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Death reignites Petaluma neighbors' feud

Published: Friday, January 24, 2014 at 1:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 24, 2014 at 1:14 p.m.

The December death of a man at a large family compound west of Petaluma has reignited a feud among neighbors and sparked further calls for Sonoma County code enforcement to investigate the sprawling site.

On Dec. 29, Troy Austin, 52, of Petaluma was found dead inside one of several campers on the Sampson compound, a group of several family-owned parcels on Liberty Road, near Skillman Lane. The coroner's office is investigating, but the death is not considered suspicious, according to the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office.

The Sampson family has a long history with Sonoma County authorities, including numerous arrests and political battles.

In the 1970s, the late patriarch, Howard Sampson, a lay minister who founded the Fields of the Wood Church, was for a time a leader in the Posse Comitatus, a far-right movement. The self-appointed group of citizens opposed what they believed were abuses among law enforcement and government officials.

The family made headlines off and on for three decades in Sonoma County as they ran for public office, had run-ins with law enforcement, proposed a ballot initiative for prayer in public schools and sought to recall judges and prosecutors who they claimed had abused their powers.

One of Howard Sampson's identical twin sons, Floyd Garfield Sampson, ran for Congress in 1986 as a Republican. His twin, Tony; mother, Rose; and other family members still live on the property, which is fenced, chained shut and posted with no trespassing signs.

Sonoma County sheriff's deputies investigated a complaint last year that residents from the Sampson property were dumping buckets of human feces and used tampons in a drainage ditch.

Deputy Troy Newton recorded filthy conditions in a February report: “I saw raw garbage in the drainage canal, including alcoholic beverage containers (bottles/cans), shoes, tires, a mailbox, golf balls, wood/plastics and quart containers of motor oil.”

The report said there were several pollutants including “infectious wastes, solid wastes, hazardous material and waste” that likely were running into Kizer and Wiggins creeks.

Newton also said he saw what appeared to be zoning violations, illegal housing units and numerous junk vehicles on the property.

He said six people on the Sampson property cleaned up the mess when he asked them to.

One resident, Melissa Bogel, who Newton said is married to Mike Sampson, acknowledged that they used buckets to defecate in and that Mike dumped the buckets near the neighbor's property because they believed the neighbors were responsible for a dog's disappearance two years ago.

A second report in May resulted in another compound resident cleaning up a bag of dumped feces on the neighbor's cattle ranch.

Newton said he alerted the county's Permit and Resource Management Department about the apparent code and land-use violations, and he forwarded a misdemeanor criminal case to the District Attorney's Office.

Prosecutors declined to pursue the illegal dumping case, saying it wasn't provable, and aren't prosecuting anything currently, a spokeswoman said.

Ben Neuman, a division manager at PRMD, said the county sent a courtesy notice to the Sampsons in July and the family allowed inspectors access to the property, which runs about a quarter-mile north of Skillman Lane along Liberty.

There was no evidence of dumping or failed sewer systems, he said, and the creeks and ditches were clear of garbage.

“We did find there was a large accumulation of junk. It was junkyard conditions,” he said. “There were a number of derelict recreational vehicles and miscellaneous debris — rims, car parts, you name it.”

There were several manufactured homes whose walls had popped out and numerous junk vehicles.

The Sampsons have been cooperative, Neuman said, but said they don't have the ability to pay for cleanup. He said they were willing to allow the county to clean it up.

But, he said, the county hasn't pursued the potentially costly project. Nor will it force the Sampsons to comply as long as they are cooperative, he said.

Contacted by telephone, matriarch Rose Sampson defended her family. She said Austin was homeless and had been hospitalized weeks before he died.

“The man needed a place to stay and was staying here,” she said.

She said they would clean up the property if they could.

“We're not bad people,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.

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