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'Not going to live in fear' 

The Sheriff's Department catches up with an old friend

click to enlarge MARKED? :  Family and friends of Jim Eickholdt allege a fruitless September narcotics raid on his home was payback for speaking out against the Sheriff’s Department after the 2003 in-custody death of friend Jay Vestal. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • MARKED? : Family and friends of Jim Eickholdt allege a fruitless September narcotics raid on his home was payback for speaking out against the Sheriff’s Department after the 2003 in-custody death of friend Jay Vestal.
“You know that creepy feeling you get when you know someone’s staring at you?” Brianne Dietze said when trying to recall what exactly woke her up one haunting summer morning.

Dietze said she felt that eerie tingle run down the back of her neck, and though she could hear a faint rustling outside of her bedroom where she lay half-asleep, she had every reason to believe it would be a normal day.

But as she tilted her head toward the bedside window, in her sleepy haze she remembered an ominous, out-of-focus shadow moving where the morning sun would normally peek through the window pane. Suddenly a flash—a red flash—jolted her wide awake. It was the business end of a “really big gun’s” laser sight—and it was pointed right at her.

The raid

It was about 8 a.m. on Sept. 1, and in the bedroom of Dietze’s rural Paso Robles home, she sat upright in her bed, barely dressed, facing two masked gunmen; one peering through the window, rifle set on target, and another standing in the bedroom doorway. This is her account of the morning:

“Put your hands over your head!” shouted the man in the window.

“Don’t move!” commanded the other.

Dietze, confused by the conflicting demands, decided the best she could do was just to freeze. It didn’t matter, because before she could wipe the sleepy gunk from her eyes, she was handcuffed and plunked down in a chair in the living room, surrounded by about 15 commandos in full gear: helmets, black knit face masks, flak vests, and SWAT boots. On the back of their vests were the letters NTF. That’s the Narcotics Task Force, the heavily armed, well-funded, and über secretive consortium of San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s deputies and officers of the county’s seven city police departments.

“One of ’em said they shouted ‘Probation search!’ before they came in, but I never heard anything,” Dietze told New Times.

Through the windows, she could see more officers hustling around the property, some in full gear, some uniformed. “I was never Mirandized, never told why I was handcuffed. All I was told is ‘Probation search!’ And I’m not even on probation,” Dietze said.

She remembers sitting handcuffed and watching officers toss her clothes, books, underwear, and other personal items about the house—“basically tearing the place apart,” she said.

“I kept asking them, ‘What did I do?’” Dietze went on. “One of the guys actually answered back, ‘I don’t know yet. That’s what we’re going to find out.’

 “They started getting pissed off because I didn’t know when my husband would be getting home. That’s when one of the masked guys walks up, points to my ceiling, and said, ‘I don’t like the way your ceiling looks. You know, I’m pretty sure I could get your house condemned.’ And I thought, ‘How is my ceiling any concern to him?’”

A neighbor who witnessed the raid confirmed to New Times he saw 10 to 12 law enforcement vehicles and about 15 officers roaming the property, as well as a small aircraft circling overhead.

“There was a shit-load of people over there,” said the neighbor, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. “They were crawling around like ants.”

Meanwhile, Dietze’s husband, Jim Eickholdt, was driving his 13-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, Rhylee, to school. En route, Rhylee got a cell phone call from a neighbor informing her of the search.

Eickholdt turned the car around, and as soon as they approached the main road to their home, he said they were intercepted by a police cruiser, which escorted them back to the house. According to Eickholdt, when he got to the scene, he could see about 15 officers—from the California Highway Patrol, the NTF, and the Probation Department—roaming the property. He met his probation officer, David Aguilar, at the head of the driveway.

“I said, ‘What’s going on, David? Do you want to [drug] test me?’” Eickholdt recalls. “And he said, ‘No, Jim, I know you’re clean. I don’t know what’s going on. This was supposed to be my day off.’”

New Times later spoke with SLO County Chief Probation Officer Jim Salio  about the search. Salio said that even though any law enforcement agency has the right to search Eickholdt’s residence because of the terms of his probation, he had “no idea” why the NTF was involved.

The explanation from other officers didn’t make much sense to the family, either. CHP investigators told Eickholdt and Rhylee they were there because of a car. Days prior, Eickholdt had traded his 1982 Harley Davidson Sportster to a family friend for a beat-up 1956 Ford Thunderbird. The friend, Trevor Alvarez, had received the car from his father as a birthday present, Alvarez’s mother confirmed. However, the T-Bird’s pink slip had long gone missing. Once Alvarez’s father found out about the trade, he reported the car stolen, Alvarez’s mother said.

That call led CHP officers to the Dietze-Eickholdt home to recover the vehicle. Though Eickholdt had already paid the $35 DMV fee to register the car as non-operational, Alvarez’s father remained the legal owner. Eickholdt said the CHP officers “were nice about it,” but that he was told they had to return the vehicle.

After about an hour and a half, the search was over. The NTF officers one by one began packing up their gear into the white Chevy Tahoes and headed out. But they didn’t leave without following through with the SLO County building department, setting in motion a sequence of events that has since landed the family with charges of code violations and a battle with the county’s Child Welfare Services.

What the family can’t say for certain—and what the NTF isn’t saying at all—is what justified the narcotics raid in the first place. After all, nothing was confiscated, no charges were filed, and no explanation or apology was ever offered to the family.

Public records requests to the Sheriff’s Department related to the raid were answered with nearly empty incident reports save for the words “Probation search” and an address. A similar request to NTF Commander Rodney John produced nothing, as of press time. Records from the Probation Department are non-public court documents.

Calls for comment to the NTF were not returned as of press time.

So what prompted such a display of force in a search of two almost-senior-citizens’ homes? The couple has suspicions, of course.

“There was absolutely no reason for them to come out here and scare us the way they did,” Dietze said. “But when they saw Jim’s name, I guess they just got excited.”

Why sheriff’s deputies would be excited over a laid back, chain-smoking, 62-year-old motorcycle and classic car enthusiast can’t be explained without delving into a bizarre history between Eickholdt and the Sheriff’s Department, including a few incidents the department would likely rather forget. Leading to the mysterious raid is the story of a particularly messy era for the department, biker clubs, drugs, and death.

A marked man

Eickholdt is quick to admit he’s been trouble in the past, both for law enforcement and for himself. He has a list of convictions in SLO County dating back to 1985, mostly for traffic and marijuana-related violations, with one violent offense: a misdemeanor fighting charge from 1995.

“Nothing nefarious,” he said.

But after more than a year of sobriety, Eickholdt hoped his days of contending with minor criminal charges were over. After marrying Dietze in 2009, Eickholdt moved with his daughter Rhylee onto Dietze’s 10-acre plot of land in rural Whitley Gardens, on the northern crown of Paso Robles.

However, Eickholdt’s own criminal record is only a part of his contentious relationship with the Sheriff’s Department. Eickholdt is a long-time member of the Molochs, a motorcycle club formed on the Central Coast that now has chapters throughout the state. Many locals, including law enforcement officials, call the Molochs a motorcycle “gang”—a designation fought hard by members such as Eickholdt.

click to enlarge ‘A WORK IN PROGRESS’ :  Jim Eickholdt at the Paso Robles home he shares with his wife and daughter. The family must now deal with alleged building code violations after NTF officers called the county building department following a search of the home. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • ‘A WORK IN PROGRESS’ : Jim Eickholdt at the Paso Robles home he shares with his wife and daughter. The family must now deal with alleged building code violations after NTF officers called the county building department following a search of the home.
He was also a long-time friend of fellow Moloch Jay Vestal, a 36-year-old Templeton postal worker who died of asphyxiation while a sheriff’s deputy held him on the ground during a marijuana-related arrest in August 2003. The incident occurred in the early morning hours at the mobile-home park in Templeton where Vestal and Eickholdt both lived. Eickholdt told New Times he not only witnessed Vestal’s death but was being restrained against a tree by another deputy as Vestal choked face down in the dirt.

“I was only 10 feet away, but I couldn’t do anything,” Eickholdt said. “Jay kept screaming that he couldn’t breathe, and his girlfriend’s daughter was pleading with them to get off of him. But they just kept saying over and over, ‘Don’t worry, little girl, he’s going to be OK.’”

The very mention of Vestal—who Rhylee still calls “Uncle Jay-Jay”—brings a somber hush over the Eickholdts and Dietze as they remember their “brother.”

Vestal’s family sued the county and the Sheriff’s Department for wrongful death and won a settlement of $650,000. Eickholdt was a loud voice of criticism over the department’s conduct related to Vestal’s death.

Eickholdt said he became the spokesman for the Molochs after Vestal’s death, “I guess because I was the one who could speak most eloquently when addressing the officers and the media so they couldn’t just ignore us.”

During a 2004 Sheriff’s Department forum over in-custody deaths and lawsuits, Eickholdt publicly asked Sheriff Pat Hedges whether he would drug test his deputies following incidents resulting in a death.

“Hedges just kept saying again and again, ‘I trust my officers.’ And I think that outraged a lot of people,” Eickholdt said. “But c’mon, why shouldn’t they be tested if their actions result in a civilian death? It just makes sense.”

Eickholdt was quoted a number of times in The Telegram-Tribune about Jay Vestal and his criticism of the department, namely his questioning of Hedges’ policy on drug-testing.

“I was making trouble for them,” Eickholdt said. “And it was something they didn’t want to talk about.”

He was also vocal about why he thought Vestal died. As he tells it, the courts and the media dropped the ball following Vestal’s death and failed to investigate a motorcycle club called the Iron Posse. This now-defunct group was comprised solely of then-current and retired law enforcement officers and some of the deputies involved in Vestal’s death, including then-deputy now-Sgt. Rex Reece. Reece has participated in past NTF operations.

As of press time, the Iron Posse still had a website promoting the club as a nonprofit “working for charity.” The club—which ran under the motto “Ride Fast and Live Free”—lists the requirements for membership as “retired or active law enforcement personnel or citizens of good standing in our community.”

Several active Moloch members told New Times there was a “definite rivalry” between the Molochs and the Iron Posse. Bill Ibison, a Moloch spokesman, said the relationship between the two groups was tenuous at best. “When [the Molochs] would be hosting a fundraiser, we would try to get [the Iron Posse] to participate with us, and they refused every time,” Ibison said.

Sheriff’s Department spokesman Rob Bryn said he wasn’t familiar with the Iron Posse, but according to Molochs members, the group was dissolved by Hedges following the negative publicity from the Vestal and other in-custody deaths and lawsuits. Sgt. Reece confirmed the club disbanded in 2003, but declined to discuss why.

As for Eickholdt, he’s run into the NTF before. On Aug. 8, 2009, NTF officers raided his home in connection with a large-scale methamphetamine bust they said he was a part of. They found a gram of meth locked in his coffee cabinet, which Eickholdt admits was his. He said that at that time he was recovering from a roll-over accident in his truck, in which he said he suffered broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and 47 breaks in his hip.

“They originally gave me five days to live, but after I left the hospital they had me on all sorts of pain medications,” Eickholdt said. “At the time [of my arrest], I was taking 21 pills a day. And yeah, I had some meth—put it in my coffee—just so I could get out of the chair. I didn’t try to hide it. I led them right to it.”

Though he was charged with three felonies—possession of a controlled substance for sale, being a felon in possession of a firearm (he was convicted of selling pills in 1999), and conspiring to sell methamphetamine—Eickholdt was only convicted of conspiracy to sell and sentenced to probation. He was convicted along with 10 other defendants, most of whom he contends he never even knew.

Under the terms of his probation, Eickholdt is subject to search by probation or law enforcement personnel at any time. However, Eickholdt graduated from his court-mandated drug counseling program one day before the raid on the household. He graduated without any relapses, a point he proudly evidenced with the certificate and bronze coin handed to participants at the completion of the program.

“I’m sure Jim’s being picked on because of the whole Vestal thing,” said one Moloch who asked not to be named. “He’s trying to be a good father and raise his kid and he’s kicking his own ass trying to do right. As far as him being some dope fiend, that’s just horseshit.”

Laundry list of hassles

After the narcotics raid, Eickholdt and his wife now have to deal with a slew of problems, including fixing building violations and revisiting custody issues.

Dietze purchased the 1920s-era home in 1998. At the time, the house was in major disrepair, she said. The previous owners had made minor modifications, but the work that she and Eickholdt put into the house is what made it.

The couple has made several modifications to the home, replacing rotting wood on the back porch and fixing cracks in the foundation. They also completely replaced the roof and installed a photovoltaic system.

“We’re completely off the grid, which we like,” Dietze said. “It’s a really neat thing, except when we don’t get any sun for a couple days, then it can get inconvenient.”

The 10-acre plot is scattered with motorcycle parts, a few non-operational vehicles, power tools, and light farming equipment. It looks a mess, Eickholdt admitted. “But when we live all the way out here, who is it bothering?”

Steven Craig Dye, a senior code enforcement investigator with the county, was out at the property on the day of the raid. He documented a number of building code violations, including problems with the foundation, exposed plumbing, and a number of unpermitted improvements and additions made to the home by the previous owners, as well as Dietze and Eickholdt.

“Unfortunately, when you take over a house, you inherit the problems that come with it,” Dye explained to New Times. However, at this preliminary stage, he said, it’s unclear specifically what is necessary to bring the house up to snuff. At the moment, he’s concerned with getting the process started.

Dye also said it’s not unusual for him to get called out to a residence by law enforcement officers conducting a search. He said in this case, he wasn’t directed toward any specific violations but was told to “take a look at the house.”

Dietze and Eickholdt risk losing more than a place to live should they not be able to comply with code requirements. Child Welfare Services has also been notified following the NTF search, and Eickholdt risks losing custody of Rhylee if improvements aren’t made.

Rhylee’s CWS case workers have been to the property numerous times in the last year without any problems, Dietze said. Regardless, a meeting is scheduled for Nov. 2, when the family is expected to show that there’s been some improvement on the home’s condition.

“The implication is that this house is not safe for a 13-year-old,” Dietze said.

The problem? Their meeting with the building department isn’t until Nov. 15, and they’re not permitted to do any real work until they secure building permits.

“All we can basically do is clean up a bit and hang plastic over some of the open areas,” Eickholdt said. “And hope for the best.”

click to enlarge ’MORNING! :  Brianne Dietze in her bedroom re-enacts how she awoke to the sight of masked Narcotics Task Force officers at her rural Paso Robles home. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • ’MORNING! : Brianne Dietze in her bedroom re-enacts how she awoke to the sight of masked Narcotics Task Force officers at her rural Paso Robles home.
WTF, NTF?

Unfortunately, Eickholdt and Dietze’s suspicions may never be confirmed as to why armed men in masks stormed their house. As is typically the case, the NTF isn’t talking about its operations.

 Whether or not the NTF brass responds, and regardless of whether they leave the family alone in the future, Dietze said the “dehumanizing” effect will linger with the family.

 “They need to know they can’t screw with people like this. … This is not the way to treat people,” Dietze said.

Because of the raid, she no longer feels safe in her own home. During an interview with New Times in her living room, one of Dietze’s puppies pushed through a screen door, and she jumped as wood slapped hard against the doorway.

“Every time a car goes by the house, every time somebody drops something, I jump. I can’t help it,” she said, taking a deep breath and collecting herself. “This whole thing is ridiculous. We’re not going to live in fear.”

Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at mfountain@newtimesslo.com.

 

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