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Over nearly 15 years as a Rohnert Park police officer, Brendon Tatum led local law enforcement missions to disrupt the flow of illegal drugs into Sonoma County, netting Rohnert Park hundreds of thousands of dollars in seized assets through traffic stops.

Tatum, who goes by his middle name Jacy, built a reputation as an aggressive cop for his work stopping cars on a rural stretch of Highway 101 near the Sonoma-Mendocino county line — some 40 miles north of the city limits — in operations to find black-market marijuana, other illegal drugs and cash.

The highway runs alongside the Russian River and links the marijuana-growing Emerald Triangle region to the north and the urban San Francisco Bay Area to the south.

But the man once honored by Rohnert Park for his highway seizures is no longer employed by the city. Rohnert Park officials will not say why but confirm he is under investigation in connection with a puzzling December traffic stop and marijuana seizure across the county line in Mendocino County involving a pair of officers who six months later remain unidentified.

Tatum’s departure comes amid increasing public scrutiny of a range of his on-duty actions and persistent questions about missing cash and seized marijuana. It has raised questions about why Rohnert Park routinely sent its officers to the northern edge of the county to conduct highway seizures even with a staffing shortage and after other agencies stopped.

The attention also has spotlighted another side of Tatum’s reputation, one discussed for years among local defense attorneys who have faced off with him in court and among people who claim their rights were violated during roadside stops when their property was taken.

One is a Mendocino County cannabis dispensary owner and longtime grower, Hue Freeman, who believes Tatum illegally seized more than $65,000 worth of marijuana he was bringing to a dispensary. He said he feels emboldened to speak out about his case now that others are questioning Tatum’s policework.

“I didn’t want to be the only one out there. I didn’t want to be the tip of the spear,” said Freeman, 60.

Tatum stands by his conduct during his career as a police officer and firefighter with the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department, and he rejected characterizations of his on-duty behavior as unprofessional or unethical.

“That is their opinion, but I disagree with their opinion,” Tatum, 35, said in an interview. “I served and protected my community and made a positive impact and changed people’s lives for the positive, the best I could.”

The encounter with Freeman is among a number of troubling run-ins with Tatum described by defendants and lawyers who’ve criticized his police work, pointing to what they said were questionable traffic stops, searches and seizures.

Interviews with people he pulled over on the road, as well as a half-dozen defense attorneys and several police officers, including members of his own department, also reveal a pattern of aggressive confrontations — both with people under investigation by Tatum and with lawyers he’s accosted at their workplace and at the Sonoma County courthouse.

In the courtroom, defense attorneys have uncovered cases where Tatum violated his own department policies, including a September 2016 encounter where the sergeant repeatedly turned off his body camera while investigating a fender bender and ordered a junior officer to turn his camera off, according to court filings. Tatum then failed to properly catalogue the video, resulting in a delay of about six months in criminal proceedings against one of the drivers while police staff searched for the missing evidence, court records show. The case was dismissed June 28.

In another case, Tatum seized a man’s car and then abandoned him on the side of the highway to walk to a nearby exit, according to interviews and court records. In another, Tatum demanded a man give him the earrings he was wearing while he was detained in a parking lot, the man’s lawyer said.

Tatum is on the so-called Brady list maintained by the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, a designation that requires prosecutors to notify defendants and their attorneys when an officer has potential credibility issues, such as having lied in an official capacity.

Rohnert Park Assistant City Manager Don Schwartz said he cannot disclose whether Tatum resigned or was fired, and he also cannot provide Tatum’s last day of employment because of California laws prohibiting the release of police personnel information.

“We’re very limited on what we can say regarding personnel issues,” Schwartz said.

A police union official did not respond to requests for comment.

Tatum said he decided to resign from his job with Rohnert Park last month and quit the law enforcement profession altogether. The internal investigation of him plus the public scrutiny have been stressful, he said, and he had already been thinking about a career change.

“I’m just trying to move on with my life,” Tatum said. “The law enforcement profession has changed.”

Tatum’s attorney, Justin Buffington, did not respond to repeated requests for comment over the course of two weeks. A representative of his Pleasant Hill-based firm said Buffington had no comment or statement to offer.

Tatum said he doesn’t remember the traffic stop with Freeman, which occurred a year and a half ago.

Freeman is part owner of a dispensary in the town of Mendocino, Sol de Mendocino, and he grows cannabis in the Anderson Valley. On Dec. 29, 2016, Freeman was driving his harvest in a rental car down Highway 101 to the Higher Path dispensary in Sherman Oaks. But he didn’t get past Geyserville.

“As I got just past the Asti turnoff I noticed a Rohnert Park police car going northbound and I made the comment, ‘What are they doing up here?’ ” said Freeman, who was driving with the adult son of a friend. “No sooner than I got those words out of my mouth, they braked and crossed the divide and got right beside me and turned on their lights.”

Freeman said the traffic stop, involving Tatum and another officer, felt questionable from the start.

He was told by officers that he had allowed his wheels to touch the white fog line, according to Freeman. One of their first questions, according to Freeman: Did he have marijuana in the car? The answer was yes.

Freeman was hauling 47 pounds of cannabis, the bulk of his annual harvest, worth an estimated $65,800. Tatum and the other officer, Joseph Huffaker, seized it and cited Freeman for illegal possession of cannabis, according to public records, including a misdemeanor citation and a letter to the city of Rohnert Park from Freeman’s lawyer.

Freeman said he had a packet of documents showing he had a cultivation license through Mendocino County and an agreement to bring the marijuana to the dispensary. He had called the dispensary that morning to alert them he was getting on the road.

Freeman showed the officers — Tatum and Huffaker — his paperwork and put one of them on the phone with his lawyer, Fort Bragg attorney Hannah Nelson.

In an interview, Nelson said Freeman diligently follows California’s rules for medical marijuana cultivation, transportation and sale within a collective. While on the phone with the officers, Nelson said she offered to put them on the phone with a Mendocino County sheriff’s official who could vouch for Freeman. She said they declined.

“I can honestly say those tactics by the Rohnert Park Police Department were tactics no longer being used by many law enforcement officers,” Nelson said. “There had been a recognition (in California) that there were a number of lawful bases on which someone could lawfully be carrying cannabis on the highway. I feel their procedures were certainly out of line.”

Freeman said the officers asked him about the strains of marijuana in the vehicle, which he said seemed odd. He explained he was following California medical marijuana laws that allow cultivators to be compensated for their work and materials, which he estimated at about $1,400 per pound.

The officers seized the cannabis. Although charges were never filed, Freeman has been unable to get it back. He suspects his cannabis never made it to the Police Department because he’s never received proof it had.

But five days after the traffic stop, a Sonoma County judge signed a destruction order for the cannabis requested by Rohnert Park, according to Assistant District Attorney Bill Brockley, who reviewed the case documents in response to the Press Democrat’s query last week. It wasn’t until about four weeks later that prosecutors received Rohnert Park’s report requesting charges against Freeman, the files show. They declined to charge Freeman with a crime “in the interest of justice” after determining Freeman appeared to be following medical marijuana rules, Brockley said.

The city declined to provide information about Freeman’s case by press time, including details about whether the cannabis was booked into evidence and if it was in fact destroyed.

“They stole from us, that’s what they did,” Freeman said.

Inside the department, Tatum was regarded as “this amazing dope cop” who brought significant amounts of asset forfeiture money into the city, according to a fellow officer.

Tatum had great independence in the department, which the officer said was beset by a culture of lax oversight. Tatum’s co-worker asked to have his name withheld out of concern managers would retaliate against employees speaking out about personnel and policy issues.

The officer said Tatum continued patrolling Highway 101 near the Sonoma-Mendocino border even after command staff last year informed its officers they would no longer routinely do so. Command staff appeared to overlook or ignore Tatum’s continued forays north, he said.

“It’s suspicious,” the officer said. “Why weren’t the bosses stepping up, and saying, ‘This is a red flag?’ ”

Raised in Sonoma County, Tatum played basketball for Rancho Cotate High School and received his police training from Santa Rosa Junior College’s Public Safety Training Center. State records show Rohnert Park hired Tatum in December 2003, while he was at the public safety academy. He was promoted to sergeant in July 2015.

Tatum has been involved in two officer-involved shootings, one of which was fatal. The District Attorney’s Office cleared Tatum in the 2005 fatal shooting of a 30-year-old man who was high on methamphetamine and armed with a gun during a nighttime foot chase. In January, Tatum was one of five officers who shot at a 21-year-old man during a standoff in front of the police station near Rohnert Park Expressway. The man was wounded. District Attorney officials said they are waiting for a Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office report on the shooting.

Tatum is also the subject of an ongoing federal civil rights case against Rohnert Park alleging he and other officers conducted an illegal, warrantless search of a family’s house in 2014. With his partners at the front door, Tatum was the officer who went around to the back of the house then entered a back door of the home and held a resident at gunpoint, according to an attorney in the case. The trial is scheduled for October.

Tatum said he didn’t wish to comment in detail on many of the allegations facing him or meet with a reporter in person.

“For 15 years I put my life on the line,” Tatum said. “I was involved with two shootings and it’s stressful. I have kids and a wife and I just want to focus on my family and be a good dad.”

Tatum’s boss will not answer questions about him, even in the face of new revelations and increasing public criticism of the city’s public safety department. The city’s internal investigation of Tatum was first reported in April by Kym Kemp, author of Humboldt County’s Redheaded Blackbelt news blog and also last month by KQED, the Bay Area’s NPR affiliate.

Tatum’s boss is Rohnert Park Public Safety Director Brian Masterson. He has refused to speak with The Press Democrat, and referred all questions to Schwartz, the assistant city manager.

Schwartz confirmed the existence of the investigation but would not discuss Tatum or accusations of misconduct, saying California law bars him from discussing police personnel matters.

“I’m not answering questions on specific cases,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz also declined to answer questions about the department’s oversight of its officers or its prolonged focus on highway drug missions far from Rohnert Park — which increased after other cities ceased.

The operations boosted the department’s budget. Local law enforcement agencies can keep a portion of the money they seize through state and federal civil asset forfeiture laws. Since 2015, Rohnert Park’s officers have seized assets worth more than $2.4 million, more than any other law enforcement agency in Sonoma County, according to the California Department of Justice. The department’s annual budget is about $20 million.

Schwartz, in an email response to The Press Democrat’s questions, would not elaborate on the policy decision to send officers so far north but said Rohnert Park participated in these highway drug seizure missions to “reduce the flow of illegal drugs to Sonoma County, including the City of Rohnert Park.” He noted that Rohnert Park’s crime rate “remains low by historic standards, and response times to fires and other emergencies that are generally within national standards.”

He cited an earlier email statement provided last month to The Press Democrat stating that the city takes concerns about police officer conduct seriously. But he declined to provide information about how much money the city is spending on an outside firm brought in to investigate Tatum even though the cost of such contracts are routinely disclosed as part of city business.

“I’m following the recommendation of the city attorney,” Schwartz said.

Rohnert Park is a combined police and firefighting agency, one of only two cities in the state with personnel trained to perform both duties. Tatum was listed as a sergeant assigned to the fire services division in 2017, according to city payroll records. That year, Tatum earned $203,477, including $77,488 in overtime pay, plus benefits valued at $97,959.

Rohnert Park’s investigation into Tatum is focused on the complaints of one man, Zeke Flatten, Schwartz said. Flatten said he believes a pair of officers wrongly seized 3 pounds of cannabis from him during a December traffic stop on Highway 101. The investigation is looking into what role, if any, Tatum and Huffaker had in the stop. Huffaker remains employed by the city and is on paid leave.

Before he left the Rohnert Park force, Tatum had faced heavy scrutiny in the court cases involving his arrests. Defense attorneys have said that while their job is to question the lawfulness of arrests, they said Tatum stood out as engaging in a pattern of questionable police work and unprofessional behavior.

They raised their concerns with the District Attorney’s Office, according to interviews with local lawyers.

“His reputation is of not telling the truth,” said Steve Gallenson, 65, a longtime Santa Rosa defense attorney. “He gets caught in court and cases get thrown out because of it.”

District Attorney Jill Ravitch declined to discuss whether her office is investigating Tatum for possible misconduct.

“We don’t talk about investigations,” Ravitch said.

Ravitch’s office decides when law enforcement officers have engaged in conduct requiring what’s called Brady disclosure, a designation named after a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case, Brady vs. Maryland, requiring prosecutors to disclose to defendants and defense attorneys information that could undermine an officer’s credibility.

Tatum’s designation came after he provided false testimony on the stand in 2016 while being questioned about whether he knew a driver’s vehicle registration was expired before pulling him over, according to court documents provided to The Press Democrat.

During the hearing, Tatum was unable to answer the question definitively and asked to make a phone call during a break to research dispatch records. A dispatcher couldn’t get into the records system quickly and was unable to answer his question before the call ended, according to a court transcript. But Tatum testified the dispatcher gave him information confirming he had checked the registration before pulling the driver over, court records show.

Tatum later said he was merely exhausted that day and didn’t intend to provide inaccurate information, according to a court transcript.

Another of the ongoing claims facing Tatum is that he was involved somehow in the disappearance of more than $10,000 in cash seized from a Fairfield man during a traffic stop two years ago.

Lucas Serafine, 36, who recently moved back to California from Las Vegas, said he had $132,000 in cash in two sealed containers in the trunk of his girlfriend’s Mazda 3 sedan when they were pulled over by Rohnert Park police officers about 2:20 p.m. March 10, 2016, on Highway 101 near Cloverdale.

His girlfriend had picked him up at the airport in San Francisco and they were heading north to Humboldt County for a poker tournament at the Bear River Casino. He said he was also going to look at a piece of property he wanted to buy.

According to court documents, the officers, Tatum and Nicholas Miller, had pulled Serafine’s girlfriend over for traveling too fast for weather conditions. The officers claimed they smelled marijuana, which they said gave them the authority to search the vehicle, said Serafine, who noted he had just come from the airport and had no marijuana. The officers found the cash.

The officers seized the money and gave Serafine a felony citation for being in possession of money from unlawful drug sales, according to a traffic citation.

Only $121,920 ended up in evidence at the police department, court documents show.

“All I can assume is they reached in and pulled out a stack and put it in their pocket,” Serafine said.

Serafine’s lawyer reported the missing $10,080 to the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department. They never received a response, he said.

Serafine is suing Rohnert Park in a case scheduled for a November trial, arguing that Tatum and Miller violated his rights against unlawful search and seizure by their actions during the traffic stop. He’s also demanding the city return the remainder of his money.

Tatum denied allegations he or the other officer took the money.

“That did not happen,” Tatum said.

Serafine was never charged with a crime, and the District Attorney’s Office has since returned $100,000 to him, according to Serafine and the settlement document filed in Sonoma County Superior Court in August 2017.

Chief Deputy District Attorney Scott Jamar said prosecutors investigated the source of the money and determined the bulk was from “potentially a legitimate source.” But prosecutors determined the remainder — $21,920 — was “money that was in exchange for a controlled substance or proceeds from drug sales,” according to Jamar. He declined to provide information about the evidence linking the cash to drug sales.

Serafine denies any criminal involvement and said the money was from gambling, which has been his primary income for the last eight years. Serafine said the District Attorney’s Office never produced evidence linking his money to criminal activity, and he said he felt pressured to resolve the case because the financial loss was difficult. As a gambler, he needed money to make money.

“They never said (to me), ‘We believe the money is tainted,’ ” Serafine said. “They can’t tell a reporter that, that’s so wrong.”

On June 26, four days after Rohnert Park officials acknowledged that Tatum had left the department, Serafine said he received a phone call from a lawyer representing the city of Rohnert Park who made an initial offer of $15,000 to settle the civil case, then upped it to $22,000.

Serafine said he declined.

“They took my money, held it up like a trophy,” Serafine said of the roadside encounter. “They didn’t give us a receipt for the money and said, ‘You can get an attorney.’ ”

The reported police encounter that launched the ongoing investigation into Tatum was a brief Dec. 5 traffic stop on Highway 101 south of Hopland in Mendocino County.

Zeke Flatten, the driver, said a pair of officers in an unmarked patrol vehicle pulled him over and said he had been speeding. Minutes later the officers were gone, taking with them 3 pounds of marijuana they found in the back of his rented SUV and leaving without giving Flatten a citation, he said.

Flatten said one of the officers said they worked for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“He said, ‘We’re with the ATF. Marijuana is taking over in California like cigarettes, you may get a letter from Washington,’ ” according to Flatten. “He handed (over) my license and rental car contract and said, ‘Have a nice day.’”

Bureau officials told Flatten and The Press Democrat that no ATF officer was involved in his traffic stop.

“I know it wasn’t lawful, I know it was unconstitutional,” said Flatten, a former police officer at a Texas school district.

Though no law enforcement agency has said its officers were involved, Tatum included Flatten’s name on an official police report, and the department in February issued a press release about a December traffic stop and marijuana seizure near the Mendocino-Sonoma county line. The press release didn’t identity the driver or provide the day of the stop.

Tatum said he made a paperwork mistake that has drawn him into a “lengthy” internal investigation. Tatum said he has no memory of a traffic stop involving Flatten, and he incorrectly put Flatten’s name into a police report involving a different driver on a different day because he relied on information given to him by the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office.

Tatum said he was conducting surveillance near the Sonoma-Mendocino county line on Dec. 18 when he and Huffaker stopped a Mercedes-Benz in connection with an unrelated case.

It turned out the driver wasn’t the person they were looking for, but they found he was hauling about 30 pounds of cannabis that he didn’t have documentation for, according to Tatum. He said the driver told the officers the cannabis wasn’t his, so they seized it, booking it into the Police Department as “found property,” according to Tatum and Rohnert Park evidence records. Tatum said that they aren’t required to write a report for “found property,” so he didn’t have any record of the driver’s identity.

Tatum said he didn’t call the traffic stop into dispatch at the time because “we were trying to stay low key” during the surveillance operation.

“We were provided with Zeke’s information, that’s why the name and date got messed up. It’s because we were provided the date and the name from the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office,” Tatum said. “That was the only stop that we remembered dealing with anybody with a similar vehicle.”

Flatten’s persistent complaints about the traffic stop and drug seizure prompted the city of Rohnert Park to hire an outside firm to conduct an administrative investigation into Tatum. Flatten also sent a complaint about his encounter with the unidentified officers to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI.

An FBI spokesman said they reviewed the complaint but didn’t find grounds to investigate further. When asked whether the agency is investigating Tatum related to other matters, FBI spokesman Prentice Danner said he could not provide further comment.

The same year Tatum was promoted to sergeant, he was awarded “Officer of the Year” for his work on drug interdiction cases. Rohnert Park City Councilman Amy Ahanotu, who was mayor at the time, complimented Tatum for his passion for combating illegal drug activity during a March 2015 council meeting.

Tatum addressed the council, thanking the city “for giving me the opportunity to work the highway to fight the war on drugs.”

Tatum has arrested or cited at least 68 people from 2013 through 2017 for charges that include marijuana possession, according to Rohnert Park Public Safety Department records. Of those, 30 people were convicted of a crime. Misdemeanor possession of more than 28.5 grams of marijuana was the most frequently cited crime.

The charges were dismissed against 14 defendants — representing 20 percent of his marijuana possession arrests. In addition, the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office rejected 10 drug cases involving an unknown number of people arrested by Tatum, which means prosecutors declined to file any charges in those cases, records show. The remaining 15 cases are pending or were resolved in other ways.

“There have been many cases where lawyers have filed motions to suppress evidence based on the fact that he (Tatum) pulls people over without cause,” said Gallenson, the veteran Santa Rosa defense attorney. “And then he doesn’t tell the truth about it and he gets caught in those lies. And the case gets dismissed. Then what happened to him is he gets a promotion.”

Gallenson said he complained about Tatum to the District Attorney’s Office in 2014. Gallenson said he told a lawyer in the District Attorney’s Office that Tatum seemed to be out of control and called him “a rogue cop.”

Gallenson’s complaint stemmed from several encounters between Tatum and one of his clients, who was under investigation for illegal drug sales. In one instance, Gallenson said, Tatum ordered the man to give up the earrings he was wearing in a parking lot.

The lawyer’s comments were apparently relayed back to Tatum, who showed up about a week later to Gallenson’s Mendocino Avenue office with a stack of complaint forms. Tatum ran into Gallenson’s law partner, Chris Andrian, in the parking lot.

According to Andrian, another veteran of the local defense bar, Tatum shoved a stack of complaint forms in his direction and said Gallenson was “taking food off his family’s table” by questioning the integrity of his police work with the District Attorney’s Office. Andrian said he has known Tatum since he was a child and is close with his aunt, who used to work for him.

“He got so aggressive toward me, it freaked me out,” said Andrian, 74. “I saw a side of him that I’d never seen before.”

A week or so later, Andrian and several other lawyers watched as Tatum confronted Gallenson in a Sonoma County Superior Court hallway. Several witnesses said Tatum’s demeanor and statements during the encounter went beyond the normal adversarial relationship between criminal defense attorneys and cops.

“There’s no other cop I’ve ever known who has behaved that way in a courthouse,” Andrian said.

Cellphone video taken of the encounter shows Tatum confronting Gallenson, who is seated on a hallway bench talking to a prosecutor. Not all of the conversation is audible but in response to Tatum’s complaints, Gallenson responds: “I thought it was an out-of-control move.”

“What about it? He’s a drug dealer. All this stuff that he has, it can come through court,” Tatum said in the video, referring to Gallenson’s client. “So if you want to run your mouth outside of court, I’m going to do everything I can to prove my case. This is unprofessional, you calling the DA and telling them I’m out of control. It’s unprofessional and it’s childish.”

They continued discussing the issue while other attorneys and bystanders watched, and Tatum began indicating he would consider taking some kind of action if Gallenson questioned his police work again with the District Attorney’s Office.

“If you call the DA’s office again and say I’m out of control and that you have issues ...” said Tatum.

Gallenson stood up, folded his hands in front of his torso and said: “What?”

“I’ll call the (California) Bar Association, OK? Because court is the time to bring something like that up, not trying to ruin my reputation or try to make me look bad,” Tatum said.

Several weeks after that courthouse confrontation in 2014, about 10 defense attorneys gathered at a conference table at Andrian and Gallenson’s office to discuss their concerns about Tatum. They agreed to submit declarations in each other’s cases when Tatum was an arresting officer, and provide information about his behavior toward them and their clients.

They’ve done so in several cases so far.

Tatum was expected to testify as a witness on March 1, 2016, in a Sonoma County courtroom when instead he conducted a traffic stop on Highway 101 between Rohnert Park and Santa Rosa, according to Sebastopol criminal defense attorney Izaak Schwaiger, who described the incident in an interview as well as in a declaration filed in court. A judge was scheduled to consider Schwaiger’s argument alleging Tatum conducted an unlawful warrantless search and so the evidence taken should be inadmissible.

But Tatum did not show up in court. Instead, Tatum pulled over a vehicle for speeding and tailgating, according to the court files.

The driver, Luis Carnero, said he was driving about 5 mph above the speed limit. He said Tatum immediately started asking Carnero and his passenger if they had cash or drugs in the car. In an interview, Carnero described his encounter with Tatum as “one of the worst experiences of my life.”

“He started immediately getting aggressive,” Carnero said. “My friend with me is a bit flashy, he wears jewelry, and Tatum, he immediately labeled us as drug dealers.”

Tatum searched the vehicle and their luggage, finding a few grams of marijuana they had purchased at a San Francisco dispensary. He seized the rental vehicle and both men’s cellphones, and ultimately gave Carnero a citation for driving without a license, according to the documents.

Carnero had a valid Texas driver’s license, but he had moved from Texas to San Francisco a little more than a month before the traffic stop. Tatum said Carnero had failed to acquire a California driver’s license in a timely manner, according to Carnero.

A judge ultimately dismissed the case against Carnero, but he was still on the hook for more than $1,000 in fees from the rental car company because the vehicle was impounded.

Carnero said he was so troubled by the encounter that he agreed to testify in an unrelated case in Sonoma County Superior Court about his encounter with Tatum, in an effort to provide context about an alleged pattern of behavior by the officer. His testimony ultimately was not needed and the case was dismissed.

Schwaiger, Carnero’s lawyer, said he’s handled several cases with Tatum as the arresting officer, including a case when he argued Tatum provided false information on the stand.

Tatum “has no business to be wearing a badge,” Schwaiger said, “and quite frankly I’m glad to hear he’s not anymore.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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