The fateful flier
Did a Forest Service officer overstep his bounds when approaching a Chico man about an illegally posted ad?
Jeff Newman has been skiing since he was 3 years old. He’s 53 now. The Sierra Club member, a painter by trade, has lived much of his life in the mountains of Northern California. One of his favorite places to cross-country ski is Colby Meadows in the Lassen National Forest. Now he’s scared to go there.
Newman made the front page of the Enterprise-Record last week after a bizarre incident involving a U.S. Forest Service officer brought the Chico police to his front door. The account has generated a lot of buzz about town, but it’s left many people wondering, “Is there more to this story?”
There certainly is.
For many years, Newman served as a ski instructor and tuner, even teaching others how to tune skis. He also, incidentally, worked for the Forest Service for 10 years, a job he was quite proud of until a week ago, when a USFS officer allegedly came to his home under false pretenses and proceeded to “scare the crap out of me.”
About three weeks ago, Newman went to Colby Meadows with his regular group of ski buddies. That group had worked with the Forest Service to build a bulletin board in a remote area of the park where they ski regularly, a place where they could put up maps and information about a nearby emergency phone. They’d even painted it green to match the landscape.
On this particular day, nothing had been placed on the board yet, and Newman’s friend, Larry Chrisman, decided to pin up an ad for Newman’s side business of tuning skis. Newman thought nothing of it, even posing for a photo by the board before taking off on a snowy adventure.
“I thought it was approved by the Forest Service,” he said. It hadn’t been.
“Commercial distribution of fliers is prohibited without a specific use permit,” explained John Heil, press officer for the Forest Service’s California region.
Fast forward to the evening of Feb. 9. Newman was at home, in his quaint, well-kept house on East Eighth Street, when he received a phone call from a man who identified himself only as Paul. He was interested in the ski-tuning service. Newman also advertises in the Sierra Club Yahi Group newsletter, but ends up tuning only about two pairs of skis a month. He arranged a time for Paul to drop by the next morning.
Wednesday morning came and, as Newman was out around the side of his house, he saw a man approaching him “in full battle dress.” He found it strange, but checked himself, thinking, “Cops ski, too, right?”
“I was going to drop everything I was doing and do his skis. I was going to take him to the park to meet the gang, and go skiing with him,” said Newman, who explained that he’s always looking for additions to his ski group. “But it didn’t look like he had the day off.”
The man turned out to be Paul Zohovetz, an officer with the Forest Service in Lassen National Forest, where Newman’s flier had been illegally posted. As he approached Newman, he started asking questions that had nothing to do with tuning his skis, Newman said. He began to get suspicious, and a little nervous.
“I said, ‘I’m not sure what this is all about,’ and he said, ‘You’re under arrest,’ ” Newman said. “So I told him, ‘I want you to get off my property now.’ I said that three times. Then he pulled out his Taser and pointed it at my face about three feet away. Then at my neck. He had this look in his eyes like he wanted to beat the crap out of me. I was scared.”
Newman is diabetic. He hadn’t taken his insulin shot yet that morning, and his blood sugar spiked. In addition to that, he has permanent nervous-system damage—he was afraid that being Tased would cause even more harm to his body. So he ran inside his house. Zohovetz followed, he said, and banged on the back door before running around to the front, where he tried kicking the door in. A muddy footprint is still visible on his front door.
“I was scared to death,” Newman said. “I’m amazed he didn’t shoot me in the head [with the Taser] as I ran inside the house.”
At this point, Newman called Chrisman to come over to be a witness. Zohovetz, for his part, called the Chico Police Department requesting backup. Within a few minutes, which felt like an eternity to Newman, his yard was swarming with officers, along with reporters and a photographer from the E-R. Chrisman had arrived as well.
“Eventually I opened the door because they were going to kick it in,” Newman said. “I was scared of the Taser. I was thinking about the long-term complications of it.”
Once Newman was outside, the police flooded in, trekking mud throughout the house. Newman was handcuffed and almost immediately went into convulsions, something he attributes to stress and not having taken his insulin.
The handcuffs were taken off, and Zohovetz said he was going to issue a warning. He handed over a citation that will require Newman to show up in court, likely in Chester, for “threatening an officer or keeping an officer from his duties.” It carries a $5,000 fine and/or six months in jail if he is convicted.
Newman acknowledges he wasn’t entirely cooperative but denies ever being combative or threatening toward Zohovetz.
When the handcuffs came off, he said, he “got kinda emotional and said stuff like, ‘Why don’t you call the National Guard? Bring me to Gitmo and let’s do some waterboarding.’”
According to Press Officer Heil, Zohovetz, who showed up at Newman’s home in uniform and driving a Forest Service vehicle, was on the clock during the confrontation.
“Is it standard practice to travel 50 or so miles to issue a citation? Yes,” he said. Zohovetz has not been penalized in any way for last week’s incident, as it is the opinion of the Forest Service that he did nothing wrong, Heil said.
Newman said it seemed excessive, as well as unfair, given that Zohovetz did not identify himself or his reason for meeting Newman until trying to arrest him. He described Zohovetz as not only brandishing his Taser but also his 9 mm pistol, which he carried around the house. “When I was handcuffed, he frisked me and grabbed my penis, and when I asked him what the hell he was doing, he told me, ‘I can check any orifice you have, buddy boy.’ It was embarrassing.”
He’s also gotten quite a bit of attention since his picture appeared on the front page of the E-R in handcuffs. And ever since the incident, he and his ski buddies are scared to visit Colby Meadows. Mostly he’s still confused that something like hanging a flier got him all this negative attention.
“It was so absurd that it initially didn’t click in my mind that this was real,” he said.