Members Fed “Disinformation” From Their Own Board
By Ron Lee
Santa Barbara, CA – In the Los Padres National Forest, overlooking Santa Barbara, California, the Winchester Canyon Gun Club (WCGC) sits atop the Santa Ynez Mountains. Having been established in the 1950s it moved to its current location in 1961. With amazing panoramic views, WCGC’s sprawling facility offers multiple shotgun areas (Trap, Skeet and Continental), as well as a 25-yard pistol range, and 100-yard and 200-yard rifle ranges. For being in California it is surprising the WCGC is so highly regarded locally. It is quite literally an island of firearm liberty in a state that is a 2nd Amendment political abyss. However, its reputed high regard doesn’t mean the WCGC is without its own controversy and corruption, and their desire to attain a long term use permit through the United States Forest Service (USFS) reportedly has the club swimming in it.
The WCGC is a non-profit organization of approximately 1,350 members whose board of directors is comprised of active member-directors that serve 3-year terms. Directors who are elected to an officer position hold that position for one year. The people on the board are responsible for the operation of the club, its policies and the economic well-being of the organization. This includes keeping detailed financial records and submitting the appropriate forms to federal and state agencies, as well as ensuring they are in compliance with all the laws governing non-profits. Ultimately, the California State “Attorney General’s (AG) Registry of Charitable Trusts (Registry) regulates charities and other nonprofit organizations by administering the registration and reporting requirements in the Supervision of Trustees and Fundraisers for Charitable Purposes Act (Gov. Code, § 12580 et seq.), and its regulations.”
But what happens when the AG won’t do anything about impropriety discovered in a non-profit like the WCGC? Seeing as though a complaint against the WCGC was filed in May of 2017, apparently, as of yet, nothing. And, what happens when an otherwise great organization like the WCGC has potentially been commandeered by certain individuals who defy state reporting laws and seek financial gain from the management of the organization? You get noticed by an otherwise friendly freelance journalist who wants to see the membership clean up their organization or face losing it.
Having traveled to California to write an article featuring its top gun clubs and how they are surprisingly flourishing in a state that politically despises the 2nd Amendment, the WCGC was my first stop, and I happened to get there on a weekend when they are open to the public. I was in awe of its placement, nestled high in the mountains overlooking Goleta on one side and the San Rafael Mountains on the other – the views are striking. The people, too, are very welcoming. In fact, all of the members, volunteers and paid employees I personally met with made my time at the WCGC a real pleasure. It was unfortunate to find that the club has seemingly been taken over by a few key individuals whose goals, at least on the surface, appear to be about profiteering.
And no, it’s not the group with the perfectly legal mining claim – Grateful Lead Environmental Recovery (GLER).
During my initial day at the range I talked at length with a very friendly Range Assistant, Bill Abel. He ensured I had coffee and a donut and that my questions were answered. Everyone, including Abel, spoke very highly of the club. In his opinion, the biggest hurdle the club faced was establishing a “long-term” use permit from the USFS, as they were currently operating under a permit that was year-to-year. It was said that the WCGC had plans to upgrade and expand its facility once the long-term permit came through.
When asked if he felt there may be any outside organizations that might interfere in the USFS process, those in earshot, like club member Mike Morrison, perked up. I was told a story about the Chumash Tribe and how, years ago, they had successfully stalled a long-term permit when it was pointed out that there were native paintings on some of the large rock formations. They relayed to me that they had to close their long-range target area for the paintings’ protection before the club was approved for a short-term permit. Abel went on to tell me that since the paintings were no longer within the protection of the WCGC he thought they might have been destroyed by vandals.
The conversation quickly turned to several WCGC members gone rogue, people who apparently didn’t like the “direction of the club” and “didn’t want the club to grow.” Some of these members, according to those there, started a mining organization and were attempting to hijack the whole WCGC organization – the aforementioned GLER, an environmental organization who are also supporters of the 2nd Amendment that now have a legal mining claim on the land where the WCGC sits.
Three days later after having pursued the WCGC board and management, I was able to connect with Mike Foster, the WCGC Range Manager.
Talking with Foster, he outlined the structure of the club and how safety is a priority – even though it was reported to me they have no set safety policy or guidebook for its staff when there is an incident, as was evident when one member shot himself during a holstered pistol incident. Instead, they rely on 10 safety officers who do “spot checks.” They also have a range/training supervisor by the name of Rob Holcombe. I was given Holcombe’s business card for his private business, Paratus Training. I also noticed that the card was left out for members and the public to take. I asked if Holcombe was a paid employee of the organization or if he had a contract allowing for the operation of his business and I was informed that he was a paid employee.
It struck me as odd that the WCGC would advertise a paid employee’s outside business. Then it was reported that Holcombe reaps the profits from his classes and private events he hosts, which he offers to members and the general public – that are held on the WCGC range. Holcombe even has the power to close ranges down in order to host his offerings. I have to wonder if he is being paid for his time while he is teaching his classes for his private business? Seems to me to be an incredible opportunity for double-dipping, and its optics are what led me to delve deeper into this organization.
To be fair, I never met with Rob Holcombe. I was informed that he would be taking part in my meeting with Mike Foster but Holcombe never showed. In fact, he never responded to emails, either.
But along with the obvious potential conflict of interest having an employee run their own for-profit business from inside a non-profit organization, there were other red flags thrown-up about the WCGC. Things like having readily available loaner shotguns – one of which was offered to me without any mention of any kind of background check – and the club offering ammunition and reloading sales on premises.
As I talked with members of the community I found myself in several gun stores asking about their relationships with the WCGC. All seemed to be friendly with the organization but each had noticed a drop in their ammunition sales since the club started carrying their own. It troubled me that I was told the organization had purchased its goods through a former board member and that the club had disregarded its previous relationships with local gun stores.
It was time to dig deeper.
It was then that I discovered that the AG complaint had been filed, and I found several past and present members and board-members to talk openly about the organization away from the gun-range.
They spun a story of a man obsessed with running the WCGC – Larry Nowlin, the club’s current treasurer, and former president for three years. Reportedly, Nowlin has a stranglehold on the board, single-handedly getting people placed in key positions. Their claims of self enrichment matched my feelings when given Holcombe’s personal card days earlier. They relayed to me their belief that potentially fraudulent figures were being given to the State, Feds and members of the WCGC regarding finances; that Nowlin has a purported personal relationship with the bookkeeping company used for the club’s finances and the WCGC’s legal counsel, who allegedly has represented Nowlin personally. Not to mention, the club’s counsel is reportedly not a 2nd Amendment supporter.
I decided to reach out to GLER as they had been mentioned so frequently in all the conversations. Not only were GLER representatives helpful, they verified much of the information I had already discerned. GLER also showed me the documentation of their mining claim and asserted to me, over and again, that their goal was to help WCGC succeed.
Brent Muchow, GLER’s President and proud WCGC member, was vocal about WCGC needing a plan in place to recover lead. For years, the WCGC had allowed the use of lead shot, a known carcinogenic metal, by shooters at the facility. In order to qualify for a long term use permit the WCGC would have to do something about the lead to appease their USFS landowners. Their first step was to ban its use in all shotgun areas, making their members switch to steel shot. Next they had to have an actionable plan to deal with the deposits. According to Muchow, that’s where GLER came in. “Some of us are members of the WCGC and we wanted to help the club by providing a method for the extraction of lead which would fulfill the environmental requirements for the club to secure a long-term permit,” Muchow stated. “But then a campaign of disinformation started against us.” Muchow went on to outline the months they have tried to have a meeting with the WCGC board of directors, to no avail. They have been stifled at every turn, reportedly even by USFS District Ranger John “Pancho” Smith, who reportedly claims the ability to disregard GLER’s mining rights.
I reached out to Andrew Madsen, the USFS Public Affairs Officer via email. In my letter I stated, “I was hoping to discuss the club and any issues they may be facing. I am particularly interested in any political organizations that may be trying to block their permitting, if any, or any backlash by the community at large against having a gun club in their area.”
Seven days later I got this response:
“…I know we are working on a long-range permit for Winchester Canyon, and there is an environmental group called GLERA that is interested in ’mining’ lead on the site. Otherwise our big issue is locals who would prefer target shooters use the gun club instead of the Arroyo Burro shooting area (also known as the Glass Factory) located a short distance down the road from Winchester.”
Since my return from Southern California, I reached out again to Range Manager Mike Foster, who reportedly suffered a small heart attack but thankfully recovered well. Foster never replied to my correspondence. I then reached out the WCGC President Paul McKenna.
In my correspondence I offered the following suggestion, “If GLER is to be taken [at] their word and they don’t want anything to do with the club, perhaps you could have them put it in writing, and then you could all move forward to grow the WCGC with a secured long-term permit.”
McKenna, however, dismissed the notion and believes that GLER has no bearing on the club getting a long-term permit, adding, “…the fact of the matter is WCGC are the only players in this permitting process with the USFS.”
I wonder how much experience Mr. McKenna has with mining laws and the precedence mining claims have on land? I have a feeling he is soon to get a good lesson.
It has been reported that GLER recently visited their lawfully established mining claim and took samples. Mike Foster apparently went unhinged and threatened to “lock them in” on the 200 yard range. Sheriff’s Deputies were called. GLER, who had already completed most of their samples, freely left the property and met with sheriff’s deputies at the front gate.
Muchow supplied a statement regarding the event:
“Sheriff Deputy Bruno Bertuzzi approached. I identified myself and continued a discussion with Deputy Bertuzzi. Also present during the discussion/interview was Tanner, Kent, Vandeman, and the other two deputies. I handed Bertuzzi a full copy of a folder including our mining claim and correspondence with the USFS, as well as other pertinent information. During the interview we were interrupted by Ev Lee. He was asked to leave by Gary and one sheriff deputy led him away. This discussion/interview lasted for approximately 30/40 minutes. Bertuzzi asked that we keep him appraised in the future particularly if and when we planned to return for additional prospecting. He encouraged us to do every thing possible to work out a schedule with WCGC that did not interfere with their planned events. We agreed that is the best approach and that we have been trying to do this for over 20 months.”
AG COMPLAINT DETAILS
According to the complaint filed with the AG, starting in early 2016, there was a lawful attempt to garner copies of legal invoices to substantiate entries on the club’s monthly financial reports. Incomplete responses to those requests prompted additional consideration, with further requests for supporting documentation of all the organization’s financials. It has been reported that no documentation has ever been provided.
WCGC members might find it interesting to realize that according to the complaint, their email addresses (and who knows what else) were disclosed to an outside company, without members’ permission or authorization. This goes against club by-laws and violates CA Corporate (Corp) Statutes.
Also, club members might like to know there has been a failure to notify them of annual meetings since 2014, a violation of CA Corp Statute and club by-laws.
The complaint also points to the monthly board meeting minutes (if and when those meetings were held properly) having been “scrubbed” and not including everything that was discussed at the meetings. Purportedly, when questioned at following meetings, a simple “corrected as discussed” comment would be made, with no actual correction to the minutes occurring.
Obviously this complaint should have every club member concerned with what is really going on inside the management of the WCGC.
Beyond the complaint, it has further been reported that the immediate past WCGC treasurer, Marianne McPherson, was simply a figurehead and was never even in contact with the accounting firm, and had no input into any reports; nor was she even a club member.
But even more alarming is the fact that according to non-profit tracking agencies, the WCGC has not filed its yearly required IRS form 990 since 2016. This could be a huge red flag that the state should find interesting.
I reached out to the Attorney General’s office for comment. As of the date of this publishing there has been no response.
While the club itself is an amazing institution full of wonderful individuals exercising their 2nd Amendment rights – something to be cherished especially in California – the WCGC members should look long and hard at who makes decisions for their organization and just what kind of financial agreements exist.
Rest assured, this investigation will continue and the US~Observer will bring the facts to light so the good people of the WCGC can retain their piece of the 2nd Amendment unencumbered by the politics and personal gain that seek to profit from this otherwise jewel of a gun club.
Editor’s Note: Ron Lee is a freelance journalist and long time contributor and editor with the US~Observer. During his quest to have a piece find publication in the pages of Guns & Ammo, Lee’s discoveries during his research into the WCGC alarmed him so much that it was decided the US~Observer was a better venue. The US~Observer fights for those who are wronged.
The US~Observer hopes the WCGC can resolve its issues and be the great organization its members deserve.
If you have any verifiable information regarding the WCGC, its contractors, staff, or current or former board-members, especially Larry Nowlin, please contact the US~Observer by calling 541-474-7885 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
UPDATE – On October 27th I received an email from Dan Ashton, a former President of the WCGC, wherein he made sure to point out that he “did not setup the ammunition/reloading sales and [he is] not currently or ever was the supplier.” The article above has been changed to reflect this. However, when I was originally told that a former board member (and president) set-up the sales by members of the WCGC, it made me want to look deeper into the organization, which is what I did and is stated in the narrative above.