Police chief's arrest jolts town

Times Staff Writer

Just beyond the reach of the North Coast fog, this little community of 1,150 basked until recently under the protection of a police force of just four officers.

Four officers packing 31 submachine guns.

The Blue Lake police force was armed on a par with a big-city SWAT team. And no Blue Lakers knew until Police Chief David Gundersen's life began to very publicly unravel.

In February, Humboldt County sheriff's deputies arrested Gundersen on suspicion of crimes in his own bedroom.

Prosecutors have charged him with 33 counts, alleging that the chief repeatedly drugged his wife, a Blue Lake police sergeant, and forced her to have sex.

As investigators dug deeper into his private life, they discovered Gundersen's guns.

At home, he had a weapons cache that included a machine gun and a James Bond-style pistol with a silencer, both unregistered.

At police headquarters, he had enough weaponry to arm a small platoon.

Gundersen, 53, advertised his love of guns on a MySpace page for "Gundy Bros," with a photo of a machine gun, the words "LIVE, LAUGH . . . LOVE" and the offer of "Weapon Systems/Sales and Services." In all, investigators seized 111 weapons -- nearly a quarter of them from his home.

The chief behind bars, the police force mothballed, City Hall under fire -- this was a seismic scandal for a bucolic town tucked peacefully in the Humboldt County redwoods.

But Blue Lake is handling it with a mix of civic reflection and gallows humor.

Some residents are talking of running a whole new slate of council candidates.

A local playwright is using Gundersen's submachine guns as a plot line in his next production. At the venerable Logger Bar, a stand-up comedian lobbed one-liners about high-powered weapons and sleeping pills ("Honey, isn't it time for your nightcap?").

"This is like trying to picture Barney Fife with a submachine gun," said Al Clark, owner of Blue Lake Video.

The town that Dave Gundersen was hired to protect is a sleepy place five miles up Trinity Scenic Byway from the coast. The old lumber mill sits rusting. Today the biggest businesses are Mad River Brewing Co. and a nearby Indian casino.

With plentiful sun and warmer temperatures than at the coast, Blue Lake has drawn retirees, artist types and commuters to Humboldt State in nearby Arcata.

Gundersen arrived in 1999 after a short run in nearby Trinidad and a controversial stint in the high desert San Bernardino County city of Adelanto, where he was accused of theft (police union leaders attributed it to small-town politics).

In Blue Lake, he made an immediate impression.

No one thought the town had much crime until he arrived. But the chief bombarded the City Council with statistics showing an increase in vehicle break-ins, burglaries and other property crimes.

City leaders now figure he was inflating the numbers to justify a ballooning budget, Councilwoman Karen Barnes said.

Detractors say they never liked his style.

"He wasn't the warm and fuzzy kind of small-town cop most wanted," Councilwoman Marlene Smith said.

"He's a classic passive-aggressive kind of guy -- the type to smile and then stab you in the back," said Michael Fields, artistic director of Dell'Arte International, a critically lauded local theater company and performing arts school.

Gundersen drew Fields' ire by calling the company's annual summer festival an unwelcome police headache.

The police force also took to stopping the school's foreign-born students on the street, a practice Fields saw as racial profiling.

Dave Beebe, 59, got crosswise with the chief a couple of years ago over an improperly suspended driver's license. The county grand jury looked at Gundersen and his department's tactics, but nothing substantive came of it.

Still feeling wronged, Beebe filed a lawsuit. It was dismissed, but he now feels that he's won.

"It's too rare in life you get to see karma firsthand, but that's what I feel has come around," Beebe said. "Spousal rape and machine guns in this little burg? That's just ridiculous."

Clark, owner of Blue Lake Video, remembers how Gundersen conducted a "sting" at his 50th-birthday bash. Clark hired four bands, supplied six kegs of beer and invited 300 friends. Gundersen wrote him up for putting out a donation jar to offset costs.

"He comes in like a hotshot big-city gunslinger," Clark said. "The man was not a good fit for this town."

Earlier this month, Gundersen went to court in a jail jumpsuit. He pleaded not guilty to all counts. The trial is scheduled for June 30. If convicted, Gundersen could face up to life in prison. For now, he remains behind bars in lieu of $1.25-million bail.

His attorney, Russell Clanton, contends that seeds of trouble were planted by the chief's former wife, now a Humboldt County sheriff's office dispatcher, who he says has plotted to poison Gundersen's relationship with his current spouse.

The result, he said, has been a "witch hunt" that has prosecutors, the media and disgruntled Blue Lakers piling on.

Clanton said that each weapon was acquired "by a verifiable and legitimate route" -- mostly from gun manufacturers at steep discounts or for free -- and that the department had reason to possess them. With a tribal casino and schools to protect, he said, the chief's weaponry hasn't been seen in the "proper context."

Paul Gallegos, Humboldt County district attorney, counters that the proper context is "an unhealthy trend toward paramilitarism" by some police departments. As for the submachine guns, which can fire 800 rounds a minute, "I am still waiting to hear a rational, reasonable law enforcement explanation for the apparent irrational, unreasonable exuberance in collecting such a supply," he said.

While the case has been proceeding at the county courthouse in Eureka, Blue Lake's two remaining officers, both rookies, have lacked the legally required command structure to be allowed on patrol. Relegated for weeks to paperwork and dog catching, both were placed on paid administrative leave.

Sheriff's deputies are filling Blue Lake's law enforcement void for the next year under a $200,000 contract. Some residents believe that arrangement should be made permanent, but the council recently decided that a revamped police force would be best -- as long as a decent chief was at the helm.

"However we achieve it, we need that little Mayberry thing," Councilwoman Barnes said.

In the meantime, critics are questioning why the City Council didn't step in more decisively long ago.

Council members respond that they knew nothing of the gun cache until they read about it in the paper.

At a tense City Hall meeting soon after Gundersen's arrest, City Manager Wiley Buck told the council that Gundersen rationalized the submachine guns as valuable bait with which to barter with other cities. Two of the guns, Buck said, had been lent to nearby Rio Dell in exchange for traffic-monitoring equipment.

Though some of the machine guns weren't properly registered, the only weapons charges against Gundersen are two counts for the unregistered submachine gun and secret-agent pistol he kept at home.

He also continued to draw a paycheck while behind bars -- until the council finally terminated his contract May 5.

For locals such as Al Clark, it was about time: "Most people I know say it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy."



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