Man featured in ‘Prison Town USA’ had lengthy record
According to the PBS Web site, the film tells the story of “four families living in a modern-day prison town.”
In the film, members of two Susanville families pursue the American dream by becoming correctional officers, and a dairyman who struggles to keep the prison as a customer to save his historic family business.
While those stories caused some concerns, it’s the fourth story that really raised the most eyebrows — that of Lonnie Gene Tyler, a then 35-year-old man who claims in the film he was sentenced to 16-months in state prison for “shoplifting” $40 worth of groceries.
According to the PBS Web site, “The Tyler family was just passing through Susanville, California, when father Lonnie was arrested for shoplifting $40 worth of groceries and diapers. Lonnie got a 16-month sentence, leaving his wife Jen and their kids stranded in ‘prison town.’”
Filmmaker Katie Galloway, said she knew Tyler had prior convictions, but she did not know the extent of them.
“I don’t think what Lonnie did was okay,” Galloway said in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon. “That was not our intention.”
But she said she and most people she knows think a 16-month prison sentence for shoplifting $40 worth of groceries seems extremely harsh. According to the PBS Web site, Tyler actually served only nine months. The film does not reveal the amount of time Tyler actually served. The couple’s two children spent a short time in a foster home, and Tyler, an aircraft painter, had trouble finding a job in Susanville while he was on parole.
“Someone had a choice,” Galloway said. “They could have charged him with something else. The question we’re asking is would he have gotten that amount of time somewhere else. If that was the case, I’d be surprised.”
Foot and car chase
According to the court file, Tyler and his domestic partner, Jennifer Lynn Machin, went into a Main Street supermarket in the early afternoon hours of Sept. 22, 2003.
A few minutes later, about 1:50 p.m., officers from the Susanville Police Department were dispatched to the scene after three store employees chased Tyler across Main Street and through a bank’s parking lot.
Tyler eventually eluded the employees, but a few minutes later he was seen sitting in a Main Street fast-food restaurant. The employees chased Tyler again, but this time they finally caught him and restrained him on Alexander Avenue where he was taken into custody by Susanville police officers when they arrived on the scene.
Meanwhile, an investigator from the Lassen County District Attorney’s office who also had responded to the call, stopped a white van on the 100 block of Ash Street. Machin was the driver. She told the investigator she fled the grocery store parking lot because three men from the store were chasing her. She said she didn’t know why. She told the investigator she had been in the store with a man earlier in the day, but she did not want to identify him. She said he asked her to leave the store just before the incident began.
Machin was charged with commercial burglary. That charge was later dismissed, and she pleaded guilty to petty theft. She was sentenced to two years probation and 14 days in the Lassen County Jail.
Nine previous convictions
Tyler pleaded guilty in Lassen County to one felony count of commercial burglary and was sentenced to 16 months in state prison on Oct. 1, 2003, just nine days after the incident. His court-appointed public defender and the district attorney’s office stipulated the sentence — the low prison-term sentence for a commercial burglary conviction.
Galloway said Tyler told her he felt his public defender didn’t represent him adequately at the trial and simply fed him to the prosecutor and the court. Tyler told her he felt he had no choice but to plead guilty and go to prison.
According to the court file, Tyler made a written statement to the court. It reads, “I stole less than $40 of food. The food items were for my kids, and it was all food items. I did not have any money, and we were on our way to Carson City, Nev., so I could get a job painting houses, and now I’m going to prison for 16 months.”
Lassen County District Attorney Robert Burns said he does most of the charging in his office, but he said he had no comment on the Tyler case because he doesn’t remember it.
Burns said there is a difference between a petty theft such as shoplifting and a burglary. He said a petty theft is when someone takes something that belongs to someone else. A burglary is when a person enters a building with the intent to steal. The district attorney said there is a difference between the two crimes.
Rumors about Tyler’s arrest are rampant in Susanville. Even though he wasn’t in the vehicle at the time of his arrest, some have said there were drugs in the car. Others said there were weapons in the vehicle.
If there were drugs or weapons in the vehicle at the time of couple’s arrest, those violations are not noted in the court files. One would suspect someone would have been charged with those violations had they occurred.
But the court record shows Tyler suffered those prior convictions, even if it’s unclear they contributed to his felony commercial burglary charge.
Here’s a listing of Tyler’s convictions.
On Jan. 22, 1991, Tyler was convicted in Butte County on a misdemeanor battery charge. He was sentenced to two years probation for that offense.
On June 18, 1992, Tyler was convicted in Orange County on a misdemeanor charge of making annoying phone calls and disobeying a court order. He was sentenced to three years probation and fined for that offense.
On Aug. 14, 1992, Tyler was convicted in Santa Ana on a misdemeanor charge of entering a noncommercial dwelling. He was sentenced to 13 days in jail, three years probation and fined.
On May 16, 1994, Tyler was sentenced in Tehama County on a misdemeanor charge of petty theft with priors. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail, 18 months probation and fined.
On May 16, 1994 Tyler was sentenced in Sacramento County on a misdemeanor battery charge. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail, three years probation and fined.
On Oct. 8, 1998, Tyler was convicted of domestic battery in the third degree in Mena, Ark. He was sentenced to one year probation, ordered to attend a batterer’s program and fined.
On Jan. 27, 1999, Tyler was convicted of domestic battery in the third degree in Mena, Ark. He was sentenced to two years probation, ordered to attend a batterer’s program and fined.
On Jan. 15, 2002, Tyler was convicted in Kern County of driving under the influence and driving without a license. He was sentenced to three days in jail, five years probation and fined.
On May 21, 2003, Tyler was convicted of misdemeanor grand theft. He was sentenced to 120 days in jail and fined.
And finally, on Oct. 1, 2003, Tyler was convicted in Lassen County of commercial burglary.
What was the film’s purpose?
According to the PBS Web site, “There are now more than 7 million people incarcerated, on probation or on parole in the United States," Galloway said. “We hope this film will awaken people to the real consequences of prison expansion, particularly in rural areas that have been so important in forming the history and character of California and the country.”
“Across the country prisons are transforming our economy, psychology and culture,” said co-director Po Kutchins. “We hope our film promotes much-needed dialogue about the wisdom of America's policies.”
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