In a case likely to affect the race for district attorney, an accused murderer says she was double-crossed by Ventura County prosecutors after providing them detailed information about a 1998 slaying.
Bridget Callahan's allegations come amid a contested election and have already led to subpoenas being issued for Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury and the two prosecutors vying for his job--Chief Assistant Dist. Atty. Greg Totten and Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Bamieh.
With a hearing set for later this month, sources say the controversy has led to finger pointing within the prosecution ranks. And lawyers say it could result in recusal of the district attorney's office.
At issue is whether authorities improperly coerced Callahan to talk about the slaying of 17-year-old Nichole Hendrix of Ventura and whether an agreement she signed is valid.
Callahan said prosecutors promised her immunity in exchange for her statements and told her she need not consult a lawyer before signing the contract.
Six months later, the 31-year-old Ventura woman was indicted on charges of first-degree murder along with two skinhead gang members she implicated.
Now, Callahan is asking a judge to set aside the indictment or exclude her statements and any evidence obtained as a result of her cooperation with prosecutors and sheriff's detectives.
"The inducements and promises made to this defendant by the prosecution team were intended to coerce and improperly induce Ms. Callahan's testimony," attorney Joseph O'Neill said in a defense motion.
He said prosecutors acted unethically and devised "an evil scheme" to compel his client's cooperation. He has subpoenaed six prosecutors, three detectives and a district attorney's office investigator to testify at a Nov. 16 court hearing.
Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Schwartz is scheduled to go before a Superior Court judge today to ask for additional time to respond to the defense claims.
The controversy comes three years after the killing of Hendrix, a continuation school student who disappeared Oct. 15, 1998, after going out with friends. Her skeletal remains were found six months later in the mountains north of Ojai.
In October 1999, Bamieh and investigator Mark Volpei tracked Callahan to Arizona to interview her about an unrelated homicide and learned that she had information about Hendrix's slaying.
According to the contract she signed, Callahan agreed to identify the individuals responsible for Hendrix's death and testify truthfully at any subsequent hearings.
In return, the district attorney's office would process her application for relocation under a witness protection program and give her $3,000 to move out of state.
But after the interview, authorities concluded that Callahan was more than just a witness.
She was not arrested, however, or advised that she was a murder suspect until after she testified before a grand jury six months later.
During her testimony, Callahan, who waived her right against self-incrimination, described how it was her job to keep Hendrix from escaping a motel bathroom where Callahan knew the girl would be killed.
According to grand jury transcripts, Callahan kept watch as skinheads David Ziesmer and Michael Bridgeford stabbed and beat Hendrix to death in the bathroom after concluding that she had reported them to police for selling stolen property.
Callahan admitted kissing Hendrix goodbye before Ziesmer went into the bathroom with a knife. Callahan later helped dispose of the body.
Prosecutors ultimately decided to prosecute Callahan, and she was indicted on one count of first-degree murder and related allegations that carry a possible sentence of life in prison without parole.
Ziesmer, 28, and Bridgeford, 25, both of Oxnard, were also indicted on charges of first-degree murder and could face the death penalty if convicted.
In Callahan's motion, the defense says the "immunity" agreement was crafted in such a way as to confuse Callahan and take advantage of her.
O'Neill writes that authorities told Callahan she need not consult with an attorney before entering into the agreement.
On Wednesday, Bamieh, the original prosecutor, who was taken off the case after announcing that he was running for district attorney, countered that he never made such a statement and can prove it because his conversations with Callahan were tape-recorded.
Bamieh said he did not promise Callahan immunity and rejected the defense claims that she was coerced.
But in presenting the case to the grand jury, Bamieh conceded, prosecutors took advantage of Callahan.
"We knew as investigators and as a prosecutor that she in fact was not a witness; under the law she was culpable," he told the grand jury. Regardless, Bamieh said prosecutors decided to use her as an informant.
Later, in a series of memos to his supervisors, Bamieh stated his opinion that authorities used Callahan and should offer to let her plead guilty to a lesser charge.
Prosecutors did eventually offer to let Callahan plead to second-degree murder, but she refused.