May 2012 - “Dispatches From Lesotho”: The Good Justice Examines Urban—Well, Kind Of Urban—Crime

 by Justice William W. Bedsworth

Get hold of a map of Africa.1 On mine, South Africa is yellow. And due south of Johannesburg, surrounded on all sides by nothing but South Africa, there’s a pink circle of about 30,000 square miles. That’s Lesotho, a tiny kingdom that sticks out on the map of South Africa like a Dalmatian in a room full of Labradors.

Lesotho is there because the Brits and the Boers and the Zulu could never quite make the Basotho people go away. If you saw the movie Zulu, you were seeing a small piece of the history of the Basotho, although the movie was mostly concerned with Michael Caine and his troops at Rorke’s Drift, and the Basotho were just literal and figurative spear carriers.

After Shaka Zulu2 failed to subjugate them, the Basotho took on the Dutch and the British and fought them to a standstill for another half-century. Finally, in 1884, the larger nations gave up and let them have their little pink circle south of Johannesburg. And they’re still there.

I mention this because I happen to live in California’s own Lesotho: Laguna Beach. Laguna Beach is a semi-independent enclave, completely engulfed by Orange County.

It’s a tiny little artists’ colony Alamo, surrounded by Santa Anna’s3 army of well-armed Philistine occupiers. They’ve done battle for about a century now and the rest of Orange County has just tired out and decided to let this town of 25,000 have its little pink circle of nonconformity.

Laguna is as different from Orange County as Lesotho is from South Africa. Orange County is conservative, Laguna is liberal. Orange County is a major metropolis, Laguna is all about open space. Orange County is comfortable in the 21st Century, Laguna is fighting to preserve 1930. So help me, I’m surprised I don’t need to go through a decompression chamber to keep from getting the bends when I go to work.

I love the place—which is probably enough to convince you to give it a wide berth—and I’ve been trying for years to find a way to explain Laguna, to give voice to my adopted town.

But, like Hemingway bemoaning the fact he could not write The Great American Novel because Fitzgerald had already written it4, I find someone else has beaten me to the punch. One of Joseph Espiritu’s “Crime in Your Neighborhood” police blotter columns in the Laguna News-Post said what I’ve always wanted to say about Laguna much better than I ever could.

Espiritu managed to capture the place without a long string of adjectives and metaphors. He just reported a week’s worth of crime from The World’s Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum. Some excerpts:

“Saturday, 8:53 pm: “A caller said teenagers riding in a Ford Explorer, yanked a statue out of his front yard.”

People in Laguna have statues in their front yards. I have lived all over California—socal and norcal—and I never lived anywhere people had statues in their front yards.5 In Laguna …lots of statuary. My favorite is a full-size—and completely random—giraffe. In a front yard.  Next to a church.

“Sunday, 8:47 am: 400 block South Coast Highway. A caller said a woman kept on unplugging hotel items and harassing other employees.”

I’ve been working in criminal law for forty years, and this is a crime I’d never heard of. You got a gripe against a hotel? You just walk in and start unplugging all their stuff. Brilliant!

“Sunday, 4:36 pm: A caller said a member of a neighbor’s spiritual sweat lodge urinated on his yard.”

Honest. That’s what it says. If you can read that sentence without laughing at the breathtaking lunacy of a place where the police get called out on that, then you have been correct in taking up residence somewhere else. For me … that’s catnip.

I mean, somewhere in my town is a guy who has a sweat lodge. And what’s more, he has a spiritual sweat lodge group. And one of them urinated on his neighbor’s yard and the neighbor called the police.

Other towns have Bunco clubs and fantasy baseball leagues. Mine has spiritual sweat lodge groups who mark their territory.

“Monday, 10:18 am: A caller said three men who were setting up band instruments were scary to pass by.”

This is listed in the police blotter as a “disturbance.” In Laguna, scary guys setting up band instruments is a “disturbance.” In other places, scary guys setting up grenade launchers don’t get a second look. This really is a criminal backwater.

“Monday: A caller said her upstairs neighbor accused her of stealing a vibrator and called her a derogatory name.” This is—for several reasons—a paradigmatic Laguna crime. I don’t know how good a shot you have to be to get hired by the LBPD. I don’t know how good a driver you have to be or how well you have to know the laws of search and seizure or techniques of crowd control. But you absolutely have to be able to keep a straight face. God bless the cops who got sent out on this call.6

“Tuesday, 7:18 am: A caller said someone left a small animal skull on her doorstep.”

If this were my house, the “suspect” would be my cat, Bronko. But since it wasn’t, I think maybe someone oughta be looking into that sweat lodge bunch.

Again, pity the poor cops. “One Adam 12, One Adam 12, see the woman: small animal skull on doorstep.” The dispatcher doesn’t tell them what in hell they’re supposed to do about the small animal skull on the doorstep. Just handle it.

“Tuesday, 12:21 pm: A caller said a neighbor was beating on his door with a wooden stick, causing minor paint damage.”

Honest, folks. I’m not making these up. Nor am I omitting the ordinary garden-variety crime. This was, admittedly, a week without the usual DUI’s, drug busts, and warrant arrests, but other than that, this is a column I could have written just about any time in the last decade if I’d thought of it.

“Wednesday, 4:26 pm: A caller said two men in their mid-40’s were screaming, with one standing on top of a rock with his pants off.”

This is the kind of thing that inspires despair in the minds of fiction writers. You sit around for days on end, trying to think up something truly imaginative, and some guy punches in 911 on his phone and in eight seconds comes up with something better than your best, peyote-assisted inventions.

And what’s more, the prose is impeccable. The sentence builds to a spectacular climax, every word making the scene more bizarre, leaving the reader reeling, struggling with every fiber of her being to put all the elements together in a picture her brain will not just reject outright. I don’t know whether it’s Joseph Espiritu or Anonymous Caller, but I wanted to applaud when I finished that entry.

Which brings us to my one quibble with The Great American Police Blotter Story. The next entry. “Thursday, 7:17: A caller said someone stole his 1991 Toyota 4Runner’s catalytic converter and muffler.” 

Talk about anticlimactic. I mean, that’s going from the pièce de résistance to a piece of pie. Muffler theft? That’s just a crime. That could happen anywhere. 

Granted, it’s a pretty goofy crime. I mean somebody wriggled along the asphalt on his back and stole the muffler and catalytic converter from a twenty-year-old Toyota?  What’s next, the seat covers from a ‘78 Dodge?

But it can’t begin to follow a middle-aged man standing on a rock with no pants on, screaming calumnies7 at another middle-aged man. That was iconic. That was shirts-versus-skins derangement. That was Waiting for Godot with nudity and noise. That was literature.

This … this catalytic converter theft … this is merely strange. 

You can’t follow Shakespeare with How I Met Your Mother. You can’t follow The Firebird Suite with a Pontiac Firebird. When you get to pantsless men standing on rocks and hollering, you just gotta stop. 

Which is what I’m going to do. Time for me to join my fellow Basotho at the sweat lodge.

Beds Notes

  1. What am I saying, “get hold of a map”?  Turn on your computer and call up a map of Africa. Go ahead; I’ll wait. This is the MCLE portion of today’s program.
  2. While it didn’t get the notices Zulu got, and requires a lot more patience, the 1986 miniseries Shaka Zulu is also worth watching.
  3. That would be the general, not the city.
  4. The Great Gatsby. 
  5. Well, maybe they did in San Francisco. Nothing about San Francisco would surprise me.
  6. Note there is no time stamp on this call. When you have a day with this much nefarious behavior going on, you really can’t allow yourself to get bogged down in detail.
  7. I assume they were calumnies. You don’t take off your pants and crawl onto a rock to shout at someone that he’s a male Caucasian of average intelligence with graying brown hair. You do it to shout hateful lies.


William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.