People v. Strohl

Citation57 Cal.App.3d 347,129 Cal.Rptr. 224
Decision Date19 April 1976
Docket NumberCr. 27581
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
PartiesThe PEOPLE of the State of California, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Jason Arthur STROHL, Defendant and Appellant.

Page 224

129 Cal.Rptr. 224
57 Cal.App.3d 347
The PEOPLE of the State of California, Plaintiff and Respondent,
Jason Arthur STROHL, Defendant and Appellant.
Cr. 27581.
Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 1, California.
April 19, 1976.

[57 Cal.App.3d 351]

Page 226

Earl M. Price, Beverly Hills, and Cheryl Krott, Burbank, for defendant and appellant.

Stanley M. Roden, Dist. Atty., and Patrick J. McKinley, Deputy Dist. Atty., Santa Barbara, for plaintiff and respondent.

HANSON, Associate Justice.


Defendant Jason Arthur Strohl (hereinafter defendant or Strohl), following a jury trial, appeals from judgment of conviction on four [57 Cal.App.3d 352] counts of giving and offering to give a bribe to the Chief Deputy Coroner of Santa Barbara County, Lawrence R. Gillespie (hereinafter Gillespie), with the intent of influencing his acts, decisions and opinion involving the disposition of the remains of indigent deceased, in violation of Penal Code section 67.

The prosecution claimed that defendant Strohl who operated the Neptune Society in the Santa Barbara County area, wanted to obtain an exclusive contract with the County of Santa Barbara for disposing of the unclaimed bodies of indigent deceased by cremation and dissemination at sea at the rate of $250 per case. 1 In furtherance of that objective defendant Strohl paid Gillespie certain moneys and was to continue to pay him for his assistance in his capacity as the county's Chief Deputy Coroner

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'X' dollars per unit (body); that on one occasion Strohl paid Gillespie $35 for funneling a body of an indigent deceased to the Neptune Society contrary to the established procedures for handling such matters.

Defendant denied an intent to bribe Gillespie and asserted the defense of entrapment.


Defendant Strohl went to Santa Barbara County in August 1974 for the purpose of establishing the office of the Neptune Society, a legitimately licensed organization, created primarily as 'an alternative to the high cost of dying' by providing low cost burial service for its members. He owned a 90 percent interest in Neptune Society's operation in Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties under a limited partnership agreement with the parent company which retained a 10 percent interest. The Neptune Society owned a 100-foot yacht named 'K'THANGA' and chartered a 50-foot yacht named 'CHEYENNE' for purposes of dissemination of human ashes at sea.

At the time Strohl opened operations in Santa Barbara County, Gillespie was employed by the county in the duay capacity as a Deputy Sheriff and Chief Deputy Coroner. Gillespi's work as Chief Deputy Coroner was physically conducted from the sheriff's office and his badge and identification papers identified him as 'Deputy Coroner-Deputy Sheriff.' In his capacity as Chief Deputy Coroner, Gillespie's duties [57 Cal.App.3d 353] were those enumerated in the Government Code which included the responsibilities of investigating all deaths relating to trauma or non-natural causes and all deaths in which the decedent had not seen a physician in the previous 20 days, signing all death certificates, reviewing all cases within the coroner's jurisdiction, disposing of all property and the remains of any decedent, and notifying next of kin, if any. He had the further responsibility of advising county officials regarding contracts for services with private coroners.

Upon his arrival in Santa Barbara, Strohl contacted Gillespie to explain to him how the bodies of card-carrying members of Neptune Society were handled, and sought information regarding whom to contact to discuss a possible contract between Neptune Society and Santa Barbara County in relation to the handling of indigent and welfare cases in need of burial services.

In September 1974 Gillespie received an invitation from Strohl to attend a boat cruise on October 1, 1974, courtesy of the Nepture Society, which he refused.

In early October 1974 defendant Strohl was contacted by a Mrs. Evelyn Dudley, who stated she had heard of Neptune Society's services, and expressed interest in becoming a member. During the course of their converstation, Mrs. Dudley told Strohl she had terminal cancer and was contemplating suicide and would like to avoid an autopsy and embalming, if possible. Strohl thereafter attempted to contact Gillespie to clarify legal procedures in regard to autopsy and embalming.

On October 15, 1974, Mrs. Dudley committed suicide and a coroner's investigation into her death was conducted. Strohl was interviewed by Gillespie on October 21, 1974, in connection with Mrs. Dudley's death because there was some suspicion as to Strohl's role in her death since he had been named by her as a responsible person for her estate, and there was evidence that he had prior knowledge of her imminent demise and had attempted to bypass normal autopsy procedures in disposing of her body.

Although the coroner's office and Deputy Gillespie's investigation resulted in no criminal findings, and the investigation on the Dudley case was closed on October 24, 1974, the investigative unit of the sheriff's office continued its investigation into Strohl's activities, having information that Strohl and/or Neptune Society was attempting

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tempting to influence [57 Cal.App.3d 354] officials in counties other than Santa Barbara. Since Strohl had previously requested that Gillespie provide him with the name or names of persons whom he should contact regarding a possible contract with Santa Barbara County, Gillespie put him in touch with an undercover agent, Deputy Robert Norton, who used the name 'Bob Justin' and posed as a representative of another mortuary establishment.

On November 2, 1974, Deputy Robert Norton, using the name 'Bob Justin,' attended a Neptune Society boat cruise similar to the one which Gillespie had been invited to attend on October 1 but had refused. Deputy Norton testified at the trial that his purposes for being there were in connection with the Dudley matter and possible involvement of coroner oficials of counties other than Santa Barbara. When Deputy Norton arrived at the yacht 'K'THANGA,' he was introduced to Strohl and, among others, a person involved in the coroner's office of Ventura County. After a drink or two, Strohl took Norton ('Bob Justin') from the yacht 'K'THANGA' to the yacht 'CHEYENNE' which was docked next to it. Deputy Norton testified at the trial that while they were alone in the salon of the 'CHEYENNE,' Strohl stated that 'he was going to meet with Larry on a Monday, and he wanted to be friends with Larry, and he was going to offer maybe Larry $500 or a color TV' and that 'if he did not have Larry as a partoner (sic) that without him he couldn't succeed if he had to go through with a bid, something on a bid, that he needed Larry and Larry's help and expertise.' Deputy Norton further testified he advised Strohl that the best way to approach Gillespie would be to do it legally, but Strohl said that 'he would rather pay Larry than somebody else to keep it in the family.'

On November 4, 1974, at approximately 11 a.m., Deputy Norton had a telephone conversation with Strohl which was tape recorded. Norton testified that the gist of the conversation was that he (Strohl) was going to meet Gillespie that afternoon and that Strohl said 'that he felt without Larry's assistance, again, he would be out in left field. He had to have Larry to work with him. He stated that. I then stated to him that the approach to do it legally would be the best approach and he stated that he would rather pay Larry than somebody else to keep it in the family.'

Later, during the evening of the same day, November 4, 1974, Deputy Norton had another short telephone conversation with Strohl and testified that the gist of the conversation was that Strohl said 'he (Strohl) had approached Larry, made Larry a proposition and Larry [57 Cal.App.3d 355] told him that he would have to think about it. Larry went home and in turn called Mr. Strohl back at a later time and Mr. Strohl told me that he was under the opinion that Larry would go the whole bit, the whole route, he would go all the way. Those would be quotes, and that was the gist of the conversation.'

On November 4, 1974, between the two telephone conversations of the same day between Norton and Strohl, referred to above, Strohl met with Gillespie in the interview room at Gillespie's office, and their conversation was tape recorded. The transcribed tape recording contained the following statements made by Strohl to Gillespie: '. . . you want X number of dollars per unit, you get X number of dollars per unit. 2 You want this, you want some type thing, you name it.' When Gillespie indicated his concern about putting his 'neck in a noose,' Strohl reassured him by saying: 'I told you once, I ain't gonna burn you, I wouldn't put your neck in a loop . . . discretely (sic). When any person puts this type of package together, . . . it isn't done overnight--I wanted it done completely.' Gillispie indicated

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to Strohl that he needed time to think it over.

On the same day, November 4, 1974, at approximately 7 p.m., Strohl and Gillespie had a telephone conversation which was also tape recorded. During this conversation Strohl told Gillespie the 'deal' was still available, and the two started to negotiate the amount of the payoff per case (body) from Strohl to Gillespie. 3

[57 Cal.App.3d 356] On November 12, 1974, at approximately 12:30 p.m., Strohl met Gillespie at Tucker's Grove Park in Santa Barbara. Defendant Strohl got into Gillespie's car, and their conversation was recorded by use of a tape recorder concealed in the vehicle. Gillespie testified that during this meeting Strohl suggested that he (Gillespie) sign a note for $1,000 (purportedly to pay Gillespie's wife's medical expenses) so if their 'deal' was ever disclosed they would have 'something to cover both of us.' When...

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    ...Penal Code § 68. Ministerial acts under California law “leave nothing to the exercise of discretion or judgment.” People v. Strohl , 57 Cal.App.3d 347, 361, 129 Cal.Rptr. 224 (Ct. App. 1976). An officer thus need not be paid for a discretionary act to meet the elements of § 68. In any case,......
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