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Down by Law

Raven Theater owner Don Hyde fights distant drug charges

By Bruce Robinson

Don Hyde has reason to worry as he heads for Tennessee later this month for a court date that could either lift the dark clouds that have dogged him for the past six months or prolong the grinding uncertainty indefinitely. "It's a massive conspiracy trial where if I'm convicted, I'll spend the rest of my life in jail," says Hyde, 48, owner of the Raven Theater and the adjacent five-screen Raven Film Center in Healdsburg. "There's no chance of probation or anything like that.

"At the very least, I'm going to be financially ruined," he adds, noting that if the case goes all the way through a trial, there will legal costs of $250,000 or more.

Of course, the best outcome would be a dismissal of the charges or even a change of venue; he doesn't want to ponder the other extreme.

The owner of the popular Raven Theater in Healdsburg for the past 20 years, Hyde had his world abruptly turned inside out last Aug. 16 when federal Drug Enforcement Agency officers descended on his home and office and charged him with conspiracy to distribute LSD, a charge that Hyde flatly denies.

The allegation apparently grew out of a long-term DEA investigation into acid sales at Grateful Dead concerts in Kentucky and Ohio. One person arrested more than five years ago as the result of that investigation was a man named David Gaither, who subsequently turned informer, says Hyde's attorney, Bill Osterhoudt, San Francisco civil liberties advocate and criminal lawyer.

One of the people named by Gaither was eventually found to have purchased some LSD in 1990 from another man described as a "drifter." When the DEA got to the drifter, he was facing a third strike, so he implicated Hyde.

Hyde concedes he has known the man, whose name has not been made public, for "16 or 17 years" and gave him a few bucks to help him out of town once or twice. But the DEA's attempt to link this passing contact to a huge drug conspiracy halfway across the continent has Hyde flummoxed. Kentucky is "a place where I've never been and don't know anybody," he fumes.

Hyde's first-ever visit to the Bluegrass State was for arraignment last September; he is free on $400,000 bond.

Although he was arrested shortly after the Raven held its much-publicized "Bob Dole Film Festival," a series of culturally adventurous films that antagonized some conservative elements in the Healdsburg community, Hyde sees no linkage between the two. "It didn't have anything to do with the Bob Dole series, although that's what a lot of people thought," he says. "The government's investigation had been going on for quite a long time.

"The Dole thing happened only a month before the bust."

If there is an upside, Hyde says it has been the way his friends have rallied to support him. The most visible example is iconoclastic songwriter Tom Waits, an old friend and a resident of the Two Rock area, who volunteered to stage an infrequent live show as a benefit for Hyde's legal fees. "It was his idea to do it. He insisted on it to help us out," Hyde marvels. The show, Waits' first concert in three years, was held Feb. 4 at the Paramount Theater in Oakland. It sold out quickly and drew widespread media coverage, including a review in the current issue of Rolling Stone.

It also earned about $35,000 for Hyde's defense fund, although the total net was significantly higher, before taxes. "Since I'm not a non-profit, the feds took their bite, which was right around 60 percent," Hyde adds.

Meanwhile, Hyde is trying to carry on with some semblance of a normal life in spite of the relentless uncertainty he faces. "You have to get past being bitter and resentful and accept it by being as positive as you can," he sighs. "It's not always easy."

The Don Hyde Defense Fund is accepting donations at P.O. Box 1323, Healdsburg, CA 95448.

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From the Mar. 14-20, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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