(Additional information and links have been added to this article since it was first posted.)
Just when it seemed as if the Rawesome Food Club case couldn’t get any more bizarre…it got more bizarre, a lot more bizarre.
A case that has seen brutal infighting among two of the originators of Rawesome (James Stewart and Aajonus Vonderplanitz), as well as accusations that a farmer supplier (Sharon Palmer) illegally provided raw milk to the club under a herdshare, has now seen one of the defendants in the case skip bail, and get caught in a struggle and re-jailed.
The most recent problems started when James Stewart, the former operator of the Rawesome Food Club in Venice, CA, failed to show for two court dates–one in Los Angeles last week in connection with charges of illegally selling raw milk, and one in Ventura County Wednesday in connection with charges of illegally raising funds for Sharon Palmers Healthy Family Farms, located in Santa Paula, in Ventura County.
Stewart was out on bail in both cases–$30,000 in the L.A. County case and $100,000 in the Ventura County case. The $30,000 bail in L.A. County had been provided by a friend, and the $100,000 in Ventura County was provided by Mark McAfee, in the form of the deed on his Fresno, CA, home. Once Stewart failed to show for the two cases, the nearly 10% upfront cash bond paid in each case (about $3,000 in L.A. County and $9,000 in Ventura County) by a relative and a friend was immediately forfeited.
Just to make a bad situation worse, Stewart failed to show last week to be arraigned on a third set of charges related to his alleged failure to pay state income taxes.
Bench warrants were issued for his arrest in both places, and new bail set: $250,000 in L.A. County and $500,000 in Ventura County.
Thursday evening, three bail bond agents caught up with Stewart. In California, the bail bond companies, which insure the bail posted by a defendant and are thus at risk when defendants jump bail, have certain police powers, including the power to arrest those under their jurisdiction. Think of them as the repo guys for the accused they back on bail. They were from l’il Zeke’s and Chickie’s bail bond services.
As you can see from the photo above, the bail bond agents arrested Stewart outside his apartment, after a scuffle in which they used their cars to corner his car, and then pulled him from his car and subdued him with Mace. (A video of the arrest has been posted on YouTube.) They then took him to Ventura County jail, where a court officer refused to grant bail, saying Stewart was a flight risk. (Another take on Stewart’s arrest is posted by Mike Adams at Natural News.)
The bail bond agents, together with Mark McAfee, who stood to lose $100,000 if Stewart remained at large, tried to convince Stewart Wednesday and Thursday via phone to turn himself in. When he said he wouldn’t, they put together legal documents to request an extension of the bail agreements. But when Stewart agreed only to sign the documents, but not appear personally in court, the bail bonds agents went after him.
Mark McAfee, who had gone to Los Angeles today after learning that Stewart had skipped bail, was present when Stewart was arrested. When Stewart saw McAfee, he voiced anger: “Mark, why are you doing this to me?”
McAfee told me he was “relieved, and very saddened.” It’s easy to understand both emotions.
McAfee was relieved that his home was no longer on the line. “They could have put a lien on my home.” But like many who have tried to help Stewart, he was also saddened that the food rights advocate wouldn’t work with a top-notch criminal defense lawyer to take full advantage of the strong legal defense he had. Instead, Stewart has spent much of his time since he was first charged nearly a year ago, along with Sharon Palmer and Victoria Bloch, consulting with various legal advocates who suggested Stewart could avoid the charges by asserting so-called “sovereign-man” and constitutional claims. His two co-defendants have been mounting legal defenses in anticipation of trials in both L.A. County and Ventura County.
It’s difficult to know where exactly Stewart went astray. My sense is that the entire legal affair may just have gotten to be too much for him to handle emotionally. On top of the three criminal cases, he has been sued (together with Sharon Palmer) in at least one civil suit, by his one-time close collaborator, nutritionst Aajonus Vonderplanitz, and real estate developer Larry Otting. They accused Stewart and Palmer of defaming Vonderplanitz and Otting in connection with emails that criticized the two–a charge that seemed ironic since it was Vonderplanitz and Otting who put up the now-famous Unhealthy Family Farms web site that made serious accusations against Palmer and Stewart in connection with allegedly supplying outsourced, and contaminated, food to Rawesome Food Club; the site has been taken down sometime in the last month. These were charges that Vonderplanitz and Otting took to the Ventura County prosecutor, who declined to take any action. His only action was to charge Otting for being part of the alleged fraud scheme involving bank and personal investor loans to help Sharon Palmer gain a lease on Healthy Family Farms.
Plus, Stewart has already been jailed twice in connection with both the L.A. County and the Ventura County criminal charges, the first time for three days and the second time for a week. In the second jailing, he maintained he was tortured, having been left in a cold room overnight, without being fed, to get hypothermia.
Its easy to come down on Stewart for trying to opt out of the whole awful affair. Certainly the government prosecutors cant be more pleased with a key defendant clearly withering under the pressure. That has been part of their intent all along, to break the defendants by piling on charges, and hopefully intimidate others thinking of using the Rawesome Food Club model.
Stewart isn’t the first in the growing food rights movement to crack–several farmers and food producers have left the fray. Stewart held on much longer than they did.
I certainly don’t feel as if I can call Stewart to task, since I have no idea how I would react to the kind of pressure he was under. No one who hasn’t been there knows how they might handle the situation.
It’s important to keep the big picture in mind, and in the big picture, the government is able to assemble a mammoth array of forces to frustrate, intimidate, obfuscate, delay, torture, and otherwise assert its will. The U.S. government is no different than any other government in this respect. The more threatened its rulers feel, the more tools they will bring to bear to beat back the threat, and in the Rawesome case, they have assembled a formidable array of tools via numerous federal, state, county, and local agencies, headed up by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
If enough people can stand up to the pressure, can watch what happened to James Stewart and feel more determined than ever to prevail rather than feeling intimidated, the battle can be won. Which leads me to more upbeat news…
It is never a simple matter for a defendant who has lost to the government to convince an appeals court to take another look at the case, whether in Canada or the United States. But on Thursday, the lawyer for Canadian dairy farmer Michael Schmidt convinced an appeals court to re-examine his conviction on 13 counts of violating the provinces dairy laws.
This was the case that Schmidt won three years ago, when an Ontario judge ruled that Schmidts cowshare was truly a private organization, whose members could put themselves outside the bounds of the public food regulation system.
The government convinced an appeals court to reverse Schmidts exonerationsomething that couldnt happen in the U.S., which bans double jeopardy (being found guilty later on charges you have previously been acquitted of).
So Schmidt appealed the reversal, with his lawyer, Karen Selick of the Canadian Constitutional Foundation, arguing there has been an absence of legal precedent to adequately guide the judges in the case. She also argued that cases thus far have contradicted each other.
The government vehemently opposed having the appeal heard, maintaining that there was no important public interest to be served.
Judge Eileen Gillese agreed with Schmidt. “”You’ve got two decisions standing and they conflict,” the judge noted, according to Sun News Canada. “That’s what the leave to appeal would resolve.”