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Tehama County Sheriff’s Deputy Is Among Law Enforcement with Questionable Histories, Far-Right Ties

Photographs of Derbonne and his “Hang ‘Em High” Facebook profile image

More and more details are emerging about the shady histories of law enforcement officials in the north state. Here is a short list of some recent cases:

Shasta County Sheriff Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is the former Anderson Police Chief and the newly appointed Shasta County Sheriff. Prior to coming to Shasta County, Johnson was part of an investigation that stemmed from his role in the 2006 killing of Cheri Lynn Moore in Eureka where he was a Eureka Police Department sergeant.

Moore was suffering from a mental health episode on the one-year anniversary of her daughter’s suicide, and ended up in a standoff with police officers. Then-Sgt. Johnson and other officers broke through Moore’s apartment door and fired nine rounds at her, one of which hit her in the back of the head.

In December 2006, eight months after the lethal shooting of  Moore, then-Eureka Police Department Sgt. Johnson was again involved in second fatal shooting, this time culminating after a 32-hour standoff outside a Eureka motel while waiting for Jonni Kiyoshi Honda, the alleged suspect thought to be a a child molester. Johnson was among the officers who fired nine shots at Honda after the suspect stepped from his motel room.

By the next year Johnson was the Ione Police Chief. While there Johnson hired former Eureka Police Department colleague Harpham, one of the EPD officers who also fired upon Moore.

After Johnson accepted the position as Anderson Police Chief in 2012, he hired now-retired Rocky Harpham as an APD lieutenant.

Redding Police Department Investigator Joshua Siipola

As reported in a recent A News Cafe article by R.V. Scheide, Redding Police Department Investigator Joshua Siipola, who faces six criminal misdemeanors charges for allegedly using the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS) to stage the arrest of his fiancés ex-boyfriend, also has a backstory as a police officer in Eureka.

Siipola was on the scene when Martin Cotton II was severely beaten by Eureka police officers before Cotton died in a Humboldt County Correctional Facility jail cell in 2007. Cotton’s daughter filed an excessive-force-and-failure to-intervene lawsuit in federal court against the city of Eureka, as well as against the seven officers present when Cotton was beaten, and several jail guards.

Siipola and three others were released from the case, but the jury awarded the family $4.575 million and determined that two officers used excessive force, and that three officers failed to provide medical care.

Although each of the previously mentioned cases are questionable, it is true that both Johnson and Siipola were not found guilty of breaking any laws or department policies. However, one has to wonder if the north state is a magnet for law enforcement officials with highly questionable pasts.

Shasta County Sheriff’s Deputy Greg Walker

The discovery, as recently reported on A News Cafe, that Shasta County Sheriff’s Deputy Greg Walker has gotten away with sharing racist, homophobic, and far-right extremist content that promoted violence against U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others without being reprimanded, also raises questions about the conduct of law enforcement officials, and the entire north state law enforcement system. The content posted by Walker on Facebook was also “liked” by leading voices of the recall movement in Shasta County.

Shasta County Sheriff’s Deputy Greg Walker

 

Screen shots from content shared on Greg Walker’s Facebook page

Regardless, the known number of law enforcement officials in the north state who act in a questionable manner in the present or have questionable pasts is increasing, and it rests on a MyPillow mattress topper of racism, homophobia, false information and bigotry as large as the proposed boundaries of the State of Jefferson.

Shasta County Supervisor hopeful Colt Roberts

Where else, after all, especially in the Golden State, will you find an aspiring politician like Colt Roberts? Roberts has made it known that he will challenge Shasta County District 5 Supervisor Les Baugh’s seat in 2022.

Roberts proudly waves the State of Jefferson flag on his Facebook campaign page, recently stated at a school board meeting in Cottonwood that he will refuse to allow his kids to wear a mask at school because it violates their free speech and ability to freely express themselves. Likewise, Roberts defended as “innocent” a racist meme publicly shared on Facebook by Shasta County Sheriff’s Deputy Greg Walker that contained a Confederate flag, a silhouette of a white family, and the words “straight, white, and proud”.

Nothing to see here in the north state, right?

Racist and Homophobic Meme shared by Shasta County Sheriff’s Deputy Greg Walker’s and Colt Roberts’ Response

Tehama County Sheriff Bill Derbonne

Tehama County Sheriff’s Deputy Bill Derbonne is another north state law enforcement official with a questionable history. Derbonne began working for Tehama County around 2017. In 2019, his salary, including overtime but not benefits, amounted to more than $84,000.

Derbonne and Raco as Tehama County Sheriff’s Department Employees, circa 2019

Between 2009 and 2016, prior to coming to Tehama County, Derbonne was employed as the chief of police in Asotin, Washington. Asotin is a small town that sits on the Snake River along the Washington and Idaho border in the southeastern part of the state. It is home to about 1,200 people, and the police department contains only two full-time employees. Asotin’s population is more than 90 percent white, and more than 60 percent of the population in Asotin County voted for President Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

In 2016, Derbonne resigned as Asotin’s police chief to take a job as a canine handler in Afghanistan for a private contractor. He’d previously worked in a similar job during a year-long leave in Iraq. While Derbonne worked in Iraq, an Asotin resident wrote a letter to the editor of the “Lewiston Tribune” complaining that the mayor allowed Derbonne to leave town for his own financial gain while he was being paid a lucrative salary by the city.

After returning early to Asotin from Afghanistan, Derbonne asked the mayor if he could have his job back. His request was allegedly denied because the new police chief did not feel comfortable hiring Derbonne. There was some speculation that some of the alleged troubles Derbonne encountered as Asotin’s police chief may have contributed to the new chief’s decision to not rehire him.

Shootout in Clarkston-Heights Vineland

Derbonne was alleged to have an aggressive demeanor while working in Asotin, and a reputation among some locals as a law enforcement official who did not shy from trouble of all kinds. In June of 2015, Derbonne, along with Asotin County Sheriff’s Deputy Jef Polillo, and some undercover officers attempted to pull over a vehicle that had just left a house that was under surveillance for a narcotics investigation in Clarkston Heights-Vineland, a city that neighbors Clarkston.

An individual inside the car that the officers were attempting to pull over fired a weapon in Derbonne’s direction. Derbonne responded by firing two shots through the windshield of his patrol car. The vehicle Derbonne pursued was eventually rammed and run off the road by an undercover task force officer and the suspects were apprehended. Two schools were placed on lockdown and some of the fired bullets had hit a grocery store.

In a letter to the editor of the “Lewiston Tribune”, a local resident specifically questioned Derbonne’s role in the shootout, and voiced doubts that Derbonne was in enough danger to warrant firing his weapon through his windshield, thus further endangering the public. The letter-to-the-editor writer also wanted to know why Derbonne was on the scene of the investigation, despite it being outside Derbonne’s jurisdiction as Asotin’s police chief.

“Does Derbonne just roam at will?” asked the individual.

Shortly after the shootout, Derbonne was on his way to Afghanistan again, this time to take up his second private military industrial complex job in the Middle East within just a few years.

Derbonne Terminates Officer After Complaint

In 2013, Derbonne terminated Asotin Police Officer Daniel Vargas –who’d worked for the department for a little more than a year — for alleged insubordination. Throughout his short tenure, Vargas worked directly alongside Derbonne. They reportedly had an amicable relationship that deteriorated when Vargas noticed that Derbonne was using his position as the police chief to benefit himself.

While Derbonne claimed that Vargas was terminated because he was “trash talking the department” — Vargas insisted he was terminated for reporting Derbonne to other law enforcement agencies for misconduct. Before he terminated Vargas, Derbonne issued Vargas a personnel action form for allegedly speaking negatively about the department.

Vargas refused to accept the form and requested to be placed on administrative leave. Vargas also said he had no intention of stopping his “trash talking.” Vargas was placed on administrative leave and terminated shortly thereafter because he, according to a letter by Mayor Vikki Bonfield, was unwilling to discuss how to resolve the conflict with Derbonne.

In November of 2013, Vargas filed a lawsuit against the city of Asotin alleging he was wrongfully discharged, and had suffered emotional and financial damages.

City Employees Reportedly Threatened

In one portion of his lawsuit, Vargas claimed that Derbonne walked into the Asotin City Hall and blockaded the door in a threatening manner with his hand on his gun to intimidate the city councilor and the city clerk.

The encounter involved Councilman Anthony Rogers and his wife, and Derbonne’s alleged intention was to interrogate them to see if they had spoken with Vargas. Rogers reportedly told Derbonne to “get the fuck out of the office.” The day after Derbonne allegedly threatened Rogers, the latter notified Vargas as to what happened. Vargas then reported it to the Asotin County Sheriff’s Office and the Washington State Patrol.

Despite Roger’s testimony, Derbonne claimed to be unaware of Vargas’s whistleblowing and said it did not play a role in his decision to issue the personnel action form.

Alleged Sale of Firearms on City Property & Out of the Trunk of Patrol Car

Vargas also reported Derbonne to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for allegedly selling firearms on or from city property. According to the lawsuit, Derbonne was observed on several occasions receiving deliveries of guns and gun supplies on city property. He sold guns and gun supplies under the business name of Asotin Arms and Suppressors, but it is questionable if all of his dealings were completely legal.

Some witnesses claimed they saw Derbonne opening packages of guns and gun supplies and meeting people on city property to sell them. Others reported that Derbonne was selling guns and gun supplies out of the trunk of his patrol car while on duty. Deana Portluck, a deputy city clerk for Asotin, testified that she witnessed Derbonne selling guns on city property.

Vargas also reported Derbonne to the FBI for failing to keep evidence logs and properly implement evidence protocols.

Accusations of Shooting Geese

Vargas also accused Derbonne of the unauthorized shooting of geese to thin out the birds’ population at a local park, disposing of the dead fowl in a local river. In one example, Vargas said that Derbonne allegedly shot a goose while off-duty, then made Vargas dispose of the goose in a dumpster. Portluck also overheard Derbonne tell an unidentified individual that he shot a goose, and that Daniel Vargas disposed of the carcass.

Second Individual Claims Wrongful Termination

William Guinn, a former volunteer reserve officer for the Asotin Police, also claimed he was wrongfully fired and asked for $1.5 million in damages in a tort claim against the city of Asotin. Guinn claimed he was subjected to “a barrage of outrageous conduct” and asked inappropriate questions about his personal life by Derbonne, and that he was not paid wages owed to him.

Guinn claimed that Derbonne disparaged him and alleged that the police chief demanded support for his vendetta against Vargas. In Vargas’s lawsuit, Guinn stated that Derbonne “spent a lot of time” complaining to him about Vargas. He also said that Derbonne was well aware of the complaints Vargas had placed with separate authorities, and that Derbonne reportedly pressured Guinn to file a negative report on Vargas.

“Mr. Derbonne made clear with his conduct that Mr. Guinn could either support him or find a different job,” stated Guinn’s claim, which countered Derbonne’s statement about being unaware of Vargas’s complaints.

Asotin Mayor Vikki Bonfield expressed support for Derbonne’s decision to terminate Guinn, but refused to say more about the situation when asked by local journalists.

According to personnel files, Guinn returned a child to a father accused of child abuse before a detective could question the child. Guinn admitted to lying to the detective, and blaming Derbonne and ignoring direct orders from the chief. The city of Asotin Attorney Jane Richards claimed that this was the reason for Guinn’s termination.

Guinn retained attorney Lucy L. Dukes for his tort claim. Dukes also represented Daniel Vargas. Guinn said that the fact that seven police officers had come and gone in a matter of five years — a high number for such a small department — was a sure sign of problems.

Guinn’s $1.5 million tort claim did not move forward as a lawsuit, and the Daniel Vargas v. City of Asotin case that was set to go on trail in March of 2017 was dismissed by a Walla Walla Superior Court judge. Derbonne was never found guilty of any wrongdoings.

Derbonne’s Ties to Far-Right Movements & the Militia

While Derbonne’s liking on his Facebook page of the Red White and Blueprint movement seems on par for a significant number of north-state law enforcement officials, it is Derbonne’s relationship with Woody Clendenen that is most alarming. Clendenen — who’s renowned in the north state as the aspiring B-movie actor who cuts hair at his Cottonwood barbershop when he is not hanging with the local militia or helping record Red, White and Blueprint docuseries episodes or podcasts — is also friends with Derbonne.

Woody Clendenen: Business owner, father, militia leader and member of Red, White, and Blueprint cast.

Woody Clendenen is friends on Facebook with Derbonne

In February, Derbonne’s name appeared in a “Washington Examiner” article written by columnist Mica Soeller that explored north state right-wing individuals’ dislike of Gavin Newson’s Covid-19 mandates.

The first person quoted in the article was Patrick Jones. Soeller failed to mention that Jones was the a Shasta County District 4 Supervisor, but she did mention that Jones owned a Redding gun shop and was encouraging customers to sign the petition to recall Newsom.

In his bold attempt to speak for everyone, Jones was quoted saying that people in California’s far north did not like Newsom when he was mayor of San Francisco, and that they do not like him now because his “ideas do not align with our ideas.” Although Jones failed to provide examples, he borrowed from the State of Jefferson playbook when he explained that politicians in Sacramento do not care about the north state.

After a few other very brief interviews, Soeller introduced Derbonne to the story as simply someone “who works in local law enforcement in Cottonwood.”

Upon request, Soeller recently shared an important fact that she did not mention in the article: Soeller had interviewed Derbonne at Woody Clendenen’s Cottonwood Barber Shop.

When asked if Derbonne just showed up randomly, or if he was already there when she arrived, Soeller replied, “No he was already there.”

There are two possible scenarios to explain Derbonne’s presence at the barbershop when Soeller, a journalist from a major newspaper, showed up to conduct the interview: One, that Derbonne visited a business for which he has an affinity, a place he’s frequented in the past, as well as the fact that he knows Clendenen since they are friends on Facebook. Two, he is friends with Clendenen, and showed up to share his perspectives after he was notified that Soeller had planned to visit the Cottonwood Barber Shop to conduct interviews for her article.

Either way, Derbonne is tied in a significant manner to Clendenen.

Speaking of Clendenen, on August 2 news broke on social media that Clendenen recently displayed a Confederate flag at his establishment.

Confederate flag on display outside Woody Clendenen’s barbershop

Derbonne Prefers “Real American” States; Wants to Retire Outside California

Derbonne explained in the “Washington Examiner” article that he wanted to leave California when he retired and move to someplace like Texas. He described that it was easy to decide to leave California, but that he, as described by Soeller, feared “that Californians in exile are only going to eventually take their ideas to other states.” By “their ideas,” he’s likely referring to the sort of imagined “liberal threat” often raged against by likes of  Red, White and Blueprint leader Carlos Zapata, Clendenen, and others.

“The problem is the same people who are destroying their own cities, they’re moving too because they want to escape it,” explained Derbonne in the newspaper story. He added that in some “real American” states, Derbonne would be embarrassed to have a California license plate.

Derbonne’s comments echo people like Sarah Palin, who traveled the nation during the 2008 presidential election race claiming that “real Americans” were wolf-hunting hockey moms from towns like good old Wasilla, Alaska. It was the best and brightest coded language she could muster up to catch the eyes and ears of straight, white America. But she was wrong, because even then, most Americans lived in and around racially and ethnically diverse cities.

In his capacity as a sheriff’s deputy, does Derbonne judge the people he encounters based the residences listed on their driver’s licenses and license plates? Does Derbonne judge members of the public he encounters on a daily basis as either “real” or “fake” Americans? Tehama County, like Asotin, is home to a white Republican majority, but there is also a larger and growing nonwhite population, the largest within this being the Latinx community. Does Derbonne view Latinx peoples as “real Americans”?

Derbonne also pledged to support the Newsom’s recall, because, as he stated, “If we hold people accountable in our government, then what happens is it puts them on notice, and I think each time they’re going to be a little more leery of doing shady stuff or overstepping on their bounds.”

One can surmise that Derbonne was making reference to the governor’s Covid-19 mandates; unsettling considering Derbonne is a law enforcement official.

Hang ‘Em High

The public content on Derbonne’s Facebook page is pretty straightforward. His profile picture is a poster for the 1968 Wild West cinema film staring Clint Eastwood titled, “Hang ‘Em High.” It features the film title, an image of Eastwood, who played a character named Jed Cooper, and a noose.

Woody Clendenen simply replied “yep” to Derbonne’s profile picture. A Facebook friend of Derbonne’s who is a retired law enforcement official named Danny Dano Wenzel wrote, “That is why I call you Wild Bill,” followed by, “Yep, each county needs a hanging tree, judged tonight hung tomorrow at sunrise.”

Woody Clendenen and Danny Dano Wenzel approve of Derbonne’s Facebook profile image

Wenzel’s Facebook page displays an alarming hodgepodge of right-wing extremism, including support for the State of Jefferson, the popular slogan “all lives matter,” the notion that what is happening in the United States is similar to what happened before Nazi’s took over Germany, and the concept that a fist raised by any racial or ethnic group signifies racist hate.

In another example of a disgusting off-color comment, Wenzel asked, “oh yea, you got any scalps hanging from your belt” under a nearly six-year-old photograph of Derbonne, possibly taken in Afghanistan, of Derbonne pointing a rifle out of a combat shelter.

The rest of the public content on Derbonne’s Facebook page entailed a few photographs, likely taken during his last work trip to Afghanistan, wherein he is either holding a gun, standing next to a German shepherd, or doing both of these things.

Screenshots from Danny Dano Wenzel’s Facebook page

Even if Derbonne was not guilty of wrongfully terminating two Asotin police officers, or of selling and receiving guns and gun supplies on city property, or shooting geese to thin out the birds’ population, why was he tied up in these issues in the first place? How and why was he unable to get along with two police officers? Why do reports claim that he intimidated city employees on city property during business hours? Why was he reportedly taking it upon himself to shoot geese?

Screenshot of Derbonne’s Facebook page

Moreover, why has Derbonne gravitated to far-right figures such as Woody Clendenen since moving to the north state? Recent reports have claimed that the Tehama County Sheriff’s Department has struggled to fill positions. Is it going to take individuals with questionable backgrounds like Bill Derbonne to fill these positions?

One thing is for certain, Derbonne is well liked in law enforcement circles in Tehama County. In July of 2020, he was promoted to the position of an investigator for the Tehama County District Attorney’s Bureau of Investigations. The DA’s office cited that Derbonne had “decades of experience” – and that they were “proud to have Bill on our team and protecting Tehama County.”

Just a few days before the announcement of Derbonne’s promotion, his firing of four shots and the killing of a Carl Thayer near Jelly’s Ferry Road just north of Red Bluff was found to be a justifiable use of force.

According to Tehama County District Attorney reports, Thayer and his girlfriend were driving on Jelly’s Ferry Road when he reportedly became angry after she received a text from another man. After he allegedly threatened to killer her, she kicked the gear shifter, caused an accident, and fled to a nearby house to call law enforcement. Thayer reportedly told her that he wanted to be killed by law enforcement.

When Derbonne arrived on the scene, Thayer reportedly threatened to kill Derbonne’s K-9 companion, and when Thayer walked toward the sheriff’s deputy armed with a knife, after a taser gun fired by another law enforcement official failed to stop him, Derbonne fired his service weapon upon Thayer, which killed Thayer.

Screenshot from Twitter praising Derbonne when he was promoted in 2020

Can north state citizens trust law enforcement?

Myriad questions can be raised regarding north state law enforcement officials. What are the backgrounds of law enforcement in our beloved north state? Where do they come from? Finally, are they adequately qualified and trained to properly service our community?

In a community that has so many law enforcement officials with questionable backgrounds, Derbonne is yet another example. When it comes to north state justice, it is apparent that we cannot trust our local law enforcement officials to police themselves.

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Note: Special thanks to Kerri Sandaine of the Lewiston Tribune and Mica Soeller of the Washington Examiner for their contributions to this story.

Shawn Schwaller

Shawn Schwaller grew up in Red Bluff, California. He teaches for the Departments of History and Multicultural and Gender Studies at California State University, Chico, and has a Ph.D. in history. His research interests include the study of race and ethnic relations and identity politics in the contemporary history of California. Shawn can be reached at sschwaller@csuchico.edu

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