Gary Rempel has convicted murderers, rapists and other criminals, thugs and no-goods during his 18 years as a San Diego County prosecutor.
But when Rempel goes into court today, he'll be trying to convict on kidnaping charges defendants of a decidedly different ilk: a soft-spoken 58-year-old couple--a woman who could almost pass as the kindly old Mrs. Wilson who coddles Dennis the Menace, and her husband, who would seem to be the antitheses of the crotchety old Mr. Wilson.
At issue is religious freedom vs. alleged brainwashing, and whether parents can kidnap an adult child if they believe it is for the child's own good to remove him or her from dangerous surroundings.
The couple--Dorothy and Earle Brown--along with one of their daughters and two men, are charged with kidnaping, conspiracy and false imprisonment for forcibly taking their daughter from an Encinitas parking lot in May, 1988, in order, they say, to deprogram her. The Browns, who live in Santa Cruz, said they wanted their youngest daughter to quit her allegiance to a small, tight-knit organization based in Coronado called Great Among the Nations, which describes itself as a fundamental Christian Bible study group intent on establishing a television and videotape evangelism ministry.
The Browns claim that Ginger, a former UC San Diego music student, had been brainwashed by the group's leader, Benjamin Altschul, and needed to be rescued for her own good from the group, which, they maintain, is a poorly disguised cult. The Browns and other critics claim the 17 group members have been insidiously persuaded by Altschul--a former book salesman--to financially support him with "love offerings" and tithing, allowing him to live in a Coronado condominium, drive a Mercedes-Benz and dress to the nines.
Ginger Brown, 23 at the time, was allegedly held against her will for five days in the Escondido area home of Hank Erler and was subjected to deprogramming efforts by Cliff Daniels, a Los Angeles man who says he is a former cult member who has deprogrammed about 200 persons in recent years. Ginger Brown fought his attempts and was released four days later on a Carlsbad street corner, free to return to Great Among the Nations. Photographs of Ginger Brown after the deprogramming attempt showed bruises and abrasions.
Through their attorneys, the five defendants say that forcibly taking Ginger Brown was, compared to letting her remain in the fold of Great Among the Nations, the lesser of two evils. That generic defense contention has led to the acquittal of deprogrammers in similar cases heard by other courts.
Herb Weston, one of the five defense attorneys, contends that Great Among the Nations was "another Jonestown waiting to happen," a reference to the Jim Jones-led commune in Guyana where, in 1978, the charismatic leader and 912 of his followers died in a mass suicide.
But Vista Superior Court Judge David B. Moon, in a series of pre-trial motions last month, told the defense attorneys he would not allow the so-called "choice of evils," or "necessity" defense to be used in the upcoming trial.
Moon said the defense failed to offer any facts substantiating their contention that Ginger Brown was in imminent danger because of her allegiance to the group, and therefore cannot argue that the parents were legally motivated to act as they did in trying to remove her from the group.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin today. Defense attorneys on Friday petitioned the 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego to delay the trial so they could challenge Moon's pre-trial rulings. But the appellate court denied the request.
Banned from using the choice-of-evils defense, attorneys for the five co-defendants say they have little chance of persuading a jury that the Browns, their daughter, Erler and Daniels are innocent of kidnaping and false imprisonment. "Our defense has been gutted," said Weston, who is representing Holly Brown, Ginger's older sister. Defendant Daniels added: "It's them, 10; us, 0--flat zero."
Rempel says he is prosecuting the five as kidnapers, pure and simple, because there are no facts to suggest that Great Among the Nations is a cult.
"If you can't use the word 'criminal' in the same sentence as 'cult,' then you shouldn't be using the word 'cult,' " said Rempel who, ironically, has prosecuted and won convictions against cult members in the past. In those cases, Rempel said, the cult members were charged with criminal activities, ranging from murder to sex crimes.
While acknowledging that he is "absolutely" sympathetic to the Browns--the very people he is trying to convict--Rempel said there is no indication that Ginger Brown was the victim of fraudulent inducement in joining the group, was physically mistreated, or was drugged or otherwise forcibly coerced to join the group. She was an adult using her free will, he maintains.