Last gold miners going on trial in manslaughter case
DOWNIEVILLE – Downstairs in the Sierra County Courthouse is a collection of 159 gold nugget replicas, homage to an earlier time when people risked their lives to pluck gold from the rivers and land.
Upstairs, the last remaining gold miners in the county faced criminal charges Tuesday.
Michael M. Miller, 60, owner and president of the Original Sixteen to One, and Jonathan T. Farrell, 32, the mine’s manager, were at a hearing on manslaughter charges in connection with a miner’s death.
Along with them were a dozen onlookers and a handful of mine employees.
Some say that more than the mine’s management is on trial. At stake is a way of life in Sierra County, where miners struck it rich during the Gold Rush, and where a few small operators continue to plumb the area’s rivers for gold.
“(Miller’s) the last true Californian,” said Don Potter, a Downieville restaurant owner who didn’t attend the hearing. “They’re all gone. They’re the only gold mine left doing anything. The state of California wants to shut down gold mining in California. They don’t want to be bothered with it.”
Operated continuously since 1911, the Alleghany mine has given up 1.1 million ounces of gold. (The mine’s name comes from the old worldwide bi-metallic monetary system that said 16 ounces of silver were worth one ounce of gold. The United States abandoned the system in 1873.)
But safety and environmental issues that would have gone unnoticed during its Gold Rush years have gotten more attention from modern-day regulators.
The operation has been cited more than 160 times since 1985 for broken ladders, blocked escape routes and other safety violations. Miller has also fought with state water quality regulators over claims that the mine was polluting Kanaka Creek with arsenic.
The mine has also suffered financially. The Pacific Stock Exchange delisted the mine’s stock in March after its price fell below $1 a share. Miller and the miners have gone without regular pay checks in search of gold.
In the most serious charges yet, Miller, Farrell and the mine face criminal charges of involuntary manslaughter and a willful violation of an occupational safety or health standard causing death. Involuntary manslaughter carries a possible penalty of two to four years in prison.
Hearings on the charges were put off until Jan. 10. Farrell and Miller had not hired attorneys, and were not prepared to make any pleas Tuesday.
Both Farrell and Miller have pleaded innocent to earlier charges in July that they violated occupational safety regulations that caused a death. Those charges were superceded by the current grand jury indictment and will be dropped.
The manslaughter charges were brought by a grand jury in October in connection with the Nov. 6, 2000, accidental death of miner Mark Raymond Fussell.
Fussell died when his head struck an ore chute while operating a mine locomotive in a reopened section of the mine. The unmarked chute was at head height, requiring the locomotive driver to duck.
Neither Miller, Farrell or Denise Mejlszenkier, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case, wanted to comment on the case Tuesday because of a gag order on the case.
The order was issued in October at the request of prosecutors.
Miller is known as a sometimes combative figure who has never shrunk from turning up the rhetoric in his battles with state officials. At one point, he named Gov. Gray Davis to the mine’s board without Davis’ knowledge or consent.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Miller complained about the gag order but that matter was deferred.
The case is being prosecuted by deputy district attorneys from the California District Attorneys Association, who approached Sierra County’s lame-duck district attorney with information there could be a case.
The visiting prosecutors are staff members in a state-funded attorneys association program, the Worker Safety Project, that provides rural areas with attorneys versed in employee safety issues.
Some of the people who attended the hearing as interested bystanders were willing to speak.
“This thing is probably the hottest issue since the Gold Rush,” said Donna Hayes, a former Sierra County supervisor.
Hayes said that some people can’t believe Miller and Farrell have been charged with a crime, particularly in an economically depressed county in which the mine is one of the few enterprises left.
Sierra County wouldn’t be what it was if not for mining, she said.
“If they’re going to start picking on mines, who’s next?” wondered Hayes.
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