Column: District attorney caught in made-for-TV triangle

It's something straight out of a Tom Wolfe novel. A district attorney caught in the middle of a legal triangle that has taken more twists than a licorice stick.

On one side is Carson City District Attorney Noel Waters. On the other is the colorful citizen Ron Weddell, whose own past is filled with mystery and intrigue. And in the middle is a small-time hood named James Bustamonte, who has been in and out of jail much of his 26 years.

For the past three years Waters and Weddell have been lobbing legal motions at one another almost monthly. They may soon be the subjects of a grand jury investigation and a Nevada Supreme Court review. Bustamonte, meanwhile, has been either behind bars or in front of a judge.

For those just joining this made-for-television legal quagmire, let me take you back to October, 1997, when it pretty much began:

According to records, James Bustamonte and his brother John showed up at Weddell's construction yard uninvited. They were allegedly trying to get Weddell's daughter to sell drugs for them. One thing led to another and the Bustamontes drove away, but not before allegedly trying to run down one of Weddell's employees with a Chevy Blazer.

Weddell filed a compliant, but when the sheriff's department failed to respond with the kind of urgency Weddell was hoping for, he found himself face to face with James Bustamonte in the middle of Carson City and attempted to make a citizen's arrest.

Things deteriorated quickly when Bustamonte realized Weddell was just a citizen. He took off and Weddell fired four shots after him from his Glock handgun, saying later that Bustamonte had pulled a knife. Fortunately for Bustamonte, Weddell's aim was very bad that day, missing all four times.

Weddell called the cops, informing them he had attempted to make a citizen's arrest and quickly found himself arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon.

Cops don't like it when citizens play cop. Sheriff Rod Banister and District Attorney Waters weren't particularly pleased, either.

So while Weddell found himself charged with a serious crime, James Bustamonte left town, free to pursue his life of crime.

Months later former District Court Judge Michael Fondi would dismiss the charges against Weddell, saying he had a right to make a citizens arrest and to use deadly force because he was pursuing an alleged felon.

That decision would send Sheriff Banister off the deep end, accusing Fondi of taking a bribe. And it sent Waters to the Supreme Court, where he has asked for a reversal of that ruling. He expects oral arguments in that appeal to begin soon.

Freed from his own criminal allegations, Weddell continued to push for the arrest of the Bustamonte brothers. Through various legal motions he accused Waters, Banister and others of failing to do their jobs, demanding that they be removed from office. He even ran for judge, making a half-hearted bid for Justice Court Judge Robey Willis' job earlier this year.

Weddell was successful in getting District Court Judge Bill Maddox to order a grand jury review of his complaint and jurors are being sought.

In the middle of all of this, James Bustamonte got busted for allegedly trying to steal vehicles from Michael Hohl Motors. The charge was a felony, but when Bustamonte went to court the DA's office asked the judge to dismiss the charge "with prejudice," keeping the door open for future action. In that motion for dismissal, the district attorney's office pointed out that it had a conflict of interest in the case, being that the DA's office and Bustamonte are both named in the grand jury complaint. Bustamonte was freed and that night allegedly burglarized a home and was arrested again.

Michael Hohl, the victim in the auto theft, couldn't understand why Bustamonte was allowed to go free. The officers who investigated the auto thefts probably were wondering the same thing.

Waters told me he really had no choice, although the admitted his assistant cited the wrong section of the statute in seeking the dismissal. He said the 15-day limit to either charge or free Bustamonte was approaching and he hadn't been able to find an outside prosecutor to handle the case. It actually sounds as if the DA's office dragged its feet, waiting until the last minute to do anything.

Lyon County Assistant DA John Schlegelmilch has since been appointed to prosecute Bustamonte, who is currently back behind bars.

Waters says all of Weddell's motions and counter-motions have been designed to deflect attention from the real issue, which he maintains was the illegal attempt to shoot Bustamonte.

"Weddell is simply trying to overshadow the charges that were filed against him," Waters told me. "Eventually all of his allegations will be determined to be nonsense."

Waters is confident that the state Supreme Court will determine that Fondi erred in his ruling on the Weddell case. "What that decision says is that short-order due process, where a person is arrested, tried, convicted and executed in just a few heartbeats is legal," he said.

As for Weddell...well...he's still waiting for Waters to do his job and charge Bustamonte for that felony he says was committed on his construction yard more than three years ago. And he wonders how many times the district attorney will let Bustamonte slip through his fingers before then.

Meanwhile, the Weddell/Waters legal showdown has cost Carson City tens of thousands of dollars and James Bustamonte's alleged crime victims continue to mount.

(Jeff Ackerman is editor and publisher of the Nevada Appeal.)


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