A while back I finally got to meet Sharon Palmer, the California farmer who has been put through hell in recent years over…milking goats. I interviewed her and Victoria Bloch, a chapter leader also from California, who has also been put through hell, where they tell how certain government officials “have a vendetta against raw milk farmers”. Our tax dollars at work, millions, spent chasing people over milk. Wait 'til you see how dangerous looking these big bad criminals are who were hauled off to jail… (Note: I didn't have a mic on so you'll see my words in the video.)
- Aajonus Vonderplanitz PhD, key informant in prosecution of Sharon Palmer and James Stewart, found to have faked academic credentials.
- Watch the movie, Farmageddon. Sharon is featured in this movie and it will move you to tears.
- If you're still here, for even MORE reading, below you can find a whole synopsis written by Joanie Blaxter, Ventura County Weston A. Price chapter leader:
What Happened to ‘Our Day in Court?'
For all the typical LA flare and splash that the arrests of Sharon Palmer, farmer and owner of Healthy Family Farms in Santa Paula,Victoria Bloch, fellow Weston Price chapter leader from the west LA/Santa Monica area, and James Stewart, owner of the Rawesome Buying Club in Los Angeles made back on Aug 3, 2011 for selling raw milk without a license and multiple other charges related to raw dairy, it sure seems like the case just quietly sank like a stone.
Those of us active in food politics are still wondering, what happened to our showdown in court?
Despite the charge of selling raw milk to the public without a license, it was well known in the Rawesome community that never happened. Rawesome Buying Club owned most of the herd of goats on Sharon Palmer's farm. All Palmer did was milk the goats for the members and the club came to the farm to pick up the milk they already owned.
Why Did the Rawesome Case Disappear? What Happened?
A friend of mine, a veteran of the court system, after listening to the long and bizarre story of this case, encapsulated the process: “When the state knows it's in the wrong, they go into bullying mode. They can't admit they're wrong because careers are at stake, so they bully instead.”
The reality was, by the time the LA D.A.'s office offered the plea deal to the defendants about a year after the arrests of the “Rawesome Three,” although for very different reasons, both the state and the defendants just wanted the case to go away…
At that point, the defendants had been walking through a nightmare from which they could not wake up for more than a year. Each had spent time in jail. That alone will sap your spirit, physical health, mental stability, family and any work-related income you need to carry on. Their bank accounts were decimated by missing work as well as bills for attorneys and court-related costs (yes, even if your lawyer is pro bono, count on the potential of thousands of dollars of additional costs for witnesses, etc.). Their families, spouses and children were begging them to stop the stress (one defendant was the sole caregiver for her elderly mother). The income of all three defendants and the professional reputation of two defendants had been devastated. And on and on goes the cost of this case to the defendants. As a result, ultimately each defendant decided to rebuild what was left of their shattered professional and personal lives by accepting the vastly reduced charges and plead guilty to a “tap on the wrist” with fines in the range of one to several hundred dollars.They made this choice despite the fact that all three agreed that in a perfect world their actual preference was to go to trial. They knew they were right and would be found innocent by a jury of their peers.Nevertheless, the reality was the state had successfully bullied them into submission for all the reasons listed above and more.
(See Raw Deal in Los Angeles by Victoria Bloch.)
Don't you just love a system whereby “justice” is determined by how wealthy you are? $1 Million – Our Tax Dollars at Work I think what belatedly came as a shock to the District Attorney's office, though, was the discovery, after the arrests were already made, of just how much and how irresponsibly money was spent in the sting operation headed by the lead prosecutor for the case, Kelly Sakir. At the city's request, Senior Special Investigator from the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) Scarlett Treviso initially went undercover to collect evidence to ‘get the ball rolling.' Sharon Palmer, looking over the “evidence” Treviso put together and sent to Sakir, told me that much of it was irrelevant at best and at worst, contained flat out lies. I imagine the LA D.A.'s office must have been scratching their collective heads… All that money and three defendants did nothing wrong that could hold up in court? The total bill to taxpayers was hundreds of thousands and more likely close to a million dollars… for people drinking their own milk from goats they owned. No one had gotten sick. No one had complained. By the time the state realized there was no real evidence, it was too late. All they could do was cover their tracks as much as possible and hope the press wouldn't get wind of the mess. No wonder the prosecution took as long as possible releasing “evidence” to the defendants' attorneys. When you have nothing, what do you do? Drag it out, wear them down, drag it out, wear them down…
Cracks in a Crumbling Case
First red flag:
At the very first hearing for the case, Lead Prosecutor Kelly Sakir entered the courtroom with a body guard. We were told by the defense attorneys that Sakir had received a death threat from a Raw Milk drinker – or so she believed.
Those of us in the seats watching the proceedings wondered if Sakir was afraid someone would switch her pasteurized milk for “deadly” raw milk…
Joking aside, I now wonder if perhaps she hadn't received threats in the past – or at least, feared them. After all,many dangerous people must have grudges against LA prosecutors. Murderers, drug dealers, rapists…
But health food enthusiasts???
Frankly, based on Sakir's insistence on having a body guard in an extremely public, packed courtroom hearing, many of us concluded, to put it kindly, she didn't have the stablest frame of mind.
Second red flag
At the second hearing, we were all astonished to see two entirely new prosecutors enter the courtroom and subsequently were told Sakir had been removed from the case by the D.A.'s office hours before the hearing with no explanation. We were doubly astonished to learn that one of the new prosecutors even owns his own goats! That struck me as an almost overkill whitewash public relations attempt to present a face as different from Sakir's as the D.A.'s office could possibly find.
Third red flag
David Gumpert learned shortly after the second hearing that Special Investigator Scarlett Treviso had similarly dropped out of sight. He was told she had been offered another job elsewhere, but not told in what capacity or where.
Fourth red flag
Several months after Sakir's replacement, one of the new prosecutors actually admitted to Victoria Bloch's attorney that, based on the evidence collected, he would never have pressed charges at all. As my friend Victoria explains this rather amazing fact, “For me, that just emphasized that once that big ship is in the water, there's no turning it around.
Fifth red flag
Fast forward to a little more than a year after the “Rawesome Three” arrests, whenthe District Attorney made a number of calls to the defense attorney asking whether Victoria Bloch and Sharon Palmer were willing to settle for the plea deal the DA had offered. This may seem inconsequential – the DA's office leaving repeated phone messages for the defendants' attorney, but ask anyone familiar with the legal system.
DA's never do that! It's the other way around, the defense runs after the prosecutor not the prosecutor's office anxiously and repeatedly calling the defendant's attorney wondering if the defendant will accept their plea deal.
State vs County?
So I agree with David Gumpert's assessment that the D.A.'s office would have done nearly anything at that point to keep this case from going to trial because “The L.A. County District Attorney clearly didn't want to have to present evidence in the Rawesome case.”
Rawesome Case Disappearing Act
If the defendants had not accepted the reduced charges, the next step would have been to subpoena Richard Estes, chief counsel for the California Department of Food and Agriculture. This would have undoubtedly led to lengthy court proceedings about the legality of herdshare arrangements.
Currently in the state of California, from a legal perspective herdshare arrangements are in a ‘gray zone.' That is to say, it has not been proven either way whether they are, or are not, legal. I think what the state wanted to avoid was the possibility of having the herdshare issue decided one way in an LA County court, only to be potentially contradicted later at the state level.I think the really fundamental mistake the LA District Attorney's office (ie Sakir) made in this case was they pursued gathering evidence as though selling through a herdshare arrangement or a private buying club is the same as selling raw milk direct to the public through a retail store or farmers market. It is not.In the case of tracking disease, when you sell to the public you have no record of who has purchased the milk. In contrast, either a herdshare or a private buying club is by definition a limited and easily identifiable group of people.
Politics aside, another gaping hole in the case is the fact that, from a health perspective, the prosecution couldn't point to any harm. No one would stand up in court with a complaint because no one ever got sick. CDFA's own lab found the goat milk in question to be clean.
In fact, what the city did have was the opposite – people who lined up on street corners declaring on placards the health benefits of the raw milk they passionately loved.
Crux of the Issue
Approaching the situation with an incomplete understanding of both the legal reality as well as the potential, long term political implications put the argument of the LA District Attorney for the case at possible loggerheads with the state.
It would seem that at the very least, Senior Special Investigator Treviso, working for the state of CA and not LA county, should have been aware of these complications. And yet, not only did she seem unaware, but according to Palmer, there were outright lies in the “evidence” she submitted to Sakir. So, eventually, neither party wanted the case to move forward. For the defendants, having already been rather brutally bloodied, that would mean even more financial expense and emotional pain when none had more to give for “the cause.” For the state, it was a political can of worms. From the perspective of the LA District Attorney's office, the press never picked up on the story so no one got hurt… except the defendants. Careers were saved. The city/state had “won.”
In the Ventura case…
Which focused on accusations that Sharon and James arranged loans from ‘angel investors' for Sharon's farm which they never intended to repay,it has just been revealed that last month Sharon repaid (with interest) all her investors in Healthy Family Farms. See Chicken & the Egg Problem for Angela Doss's tongue-in-cheek perspective on what it was like to sit through 3 days of testimony last March in an attempt to understand the bizarre charges in this case which have just received an ever-more-bizarre twist. Sharon was able to fully repay her investors with money she received from a recently settled lawsuit connected to the property she owned before her current Santa Paula location. The owners failed to disclose that the property lacked adequate water. Consequently, she was forced to move Healthy Family Farms to a new location (Santa Paula) and bring suit against the original owners, a lawsuit which took 6 years but was finally settled in her favor, ironically, within weeks after her release from jail for the financial charges. Since the Ventura case is still in process, it remains to be seen what will happen now that all investors are fully paid.
For details, see Stewart Loses Court Battle, but Palmer Action Repaying Lenders May Win War I totally agree with David Gumpert's assessment from Rawesome Case Disappearing Act that what we're looking at is a matter of “… pile on the charges and then let the defendants off, relieved they only had small penalties to send a message that private food clubs that provide members with full choice, including raw milk, won't be tolerated.”
OVERVIEW/BACKGROUND on HEALTHY FAMILY FARMS and RAWESOME BUYING CLUB
- 2004 Sharon Palmer purchases farm in Fillmore and names her business Healthy Family Farms (HFF)
- 2006 HFF starts to provide eggs to Rawesome Foods, a members-only buying club in Venice. (Later she also provides the club with chicken and goat's milk through a herdshare agreement.)
- 2008 Due to ongoing water issues on the farm in Fillmore, Sharon leases a new location with option to buy, and moves HFF to Santa Paula where it is today. In order to afford this move, 7 different people invest in this arrangement, some of whom are found through the Rawesome community. Sharon files lawsuit against owners of Fillmore farm for misleading her about the presence of water on the land.
- Aug 2011 Sharon is arrested, along with Victoria Bloch (West LA WAPF chapter leader and part-time volunteer for Sharon) and James Stewart (Rawesome Foods manager) on charges relating to the sale of raw milk.
- March 2012 Sharon and James (but not Victoria) are arrested a second time on charges that they defrauded the ‘angel investors' who helped make the down payment on the farm in Santa Paula (and other related charges).
- March 2012 Sharon wins her lawsuit against owners of the Fillmore property.
- August 2012 Sharon fully repays, with interest, all investors in Healthy Family Farms.
- Sept 7, 2012 Concerning the ‘illegal sale of raw milk' charges, Sharon and Victoria both agree to plead no contest to single misdemeanors, and multiple felony counts were dismissed.
- Sept 18, 2012 James Stewart requests to have all charges against him in the Ventura case dismissed. Judge denies the request.