Stewart Loses Court Battle, But Palmer Action Repaying Lenders May Win War; MN Prosecution Paints Schlangen As Going Business
Former Rawesome Food Club manager James Stewart received bad news today when a Ventura County judge rejected his request that charges against him in connection with the acquisition of Sharon Palmer's farm in 2008 be dropped.
Even though the evidence against Stewart appears flimsy at best--a flyer posted at Rawesome about the farm acquisition that included his name, and testimony that one lender dropped off a check related to the transaction at Rawesome in Venice Beach--the judge ruled that the evidence is substantive enough that criteria covering a California 995 motion to dismiss charges hadn't been met.
So as the 65-year-old Stewart, noticeably thinner and older looking than when he was arrested in late July, looked on from the prisoner docket, with two of his grown daughters in attendance, the judge sent him back to jail. His lawyer had speculated Stewart had a good shot at having the charges dropped.
Still, Stewart received a dose of potentially encouraging news that puts the case in even greater doubt for the prosecution. Sharon Palmer, operator of Healthy Family Farms in Ventura County, is understood to have repaid all seven investors she is charged with defrauding, to the tune of $800,000.
"Everyone has been repaid with interest," a source close to Palmer told me after the judge issued her ruling, and Stewart was sent back to jail. They were sent checks about six weeks ago, after Palmer received money from a judgment in in a suit she filed back in 2006 contending the owners of a previous farm she owned had failed to disclose information about a lack of water at the farm.
I spoke with one of the investors who said, yes, she and her husband had been repaid. "She (Palmer) made good on the whole thing." It would seem the prosecution would have difficulty establishing ongoing victim suffering under the circumstances.
The source said that Palmer's lawyer made the prosecution aware that the judgment related to the old farm was coming even before Ventura County filed more than 30 felony counts for fraud and securities law violations against her and Stewart, as well as lesser charges against Larry Otting, a real estate developer who helped Palmer get a $1.1 million mortgage on the Healthy Family Farms property.
Palmer "went to the DA and told him we had the money," the source said. But the actual disbursement was held up for many months by legal technicalities.
"Someone should call the DA and ask him, 'What are you holding this guy (Stewart) for?' "
I did that--I called Senior Deputy District Attorney Chris Harman, and asked him about whether Palmer's repayment of the debt to individual consumers meant that Stewart should be freed and the case reconsidered. "You need to talk to the defense about that," he said, indicating that it would be up to lawyers for Stewart and Palmer to bring that information before a judge.
As for why Stewart continues to be held, he said, "Stewart is in jail because he is a flight risk," referring to his failure to appear for a court hearing in July that led to him being arrested and jailed.
Palmer can be expected to make the case about repayment of the lenders when she files a motion under California Rule 995 seeking to have charges against her dropped. Stewart's next court date is September 25 for a pretrial hearing.
The prosecution in the trial of Minnesota farmer Alvin Schlangen wrapped up today, having focused heavily on trying to establish, as the prosecutor, Michelle Doffing-Baynes, said, "This case is about a man...who chose his business over public safety."
The judge repeated to the six-person jury several times that they "must follow the law, even if you think the law is or should be different". Schlangen's lawyer, Nathan Hansen, has said he will be arguing that the law covering raw milk and private food sales is so vague as not to be understandable as to its particular prohibitions. About 30 Schlangen supporters were present during much of Monday's proceedings.
The prosecution seemed intent on trying to establish that Schlangen was running a conventional business, rather than a private food club entity. Adam Harmon (Minneapolis Police Officer for 22 years) said that he saw "coolers" and "shelves with food displayed on them" at a Minneapolis warehouse Schlangen used.
James Roettger, a Minnesota Department of Agriculture compliance officer, testified he conducted "a surveillance operation" to investigate Schlangen on March 9, 2011. Why was he investigating? An "anonymous complaint," he said, indicating Schlangen was participating in an illegal food operation.
The judge admitted about 80 or so exhibits-- mostly photos of the inside of the warehouse and Alvin's van and its contents- food, credit cards, "invoices", "drop tickets", a product and price list, cancelled checks, and even the Membership Agreement form .
As the trial continued today, Judge Robert M. Small complimented the behavior of the young children in attendance, who have been parading in and out of the courtroom over the past two days. One supporter said, "It's the raw milk."
"I didn't hear that," Small replied.
(Still to come, the prosecution's cross examination of prosecution witnesses and presentation of its own witnesses.)