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What Happened on Howard Street 

click to enlarge An old car sits with its windshield busted on Howard Street.

Photo by Ashley Harrell

An old car sits with its windshield busted on Howard Street.

Just after the sun went down on Independence Day, fighting broke out at a Eureka High School party. The kid wanted none of it. He rounded up his four friends and they drove back to Howard Street, a residential block sandwiched between Ocean View Cemetery and a mobile home park in Eureka's Bayview neighborhood. It's the kind of street where everybody puts up a high fence and a "No Trespassing" or "Beware of Dog" sign, a place where a smashed car window or a toppled basketball hoop can sit there for weeks.

The kid — a wiry, bright-eyed 16 year old whom the Journal granted anonymity because he is a minor and the victim of an alleged crime — had only lived on Howard Street since March. But he was already over it. Especially the neighbor.

David Eugene Couch Jr. is a volatile 37-year-old who lives cattycorner to the kid's house on the 1300 block of Howard Street. The kid is Black and Couch, who is white, has a criminal record and, his neighbors say, a habit of using racial slurs. Black neighbors seethe over his rants.

When the teens pulled up on Howard Street on July 4, Couch was standing by his car, which had been hit by a firecracker recently, the kid told the Journal. That wasn't a surprise, the kid says, considering how many enemies Couch has, but the kid says he had nothing to do with it. He regularly makes the honor roll and has a summer job at a taco restaurant. He even runs a small business on the side painting designs on sneakers. He doesn't see himself living on Howard Street forever.

The kid says Couch approached the group yelling. Nobody saw that he held a weapon in his hand and the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office backs that up. In an effort to protect his friends — which included his girlfriend and another female visiting from Hawaii — the kid says he put his hand on Couch's shoulder and began pushing him back, saying "Nah, nah." That's when Couch took a swipe at him, the kid says, striking him in the neck.

"He sneaked me," he says. "At first I thought it was just a scratch, but then I start bleeding."

It was more than a scratch; the following day, after making a statement to sheriff's deputies, the kid had to be airlifted to an out-of-area hospital for emergency treatment. Couch, meanwhile, remained in his home as deputies conducted their investigation.

The kid's friends and family watched as racial justice protests continued to sweep the country in the wake of George Floyd's May 25 killing by Minneapolis police, the national news suddenly feeling that much more immediate. Only a month before, their own sheriff, William Honsal, had joined a Eureka protest.

"We hear you!" Honsal had announced through a megaphone before leading a chant: "No justice, no peace. No racist police."

If there was a time in history for the kid to see justice, it felt like now.

The home on Howard Street was supposed to be a surprise, with the kid's great aunt and legal guardian — Roxie Achane — the lucky recipient. Along with her husband of 23 years, Achane had been raising the kid and his younger brother in a small, two-bedroom apartment in Eureka for most of their lives. Achane says she is "the go-to person" for childcare in the family, meaning her place is regularly filled with relatives' kids. In total, she has raised around 15 of them — grandchildren, nephews, nieces and grand nephews. "You'll never see me without somebody's kids," she says.

The new house was going to give everybody some much-needed space.

Achane's son's friend purchased it early this year and the men planned to fix up the spacious, three-bedroom abode and its expansive backyard to present to Achane on her 60th birthday. "Everybody in town knew except me that I was gonna be renting this house," she says.

The house wasn't ready in time for her birthday but when Achane found out about it she was ecstatic. "I put a fire under 'em," she says. "I took over and started cleaning the house, throwing out the wood and nails, redoing the walls and doors, painting everything. Then I moved on in."

In the living room, Achane hung framed photos of family members — some of whom had come to Eureka to be closer to Achane and her husband, a former Navy sailor with family ties in the area. She perched small plants and religious figurines on Formica end tables and displayed a heart-shaped pendant with lettering that reads: "Laugh, it heals the soul." The kid got his own room, which he adorned with honor roll achievement certificates, sports medals and jerseys, art supplies and a dream catcher. He set up an art studio in the backyard where he could use an airbrush to paint shoes.

click to enlarge The kid holds one of the shoes he paints in a makeshift art studio in the backyard of his great aunt's house on Howard Street. - PHOTO BY ASHLEY HARRELL
  • Photo by Ashley Harrell
  • The kid holds one of the shoes he paints in a makeshift art studio in the backyard of his great aunt's house on Howard Street.
Achane says she used the last of her savings from working at an Arcata laundry mat to move into the new place. Shortly thereafter, she learned that beyond her newly painted white fence, everything else on Howard Street was a mess.

"It's been turmoil since we moved here," she says.

Only two blocks long, Howard Street is an isolated, pothole-ridden backstreet that wasn't even paved until a handful of years ago, though neither the city nor the county claim responsibility for maintaining it and neither could tell the Journal who paved the road or when. For decades, police have known it as an epicenter for criminal complaints. This year, they have already fielded more than 50 911 calls from Achane's new neighborhood. And although the street seems part of Eureka's Bayview district, it actually sits just outside city limits and the Eureka Police Department doesn't technically serve it. The Sheriff's Office has jurisdiction there, with EPD occasionally providing backup.

One of the most problematic areas on the block is Couch's home and the company it attracts, where a rotating cast of troubled people hang out on the street and sometimes sleep in trashed cars. So far in 2020, of the 24 calls for service on the 1300 block that have come into Humboldt County Sheriff's Office dispatch, 17 have regarded Couch's address.

One of those came in on June 10, when a report of a brawl brought deputies to the 1300 block around 4 p.m. When they arrived, they found a large crowd yelling and screaming outside, according to Samantha Karges, a Sheriff's Office spokesperson.

The deputies learned four people had been fighting on the block when Achane and other neighbors attempted to break it up, Karges wrote in an email to the Journal. Achane was struck with what witnesses described as a large wood stick or tree branch in the scuffle and had to be transported to the hospital.

"So look what happened to me," Achane says in her living room, pointing to a bump in the center of her forehead. "[Couch's] stepdad did that to me, busted me in the head with a big old stick. I was spitting blood it was coming out so fast."

She says she entered the fight to try to get one of her nephews out of it. A sheriff's deputy came to take a report, Achane remembers, saying he seemed nice. "I haven't heard a word yet, though," she says.

According to the Sheriff's Office, witness accounts differed and, as a result, there was not enough evidence to identify a suspect or determine whether Achane was hit on purpose or by accident.

"A man involved in the incident reportedly fled the scene prior to the deputies' arrival," Karges wrote. "The case is still under investigation and if anyone has any new information or evidence to provide, they should do so by contacting our office."

Achane says she told the sheriff's deputies exactly who hit her — a white guy known on the block as "Sundance." She says he still shows up regularly on Howard Street but the Sheriff's Office has not followed up.

"I was really hurting," Achane says. "It just seems like they put me on the back burner and left me there."

She isn't sure what else she could have done but wishes she had tried harder to hold Sundance accountable. Maybe then, she tells herself, Couch would have thought twice before messing with the kid.

The Achanes have known of Couch for years, even before they lived on Howard Street. He has a stepson who the kid sometimes hung around with, but Couch was never friendly, the kid says, and sometimes he was offensive. "He's fond of the name ... er," the kid says, omitting the first four letters. "He said it once in front of my uncles and cousins, who are all dark skinned. Then he walked away and slammed the door."

Attempts to contact Couch for this story were unsuccessful but, according to court records, he was convicted in two separate felony cases in 2005 — one for sexual battery and the other for assault with a deadly weapon, though the battery conviction was later expunged. He hasn't faced a criminal charge locally since.

After being struck by Couch on July 4, the kid says he retreated to his girlfriend's car, stunned. "I'm just bleeding out in my girl's car," he says. "There's blood all on my seat. All on the passenger seat. On my hands. All over the car ... I was hella mad."

Couch, the kid says, went back to his house, still talking trash.

The kid's uncle came outside and yelled for him to get in the house. He says he asked if his friends could come in, but the answer was no and they quickly dispersed. He went to the bathroom mirror to examine the wound, but its location beneath his chin made it hard to tell how deep it was. He says he washed the outside with water and pressed it for a while, and it soon dried over with blood.

"I'm not gonna call the cops — that's just me," the kid says. Instead, he went to sleep.

The next day, he woke up and took a shower. He washed the wound again and then showed it to several family members, who were deeply concerned by the unmistakable hole in his neck. An aunt then phoned 911 and some sheriff's deputies came to take a report.

A Black female deputy seemed to be in charge of the investigation, training two younger white deputies on what to ask, the kid says. His friend from Hawaii came back to the house and the Black deputy took her statement, while a younger cop took the kid's. They also took photos of the kid's bloody clothes and his girlfriend's bloodstained car.

After that, the deputies walked around the neighborhood and found a witness who said the teens had provoked Couch and possibly vandalized his car. When the deputies returned, the kid says the one in charge pointed at him and said, "You, come here."

"So, who'd y'all jump?" she allegedly asked. "I'm from the Bay. You can't fool a fooler."

The implications of her words stung, he says. First he got cut by a racist white neighbor. Now a Black deputy was calling him a liar?

The kid says the deputy told him the witness observed the altercation from a porch on Muncie Street. The Sheriff's Office would not confirm that information, citing the open investigation. Isolated Howard Street, however, is not visible from Muncie.

In addition, the kid says there was no other evidence to suggest Couch had acted in self-defense. No injuries on Couch. No blood anywhere other than in front of the kid's house. When deputies tried to question Couch, he invoked his right to remain silent, Karges says.

Ultimately, police accepted the kid's version of events.

"Deputies have interviewed the involved parties and based on those statements and evidence collected have requested an arrest warrant from the District Attorney's Office for David Gene Couch Jr. for charges of assault with a deadly weapon other than a firearm, possession of metal knuckles and inflicting injury on a child," Karges wrote. "It is believed that Couch struck the victim with metal knuckles, causing injury to the victim's neck. No one else was injured."

After giving his statement to police, the kid got a ride with an aunt to St. Joseph Hospital. There, doctors determined the injury would need special care they could not provide and he would need to be airlifted to University of California San Francisco Benioff Children's Hospital in Oakland. A small plane would be ready in less than an hour.

Achane was working at the laundry mat when the call came from her sister.

"You need to come," her sister said. "[The kid] gotta get flown out of here."

Achane immediately left work to accompany her grand nephew on the flight to Oakland. At Children's Hospital, the doctor took one look at the wound and said the kid had been lucky. Had the weapon struck him slightly higher or lower, or gone any deeper, he could have died, the doctor told Achane.

click to enlarge The wound on the 16 year old's neck that led to his being airlifted to the Bay Area for emergency care. - SUBMITTED
  • Submitted
  • The wound on the 16 year old's neck that led to his being airlifted to the Bay Area for emergency care.
An esophagram — an X-ray of the esophagus — revealed the hole needed stapling and the kid would have to stay for several days of observation to be sure it healed properly. He spent three days hooked up to an IV and feeding tube, along with a heart rate monitor. Achane booked a room in a nearby hotel, traveling to and from the hospital each day.

In some ways Achane and the kid had a fraught relationship. She and the kid's parents were not on good terms, and family drama had plagued the kid for all of his life. His father was in and out of jail. His mother was not in the picture and "her mind wasn't right," says Achane.

But despite all the difficulties, the kid was doing well and Achane was particularly proud of his status on the honor roll, his shoe art and his honesty.

"If he done something wrong, he would tell me what he did, and he would apologize for doing it and not do it again," she says. "He'll tell on his own self."

The kid says he didn't necessarily know Achane felt this way. He didn't feel understood by her and didn't like her "old school" parenting style. He wanted to go to parties and on trips with friends and to have them over to the house, but she wanted to keep him home and ensure his safety. He wanted to have his girl over, but Achane felt that a teenaged couple should not spend time alone behind a closed door. At least not in her house.

They butted heads and sometimes it seemed to get in the way of forming a closer relationship.

On the kid's fourth day in the hospital — a Wednesday — Achane took her place beside his bed. She was disturbed to see he had lost a lot of weight. "The food be gross in there," he says. "I'd rather eat my feeding tube."

The kid told Achane that it was killing him that as he wasted away in a hospital, Couch was probably just hanging out in his house. Walking around. Maybe even messing with other kids in the neighborhood. The kid was not optimistic about getting justice.

"He said, 'Auntie, they not gonna do nothing,'" Achane remembers.

She said, "What you mean? They gonna do something."

"They didn't do nothing for you," the kid said.

That's when something in Achane just broke.

Before that moment, she had no interest in being part of a news story, no desire to become one of the names called out when people talk about how Black lives matter. She didn't like that she got hit on the head with a stick, didn't like seeing a bump on her forehead every time she looked in the mirror, but she'd swallowed it. Now they had gone and hurt the kid, though. Her kid.

"He's a child, and I don't want him to feel like nobody cared," Achane says. "I told him, 'If we gotta go to the White House, that's where we're going."

On July 14, the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office received the request for a warrant for Couch's arrest from the Sheriff's Office. The kid had been back home in Eureka for more than a week, and the wound on his neck had already healed into a scar. He knew he would carry it for the rest of his life and, each time somebody asked about it, have to think about what happened on Howard Street.

Couch, meanwhile, was still hanging around his house, acting as if nothing happened on Howard Street, the kid says.

On a block where plenty of scores are settled outside of the law, it was taking the Achane family every shred of willpower to wait out the process. The kid's loved ones shared an understanding that Black folks aren't subject to the same protections as white people; they knew that if they retaliated, they would pay for it.

"We can't touch nobody because we'll go to jail. We can't defend ourselves," Achane says. "I'm trying to do it legal and go by the law, but I get depressed." She couldn't help but think about how much faster the wheels of justice would have turned if a grown Black man had put a hole in the neck of a white kid.

On July 28 — two weeks after receiving the investigation from the Sheriff's Office — Assistant District Attorney Stacey Eads concluded her review of the case. She rejected it for prosecution.

"With the status of the evidence submitted, we would be unable to prove Couch Jr.'s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt at trial," DA chief investigator Wayne Cox explained in an email to the Journal.

The process took two weeks, Cox explained, because some cases require an extensive review prior to making a charging decision. "I believe this was one of those cases," Cox wrote, "and our ultimate goal at the charging stage is to make the correct decision as opposed to making a hasty decision that requires our office to dismiss or amend charges at a later time."

In 2014, Maggie Fleming ran the campaign that would ultimately see her elected Humboldt County's first female district attorney on a platform that touted her empathy and compassion for victims. But as of Monday, Aug. 3, her office still had not reached out to the Achane family to let them know it had declined to prosecute Couch. After an email from the Journal inquired why the family had not been notified, Assistant DA Eads responded Aug. 6.

"I understand our Victim/Witness Advocate has been in touch with the juvenile's family," she wrote. The Journal followed up to ask what day the advocate had gotten in touch but Eads did not respond.

Although the case was declined by the DA, the Sheriff's Office has opted to keep it open.

"Deputies need more witnesses to come forward in order for the investigation to progress," wrote Karges, the spokesperson. "They were unable to contact two of the involved parties due to contact information not being provided. We'd love to follow up with those two people who were on scene and they should contact our office."

Later, she added that deputies had made attempts to contact the individuals but could not identify them. "These two people are not believed to be suspects, so we are not canvassing the neighborhood [for them]," she wrote.

Briefed about the case over the phone, Black Humboldt co-founder Mo Harper-Desir grew audibly frustrated.

"What is this telling our Black and brown children? That they are allowed to be mistreated by white community members?" she said. "This makes me think white people can go around doing whatever they want in this county, whereas I can't even drive 5 or 10 miles over the speed limit without getting pulled over and questioned about whether I have a gun or am here to sell weed."

Harper-Desir believes more pressure needs to be applied to sheriffs and police chiefs who have stood in solidarity with racial justice protests. "If you're willing to make that statement to the public, it needs to be reflected through everything you're doing," she said.

As if to add insult to injury for the Achane family, Couch was arrested July 31 on unrelated charges of making criminal threats — against a white woman.

According to Karges, on July 31 deputies were dispatched to a disturbance on the 1600 block of John Hill Road in Eureka at 6:20 p.m. They were told Couch had been outside a residence and began yelling profanities when a woman arrived. A second woman then exited the residence after hearing the disturbance, at which time Couch began threatening to kill the women. One of them was white and a former romantic partner of Couch's. The Sheriff's Office could not identify the race of the second woman.

They called 911, and when deputies showed up and attempted to place Couch in custody, he resisted and threatened them, according to Karges. He was booked into the Humboldt County jail on suspicion of making criminal threats and resisting and obstructing a peace officer.

Two days later he posted bail, and now he is back on Howard Street. The DA's office has not yet made a decision about whether charges will be filed in that case, and yet another case involving Couch, in which he was accused of vandalizing a different romantic partner's car on June 27, is also pending. 

When Achane learned Couch would not face charges for the hole he put in her kid's neck but had been arrested for threatening a white woman, she was devastated.

"I'm a grown woman and I called my mama and cried about this," she said. "We gotta have our day in court like everybody else. Why not? We somebody, too. We people. We just darker but we bleed the same. Shit."

When the kid heard there would be no charges, he did not react. He's tired of talking about it, he says. Tired of thinking about it. He says he's "over it."

The kid says he just wants to keep painting shoes, and to get the hell out of Eureka.

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