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Justice deferred?

A child abuse case idles on the DA's desk with little hope of going to court

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A local teenager claims to have spent nearly a decade in constant fear of her step-grandfather, who abused her sexually, physically, and emotionally, she said. Though the only evidence of sexual abuse is the girl’s word and her subsequent state of mind, several witnesses are willing to testify that they observed violent incidents. Still, the SLO County District Attorney’s Office won’t take the case.

The sources interviewed for this article wanted to stand behind their comments with their names published, but New Times gave them pseudonyms—not for their sake, but to protect the identity of a man who hasn’t been officially charged with any crimes.

A man we’ll call Doug approached the paper and said he’s been trying for two years to get someone to take action on behalf of his granddaughter, “Sarah,” now 17 years old. According to Doug, he’s been told by prosecutors and police officers that they believe Sarah’s story; they just can’t do anything about it.

“They all told her they believe her, and that’s great,” Doug said. “On the other hand, they’re not doing anything. They’re not willing to do a damn thing for her.”

After her dad died and her mother’s problems left the woman unable to care for a child, Sarah lived with her maternal grandmother and that woman’s husband, “Jerry,” from the age of 6 to 15, when she finally escaped with the help of a boyfriend.

According to Sarah, Jerry repeatedly reminded her that he saved her from foster care and that she’d be on the streets without him; therefore, it was her duty to do as he said.

Sarah said the molestation started with inappropriate fondling when she was 9, but it got progressively worse as she grew older. The sexual contact became less frequent when she reached her teenage years, she said, but the physical and mental domination continued. The most grievous incidents she alleged included times Jerry turned a pressure washer on her leg, clipped her with a weed-wacker, and pinned her to the floor with a foot on her neck.

Sarah said she once defied Jerry’s orders and sneaked onto the family computer to finish a report, but he caught her in the act, dragged her into another room, and slapped her repeatedly, giving her a black eye. Doug and his wife, “Karen,” showed New Times video footage taken shortly after the incident that shows Sarah with slight bruising and red marks on her face. Karen said they showed the video to police and described it to the DA, but claimed neither agency was interested.

Though Doug and his wife have adamantly pursued a case against Jerry, Sarah remains surprisingly indifferent.

“He did a lot of terrible things, but as long as I don’t have to see him, I don’t really care,” Sarah told New Times. “I have to try to be apathetic. It’s easier not to care.”

Sarah’s boyfriend “Hector” told New Times that in the spring of 2011, Jerry took the both of them shopping, and an argument erupted.

“[Jerry] started yanking her around by the hair like a barbarian,” Hector alleged. “I told him, ‘You need to stop, now!’ and he said, ‘I don’t have to do anything. I own her.’ That shocked me.”

Hector said Jerry threatened more violence before fleeing the scene. Hector later reported the incident to the police, but he said the officers who arrived at Jerry’s home hours later to interview the parties were friends of the suspect’s. They reportedly answered Hector’s allegations with claims that Jerry was a churchgoing man who would never do such a thing.

“The police didn’t want to hear any of it,” Hector said. “I’d be willing to testify. One hundred percent.”

Jerry reportedly told the officers that the teenagers were simply mad at him for being strict about dating, and Sarah didn’t put up much of an argument. According to Hector, she was questioned with the man she feared most standing by her side, causing her to clam up.

“She copes by zombie-ing out,” Doug said.

She stayed in Jerry’s care.

In the months after that incident, Jerry forbid communication between Sarah and Hector, but talking in secret, they planned an escape in July. At 2 in the morning, Sarah sneaked out of the house and met Hector and his mother, who took her to the Paso Robles Police Department.

According to Doug, officers tried to take Sarah back to Jerry’s house because she didn’t have any cuts or bruises, but she was so scared and caused such a scene while refusing to comply that they took her to Child Protective Services and let her stay at a safe house for a day, until authorities could contact Sarah’s mom in jail. She told CPS to call Doug and see if he could care for the teen.

Two weeks later, Sarah broke down over dinner and told Doug and his wife everything.

They immediately contacted the Sheriff’s Department, who told them to contact the police, since the abuse occurred in their jurisdiction. It took a few weeks to get hold of the right detective, but Sarah eventually went for an interview at the District Attorney’s Office in August, where she did a lot of “zombie-ing,” Doug said.

Later that day, the family called Jerry with officers listening on the line, but that move didn’t yield anything, Doug explained

As far as he knows, that was the only furtive attempt ever made to gather damning evidence from Jerry’s lips. Shortly afterward, a detective stopped by Jerry’s home, but finding the suspect gone, the detective left his card and a request to talk. Jerry “lawyered up,” Doug said, and hasn’t cooperated since.

Detective Michael Rickerd of Paso Robles couldn’t comment on this specific case, but he said it’s common practice to attempt a direct interview with suspects in child abuse cases. Usually, the child has already been removed from their custody, so they’re well aware that an investigation is under way, which eliminates the need to be sneaky. And all suspects have the right to an attorney, Rickerd noted.

“We do everything we can possibly do to get an investigation together before we send it to the DA,” Rickerd said.

Doug and Karen claimed that Deputy District Attorney Andy Baird told them it would be difficult to get a sexual abuse conviction and basically “talked [Sarah] out” of pursuing charges. Baird also allegedly told the family that going after Jerry for domestic violence would only muddy the waters for a sexual assault case; they’d leave the case open for 10 years, and if Jerry does anything in that time, they’ll get him.

“We slept well that night,” Doug said. “Their attitude is he has more rights than her. … He’s not a predator. He’s an opportunist.”

An opportunity for more conflict presented itself in September 2012, when Sarah’s young half-sister entered the foster care system, and Jerry and his wife attended a custody hearing, attempting to bring the girl into their home.

Doug and Karen also attended, and an argument interrupted the proceedings with Doug objecting to Jerry as an adoptive parent, considering past allegations. The girl was sent to a foster home instead.

Jerry didn’t return New Times’ request for comment, left on his home phone.

Public Defender Jim Maguire said that corporal punishment is legal, and one must enter a world of gray areas to debate which forms of child discipline are allowable. There’s no such crime as emotional abuse, Maguire said.

According to Chief Deputy District Attorney Jarret Gran, trying sexual assault cases is very difficult with just the victim’s word to go on, and prosecutors are bound by ethical rules to pursue cases only when there’s sufficient evidence.

According to Gran, four different deputy DAs reviewed Sarah’s case, and they all came to the same conclusion.

“Our office isn’t afraid of trying tough cases,” Gran said. “But we couldn’t sustain our burden of proof on this one.”

One of Sarah’s friends told New Times that Jerry would make Sarah practice for long hours on the piano and that she saw him slap Sarah and punch her several times when she grew tired of practicing. The friend also said she told the DA she’d be willing to testify.

According to the friend’s mom, the only time Sarah could socialize was at church. Even there, the mom said Jerry dragged Sarah around by the arm, never letting her leave his side, and that he’d slap and pinch her during the sermon.

“She was just terrified, so scared of him,” the mom said, noting that she’d gladly take the stand against Jerry.

Without charges filed for any of the allegations, Doug said civil attorneys won’t take their case unless they pay a sizable retainer fee. Though he said he’d prefer to see Jerry behind bars, he also believes Sarah is owed financial compensation as she’s now shattered, unable to perform basic job duties.

“She had someone controlling her whole life for so long that she can’t make a simple decision on her own,” Doug said. “She flinches from family hugs. Butterflies scare her.”

Sarah attended weekly therapy sessions for a few months but didn’t feel like it helped. Doug said she continues to struggle with self-loathing and extreme indecisiveness, despite being a smart, talented, and beautiful girl. Sarah herself has expressed doubt that her own father would be proud of her were he alive. 

Staff Writer Nick Powell can be reached via Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

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