Forfeit: Your money and your life: Donald Scott was an innocent man with a very desirable ranch. Now he's dead - shot by LA law. Phil Reeves reports

Phil Reeves
Friday 02 July 1993 23:02

FRANCES PLANTE switched on the hi-fi system in the corner of her sitting room, and stood listening intently while the walls rattled with the sound of her own voice. It was a rock song, noisy and brash, but what mattered were the lyrics. 'You're going to take a beating from a woman that's mad as hell,' she sang, 'I'm gonna get you, cops. I'm gonna get you.'

She was standing several yards from the spot where, a few months ago, Donald Scott, her rich, 61-year-old husband, had lain dying after being shot through the chest by the police. They had burst in, acting on an illegal search warrant in what was later exposed by an official investigation as a blatant and unjustified attempt to seize his mountain estate in California. There was no doubting that Ms Plante, his 39-year-old Texan wife, was indeed as mad as hell. 'They killed my husband,' she said as the music died away, 'But now they are going to have to pay for it. They didn't reckon on having to deal with someone like me.' The taped song is her latest tactic in a campaign to publicise her husband's death, but it will not be her last. 'I am not going to stop until I see justice done. A sneaky, deadly war is being waged on the people of this country, and I think they ought to be told.'

We were in Donald Scott's wooden cabin in the heart of Trail's End Ranch, several hundred acres of oak woods, crags and canyons in the Santa Monica mountains that run across the north of Los Angeles to the Pacific's edge. Scott came here more than 20 years ago to get away from the city and, as his wife put it, the 'bullshit' of society living. It was a secret place, full of birds and wildlife, a refuge from a world he had grown to distrust. In the end, his suspicions were justified.

It happened at breakfast time one bright morning last October. Scott was asleep when the line of police vehicles came thundering down the rough track and parked outside his home. There were 32 people in all - a small army, equipped with high-velocity weapons, dogs, flak jackets and a battering ram. They came in search of evidence to support the police's claim that several dozen marijuana plants were growing on the land.

No fewer than eight different agencies were represented, led by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. The Drug Enforcement Administration was there, so were the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, the US Forest Service, the Los Angeles Police Department, the National Park Service and the National Guard. There were even two officials from the Nasa- owned Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who were apparently invited to test the air for marijuana pollen. It was a surprising show of force, especially as undercover officers had visited the Scotts less than a week earlier and were warmly received.

Frances Plante remembers waking up to find the house shaking, and hearing their two dozen dogs barking furiously. She ran into her living room to investigate, pulling on her shirt back to front, only to be encountered by a face peering at her through the window by the front door. 'I was absolutely terrified. I thought I was going to be killed.' As she struggled to cover herself, she heard a voice shout 'Put your hands down.' The face at the window was yelling: 'Let me go first.'

The officers who bundled through the door came in with guns at the ready. Scott, alerted by the commotion, emerged from the bedroom carrying an old .38 handgun. An experienced gun handler, he was pointing it towards the ceiling. A few days earlier Mr Scott had undergone an eye operation for cataracts. But even with good vision, it would have been difficult for him to see the chaotic scenes in the gloom of his wood-panelled living room. The police bellowed at him to drop his gun. As he lowered his arm, he was shot dead.

The two Los Angeles sheriff's deputies who fired at Scott maintain they acted in self-defence, claiming that he pointed his gun at them and was about to shoot. Although they were cleared of blame, doubts about the killing remain, not least because an autopsy showed that the fatal bullet struck him from above - suggesting he was already on the ground when he was shot. Afterwards, following hours of searching the estate, on land and by air, the narcotics squad gave up the hunt. They did not find one incriminating marijuana leaf.

Scott's death caused a ripple of astonishment in Los Angeles, a city hardened to reports of police shooting suspects on inner-city streets. For Scott was no ordinary victim. During the Sixties, he lived with the French actress Corinne Calvet in a large Beverly Hills home, and socialised in the same circles as Robert Mitchum and Clint Eastwood. He was also something of a playboy, who loved to race Ferraris and Mercedes.

The high life came to an end after Scott bought his ranch, and the servants refused to go there. He split up with Corinne Calvet, became entangled in a vicious legal case over their possessions, and took to the hills for a secluded life with a small circle of friends and a handful of hobbies - mostly drinking, target shooting with his chrome-plated .45 revolver, and reading the history of the Chumash Indians who once lived on his land.

He was the grandson of the inventor of the health tonic 'Scott's Emulsion', the heir to a fortune made by his family's chemicals business. His childhood summers were spent at the family mansion in Geneva while winters were passed in Manhattan. There are yellowing photographs in his ranch cabin showing his mother bedecked in jewellery, and his father at the races in Melbourne, Australia. According to his wife, Scott was fond of describing an occasion when President Franklin D Roosevelt sought his father's advice after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Six months after the raid, Michael Bradbury, the district attorney of Ventura County, finally released the results of his investigation into the tragedy. His findings tell the story of a police officer so intent on proving what he wanted to believe that he ignored evidence to the contrary - and was all too willing to bend the truth to his own ends. More important, they also provide an insight into how US law enforcement agencies are feathering their nests by attempting to forfeit assets using threadbare evidence.

Under US law, the authorities can seize any property that is the fruit of a crime or was used in committing one. This can be done without securing a conviction or even making an arrest, but on the basis of the far lesser standard of evidence known as 'probable cause'. The onus is on the owner to prove his innocence, if he or she wants the property returned. And, since 1984, the federal and state agencies that take part in a 'bust' have been permitted to share out the proceeds and put the money in departmental bank accounts. The scheme was meant to create an incentive to pursue criminals as well as to ease the burden on the taxpayer, but the number of seizures has rocketed out of control.

Evidence uncovered by Bradbury's investigation into the Scott affair leaves little doubt that the department was well aware that it stood to benefit by several million dollars by seizing his land, which sits amid some of the most valuable real estate in the United States. If the courts upheld it, the land-grab would have been their greatest single forfeiture, a huge windfall at a time when the force's budget badly needed a boost. The department staunchly denied it was motivated by desire to forfeit the property. But incriminating documents surfaced that were circulated among narcotics detectives. They gave the sale price of a nearby plot of land and the taxes on the ranch. Forfeiture was a motivating factor behind the raid, Bradbury concluded.

This perhaps explains the police's determination to go ahead with the operation, come what may. It was planned by Gary Spencer, one of the officers who shot Scott. The 39-year-old deputy sheriff has a reputation as something of a 'hot shot' among his colleagues in the narcotics division, given to bragging about his detective work. The raid was to have been his finest hour.

According to the DA's findings, Spencer received a tip-off from an informant who said that several thousand marijuana plants were being grown on the ranch. The officer, and several colleagues, decided to pay a secret visit to the property to check out the story. They hiked through the thick undergrowth until they reached the top of a 75ft waterfall overlooking the land. But they saw nothing to suggest that they had sneaked into a pot farm.

Thwarted, the sheriff's department had another go. Arrangements were made for a federal narcotics agent, Charles Stowell, to fly over the ranch in a private aircraft, while his pilot intermittently performed aerobatics in an effort to avoid arousing the Scotts' suspicion. As he swooped over the property, he claims to have spotted 50 marijuana plants, apparently hanging from branches. His sighting was odd because the area was covered by an impenetrably thick canopy of trees. But it was just what Spencer needed to justify the raid.

Then, according to the DA's report, matters became a little complicated. Stowell appears to have had doubts about what he saw, and told Spencer that he had better find some more corroborating evidence before applying for a search warrant. He told Spencer he thought he needed to 'eliminate the discrepancy' between the few dozen plants he saw, and the thousands reported by their informant.

An expeditionary force of four US Border Patrol agents was duly dispatched, equipped with all the paraphernalia of a special forces unit crossing the Iraqi desert - night-goggles, guns, cameras and climbing gear. It wasn't needed. On their first attempt they got stuck, and had to turn back. Their second mission ended in farce, when they fled after being barked at by Scott's pack of rottweilers. But they, too, found nothing.

At this stage, many police officers would have begun to doubt whether they were on the right track. Not Spencer. He contacted Stowell with the news that, out of the blue, his informant had changed his story: there were not several thousand plants, but around 50 - suspended in the trees. Stowell finally agreed to allow his aerial surveillance sightings to be used in an application for a search warrant. (The informant later denied amending his tip-off.)

The highly suspect nature of the investigation that led up to the raid pales in comparison with the manner in which Spencer persuaded a judge to issue a search warrant. He overstated the amount of marijuana involved, missed out any mention of the expeditions on to the ranch in which no marijuana was seen, and suggested that the plants had simply been 'noticed' during a reconnaissance flight.

District Attorney Bradbury concluded that the resulting warrant was based on so many falsehoods that it was legally invalid. The DA recommended that Gary Spencer be fired, but he remains on duty. He was even allowed to help to run the investigation into his conduct. Mysteriously, a cigar box containing a few fragments of marijuana turned up among property later seized from the ranch. But no one was taken in.

For Frances Plante, the deception and greed of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department is only the tip of an iceberg. She believes that a larger government plot existed to seize her land, and sell it to the National Park Service, which is keen to acquire more territory to complete a trail running across the area.

The fact that no decisive evidence has surfaced to prove her case has not deterred her from pressing on. Her lawyers are preparing a multi-million dollar damages lawsuit in which they plan to sue dozens of public officials. She is hoping her song will be used in a movie about her husband's slaying. 'They came to our place and killed Donald because they were looking for plants. Well, now they have got a Plante, and they are going to have to answer to her in court.'


OPPONENTS of America's asset-forfeiture laws regard the Donald Scott affair as the worst example of how law enforcement agencies try to swell their coffers by attempting to seize property on flimsy, or even false, pretexts.

In recent years, authorities nationwide have used asset-

forfeiture statutes to seize billions of dollars' worth of homes, cars and yachts from people without having to prove that the owners did anything illegal. Prosecutors have only to show 'probable cause' that the property was purchased from ill-gotten gains, or was used in a criminal act - such as drug dealing, racketeering or white-collar crime. Once seized, regaining property can be costly and extremely difficult.

It is in the interests of the authorities to lay their hands on as much as they can get away with. In 1984 a statute was introduced as part of President Reagan's 'war on drugs' that allowed the law enforcement agencies to bank up to 85 per cent of the proceeds from a forfeiture. It soon prompted allegations that the system was being widely abused in order to boost departmental budgets. Stories abound of senior officers or prosecutors driving around in luxury vehicles seized from the public.

Critics of the asset-forfeiture laws have formed a group, Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (FEAR), which claims to have numerous examples of innocent people who have lost their property for very little reason. These include a 70-year-old grandmother in Washington DC whose home was seized by police who claimed to have evidence that her grandson had sold cocaine on her front porch. In another case, a Las Vegas couple who ran a small charter airline were bankrupted after the government seized their jet. Their crime? Unwittingly allowing a passenger on board who was carrying drugs money.

The Clinton administration appears committed to reforming the system, and is planning new forfeiture guidelines. This week the US Supreme Court took a significant step towards tightening the system by ruling that the US constitution forbids prosecutors to seek forfeitures that go far beyond a reasonable punishment for drug dealing.

But the system remains biased in favour of the authorities. When police raided Donald Scott's Californian ranch, they hoped to find marijuana plants and seize the property. In the event, Scott was shot dead and no plants were found. But had they achieved their goal, he would have had problems regaEining his property.

Under federal statutes, Scott would have been sent a notice of forfeiture giving him 30 days to come THER write errorup with a 'cost bond' of 10 per cent of the value of his dollars 5m ( pounds 3.4m) property, money the government would use to cover the cost of litigating against him. He would not have been allowed a court-appointed lawyer but would have had to hire private counsel, running the risk of huge legal fees. And when he appeared in federal court to ask for his home back, the burden of proof would have been on him to show his innocence.

How far the latest reforms will change the state of affairs

is uncertain. There are signs that administrations have come to depend on forfeiture incomes. In 1990, the US Justice Department circulated a memo to federal prosecutors warning them that the department was falling short of its projected dollars 470m income in forfeiture deposits. The message was clear: start confiscating.

(Photograph omitted)

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