On a sunny February morning just over three years ago, Andrew Watkins was plowing a safflower field on farmland his family has owned for generations. He saw a stranger walking on his property to the east.
Watkins was 45 at the time and a well-known figure in California agriculture circles. He was no stranger to confronting trespassers on his rural property. Eighteen days earlier, he had detained a man at gunpoint on his property after finding him loading metal posts and a ladder into a pickup truck.
This is something officials say is a common occurrence in the area, where residents make citizen’s arrests while waiting for law enforcement to respond to 911 calls. Authorities say local ranches and farms are under siege from burglars, metal thieves and other criminals.
Residents of these farms near Stockton already were on alert for strangers because of the ongoing search for victims of serial killers Wesley Shermantine and Loren Herzog. They had dumped some women’s bodies in a well within sight of the Watkins land.
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So, Watkins jumped off his tractor that morning at about 8:15, got into his pickup truck and, armed with a semi-automatic pistol, drove toward a truck parked along his fence line to confront the stranger.
What happened next is a matter of intense dispute that will play out in a federal court trial scheduled to begin April 20 in Sacramento. Watkins has been charged with assaulting a federal officer with a deadly weapon, a felony that could net him 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
The stranger turned out to be U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Sean Mann, who was investigating reports of vernal pool damage in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act.
Such investigations are so common the local sheriff says he wishes federal officials would notify him before they show up to check on property, and they highlight the ongoing friction between farmers making a living off their property and government enforcement of regulations designed to protect habitats and endangered species. Complicating this issue is that the rural areas are the scene of constant thefts and burglaries and strangers are noticed quickly.
Costs of confrontation
Federal officials contend that Watkins had engaged in earlier, hostile confrontations with Fish and Wildlife officials over an Endangered Species Act investigation that began in November 2009 into alleged damage to habitats for fairy shrimp and the California tiger salamander.
In court documents, prosecutors say that in this case, even after Mann identified himself, Watkins persisted in threatening him with his pistol and told him he was being placed under citizen’s arrest.
“Things got heated, he drew down on me,” Mann later told a colleague, according to a Fish and Wildlife Service investigative report filed in court documents.
Watkins attorney William Portanova disputes that Watkins knew he was dealing with a federal officer, saying Mann was driving an unmarked vehicle, was wearing civilian clothes and that Watkins was looking into the bright, morning sun as he tried to protect his land.
“He absolutely did not know,” Portanova said. “It’s not true. The government’s wrong.”
No one was hurt or arrested at the time, and San Joaquin County sheriff’s officials responded to the scene that morning and left after making sure Mann was able to finish his field inspection.
Watkins was indicted by a federal grand jury in April 2014. And the confrontation has mushroomed into a potentially crippling legal battle for Watkins and his older brother, Kenny, whose family has farmed the area since the 1850s.
Kenny Watkins, 51, the first vice president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, is not charged in the case but likely will be a witness because he went out to the scene after his brother called him for help. Kenny Watkins also called the sheriff that morning to report the disturbance.
Kenny Watkins has hired Sacramento attorney Malcolm Segal, who, along with Portanova, is among Sacramento’s most prominent defense attorneys. In a recent interview in the home he built on family farmland, Kenny Watkins shook his head in despair when asked about the legal fees the case is costing the family.
“I’m scared to add it up,” he said. “It’s substantial.”
Andrew Watkins declined to discuss the case before he goes to trial, but his brother said the family feels an obligation to fight the charge.
“Part of it’s principle, part of it’s stupid, but my whole family is elected or leaders of different organizations,” Kenny Watkins said. “And it’s not about us, it’s about doing the right thing so everybody else doesn’t have to deal with it.”
Bureaucracy and property collide
Prosecutors and federal Fish and Wildlife officials declined to discuss the case, but the dispute highlights the ongoing battle between area landowners and state and federal officials who come onto their property to investigate environmental violations caused by plowing, fence building or other activities.
“It’s a maze of bureaucracy,” said state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, who knows the Watkins family and is chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “It’s mind-boggling.
“There’s no way you can navigate the process without having an attorney because it’s far too complicated ... You could be following the law with one agency and another one comes up to bite you in the butt.”
In the Watkins case, allegations of improper disturbance near vernal pools surfaced in November 2009, and court documents show one key player is a neighbor of the Watkins family, Arthur Beckwith.
Beckwith is listed in court documents as an unpaid informant, or “cooperating private individual,” as the government refers to him.
Beckwith said he did not want to talk about his role in the case until after trial, but court documents filed by prosecutors state that he has provided “information to (Fish and Wildlife) personnel about possible (Endangered Species Act) and habitat-taking violations in the area.”
Across Milton Road from Kenny Watkins’ home, Dave Pechan, the owner of the Miramont Estate Vineyards, said he has had his own run-ins with Beckwith. Pechan said Beckwith reported potential environmental violations years ago.
The result, Pechan said, were threats by officials of $25,000-a-day fines for alleged damage to fairy shrimp habitat and visits by state and federal officials.
“All of a sudden there were two vans of Fish and Wildlife guys who were armed, and Corps of Engineers people,” said Pechan, 63. “I’m a law-abiding citizen and I’m out in my field working and they’re showing up armed like I’m a criminal or something?”
Pechan said the case could have bankrupted him until the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento stepped in and helped him win his fight over the allegations.
Court papers say Beckwith has felt singled out since he first reported potential environmental violations in 1997, citing the use of generators by the Watkins family as causing sound and air quality problems that “constituted harassment.”
Documents filed in the Watkins case also say Beckwith has suggested that someone is trapping raccoons and depositing them on his land to kill exotic birds he raises, including Nenes, a type of goose that is Hawaii’s state bird and listed as endangered by federal officials.
“I don’t know what the deal is,” Kenny Watkins said. “He comes up with stories that I brought raccoons and turned them loose to get his birds.
“Don’t you think I have the same problem? They were getting my kids’ ducks.”
Watkins said the family has gone to great lengths to ensure they are not violating environmental laws on the more than 1,600 acres they use to grow hay and walnuts and to raise cattle.
“We’ve hired the consultants, we’ve done what is right,” he said. “We’ve been to Washington, D.C., a zillion times. We’re educated on the issues and believe we’re completely within the law and all the exemptions provided by Congress.”
Siege of crime
According to court papers filed by prosecutors, Watkins had seen Mann earlier that morning near his property line talking to a uniformed Fish and Wildlife biologist. The documents also state that when Watkins confronted Mann on his property, the agent identified himself as a federal officer but Watkins did not put his pistol away.
Mann had parked his truck along the fence line with another vehicle driven by Beckwith, who was accompanied by Fish and Wildlife biologist Marilee Brown. Brown was wearing her uniform shirt, and Watkins drove by the trio twice before Beckwith and Brown drove away and left Mann to begin his inspection.
Court papers say Mann was wearing khaki slacks, a black polo shirt, a blue ball cap with a badge embroidered on the front and was wearing a badge on his waistband next to his sidearm.
The documents also state Mann was about 120 feet from Watkins when the confrontation began, although Portanova says evidence from a GPS device Mann was carrying show the agent was actually 238.2 feet away.
The fact that Mann had parked an unmarked truck along the fence line, and that it had a trailer hitch, also is part of the defense claim that Watkins believed the agent was a thief looking to tow away farm equipment.
“He had no way to know,” said Galgiani.
She said property crime in the rural areas has left everyone overly cautious. Property losses to agriculture, she said, topped $27 million from 2002 through 2007 in San Joaquin and six other Central Valley counties.
“They are under constant siege from the meth heads,” she said.
The problem is evident from a tour of the area. Gates are secured with heavy-duty padlocks, and some are watched over by security cameras atop platforms that must be protected with bands of razor-sharp concertina wire. Stop signs are riddled with bullet holes, and a cellphone tower in one field is fronted by a concrete wall – “That’s a bullet break,” Kenny Watkins explained – and protected from wire thieves by a steel door behind the wall.
San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore said the theft problem in the rural area is epidemic; statistics show 1,613 thefts and burglaries in the beat that includes the Watkins property from 2011 through 2014.
“Wire theft has been killing us for many years,” Moore said. “Metal theft is next in line, then theft of trees and just about anything else that isn’t tied down.”
The sheriff also said there have been tensions between area farmers and federal officials, and that he would prefer federal officials call his office before stepping onto private property so deputies can meet them to avoid confrontations with landowners.
“But they don’t always do that,” Moore said.
The sheriff added that it is not uncommon for rural landowners to make citizen’s arrests at gunpoint while waiting for deputies to respond to calls for help.
“It does happen ...” Moore said. “Taking people into custody at gunpoint with any kind of a gun, whether it’s shotgun, handgun or long gun or whatever, that is a common occurrence.”
Call The Bee’s Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091.