Can a convicted sex offender be a good father?
At least one person -- a judge, no less -- says yes. In a child custody case that has left many observers shaking their heads, Oklahoma County Judge Howard Haralson awarded custody of a 6-year-old girl to her father, 55-year-old registered sex offender Nicholas Elizondo of Bakersfield.
"I don't understand why the judge gave him custody," said the child's mother, Lisa Knight, who lives in Oklahoma. Neither do a lot of other people.
In 1995, Elizondo was a parole officer and married to another woman who had a 6-year-old daughter. According to Kern County Superior Court records, the then-wife found Elizondo lying in bed one night with her daughter, who was wide awake. The child had her panties pulled down to her ankles.
I'll skip the disturbing accounts described in the case file. But Elizondo was charged with nine felony counts of lewd or lascivious acts with a child under 14, one count of continuous sexual abuse of a child and another of exhibiting harmful matter to a minor.
Elizondo pleaded no contest to one felony count of lewd or lascivious acts and the rest of the charges were dismissed.
"I want you to know that I take full responsibility for my actions and I believe punishment is appropriate," Elizondo told the court before sentencing. The ex-parole officer was given six years in state prison. He served a little more than four years.
Years later, Elizondo married Knight and continued living in Bakersfield. The marriage didn't work out and in January 2007, Knight moved to Oklahoma. One month later, Knight gave birth to their daughter with mother and child continously living in Oklahoma since then.
The marriage ended in divorce, Knight was given custody of the daughter and Elizondo was given at least one 30-minute Internet conference visit with the child each week, according to Oklahoma County court records.
Elizondo gradually got more time to spend with his daughter; he would drive to Oklahoma to visit her. He filed for custody, accusing Knight of refusing him Internet visitation. After a lengthy legal battle, Haralson awarded custody to Elizondo in June. The question everyone is asking, of course, is why?
"There's nothing prohibiting (a judge) from giving custody, but it certainly is unusual," said Kern County Assistant District Attorney Scott Spielman. "You would think that there would be a great deal of weight given to a person that actually was charged and convicted and went to prison for molesting a child under 14."
The prosecutor who handled the case was current Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green. She is not aware of a judge anywhere, at least not in Kern County, ever awarding custody of a child to a registered sex offender.
"One can only hope the judge in Oklahoma did a psychological report on this case," said Green.
Granted I am not a lawyer, but I assume judges don't normally place children in the same home as a sex offender.
"Unless the mother was totally drugged out or found to be unfit, a child is not given to a registered sex offender," said family law attorney Marcos Camacho.
Knight denies being an unfit mother and is appealing the ruling. She believes part of the reason the judge ruled the way he did is because she is disabled, hard of hearing and poor.
So what might have influenced Judge Haralson to award custody to Elizondo? During the custody hearing, the 6-year-old child Elizondo admitted to molesting in 1995 testified on his behalf. The now-23-year-old recanted her story of being sexually abused by Elizondo.
According to court records, the 23-year-old said she was pressured into giving false statements to police out of fear of being punished by her mother. Moreover, the 23-year-old told the court she moved in with Elizondo when she turned 18, lived with him for a while and that nothing inappropriate has ever happened.
For his part, Elizondo says he never molested his stepdaughter. He pleaded no contest to the charge in 1995, he said, because this was right after the infamous "witch hunt" trials in which numerous people were wrongly convicted of child abuse in Kern County.
Scores of people were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, but have since been freed when their cases were overturned.
I called the office of Judge Haralson in Oklahoma City, hoping to hear directly from him about his decision in this case.
No dice. He's not talking, said the court clerk. Why not?
"It's still a pending matter," she said.
Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Email him at email@example.com.