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ON CALIFORNIA

Eureka! We Have Dumped It!

March 23, 1994|PETER H. KING

ALTURAS — I want this guy sitting out in the wilderness someplace.

--Gov. Pete Wilson on Melvin Carter, a serial rapist who assaulted dozens of San Francisco Bay Area women

Tell Mr. Wilson this from the people of Alturas: Take that rotten creep and put him in your own home.

--An elderly woman shouting from the crowd Monday at a rally to protest Carter's parole into Modoc County

Welcome to the wilderness someplace, where last week the rapist Melvin Carter was sneaked into a prison work camp seven miles outside town in the trunk of a state car. Carter was brought here after the people of Alameda County, where he had been convicted 12 years ago in dozens of assaults, threw a fit upon discovery he was to be released into Hayward.

And so the 49-year-old Carter was stashed here instead, at a minimum-security facility called Devil's Garden. He must wear an electronic monitor and has chosen, thus far, to remain within his small bungalow at the camp. He's read a novel a day, a camp official said, and received lots of mail, much of it from folks known to America by their first names, like Geraldo. Today's piranha, tomorrow's paid interview.

The reaction in this town of 3,000 has been predictable. This is cattle and hunting country, and they compare the placement of Carter to the ongoing relocation of mountain lions in the surrounding wilderness. They complain that, as the cats might prey on livestock and deer, Carter might prey someday on townsfolk. So they are afraid. More than that, though, they are mad. They feel used, disregarded, the occupants of a state dumping ground.

"What we should be angered about," the Modoc County Record explained in an editorial, "is a state government that decides we're small enough to scream, but not big enough to be heard."

*

From the outside, it would seem the state chose its site well. This northeast corner of California is as remote as it comes, a land of rough mountains, range, hayfields and few towns. Most people look quite capable of self-protection, what few people there are. That only 5,500 voters are registered in Modoc County explains, in the local view, precisely why Carter wound up here. Politics is a game of math, not morality.

"This was a political game Mr. Wilson played," a speaker complained Monday at the daily demonstration. "He didn't realize us rednecks in the North State, when you tick us off, we can really do some damage."

What they have done, so far, is stage rallies at the courthouse, where the Bear Republic flag hangs at half-staff. The political talk is of banding together with other rural counties to dump Wilson, and also of outright secession. Legal challenges have been filed, and more reckless remedies discussed. Carter's mug shot is plastered all over town, often framed within a gun sight. Warned one such sign taped to the back of a pickup truck: "He won't be living here. For long."

The response, while predictable, nonetheless might actually work. Wilson, while blaming the Department of Corrections for the mess--with him, it's always someone--appears to have softened this week to arguments that Carter does not belong here, that he belongs someplace else. Someplace else, of course, is a concept that goes to the essence of this episode.

*

What the Carter affair has shown, however it turns out, is not that there are big holes in the criminal justice system. We knew that already. Or that politicians play politics, even with the safety of people. We knew that too. Rather, it has demonstrated, in almost ghoulish extreme, just how divided this state has become. California has carved up itself into many, many states. Usually, the cutting follows territorial lines--north, south, coast, interior. Sometimes, the divisions involve values, economics, genealogy; the result is pretty much the same.

None of these Californias make for good neighbors. Indeed, the typical solution to any problem is not to tackle it head-on, but to chuck it over the fence. Got urban trash? Bury it in the desert. Got gangbangers? Don't think about a prison in this city; stick them in some little farm town like Corcoran, where the locals can be persuaded to swallow new prisons on the soft promise of jobs. Earthquake? That's your problem, L.A. Rapists to parole? Not here, Pete. Not Alameda. Not Alturas. Someplace else.

The new state motto should be: Eureka! We have dumped it! Wilson can move Carter from here to Death Valley, or Poway, or the Farallon Islands, or even the governor's mansion; it won't matter. There will be someone waiting to pitch a fit, to suggest a better dumping ground--in the wilderness, in the city, someplace else.

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