BAKERSFIELD — A controversial child molestation investigation that became entangled in unsubstantiated allegations of satanic sacrifices has ended abruptly with two defendants pleading no contest and charges against four others being dismissed.
Kern County Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Tauzer admitted that he agreed to the plea-bargain Thursday because the case for which a jury was being selected was "difficult, if not impossible, to put on."
Gerardo Gonzales agreed to plead no contest to one count of lewd and lascivious touching of a 5-year-old neighbor girl in 1984. An additional 117 molestation counts were dismissed.
Another defendant, the Rev. Will Thomas, pleaded no contest to statutory rape of a 17-year-old girl who is now his wife and no contest to felony child endangerment.
Both men were given credit for time already served in Kern County Jail awaiting trial and were released Thursday night.
Charges against Cheryl Gonzales, Brad and Mary Nokes and Kathy Scott were dismissed at the request of the district attorney's office.
The case has been widely criticized for poor investigative techniques.
The investigation was initiated by the Kern County Sheriff's Department and grew from a single child molestation allegation by a 5-year-old girl into a massive probe that included accusations of satanic activity and baby killings. It resulted in charges being filed against 77 individuals.
A state attorney general's office report last September concluded that there was no evidence of satanic rituals or infant murders. The report also severely criticized the Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's office for mishandling the investigation.
Of the 77 people originally accused of being involved in the child-molesting ring, the only conviction obtained was against Leroy Stowe, whose case is being appealed.
Cheryl Gonzales' attorney, Vince Garcia, said prosecution would have been difficult because of the state attorney general's report accusing the Kern County sheriff, district attorney and welfare staffers of asking leading questions of children, which led to the sensational satanism allegations.
Garcia said the prosecution's willingness to enter a plea-bargain resulted from "our willingness to present everything known to us, including the satanic nonsense."
But Tauzer contended that a major reason the prosecution was willing to plea-bargain was to spare forcing the children to testify at the trial. Tauzer said he is convinced that the children were molested but admitted that it would be hard to convince a jury, because the same youngsters later made accusations of satanism that could not be proved.