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Ravaged corpse found at Sampson 'compound'

The gate to the Sampson compound on Liberty Road.

Scott Manchester/Argus-Courier Staff
Published: Wednesday, January 22, 2014 at 5:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 22, 2014 at 5:34 p.m.

After a few years out of the spotlight, Petaluma's notorious Sampson family is back in the news after a badly decomposed body was found on their property and a feud with neighbors grew ugly when one family member allegedly began dumping human waste at a nearby property.

The remains of Troy Austin, 52, of Petaluma was found on the Sampson's land on Dec. 29, and the Sonoma County Coroner's Office is still investigating the cause of death. Family matriarch Rose Sampson said Austin was a homeless man who the family's church, Fields of the Woods, took in and gave a place to stay in one of their trailers. After a long battle with alcoholism, he suffered from liver disease and had been hospitalized in the weeks before his body was discovered, Rose Sampson said.

“We hadn't seen him for a few days and when we went to check on him, he was dead,” she said on Tuesday. She said he had a habit of coming and going. “He was a very nice man. He mostly kept to himself.”

Neighbors, who asked not to be identified, said a Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy told them the body was in an advanced stage of decomposition when it was found, and that animals had ravaged the corpse.

“The deputy said it (the body) had been there for a long time, around 30 days,” one neighbor said. “The extremities were disconnected from the body. It looked like animals got to it.”

Sgt. Carlos Basurto with the Sheriff's Department said his office referred the case to the Sonoma County Coroners Office. “If there's nothing suspicious, it's something the coroner handles,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the coroner's office said she could not discuss the case or the state the body was in when it was found because it is still under investigation, but did confirm Austin's identity.

In an unrelated case, a dispute with neighbors over a dog allegedly led a member of the Sampson family to dump human waste on their property in retaliation.

In the fall of 2010, neighbors said the Sampsons had numerous dogs that were running wild in the streets, often harassing nearby livestock. In one incident, a dog attacked and killed a sheep, which caused the property owner to shoot and kill the dog.

A different neighbor said the Sampsons assumed they were the ones who killed the dog, and the family posted signs proclaiming “dog killer” along the street. The feud continued to escalate, reaching a head in February last year when the neighbor found buckets and bags of human feces, bloody tampons and other garbage in a drainage ditch on their property. A Feb. 18 report from Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy Troy Newton states, “What I saw was repulsive.”

The report states that the deputy then went to the Sampson property, spoke with several people who were living there, including Michael Sampspn, and requested they clean up the mess, which they agreed to do. Melissa Bogel, wife of Michael Sampson, told Newton that the dumping was in retaliation for the dog's death.

But problems persisted. According to a May 13 sheriff's report, the same neighbor stopped Newton as he patrolled the area to alert him to the continued dumping issue. The resident showed Newton to the corner of his property where a trash bag containing human feces had been dumped. Garbage and waste was also discarded in the nearby waterways, including Wiggins and Kizer creeks.

“I learned that Michael and Melissa (Bogel) Sampson were responsible for dumping human waste and waste products into nearby waters of the state and onto the (neighbor's) property,” Newton wrote in the report. He stated that when he went to the Sampson property, Michael Sampson refused to speak with him. Another resident of the property, Jesse James Shennan, said, “Michael thinks this is funny. He's an idiot. This is gross,” the report states.

Newton on Tuesday confirmed that he had taken the report, but said he could not discuss details of the case since the investigation is ongoing.

He wrote in the report that structures on the Sampson property were not up to code and they had no working toilet or septic system, statements the county's Permit and Resource Management Department could not confirm. Ben Neuman, building division manager for PRMD, said when he investigated the property in July, the structures did have a proper septic system, and there was no sign of waste in the nearby waterways. However, the expansive amount of clutter and debris across the property created “junkyard like conditions” on the property, described as more than 100-square-feet of debris, which violates the county's land use code.

“They have a willingness to clean it up, but not the means,” Neuman said Tuesday, explaining that he was working with the family to correct the violation. He said in such cases where a property owner is financially unable, the county can step in and clean up the mess at its own cost. He emphasized that no plans are yet in place, but stressed that the family has been “cooperative and responsive” to cleaning up the eye sore, which includes a handful of dilapidated trailers and more than a dozen inoperable vehicles.

The family's willingness to oblige the county marks a turn in events for the Sampsons, who spent decades feuding with a range of government agencies and figures, leading to a series of lawsuits, most of which were dismissed. For example, in 2007, twins Floyd and Tony Sampson lead an unsuccessful bid to recall then District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua, claiming that he failed to protect the county from the “world communist movement,” according to media reports at the time.

But years before that, the twins and their father, Howard, launched a heated campaign against then Petaluma mayor Helen Putnam. The hostility reached fever pitch in 1977 when Tony Sampson was charged with firebombing Putnam's car and her place of work at Two Rock School, which sustained severe damage. Although he was suspected in other crimes, he was eventually convicted of a lesser charge of possessing materials with intent to commit arson after the jury failed to reach a unanimous decision.

While Tony Sampson still lives on the property, Neuman said he is in failing health. Howard Sampson and Floyd Sampson have since died.

(Contact Emily Charrier at emily.charrier@arguscourer.com)

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