The crusty old police officer spotted me staring at him, squinting, trying to get close enough to read the name on the brass plate that was pinned to his shirt just above the badge. I could barely make out the name. Just as I was getting close and spelling out the individual letters, he moved toward me, looked me in the eye and with a threatening voice growled, “Do you want to go to jail?”
The year was 1976. I was 15-years old and had come to the Marin County Civic Center to write about an ongoing murder trial as an assignment for a social studies class at Tamalpais High School. The policeman that afternoon was deputy sheriff Joe Kelly, a law enforcement officer whom I had run-ins with before, as far back as when I was 8-years old. Don’t get me wrong – I was no hardened criminal and there was nothing in my past (at the time) for which he could toss me into jail. But since we were on the court floor at the Marin Civic Center, yards away from the county jail, I decided to hedge my bets on a confrontation and moved past him as quickly as I could.
The story of encountering Officer Kelly is one that I remember vividly but don’t think of very often. It’s the true story about the time in 1969 that my two brothers, a sister and I were taken away by the police and placed in a foster home, twenty miles away in Novato.
This was actually the third time in 12 months that the sheriff’s had loaded us up into the squad cars and driven us away. The authorities had tried to pin charges of child neglect against my mother but none of the charges ever held up in court and each time we had been released back to her.
On this third occasion, however, the deputies were bent on making the charges stick – spilling cartons of milk all over the dining room table and taking photos. I watched from my bedroom door as another deputy planted a baggie of marijuana in a cupboard and then pretended to find it. It was a ridiculous assertion because Mom was not into pot – and it was the last thing anyone would have found in our home. (Far more likely to find would have been jugs of burgundy and pill bottles of barbiturates).
The children, which included my five-year-old brother Tim and three-year- old sister, Patsy (aka Trishna), were marched out into the squad car. Older brother Hacsi, 9, managed to escape this time, hiding out in the backyard of a neighbor’s house after running up a hill. We were driven to Novato in the back of Deputy Kelly’s police cruiser.
I made the mistake of commenting aloud on the way over the hill that I was going to do away with foster homes when I grew up, and that I would also become president and eliminate bad cops. This clearly irritated the deputy, who pulled the car over, turned around in his seat, and with a glaring facial expression threatened to take us all to the Marin County Jail instead of to the foster home. I piped down and accepted our fate.
The first two times that we had been removed from our home, we had been brought to the same foster home operated by a woman called Tilly. Tilly had seemed nice enough and would let our mother visit while court proceedings were taking place. Mom would come each day and say things like we were in God’s hands, that there was little she could do, and that we would have to wait and see what the courts would decide. Tilly was kind and would comfort our mother and let her visit longer than she was allowed by the courts. None of that mattered anymore because on this occasion we weren’t being driven to Tilly’s foster home. We were instead driven to a different house, also in Novato.
Unlike Tilly, the new foster parents had a jovial, almost playful relationship with Deputy Kelly and made fun of our situation while we stood there waiting to see what was going to happen. Kelly reiterated his comment about bringing me over to the county jail if I caused any problems. After Kelly left, the foster parents fed us cold cuts, dressed us in pajamas and put us to bed. They then introduced us to a babysitter that would be watching us while they left for a social event. I recall being angry at the situation and sulked in the bedroom before drifting off to sleep.
Several hours later I awakened to a surprise. It was my mother’s voice, shouting my name from the front part of the house. “Sandy, Sandy – wake up your brothers and sisters!”
I looked out the bedroom door and saw the babysitter barring the front door of the house with her arms and legs, while my mother yelled for me from under one arm, and my uncle, Alex, whom we called “Big Sandy,” spoke with her emphatically about all of the mothers in Vietnam who would never see their children again, and implying that if she didn’t let us go that she would be a part of that.
The babysitter was sobbing hysterically with her head back and hanging onto the door opening. She was nearly limp with exhaustion and stress, not knowing what to do as I shuttled Timmy and Patsy through her legs and into the waiting arms of our mother. We rushed out to my uncle’s waiting Volkswagen bus, which had been left running outside, and drove as fast as we could to the Marin County Civic Center. There, under the sheriff department entrance arch, we switched cars and headed out for the hills of West Marin.
How did she know where we were? My mother had assumed that we had been taken to Tilly’s foster home and called her on the phone. Tilly told our mother that we had not. She found out which foster home that we had been taken to and called mom back with the name and address. Instead of calling and making an appointment to visit, Mom made the decision that it was time to spring us, which is what lead to us switching getaway cars that night at the Civic Center.
Instead of going back to Bolinas where Mom knew we would be easily found, we went to nearby Olema and hit out on the commune that was being run by Peter Coyote, then a hippie, now a famous actor and political activist. We stayed on the commune for weeks while the police turned Bolinas up and down looking for us. Eventually Mom did take us back to Bolinas – hiding out in the mesa home of a local realtor.
These were the best days that happened during our first years in Bolinas. Everyone in town knew where we were, but no one would let on to the cops. My brothers and read books, played, and watched television all day. Except on the days that the school bus would stop at the end of the road and honk its horn, waiting for us to come on the occasional field trips. In the early evening on more than one occasion, teachers would drop off books so we didn’t get behind in our studies.
It all came to a head late one afternoon. We learned that Mom was spotted by a deputy and had been arrested down town on her way to the grocery story. She was driven to the county jail, booked. and released. We were all ordered to appear in front of the family court magistrate within a couple of weeks.
At the court hearing, Deputy Kelly and another investigator showed their photographic evidence of a home in disarray including the somewhat blurred spilled milk photos. The judge was not impressed with the evidence. Mom had brought with her notes from teachers saying that she was a good parent and remarking on the good behavior of all of her children. People from the community, including some of the teachers, had also shown up to lend support to our cause.
The judge looked at the crowd assembled in the room, and then said that he wanted to have a word with the children. He took us into his private chambers and asked us about life in our home.
“Do you children get breakfast every day?”
“Does your mother cook you dinner at night?”
“Who does the housework in your home?”
We lied about some of it – since breakfast had pretty much been a free-for-all since we moved there two years earlier. But mom did cook us dinner every night. And while Hacsi and I were given cleaning assignments, it was usually Mom, if anyone, who at least coordinated the housecleaning. We emerged from the chamber and back into the courtroom.
The judge announced that he was going to release us back to our mother and that all charges were dismissed. He then cautioned Deputy Kelly for being overzealous – and ordered him to leave our family alone. “If I ever see these people here again without proper evidence, you may be brought up on charges,” he said.
I made a face at Officer Kelly as I walked past him in the courtroom. This wouldn’t be the last time that our paths would cross that week. In fact, he was at our house the very next day – knocking on the front door, asking to sign a petition that my mother and others had begun circulating around Bolinas, asking the sheriff of Marin County to remove Kelly, who was now viewed by many as a rogue, from patrolling Bolinas. Kelly stood in the doorway and politely asked to sign the petition. Mom went to get it for him. When she returned with petition in hand, Deputy Kelly was gone.
A short time later, Kelly was reassigned from patrol duty to court bailiff at the Marin Civic Center. That is where I recognized him doing security on the court floor that afternoon in San Rafael.
In the end, it was Kelly, and not I, who landed in jail.
In what I view as being either an ironic twist or a solid case of karma, he ended his career with the Marin County Sheriff Department several years later after being arrested and charged with misdemeanor shoplifting.