Jeffrey Allen Heptinstall of Whittier spent Christmas Eve dozing on a mat on the floor of a Los Angeles County Jail cell.
In a cell with six bunk beds were eight men charged with crimes like rape, robbery, forgery and possession of cocaine. And then there was Heptinstall, who was serving a six-month sentence for possession of a single 12-ounce bottle of Budweiser, four months before his 21st birthday.
How Heptinstall landed in jail for that crime is a complicated story. He was arrested next to a wall covered with gang-oriented graffiti. He and an acquaintance were charged with vandalism; in addition, Heptinstall was charged with being a minor in possession of alcohol. He was acquitted of the vandalism charge--largely, according to one juror, because of conflicts in testimony by two sheriff's deputies.
Heptinstall's court-appointed lawyer said the judge meted out the unusual sentence as an act of "vengeance" because he was upset by the jury's verdict. The judge could not be reached for comment.
Heptinstall was sentenced Dec. 19 by Downey Municipal Judge F. Lawrence Plotkin. Possession of alcohol by a minor is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of six months in jail and or a maximum $500 fine, but first offenders usually are fined $50 to $100, said Heptinstall's lawyer, George Genesta of Downey. According to a probation officer's report, Heptinstall, now 21, had never previously been arrested.
"I guess I was at the wrong place at the wrong time," said Heptinstall, who after six days in jail was released on $5,000 bail early Christmas morning, pending an appeal of the sentence.
"I never paid so much for a beer," Heptinstall said in an interview this week.
Heptinstall's co-defendant, Ramon Alfredo Molina, 25, of La Mirada, was sentenced by Plotkin to six months in jail on one count of vandalism, a misdemeanor with a maximum punishment of six months in jail and or a fine of $500.
The two men were found not guilty of spray-painting graffiti on a brick wall May 25 on Ratliffe Street in La Mirada, but Heptinstall was found guilty of being a minor in possession of alcohol. During the course of a three-day trial, Heptinstall admitted to having the beer.
Molina was found guilty of vandalism for knocking down a portion of a wood fence while attempting to escape, but not guilty of vandalism for painting the graffiti.
Heptinstall's lawyer, who was appointed by Plotkin to the case, said the only explanation the judge gave when he imposed the sentence was that the defendants had lied. Genesta, who has appealed the case to the appellate division of Los Angeles Superior Court, termed the sentence imposed on his client "obscene."
'An Act of Vengeance'
"The judge acted with impunity," Genesta said. "He was upset with the verdict. He said my client lied, but he didn't have the intestinal fortitude to elaborate as to what my client lied to, and I think he owed him that much, he owed justice that much. Without an explanation, it (the sentence)was an act of vengeance."
Plotkin is on vacation;neither he nor Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph A. Marcus, who prosecuted the case and is also on vacation, were available for comment.
According to a police report included in trial records, Heptinstall and Molina were caught in an act of vandalism by Deputies Alan Fulkerson and Frank Deogracias.
While on patrol at 1 a.m. on a Saturday night, the two deputies said they saw Molina and Heptinstall standing next to each other facing a red brick wall, with Molina holding what looked like a can of spray paint. When the deputies turned the headlights of their patrol car on the two men, Molina tossed the spray can over the wall and Molina and Heptinstall each threw a beer bottle over the fence, the report said.
Tried to Escape
Both men attempted to escape, but Heptinstall was arrested while hiding beside a nearby house. Molina was arrested shortly after.
The deputies' report said the black paint on the wall was wet and spelled out five gang names, and that they observed what looked like black paint stains on the right hands of both suspects.
Genesta, however, said inconsistencies in the two deputies' story were pointed out during the trial. According to Genesta, Deogracias testified that he had recovered the paint can and sprayed his own hand to see if it was the same color. But, according to Genesta, Fulkerson testified that he found the spray can and that it did not have a nozzle. Genesta also questioned why the deputies did not take photos of the paint stains on his client's hand.
Heptinstall said he was walking home from his girlfriend's house when he stopped to talk for a few minutes with Molina, an acquaintance. He said that he was startled when police arrived and denied having anything to do with the graffiti.
Heptinstall testified that the stains were caused by wood sap and dirt left on his hands from his job in a lumber yard, where he had worked earlier in the day.
Jury foreman Nancy McCabe declined comment. However, another jury member, Donald Leuer, said that although all jurors believed Heptinstall and Molina were guilty, they were disturbed by the deputies' conflicting stories and decided there were enough doubts to justify acquittal on the vandalism charges.
"The two deputies had a little bit conflicting stories. Why people who work together can't get their stories together is beyond me," Leuer said in an interview.
Leuer, a building inspector for the city of South Gate, recalled that when the jury's verdict was read, the judge gave the jurors "a real inquisitive, hard look like, 'How did you come up with that?' " Leuer said he had no opinion about the sentence imposed by the judge.
In the probation report, Deputy Probation Officer Jack Pionke said the sheriff's gang detail described Heptinstall as a "fringe gang member" who was not considered dangerous. Pionke recommended a sentence of two years' probation, a sentence Heptinstall, who denies he is a gang member, said he would gladly accept.
Heptinstall said concern over his legal problems led to fights with his girlfriend. The easy-going former high school football player said his time in court and in jail also got him into trouble with his boss.
"In the past month, just over this thing, my girlfriend left, I lost my job, lost my apartment, and to top it all off I get thrown in jail for it," he said, and asked:"What else can go wrong?"