Victoria BlochWe’ve seen over the past year three individuals settle criminal charges growing out of California’s Rawesome Food Club case, with small fines, thus avoiding lengthy trials, huge legal costs, and possible jail terms. Last week, two other legal cases–these multimillion-dollar civil suits initiated by several of those prominent at Rawesome–came to trial in Los Angeles.

Victoria Bloch, one of the three charged criminally, but not party to the civil suits, attended the court proceedings and writes this retrospective of what happened in court, and how it all appeared to someone intimately involved in Rawesome from its earliest days. (She doesn’t discuss one other pending case—this a criminal case against Sharon Palmer, James Stewart, and Larry “Lucky” Otting–concerning the financing of Palmer’s Healthy Family Farms operation in Ventura County. That case is due to come to trial later this year.)

By Victoria Bloch

I’ve known James Stewart since 1999, just after I became a Weston A. Price Foundation chapter leader. Hard to believe now, but at that time the only steadily available raw milk in California came from the tiny Claravale Dairy (AltaDena, the brand I grew up with, was on its way out by that point), and James was their distributor. I met Aajonus Vonderplanitz while James was running an informal retail operation out of a rented garage across the street from his tiny apartment. One of the customers, he was a rather leonine presence with his full mane of sandy, coppery hair, pleasant yet somewhat aloof. James told me that Aajonus was a nutritional counselor, and I got the impression that James was following some of Aajonus’ dietary guidelines. I met Larry “Lucky” Otting, a classic Venice denizen, often barefoot, clad in rumpled linen, Hawaiian shirts and puka beads, as another Rawesome customer and one of James’s numerous friends. (I evidently first met Sharon Palmer somewhere around 2005, when she came to a WAPF chapter meeting. But our introduction was brief, and I didn’t realize we’d met until much later. I really got to know her in 2009, when I started to work at her farmer’s market booth.)

The volatile combination of these four strong personalities can only be compared to the chemical reaction of otherwise basic substances: neutral, even benign elements, like water, can turn explosive when mixed with incompatible ones. And like explosions, there can often be collateral damage to innocent bystanders – in this case, Rawesome and Healthy Family Farms customers, and the local (and to some extent, national) food community.

I don’t know if anyone really knows what turned Aajonus against Sharon. According to Sharon, they never met (though in his deposition Aajonus claims otherwise), and other than peering through her fence, he’s never visited her farm. In point of fact, before James carried Sharon’s products, he purchased conventionally grown chicken and eggs for Rawesome, about which Aajonus never raised a peep (or cluck). But early in 2009, he loudly proclaimed that Sharon’s chicken contained enormous amounts of sodium (which was shown to be false in a mysteriously missing lab test, and for which he never apologized). The hostility he maintained towards her from that point on, and which eventually – perhaps inevitably – spilled over onto James for standing by her, is undisputed.

Larry Otting, the title-holder to the land on which Healthy Family Farms operates, and thus Sharon’s landlord, started complaining to James that Sharon was not paying the mortgage on the farm early in 2009, just a month before Aajonus complained about salty birds. Cancelled checks and receipts failed to quash his complaints.

Of course Larry and Aajonus knew one another; both knew James, both were Rawesome customers. But the Otting-Vonderplanitz partnership seems to have ventured into some strange, dark places, and ultimately turned against James and Sharon in very public, damaging ways. It resulted, finally, in the spectacularly public rift between James and both Aajonus and Larry in September of 2010, just a few months after the infamous and much-publicized multi-agency government raid  on Rawesome on June 30 of that year.

An emotionally charged series of emails from Aajonus was followed by launch of the infamous unhealthyfamilyfarm web site in December, under Larry Otting’s ownership – though it was clear that much of the content had probably been written by Aajonus. In January 2011, Larry and Aajonus filed a civil suit with more than 30 counts against James and Sharon, with charges including assault and battery (for having sold toxic chicken and eggs), elder abuse (because both Aajonus and Larry were over 60 years of age), and with enormous monetary damages (on the order of $4 million) attached.

Sharon, reeling from the panic that started among her customers and farmer’s market managers following the launch of the site, entered mediation with Larry. That happened in March 2011; it resulted in a hand-written agreement whereby Larry agreed to remove the website, stop talking about Sharon and her farm, dissociate himself from Rawesome, and other terms; Sharon was to bring property taxes and insurance payments current on the farm, and to fix any code violations (some of which came with the property), and the like. The site came down briefly, but came back up under a new owner. Shortly thereafter, the ownership changed to Right to Choose Healthy Foods Trust, Aajonus’ organization, and the site continued to cause significant problems for Sharon and her farmer’s market sales.

This was the basis of the cross complaint Sharon filed against Larry and Aajonus in February 2012, alleging defamation and breach of contract, and also seeking about $4 million in damages). In the slow winding way that court cases seem to take, the matter finally came to trial last week. Earlier court appearances and hearings before the Hon. Terry A. Green had reduced the original complaint to just two charges, all the rest having been dismissed with prejudice (meaning that they could not be re-filed). The trial would deal with these two charges, then move directly into Sharon’s cross-complaint.

Present last Monday morning, July 8, for the Vonderplanitz/Otting team were Aajonus; his attorney, Alex Herrera; Larry; his attorney, Warren Nemiroff; Jeff Slay, the vice president of Right to Choose Healthy Foods; and an unnamed would-be young farmer. For the Stewart/Palmer team, there were Sharon; her attorney, Art Carvalho; Art’s law clerk/paralegal, Vaughn Greenwalt; James Stewart; and me. Larry was first on the stand. He apparently failed to understand that his agreement to remove the unhealthyfamilyfarm site  in 2011 did not mean simply removing his name from it. He claimed to have no knowledge of whether Sharon had fixed the code violations, but did go on at length about the suffering he had endured at Sharon’s hands, the fines he’d incurred as a result of the time it took to fix the code violations (although it turned out in subsequent testimony that Sharon had paid for, and Larry agreed to, the services of an agent who obtained abatement of fees from the county), her ongoing failure to pay the mortgage, putting his credit in jeopardy, and more in a similar vein. 

Sharon’s testimony was more straightforward. She explained that to fix violations, she had to engage the services of an engineer, get drawings approved by the county, and perform the actual work herself – with limited funds to pay for it all. With the drop in income resulting from the hostile website, completing repairs took longer. Among other things, she said that Larry had forbidden her to make mortgage payments directly, instructing her to send checks to him instead (which she testified that he often failed to cash, sometimes for weeks at a time). She discussed the damage that the unhealthyfamilyfarm site had done to her farm and her business. Aajonus’ lawyer asked a series of questions along the lines that perhaps Sharon’s reputation had suffered not from the site, but as a result of the government raids on her farm, but he did not gain much traction on this – since, as she testified (and as occurs in other communities where small farms are set upon by regulatory and law enforcement authorities), local community support actually increased following the raids.

Tuesday morning, the trial was replaced by settlement negotiations, which continued throughout the day, and an odd incident took place. For a few minutes that afternoon, I was the only person in the courtroom besides Aajonus’s supporters (on Tuesday including a former Rawesome member and her husband); Aajonus came into the room to let them know what was going on. He spoke loudly enough that I knew his words were for my benefit as well as theirs. He said that “these people” (e.g., Sharon and James) had no remorse, so he had no remorse. The former Rawesome member said something to the effect that “criminals have no remorse.” Aajonus said he wouldn’t settle, that he wanted to go to trial, and that he would be videotaping on Wednesday. (This was apparently in defiance of the judge’s refusal to allow him to videotape on Monday morning–something that had not been cleared before the trial’s start–resulting in Aajonus’ threat of an undefined “action” against the judge.)

Wednesday morning, Aajonus had apparently changed his mind about whatever settlement terms had been discussed the prior day, and hours of additional negotiation were needed before he consented, along with Larry, to final terms.

The final appearance before the judge was brief. Sharon’s attorney stated that a settlement for both cases (the complaint and cross-complaint) had been reached. The Hon. Terry A. Green thanked counsel for bringing this hard-fought case to a successful conclusion. But before proceedings were adjourned, Aajonus requested and was granted permission to make a statement: “I came to get justice. I have been undermined all the way, and am walking out without justice. I want you to know I feel that way.” A bit startled, Judge Green responded, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” A moment later, Aajonus left the courtroom, and the judge turned to the room at large and asked, somewhat rhetorically, “What did I do?”

The settlement is confidential, except for a statement to be signed by both Aajonus Vonderplanitz and Larry Otting regarding the truthfulness and accuracy of the information on the  hostile website (unavailable as of this writing).

I myself, as a former happy member of Rawesome, as a former enthusiastic volunteer/workerbee for Healthy Family Farms, as an active WAPF chapter leader, as a passionate member of the broader community of people who want access to fresh food from farms run by farmers we know (and yes, as collateral damage in this whole messy situation due to my own arrest in 2011), also ask my community, “What didn’t you do?” I mourn for Rawesome, I mourn for the Healthy Family Farms that could have been thriving by now, rather than fighting to stay alive. And I mourn for the willingness of the larger community to cut and run when faced with accusations of wrongdoing, without verifying or investigating what ultimately was started by a personal feud combined with stubbornness and greed. 

“What did I do?” would seem to be the plaintive question each former Rawesome member, each formerly enthusiastic Healthy Family Farms shopper (and each loyal Healthy Family Farms current customer, too), and each member of the larger community might be asking just about now.