Will Foster became a poster child for the mindless cruelties of the drug war more than a decade ago. The Tulsa small businessman and medical marijuana user -- he suffers from degenerative arthritis -- was raided by police with a warrant for a methamphetamine lab back in 1993. Police found no meth, but they did find a small marijuana garden. The unfortunate Foster was quickly sentenced to a mind-blowing 93 years in prison.
It took a growing national movement and, ultimately, an Oklahoma Supreme Court decision to get that sentence redressed. After the state high court threw out his sentence, Foster was resentenced to 20 years, twice denied parole, then finally paroled to the more medical marijuana-friendly state of California, where he moved in temporarily with "Guru of Ganja" Ed Rosenthal, who had testified in his defense in Oklahoma and then befriended him.
And they all lived happily ever after, right? Wrong. Although Foster settled into a law-abiding life in Northern California, picking up a new family along the way, and successfully completed what the state of California considered an adequate parole period, that wasn't good enough for the state of Oklahoma. Upset that California officials hadn't kept him on parole as long as they would have, Oklahoma parole officials demanded that he return to that benighted state to finish his parole and when he, perhaps understandably, declined, issued a warrant for his arrest for violating the terms of his parole.
Nothing came of that until Foster had his ID checked in a police encounter, but then, the pending Oklahoma warrant popped up, and Foster was jailed in California to be returned to Oklahoma to finish the rest of his sentence. With nothing to lose, Foster fought the warrant by filing a writ of habeas corpus and winning its dismissal in the California courts in 2006.
Once again, Foster was a free man, but Oklahoma still wasn't done with him. Oklahoma parole officials then offered to reinstate him in the interstate compact, which governs the supervision of parolees who parole to states other than the one in which they were sentenced, but then added that they had made a mistake when originally calculating the length of his parole period. His parole didn't end in 2011, but in 2015, they said, demanding he sign a document to that effect. Again, perhaps understandably, Foster declined that offer, and again, the state of Oklahoma issued another warrant for his arrest for violating the terms of his parole.
By then, Foster had moved to Santa Rosa, California, about 50 miles north of San Francisco, and made a home with a local woman, Susie Mueller, and her three daughters. There, he had a medical marijuana grow, all completely legal under state law and county guidelines. But he also had a vindictive ex-girlfriend, who told law enforcement officials he was operating a major marijuana grow operation.
The next thing Foster and Mueller knew, DEA agents and Sonoma County sheriff's deputies were kicking down their door, the couple was arrested on state marijuana cultivation charges, and Mueller's youngest daughter was taken into custody as an endangered child.
"It was terrible," said Mueller. "They did a full-on raid and arrested him over seven mature plants, and they arrested me and took my daughter away. They thought because he knew Ed there was something big going on. They said if I told them where the other grows were, they wouldn't arrest me and take my daughter. I told them that's all there was and that he was within the guidelines, and they said 'take her kid,' and they arrested me."
A hard-nosed Sonoma County prosecutor delayed months before dropping the baseless charges, and Foster sat in the Sonoma County Jail the whole time. But even after the charges were dropped, Foster remains behind bars, fighting the extradition warrant back to Oklahoma. It's now going on 16 months of imprisonment for him.
"In their warrant, they said I violated the terms and conditions of parole in Oklahoma, then fled Oklahoma to escape justice," Foster said Wednesday in a phone call from the jail. "But I haven't been back in Oklahoma since I left in 2001. I successfully finished parole here, I beat back that earlier extradition effort, and they're still coming after me."
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger routinely signed off on the Oklahoma warrant without knowing all the facts, Foster said. "The governor has not been given all the information. Oklahoma didn't tell him I had finished parole, had an earlier extradition attempt thrown out, or that they had tried to extend my parole six years after the fact," he pointed out.
Neither the California nor the Oklahoma governors' offices nor Oklahoma parole officials responded to Chronicle inquiries about the Foster case.
Now, with his options running out, Foster and his supporters are pursuing two strategies, one political and one judicial. The first is aimed at the two governors, urging them to revoke the warrants. The second is to file another writ of habeas corpus, which Foster said he would do at the end of this month.
"I am asking the governor of Oklahoma to recall the warrant and commute my sentence and let me live in peace in California and just leave me alone," he said. "I'm asking Gov. Schwarzenegger to not honor the extradition request. There is case law suggesting that he does not have to grant extradition; he can deny it and recall his warrant."
Ed Rosenthal is leading the campaign to free Foster. On his blog is complete information about how to contact the two governors to ask them to recall the warrants.
"Every human being whose life is disrupted because of the marijuana laws deserves our attention, but Will's case is important first because people already know about the terrible injustice done to him back in Oklahoma, and second because it's just so weird and egregious," said Rosenthal. "People just shake their heads and say this shouldn't be happening. We're trying to get him out, and we're trying to bring this injustice to the attention of people who don't already know about it," he said.
"Apparently, Oklahoma has a lot of money to burn on this vindictiveness," he noted. "This is a sad and stupid case."
It's costing cash-strapped California, too. The cost for imprisoning Foster for the past 15 months is now in excess of $100,000, and that doesn't include the cost of the bogus marijuana cultivation prosecution.
"I'll be filing a habeas writ on June 29," Foster said, "and the state will have 15 days to respond. There will probably be a hearing in 30 days."
It's unusual for habeas writs to be granted, and Foster is uncertain about his prospects for victory, but is prepared for the long haul. "If I don't win there, I can drag this out for years. I could go all the way to the California Supreme Court, and then into the federal courts. But that would require that I continue to sit here in jail," he said.
Susie Mueller visits Foster in jail almost every day. "This is heartbreaking for me, it's very emotionally difficult because he shouldn't be in there," she said. "But I'm really devoted to him. I go almost every night, and we talk for an hour and play tic-tic-toe and go over the case."
In one of the strange ironies of Foster's ordeal, Mueller said she had gathered signatures for petitions seeking his release when he was imprisoned in Oklahoma a decade ago. "I met him at work here in Santa Rosa and didn't even realize he was that Will Foster," she laughed. "What a coincidence."
"Ed and Susie are the best advocates a guy could have," said Foster. "I'm so grateful for all they're doing."
For Foster, Oklahoma's efforts to punish him further are not about justice, but vengeance. "I beat them on the sentencing, I beat them on the first extradition warrant, and they want to teach me a lesson," he said. "They want to impose their authority."
Right now, the decision to extradite Foster back to Oklahoma
is up to the two governors and their extradition specialists.
An outpouring of public support in favor of allowing Foster to
remain in California as a free man could make the difference.
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