Picture a bucolic far-northern California county held hostage by a band of militia-backed right-wing populists who’ve taken control of the county board of supervisors. With their three-vote majority on the five-member board, their hidden agenda, according to some observers, is to eliminate all zoning regulations, pack key posts in county government with outsiders, and create a dictatorship featuring the militia-backed sheriff serving as supreme leader.
Sound familiar? Believe it or not, the county in question is not Shasta County, although the description might be partly applicable here today. It’s our contiguous neighbor to the south, Tehama County, where in 1996 the board of supervisors was dominated by three hyper-conservative women who cast themselves as anti-elitists opposed to the good old boy network, i.e., the county’s business and development community and the government agencies that support it.
Tehama County District 2 Supervisor Shirley Mareli, District 4 Supervisor Jo Ann Landingham and District 5 Supervisor Kathleen Rowen were variously referred to as the Gang of Three, the Three Stooges and the Tehama Mamas. Their divisive antics including placing a county administrative assistant on permanent leave, undermining the planning director’s authority over planning and zoning, and supporting a local ballot initiative that banned all zoning. (The ordinance passed but was ruled unlawful by the courts.)
Supervisor Rowen maintained close ties with Jim Rogers, head of the Tehama County militia.
The Tehama County Grand Jury indicted all three supervisors for violating the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law. If convicted at trial, all three would have been removed from office.
But the trial never happened. The trio’s controversial actions led to months of packed, angry board meetings, much like Shasta County has experienced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Eventually, the good old boys, the business and development community, along with ordinary citizens aghast at the renegade board’s conduct, banded together and recalled the three supervisors.
They collected more than enough signatures to place all three supervisors on the ballot. In order to be recalled, the targeted candidate must gain less than 50 percent of the vote. On Feb. 6, 1996, Mareli, Landingham and Rowen were all successfully recalled by respective voting margins of 67 percent, 63 percent and 69 percent, according to the Tehama County Elections Department.
Although these fairly extraordinary events happened barely a quarter-century ago, they’ve left few traces on the internet. The available online archives for the Red Bluff Daily News apparently don’t go back to 1996. Much of the information presented above comes from a December 1995 LA Times story that came out before the recall election, “Bucolic Red Bluff Riled by Political Dust-Up.”
Things were simpler back then. Black helicopters and the New World Order were the conspiracies du jour, not a global clan of cannibalistic pedophiles operating out of a pizza parlor basement in Washington, DC.
In Red Bluff circa 1996, the dream of real estate promoter Leo Urbanski seemed about to be realized: His Celebrity City would have been a 3000-acre entertainment complex north of Red Bluff designed to rival Branson, Mo., with 46 individual venues hosting the best country music artists on the planet. Call it L’il Austin on the Sac.
Sadly, Celebrity City never came to be. Like the recall of the Gang of Three, its fate slipped through history’s cracks.
I was able to track down one of the Tehama County players from back in the day, Robert Minch, a real estate agent and columnist for the Red Bluff Daily News who served as the point man for the successful recall effort. Minch was aware of Shasta County’s recent recall election, which shifted control of the board of supervisors to three right-wing populists cast from very much the same mold as the recalled Tehama Mamas.
“You want to know how we did it?” Minch asked, anticipating my question about his successful recall campaign. “It was a tough row to hoe. Their actions have to be really overt.”
Meaning the Gang of Three pushed their luck with the general public, until their luck ran out.
For example, Minch said the supervisors appointed a dubious man from Los Angeles to a county position and gave him a county car to drive. During a prolonged absence, he claimed to be serving in the National Guard. It turned out he was serving all right—jail time for drunk driving in LA.
Minch feels democracy in Tehama County was served well by the recall process in 1996.
“The results were tallied and the group, dubbed The Gang of Three, were cashiered from office,” he wrote in a 2014 Red Bluff Daily News remembrance column. “It was an example of the democratic process in action as opposed to the recent ill-advised action by the present board.”
Minch was referring to the 2014 board’s decision to place an initiative supporting Tehama County’s secession from California and ascension to the great State of Jefferson on the ballot. Common sense may have won the battle back in 1996, but fascist ideology dies hard in far northern California.
Is Reverge Really out for Revenge?
As expected, last month’s Shasta County recall election attracted national media attention with reporters from numerous major outlets including the LA Times and the Washington Post parachuting in to get the story. Thanks to A News Café’s voluminous reporting on the recall effort, most journalists weren’t fooled by the Shasta General Purpose Committee/Recall Shasta’s claim that it’s a grassroots movement.
In fact, the movement has been funded, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, by Connecticut son-of-a-billionaire Reverge Anselmo. Anselmo seeks revenge against Shasta County, so the story goes, due to a legal dispute over unpermitted construction on Anselmo Vineyards, the 2100-acre spread in the Inwood Valley, just south of Shingletown, that Anselmo purchased in 2005. Anselmo lost the lawsuit in 2013 and was forced to pay the county $1.3 million for legal fees and fines. He moved back to his home state of Connecticut after that.
Anselmo’s father Rene Anselmo founded the first private satellite television network, PanAmSat, which was sold to Hughes Electronics for $3 billion after his death in 1995. Rene left his fortune to his wife Mary, whose estimated net worth was $1 billion in 2007 according to Forbes. While Reverge Anselmo’s current net worth is unclear, estimates range as high as $300 million.
Anselmo, an erstwhile Hollywood producer and director before becoming a failed restaurateur, vintner and rancher, donated an unheard of $100,000 to right-wing populist Patrick Jones’s successful 2020 campaign for the Shasta County District 4 seat.
So far, Anselmo has donated $450,000 to the Shasta General Purpose Committee/Recall Shasta, and an untold amount to Red, White & Blueprint, the recall movement’s propaganda production company. Given all that, it doesn’t seem out of line to presume Reverge Anselmo is out for revenge.
Except a journalist is never supposed to presume, as I was reminded by an LA Times feature reporter who called me from her car two weeks ago as she was on her way to Anselmo Vineyards in Inwood Valley, which is an official American Viticultural Area. That means the wine made from grapes grown there can be deemed an official appellation. That’s worth money, lots of money if you can stomp grapes with any proficiency.
At any rate, the LA Times feature writer wasn’t buying that Reverge was simply out for revenge. What’s a $1.3 million settlement to a multi-millionaire? she asked rhetorically. I asked her if she’d watched Episode 2 of the RWB prop/doc series, in which Anselmo proclaims he’ll return to Shasta County if it eliminates the Department of Resource Management.
You know, the folks who create and enforce all of those building codes Anselmo can’t seem to follow.
Shades of Tehama County’s Gang of Three in 1996!
Indeed, according to the Shasta County Recorder, nearly every structure on Anselmo Vineyards—the helipad storage, the pavilion, the conservatory, the barn, the event parking lot, the water treatment building, the rock fountain, the wine tasting facility, the southern restrooms, the covered pedestrian walkway, the winery and restaurant and of course the private chapel—was built without permits.
The LA Times feature writer hadn’t had a chance to watch the RWB prop/doc series. I told her to wait till she sees Anselmo Vineyards, it’s like Xanadu. Surely it must have hurt Anselmo to put the property up for auction in 2015. Shortly after that her cell signal dropped and I never heard from her again.
The next week, I drove out to Anselmo Vineyards to see it for myself again. It’s a bit of an exaggeration to call it “Xanadu,” the fictitious fortress of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ classic film Citizen Kane. Welles based Xanadu on the real-life opulence of yellow journalism publishing giant William Randolph Hearst’s eponymous castle near Big Sur.
Nevertheless, as you approach 28740 Inwood Road from the north and Anselmo’s infamous unpermitted chapel makes its appearance from around the bend, there’s a certain cinematic familiarity to the landscape. Perched at the top of the slope, the pale blue plaster house of God looms over the low-slung structures of the winery, restaurant and farm workers’ quarters, dominating the scenery. The trunks of dormant grape vines radiate out across the property like tombstones.
The statue of an angel near the entrance of the chapel projects spiritual strength, but there are stains dripping from the bell tower like stigmata, the result perhaps of the wrong material being used in its construction, rust collecting in the corners and edges of the stucco like rivulets of dried blood. It was disturbing to see the chapel in such disrepair.
There were several workers about when I visited last week, but otherwise the restaurant and the winery were closed to the public and have been for the most part since San Francisco businesswoman Phuong Pham bought the property at auction for $8.3 million in 2015.
I spoke to Pham via telephone from San Francisco earlier this week and confirmed that she’s the sole owner of Anselmo Vineyards, through her Seven Hill LLC. Anselmo’s former holding company was called the Seven Hills Land and Cattle Company LLC, but Pham said he no longer has a stake in the property and is not involved with her LLC.
Pham was hit with a judgement from Shasta County shortly after buying the property that requires all of the buildings and structures to be brought up to code before she can open for business. Since then, she’s vacillated between bringing the property up to code and opening up for business or putting it back up for sale.
At the time of the sale in 2015, Anselmo claimed he’d plowed more than $30 million into the property. Pham says she ultimately paid $10 million for Anselmo Vineyards. So, Anselmo lost roughly $20 million after the property was auctioned off.
More motive for revenge.
But as I discovered upon investigating his former property holdings, Anselmo isn’t just out to even an old score with Shasta County. He’s a political animal who has funded right-wing candidates in Shasta County and elsewhere since at least 2012.
That year, the California Fair Political Practices Commission fined Anselmo and his Seven Hills Land and Cattle Company LLC $800 for not filing a major campaign donor statement on time. Anselmo donated $15,000 each to conservative Shasta County supervisorial candidates Patrick Jones and Cherrill Clifford. Both candidates failed to win their respective contests.
The FPPC has been investigating the Shasta General Purpose Committee, Recall Shasta and Red, White & Blueprint for alleged campaign finance violations for nearly a year but so far has not come to any conclusions.
“First, there are three open investigations, so we can’t comment on any open cases or investigations,” said FPPC communications director Jay Wierenga when asked why the investigations were taking so long. “I tell everyone and anyone who asks about the length of any specific case that investigations take the time they take. We have to be timely, and cognizant of that, but also thorough, and cognizant of that. … There are a myriad of factors as to why some cases can and do take more time than others.”
It seems safe to say Anselmo, an anti-government libertarian extremist who has donated more than $1 million to fellow libertarian extremist Sen. Rand Paul’s Protect Freedom PAC, isn’t too worried about an $800 hand-slap from the FPPC.
Of course, it would be desirable to ask Anselmo personally about these matters, but he’s taking few calls from the media. The Washington Post apparently dialed the same line I’ve been calling for weeks and were greeted with a gruff “Fuck off!” and a hang-up. The voice message on the line now says the mailbox is full.
More Recall Tips from Tehama County
Robert Minch, the man who organized the Tehama County recall in 1996, offered the following tips for recalling Shasta County’s own Gang of Three, comprised of newly appointed District 2 Supervisor Tim Garman, District 4 Supervisor Patrick Jones and District 5 Supervisor Les Baugh.
First you have to come up with a clever moniker—obviously, Gang of Three is already taken. Judging by their performance at their first board meeting last week, in which Baugh, with a perpetual shit-eating grin plastered on his face, led the painfully inexperienced Garman around by the nose and launched an attack on Shasta County Health and Human Services in general and Public Health officer Dr. Karen Ramstrom in particular, Los Tres Pendejos (The Three Assholes) seems serviceable.
Second, Minch says, “You have to let the public know the rascals who are representing them.”
Minch, who still writes weekly for the Red Bluff Daily News, did this by channeling his dog’s thoughts on the Gang of Three in his columns. Eventually, he says the newspaper itself took up the cause, which was crucial for the recall’s success.
That’s why I wasn’t too disturbed by the Record Searchlight’s takedown of Bryan Caples, the right-wing candidate who’s challenging Shasta County Schools Superintendent Judy Flores in the June primary election, in last Sunday’s paper.
True, I scooped the local daily by nearly a week on the story, and many of the elements I reported were regurgitated by the RS. But as Minch notes, it’s vitally important to get the word out to as many people as possible, and the RS has reach.
There’s a pattern developing here. February’s Red, White & Blueprint recall has delivered a replacement candidate who may be the most unqualified person to ever sit on the Shasta County Board of Supervisors, Tim Garman.
Now the same crew is offering up Caples, whose work history at three previous school superintendent postings is as abysmal as they come, to run the Shasta County Office of Education.
Expertise is not on the menu here. In the aforementioned Washington Post story on the recall, RWB co-founder Carlos Zapata speculates that he doesn’t yet know what kind of pie they’re baking.
I’ll politely suggest it’s a shit pie.
Caples is bad news. As I originally reported, public school board records show he resigned after the Scott Valley Unified School District board of trustees placed him on indefinite leave in 2013. He was released from his employment agreement with the Palermo Union School District in 2018 and terminated by the Burnt Ranch Elementary School District in January.
Since that story was published, I’ve come into possession of the investigation Scott Valley conducted on Caples before his departure, obtained via the California Public Records Act. The investigation found that Caples twice violated district policy on nepotism by suggesting to staff that his wife be selected for two job openings.
Included in the investigation was a complaint filed against Caples by a Scott Valley teacher whose name has been redacted. Caples’ ill treatment of this teacher during a 30-minute meeting with a witness present apparently wasn’t deemed a violation of district rules, but it is astonishing nonetheless. Here’s a running list of his comments, delivered with a vein bulging out on his forehead and his finger pointing in the teacher’s face as he threatened to fire her three times:
“Go sit down and wait until I return with [redacted]!”
“I am so fucking frustrated with you!”
“You are lucky you still work here! I could fire you right now!”
“You should take your ‘out there teaching ideas’ to San Francisco where they would be better suited!”
“You don’t have what it takes to be a teacher!”
“You might think that is your classroom, but I own every wall, every chair and I am in charge!”
“You are out of touch with your students!”
“Your ideas and teaching methods are crazy!”
“I bet no one has ever told you this but let me be the first. You don’t have what it takes to be a teacher and you are finished in this district!”
“You treat sixth graders like kindergarteners!”
“Get out of my face and get out of this office!”
“I have had many parent complaints about you!”
When asked by the teacher to clarify those parental complaints, Caples shouted, “I don’t care, and you should just keep your mouth shut!”
My email to the Caples campaign asking about this incident has not been returned.
Needless to say, Caples is not a nice guy—unhinged is a better descriptor—and would best be advised to seek another line of work, perhaps his present occupation as a notary. Instead, the Shasta General Purpose Committee has donated $4900 to his campaign and it’s conceivable, if only by a fluke, that he could defeat the far more eminently qualified Flores in the June primary.
According to Minch, it’s this sort of overt violation of public norms that eventually turned Tehama County against the Gang of Three.
Let’s hope Shasta County turns on Los Tres Pendejos, rápidamente!