News of the arrest, in this valley town near the foot of the Sierras, left an embarrassed silence in living rooms across the country, a televised object lesson in depravity. A mill worker named Cameron Hooker had allegedly kidnaped a young hitchhiker, sexually abused her, tied her to a rack and kept her in a box as a slave for seven years.
Tehama County District Attorney James Lang thought he had enough charges to send the man to prison for more than 100 years yet wondered if he would ever get that far. Eight murders in the previous two years and a growing drug caseload had exhausted the county budget.
After a change-of-venue request was granted, he faced having to prosecute Hooker in San Mateo County, 170 miles to the south, at a cost of $250,000. He did not have the money.
So, like officials in other counties engaged in a financial guerrilla war set off by the tax revolts of the late 1970s, Lang looked for an unconventional way to make his point. He offered to plea-bargain Hooker's maximum prison sentence to about 10 years.
As Lang had hoped, tempers exploded across the state to match the hot ash that occasionally spouts from volcanic Mt. Lassen, a cloud-shrouded peak east of here. "I had to get someone's attention," Lang said.
In California, the plight of rural counties such as Tehama, population 44,000, may be particularly severe because of voter-approved Proposition 13, which forbade raising significant new tax revenues from real estate. But municipalities nationwide are feeling a pinch, as the voter tax revolt that stoked the huge federal deficit in Washington also works its will back home.
Thomas Joseph, legislative representative for the National Association of Counties (NAC), noted that some counties in rural Minnesota and Wisconsin have had to scramble for welfare funds. "Often, they don't have United Way-type agencies that can help," he said.
The climb in criminal-justice costs is evident from one statistic, NAC legislative representative Don Murray said. From 1978 to 1983, the number of prisoners in local jails increased 41 percent.
Jackson County, Ohio, has laid off half of its 40 general-fund employes, leaving only the sheriff and a laid-off deputy working as a volunteer dispatcher to protect the county's 30,000 residents between midnight and 8 a.m. Voter sentiment against an emergency sales tax has led one county commissioner to block the revenue measure, and the state has refused to bail out the county.
Until a last-minute extension of bank credit saved them, Pittsburgh transit system managers threatened to shut down all 900 buses, 90 trolley cars and 10 commuter-rail cars because local reluctance to raising taxes had pushed the system into the red.
The financial crunch in California has been worsening for some time, and a milestone of sorts was reached two years ago in the celebrated Titsworth case in Imperial County.
A state judge ordered David Titsworth, county auditor in the largely agricultural area near the Mexican border, to pay a court-appointed defense attorney in a murder case. Titsworth determined that his budget would not cover that, refused to pay and was jailed for several days until the county scraped up some money.
"We were struck with the realization that what was at stake was the principle of local control," said Ken Smith, spokesman for the County Supervisors Association of California. The state, with its own budget problems, had decided to burden the counties without providing money to help.
The state legislature has since passed stopgap financing measures, "but as for overall long-term independence, we haven't gotten it," Smith said. His association is arguing for greater flexibility in its tax structure, more power to reduce state-mandated costs or state takeover of some local responsibilities, such as welfare.
"There is obviously a problem," said Assemblyman Dominic Cortese, chairman of the local government committee, "but I'd like to see more evidence of the specifics in each county," particularly how localities spent an extra $600 million in state revenues last year.
Tehama County's court and police costs have risen 176 percent in five years, while funds available for criminal justice have risen 135 percent. In all of the state's counties, new mandatory sentencing for drunken drivers has proven expensive. The jails are filling, and 25 of the state's 58 counties are being sued because of conditions in their lockups.
Under state law, Tehama County must pay the same welfare scale as Los Angeles County, although it has little industry or unrestricted private land to provide a tax base. Fruit-tree growers and unemployed lumber-industry workers who live here have said they suspect that many welfare recipients have moved in from some of the state's big cities to take advantage of the lower cost of living in a rural area.
"The county's share of welfare costs has increased four times in the last five years," said Jim Hoffman, a county supervisor who formerly owned a local tire-service shop. Welfare cases are increasing at a much faster rate than the county's population.
Although Hoffman acknowledged that the crippled timber industry had forced some locals to seek county assistance, he said he was certain that outsiders had added to the total.
District Attorney Lang said newcomers had definitely increased his costs. Woods covering much of the county are good for growing marijuana, other kinds of drug traffic is increasing and traffickers know that rural counties are not well-equipped to locate them.
"They're not dumb," Lang said. "I think they know that the principal thing that inhibits us from going after them is money and manpower."
Hoffman said, "This used to be a quiet rural county. It used to be we'd have one murder every third year, and that would be a big deal."
In the past two years, eight murders have been reported, including six thought to be drug-related. Almost all of the leading suspects are people who have moved into the county, Lang said, but the sheriff has been so short of investigators that few arrests have been made.
To stay afloat, the county has refrained from hiring new employes, kept worn equipment and cut services. Five years ago, the county provided 11 library branches, supervisor Russ Frey said. "Now we have only two, and those open only part-time, one 20 hours and the other 32 hours a week."
The sheriff has 12 patrol cars with more than 100,000 miles on them and only two cars reliable enough for high-speed pursuit. "You get them up to 90 miles an hour, and they just unwind," Hoffman said.
None of this had much impact in the state capital until Lang threatened to accept a plea-bargain for Cameron Hooker. The state attorney general's office quickly vetoed the deal, and the legislature this month appropriated $260,000 to pay for Hooker's trial, which began last week.
"But that only solves that problem," Lang said. "We still don't have the money to go after a lot of these other people."