What might have been: James Stewart sits at the site of the Rawesome Food Club in Venice, CA. He is a part owner of the lot. (Photo by Ajna Sharma-Wilson)I fought the law and the law won, I fought the law and the law won.”

from song by The Bobby Fuller Four, 1965


Prosecutors like to make a statement about the importance of a particular criminal case by coming up with as many felony charges as possible against the accused criminal. The more felony charges they come up with, the more significant the case in this line of thinking, and further evidence they are doing the job the public hired them to do. 


So, prosecutors in the case against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev listed 30 different felony counts against him. I noted the number, because four years ago, when Ventura County prosecutors went after former Rawesome Food Club owner James Stewart, they listed 37 felony counts. 


True, the charges against Tsarnaev—that he used bombs to kill people—were a bit more serious than those against Stewart, and the Marathon Bomber will get a minimum of life imprisonment. The charges against Stewart mostly had to do with alleged securities law violations and fraud, growing out of the acquisition of  the Healthy Family Farms land acquired by Sharon Palmer back in 2008, using funds borrowed from at least seven families, some of whom were members of Rawesome, along with mortgage funds secured from a bank. Stewart’s maximum potential penalty was “only” about 40 years of hard time. 


Palmer was hit with 39 felony charges, which I suppose makes her more dangerous even than Stewart. Larry Otting, a Rawesome member who helped arrange the $1.2 million mortgage for Sharon Palmer, was saddled with a dozen charges.  


The reason I’m recollecting these prosecutor “scores” is that I spoke with James Stewart last week, and he told me that he had finally put the last of the Rawesome Food Club legal problems behind him. The price was high, though: to settle the 37 felony counts filed against him, the 68-year-old former Rawesome owner had to plead guilty to a felony, and accept three years of felony probation, meaning he’ll be forever “a convicted felon.” (Adding insult to injury, Stewart has to pay the state several thousand dollars over the three years to keep him on probation.)


It was all part of a plea deal—Stewart could have gone to trial and tried to prove his innocence to a jury of his peers, or he could cop a plea. This deal was actually better than one offered Stewart in 2012—plead guilty to 14 of the 37 felony counts and spend six months in jail. Stewart rejected that one out of hand. (Stewart also spent four months in Ventura County jail in 2012 in connection with failing to show up for a hearing, and having his bail revoked.)


But this time, he decided the jig was up. “If I didn’t plead guilty to one felony from 37, they could have convicted me of 37 and sent me away for from 15 to 20 years,” Stewart told me. Also weighing on him was the reality that he couldn’t afford the $100,000 to $300,000 in legal fees necessary for a full trial. 


So Stewart pleaded guilty to one count of grand theft (from Rabobank, the bank that loaned the money for Palmer’s farm). “It was take-it-or-leave it,” he says. “Rabo never filed a complaint against me,” he says. A Rabo employee who testified at a pretrial hearing said “she had never even seen me.” Indeed, no one in the case, including the prosecutor, could associate Stewart with much of anything associated with the people who loaned money to Palmer, except suggesting to a few that they consider helping Palmer out so she could buy the farm. Stewart says he tried to convince the prosecutor of the craziness of the charge he was pleading guilty to, but the prosecutor was adamant—take it or leave it. 


Actually, the likelihood of Stewart being convicted of 37 counts by a jury were very slim. But the grim reality of such a situation is that a jury can find you innocent of 36 counts, and convict you on one, and then the judge, who likely isn’t pleased you chose a jury trial and tied up his court for days and days, can send you to jail for two or three years on the one conviction. And that is the real reason the prosecutors often file so many charges–to intimidate defendants into making a plea deal, and giving the prosecutors another notch on their holsters.


In the meantime, real estate mogul Larry Otting had, early in the case, made a deal with the Ventura County prosecutors to plead guilty to a single felony charge of bank fraud in excess of $500,000, in exchange for testifying against Stewart and/or Palmer in the event a trial took place. He is scheduled to be sentenced sometime in early June, and is hoping the felony is reduced to a misdemeanor and that he is let off on probation. 


I couldn’t reach Sharon Palmer, but Otting said she is also trying to work out a deal by pleading guilty to a single count; her situation is more complicated, though, because she has had two previous convictions, one of a felony related to the sale of real estate by a company owned by her husband back in the 1990s, and then of a misdemeanor in Los Angeles in the original Rawesome case back in 2011. The prosecutors are also pressuring Palmer to sell the farm so the Rabobank can be repaid the mortgage loan; the farm has been on the market for more than a year, without selling. 


The Rawesome legal mess goes back nearly five years. Los Angeles County originally filed charges connected with illegal raw milk sales against the “Rawesome Three”—Stewart, Palmer, and Victoria Bloch (a Weston A. Price Foundation local leader who worked for Palmer) in 2011 after Rawesome was raided for a second time in two years by local, state, county, and federal agents. The three eventually pleaded out, settling for small fines. 


The Ventura County affair turned into a different animal, however. The county didn’t want to let go, even after Palmer paid back the seven families that had loaned her several hundred thousand dollars. 


I chronicle the entire affair in my book, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights, including the dispute within Rawesome over whether Sharon Palmer was supplying the food club with eggs raised commercially. This dispute led to a major falling out between Stewart and the late Aajonus Vonderplanitz, a nationally known raw food advocate. 


Did “the law” win against Stewart and the other Rawesome-connected people caught up in this official excess? Technically, Ventura County comes out the victor, having used State power and money to legally beat Stewart, Palmer, and Otting into submission. But morally, ethically, and  especially historically, I’d say “the law” lost. Just look at the food rights landscape today, and you have to say that Ventura County, and any other locale in the country would have a hard time mounting the assault on law-abiding citizens that Ventura County (and earlier, Los Angeles County) mounted against the Rawesome people. California prosecutors have apparently made clear to California regulators they don’t want to go after state dairy farmers selling raw milk via herd shares. In Illinois, the situation is much the same. In Minnesota, state agriculture authorities have been met with huge public resistance in their campaign even to conduct an inspection of a local dairy farmer selling raw milk. How much did the crazy messed-up Rawesome affair influence other prosecutors? Likely a good deal. 

So, I’d say in the Ventura County case against Stewart, not only didn’t he break the law, but the law lost.