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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Student Says He Bears No Ill Will After Fighting Rape Accusation

Courts: Alejandro Castaneda thought his arrest last year at Cal Lutheran was a prank. The most serious charges were later dropped.

November 26, 2000|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite everything that has happened, Alejandro Castaneda says he isn't angry.

The former Cal Lutheran student was arrested a year ago on suspicion of raping a freshman girl in his dorm room after drinking beer with her and some friends on the Thousand Oaks campus.

Castaneda thought the arrest was a prank. But after his first night in Ventura County Jail, reality set in.

Suddenly his plan to become the first member of his working-class family to graduate from a four-year university shifted to a desperate attempt to make bail. And his dream to sport a CLU football jersey faded as he shuffled into court wearing shabby jail blues.

Although prosecutors later dropped the charges, Castaneda, a stocky 19-year-old who played center on his high school football team, spent four months behind bars. He had to leave CLU and watched his family and former coaches pay out thousands of dollars to bail bondsmen and lawyers.

Today, Castaneda is enrolled in a community college near his parents' home in Wilmington, a small industrial town near Long Beach. He says he blames no one for what happened and simply wants to get on with his life.

"In a way, I just want to forget about it and move on," Castaneda said during a recent interview. "This experience, it has opened my eyes. It has made me a stronger person."

It has also illustrated the difficulty police and prosecutors face when investigating emotionally charged sex assault cases--and the devastating power they wield when accusing a person of a serious crime.

In Castaneda's case, a Ventura County judge chastised prosecutors in open court for pressing a misdemeanor sexual battery charge against the teen after the other counts were dismissed for lack of evidence.

"Why it was pursued, I don't know--it shouldn't have been," said retired Superior Court Judge Marvin Lewis, speaking during a court proceeding. "The effect on his life is just unbelievable."

Castaneda's trouble started three months after he began classes at Cal Lutheran, a private university with about 1,800 undergraduates.

One of seven children, Castaneda had never heard of the school before its football coaches expressed interest in him. It was the only school he applied to and with the help of his parents--a welder and a homemaker--he obtained financial aid to cover the $16,800 annual tuition.

"I was excited and proud of myself," Castaneda said. "It was a big step."

But on the morning of Nov. 4, 1999, everything changed.

Castaneda was walking to his Spanish class when a Ventura County sheriff's deputy stopped him, asked his name and reached out as if to shake his hand.

"When I extended my hand, he put the cuffs on me. He told me I was under arrest," Castaneda said. "I thought it was a joke or something. I had never been arrested."

At the station, authorities explained that a female student had accused Castaneda of raping and sexually assaulting her weeks earlier.

"I was shocked. I still thought it was a prank or something. I couldn't believe it," he said.

Not wanting to worry his parents, Castaneda called his older brother, who assured him that the family would get him out of jail. But Castaneda knew his brother was only trying to comfort him. The family couldn't afford to post bail, set at $100,000.

"We didn't know what was going to happen," recalled brother Luis Castaneda, 25. "He was our younger brother and we were just scared. It was the first time something like this happened in our family."

By the preliminary hearing in January, Castaneda's high school coaches had raised enough money to bail him out--but the funds were used for his defense instead. Eventually, Castaneda's 28-year-old sister, Veronica, charged $5,000 on her credit card and arranged a payment schedule with the bondsmen for the other $5,000.

At the preliminary hearing, Castaneda's lawyers fought the charges: six felony counts stemming from the alleged October 1999 rape and an added sexual battery count for allegedly fondling a second female student in a dorm hallway.

Both women, referred to only as Jane Doe No. 1 and No. 2, testified during the hearing. Jane Doe No. 1 said she walked with Castaneda to his dorm to use a bathroom after drinking with some friends and woke up in his bed. She testified that Castaneda then removed her clothes, raped and sexually assaulted her.

"He was on top of me," she said, according to a court transcript. "I was really, really drunk . . . I told him to stop."

She didn't tell anyone what had happened for several days, she said. Eventually, she went to a hospital and reported the incident to police.

For his part, Castaneda says he drank with the woman and walked her back to use his bathroom. They went into his bedroom and fooled around, he said, but did not have sex.

During the preliminary hearing, defense attorneys called to the stand her roommates, who testified that her story kept changing. One roommate said that after the alleged rape, Jane Doe No. 1 asked her to tell Castaneda "to come stay the night with me."

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