I finally got around to reading the Kern County District Attorney’s opposition to a man’s attempt to withdraw his plea from the most notorious molestation ring case of the 1980s.
I’m not surprised by the DA’s arguments, just a little exasperated.
Gerardo Gonzales filed a motion late last year to withdraw his plea from Jan. 22, 1987, in which he copped to one felony count of a lewd act with a child in exchange for the DA dropping literally hundreds of molestation charges against him, his wife and three others.
It’s hard to explain just how warped that case was, how crazy it got.
This was the one that developed into the “satanic” molestation case. Where more than 40 people were named in sheriff’s reports as suspects and 21 children were taken from parents who were never charged.
The California Attorney General investigated and issued a report excoriating sheriff’s investigators, the DA’s office and Child Protective Services for sloppy work and outright misconduct.
Transcripts of the testimony of child witnesses, including Gonzales’ daughter Melissa, are blatant in how children were coached.
A month after Gonzales was arrested in the summer of 1984, Melissa tells Prosecutor Susan Skabelund in a custody hearing that she lied to sheriff’s officers, social workers and Skabelund herself when she said her dad had molested her.
Why, Skabelund asks.
“Because you guys told me to,” the then 6-year-old Melissa says.
She repeats over and over in that hearing that officials wouldn’t believe her when she said nothing happened, so she lied.
She had never even heard of the acts her father was accused of, she says. Where did you learn about it, Skabelund asks.
“From you and the other people (cops and social workers),” Melissa says.
Astonishingly, Skabelund was prosecuting Gonzales, yet also acting as Melissa’s attorney in the juvenile hearing. You seriously can’t make this stuff up.
The whole case would be laughable if it hadn’t ruined so many lives.
And still, the DA’s response to Gonzales’ motion to undo his 1987 plea is that he should have done it back then.
“... the defendant has offered no explanation for the 27-year delay in bringing his motion,” the DA’s opposition states.
The DA also argues that Gonzales didn’t show there are any new facts that he was unaware of at the time he took the plea. And, while many of the child witnesses have recanted, the one who started it all, Brooke Hastings, who was 5 at the time, has not.
Finally, the DA states, “... the defendant’s claim of coercion is not supported by any evidence.”
I know the DA’s office has a job to do, and perhaps it sees that job as defending past cases no matter how crummy they might have been. But come on. How about defending justice rather than a “win” by a former prosecutor under questionable circumstances?
Remember what was happening back then.
Defendants in previous molestation ring cases were being sentenced to hundreds of years in prison. (All later overturned.)
Gonzales himself had been in jail almost three years. His children were in foster care and in danger of being lost to him and his wife forever. These were working class people up against the full force of the government.
That’s when former prosecutor Stephen Tauzer came to Gonzales with a deal, and he took it. Coercion comes in many forms.
Speaking of Tauzer and tactics, an interesting piece of Gonzales’ motion to withdraw his plea is that the judge in 1987 didn’t have a factual basis on which to accept the plea.
A defendant typically has to admit that, yes, he did the crime he’s pleading to. Or the defendant can stipulate to a specific fact as found by the judge.
“In Gerardo’s case, he absolutely refused to do that,” said Ashley Meeks, appellate paralegal for Attorney Robert Salisbury, who’s handling Gonzales’ case. And the judge never laid out any specific fact on which the plea was based.
In the transcript of the 1987 hearing, it appears Tauzer may have told Gonzales’ defense attorney Dominic Eyherabide the plea would be accepted without a factual basis, but that’s not how it turned out.
As the plea is being laid out Eyherabide interjects that it was agreed by the prosecution there would not be a factual basis entered.
Judge John Jellitich states he’s finding a factual basis upon his reading of the entire court file. He doesn’t give a specific event Gonzales is pleading to. Just says it’s based on his reading of “all the prior testimony.”
“Are you willing to let the judge do that?” Eyherabide apparently asks Tauzer. “It was my understanding ... the record would be silent on that matter.”
“I have never had any such discussion,” Tauzer says.
“There was a specific discussion about the factual basis,” Eyherabide responds.
In the end, Eyherabide concedes the court will do what it will but that Gonzales won’t agree to a factual basis.
The DA is arguing now it was all entirely appropriate largely because Gonzales went along with it.
As for Hastings never having recanted her allegations, so far, the only ones to ask were Gonzales’ defense team. She refused to talk about the case at all, Meeks said.
“She didn’t confirm or deny what happened back then, she just refused to discuss it,” he said. “We’ll see if that changes under a subpoena but we’re a ways off from that.”
It’s hard to tell what a judge will do on this case since so much time has passed, Meeks acknowledged.
“There are always procedural concerns with old cases like this,” he said. “We think it’s a good case and hope it doesn’t get swept under.”
Contact Californian columnist Lois Henry at 395-7373 or firstname.lastname@example.org; the views expressed are her own.