Photo by Michael Goulding/The Orange County Register
Moments after Judge Francisco Briseno declared a June 28 mistrial in Orange County’s infamous gang-rape case, millionaire Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl wrapped his arms around his son, defendant Gregory Scott Haidl, and squeezed. During the embrace, the 19-year-old whispered in his father’s ear. The elder Haidl spun around, fixed an angry stare and jabbed his finger at an Orange County Register photographer. Silencing the packed courtroom, he yelled, “Don’t ever point that thing at me!”
It was impossible to miss the irony unless you were Los Angeles Times reporters Claire Luna and Stuart Pfeifer, who were busy trading smiles and congratulatory handshakes with defense lawyers. On July 6, 2002, Greg Haidl and two buddies supplied alcohol and drugs to a 16-year-old and, after she likely fell into a stupor, videotaped her as the object of their deviant sexual fantasies. By the time it was over, the drunken, laughing defendants had filmed themselves shoving a Snapple bottle, lit cigarette, Tree Top Apple Juice can and pool cue into the near-motionless girl’s vagina and anus. Later, a proud Haidl showed his 21-minute video to acquaintances, some of whom thought the girl was a corpse and alerted police.
Fast-forward to June 28 inside Briseno’s courtroom after the jury deadlocked on all 24 felony counts. Although neither was lying naked on a pool table with foreign objects protruding from his ass, Haidl and his son were incensed that someone tried to take their picture. Still seething at the Register photographer who’d aimed his camera at the 19-year-old defendants, a red-faced Haidl shouted, “Don’t do it! Do you understand me?”
A more appropriate emotion for the chain-smoking assistant sheriff might have been joyous relief. After all, it was his million-dollar-plus campaign that convinced some members of the jury that the villain was Jane Doe, the alleged victim. Defense attorneys — who secretly hired a focus group to test trial strategies — called Doe a “slut” and a “whore” who loved giving “blowjobs” and enjoyed “doggy style” sex. On flimsy or nonexistent evidence, they even insinuated that Doe pressured her partners for anal intercourse, dreamed of becoming a porn star, craved four-way encounters and liked to swallow. Lead defense lawyer Joe Cavallo told the jury Doe should have been charged with raping Haidl, Keith Spann and Kyle Nachreiner, a laughable claim given how the defendants manhandled the girl throughout the gangbang.
In California it’s illegal to have sex with someone so intoxicated or drugged she cannot resist. Setting aside the D.A.’s contention that the defendants laced Doe’s drink with GHB or some other fast-acting narcotic, there was no dispute that the high school sophomore drank beer, smoked marijuana and gulped an 8-ounce glass of Bombay Gin. Haidl captured her fall on video. Within minutes, Doe’s speech was slurred and her body displayed the rigidity of a rag doll. She said, “Greg, I feel ill” and, 30 seconds later, “I’m so fucked up.” Those were her last words. Eight minutes and 15 seconds later, the defendants had Doe stripped and, as the normally reserved Superior Court Judge Everett Dickey observed during preliminary hearings, “used her like a piece of meat” on a wicker sofa and pool table in Haidl’s garage. As Spann began fucking the incoherent girl for a second time, it was Haidl — described as a kind, shy “little boy” by his father — who shouted, “Put it down for the militia bitch!”
The defense and their well-paid medical experts offered several theories: The defendants had no “reasonable” way of knowing Doe was incapacitated, and her ingestion of stimulants was meaningless because Doe faked unconsciousness for a prearranged, necrophilia-themed porno directed by the assistant sheriff’s son. According to Cavallo, the mastermind behind the video was Doe, not Haidl — the film student who owned a top-of-the-line Sony hand-held camera and recorded everything from sex with his girlfriends to skateboarding practices.
As a sign of the defense team’s contempt for this jury’s intellectual abilities, they even offered a third, contradictory version of events. After Dr. Peter Fotinakes, the prosecution’s neurologist, told jurors to use their “common sense” about Doe’s “obviously” diminished consciousness, defense lawyer John Barnett argued that Doe’s coma might have been “self-induced” because of teenage “posttraumatic stress disorder.” Said Barnett, “[Doe] has low esteem. She’s morally conflicted. It’s gonna cause acute situational stress.” With all the sincerity he could muster, Barnett then explained to jurors that the defendants couldn’t be guilty of rape by intoxication if Doe had voluntarily willed herself into a coma.
Never mind that a self-induced comatose person can’t give consent either. Never mind that Nachreiner disappeared for at least 15 minutes when he was making Doe’s iceless gin drink even though the gin bottle and cup were in the garage with them; or that police later found a powerful prescription sedative on a bathroom countertop in the Haidl house. Never mind that the defendants repeatedly signaled to one another on the video that Doe was knocked out. Never mind that Doe, face-down on the pool table, didn’t flinch when she urinated on herself as Haidl slapped her genitals and Nachreiner vigorously plunged a pool cue into her vagina. Never mind that Doe vomited that night. Never mind that she reeked of alcohol and looked like hell the next morning. Never mind that those who saw Doe in the aftermath testified that her last memory was drinking Nachreiner’s foul-tasting concoction.
The jury — dominated by low-income men — was as oblivious to those clues as they were to the shameless defense tactics. A lone female juror refused to be suckered. She voted “guilty” on all counts. For others, the defendants were guilty of just some of the charges. Because it takes a unanimous vote to obtain a conviction, the trial was over the moment Doe admitted she’d had consensual, one-on-one sex with two of the three defendants on prior occasions. If a jury doesn’t like an alleged victim, it’s going to look for ways to nullify the law. Speaking of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ June 29 decision to retry the case after August 6, one juror told the Times, “I think that the hardest thing for the prosecution is going to be Jane Doe.”
Before deliberations, Judge Briseno explained to the jury that if the defendants should have reasonably known Doe was incapacitated, they were compelled to vote guilty, but 22-year-old juror Michael (he declined to give his last name), of Garden Grove, ignored that instruction. The girl’s sexual history “weighed heavily” in his decision to support the defendants, he said. “[The videotape] was compelling, but not, in my opinion, sufficiently convincing.”
It was easy to see why Michael had been one of the defense team’s top choices for the panel at the outset of the trial. “I could understand why some people would [watch the video] and view it as a crime,” he said. “But I can also see how [the footage] can be misunderstood, too.”
It’s amazing what a nine-member legal-defense team can accomplish. Of course, that tally does not include O.J. Simpson jury consultant Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, an army of private investigators led by a retired FBI agent and several ex–sheriff’s deputies, an audio-visual expert (who made dozens of colorful, anti-Doe charts for jurors to ponder), several lurking fellows with unknown assignments, a full-time publicist, and editorial support from the two local daily newspapers.
The Register’s Steven Greenhut, who never bothered to visit the courtroom, opined on May 9 that it’s less of a crime if a girl is sexually assaulted by someone she knows. He chastised prosecutors for not granting the defendants leniency. “There’s real questions here about justice,” said Greenhut.
Dana Parsons of the Times showed up for less than 10 percent of the trial and, as best I can determine, never bothered to read the case file or interview anyone on the prosecution’s side. In discussions with his colleagues, he ridiculed the Weekly’s exclusive description of the content of Haidl’s tape, but he’s never seen the video. He must have been content to rely upon his regular, private briefings with Haidl publicist Tori Richards and Barnett.
In a trial eve, May 2, column that shamelessly regurgitated defense-supplied lies about Doe — she liked to use “a pool cue on herself” and “agreed to have sex on videotape” — Parsons called on the jury to ignore the state’s rape-by-intoxication law. Why? “Given what they knew about the girl,” wrote Parsons, “did it even occur to the boys that they were committing a crime? I doubt they did.” When he drew that conclusion, not one piece of evidence had yet been presented in court.
Journalism at its best exposes injustice. For Parsons, the most condemnable person in the Haidl case wasn’t the twisted defendants, or their obnoxious families who routinely mad-dogged court observers, or even Cavallo, who set a new low in defense-lawyer conduct. Instead, the veteran columnist wrote five articles blasting D.A. Rackauckas for treating the case so seriously. It’s no wonder the Haidls are confident they can escape accountability.
It should be no surprise that Parsons has also led the cries for Rackauckas to cut a deal with the defendants. As with the rest of his coverage, he isn’t bothered that the Haidls, of fashionable Corona del Mar, believe they deserve special treatment because of their money and power. Parsons pretends it’s only the D.A. who has been stubborn and misguided. He conveniently
didn’t report that the defendants have refused guilty pleas unless they receive probation or, at worst, nine-month maximum sentences.
The arrogance doesn’t end there. Through his numerous legal representatives, Haidl has demanded that Rackauckas give his son an additional concession: no prison time. If there’s a deal before a second trial, he wants Gregory in a more comfortable, private security facility where karma and a pool cue aren’t as likely to find his rear end.