Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Armed posse takes over Stanfield potato shed

The armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns in January 2016 wasn’t the first time a disgruntled group has taken over property in a dispute over ownership of Eastern Oregon land. A group of seven armed gunmen, including an avowed member of the Posse Comitatus, took over a potato shed near Stanfield on Aug. 27, 1976, claiming the land rightfully belonged to them.

Fifteen employees of the Mikami Brothers potato packing plant on Despain Gulch Road seven miles east of Stanfield were turned away at 6 a.m. by armed men when they showed up for work. Most of the employees left the property, but scale attendant Debi Furukawa locked herself in the scale house and called the state police at Hermiston just before the group cut the building’s phone lines. She also communicated by CB radio with her husband Harvey, who had locked himself in the accounting office, until someone disabled the system. The Furukawas later escaped the building unharmed.

The posse included Ervin R. Haring, 54, and Donald A. Goodwill, 46, both of Portland; Robert D. Cummings, 31, of Glendale, Calif.; Donald R. Cooper, 36, and George Hill, 47, both of Stockton, Calif.; and Vernon E. Essig, 48, and Farrell A. Griggs, 18, both of Herald, Calif. They were armed with three handguns, a rifle, a hunting knife and numerous clubs, and Goodwill’s two dogs.

At the center of the dispute was property owned by Sach and Dan Mikami, Ralph Zimmerly and Jack Zabransky that was formerly part of the estate of J.T. “John” Hoskins. The posse, claiming to be Hoskins’ heirs, asserted that the property occupied by the sheds belonged to them because the disposition of the land had not been done properly when Hoskins passed away. In 1974 former Umatilla County surveyor Ralph Thompson and Everett Thoren, an Elgin resident, were arrested for trespassing after they drove onto Zimmerly’s land. In July of 1976 Thoren and Goodwill filed a $6.8 million suit against Zimmerly, the Zabransky brothers and McPherson in U.S. District Court in Portland in an attempt to have the land in dispute returned to Hoskins’ heirs.

Umatilla County Sheriff Bill McPherson said in an interview that his department had heard rumors the night before that the posse might be involved in some kind of takeover, but did not know where the incident would take place. He arrived at 7:15 a.m., and Umatilla County, Oregon State Police and officers from as far away as Milton-Freewater and Baker City joined him throughout the day. FBI agent Dan Jacobson and Umatilla County District Attorney Jack Olsen and his deputies were also at the scene for the 11-hour standoff.
All roads leading to the property were blocked off, and potato trucks waiting to unload were turned away. Police made two flyovers of the property with the help of Ron Linn, whose home and airstrip a half-mile from the sheds were commandeered as a command post for law enforcement. Umatilla County sheriff’s deputy Keith Garoute was posted on a vantage point about 350 yards from the sheds with a scope-sighted .308 sniper rifle.
From left, Dept. Dist. Atty. David Gallaher, Dist. Atty. Jack Olsen, Sheriff William McPherson and Deputy dist. Atty. Fred Bennett confer during the standoff (EO file photo)
Police officers conferred with Goodwill, the group’s leader, several times during the day in an attempt to convince the group to surrender. In mid-afternoon Goodwill rode into Hermiston with state police in an attempt to contact Thoren, who Goodwill said had hired him to take over the shed. Thoren wasn’t home.

Goodwill returned to the shed at 4 p.m., and OSP Lt. Duane Pankratz reported to the command post that the group had agreed to surrender “if met by a show of force.” At 4:30 p.m., 10 police cars loaded with flak-jacketed and helmeted police officers descended on the potato sheds, where the surrender took place. No shots were fired and no injuries were reported.

Deputy Glenn Youngman said, “I think they were hoping we would wait them out.” He said the men had sleeping bags but no food, and that Thoren was supposed to have brought them a camp trailer and provisions.
Donald Goodwill (EO file photo)

Following his arrest, Goodwill said he and his group had succeeded in their purpose, since “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” He and his six co-conspirators faced charges of conspiracy to commit burglary and riot, both felonies, while Essig and Griggs also were charged with criminal mischief and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, and Cummings was also charged with criminal trespass.

The men also would be sued for all police costs for the incident. District Attorney Jack Olsen said charges against Thoren were also possible, as two members of the posse mentioned he had hired them to take over the sheds and Essig claimed to have a signed agreement.

The trials were moved to Hood River Circuit Court. In December 1976, Vernon Essig was convicted of second-degree burglary and possession of a dangerous weapon with intent to use, both felonies, and misdemeanor disorderly conduct and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. He was found innocent of the riot and first-degree burglary charges.

Mastermind Everett Thoren’s trial dragged on through July of 1977. He was sentenced to 150 days in the Umatilla County Jail, Pendleton: 30 days each for second-degree criminal mischief, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle and first-degree criminal mischief, and 60 days for carrying a dangerous weapon with intent to use. Though Thoren continued to insist he has a claim to the property, he told the court at sentencing that he was through with the matter.

Trial and sentencing information for the remaining five defendants was not found; the East Oregonian archives from that period are not searchable.

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