Just before 9 A.M. on October 2nd, 1992, a drug task force made up of Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents, National Park Service officials and others drove swiftly through an open ranch gate on Mulholland Highway in Malibu, California.
The caravan of more than a dozen vehicles, kicked up dust as they careened down the rutted dirt road past the giant oak trees. Those ancient oak trees once laid witnessed the Chumash Indians that inhabited this land, on this morning it was federal, state, and local law enforcement zoom past.
Donald P. Scott, age 61, owned and lived on a 200-acre property known as the Trails End Ranch, 35247 Mulholland Highway, in the Ventura County portion of Malibu. California. He resided at the home with his young wife Frances Plante Scott. Scott was a multi-millionaire, his family’s fortune was made largely from an interest in a European-based chemical company. He was described as an eccentric by some, and colorful by others. He lived an interesting life, educated in Switzerland, he spoke fluent French, and as a younger man he had a flaming romance in the 1960s with French-born actress Corinne Calvet. However, he found his greatest joy in standing by his ranch gate alongside his 1977 GMC utility truck, and shooting the bull with neighbors.
Scott also resided on a very interesting parcel of land. The 200 acres of land the made up the Scott ranch was surrounded by a national park, and worth an estimated five million dollars. The ranch is adjacent to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which is administered by the National Park Service. For several years prior to this incident, the Park Service had been buying up land from others in the area, and at the time of Scott’s death his land was virtually surrounded by the park. Due to the location of the Scott ranch, the land was very valuable to the Park Service, and on several occasions they approached Mr. Scott with enticing offers. On each occasion he turned them down.
Deputy Gary R. Spencer had been a peace officer for 15 years, including 9 years as deputy sheriff for Los Angeles County. Spencer had been a narcotics officer since 1989, and in 1991 he claims received a tip, that tip would eventually lead to the death of Donald Scott.
In November of 1991, Spencer states that an informant told him Frances Plante (the wife of Donald Scott) was frequenting the Malibu area and acting suspiciously. The informant stated that Plante had a big wad of $100 bills, paid for small purchases with $100 bills, and tipped heavily. Spencer states that the informant gave him the license number of the BMW Plante was driving, which Spencer states was registered to Donald Scott at the Trails End Ranch. Spencer states that since he was unable to find an address for the Trails End Ranch, he merely filed away this information.
In September, 1992, Spencer received information from a second confidential informant. The second informant stated that 3,000 to 4,000 marijuana plants were growing on a ranch on Mulholland in Malibu occupied by Frances Plante and Donald Scott and that Anthony Tomkiewicz was involved in the cultivation. The informant also said that Frances Plante made statements indicating that she had personal knowledge of growing marijuana. Spencer received information from another law enforcement agency that the informant was reliable and had assisted law enforcement in the past.
On September 9, 1992, Spencer called National Park Service Ranger, Tim Simonds. L.A. County narcotics detectives knew Simonds previously, they had worked together as part of a Marijuana Education Task Force, and Spencer thought that Simonds could assist in the investigation with maps and other resources. The following day Spencer, Deputy John Carter, and another deputy hiked to the top of a waterfall that looks over the Scott ranch. They could not see any marijuana from their location, and hiked back down. After a discussion with other L.A. County Sheriff officials and Simonds, they group decided that they should conduct an aerial surveillance of the property.
On that same day, Simonds arranged for the California National Guard to fly over the ranch in an RF-4 jet and take photos between September 13 and 19, 1992. At the time the National Park Service was part of “Operation Alliance”, which was a marijuana eradication project that could utilize the Air National Guard for aerial photography.
From September 14 to 16, 1992, Spencer attended a course on thermal imaging and indoor marijuana cultivation in South Lake Tahoe. The instructor was DEA Special Agent Charles A. Stowell. Stowell claimed to have extensive experience in recognizing marijuana from the air. He stated that he can identify marijuana because it has a color not found anywhere else in nature. As the Deputy Incident Commander for the California Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), he wanted to achieve a better working relationship between DEA and the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department (LASD). While in South Lake Tahoe, Spencer and Los Angeles Sheriffs Sgt. Robert W. Mueller told Stowell that an informant told them that approximately 3000 plants were being cultivated in a remote ranch in Malibu. They agreed to meet on September 22 to discuss the case further.
On September 22, 1992, Stowell met with members of the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department, DEA and the U.S. Forest Service. At the meeting, Spencer displayed the aerial photographs of the property taken by the California Air National Guard. However, Stowell stated that he could not identify cannabis plants because the photographs were in black and white. Although the respective law enforcement agents did not see marijuana in the photos they did claim to see what they considered an “illegal” watering system. Because the water appeared to come from a National Recreation Area, they felt it could be illegal, and that would allow the Forest Service cause to enter the property, but only at the request of the National Park Service.
According to the subsequent investigation into this incident by the District Attorney’s office, “The only ‘water system’ that can be seen is a pipe leading from the waterfall to a water tank, which supplies the water to the area where the buildings are located. The vegetation shown in the photographs is extremely dense, and no cultivated plants or foot paths can be identified.”
Spencer stated that LASD intended to get a search warrant for the ranch and requested DEA assistance. Stowell recommended that the area be reflown to confirm that cannabis was growing there. In a report he prepared after the shooting, Stowell stated that it was decided at the September 22 meeting that ground surveillance would be initiated to confirm the results of the overflight. LASD Sgt. Mueller arranged for LASD Deputy David Kitchings to fly his privately-owned, fixed-wing aircraft over the property with Stowell the next day.
On September 23, 1992, Kitchings and Stowell flew over the ranch for approximately 10 minutes. Stowell reported that he did not see any marijuana until the third “orbit” over the ranch, when he saw approximately 50 marijuana plants, located approximately 75 yards southwest of an outbuilding on the property. He stated that the plants were at staggered elevations, and had light underneath them. The plants were approximately 25 yards north of and parallel to a dirt road in line with the main residence-. He also described the location as being directly in line with the barn and out approximately 75 yards. Stowell checked the remainder of the property but did not locate a large d cannabis cultivation site. He stated that if there were 3000 plants on the property, they were well hidden or were in an outbuilding. Kitchings then conducted aerobatics to lessen suspicion that they were conducting surveillance.
Stowell had a camera in the plane during the September 23 flight but stated that he took no photographs. Stowell and other narcotics officers state that the usual procedure is to take photographs. A review of published cases involving overflights indicates that photographs are frequently attached to the search warrant affidavit. Stowell stated that he should have taken photographs, and could not explain why he had failed to do so (however in two reports, Stowell states that he was able to “rephotograph” the location in an October 5 flight over the Property).
Stowell states that while flying back to Sacramento, he thought about what he observed. He was unsure about the way the plants were distributed because he had never seen anything like that before. In a written statement, Spencer states that Stowell told him that he, Stowell, was concerned about the discrepancy between his observations and the informants statements and advised Spencer not to formulate a search warrant until Spencer took “further steps to eliminate the discrepancy.
On September 24, 1992, Stowell contacted LASD Sgts. Mueller and Boyce and recommended or requested that a ground team verily the results of the overflight. Stowell states that his reasons were that the cannabis plants had an unusual disbursement in trees near a drainage, appeared to be 3 to 4 feet in height, and had an unusual hollow or empty space below them. He stated that the plants were “spiked,” which means that they were planted late in the season to create a thinner, less bushy plant. He also stated that he was concerned that he had only seen approximately 50 plants but that the informant had said there were 3000 plants. Stowell told Mueller and Boyce that he did not want to be used as a source for the search warrant based only on his observations.
On either September 22 or 23, Forrest Ranger Mike Alt, at the request of deputy Spencer, contacted the U.S. Border Patrol in Bakersfield and asked that the Border Patrol”s “C-RAT” team assist the Forest Service with reconnaissance on the property. On the evening of September 24, 1992, Alt met at the Sheriffs Department with four members of the Border Patrol, along with Sergeant Boyce and Deputies Cater and Spencer. Border Patrol Agent Erik P. Dubbe was the commander of the mission, which the Border Patrol called “Operation Malibu.” The Border Patrol agents were outfitted with climbing gear, cameras, weapons, and other equipment. They all then went in a Sheriffs van to the area of the ranch. The team made three different trips to the property and failed to see any marijuana, let alone 3,000 plants.
On September 30, 1992, Spencer phoned Stowell and said that he spoke with the informant, and the informant said the expected yield was only approximately 40 pounds of marijuana and that the plants were suspended in the trees by “block and tackle.” Stowell said that this would explain the unusual disbursement and the light beneath the plants. Stowell has seen photographs from other cases of marijuana plants suspended in trees. Stowell and Spencer agreed that 40 pounds would be the expected yield for 40-50 plants. Stowell told Spencer that the marijuana could be harvested at any time.
Stowell noted in a report that “it was not until I received the above information from Spencer that I consented to allow my observations as part of his affidavit. That is NOT to say I was unsure, as I had seen the plants, but 50 is a long way from 3000 and I felt we could locate the rest of the plants as well.
Around the 22nd or 23rd of October the L.A. County Sheriffs did an undercover threat assessment. LASD Sargent Bill Marsh met with Spencer regarding possible SWAT entry into the house during the execution of a search warrant. Marsh and a NPS Ranger made arrangements to meet with the Scotts under the disguise of being interested in purchasing a puppy. (The Scotts raised and sold Rottweilers) On September 27th, Marsh and the agent went to the ranch and were met by Don and Frances. The Scotts gave them a tour of the property and took them to the waterfall. At his wifes urging Don gave the undercover officers a demonstration of his quick-draw expertise, using an engraved chrome plated .45 caliber. The visit was friendly and the Scotts invited the undercover officers to come back again and visit in the future.
Marsh reported back to Spencer after his visit to the ranch and told Spencer he felt the threat from the Scotts’ was minimal and that SWAT would not be necessary. He said that the threat was so low that they could just drive up to the house, and the Scott’s would let them inside.
In Part Two-The warrant, the raid, and the aftermath.

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