This coming January it will have been 28 years since Gerardo Gonzales made the mother of all plea deals.

By copping to one felony count of 288(a) lewd acts with a child on Jan. 22, 1987, Gonzales wiped away more than 200 charges against himself and five other people, ending the most notorious of Kern County's 1980s molestation ring trials.

His no-contest plea, along with a similar plea by a co-defendant, the late Rev. Will Thomas, also ended the ongoing "satanic" molestation investigation in which another 40 people had been named in Sheriff's reports as perpetrators and at least 21 children had been removed from parents who were never charged with anything.

Gonzales' plea freed him from jail, where he'd been kept for nearly three years as the case meandered from the incredible into the insane. And it reunited him with his children, who'd been in foster care for nearly as long as he'd been in jail.

But it did not make him a free man.

Every year since that plea deal, he's had to register as a sex offender.

"It's not over," Gonzales told me in March 2013 after I'd written about what I thought was the final chapter of the molestation ring trials. Kern County had just paid a $725,000 settlement to Grant Self, who'd spent 25 years in prison on a conviction that was overturned.

It's not over for Gonzales and he's making sure it's not over for Kern County.

He filed a motion to withdraw his 1987 plea on Oct. 16. A hearing is set for Dec. 8.

He wants to clear his name.

The motion to withdraw his plea makes a number of arguments including that there was never a factual basis for the plea deal, according to Gonzales' attorney, Robert Salisbury of Los Angeles.

"It's so surprising to anyone who reads it," Salisbury said, referring to the transcript from the 1987 plea proceedings. "Everyone agreed there were no facts to plead on. You have to name the facts, such as 'I John Doe molested Jane Smith on XYZ date.' In his case there were no facts. How can it be a legal plea if the events never happened?"

The District Attorney's office didn't have a comment on the new motion nor indicate what its response would be.

It's almost impossible to give the "basics" of this case because it's so bizarre, but let's start at the beginning.

In 1984, Janet Hastings was worried her then 5-year-old daughter, Brooke, may have been molested. She went to her friend, a social worker named Cory Taylor. After interviewing Brooke, Taylor and Sheriff's deputy Bill Rutledge came to believe the suspects were two men, one Hispanic and one black. Salisbury said Brooke had played with the Gonzales children in their yard a few times. Gonzales is Hispanic and Rev. Thomas, who died in 1992, was black.

In June 1984, Sheriff's deputies knocked on Gonzales' door and asked for someone else, recalled his ex-wife, Cheryl, who asked that her new last name not be used.

She doesn't remember the name deputies asked for, but it was Hispanic.

"I told him no, this was the Gonzales residence," Cheryl said. "I went to get my husband, then went to the bathroom.

"When I came back, Gerardo was gone and some social worker was sitting on my couch with my kids."

Her then-4-year-old son and then-6-year-old daughter, Melissa, were taken that night too. They wouldn't come home for more than two years.

"They drove off and left me standing alone in front of the house," Cheryl said. "My whole world ended."

Melissa, who also asked that her new last name not be used, would become the county's star witness.

"I was trying to give them what they wanted," Melissa said. "I remember things like the lawyers telling me it was OK, that I didn't have to look at my parents.

"But I would shield my eyes when I was saying bad things about my parents. It was so hard to lie."

Ultimately, Thomas was arrested, as were Cheryl and their friends Brad and Mary Nokes, and two neighbors, Kathy Scott and Leroy Stowe. Stowe's case was handled separately. He was sentenced to 30 years but the conviction was dismissed on appeal and sent back to Kern, which never refiled the case.

It was the Nokes' son, Michael, who first brought up the satanic stuff, said his grandpa, Roy Nokes.

"They kept on him so much, he came up with all that eating babies stuff and then he said the DA molested him. It went plumb wild. Every name he heard, he said they molested him. That's how bad they had him wound up."

Michael Nokes' stories were like a dam bursting. Other children claimed to have been hung on hooks during orgies, seen babies sacrificed in black Masses, stabbed babies themselves and witnessed their bodies buried under church alters. No evidence of any of it was ever found.

The kids, who were in therapy sessions together, named numerous parents, including Janet Hastings, prosecutors and even social worker Taylor and Sheriff's deputy Rutledge.

In fall 1986, the Attorney General's office issued a scathing report saying kids had been improperly questioned and cases ineptly investigated.

The Gonzales case was falling apart around the DA's ears.

Suddenly, it had a deal to offer.

Nokes, who had put up his house to get Cheryl out of jail and help fund the defense, was there the night Deputy DA Stephen Tauzer offered the deal to Gonzales and Thomas. (Tauzer was fatally stabbed in 2002 by a DA's investigator who'd become convinced Tauzer had had an improper relationship with his son while the boy was underage. But that's another story.)

"Tauzer came to me in the hallway and told me he wouldn't prosecute Brad and Mary if Johnny (Gonzales) and Will would plead guilty to one count."

Nokes made a sound of disgust. "Just one count after all that, just so they could say, 'See, we were right.'"

He advised Gonzales and Thomas to reject the deal and tell the newspaper about the offer.

"But he'd (Gonzales) been in jail so long and wanted out real bad," Nokes said. "And one of those Pitts (a previous, alleged molestation ring) people'd turned down a deal and got 200 years."

They took the deal.

Nearly 30 years later, Gonzales wants a do over.

I'd say the county owes him that.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry. Her column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or email lhenry@bakersfield.com

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