By Kevin Modesti Staff Writer
Last summer, LAPD detectives discovered millions of dollars worth of marijuana plants hidden in O’Melveny Park in Granada Hills. Little seemed to be known about the lone individual charged in the unusual case.
Since then, a tantalizing picture has emerged of 50-year-old suspect Natale “Mike” Gabriele.
The huge outdoor marijuana- growing operation was not the beginning or the end of the story of Gabriele and drugs. His misadventures have taken him from the San Fernando Valley to a notoriously corrupt prison in Bali – and back, to his parent’s suburban backyard, where police discovered another sizeable outdoor pot operation.
But the details tell a more vivid story: A one-time Kennedy High School football-player-turned- surfer moves to the Indonesian island of Bali for the big waves and partying, gets caught with heroin and cocaine in his wet suit, passes much of 2003 to 2005 among murderers and rats in an Indonesia prison, endures brutal beatings following a drunken escape attempt, and eventually buys his early release with money wired by mom.
That narrative comes from the author of “Hotel Kerobokan” (MacMillan), a 2009 book based on interviews with prisoners and staff of Kerobokan Prison.
Author Kathryn Bonella described Kerobokan as an overcrowded “hellhole” set amid Bali’s tourist paradise, a place where inmates’ suffering is eased by the availability of drugs, alcohol and prostitutes, and the ability to bribe guards for a day at the
Gabriele’s mother, Stephanie Segal of Granada Hills, and his attorney, Sherman Oaks-based Michael Zimbert, say he was the victim of authorities who target westerners for arrest in order to squeeze money out of them.
“He was set up,” Zimbert said recently.
But Bonella said she isn’t convinced of that.
“It’s true, they squeeze all westerners for money. But that doesn’t make him innocent,” said Bonella, a journalist who lives in Melbourne, Australia. “They found it in his villa. Even if he was just a fun-loving surfer, he shouldn’t have had heroin in a country with the death penalty for drug possession.”
At Kerobokan, the long- haired American was known as Gabriel. He often wore hibiscus-flowered surf shorts and metallic blue sunglasses. Upon arrival, he paid guards $950 to move him out of a cell crammed with 25 prisoners.
Bonella said current and former prisoners remembered Gabriel mostly for the day when, drunk on beer, he walked through a broken fence, climbed a guard tower carrying bed sheets, and rappelled to short-lived freedom. Guards and other prisoners ran him down, administered the first of a string of beatings, and cut off his hair. Sympathetic inmates feared for his life.
The “stupid escape attempt” was a cry to his mother to send more money, Bonella said.
Said Segal: “I sent a fortune of money over there. It’s all a bribe.”
Nobody emerges from Kerobokan unchanged, Bonella said.
“You’d think it would be a deterrent (to getting into further trouble),” Bonella said. “But it doesn’t seem to be. Quite a few who’ve been released have gone back to selling drugs. That’s probably partly because in that jail, whatever your crime or profession, you can easily continue it inside.”
Also, Bonella said, the risk of a few years in prison back in the United States might be less frightening to a veteran of Kerobokan.
Segal said Gabriele – whom she calls Mike, his middle name, and whose friends know him as Gabe – came home and worked as a construction contractor. He dreamed of owning a boat and taking people for cruises. He lived with his mother, and sometimes with a friend in West Hills.
He’d been an ordinary kid, the elder of Segal’s two sons from her first marriage, she said. He was turned on to marijuana by a friend.
“He’s a really good guy. He has morals,” Segal, 73, said of Gabriele. “But I guess he likes to smoke that stuff. He was supposedly a great surfer. That was his love. That’s why he went to Bali, because they have great waves. He’s been in Australia. He had a girlfriend there.
“He had to come live with us because he was down and out (after Bali). He had nothing. In fact, I had told him not to come back here. You know, you always think the worst until somebody explains things.”
Segal said Gabriele was always helpful to her and to neighbors. He built a backyard swing for a child next door.
But his interest in backyards also got him into trouble. Gabriele was re-arrested while out on bail in October for another large marijuana operation he had set up in his mother’s backyard, at a home where he had been living in his boyhood bedroom.
“Obviously, he’s not the stereotypical rich drug dealer living the life of Riley,” LAPD narcotics Detective Robert Holcomb said.
When he began to grow marijuana in the backyard, Gabriel told her it was legal because he planned to sell it to medical-marijuana dispensaries, Segal said.
“He almost had me convinced it wasn’t a big deal,” Segal said. “It doesn’t seem to be, anymore. You see it (marijuana) on television – what’s that program, `Weeds’? Everyone seems to be smoking the stuff.”
Segal said Gabriele believed marijuana soon would be made legal for recreational use – Californians voted down such a ballot measure in November – and his cultivation skills would land him a corporate job.
“He’s only a little guy that grew some (marijuana) on a hill up here and in the backyard,” Segal said, adding that Gabriele hopes to prove the police have exaggerated the quantities. “No one else is involved at all.
“What can I do? I’ve cried enough. I just hate to see him in (jail). He’s not a criminal.”
Holcomb said Gabriele grew hundreds of times the amount of pot permitted for personal medical use.
Upon his return to the U.S., Gabriele’s pot problems started in August, when he was arrested in connection with nearly 3,000 marijuana plants found growing 10 feet high in O’Melveny Park with the help of a sophisticated irrigation system using water from a nearby stream.
The plants were valued at $24 million. Holcomb called it the largest outdoor growing operation he’d seen in 20 years in the LAPD’s Narcotics Enforcement Detail.
Two months later, Holcomb said, police responding to a complaint about the scent of pot from a backyard in the 12000 block of Lithuania Drive in Granada Hills showed up with a search warrant at a junk-strewn house to find 380 pounds of pot – about $1.8 million worth – and four antique guns.
Also, a familiar “hippy- looking” figure in sandals and torn jeans.
“Hey, we know you,” Holcomb remembered thinking.
“There were plants on every flat surface, hanging from the clotheslines. His room looked like a set from the 1960s. Every surface except for his bed was covered with drying marijuana buds.”
The detective said it appeared Gabriele was a good farmer.
“It looked to me like this is the only way he knows how to make money,” Holcomb said. “It’s easy money right up until we show up.”
Jailed at Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic in lieu of $430,000 bail, Gabriele faces an April 11 pretrial conference. Added together, his charges could put him in prison for 10 years.
His attorney is expected to seek a plea deal.
Zimbert said his client would not speak with a reporter, at least before his future is determined.
In Zimbert’s description, Gabriele is a “very peaceful, good person” who has a marijuana prescription for a bad back and was merely a caretaker for the Granada Hills operations.
Gabriel was not getting rich growing pot, which is why he lives with his parents, drives a van borrowed from his stepfather and was riding a bicycle when he was arrested in August, Zimbert said.
The portrait is of a man whose odyssey took him from the Valley to Bali and home again – in the end, nowhere.
“He doesn’t have a pot to piss in,” Zimbert said.
“It’s really sad in a lot of ways.”