For the second time in less than three years, a court recently awarded custody of an 8-year-old girl to her father, who is a registered sex offender.
I first told you about this strange case back in 2013 when a judge in Oklahoma City awarded custody of the then 6-year-old child to 57-year-old Nicholas Elizondo of Bakersfield. In 1995, Elizondo pleaded no contest to one count of lewd and lascivious acts with a child younger than 14.
Elizondo later married Lisa Knight and the pair had a child, but the marriage didn't work out and Knight moved to Oklahoma City, where she was raising her daughter. After his release from prison, Elizondo traveled to Oklahoma City and obtained visitation rights to see and be with his daughter. He then fought for custody of the girl, which was granted by Oklahoma County Judge Howard Haralson.
Knight appealed and lost.
Elizondo came back to Bakersfield with his daughter and Knight followed soon after and filed for child custody in Kern County Superior Court. But Knight had a big hurdle to overcome. The fact that her ex-husband is a registered sex offender could not be used in the child custody hearing.
Kern County Court Commissioner James Compton said that issue had already been litigated in Oklahoma City. Knight would have to show that there was a significant change of circumstances detrimental to her daughter living with her father that warrants a change of custody.
The mother alleged that while looking through a window, she saw her daughter and Elizondo in the same bed and Elizondo was wearing nothing but underwear.
On the stand, Elizondo said he was wearing “swim trunks,” not underwear. He also said his daughter was simply on top of the bed, not “under the covers” with him.
Police were called to the house, but nobody was arrested or charged with a crime. Knight said she believed her daughter was at risk of being sexually abused, was not receiving proper medical care and had a urinary tract infection. Knight also claimed Elizondo had assaulted her at a hospital parking lot in Madera.
The child never testified, though she was represented by her own court-appointed attorney, Stephanie Childers. Earlier this month, Compton ruled in favor of keeping the child with Elizondo while Knight has visitation rights.
“The court does not find a basis to change custody,” said Compton.
Elizondo declined to give an interview but stated, “This proves I’m not a danger to my own daughter.”
The hearing did provide an opportunity to finally get a reading of why Judge Haralson initially awarded Elizondo custody of the child. Court transcripts from the Oklahoma case in 2013 were admitted into evidence.
Though Knight has no criminal or drug abuse history, Haralson found she was not the person raising her daughter. Rather, he said, other relatives were, and the child had not received proper psychological and medical treatment.
“Mother is not doing her job as a parent, and I wish she would,” said Haralson.
Allegations that the child had been sexually abused were not found credible. And referring to Elizondo, the judge said, “He's got a target on his back as a registered sex offender, and you know people are going to try to set you up.”
The child Elizondo was convicted of molesting back in 1995 is now an adult, and she testified in Oklahoma on behalf of Elizondo, saying the abuse never happened. Elizondo, a former parole officer, has said the only reason he pleaded no contest in 1995 was because Kern County had just finished prosecuting the infamous “witch hunt” child sex abuse trials.
These were cases in which scores of local people were sentenced to hundreds of years in prison after being wrongfully convicted. Elizondo said he feared the same would happen to him, so he took a six-year plea deal and served four before being released.
Knight said she will continue to pursue the case and plans to appeal.
What a bizarre case. Who is telling the truth? A child's life hangs in the balance.
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.