By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
It’s not, like, difficult to, like, totally know where to begin, like, this story: It begins naturally enough with Jenna Stroh, Melissa Matsumoto and Vanessa Obmann, the Rancho Cucamonga High seniors who played with their earrings, stroked their hair, checked their lipstick, lost trains of thought and giggled on the witness stand, where they shot smiles at accused gang-rapist Greg Haidl, son of a multimillionaire assistant sheriff.
The three 18-year-olds arrived in Judge Francisco Briseno’s Santa Ana courtroom on May 26 in black nightclub attire. They left no mystery about their navels or, for that matter, the purpose of their defense-sponsored visit. They were here to talk about teenage porn and rampant promiscuity and drug parties, of course. But mostly they were here to trash their former friend, the alleged rape victim, Jane Doe.
Last week, prosecutor Dan Hess finished presenting his case that Haidl, Kyle Nachreiner and Keith Spann videotaped themselves assaulting Doe, then 16, after they’d given her beer, marijuana and a drug-laced glass of gin at Haidl’s Newport Beach house on July 6, 2002. The confiscated video begins with Doe saying she felt “so fucked up” and resisting Haidl’s attempt to remove her top. The defense says the girl’s outward defiance was, in fact, an act, the beginning of a coy consent for the gangbang that followed. Filming resumed eight minutes later with the defendants using Doe — now naked and unconscious — for sex on a garage sofa and pool table. Later on the video, they can be seen laughing, dancing and mugging for the camera as they penetrate the girl’s vagina and anus with a Snapple bottle, juice can, lighted cigarette and pool cue.
Haidl isn’t bright. He lost the video at the Newport Beach rental. The people who found it thought the boys had had intercourse with a corpse. One of them, Fontana resident Lindsay Picou, 20, testified that she “felt ill” after seeing the tape and decided to turn it over to police. Investigators eventually found Jane Doe, who said she recalled passing out, waking up and vomiting but none of the sex.
The opening of the trial was delayed more than 30 minutes when the defense team requested an in-chambers meeting with Superior Court Judge Francisco Briseno and Hess. It’s well-known around the courthouse that the defense would offer guilty pleas in exchange for maximum nine-month sentences. In Briseno’s chambers, they pressed the judge to make an offer. He refused. They pressed Hess, who suggested 27-year sentences. The defense gave up, frustrated.
The Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register have chastised Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas for pursuing the case, even though defense sources privately acknowledge that the video is damaging evidence; that’s why they spent nearly two years trying to keep it out of court. Until the Haidl case, both papers generally supported the controversial district attorney; suddenly, they’ve become his critics. With generous help from the Haidl defense team — but without having seen the video — columnists at both papers have anticipated the girls’ attacks on Doe’s character. They’ve argued that Doe was likely a slut who welcomed the attack as a part of her ambition to become a porn star. Despite the videotape, they’ve argued that the case is one of those postmodern tragedies, a shades-of-gray, he-said/she-said case that will likely end badly for everyone — the boys in jail for much of their lives, Doe’s reputation further besmirched, their parents shamed. (In fact, it can be difficult to get a conviction in a rape case. Last week, a jury in Los Angeles deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquittal in the case of a UCLA freshman who said she was raped by three students from Carson High School who left a tour of the university and confronted her in her dorm room. The D.A.’s Office expects to decide whether to refile charges by the end of the month.)
Now that the jury has thrice watched the alleged crime, the worried defense has a new priority: Destroy juror sympathy for Doe.
Enter the mean girls.
In police interviews immediately after the incident, Stroh, Matsumoto and Obmann noted Doe’s prodigious sexual appetite, but more importantly supported her contention that she’d been unconscious during the gangbang. Stroh told investigators that Doe “could not recall the events of the evening.” Matsumoto said the girl “couldn’t remember much.” Obmann reported that Doe “did not recall what transpired that evening.”
But the girls’ stories changed dramatically after meetings with Haidl and the Haidl defense team, including lawyers Joseph G. Cavallo and Peter Scalisi. Last week, 21 months after they told police Doe was unconscious during the attack, the girls were positive that Doe had been conscious. More than that, the girls — who were not present during the incident — also now suggest that the encounter with the three defendants had been consensual.
The new stories offered by Doe’s ex-friends match the tactical needs of the Haidl defense. Under California law, it’s illegal to have sex with someone who cannot give consent or resist. Haidl lawyers are offering jurors two ways to ignore the law. First, they say Doe only pretended to be unconscious for dramatic effect in the filming of what the defense says was a porn-film production. Jurors watching the video will likely find that unbelievable, so they’ve been offered a second possibility, the assertion — already rejected by California courts — that the sex was permissible because the defendants thought the girl would have consented if she’d been conscious.