Notorious Sampson property near Petaluma cleaned up

The county obtained a court order for the cleanup effort at the compound.|

Resting on a concrete pipe that sat askew in the corner of his family’s property off Liberty Road, Tony Sampson, 60, removed the artificial limb he received after blood clots required his lower leg’s surgical amputation four years ago.

Seeking some relief from the discomfort where the prosthesis meets his thigh, Sampson, in a well-worn, button-up shirt and sleek sunglasses, peered through the dust that was drifting through the air. A group of Sonoma County code enforcement officers and contracted haulers were strolling through the area, a property that, for decades, was an off-limits cloister hidden behind towering walls of blackberry brambles.

Sunlight now streamed in from where those brambles once stood, revealing the secretive grounds that some members of the enigmatic and, at times, downright notorious Sampson family had called home for generations. It was week two of a massive county cleanup, and the scattering of motor homes, deeply buried debris, overgrown cars and more was disappearing, piece by piece, into huge metal disposal bins.

Awaiting an early afternoon visit from Sonoma County’s top planning official and a deputy county counselor, Sampson was reflective.

“I feel we can get something done that would be beneficial,” he said.

A constellation of Sonoma County government agencies have converged for an unprecedented abatement operation at the Sampson family property off Petaluma’s Liberty Road, an area that for decades has been a locus of concern for police, policy makers and area residents. Hundreds of tons of debris have left the site, ranging from mountains of old tires to what participants described as caches of human waste.

Legal action

A Sonoma County Superior Court order is behind the action, giving the county legal clearance to enter the property and conduct the work. Yet county officials and Sampson said that the effort was the product of something more, a detente of sorts for an acrimonious relationship stretching back to at least the 1970s.

“It’s an effort that involves cooperation,” Sampson said.

Workers began clearing the property, located across several parcels in a rural area about two-and-a-half miles west of Petaluma city limits, on June 27.

Crews were figuring out their next step on a recent Thursday, discussing their plans near the piled-up remains of a dismantled trailer. The ruins of a two-and-a-half-ton dump truck stood nearby, a massive vehicle that required a major excavation due to the copious willow branches that had grown through its rusted chassis.

Workers had removed around 400 tons of debris from the area as of Wednesday morning, along with approximately 40 vehicles and an array of miscellaneous heavy equipment, said Tennis Wick, director of the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department.

An initial survey of the property flagged nine mobile homes, an office trailer, 150 tires and a boat for removal, along with large amounts of metal, wood and miscellaneous garbage, according to the court order.

Wick estimated the job was about 65 to 70 percent done as of early Wednesday.

Workers had cleared a large area fronting the roadway last week, revealing a flattened patch of hard-packed dirt. That was after unearthing pits of refuse up to 20 feet wide, and excavation was ongoing, he said.

The area was running afoul of a variety of county rules, including building codes, zoning and stormwater regulations, he said.

History of issues

After an extensive history of issues with the property, Wick described the cleanup as a breakthrough. While interactions between some county staff and the family hit turbulence over issues like tree removal, Wick said the overall effort was making steady progress.

“He says he just wants to be done with this. So do we,” he said.

The property has long been a beacon of concern for law enforcement. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, which has jurisdiction in the area, has logged 294 calls for service connected to the addresses associated with the property, said Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Cecile Focha.

Likely more calls could be attributed to the area that are not associated with those specific addresses, she noted. The calls reflect a range of allegations including weapon assaults, stolen vehicles, illegal drugs and probation violations.

“We’re well aware of the property,” she said.

While just outside of their jurisdiction, the property is also well known to the Petaluma Police Department, said Lt. Tim Lyons. It has been considered something of a refuge for those wanted by law enforcement, a place where police have served numerous warrants and have frequently come to the assistance of Sheriff’s deputies over the years.

“It was a location that, even though it was outside of our jurisdiction, we would take new officers there to show it to them,” he said.

Neighbor concerns

Residents of the area, known as Liberty Valley, declined to comment on the Sampson property or on the cleanup effort, some citing fear of retribution.

Yet Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the unincorporated area around Petaluma, noted it has been a central topic of discussion during numerous community meetings. Residents have expressed concern over unknown individuals that walk along roadways in the area, the condition of the property itself and of alleged criminal activities, he said.

His office helped in the push for the cleanup, which has also involved the Sheriff’s Office, Sonoma County PRMD, the Department of Health Services, the Sonoma County Counsel’s Office and the Sonoma-Marin Mosquito Abatement District.

Rabbitt was sympathetic to the issues area residents have faced over the years, and also credited members of the Sampson family for working more cooperatively with the county.

“There’s been such a long history, and it has been so frustrating for so many people to have this in their midst,” he said. “The old approach wasn’t necessarily hacking it. This new approach has brought everyone together, and has really, I think, given us a place where we can all feel like we are making a difference. ... It’s not going to be a panacea, but it’s going to be a great step forward.”

Sampsons in the news

Members of the Sampson family have lived at the property since at least the 1950s, but began to make regular newspaper headlines in the 1970s, when patriarch Howard Sampson was leader of a far-right movement extremely critical of law enforcement and government called Posse Comitatus. Historic reports range from death threats on an Internal Revenue Service employee, massive raids on the property by federal agents and the firebombing of former Petaluma mayor Helen Putnam’s car and workplace in 1977.

The firebombing was part of a wave of vandalism incidents involving Petaluma public officials around that time. Tony Sampson was reportedly acquitted on the arson charge, but found guilty for possession of flammable materials and the intent to commit arson.

Family members brought their agenda to the political arena over the years, with Tony Sampson and twin brother Floyd Sampson running in races for Congress, supervisor, sheriff and other offices. The twins also pushed to recall public officials, alleging former district attorney Stephan Passalacqua was inadequately protecting local residents against communism.

Howard Sampson had also founded a church called Fields of the Wood, an organization that Tony Sampson said echoed his father’s ethos and operated out of the property. Fields of the Wood is the party named in the court order.

Things have been more quiet in recent years, but flared up again in 2015. Law enforcement reportedly arrived en masse at the corner of Skillman Lane and Liberty Road in April of that year after a county building inspector told police he was allegedly attacked while attempting to intervene when he supposedly witnessed a man attacking a woman near the property.

Howard Sampson died in 2001, and Floyd, in 2011. Tony Sampson said he currently lives at the Liberty Road property with his mother, Rose Sampson, 90, and his sister, Bonnie Marsh, 65.

Future issues

The court order is ongoing, giving the county a quick route through a judge to return to the property in the future if needed, said Wick, the planning director. The project was forecast at $75,000, though $77,000 had been spent as of Wednesday.

The county will eventually send a bill for the work, which could become a lien on the property if it goes unpaid. The process could ultimately compel a sale of the property, Wick said.

He emphasized that taxpayers will recover the money one way or another, and noted that the price tag was likely minor in comparison to the expenses accrued over the years for things like the staff time of law enforcement.

“The county writ large has no doubt spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on this property,” he said.

Wick said the county is pursuing a similar legal strategy to clean up a number of other properties, including several located in the rural areas around Petaluma.

Asked about his history in the county, Sampson let out a small laugh, suggesting a long read of the coverage he’s received over the years. Despite a history peppered with political battles and run-ins with law enforcement, the St. Vincent de Paul High School graduate spoke highly of Petaluma, a town he’s lived in most of his life.

Having set aside a paving business years ago while representing himself in various legal battles, he said he was unsure of what his family might do after the work was complete. Perhaps sell the property and relocate to Georgia, where Fields of the Wood Church is incorporated. Or maybe stick around to revamp a part of the property as a public park, something Sampson said his family had done in the past but abandoned after it reportedly became a haunt for underage drinkers.

He emphasized his family’s ties to the area, and listed several relatives buried at the Liberty Cemetery on the other end of the road. As workers continued to dismantle, unearth and mulch, he lamented the loss of vegetation most of all.

The plants were a source of treasured privacy, he said, but also for the blackberries his mother would use for making jam.

“It can be felt to the very core of a person to lose something you’ll never see again,” he said.

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