien had been the anonymous donor, and that she had bought tickets for the Ridge because she was angry at the judge for being so lenient with them.

Shortly after the long-haired contingents arrived, the old judge stood up and graciously welcomed them, addressing them as "Our friends from Morning Star and Wheeler ranches." That broke the ice, and everyone had a wonderful evening, sitting at the same tables as the people who had been their enemies. The benefactor's strategies had backfired.

After the dinner, Bill wrote a letter to the Judge thanking him for his welcome. His wife replied, agreeing that it had been a memorable occasion, and suggesting that if all else failed in the struggle with the county, that the shining example of Gandhi should be an inspiration.

The Ridge did indeed set a fine example of civil disobedience. The residents continued to build their community and form their tribe as if the official repression and court orders did not exist. The documents were just so much paper, like the New England Blue Laws which were still on the books but which no one obeyed because of their absurdity. Enforcement of building and health codes in rural areas fell into the same category. One court order required the destruction of the buildings and the removal of the people from the land, but it was in abeyance pending the appeal. Like the condemned man, the Ridge hoped for a miracle, a change in the law or the turning of the political climate into one more favorable to their cause. Until then, they pursued the arduous course of stalling officialdom, watching the revolution gain momentum and hoping the political pendulum had reached its zenith in its swing to the right. The two hundredth anniversary of America was on the horizon, and everyone hoped they would have something to celebrate.

BILL: "People were often mystified as to why we had so much legal trouble. Why was it, they asked, that we ran so counter to the current while other Alternate Culture communities were able to homogenize into the diverse fabric of American society? The reasons were manifold, not the least being economic. Immediate neighbors were not able to sell their land to the developers for the high prices they wanted because of our presence. The legal battle represented a kind of range war, the outcome of which would determine whether the land would be used for hundred-thousand-dollar homes set in concrete into bulldozed hillsides or for small biodegradable shacks which blended into the landscape and were infinitely more ecological. Our continued presence would determine whether the land would be protected or exploited.

"But basically, our troubles stemmed from our being open. Any person was welcome to come and make himself a rent-free home. This policy ran so counter to the American private property mania, so totally out of the realm of most people's experience, that no one could believe in its viability, especially those persons whose lives and work were based on totally opposite presumptions. The authorities, as an expression of the common will, were forced to take action against Morning Star and Wheeler Ranch. They viewed us as a cancerous tumor which must be excised from the body politic, not as a healthy growth out of the basic assumptions of the U.S. Constitution."

Delia and Bark were progressing with their plans for their thousand-acre spread. They participated in the Ridge's food conspiracy, and the community truck stopped to deliver their order to them. Gene Ruggles, a poet friend of Bill's and an old Ridge dweller, moved over with his family and built a house there. Gwen and Bill seemed to have made up their differences and were living together again. "If only we could be given another five years, the result would be incredible!" Bill wrote in a letter to Ramón. "But how great will be the sacrifices to get it!"

The weather that February was sunny and warm, triggering a burst of gardening activity. Dozens of fruit trees were planted under Fruits 'n Nuts Nancy's inspirational insistence. Raspberry was becoming a little girl, and Lou, Near and Vishnu held forth at Morning Star where things were very mellow, although 'monstrously overdogged,' as Lou put it.

One day in late February, Bill was up at the front gate checking over the water system. He spotted a pick-up with a camper driving down the road from O'Brien's hill. For some reason it gave him an uneasy feeling. Having finished his chores, he started towards the back of the land. He only had covered a short distance when someone caught up with him, saying there were about ten men armed with rifles at the front gate asking for Bill. His first thought was that this was the long-awaited vigilante raid. But another person came up with the information that they were police officers.

He retraced his steps to find Butch Carlstadt from Narcotics waiting for him. Butch said he had positive information that a San Quentin escapee was on the Ridge and wanted to come on the land. Bill asked for his search warrant, and Butch replied that they were in 'hot pursuit' and didn't need one. Since this was the fourth time the county had used the same excuse to raid the Ridge, Bill didn't take to it kindly.

"Get the fuck off the land!" he shouted angrily.

Butch smiled serenely. After about fifteen minutes, the rest of the posse returned from the Knoll where they had been lurking in the bushes waiting for their prey -- who luckily did not show up. Bustini, the chief narc, walked up carrying a submachine gun, and Bill made a few sarcastic comments about the weapon. He reiterated that he was tired of illegal raids, and that it would be to their benefit to get a search warrant before coming out to the Ridge. Bustini, stung by Bill's remarks, replied that yes, indeed, they would have one the next time they came back.

A few days after, a ranch resident returned after having done some time in jail. He reported that he had overheard a conversation in the Sheriff's office about a proposed dope raid on the Ridge. Word spread advising everyone to hide their marijuana plants, and advising anyone who was 'hot' to leave for the time being. The two San Quentin escapees left the Knoll that night. Joe had been serving time for rape, while Harold, one of the land's best milkers, had been sentenced for rape and murder. Both were well liked for their community spirit and mild manner. Harold was caught some time later, but he left behind a woman friend on the ranch who later bore his child.

On the day of the expected raid, Bill opened his eyes when the first rays of sunlight streamed into their little garden house. He jumped out of bed and ran outside to scan the hillside on O'Brien's land.

"Jesus!" he exclaimed. There were scores of police cars parked all over the access road.

He was on his way out the garden gate when he was stopped by several deputies and marched back to his house. The men began to search through Bill and Gwen's belongings. Gwen picked up Raspberry and went outside to take a 'somewhat paranoid shit' behind a bush before walking up towards Hoffie's Hill. She wanted to warn people who were asleep, but from the hilltop she could see groups of armed men already covering the whole ranch.

Over one hundred and fifty law enforcement officials from all over the Bay Area were involved, deputy sheriffs, local police, all kinds of narcotics personnel, military police and San Quentin guards. A helicopter and surveillance airplanes buzzed low in the sky.

BILL: "As a lesson in humility, I highly recommend having your house searched. A lady cop helping the deputies found an avocado on top of the icebox which she suggested be eaten because it was getting overripe. They searched drawers, medicine boxes, herb containers, mattresses and clothing. The serial numbers of my cameras, binoculars and chainsaw were carefully noted down. I watched the proceedings carefully because I knew they were not above planting some dope."

Bustini showed up with a search warrant forty-eight pages long, containing among other things the two-year-old article from Harper's Magazine which mentioned that dope was smoked on the land, Bustini's statement that he had seen dope growing on the land and a second statement that he had positive proof two San Quentin convicts were hiding on the Ridge. He joined in the search of Bill and Gwen's house, finding a small steel box which was jammed shut. He shook it and listened intently, a frown furrowing his eyebrows. Then he worked on it with increasing frustration, convinced it contained Bill's 'works.' Finally he gave it up grudgingly. Too bad, because all it contained were the parts for Gwen's sewing machine.

Gwen remained with a small group who had joined hands on Hoffie's Hill. Together they watched the police, grey-skinned and hairless members of their own species, crawl through the bushes with their weapons at the ready. The sun was burning through the light mists, roosters were crowing, and yet all over the land people were being awakened by armed men asking questions and searching their belongings.

The raid was thorough, the authorities not taking any chances concerning its legality. Even the District Attorney had come along to advise on any legal problems which might crop up. They followed the strategy of posting a guard beside each house to keep the occupants under house arrest until a search team of narcotics officers arrived to find the dope. There wasn't much to find. But they had to find something for their efforts, and busted people for seeds, spare roaches and suspicious-looking pills and powders. Some pot seedlings had sprouted overnight in one house, and some new folks had arrived after dark in another and hadn't been warned. The big white sheriff's van loaded up about thirty residents under arrest and the procession of cars, helicopters and armed men wound its way up O'Brien's road, leaving a stunned and speechless community in their wake.

COYOTE: "I was walking out my front door, just waking up, and I started to take a leak. I looked up and saw this Day-Glo-colored helicopter disguised as a giant dragonfly. They knew everybody on the land was into psychedelics, and they wanted to fool us. Well, I stopped pissing right on the spot, and turned around and walked into my house and got into my bed and got out again and walked back outside. It was just too mind-blowing for me, that giant dragonfly, so I figgered I'd just start the day all over again. Next thing that happened was my neighbor Bucky and his girlfriend brought their tomato crates with baby marijuana plants out, and I heard this amplified voice say. 'All right, don't make a move! This is the Sonoma County sheriffs!' And Bucky said, 'Whaaat?' I looked up, and this door opened in the dragonfly and these guys were sliding down this rope with rifles and shit. I was flipped out! I don't know, but I think they might have been more stoned than us or something, man! I walked back into my house and rearranged all my American flags. Then I put my marijuana plants out in front and just went for a walk. I ended up in Occidental with Damian and we got drunk as skunks. We saw a sheriff's van go driving by with a bunch of clean-looking freaks. Somehow they didn't look like Wheeler's people."

BART: "Oh, those poor people who got arrested! And a lot of them were visitors, too!"

COYOTE: "All of a sudden somebody in the van held up a dope pipe, you know, up to the window, with a big shit-eating grin. They were all waving and flashing the peace sign. They didn't give us a ride, though. Well, I've seen two Highway Patrol cars eat it at Oilpan Rock and Transmission Rock on the road into Wheeler's. Wow but they were pissed off! I came by and laughed my ass off. I asked them if they were all right? 'Hey, man, whyn't cha come down to Wheeler's, man? Wanta hang out with the freaks for a while?'"

Fifteen people finally were held on a thousand dollars bail apiece. Corbin got the bail reduced, but still it cost a lot to get everyone out of jail. But after the County's enormous expense and effort, the 'big dope raid' didn't even bring in enough grass to turn on the people who had been arrested. When the District Attorney realized that the raid had failed, he gave those arrested the choice of pleading guilty and getting off on the condition they never return to the Ridge or pleading non guilty and going through with a trial. All but one pleaded guilty, packed their belongings and left.

William Sheehan refused to plead guilty. The baggie of marijuana seeds which were found in the tent in which he had been arrested were not his, and nothing in the world was going to make him say they were. He took his plea through six months of court appearances with Corbin defending him. He based his defense on the argument that the warrant used that day was much too broad, and argued that using one search warrant for so many different buildings was an outrageous violation of the Fourth Amendment, the search and seizure article. The superior Court judge agreed with him on the narrow grounds that Bustini's gathering of dope-growing evidence on his previous visit to the land invalidated the warrant used on the follow-up raid. When Sonoma County appealed the verdict, the First Court of Appeals agreed completely with Corbin that the Ridge inhabitants' constitutional rights had been violated, and the Sheehan case is now precedent law in California. Blanket search warrants can no longer be issued for the purpose of raiding communes of multiple dwellings. They must be specific.

This court decision provided a small victory for the rights of Open Land residents. Corbin also wanted wanted to file suit against the County, but Bill disagreed. It only would have made them more enemies instead of what they needed -- more friends. Bustini, the District Attorney and their cohorts had made monkeys out of themselves in court, and that was satisfaction enough.

Longer days and a warmer sun pushed the waiting buds into bloom. The green hills sparkled, the grass rippling in waves in the breeze. Flowers covered the fields and blossoms filled the trees. The musicians gathered and the Ridge social season boomed. Homes were constantly filled with friends bringing good cheer and happy conversation.

GWEN: "If your house was empty and social contact was needed, grab up your baby-guitar-dope-smiling face and take a walk to the garden, Hoffie's Hill or to a friend's house where you would find the social scene of your dreams. Every morning the sun rose on another day made especially for you to play in. May games were offered. Besides doing nothing, there was playing house, playing carpenter, playing truck driver, playing farmer, playing artist, cook, yogi, mother, -- or just playing, all free for the choosing."

Alicia Bay Laurel returned to the ranch with a strong sense of independence and an interest in the sparkle of stimulation of the big world. After all, she was now a famous writer and illustrator. That winter she was no longer the 'naked girl doing yoga in the garden.' Instead, she began playing bass for the tight group of musicians forming out of the Open Land band. She focused people's interests upon publishing the Second Open Land Manifesto, and encouraged her friends to write, drawn and generally get involved in the arts. In February, she received her first large royalty check from Random House, and with this sudden wealth, she chose to contribute to the spirit of Open Land.

A joint for everyone at dawn on Hoffie's Hill began the day of celebrating her book. Music and gourmet feasting spread across the land, and the celebratory spirit did not stop until Alicia left a few months alter. A bakery was set up in the Pine Grove where Baker Bart and the Mighty Avengers began baking bread every day, giving it away to anyone who wanted it. Sunday feasts became bountiful spreads, and more and more folks shared in the festivities.

The Open Land band's music was a like a pot of rich soup, a broth of drummers, percussionists, guitarists, strains of varying flavors added by flutes, fiddles, voices and an occasional horn. Dancers served as garnish. The taste varied according to the ingredients available at the time, but it unified everyone, spreading from its center to every wildly dancing girl, cloud, tree, as the Sunday Feast reached its peak. Costumes, naked bodies, laughing children, the happy hallucinator was in heaven in its midst.

As the sun sank towards the horizon, the music took a mellow turn and folks started wandering home. A fog bank appeared over the western ridge like a huge, slow-motion wave pouring into the canyon. The milkers gathered at the barn, the clank of the milk pail punctuating the stolid crunch-crunch of Claudia munching her alfalfa in the stall. When dusk faded into darkness, kerosene lamps and candles glowed in the windows of the small houses. Another peaceful night of crickets and owls began, with the wind gently soughing through the tree branches.

At the Easter morning service, Alicia arrived dressed as a bright pink Easter egg and her friend Sunny in a baby blue bunny costume. Gifts were distributed of home-made marzipan Easter eggs seasoned with Clear Light acid. The hot sun unfurled everyone's consciousness, the petals of the group mind opening itself to absorb the healing powers of the light and air. Alicia, Sunny and Lou led the procession to the western side of Hoffie's Hill singing a song they made up along the way, 'Have A Psychedelic Easter.' Hundreds of dyed chicken eggs had been hidden in the bushes and grass. Baskets in hand, the children spread out to find them. The adults shed their clothes as the day warmed up.

An elaborate feast was carried to the emerald meadow at the back of the land and arranged along a spacious fallen treetrunk whose branches were decorated with gaily colored banners. Everything sparkled, everyone radiated bliss, the birds sang and the land glowed. A steambath began, and the feasting continued on into the evening.

GWEN: "On Easter, the music flowed to its perfection. The creativity of the performers synchronized with the many expanded consciousnesses of the listeners. Easter evening, Alicia met with Cliff, Sunny and Ellen to suggest they begin playing electric instruments. After two years of acoustic guitar, Cliff felt ready to start something new. Sunny, a recent arrival, had sung with an electric band in the city and was the source of the suggestion. Ellen had been playing fiddle with them and also approved of the idea. The result was that Alicia rented the ranch one hill west of the Ridge where there was an electrically wired house and the band moved there. Viewed from the air, the property formed a five-pointed star, so they named their group The Star Mountain Band.

"Their departure produced a intense, tearing feeling in the community. Musicians who were left behind felt cut off and left out. Appreciative listeners were suddenly aware of the vacuum left by the departure of this musical core group. The very philosophy of Open Land seemed threatened by the band removing itself to a closed place. But they explained they still wanted to exchange with everyone on the Ridge, but also they wanted to commit themselves to each other in a way that would further their musical interests. It wasn't long before the Ridgefolk could hear familiar songs and voices echoing from the western ridge, all to an electrical accompaniment.

"Although the move to Star Mountain was originally intended to include a small group of people, a drummer was needed. So Drummer Dan went. An equipment manager was needed, so Tall Tom went. Then Corky was needed, as were Mary, Willie B., Sally and others. By the next winter, the Star Mountain population stood at twenty-five, all people who had lived on Open Land, loved it and were looking for a way to recreate the lifestyle without being hassled by the police. So they closed the entrance gate and locked it."

RAMON: "It is interesting to note that Star Mountain continued to thrive and prosper through the years that followed. As an Star Mountain ex-resident myself, I am very grateful that it did. But it also convinced me that it was the radical Open Land creed that brought most of the heat from the County. As a philosophy and way of life, it truly threatened the status quo in ways which those of us caught up in it could not imagine. The very strength and justness of the cause triggered the authorities' to close it down. 'What if this idea spreads?' they thought. 'What would happen to the whole concept of land as a commodity to be bought and sold? To the privileges of the landed few?' A lot of people looked at Open Land and it struck fear into their hearts, because in their heart of hearts they knew that they had more than their share of this world's goodies."


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