By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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.
Stroh — who twice broke down on the witness stand in stuttering confusion — now claims Doe told her, “I don’t remember what I did, but I know I had sex with all three boys.” Obmann now claims Doe told her, “If they did drug me, that’s whack [meaning “stupid”] because they didn’t need to do that.” Matsumoto now claims Doe told her, “I don’t know why they drugged me, because I would have done it anyway.”
Defense attorney Scalisi asked each girl what she thought of Doe. “I believe she’s dishonest,” Obmann said.
Under cross-examination, Hess asked Obmann why she claimed Doe was dishonest. Because, Obmann said, Doe lied to her parents so she could attend parties. Noting that Obmann admitted that she and her friends also lied to parents in order to attend parties, the deputy D.A. asked, “So you have the same opinion about your other friends?”
“No,” said Obmann, reasoning that her current friends didn’t lie as much as Doe. She later told a reporter that the girls had taken a “moral” stand for the defendants.
After Obmann, Scalisi quickly called to the witness stand Nicole Maloney, another ex-friend of Doe’s. Here’s the exchange:
Scalisi: What’s your opinion of Doe?
Maloney: She’s dishonest.
Scalisi: She’s a liar?
Scalisi: I have nothing further.
Hess is a mild-mannered veteran deputy D.A., but his aggressive cross-examination of the girls — who blurted out the alleged victim’s name more than a half-dozen times — proved illuminating. He got a reluctant Stroh to admit that she originally told police Doe’s story about the rape was “truthful”; that she’d originally told police Doe was “out of it” during the rape; and that her assertion that Doe wanted to be a “porn star” had been taken out of context by the defense.
“She was, uh, really, like, a joking person,” said Stroh, who glanced at the defendants and then added, “Joking but in a serious way.”
It’s Obmann who might get the defense in the most trouble. She acknowledged that four days before testifying she amended her written statement to dovetail with the defense.
“Yeah, I corrected it,” she testified.
Hess asked her if she and the other girls had ever talked about what to say on the witness stand.
“No, never,” said Obmann as she slowly chewed gum and swiveled happily in the witness chair.
Hess repeated the question firmly. Obmann stopped moving in her seat, stared at the prosecutor and, after a pause, said, “Yeah,” there had been discussions.
Obmann also confessed that the defense lawyers had, in violation of the judge’s instructions, supplied Doe’s testimony in preparation for their appearances; that she’s close to the defendants (her boyfriend is Spann’s best friend); and that she’d given her exclusive story to CBS’s 48 Hours, the only news outlet with regular, friendly access to the often angry Haidl clan.
Obmann’s hourlong testimony even has a 48 Hours cliffhanger: She has visited Cavallo’s Irvine office at least three times, and Hess asked her if the defense lawyer had promised her an internship after the trial. Cavallo objected to the question, but Briseno overruled him. “No,” said Obmann.
Minutes later, Hess further infuriated Cavallo when he returned to the subject. Haidl’s lead attorney demanded a meeting in the judge’s chamber; following that meeting, Hess continued to drill down into the subject of a possible quid pro quo. Despite Obmann’s denials, Hess’ confidence in this line of questioning suggests he’ll call a witness to contradict Obmann.
Although Briseno ordered Obmann “not to talk about the case with any of the other witnesses,” she hurried from the courtroom and down the hallway to Stroh, Matsumoto, Maloney and defense investigator John Warren. Far from the dignity and composure Doe exhibited during more than 16 grueling hours on the witness stand, Obmann played the diva. She put her hand on her hip, cocked her head, shook her finger and bitched about prosecutor Hess. Cavallo walked up behind her, squeezed her shoulder, looked back at this reporter and smiled.
For previous articles on the Haidl gang-rape case, see www.ocweekly.com.