In 1995, six teenage boys were involved in a tragic drunken brawl in a backyard “fort-house” in Agoura Hills, CA. One defendant, Jason Holland, testified and took sole responsibility for using a pocketknife in an effort to stop the beating of his younger brother (Micah), which resulted in the tragic, unintentional stabbing death of the 16-yr. old victim.
This well-known criminal trial, falling on the heels of the famous OJ Simpson trial, was called a ‘Lynching in Malibu: Teens on Trial’ by Rolling Stone Magazine in their ’97 article on the case.
Below is the actual article- 3 remain in prison in California. The Holland boys need your support- a website is in the works, to be published shortly. There is also a site where you can see their awesome artwork and have the artwork placed on several different items. Melissa Page & Janna Dalberg are hoping that these boys, now men- can finally attain JUSTICE. Your support would mean so much….here is the link:
Rolling Stone, September 4, 1997
Lynching in Malibu: A Tale of Fear, Retribution and Injustice in The War Against Youth
By Randall Sullivan
Part 1 * “SEND SOMEBODY”
Like most modern American tragedies, Los Angeles County criminal case No. SA022108 entered the public record by means of a phone call.
“Fire paramedics, hello,” said the operator who answered.
“We have an emergency,” the woman on the other end of the line said. She gave the address of a house on Foothill Drive in Agoura Hills, on the western verge of the San Fernando Valley. “The boys came in, and they’re bleeding,” the woman explained. “They were stabbed.”
“How old are they?”
“Did you say they were stabbed?” the operator asked.
“I guess so.”
“OK, you need to ask them. If they were stabbed, what happened?”
“This one is about to pass out!” the woman shouted. “He’s bleeding all over the place.”
“Send somebody!” the voice of a second woman shrieked in the background.
“Listen, ma’am, calm down, OK?” the operator said. “If somebody stabbed him, I need to find out if they’re still outside or where they are.”
“They’re not here,” the woman said.
“I need to know what happened,” the operator said. “Ask them.”
“They’re stabbed in the stomach!” the woman screamed.
“Are they conscious and breathing?” the operator asked.
“They’re barely conscious!” the woman said. “One of them is on the floor.”
Judie Farris, the mother of the boy on the floor, was at that moment, shortly before 7:30 on the evening of May 22, 1995, standing in her kitchen, five doors down on the opposite side of the same street, wondering why her youngest son, 16-year-old James Farris III, was late for dinner.
“At 7:18, I jumped out of my chair like someone put a tack under me,” Judie Farris recalled. “I thought, I have to go get him now.”
She had just put on her shoes, Jimmy’s mother said, when the phone rang. It was Georgette Thille, from just down the street, whose grandson Mike McLoren had been Jimmy’s best friend since the age of 7.
“Jimmy’s been stabbed!” she said.
“Judie Farris reached the McLoren home at almost the same moment as the ambulance did and dashed through the open door into the kitchen. Jimmy lay on his back, eyes open, feet up on a chair.
For some reason, the boy’s mother didn’t see the blood that soaked the front of his T-shirt. She did recognize that the man attempting to hold her at bay was a police officer but tore loose from his grip anyway and ran to the spot where Jimmy lay. She looked into her son’s eyes. Jimmy just stared ahead.
Mike McLoren’s family all sat at a table; one of them was smoking a cigarette. That seemed incredible, Farris remembered.
Mike also had been stabbed. More paramedics arrived, strapping him to a stretcher and carrying the boy to a helicopter, which headed across the Santa Monica Mountains to the UCLA Medical Center.
Judie Farris demanded to know why her own son was still in the kitchen. “Put him in the ambulance!” she screamed. The paramedics, though, kept pressing on Jimmy’s chest with the heels of their hands. Judie Farris saw the blood then, draining from her son’s heart.
“Jimmy, don’t die!” she began to scream. “Jimmy, I need you!”
The paramedics struggled to revive Jimmy for nearly 20 minutes before carrying him out on a stretcher.
Judie Farris made it to the hospital before the ambulance did. The second of her three sons, Shane, was waiting at the hospital’s emergency entrance when the ambulance finally arrived. The paramedics weren’t working on Jimmy anymore, Shane saw; in fact, the first thing they did, before even unloading the stretcher, was to throw Jimmy’s big black 20-hole boots through the open rear door of the ambulance, where they landed on the concrete outside with two heavy thuds, the awful sound of dead weight hitting the ground.
The chief investigating officer assigned to the case, Robert Tauson, a veteran homicide detective from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, arrived at the house on Foothill Drive about three hours later.
The McLoren residence was in “old” Agoura, a green and graceful neighborhood where some properties date back to the 1920s, when a western a week was filmed at the nearby Paramount Ranch; the area was known then as Picture City. As Agoura Hills, the community had grown into a suburban paradise specific to Southern California: a blend of tract housing and horse country, profuse with coyotes who hunt house cats and red-tailed hawks for whom escaped parakeets are a favorite delicacy.
Native oaks shade the slopes of Agoura’s main landmark, Ladyface Mountain, while imported eucalyptuses scent the air at lower elevations Malibu is just over the hill, and you can smell the salt air some days. Most homes are in the $300,000 to $500,000 range – low-slung, ranch-style spreads with cedar-shake and red-tile roofs, built on large lots, many more than an acre in size.
No community in Los Angeles County is a more popular place to live for law-enforcement professionals. Six months before the stabbings, the Los Angeles Times had compared crime statistics within the San Fernando Valley area; Agoura Hills reported the fewest incidents in six of eight categories. Most years there wasn’t even a single homicide.
By 9 o’clock that evening, however, the city showed one on its books for 1995 and very nearly a second. Mike McLoren, though, had survived his wounds, which included a lacerated liver and a collapsed lung.
Before being airlifted to UCLA, Mike had given the first deputies on the scene a brief description of what happened. A group of boys showed up at his back-yard “fort” that evening, Mike said, demanding his television set and VCR. He refused, and a fight broke out. After his friend Jimmy Farris jumped in, Mike was stabbed by a boy named Micah Holland, he told deputies; Mike couldn’t say who had stabbed Jimmy. But he knew that Micah’s brother, Jason, had been there, along with two other kids, Chris Velardo and a boy whom Mike knew only as Brandon.
After the deputies filled Tauson in, the detective asked Mike McLoren’s family for keys to the fort, then walked outside to look at the scene of the stabbings. The back yard was the size of a football field, planted with towering sycamore and eucalyptus trees. “Makeshift” was the description of the fort in Tauson’s report. Still, it was a fairly substantial structure, 13 feet by 14 feet in size, with its own foundation. Both electric and phone lines ran to it from the main house. The place was built from scrap lumber, and a blue tarp covered the leaky roof, but someone had installed a pair of heavy locks on the only door.
One entire outside wall was covered by a painting of a drooling beast that looked like a gorilla crossed with a wart hog, featuring huge white tusks and crazed, bloodshot eyes – Mike’s work.
After unlocking the door, Tauson stepped inside and promptly tripped over something on the floor. It was pitch-black inside. The detective swung his flashlight around the room, his cop’s eye noting each item that might have been used as a weapon: a baseball bat, a framing hammer, an air rifle.
Tauson finally found a light switch, but that didn’t help much. The walls inside were painted black, and the black light that Tauson had turned on served mainly to illuminate psychedelic posters executed in garish pinks and lurid yellows, plus two photographs of marijuana buds, glistening with sticky resin. Tauson used his flashlight to determine that the TV, the VCR and the stereo were all still there and did not appear to have been touched.
An upended plastic lawn chair and a pile of bedding torn from a mattress were the only signs of struggle.
Tauson eventually discovered another wall switch, which turned on two 25-watt bulbs, one green, the other blue. A Plexiglas window was screened by steel bars and covered by a blanket. Whatever happened in here had taken place in some pretty dim light.
Tauson noticed that there was a lock on one of the desk drawers, and, using one of the keys he’d been given, opened it and found inside five plastic baggies filled with marijuana, along with $19 in cash.
Tauson knew already that the dead boy, Jimmy Farris, was the son of a Los Angeles Police Department detective and said nothing about the marijuana when he interviewed Mike McLoren’s mother, Nancy, a teacher at a local elementary school, just before midnight. That evening, at a little past 7, after eating dinner with the rest of the family, Mike had gone back outside to his fort, Nancy McLoren told Tauson. She was grading papers about 15 minutes later when the kitchen door flew open and Jimmy Farris came staggering inside, with Mike right behind him.
Jimmy collapsed into her arms without saying a word, Nancy McLoren, said. He was beginning to turn gray.
2 “SOMEONE HAD A KNIFE”
The knock at her door, Sharry Holland remembers, came just after 10 p.m. She looked through the peephole and saw no one. Pretty and blond, younger looking than her 40 years, Sharry stepped out into the night air. From the corner of one eye, she caught a glimpse of the gun barrel that seemed to be bending around the side of the open door. It was another moment before she saw the green and tan uniform of a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy behind the gun, then four more men in uniforms, plus one in a windbreaker, leaping out from behind planter boxes and wrought-iron railings, also waving guns.
They looked as frantic as she felt, google-eyed and panting for breath. The deputies were inside her apartment a moment later. “What’s wrong?” Sharry kept asking, but the cops would only answer with questions about her sons: “Are Jason and Micah here? When’s the last time you heard from them? Do you know who they’re with?”
The deputies were all sweaty, still breathing hard; “Like sharks on a piece of meat,” Sharry thought. She hadn’t heard from Jason, her 18-year-old, the woman explained, but her younger son, Micah, 15, had phoned about 20 minutes earlier: He said he was at the McDonald’s over by Lumber City and had been drinking. She had ordered him home, Sharry said, and expected the boy any minute.
“What’s wrong?” she asked for at least the 10th time. Finally the man in the windbreaker nodded. “Jason and Micah are wanted for murder,” one of the deputies told their mother.
About 40 minutes after the deputies left, Micah called home again: He was at Brandon Hein’s and wanted to spend the night. It was all right if he stayed over, Sharry told Micah, but she didn’t want him going out again the evening.
As soon as she hung up, Sharry called the number that the man in the windbreaker had given her. He answered on the first ring. Micah was with his friend Brandon at a condominium on Sunnycrest Drive in Oak Park, Sharry said. “I couldn’t see encouragin’ the boys to run,” she explained. “I didn’t think it was possible that either of ‘em could kill somebody. I figured, at worst, maybe they were there; maybe they knew somebody that did this.”
The next call that Sharry received, right around, midnight, was from Jason: “I said, ‘Jason, they’re lookin’ for you!’ He said, ‘Who?’ I said, ‘The police.’ He didn’t say anything, and then I told him, ‘Jason, Jimmy Farris is dead.’ “
“No way!” Jason told his mother. “I know he didn’t think it could be possible,” said Sharry. “I started to tell him he had to come home and go to the police with me, but he cut me off – ‘Goodbye, Mom. I love you’ – and hung up.”
It was just after 3 a.m. when six sheriff’s deputies rushed into Gene Hein’s living room. His son Brandon stood on the stairs, eyes wide. Gene watched two of the officers put Brandon in handcuffs and lead him out the door. The cops then brought Micah Holland downstairs in handcuffs and hustled him out.
Gene began calling everyone he knew to ask if someone had the number of a criminal attorney. A friend put in a call to Jill Lansing, the lawyer who had defended Lyle Menendez at his first murder trial, the one that ended with the jury hung. “I thought, ‘Is Brandon in the same category with Lyle Menendez?’ ” Gene remembered.
At the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station, Brandon Hein and Micah Holland were fingerprinted and physically examined. Brandon bore bruises on his left shoulder, a small laceration on the knuckle of his right ring finger, and a larger abrasion on his right forearm. Micah had a long scrape on his left shin, “clawlike scratches” under his left collarbone and swelling around his left eye.
Both boys were asked by Tauson’s partner, William Neumann, if they would submit to interviews. Brandon did as he has been told, refusing to speak without an attorney. Micah obeyed his mother and agreed to cooperate.
All he knew was that a fight had broken out after he asked Mike McLoren for some marijuana, Micah said. “I guess he thought I was, like – I don’t know – gonna take it or somethin’,” Micah explained. “And he started, like, yellin’ at me. And all of a sudden, just all these people swinging.”
He hadn’t stabbed anybody, the boy insisted: “I didn’t have a knife. I know that. And I know Brandon didn’t have a knife. And I’m pretty positive my brother didn’t – I’m almost sure.”
“Well, somebody had a knife,” Neumann said.
3 “MAYBE THAT’S WHAT I SAW”
Jimmy’s autopsy was on May 25. He had been stabbed twice, the coroner reported. Both wounds were shallow, less than three inches deep and made, apparently, by the blade of a small pocketknife. One of the cuts, however, had just managed to penetrate the pericardial sac and puncture the boy’s heart, causing him to bleed to death within minutes.
He was buried the next day. Reporters, barred from the funeral, hustled interviews from outside the circle of American flags lining the perimeter of the mortuary. In the newspapers the next day, there were photographs of sobbing teenagers hugging one another and of the fence outside Mike McLoren’s fort on Foothill Drive, festooned with roses, ribbons and cards.
The kids all told the reporters how much they had loved Jimmy Farris, what a “genuine” and “down-to-earth” guy he was, really patriotic; his ambitions were either to join the military or to become a motorcycle cop. They couldn’t believe something so terrible had taken place in Agoura Hills.
Investigators Tauson and Neumann admitted to reporters that they still were not certain what had happened inside the fort on the evening of May 22. The two detectives did not mention that they had come to the funeral directly from a hospital interview with Mike McLoren.
He and Jimmy were just kicking it at the fort that afternoon, Mike had explained. His girlfriend, Stacey Williams, dropped by with Natasha Sinkinson and the two Johns, Berardis and Vinnedge. They were all inside the fort, watching Pulp Fiction on video, when Natasha’s boyfriend, Chris Velardo, showed up, slapped hands with everybody, then left just moments later.
Stacey and her friends were gone by the time Chris returned that evening, accompanied by the Holland brothers and Brandon Hein. Mike and Jimmy were working out on the punching bags hung from the limb of a eucalyptus tree, Mike said, when they saw four boys hop the chain-link fence and walk “pretty boldly” down the grassy slope into his back yard.
He was still peeling off his bag gloves, Mike said, when Micah Holland walked past him into the fort, yanked on the desk drawer and then demanded the key to the lock. “I can’t remember if I said, ‘What keys?’ or, ‘You don’t get any keys,’ ” Mike told the two detectives.
Stacey Williams had advised the police that she believed the stabbings were connected to the rumor going around that Mike had informed on a member of the Gumbys, a tagging crew and wanna-be gang based in the West Valley. Mike didn’t mention that story but told the detectives that when he refused to open the drawer, Micah Holland asked him, “What, are you starting shit with Gumbys?”
Jimmy and the three other boys were inside the fort by then, Mike said, and all at once a fight broke out. “It was fast,” he said. “I was thinking, like, ‘What should I do?’ And it’s like, before I knew it, like, I seemed to have had Micah under me, and I see his head right here. So I started elbowing it.”
He couldn’t say who stabbed him, Mike said: “I think they actually took turns, like, getting their shots in, you know?” “What did you see?” Tauson asked. “I didn’t really see anything,” Mike admitted. He thought it was Brandon who had stabbed Jimmy, Mike added a moment later. “Did you see him stab him?” Tauson asked. “Maybe that’s what I saw, and it wasn’t a punch,” Mike said. “I don’t know.”
When the detectives asked about Chris Velardo, Mike shook his head. “I can’t, like, see, like, Chris’ face,” he said. “Because I think he was, like, working on Jim for most of it.”
The detectives listened impassively as Mike told them that it wasn’t getting stabbed but rather hearing somebody shout, “Get the baseball bat!” that made him run. “I saw an opening,” he said, “and I made my break for it.”
Jimmy ran out of the fort right behind him, Mike recalled: “He’s like, ‘They stabbed me, dude,’ you know? ‘I know, they stabbed me, too.’ “
Mike went on spinning his story, adding, subtracting, multiplying details for some time before Neumann interrupted to ask if he knew a Tony Miliotti.
“Yeah!” Mike answered. “He might have been there…. Actually, I think he was one of the ones in there, and maybe Chris Velardo drove there. I don’t know. That’s – it’s like – that seems like it rings something in my head, though.”
“So, in your opinion, what was this all about?” Neumann asked finally. “Why did these guys come over to your place?”
“I think they were seriously just bored,” Mike answered. “So they just say, ‘Where are we going to come up on a bunch of stuff? I know where we can get a free TV, VCR, you know, all that stuff.’ Because I had it all in my fort, you know. And it’s like, ‘How easy would it be to get all new free stuff? And maybe even, like, a little bit of marijuana to go with,’ you know?”
Marijuana had been found in a drawer at the fort, Neumann observed. Mike admitted that he smoked pot but insisted he never sold it. He kept a quarter-ounce around for “like when we have parties and stuff,” Mike explained. “You know?”
The cops knew enough by then to be pretty sure that Mike was lying – about some things, at least. A quick comparison of police records reflected at least as poorly upon the victims as upon the suspects. No single entry was so significant as Mike McLoren’s arrest two years earlier for stealing a police officer’s gun. After his arrest, Mike had informed on his accomplice, a popular kid who, as a legal adult, faced state prison time.
Within a week, Mike was the most unpopular kid in Agoura Hills. “Everyone wanted him dead,” John Berardis recalled.
All that kept Mike’s enemies at bay was his friendship with Jimmy Farris. Jimmy was a muscular strawberry blond, not scared of anybody. Every kid in the Las Virgenes School District knew how Jimmy had taken out Phil Hill with a single punch. Phil wasn’t a bad guy, but he talked shit and seemed to think that being black gave him automatic credibility. Six feet 2 inches but slender, he was always bluffing his way out of some beef by telling the other kid, “I’m gonna whip your white ass.” It was the wrong tack to take with Jimmy Farris.
Phil had broken into some lockers at school and stolen, among other things, a bank card that belonged to one of Jimmy’s friends. On their way into math class, Jimmy said to give the bank card back, and Phil told him to fuck himself. Jimmy was waiting outside in the hallway after the bell rang; he hit Phil so hard that the taller boy was lifted off his feet, and his jaw fractured in two places.
The Farris family showed up at the hospital together than evening, remembered Phil’s mother, Lawanda Fleisher: “Mrs. Farris came in carrying a crucifix, in tears. She said how sorry she was. She said, ‘You can hurt me if you want to. My boy hurt your boy, and I’m so sorry.’ “
The incident hardly hurt Jimmy’s reputation at school. Phil had it coming was the general consensus. The police made the same call – after arresting Jimmy for assault, they dropped the charges.
By then, even Jimmy’s buddy Mike McLoren could claim status, mainly by means of the drug connection that turned him into the best-known dealer at Agoura High. “Nobody liked him,” John Berardis recalled, “but he wasn’t gettin’ picked on anymore. He was the big dopeman, and he had Jimmy as his sidekick.”
Mike’s fort was the most notorious smoke shack in Agoura Hills, just three blocks from the high school and equipped to accommodate a crowd. “He had, like, a ‘bong closet’ in there where he kept all his pipes and shit,” said John. But nobody claimed that Mike McLoren was some big-time operator. He sold mainly eighths and didn’t even have a scale (he kept a lock on his dope drawer, though, the other kids noted, and there was a floor safe inside that the cops had managed to miss).
What Mike and his fort offered the kids who came by was a refuge from the lies they lived at home, the whole boring pretense of being well-behaved, obedient children who spent long hours preparing for their futures. Inside the fort, with the door locked and the window covered, they inhabited a dimly lit and perpetual present.
That the son of an LAPD detective was a fixture at the fort served up an enhanced sense of security. Jimmy Farris didn’t deal, but he smoked plenty and never paid. “Peewee’s bodyguard,” people called Jimmy behind his back.
It was with Jimmy’s help that Mike started getting in shape. The two had been “training” for six months. Jimmy, 5 feet 11 inches and 175 pounds, had decided to go out for the football team, while Mike, 5 feet 10 inches and 145 pounds, just wanted to be able to defend himself. Jimmy could bench-press 50 repetitions from the time they started training – twice what Mike could manage. They worked out every day for half an hour on the heavy bag to develop their power punches and on the speed bag for timing and coordination.
4 “THEY WERE NORMAL, HAPPY KIDS WITH A FEW DINGS”
Compared with Jimmy Farris, the five boys facing charges in his death were scrawny, soft-shell dinks. Chris Velardo was 5 feet 11 inches and a slight 150 pounds, the only one of the suspects who didn’t wear a buzz cut; his thick brown hair was cherry-chocolate from the henna he rinsed it with. Like the Hollands and Brandon Hein, his best subject in school was art. Seventeen years old, he had no criminal record and looked terrified when he showed up at the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station on the afternoon of May 23 to tell the detectives he wanted to cooperate.
Brandon Hein was 18 but only 5 feet 5 inches and 130 pounds. Like the other four suspects in the case, he came from a broken home: Brandon’s parents split when he was 6, but they lived only eight miles apart, shared custody and remained on friendly terms.
Mainly, Brandon seemed in no hurry to become an adult. At 18 he still was without a driver’s license. He had fallen a year behind in school and was going to be 19 by the time he graduated. The one blemish on the boy’s juvenile record had appeared a couple of years earlier, when he was caught on videotape stealing beer from a store.
It didn’t strike anyone as odd that Brandon’s new best friend was only 15. Micah Holland was a little guy, too, all of 5 feet 3 inches and 110 pounds, the youngest of the five suspects in the case but also the only one with a significant criminal history. Micah already had four arrests on his record, the first at age 10, when he’d been charged with burglary and vandalism for breaking into a locked building at his school. There’d been a battery arrest for a fight he started at 12, and another at 14.
While his older brother, Jason, was bright enough to earn Bs without opening a book, Micah had to study hard to make a C-. His teachers described Micah as sensitive but troubled. His own mother would agree with Mike McLoren’s assessment of Micah as a kid whose “alligator mouth overloads his hummingbird ass.”
Like Chris Velardo, Jason Holland was a handsome kid, even when he wore a shaved head and a scowl, as the police knew from the only photograph of him they had on file. He was neither very large – just 5 feet 7 inches and 130 pounds – nor much of a fighter. Generally, any scrapes that Jason got into were started by his younger brother. “Jason was always taking care of Micah – protecting him, covering up for him,” says Nicole Weinberg, who had been close friends with the older brother since junior high.
“I was so envious of Jason back in the seventh grade,” she said, “because he was so bright. I was the big straight-A student, but I had to study hard. Jason would be joking in the back of the class, and you’d think he wasn’t paying attention at all, but then he’d get a better grade on the test than I would.”
The one arrest on Jason’s juvenile record had been at age 16, for tagging a freeway overpass with graffiti.
Jason had been friends with Tony Miliotti since sixth grade, and just about everybody thought them an odd couple. Tony wasn’t as simple-minded, though, as his silence and passive personality made him seem to some. Tony’s mother had abandoned him when he was 4 years old, but he grew up in a large Italian family and was especially close to his Aunt Carmella and her truck-driver husband, Jeff Ladin, who brought the boy up alongside their own sons.
The only criminal charge on Tony’s record was for a curfew violation.
It would be their great misfortune that the five boys suspected in the death of Jimmy Farris had been involved in another incident less than an hour before the stabbings at the fort. At 7:11 p.m. on May 22, Deputy Richard Ramirez responded to a petty-theft call made from the Village Market. The victim was Alyce Moulder, who had been at Gates Canyon Park with her two young children when a group of teenagers arrived in a maroon Nissan pickup. She saw one of the passengers climb out of the truck, Moulder said, open the door of her own van and snatch her wallet off the console.
The woman was either crazy or brave, or both, because, after loading her children into car seats, Moulder pursued the maroon pickup to a parking lot behind a strip mall off Las Virgenes Road. There, she confronted the boys, who claimed they didn’t have her wallet, climbed back into the pickup and drove south toward the freeway.
Ramirez had taken the woman’s report and was just about to drive away when a man ran up and handed him a wallet that had been thrown from the bed of a small pickup on Thousand Oaks Boulevard. Moulder said the wallet was hers, then told the deputy that nothing was missing.
It was about 8:40 when Ramirez saw a maroon Nissan truck on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, just south of Gates Canyon Park. The deputy made a U-turn and pulled over the pickup.
The first boy to hit the pavement, Tony Miliotti, was carrying neither weapons nor contraband, Ramirez recalled. The deputy then ordered a second boy, Jason Holland, onto the street. “Don’t freak out,” Holland told him. “I have a knife.” It was a pocketknife with a locking blade about 2 1/2 inches long, perfectly legal. Holland seemed cooperative, and his knife was clean, so Ramirez gave it back. He also searched the two passengers in the cab of the truck, Micah Holland and Brandon Hein, Ramirez said. Neither was carrying a weapon.
Because Moulder’s wallet had been returned intact, the deputy decided to let them go.
Tony Miliotti turned himself in to the police on the afternoon of June 2, his 18th birthday, after hiding out for more than a week. Most of the boy’s family accompanied him to the Lost Hills station.
Only Jason Holland remained at large. Tips on his activities and whereabouts poured in from law officers all across Southern California. An FBI agent phoned to say he had been told that Holland was in Palm Springs, Calif., during the Memorial Day weekend, had grown his hair out and dyed it black.
The television show America’s Most Wanted scheduled a segment on the hunt for Jason. Local stations in Los Angeles were broadcasting his mug shot above the number 1-800-HOLLAND.
The fugitive she heard described on television bore virtually no resemblance to the son Sharry Holland knew. Sharry had been 22 when her older boy was born, in New Orleans. Jason’s natural father, as well as Micah’s, was a roughneck oil rigger who disappeared from their lives when the boys were 4 and 1.
Sharry married Gary Holland, in 1985, and moved with him to Los Angeles, settling in Agoura. Gary wanted a career in the film industry and obtained work as a soundman on a production on Nevada three weeks after the new family arrived in L.A. Jason and Micah, 8 and 5, became Californians overnight, obsessed with skateboards and surfing. “They were normal, happy kids, I think,” Sharry said, “probably with a few dings. And Gary wanted to try really hard. But we had a hard time makin’ it mesh.” She went into therapy – “figurin’ that maybe I was the problem” – and found work as a real-estate agent because the flexible hours left her free when her sons needed her.
The birth of the boys’ half-sister, Kylie, was “a real revelation for the boys,” Sharry recalled, “because they had never been shown what it was for a father to love his child. And Gary absolutely adored Kylie. Seein’ him with her made them wish that much more they could have that.”
Within a year of Kylie’s birth, Micah began getting into trouble. “He was drinkin’ and smokin’ when he was 10,” Sharry said. She enrolled Micah in rehab programs available through their insurance coverage, taking comfort in the knowledge that her older son still was straight. “At that time, Jason thought Micah was bein’ foolish, and they went apart for a while,” she recalled.
So did she and Gary, Sharry said. “I didn’t see any point in a lot of what Gary did, callin’ ‘em ugly names all the time – ‘fucking nothings’ and ‘little bastards.’ “
She and her children moved into an apartment complex in Westlake Village, the planned community adjacent to Agoura Hills. “I thought of it as a nice area where nothin’ bad ever happens,” Sharry said. “But this particular complex, it turns out they don’t charge much for the deposit, so consequently you get a lot of single parents, people in transition.
The day they moved in, she saw a row of kids sitting on a cinder-block wall. “I was thinkin’, ‘Great, at least they’ll make new friends,’ ” Sharry recalled. “Well, within a short amount of time, I realized this wasn’t so great, because while I was workin’, these kids were runnin’ amok, in and out of parents’ apartments who were at work also. So I kind of freaked out for a while.”
Friends suggested that she send the boys to a boarding school. A family counselor told her about a place in Missouri run by a conservative Southern Baptist group. At a cost of $600 per month per child, it was one place Sharry could afford.
“The worst mistake I ever made,” she would describe the decision to enroll her sons. “The place wasn’t that bad physically,” she recalled. “There were cabins where they slept. The school was surrounded by a tall fence, though, with guards at the gates. And the cabins were locked down after dark.
That was May 1992; Micah was 12 and Jason was 15. At first the school seemed to work a change for the better. By Christmas, however, Sharry began to feel that not all the changes in her sons were improvements. The boys seemed “brainwashed,” their mother said. “Gays were now complete perverts who don’t deserve to live. Animals – you can kill ‘em without feelin’ a thing, ’cause they don’t have souls.” Jason was talking about becoming a minister, even showing her a sermon he had written.
She brought the boys home in the spring of 1993. “Jason especially felt like he had missed a chunk out of his life,” Sharry recalled. The biggest change she noticed in the boys, though, was “this intensely tight bond they had formed. Jason had been takin’ care of Micah that whole time, and they had somethin’ real private between them.”
This private thing that the boys had only made life more difficult when the Holland family attempted reconciliation. The four of them moved back into the house on Dove Tail Lane, but everything blew apart in February 1994. “I came home, and Gary looked really upset,” Sharry recalled. “He says, ‘Well, I really did it this time,’ ‘What?’ I asked. And he says, ‘I think I busted Jason’s nose.’ “
Sharry and the kids went to stay with friends for a few weeks, then rented a little apartment in nearby Thousand Oaks with two small bedrooms: one for the boys and one that Sharry shared with her daughter.
Because the religious-studies classes the boys had taken back in Missouri weren’t accepted at their public schools in Los Angeles, Jason and Micah had fallen a term or two behind their classmates. Jason decided to drop out of high school and study for the GED so he could start college with kids his own age. Sharry agreed and bought him a little Toyota truck, but she sold it after Jason was stopped twice for speeding. Traffic tickets were about the biggest trouble that she pictured her older son getting into.
Micah, of course, was another matter. Sharry was infuriated when the police picked him up drunk in the park and brought him by her office. Micah swore it wouldn’t happen again, but his mother knew it might. “Sharry had a lot better picture of what was goin’ on with us than most of the parents around here,” Jason’s friend Dwayne Dahlberg said. “You didn’t have to lie to her so much.”
What Jason and Micah’s mother seemed to understand, Dwayne explained, was the way the world had changed. Other parents wanted to believe that things really weren’t that different, at least not in Agoura Hills. Most adults couldn’t quite comprehend that their teenage children lived in a community where almost everybody was in trouble with the law at one time or another, where “good kids” were largely a figment of their parents’ imagination.
A cultural climate that fostered freedom from inhibition also had produced a kind of generational disorientation. Did somebody out there believe these kids were watching Pulp Fiction 10, 15, 20 times to be instructed or uplifted? It had to mean something that during the 1995-96 academic year, teenagers profiled in the annual edition of Who’s Who Among American High School Students had for the first time in the publication’s history listed “decline of moral values” as their chief concern.
The only ethos that seemed to exist for teenagers in Agoura Hills was that of “hangin’ out and bein’ cool,” Sharry Holland observed. “That was the common bond of the boys in this case.”
All of them “were drinkin’, smokin’ cigarettes, which I knew,” Sharry said. “And kind of experimentin’ with drugs, but not hard drugs. I didn’t think of any of these boys as some sort of problem child. I really thought – and still do – that if they made it through bein’ teenagers, they’d be fine.”
Whether they would make it through being teenagers, of course, was not in serious doubt.
His mother didn’t hear from Jason after that brief phone conversation just before midnight on May 22. Sharry went on the local news, pleading with her son to turn himself in.
Jason phoned late on the evening of June 10 and told his mother he was coming home. He knocked at the door a short time later. “After we hugged and cried a little bit, we got in the car and drove to the sheriff’s station,” Sharry recalled. Jason didn’t seem nervous at all, just very sad. He was transferred to the Los Angeles County Jail the next day
It wasn’t the appeal his mother made on television that prompted him to come in, Jason explained, but rather another news report, which stated that the district attorney’s office had decided to charge not only him but all five defendants in this case with first-degree murder and to claim special circumstances. This meant the boys could face a penalty of death by lethal injection; the prosecutor assigned to the case said he hadn’t decided yet whether to ask for it.
5 “FEELING SAFE AND LARGELY IMMUNE”
For John Berardis, the investigation was like a movie or, worse, TV – some really bad cop show. A sense of unreality had overwhelmed him when he stopped by the cemetery on the day of Jimmy’s funeral. “There was, like, a thousand people acting like they were his friends,” Berardis remembered. “That was too weird for me, seein’ all the kids tellin’ the cameras, ‘ Jimmy was the best.’ Yeah, right. None of them gave a shit about that guy before. Jimmy never even had, like, a girlfriend. But all of a sudden, the day he dies, there are 50 girls sayin’ they loved him.”
Watching the local TV news turn Stacey Williams into its leading authority on the case was almost worse than seeing the state make her a star witness. Stacey’s story started right after school on the afternoon of May 22, when she and Natasha and the two Johns had paid a Mexican day laborer to buy them a bag of 40s at the Party Time liquor store. They all went back to her house to drink the beer, but John Vinnedge got so wasted that by the time they got to the fort, all he could do was pass out on the couch. After Mike and Jimmy arrived, they all smoked some of Mike’s weed, started watching Pulp Fiction, then began drawing on Vinnedge’s stomach. “He got really mad,” Stacey said. She was having such a good time that she called to postpone her 6 o’clock tanning appointment. She had to leave at 7, though, to make dinner for her father.
Stacey didn’t deny that Mike sold marijuana out of the fort. It was just that Mike had a good connection, she explained, so people would ask him “as, like, a friend thing” to get them bud.
The locks on the door were to keep out thieves and also because a lot of people still didn’t like Mike, she explained. Like, the second time the fort was broken into, the thieves not only took Mike’s TV, radio and VCR, but also poured bong water all over his PE clothes.
As did his friends Dahlberg and Vinnedge, Berardis watched Stacey on TV and became convinced that the media were in league with the police. “In the news, it was this ‘clubhouse slaying’ and ‘gang killing,’ ” Berardis says, “like it was some kind of planned thing.” “Everybody knew these kids were incapable of some coldblooded killing,” Dahlberg says. “I was with them that day; we were all drinkin’ together. And they weren’t talkin’ about any robbery. They went over to Mike’s to get some weed, like everybody did. They were all drunk, and some shit happened, probably between Mike and Micah. It turned into a fight, and somebody did a stupid thing, which was to pull a knife.”
It baffled and infuriated the kids who had known both the suspects and the victims that they didn’t hear one word said on television about Mike McLoren being a dealer. “The cops knew Mike was a dealer,” Vinnedge said. “No way they didn’t.” “Everybody in this town knows everything about everybody else,” Dahlberg explained. “There are no secrets.”
No secrets, perhaps, but plenty of lies.
Few areas of the country have been transformed so completely by the 20th century as Agoura Hills and neighboring Calabasas. Not so long ago, the natural spring at Strawberry Park was the main hide-out of the legendary bandit Joaquin Murietta, and a huge noose dangled from the famous “hanging tree” at the Sagebrush Cantina. The land baron Miguel Leonis employed a private army of hired guns that waged wars with squatters and sheepherders for nearly 30 years, leaving the ground “saturated with human blood,” as a prominent Los Angeles attorney of the era put it.
By the time that blood-soaked land was subdivided into suburbia, however, Calabasas and Agoura Hills had become communities so comfortable that coming home to them from the city was, a Los Angeles Times article observed, “like a relaxing soak in a hot tub.”
Battles between the pro-development and preservationist factions generally were the only issues that produced any significant turnout at public meetings in Agoura Hills. The town-hall meeting on June 26, 1995, however, which produced the Mayor’s Task Force on Youth and Responsibility, was the most heavily attended in the city’s history.
The death of Jimmy Farris had prompted the meeting, a report by the task force would acknowledge: “Feeling safe and largely immune from urban crime, in May of 1995 all residents were shocked out of their complacency by a violent incident involving several teens. The result was a serious stabbing and the murder of the 16-year-old son of a police officer.
Whether the stabbing was in fact a murder or a voluntary homicide or an involuntary homicide – or even self-defense – had not yet been decided in court. The rights of the accused, though, were of little moment in a community “determined that this incident be a wake-up call to early intervention and action.”
The task force reported that it had received a number of “ideas for positive action.” Among these was that the mayor’s office recognize the “positive achievements” of its young people by creating a Youth Citizen of the Month award. The school could assist by instructing teachers to include a “character word of the week” in lesson plans.
One city councilman, Dan Kuperberg, dared to observe that many concerns expressed by parents at the town-hall meeting had seemed rather shallow: “They said it was the schools’ fault, it was the city’s fault, it was society’s fault. But it wasn’t their fault. I didn’t hear a lot of introspection, to put it mildly.”
The youths who were the targets of the mayor’s task force sat snickering in smoke-filled rec rooms, stoned at 10, drunk by noon. If those people wanted to know what was the problem in Agoura Hills, Dwayne Dahlberg said, he’d be happy to tell them: “Parents whose heads are stuffed up their butts because that’s what they want to see – their own assholes.”
The alienation of kids like Dahlberg and Berardis eventually found public expression through the earnest honor student Nicole Weinberg. In the first of several letters to the local newspaper, the Acorn, Nicole challenged her community’s position on the Clubhouse Slaying Case. “Glorifying Jimmy Farris and portraying the aggressors as low-life trash was not only wrong but completely inaccurate,” she observed. “All of the boys concerned are good kids traveling on the wrong road. They are all victims and products of our environment.”
This observation was loudly applauded by the likes of Dahlberg and Berardis. “Jimmy wasn’t some angel,” Dahlberg said. “He wore all black all the time with this, like, satanic stuff on his leather jacket: pentagrams and upside-down crosses and shit.” “The guy was a grungy death rocker who wore fuckin’ 20-hole boots and 12 chains,” Berardis agreed. “Like, there was no one who didn’t know that the fort was where you went to get high. And Jimmy was there every day.”
The Farris trial had been scheduled to begin that fall, but evidentiary hearings would delay selection of the jury into early 1996. In September the other defendants learned that Chris Velardo had cut a deal, pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter. He now faced a maximum term of 12 years in state prison. Tony Miliotti was offered the same deal, but his family persuaded him to turn it down. “Twelve years is a long time for a kid that has no record, who didn’t stab anybody, who didn’t even have a weapon,” Tony’s uncle Jeff Ladin explained.
6 “THEY JUST WANT TO GET THESE GUYS”
The Malibu courthouse for years has been the fiefdom of Judge Lawrence J. Mira. Though elected to the municipal court, Mira, as one of two judges in Malibu, also conducts criminal trials of the Superior Court in his jurisdiction.
Two weeks before the stabbings at the fort, actor Gary Busey had been arrested on a charge of drug possession that would bring him before Mira. The judge was generous, sentencing the actor to a term of probation that amounted to a two-year stint in rehab. Mira would also show similar compassion to Robert Downey Jr. one year later, when the actor was brought before him on felony charges that involved possessing heroin and cocaine, carrying a .357 Magnum in his vehicle and escaping from the detox center where he was sent by court order. Downey also was given probation.
Defense attorneys, though, were concerned that Mira (whose own son had attended Agoura High) held elected office at a time when judges and prosecutors all over the state were being toppled by opponents who accused them of being soft on crime. The boys brought before him in the death of Jimmy Farris offered a perfect opportunity for Mira to prove that he wasn’t.
It was a bad time in general to be a teenager facing criminal prosecution in America. During the previous two years, nearly every state had overhauled or simply scrapped laws that since the 1920s had encouraged rehabilitation over punishment for juvenile offenders. At the same time that the Farris case was being heard in Malibu, the House Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., was considering the Violent Youth Predator Act of 1996, a bill that would mandate automatic adult prosecution of children as young as 13 and, for the first time, permit children to be housed with adult prisoners.
Opponents of the Youth Predator Act could cite studies showing that children housed with adults are 500 percent more likely to be sexually assaulted than those in juvenile facilities and that the recidivism rate for children sentenced in juvenile court is nearly one-third lower than that of children sentenced in adult courts. The voting public, however, was more persuaded by what it saw on the local TV news.
Within a few minutes of the defendants’ first appearance before Judge Mira, it was clear to their families that the portrait of Abraham Lincoln directly behind the judge’s bench was not nearly so portentous as the painting titled View of Alcatraz on the adjacent wall. A balding, burly man with thin lips and pale eyes, Mira “seemed to hate these boys from the first moment he looked at them,” Sharry Holland recalled.
Sharry, who was working weekends, living mostly on savings and money borrowed from her parents, attended every pretrial hearing. Jeff Ladin and Gene Hein came almost as often. Like other spectators, relatives of the defendants waited outside the courtroom before each session of the trial. When the Farris family finally arrived in Malibu, however, they were escorted by sheriff’s deputies through interior hallways, admitted to the courtroom by the same door the judge used and led to reserved seats right in front of the jury box.
The first deputy DA assigned to the case in Malibu, Jeffrey Semow, asserted that the death of Jimmy Farris fell clearly under California’s “felony murder” rule. “If you are committing any one of seven classic felonies – including robbery, rape, kidnapping, residential burglary, arson, car-jacking – it’s automatically a first-degree felony murder,” Semow explained. Sentencing is far from automatic, however: In cases comparable to this one, adult defendants in Los Angeles County typically face between three and 11 years in state prison. The four boys who would stand trial in the Farris case, two of them juveniles when the stabbings took place, were looking at either the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole if found guilty.
It was clear from the first day that the outcome of the trial was going to turn on two conflicting accounts of what had taken place in a darkened room: Mike McLoren’s vs. Jason Holland’s.
The prosecution offered a much larger supporting cast. The defense was badly hurt by a neighbor who said he was jogging along Foothill Drive that evening when he passed four boys who appeared to be “smirking or smiling” as they walked from the McLorens’ back yard to a maroon truck parked across the street.
Alyce Moulder, though, was the most damaging witness. In court, Moulder offered much that had not appeared in the report filed by Deputy Ramirez 11 months earlier, and nearly every new detail was damning. Describing the boys as “skinheads” who spoke “Mexican slang,” Moulder recalled that during the confrontation behind the strip mall, Brandon Hein had brandished a Club steering-wheel lock and warned, “I’m going to fuck you up if you don’t leave.” After she climbed back into her van, Moulder said, the boys spat on her windows. Micah Holland, she added, threw rocks at her vehicle as she drove away.
The main addition to Stacey Williams’ story was that at around 5 p.m., she and Natasha Sinkinson and John Berardis had driven to Forest Cove Park to buy $60 worth of kind bud, then brought it back to the fort. She shared a “bong-load” with her boyfriend and the others, Stacey said, but kept the rest of the bud for herself when she left at around 7 p.m.
Called to the stand, Mike admitted that he had been furious at Stacey for taking “the stuff that was good.” He “felt cheated,” Mike explained, and was working off his anger on the heavy bag outside his fort that evening when the Holland brothers, Brandon Hein and Tony Miliotti hopped the fence and walked into his back yard.
Micah Holland was walking in the lead, Mike said, “arms sticking out” to “try to make himself look bigger.” It was among Micah’s many misfortunes that his growth spurt had coincided with his incarceration; by the spring of 1996, the boy stood five inches taller and was 25 pounds heavier than he had been in May 1995. Jurors could not appreciate how ridiculous it was when Mike McLoren described the efforts of a boy who was 5 feet 3 inches and 115 pounds at the time to appear “intimidating.”
As he had in each earlier version of his story, Mike stumbled over the question of who threw the first punch inside the fort. The witness made no attempt to conceal his relish, though, as he described how quickly he had seized the advantage over a boy who was at the time two years younger, seven inches shorter and 35 pounds lighter. He was landing solid blows with his elbow to the back of his opponent’s head, Mike recalled, when “Jason runs at me, because I’m beating up Micah … so I kick him right in the face, and he goes back screaming, holding his nose.
Jason was the one who shouted, “Let’s get this fucker,” said Mike, who then admitted that he only thought it had been Jason. It was Brandon, however, who yelled, “Get the baseball bat,” Mike swore; then he acknowledged that this was just a guess. “All of a sudden, I get pulled off in a headlock by Tony,” Mike explained, “because I think, like, Jim socked Tony.” Well, he really didn’t see who got him in the headlock, Mike admitted a moment later. And he never saw Jimmy sock Tony, either. In fact, the only memory of Tony that Mike had was of seeing him standing in the fort’s doorway.
After that, “my eyes were, like, being covered by clothes and stuff,” Mike explained. Somehow, though, he got a good long look at the disturbing image of Brandon Hein standing between Jimmy’s legs, throwing uppercuts. “Jim was sitting on the couch,” Mike recalled. “He was, like, going with it. Like, his head would come down and go back, and come back down.” He couldn’t believe what he was seeing, Mike explained: “Jim was an animal, really muscular. Nobody could compete with Jim.” Certainly not Brandon Hein.
There were a number of obvious inconsistencies in Mike’s testimony and a couple of admissions that caused prosecutors to wince. (One was that Jimmy Farris himself had carried a pocketknife.) But the prosecutors insisted that they were pleased by Mike’s confused memory because it proved that the boy understood “it was more important to be truthful than to be correct.” “It’s something we’re proud of,” Semow explained, “that he came across as a witness who had not been prepped.”
Mike certainly sounded prepped, though, when he explained his decision to admit he was a drug dealer.
His first conversation about this, he said, was with his grandmother, who told him that since his marijuana had been found, he should “just take the drug charge and get these guys.” Then his lawyer told him “that I wasn’t going to be able to get these guys until I told the whole truth,” Mike recalled. Finally, the deputy DAs assigned to the case informed him that “they don’t want to prosecute me for [drug dealing],” Mike explained. “They just want to get these guys.”
Jason Holland took the stand at the end of April. Jason’s testimony was the crux of the case, and he knew it. He got off to a bad start with the jury by telling them that on the day in question, he got out of bed at about noon. After breakfast he caught a ride to Dwayne Dahlberg’s, arriving at around 2:30. They were joined by Dwayne’s sister, Janna, and two other girls. Janna had some weed, Jason recalled, so they went down to Gates Canyon Park for a smoke.
The girls dropped him off at his friend Jason Stout’s at around 3:45. Stout offered liquor from his dad’s cabinet; they drank gin mixed with Sunny Delight and played pingpong. The girls showed up a little after 4 with food from Taco Bell, and Dwayne came down to eat with them.
He drank a second gin and Sunny Delight, Jason recalled, then took some swigs from a bottle of Southern Comfort that Stout pulled from his father’s cabinet.
Chris Velardo was accompanied by Micah, Brandon and Tony when his little maroon truck pulled up outside, Jason recalled. They drank together for the next hour but had to be out of the house before Stout’s father (a prominent Los Angeles attorney) arrived.
He rode in the back with Brandon, Jason remembered, while Micah and Tony sat up front when Chris drove them to Gates Canyon Park at around 7. Chris was supposed to drop them off, then go back for Dahlberg and Stout. Only moments after they arrived at the park, though, Jason said, he grabbed the wallet off the console of Alyce Moulder’s van: “I just took it.” Almost every word that Alyce Moulder had said about the confrontation behind the strip mall was a lie, Jason insisted.
A little after 7, Chris pulled his truck onto the Ventura Freeway, heading west. When they got off the freeway, Jason knew they were in Agoura but had no idea where they were going, he said, until Chris parked and Jason recognized Mike McLoren’s house.
Micah and Tony got out of the cab and started walking toward the fort. He asked Chris what was happening, Jason remembered, and Chris answered that they were going to get some weed. He thought that was a good idea, Jason explained, and followed Micah over the fence.
He was about 20 feet behind as his brother approached the spot where Mike and Jimmy were working out on the punching bag. Mike started to take off his gloves, Jason remembered, and said, “What’s up, Micah?” He couldn’t hear what, if anything, his brother said in reply, Jason explained, but Mike and Micah were together when they walked into the fort.
By the time he arrived at the doorway, though, he could see that something was wrong, Jason said: Micah and Mike were standing inches apart, glaring at each other. The next thing he knew, “they just dropped their heads and started fighting.”
He went to grab Mike, Jason said, “because he had my brother at a disadvantage. My brother was down, and Mike was already on top of him.”
It was so dark in there, though, that he became disoriented, Jason said. He finally got a grip on Mike’s wrist, but at that moment someone hit him on the side of the face. He spun around, lost his grip on Mike and fell to the floor. He had risen to a “mid-push-up position,” Jason remembered, when Mike, who still had Micah in a headlock, “kind of did a running step and kicked me in the face.”
By the time he got back to his feet, dazed and angry, Jason could see that his brother was in a bad position, bent double on the bed under Mike’s weight as McLoren brought his elbow down on the back of Micah’s head again and again. He tried to yank Mike off but couldn’t. “So I pulled out my knife,” Jason said.
At first he just tried to frighten Mike, Jason said, and “pricked him in the back.” Mike, though, kept hammering Micah’s head with his elbow. “I was scared for my brother,” Jason continued, and he “pricked” Mike again, this time with “a little bit more force.” When Mike still wouldn’t let go, however, Jason grabbed McLoren’s arm, turned him slightly and stabbed for real.
(This testimony was consistent with the forensic evidence, which showed that the two wounds in Mike McLoren’s back were shallow – one had barely broken the flesh – while the single wound to Mike’s abdomen punctured his lung and lacerated his liver.)
At that moment, Jason said, he was grabbed from behind, turned, “and there was Jimmy.” He knew he had stabbed Jimmy twice, Jason admitted. “I was scared” was the best explanation he could offer: “I was just kind of freaking out in there.” It all happened so fast, he added.
He remembered looking at his knife, Jason said, just before jumping the fence and climbing into the bed of the truck. There was hardly any blood, he recalled: “Just a thin line of red near the handle.”
Chris drove up into the Highlands housing development and parked in a cul-de-sac. They all got out and sat on the curb. “I told everyone – I said, ‘I think I stabbed him,’ ” Jason recalled. “They thought I was joking.” Finally he pulled out his knife and showed them the line of blood near the handle. The others stopped smiling but still weren’t convinced; he wanted to believe himself that it hadn’t happened, Jason said.
He discovered that the truth was even worse than he feared, Jason said, when he phoned his mom from Stout’s later that evening. “She told me, ‘You better come home,’ ” he recalled. “I asked why. She said, ‘Because the police came here.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘You’re wanted for murder.’ “
He panicked, Jason said, when a car pulled into the Stout’s driveway; he thought it was the police, coming for him. He hung up on his mother, ran out the back door of the house and climbed over the fence, fleeing downhill toward the lights of the valley floor.
“I saw my face the next day on TV, on the news,” Jason explained. “It made me even more scared,” and “I hid for a while.” He never called his mother and didn’t see the appeal that Sharry made on TV, Jason said. The decision to turn himself in had been his own.
Perception is nine-tenths of the law. Gene Hein, whose only child’s fate hung upon Jason’s testimony, admired what he just had witnessed in court: “Here’s a kid who obviously did a terrible thing, but he had the courage to get up there and say, ‘Here I am. I came back because I didn’t want my friends to be blamed for something only I did.’ “
What Jeffrey Semow saw, though, was a “sociopath” observing “a gang code.” The point on which Semow hammered hardest was Jason’s refusal to name whoever had harbored him while he was a fugitive from the law. “The person was being a friend to me,” Jason explained. “I don’t want to get him in trouble for trying to help me.”
It was the perfect foundation for the question that Semow had been warned not to ask but did, anyway, the next day. “Are you a member of Gumbys?” the prosecutor inquired. Mira already had ruled that the subject could not be broached, since there was no convincing evidence that the defendants belonged to the Gumbys or that the Gumbys were a real gang.
“The lawyers objected and asked for a mistrial,” Jeff Ladin recalled, “but the damage was done. You could see it in the jurors’ faces.”
Which boy had captured the hearts and minds of the jurors was all that mattered now. If they trusted Mike McLoren – “A very credible and powerful witness,” Semow told the panel during his final argument – they had no choice other than to find all four defendants guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstances. The alternative was to place their faith in Jason Holland, a young man who “admitted in front of you that when it comes to a choice between telling the truth and loyalty to his buddies … he will choose loyalty.”
Brandon’s attorney, Jill Lansing, led for the defense The law was clear, Lansing reminded the jurors: At least one of several conditions had to be met for a finding of murder against any defendant other than Jason Holland. The prosecution had to show that the other boys aided and abetted, which meant that they had intended the stabbings to occur. Or the prosecution had to prove that the fort was a “dwelling,” and that all four boys had gone there intending to burglarize it. Clearly the fort wasn’t someone’s home. Even if the jury believed that there had been an attempted robbery of marijuana, they had to believe also that Mike McLoren had given Jimmy Farris responsibility for guarding his stash. And McLoren had sworn specifically that this wasn’t so.
The entire prosecution case, Lansing reminded the jury, depended upon the testimony of a liar. Only after the police found his pot had Mike McLoren come up with the claim that a group of Gumbys showed up at the fort that evening to rob him of his marijuana. The purpose of this lie had been to protect himself from criminal prosecution for selling drugs.
So what about Jason Holland? Jason had not grabbed at any of several opportunities to make himself look better, Lansing observed. Despite the photographs of a baseball bat, a hammer and an air rifle found in the fort – even after Mike McLoren’s testimony that Jimmy Farris might have been carrying a knife – Jason had not claimed that he killed in self-defense. Unlike Mike McLoren, Jason Holland was trying to take responsibility for what he had done, and it was Jason, not Mike, who deserved to be believed.
It was Mike, though, whom the jury chose. The verdicts were delivered on May 28, 1996, after four days of deliberations. Micah, Brandon and Tony were acquitted on charges of attempted murder of Mike McLoren, but that mattered not at all, because each of the three, along with Jason, were found guilty of first-degree murder with special circumstances in the death of Jimmy Farris, a decision that for all intents and purposes ended their lives.
The three boys, who had been unarmed when they came to the fort that evening, appeared to be in a daze after the verdict was read, unable to comprehend what was happening. Their parents staggered out of the courtroom wearing stunned expressions, faces bathed in tears.
What the jury was thinking neither the defendants nor the public would ever know. Recent changes in California law allow a judge to provide jurors with total anonymity. A signal was sent when Mira ordered that the jurors’ names would not become public; even the attorneys would not be permitted to contact them after the trial.
These jurors, however, had revealed a good deal about their state of mind: Before delivering its verdicts, the panel had demanded that Mira provide them with a police escort from the courtroom to their cars. Jill Lansing was flabbergasted. She had worked in trials downtown involving gang members where this would not have been an unreasonable request. The absurdity of it in this case, though, was beyond belief; these jurors apparently were people so frightened that they believed they needed protection from a “gang” called the Gumbys.
7 “VICTIMS OF OUR POLITICAL TIMES”
What hope remained for the defendants now rested on Judge Mira. California law not only provided the judge with an opportunity but with what might be interpreted as an obligation to contain the carnage of the Farris case. The precedent was People vs. Dillon.
Norman Dillon had been 17 when he and a group of friends concocted a plan to steal marijuana from two growers living on a farm in Northern California. After twice being run off at gunpoint, Dillon returned to the farm carrying a .22 rifle, joined by seven friends armed with shotguns, a baseball bat, sticks and a knife. After climbing the farm’s fence, the boys were confronted by one of the growers. Norman Dillon fired his .22, killing the man with nine bullet wounds.
As Jill Lansing would observe in her written argument, “When one contrasts the facts in Dillon with this case, Dillon looms as a sophisticated, dangerous enterprise by comparison.” Yet because of Norman Dillon’s age, his life sentence for felony murder had been deemed cruel and unusual punishment. His conviction was reduced after appeal to second-degree murder.
Not one of the boys who had been with Norman Dillon was convicted of homicide in any degree, even though each of them had been armed. One, an adult, served a year in county jail for conspiracy to commit robbery. Of the others, only one was even sent to a juvenile facility.
On Aug. 21, after a two-day hearing on the defense’s Dillon motion, Judge Mira said he would hear from the parents of the dead boy before handing down sentences.
James Farris II was stern on the stand: “My family and the community as a whole want you criminals separated from us and punished…. You people need to be removed from society so you can no longer intimidate, rob or even kill again.”
Judie Farris’ grief, like her rage and her denial, was more pronounced: “You’ve damaged me, and all this pain has killed a part of me. I’m sentenced for the rest of my life. Nothing will ever get Jimmy out of his coffin, his pine box. You deserve to be confined forever as we are.” She sobbed when she took the stand. Although Mike had testified in her presence that he had dealt drugs, Judie continued to insist that it wasn’t true.
Judge Mira had received dozens of letters prior to imposing sentences, but two stood out. One, from a Dr. Barry Pollack, introduced a singular note of sanity – and of eloquence – into the proceedings. As “the emergency physician at Westlake Hospital who struggled to save Jimmy Farris’ life,” Dr. Pollack would claim only “tangential” connection to the case, yet he wished nevertheless to offer his perspective. “Life and death in a case of trauma is often a matter of moments and of millimeters,” the doctor observed. “Jimmy Farris did not die of grossly brutal wounds. Only a single small puncture wound penetrated his chest and into his heart…. The irony is that as an emergency physician, I have seen many, many victims far more heinously injured than the late Jimmy Farris who nevertheless survive and whose assailants are punished little. Fate has indeed dealt Jimmy and his four young attackers a cruel blow.”
He believed, Pollack wrote, that “it would be a grave injustice if all these young men – certainly those that did not wield the knife – were given life sentences.” The four boys sitting before the judge were “victims of our political times,” the doctor concluded, “and of unfortunate circumstance.”
The truth of both assertions was driven home by another letter to Mira, this one from Los Angeles Chief of Police Willie L. Williams. All four boys convicted in this case, the LAPD chief advised Mira, “deserve the same mercy they showed to Jimmy Farris.”
It was clear where Mira was headed moments after the judge began to speak, when he described the defendants’ “crime spree” on May 22, 1995, one that began with “stealing alcohol” from Jason Stout’s father. (“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Gene Hein would say afterward. “Jason Stout testified in court that he gave them that liquor.”)
“I believe on this tragic day [that the defendants] formed their own gang,” the judge read aloud to the crowded courtroom. “The genesis of this group was in their lifestyle, their aimlessness, their purposelessness. They didn’t take their education seriously; they rejected their families’ values. They adopted a we-do-whatever-feels-good-for-us attitude. That is classic hedonism.”
Then, Mira sentenced Jason Holland, Brandon Wade Hein and Anthony Miliotti to terms of life without possibility of parole in state prison. Because Micah Holland had been only 15 at the time of the stabbings, he would show leniency to this defendant, Mira said, then sentenced the boy to a prison term of 25 years to life.
Six months later, Jeff Ladin still was making the trip each Sunday to L.A. County Jail, where his nephew was awaiting transfer to state prison, and left each time sick to his stomach. “I have to tell him to keep his hopes up, but I feel like such a liar when I do,” Ladin explained. “My whole family is living this unbelievable nightmare. It’s just destroying us.”
Ladin took cold comfort from the wrongful-death lawsuit (claiming negligence) filed by the Farris family against Mike McLoren, his mother and his grandparents. Judie Farris, who stood staunchly by Mike’s side during the criminal trial, was asked by a reporter if she now considered McLoren culpable for her son’s death. “It is not Mike I blame the most,” she answered.
Those whom Judie Farris did blame most also had been named as defendants in the wrongful-death lawsuit. One of them was Gene Hein, in danger now of losing not only his son but also his home. It enraged Jeff Ladin that Brandon’s father continued to insist on the power of positive thinking, claiming not only that his son would win his release from prison but “come out of this a better person.” What sort of reception committee, Ladin wanted to ask, did Gene think awaited a short, slight, pretty white teenager at prisons like Soledad or Folsom?
“My position is that I know what’s right, and I’ll never give up until this comes out the way it should,” Gene explained. “I’d love to talk to the judge, the prosecutors and the jury face to face. I just don’t believe they could believe in what they did after spending an hour with me.”
Speaking with the prosecutors on this case, however, might have shaken even Gene Hein’s faith. The worst part by far was listening to Semow and his co-prosecutor, Mike Latin, assume the mantle of political correctness.
“The same people who champion equal rights are the people up in arms about this case,” Latin fumes. “And the irony of it is, if these defendants were black and from the inner city, nobody would give a damn about them.”
Were the prosecutors contending that black teenagers accused in comparable cases commonly face special-circumstances murder charges? “It’s very common,” said Semow, who had an example at the ready – a murder case out of South Central Los Angeles that he has prosecuted. The killers were black gang members, and the victims were marijuana dealers, Semow noted; in that case, he had asked for the death penalty.
And no wonder. Because in that case, the killers had planned the execution-style murders of their victims well before arriving at the residences where they arranged bogus marijuana buys. At one house, they raped a dealer’s sister before killing her. At another, they tied up a 13-year-old boy and shot him in the head.
As evidence of his fundamental decency, Semow offered the disposition of Chris Velardo’s case. Two weeks after the others were sentenced, Chris had appeared before Mira, who imposed the maximum sentence for voluntary manslaughter: a term of 11 years in state prison. Prosecutors, however, had promised that Velardo would be permitted to serve most of his sentence in California Youth Authority “schools.” But in January, the Youth Authority informed Semow that it would not accept Chris as a ward if his sentence was to time in state prison.
“So we were faced with giving Velardo a significantly harsher sentence or a significantly less-harsh sentence,” Semow noted. The DA’s office elected to remand Chris outright to the Youth Authority, which meant he would be released from custody no later than his 25th birthday.
Chris received this good news at almost exactly the moment that Jason Holland was arriving at the Selinas Valley State Prison (better known as New Soledad), a Level IV maximum-security prison where he would reside in a modified Security Housing Unit program.
“Basically, that just means it’s a very serious place to be,” Jason observed in a letter to ROLLING STONE written three days before his 20th birthday. Serious is an understated description: Inmates in Level IV prisons are all either violent felons or career criminals. His own circumstance tortured him far less, though, Jason wrote, than the knowledge that Micah, Brandon and Tony were suffering terribly for what he alone had done. “They didn’t even see it happen,” he wrote. “I took a life and deserved to be punished, but why take three others that didn’t have anything to do with it?”
All he asks people to believe about him, Jason added, is this: “I’m not some coldblooded killer. I didn’t mean for this to happen and every day I wish I could take it back.”
Like everyone connected to this case who could be honest about it, Jason’s mother admits that she probably never will be certain what happened at the fort during that fatal minute on the evening of May 22, 1995. “Adrenalin, drugs, alcohol, testosterone” is the best explanation of events that Sharry Holland can offer.
Bottom line: A boy who had done nothing to deserve it died at the hands of her oldest son. It wasn’t as if she failed to recognize that Jason needed to be punished, Sharry said: “If I saw him put away for 10 years, 15 years, that would be terrible, but I would be able to say it was justice. To take his life away from him, though, to take all their lives, it’s not human.
“The system, the judge and the jury, they all thought the most important thing was to make an example of these kids: ‘Wake up, suburban white boys!’ So we all can keep on sleepin’.”
Jason Holland and Brandon Hein are the two youngest prisoners in a maximum-security section at Salinas Valley State Prison, where they live in a walled compound under permanent lock-down among some of California’s most violent felons. Tony Miliotti also is at Salinas Valley but in a different section. Micah Holland is in the custody of the California Youth Authority, where he will remain until his 18th birthday, at which time he will enter the state prison system. All four have been assigned attorneys for their appeals, which likely will not be filed until early 1999.
Yes, unintentionally, Jason committed Manslaughter. As grave a mistake as that is, it does not deserve Life in prison. However, prosecutors charged Felony Murder vs. Manslaugher because of extreme political pressure surrounding this case…and they won. Defendants Jason Holland(18), Micah Holland (15), Brandon Hein (17) and Tony Miliotti (17) were all ”first-time offenders” and all given Life sentences – to die in prison. Their punishments are cruel and unusual.