COLD CASE Mendocino: Five Years After His Body Was Found, Mike Piña’s Homicide Is Unsolved
When people go missing or get murdered in Mendocino, they have a new ally—Ukiah High School journalism teacher Matt LaFever has started a website, Cold Case Mendocino, devoted to posting the details of their disappearances and deaths in a coherent story in hopes this might spark some further information and possibly lead to learning their fate. He’s joining us here on Redheaded Blackbelt twice a month to try and spread the missing people’s stories to more people. You can also follow his work by liking Cold Case Mendocino on Facebook.
Michael Leon Piña drove fast cars, played a mean guitar, and family remembers him being heard from a mile away “hoopin’ and hollerin’”. He loved his children, his tribal land, and was known to “tell it like it was”. On September 25th, 2014, hunters found Michael’s body off the side of a lonely mountain road and his family have sought answers ever since.
Michael was born October 24, 1961 to a chaotic household on the Grindstone Rancheria near Willows, California. He was adopted by the Piña clan when he was two years old and grew up in Covelo. Like many in the Round Valley Reservation, Michael claimed an assortment of tribal ancestry including Nomalacki, Concow, and Wintun. The Piña clan would become immortalized in Michael’s universe when he tattooed the surname onto his forearm– the mark that was later used to identify his body.
Throughout his childhood, Michael was well-liked. Known as the comedian and clown, Michael was able to turn an acute and chronic case of snapping hip syndrome into a crowd-pleasing spectacle doing “tricks with his crutches off the high school steps”. A high school classmate described Michael as “a very positive and helpful person” who “taught me how to play the guitar and the chords to pass my jazz music class.”
He was admired for his musical intelligence. Felicia Piña, Michael’s sister, described how despite being left-handed, “he taught himself how to play right-handed guitar.” His favorite musicians were Bob Seger and Chuck Berry who inspired a passion for rock ‘n’ roll and led him to join a band. As a senior in high school, Michael was even offered a scholarship based on his musical prowess but did not take advantage of the opportunity.
According to Michael’s family, he joined the state forestry firefighting service after high school and fought fires on an engine crew. “He had fun out there”.
Approximately four years after graduation Michael had his first child and would eventually bear three children (the children and their mother will be kept private). His sister Valerie described how Michael “loved being a father” and decided to get work at the Louisiana Pacific Mill to support his children.
On May 3, 1987, Michael’s life changed forever. He was 25 years old and turmoil had been brewing in Round Valley. Tension between the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office and Covelo residents erupted on the evening of May 2 into what was described as a “mini-riot” (The Press Democrat, 10/26/1988). According to Carole Goldberg’s research paper “Public Law 280 and the Problem of ‘Lawlessness’ in California Indian Country”, “resentment against police sparked a riot, as one hundred reservation residents smashed windows in the small downtown area of the reservation town of Covelo.”
Michael was arrested the following day in MCSO’s dragnet of anyone who they believed contributed to the riot. He alleged that while driving through Covelo, he was stopped by three sheriff’s deputies. According to reports, they grabbed him by the hair, hit him in the mouth with a police baton and shot him four to five times with a stun gun while handcuffed face down on the ground. Member of Michael’s family attested he was “screaming and hollering” and in the mayhem deputies “tased his private parts”.
Sheriff deputies mistakenly reported that Michael was involved in the previous day’s riot and charged him with several crimes including fighting in a public place, resisting arrest, inciting a riot, and battery on a peace officer. On November 20th of that year, Michael was acquitted of all those charges by the Round Valley Justice Court (Ukiah Daily Journal, 3/27/1988)
This incident motivated Michael to file a $1.5 million lawsuit of punitive damages for abuse he suffered at the hands of the deputies. After his acquittal, he claimed his family suffered harassment by the same deputies that physically assaulted him. According to reporting in the Press Democrat, Michael was paid $40,000 in cash in October 1988 for the federal civil rights lawsuit against the county.
Public Information Officer Captain Greg Van Patton said he was “unaware of the May 3, 1987 events” and he stated that he was unable to provide further comment on the situation because “that time period was before the Sheriff’s Office had computer automated reports.”
Despite the monetary compensation, Michael was “never the same” after he was beaten by MCSO sheriff’s deputies. Family members described how he “would never go out after dark” and “would never go on to white man’s land”. He began to drink more and his behavior became more erratic and at times violent.
Michael’s sought refuge from the trauma in his family. He spent weekends hunting and fishing with his children. He gifted a number of guitars to his family members that many still have to this day. He split up with the mother of his three children and met a woman while visiting Grindstone Rancheria.
For months at a time, his Covelo family would not see Michael, members of the Pina clan said, then the universe would hint at his arrival with the appearance of “a spider”. His niece Chelsea remembered, “we were sitting on a porch and a spider came down and the next day Uncle Mike came walking up the road.” His sister Felicia recalled, “I was dreaming of Mike and was screaming in my sleep and woke up and saw a spider. He showed up just a couple of days later.”
By 1991, the Louisiana Pacific Mill had been shut down and Michael made money by “hustling” and doing odd jobs such as chopping wood. Alcoholism became a compelling force in Michael’s life.
This period of Michael’s life is also punctuated with violent episodes. A member of his family recounted a time where Michael “pointed a gun at somebody, a Mexican that kept coming back to his place. The sheriffs had received a call from someone that a man had pulled a gun on them.” When sheriffs arrived, they found Michael with a rifle in his truck.
According to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, Michael “attacked AVA staffer, Mark Heimann, with an ax handle. The assault occurred in downtown Covelo.” The article described Michael’s motivations: “Piña was inspired by a friend of his who claimed Heimann had captured the affections of the friend’s love interest.”
Despite these violent tendencies, Michael’s family described a good-hearted man battling the demons of the trauma induced by the sheriff’s brutality. His sister Valerie described how “he taught his nieces and nephews to fish” and “always had jerky or candy to give to anyone who asked for it.”
According to his family, Michael attempted to supplement his income with marijuana cultivation in the last five years of his life. He had two acres of tribal land and sought partnerships with cultivators offering his water and land while the partners provided the labor. His philosophy was “you do the work and I get a percentage”. However, this philosophy did not prove profitable for Michael and he found partners were taking advantage of him. In a bold move, Michael began to chop down the marijuana plants in protest of the continued use of his land. His family fears it was his decision to destroy the crops that might have lead to his murder.
Milo, Michael’s son, provided more clarity on his father’s decision to rid the marijuana from his property: “I had been talking with my Dad to convince him that there are programs available that would be able to start the process of bringing his homesite up to a safe and livable code. We were working on applying for a modular unit through the Round Valley Indian Housing Authority, and he wanted to stop the growing that was already going on at his place altogether. It was his and my dream to restore his plot of land and develop a ranch where he could spend time and raise his granddaughter. As for whom he was growing with, I unfortunately didn’t include myself in my Dad’s business ventures. I only knew they were Mexicans and I didn’t speak to any of his workers.”
The last reported encounter Michael’s family had with him was thought to be around September 12, 2014. His sister Valerie recounted “Mike and I rode over the hill and back the week before his murder? I dropped him off at his girlfriend’s house and I went on to Colusa for the weekend, came back on Sunday, stopped at Black Butte store, had a hamburger and then dropped him off at his house, his son and someone else was there. Not sure who the others were.”
Michael’s body was found by hunters on Indian Dick Road, northeast of Covelo. His body was found down an embankment near a creek. MCSO was called and with the assistance of the Round Valley Tribal Police Department, a suspicious death investigation was initiated. Law enforcement officially identified the body as Michael with his “Piña” tattoo. A forensic autopsy identified the cause of death as blunt force trauma to the chest.
Since that September day, Michael’s family has relied on MCSO to find the murderer. The Piña family describes the case being shuffled between a litany of detectives. Family members have wondered why federal investigators have not been consulted about the case because: “his body was found on federal land”. They added, “Mike did not go on white man’s land– his body had to have been brought there.”
Addressing federal involvement into the investigation of Michael’s murder, Captain Van Patten explained that “California is a Public Law 280 state and the investigative responsibly into Mr. Piña’s death is required of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office welcomes any assistance from Federal law enforcement resources and would consider relinquishing the investigation to any Federal law enforcement agency that requests jurisdiction over this case.”
Captain Van Patten provided a summation of the investigation up to this point: “There has been a significant amount of investigative work that has been put into this case from 2014-2017 but the lack of solid workable leads have resulted in the case becoming cold since 2017. It is important that anyone with any knowledge about the circumstances of Mr. Piña’s death do the right thing in providing information to the Sheriff’s Office so the that person(s) responsible for his murder be held accountable and provide Mr. Piña’s family with the opportunity to reach some closure.”
Before initiating a public records request just two weeks ago, the family had not heard anything regarding the status of the case since 2016. MCSO responded to their public records request with “this case is an active/under investigation homicide” not allowing any records to be released but did confirm the case is “currently assigned to Detective Clint Wyant” and offered a meeting with the family.
The Piña family remains grief-stricken. They miss Michael’s smile and his laugh. They recalled his ability to “play the guitar and just get everyone dancing.” The family reminisced about his favorite album (Bob Seger’s Katmandu), favorite film (Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Doolittle), and his favorite meat to barbeque, bologna–he called it “poor man’s steak”. Though hopeful, one of Michael’s family members lamented, “This case will never be closed.”
Essential Questions about the Case
- Who were the partners Michael worked with to cultivate on his land?
- What is the relationship between Michael’s decision to chop down the marijuana plants and his murder?
- Being that his body was found on federal land, why have federal resources not been called in to help investigate the case? Can the community compel a federal agency to “request jurisdiction over the case?
If you know anything about the murder of Michael email [email protected], message via Facebook, or call in a tip at (707) 560-1543. Other reporting options include the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office Tip-Line (707-234-2100) and the WeTip anonymous crime reporting hotline (800-782-7463).
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