A bench warrant was issued Thursday for the arrest of George Freeman, a key prosecution witness in the McMartin Pre-School molestation case, after he told prosecutors that he did not appear in court because he had received a threatening telephone call and "needed a few days to think."
"I will order that a body attachment be issued for Mr. Freeman," said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William R. Pounders, who expressed fears that Freeman had absconded but gave prosecutors several hours to try to locate him. When they failed, Pounders recessed court until Tuesday, saying, "We will resume with Mr. Freeman then if he is apprehended."
If Freeman does not complete his testimony, the judge has said he will be forced to declare a mistrial for Raymond Buckey. Buckey and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, are charged with 99 counts of child molestation and one count of conspiracy involving 14 children who attended the family's school in Manhattan Beach.
Freeman, who has five felony convictions, is a jail-house informant who testified last week that defendant Raymond Buckey admitted molesting children and committing other criminal acts while the two shared a cell briefly at the Men's Central Jail in 1984. He was granted immunity from prosecution for past perjuries earlier this week and was about to be cross-examined by the defense when he disappeared.
Freeman did not appear in court Wednesday because he was ill. He was examined and treated at a local hospital emergency room after he complained of chest pains and coughed up blood. Hospital records show that he was diagnosed as suffering from acute bronchitis.
When he failed on Thursday to appear again, prosecutors said Freeman's daughter had called to say that he was still ill and that she had dropped him off at the same emergency room about 7:30 a.m. Freeman has not been seen since, and the hospital has no record that he sought treatment there a second time.
While a district attorney's investigator and others scoured the hospital and surrounding neighborhood for the missing witness, Freeman telephoned Deputy Dist. Attys. Lael Rubin and Roger Gunson twice about 1 p.m. to say that he had received "what he viewed to be a threatening phone call" Wednesday night, Rubin said.
The prosecutor said the call related to a 1979 homicide case, in which Freeman is still a suspect. She said the unsolved murder is unrelated to the McMartin case.
"He related his concerns," Rubin told the judge. "Apparently the person on the other end told him he would have to answer questions in great and specific detail regarding the perpetrators of the 1979 case. . . . He is afraid that he would have to identify the person or persons responsible for that murder."
Rubin said Freeman has admitted being at or near the scene of the crime but insists that he did not commit it.
"He has concerns for his safety," Rubin added. "He indicated that because of that phone call, he needed a few days to think."
She said his family verified that he had received a telephone call lasting 10 or 15 minutes Wednesday night, and that "he was visibly upset after that."
Pounders said Freeman's fears are unfounded. He said he does not intend to allow defense attorneys to ask detailed questions about the murder case and that the witness is entitled to protection.
Rubin said Freeman apparently called from a pay phone and ran out of change because "we were cut off" before she could find out where he was.
Defense attorney Daniel Davis, who represents Buckey, said early Thursday that he suspected Freeman had fled the country to avoid his courtroom appearance.
"During the preliminary hearing, he absconded to Mexico and made calls to people saying he wasn't coming back," Davis said. "He has reasons to never come back."