A shooting that left one man dead and another a quadriplegic isn’t usually what happens at gatherings of the Rainbow Family of the Living Light.
These every-so-often sojourns in national forests of a loosely-knit clan of social outcasts, whose only workload is to serve the needs of their nomadic entourage, have a reputation for being generally peaceable, although rarely strictly law-abiding.
And so it seemed a jarring contrast that an Apalachicola courtroom last Friday would hear a man invoking Florida’s “stand your ground” legal protections following a Rainbow Gathering three years ago. at Wrights Lake in the Apalachicola National Forest.
Looking clean-cut, wearing a jacket and tie, Clark Mayers, 42, of Milledgeville, Georgia, took the stand in his own defense and contended he was in fear of his life, or serious injury, when in the early morning hours of March 5, 2015, he fired three bullets into 26-year-old Wesley “Dice” Jones, crippling him for life, and then pumped two more into Jacob “Smiley” Cardwell, from Golden Valley, Arizona, killing him.
“I felt like I was in jeopardy,” he said, under questioning from his attorney, Richard H. Smith, of Tallahassee. “At the time I fired, I felt it was a last resort to save my life.”
Assistant State Attorney Jarred Patterson countered with four prosecution eyewitnesses, including Jones, whose version of events were all at odds with Mayers’ claims. The prosecutor said Mayers approached where the argument began, at a burning tire not far from the river’s edge, with an Imez Makarov .380 semi-automatic tucked under his left arm.
When the argument got heated, Mayers brandished his weapon and shot Jones, who was already missing his left leg and most of his right arm, and then killed Cardwell, Patterson argued, and that there was no evidence or other testimony that the shovel Jones admitted carrying delivered, as Mayers claimed, a potentially lethal blow.
“You did not fall down, you did not stagger backwards,” he said. “It did not cause you to drop the gun.”
If Circuit Judge Terry Lewis rules this week Patterson failed to put forth clear and convicting evidence Mayers was not, in fact, “standing his ground” when the shooting occurred, then the defendant will be immune from further criminal prosecution on the two felonies he is charged with, second degree murder and aggravated battery with a firearm. Mayers also would be afforded further legal protections in the event of a civil trial.
Because the prior legal standard, amended in 2017 by the Florida legislature, required the defense to prove by a preponderance of the evidence the Stand Your Ground criteria, Lewis opened the hearing by noting he would issue a written ruling covering both standards set forth in the law. In an earlier decision in a separate case, Lewis ruled the newer standard, which places the burden of proof more squarely on the prosecution, could not be applied retroactively.
“We all agree the law is across-the-board different,” said the judge. “I’ll take it under both standards.”
Female witness can’t be located
Before any of the witnesses were called. Patterson told Lewis a key eyewitness, Angelica “Katt” McDonald, had absconded after violating her probation, and could not be located. “We don’t know where she is. We can’t find her,” he said.
Patterson relied first on a live video feed from Jones, who is being cared for in Missouri. A notary public, Karen Sue Bennett, attested she was the only other person in the room during the testimony and cross-examination.
Jones, who frequently punctuated his testimony with “yes sir,” said he and Katt, Smiley and Jeremy “Jude” Strickland were reveling at a tire fire they had set ablaze, when Mayers approached and started yelling they put out the foul-smelling flames.
“We told him to mind his own business and get away,” said Jones, who took drinks of water during his testimony from a bottle held by the notary public.
He said Mayers came back 10 minutes later with a camera, “one of those cheap digital ones you buy at Wal-Mart,” and began videotaping.
“Everybody was just asking him not to videotape us,” Jones said. “I grabbed the camera from him and threw it in the fire.”
Jones said the entire incident happened quickly and that the last thing he recalled was Cardwell yelling “no guns in the church” before he, too was gunned down.
In his cross-examination, Smith relied heavily on a deposition taken in summer of 2016, characterizing through his questions that Jones was a troubled young man with drug, alcohol and anger issues.
He said Jones spent much of his childhood in group homes, as a ward of the state of Missouri, and after being treated for psychological problems at age 15, had stopped taking the medication prescribed for him.
“It was so long ago I don’t remember,” said Jones, the nub of his right arm frequently fluttering like a broken wing under his shirt.
Jones said he was drinking the morning before the late night encounter, but sobered up in the afternoon when he drove his ex-girlfriend for a two-hour trip to Weems Memorial Hospital in Apalachicola. He said he did not resume drinking in the afternoon after they returned.
Jones said he saw Mayers earlier at the gathering, and while he didn’t know him, knew he had come to the Rainbow Gathering the year before with a fire extinguisher to put out the flames of a tire fire.
Smith asked Jones “where did you steal it (the tire) from?” and he said it had come from a nearby school bus driven by one of the Rainbows.
“It was pumping out a good bit of black smoke?” asked Smith.
“Yes sir,” replied Jones. “It’s a fire.”
The quadriplegic eyewitness denied he had anger issues, and said he hadn’t punched Mayers or struck him in the head with the shovel.
“I didn’t touch him physically,” said Jones. “I just took the camera. I just moved the gun (with the shovel.) I didn’t strike him, I didn’t touch him.”
Conflicting stories on exactly what happened
Strickland testified that on the night in question he helped secure the tire, a jug of water and a shovel, and that he had been drinking at the time “but not beyond self-control and remembering.”
He said that after leaving the fireside to talk with an ex-girlfriend, he returned to find Mayers and Jones arguing.
“I noticed the hilt of a gun,” he said. “That’s when he drew the gun and pointed it at Wesley and I. He drew the firearm on us.
“We’re trying to talk him down, telling him ‘you’re not a killer, you’re not going to kill anybody,'” said Strickland, noting that he hadn’t seen a shovel in Jones’ hands.
He said the initial shots were fired, he heard a lot of shooting, but hadn’t seen Cardwell get shot in the confusion. He said he saw no one lay hands on Mayers, and that the only threat from Jones had been to throw Mayer’s cellphone in the fire, after having thrown the digital camera into it.
In his cross examination, Smith asked Strickland what kind of whisky he had been drinking. “Cheap,” he replied. “Blended whiskey.”
He said he started drinking in the afternoon, but stopped before the fire started, after the bottle was emptied.
Smith pressed Strickland why he hadn’t told deputies about Jones throwing the camera in the fire, and Strickland owned up to the omission, but denied that it was to not get Jones in trouble. He described the shovel, which was never recovered by law enforcement, as a wooden one, about three feet long.
Also appearing were witnesses Brian Achison, who said he had not seen the shootings, but was awakened by gunshots in the melee that followed, which he described as Mayers filed wildly, even stopping to reload, and Joshua Peter Campbell, who said he noticed no blood on Mayers’ face when he ran to the scene.
The alleged blood on Mayers’ face, from a head wound caused by Jones’ shovel, was a key part of Mayers’ testimony. He said he suffered a “deep penetrating laceration” across his brow that caused him severe pain just prior to shooting Jones.
He said that he last worked a regular job in 2009, due to his juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which requires him to take at least three medications per day.
During the weeks prior to the Wrights Lake gathering, he had been traveling with the Rainbows, living out of a converted cargo trailer he towed behind his truck. He said his role with the Rainbows was to routinely gather firewood, and collect garbage and trash, so as to leave the forest “cleaner than when we got there.”
Mayers said he parked in the Apalachicola forest so as to avoid both the “A Camp,” which was frequented by alcoholics, and the “project kids,” who he said were “rough, rowdy and disruptive.”
After making trips to the Big Top in Eastpoint, and to Blountstown earlier in the day, he had returned to the forest, and not used either alcohol or drugs before going to sleep by 10 p.m.
Mayers said he needed gun for bears, gators
Mayers said a loud “lovers spat” outside his trailer awoke him at about midnight, and that he dressed and went outside, with his gun under his arm, with a single magazine in it, and asked the two people to take their argument elsewhere.
He told Patterson he took the gun because he was in “an area with black bears, alligators (and could be) confronted with an angry dog.” He also confirmed under cross examination that he had been threatened the previous year over a tire fire.
He said that once outside, he smelled the pungent “toxic smoke” of the fire, and walked over to the site. “I was going to offer them trashbags to haul it off,” Mayers said.
He said as he began videotaping, Jones, who he recognized from the previous year, punched him in the jaw, threw the digital camera in the fire and picked up the shovel. He said Jones and Strickland both moved towards him and began backing him up to his trailer, which earlier in the hearing, retired Deputy Kevin Shuman had estimated was about 20 to 25 yards from the fire.
“When they started to advance towards me, I drew my gun and pointed it at (Jones),” Mayers testified. “I retreated all the way to where my back was against my trailer.
“I commanded them to back off. I yelled at them approximately 12 times to stop,” he said. “I was cornered; I had nowhere else to go.”
Mayers said that after shooting Jones, he fired at Cardwell after he charged at him with a machete. “I don’t remember him saying anything,” he said. “I was trembling and shaking on what occurred.”
Mayers said he then took “four or five breaths” and went into his truck to call 911, but was unable to get a signal. Law enforcement officials have said a difficulty with routing the wireless calls led to a delay in the emergency response. No 911 recordings were played at the hearing.
Mayers said he was dragged from his truck and attacked by Rainbows. In the melee, he said he suffered 28 stab wounds and lacerations, broken ribs and elbow, and second degree burns from his exhaust pipe after trying to roll under his truck. He said he learned later, after spending two weeks at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital that the injuries were inflicted by a splitting maul.
Patterson contended any head injuries suffered by Mayers came after the shooting, not before. “They (the eyewitnesses) didn’t see it because it wasn’t there,” he said. “The way the defendant described it, it would have been obvious to everybody, a huge gash pouring blood down his face.
“The aftermath is the aftermath,” said Patterson. “That all happened after.”
Amy George, the crime scene technician for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said she was unable to find any clips or shell casings after a search with a metal detector. “It was apparent to me that they were removed,” she said.
Smith stressed the scrubbed-clean scene, and mistakes he said law enforcement made in securing evidence, such as not analyzing blood samples found on Mayers’ trailer, in his closing statement.
“They (The Rainbows) took them away so nobody can come here and testify what happened,” he said. “What these witnesses testified to is not what happened.”