Emotions High as ’85 Abuse Case Reviewed

Prosecutor grills men who recant childhood testimony. The hearing will decide whether inmate gets retrial.

BAKERSFIELD — Christopher Diuri’s temper was smoldering as he sat on the witness stand, enduring a prosecutor’s withering cross-examination.

The 27-year-old mechanic’s memory was challenged. His motives for coming forward as a witness were questioned. Even a past run-in with the law — a DUI arrest — was brought out.

Diuri, a plain-spoken man with a closely shaved head, finally snapped. “This case tore my whole family apart when I was a kid,” he spat at Deputy Dist. Atty. Lisa Green. “And it’s still doing it now.”

Diuri’s experience was repeated again and again last week as four former witnesses in one of the nation’s biggest child molestation cases from the 1980s took the stand to say they had never been molested as children. They had only said they were, they now confessed, because law enforcement had hounded and threatened them.

The witnesses wanted to set the record straight, they said, because their false testimony had sent four innocent people to prison, including John Stoll, who is still there 19 years later. In wrenching testimony, one of the former child victims, a burly sign painter named Edward Sampley, tearfully addressed the bald, 60-year-old inmate in jailhouse brown. “I’m sorry,” Sampley said, as both he and Stoll wiped away tears.

A touching scene of reconciliation? Hardly. If these young men, all in their mid-20s, thought Kern County authorities would welcome their heartfelt confessions, they were mistaken. Green hammered away at them, questioning whether they might be planning to file suit against the county and raising the prospect that they had formed some sort of conspiracy to free the very man who molested them.

As the first week drew to a close in an unusual hearing to determine whether Stoll should get a new trial or win his freedom, the prosecutor’s strategy became clear: Make the witnesses look like liars, opportunists and social outcasts. The court battle shows that even two decades later, the infamous child molestation investigation that, along with Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, helped put Bakersfield on the map refuses to go away. Years later, the cases are still upending people’s lives.

The prosecutor’s tactics, meanwhile, are enraging Stoll’s attorneys.

“This is just a continuation of what went on in 1985,” fumed Kathleen Ridolfi, executive director of Santa Clara University’s Northern California Innocence Project. Project attorneys, along with the California Innocence Project at the California Western School of Law in San Diego, are representing Stoll.

“For them to continue to badger these young men after what they went through as children is just outrageous,” Ridolfi said.

Even Stoll, sweating out his own future, expressed outrage in a jail interview. “They’re picking on those kids again,” he said. “Why can’t they just leave them alone?”

Besides being risky, the prosecution strategy is replete with irony. Those who are targeted are the same people who, two decades earlier, were portrayed by the district attorney’s office as tender victims of a vast interlocking network of child abusers and pornographers.

Stoll was one of more than 40 people convicted in the eight Bakersfield cases that began in 1984, one of the first of the wave of multi-offender molestation cases that swept the nation in the 1980s and ’90s.

Authorities in Bakersfield contended that they had uncovered eight multi-offender rings, of which Stoll’s was one. Many were centered in the working-class area east of Bakersfield called Oildale. Some sheriff’s investigators believed they had stumbled on a network of abusers that had its roots in the Ozarks. The investigations fell apart two years after they began, when allegations of child abuse grew into reports of satanic activity, and when the children, who until then were thought to be unable to lie, began accusing sheriff’s investigators and even a prosecutor of molestation.

In the intervening years, many convicted in Kern County have been released after appellate judges found prosecutorial misconduct and a variety of other errors. The state attorney general’s office also issued a scathing report blasting the way the investigations had been handled. Among the findings: Investigators were so convinced they had stumbled on career-making child abuse cases that they did not bother to do routine police work, such as taking the alleged victims in for medical tests.

Of those convicted nearly 20 years ago, Stoll is among the last remaining in prison.

Green has repeatedly refused to answer questions about her trial strategy. The challenge facing her, however, is to answer a question that looms large. What do these young men, a cross section of working-class America — cooks, salesmen, mechanics, with homes, wives and families — have to gain by helping to free the man convicted of subjecting them to perverse acts?

Green will have a chance to develop her case on Feb. 23, when the hearing resumes. She is expected to call the sheriff’s investigator and the child welfare worker involved in the Stoll investigation. Green’s ace in the hole, if she can deliver it, will be Jed Stoll, John Stoll’s estranged son. In an affidavit, he insists he was molested, just as he previously testified. Jed Stoll did not return phone calls seeking comment.

False Memory Syndrome

False memories are therapy-induced fantasies masquerading as memories that seem very real to the person being treated. They often involves accusations and allegations of incest, Satanic Ritual Abuse, or cult involvement.

Innocence Project attorneys believe Jed’s “memories” of molestation were planted by investigators. To support that, an expert in what has come to be known as false memory syndrome was called to testify. Because Jed was the youngest victim, at 6, and because he was considered under the influence of Stoll’s ex-wife, who lodged the original accusation of molestation during a child custody dispute, his memories are unreliable, Stoll’s attorneys say.

Another alleged victim, whose story may be the strangest — and most troublesome — of all, is Allen Grafton, 28, a cook who lives in Idaho. Grafton has spent what he estimates to be nearly half his life in therapy as a molestation survivor. His mother, Margie, was convicted of molesting her sons, Allen and Donald.

The saga was so disturbing within the family that even after her release from prison, where other inmates had maimed her hands by pushing them into prison machinery, she and Allen never discussed what had happened in 1984. He eventually reached a kind of peace with her, he said in an interview.

“I forgave her,” he said in an interview. But what if there is nothing to forgive?

Allen Grafton heard a couple of years ago that Stoll, who had been sentenced to 40 years in prison, was hoping to get out. Even more shocking, he discovered that four of Stoll’s other alleged victims — including his brother Donald — were telling Innocence Project attorneys that they had never been molested.

When he looked inside himself, he realized that despite all his therapy, he had no memories of having been molested, he said. But that doesn’t mean he agrees with his brother that nothing happened. His whole concept of himself was built on the certainty that he’d been victimized, but never a victim. He was tough. He was smart. He also concedes that he was a heavy marijuana smoker, but only because he has what he calls a “monkey mind” that’s always going.

Called to the stand last week, Grafton didn’t do much for either side. He didn’t join the four who said they were certain they had not been molested, but neither did he help the prosecution. He simply said he had no memories of what happened.

Grafton said it took some courage to finally look over at John Stoll. Try as he might, he couldn’t see anything bad in his soul, he said. In retrospect, he wished he could have offered some compassion. “People in his situation, if he’s innocent, I can only imagine what he’s going through.”

Grafton is just starting to go through his own trial. If the molestation “didn’t happen,” he said, “what does that do to me? I have to get to the point where that doesn’t matter.”

If the term “elephant in the room” applies to something unacknowledged that looms over everything, then there is an entire herd in Judge John Kelly’s courtroom. Take the fact that one of the original prosecutors in Stoll’s case was Stephen Tauzer.

Tauzer, then the No. 2 prosecutor in Kern County behind Dist. Atty. Ed Jagels, was brutally beaten to death in his own garage two years ago. It later turned out that the man who killed Tauzer was a former colleague, Chris Hillis, who was enraged because he felt that Tauzer, who was gay, was preying on his son.

Another issue lurking in the background is the battered reputation of Kern County law enforcement. The collapse of the molestation cases, the critical attorney general’s report, and two books about the Kern legal system — one titled “Mean Justice” — have given local authorities a bad name. And perhaps that is now motivating them to ensure that Stoll doesn’t go free like the rest.

Until now, the county’s top prosecutor since 1983, Ed Jagels, has escaped political retribution from the voters. To many people who like Jagels’ hard-nosed approach to justice, it didn’t matter what outsiders said. They felt safe in their homes, and that was enough.

That may be changing. One factor was Tauzer’s killing and the unseemly details that came out afterward about his private life. Another was a hard-hitting series in the local newspaper raising questions about Jagels and a supposedly secret cabal called the Lords of Bakersfield. Most recently, Jagels’ wife, Bryanna, was arrested for allegedly trying to use phony prescriptions to obtain painkillers from local pharmacies.

Jagels quickly filed for divorce and people close to the Kern legal community expect him to run again in 2006.

Nobody thinks it will be a walkover this time.

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Source

(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Los Angeles Times, USA
Jan. 19, 2004
John Johnson, Times Staff Writer
www.latimes.com

Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday January 20, 2004.
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