A clash of lifestyles in Topanga Canyon ended Thursday when an aging hippie woodcutter agreed to move out of the fast-growing mountain community to avoid the possibility of going to prison on a drug charge.
James W. Hancock, 65, pleaded no contest to charges of narcotics and firearms violations in exchange for a promise of probation--provided he abandons the shack near the center of the canyon where he has lived for more than 20 years.
But after agreeing to the plea bargain in a Malibu courtroom, Hancock continued to maintain his innocence.
He asserted that a third of an ounce of methamphetamines, an antique black-powder musket and several miscellaneous-caliber bullets that were found last fall by sheriff's deputies who raided the lot where he also sells firewood had been left there by acquaintances whom he allowed to come and go freely.
Like Hancock, his friends were often bearded and scruffy, which mothers delivering their children from newly built canyon homes to the nearby Topanga Elementary School found frightening.
There were dark rumors of drug use at the wood yard and reports that Hancock was a squatter who was resisting efforts by the owner of the junk-laden site on Old Topanga Canyon Road to evict him.
That nervousness triggered the Sept. 30 raid.
A Hollywood political consultant who heard stories about Hancock and his friends while attending a Topanga party in early September said he called high-ranking sheriff's officials. After the raid, he choreographed a campaign aimed at convicting Hancock on a variety of charges--including selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school.
Disclosure of the role of political consultant David Carlat prompted a debate on Internet Web sites and in letters to newspaper editors that for a time seemed to pit Topanga old-timers who drive dilapidated cars and live in modest cabins and cottages against newcomers with sport utility vehicles and $700,000 homes.
Some in the canyon said they were looking forward to the trial in hopes that testimony would reveal who else might be behind the raid and the campaign against Hancock.
Carlat, who said no one was paying him for his canyon work, could not be reached for comment after Thursday's court session. But in an earlier interview he told of his involvement in the case.
"I have a sense of how the system works--I've done this for 30 years," he said. "I spoke to about as high as you can get in the Sheriff's Department."
After the raid, Carlat sought to prod prosecutors to charge Hancock with the more serious charge of selling drugs near a school. He told the media that a trail led from the schoolyard to Hancock's shack.
Carlat coordinated a petition drive at the school urging full prosecution of Hancock. He also tried to rally support from the county Board of Supervisors and the state Assembly and sought to pressure authorities to deny probation for the woodcutter.
Later, it was determined that the pathway from the school was actually a coyote trail that petered out in the brush a few yards from the campus. Some of those signing the school petition acknowledged that they had never heard of any alleged drug sales near the school until they read the paperwork. And it was learned that Hancock had a legal right to be on the property.
Hancock was ordered Thursday to return to court June 15 for formal sentencing. But Superior Court Judge James A. Albracht made it clear that Hancock's sentence of probation will be contingent on his leaving Topanga Canyon by then and staying away for three years.
"He is not to be there at all," Albracht told Richard Herzog, an alternate public defender who represented Hancock. "I don't think he should be hanging out there, at the market and the post office."
Hancock, who has acknowledged pleading guilty in 1994 to a charge of drug possession to avoid a trial that could have resulted in a prison term, was instructed by Herzog not to comment on the current case until after the June sentencing.