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Lawyer Claims Client Was Political Pawn

Ventura County: He says candidate misled the informant in bid to build tough image. Candidate calls accuser 'a nut.'

January 23, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the election season in full swing, an Oxnard defense lawyer has accused a candidate for district attorney of boosting his image as a crime-fighting prosecutor by double-crossing an informant in a murder case with false promises of immunity.

Attorney Joseph O'Neill first made the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct six months ago in a motion to dismiss murder charges against Bridget Callahan, 29, who along with two skinhead gang members is accused of killing a teenage girl in October 1998.

But O'Neill added a new twist to his motion last week, suggesting in court papers that Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Bamieh intentionally deceived Callahan for his own political gain.

"This sordid pact with the devil," O'Neill wrote, "clearly indicates that the desire to convict at any price has swapped hard-won integrity and professional respect for personal benefit and political reward."

O'Neill describes Bamieh's dealings with Callahan as "a scandalous tale" and "a Faustian bargain for favorable publicity . . . made at the price of ethics, morality and a soul that quickly disappeared on a rapid path to Hades."

Asked about the allegations Tuesday, Bamieh called O'Neill "a nut" who has no evidence to back up his claims.

Bamieh said the supplemental motion filed Friday is riddled with errors. He also suggested that O'Neill--who in October sent Bamieh a $100 campaign contribution, which the candidate said he returned--is trying to drum up publicity about the case.

"If a crazy guy is going to call me names, what am I supposed to say?" Bamieh said of O'Neill's motion. "Most people in the legal community wouldn't take this seriously."

O'Neill's allegations come amid a contested election for Ventura County district attorney and have already emerged as an issue in the campaign.

Bamieh and Chief Assistant Dist. Atty. Greg Totten are vying to fill the seat of retiring Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury.

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 that Callahan signed is valid.

Callahan alleges that prosecutors promised her immunity in exchange for her statements and told her she need not consult a lawyer before signing the agreement.

Six months later, she was indicted on charges of first-degree murder along with the two male skinheads she implicated. She is now asking a judge to set aside the indictment.

At the request of the Ventura County district attorney's office, the state attorney general recently agreed to prosecute the case to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. A hearing is set for March 8, three days after the election.

O'Neill alleges that prosecutors acted unethically and devised a "nefarious scheme" to compel Callahan's cooperation. He has subpoenaed six prosecutors, including Bamieh and Totten, to testify about their actions in the Callahan case.

Bamieh, who was removed from the case after announcing his candidacy, said he never made a promise of immunity to Callahan and rejected defense claims that she was coerced.

"Everything we did in that case was ethical and proper," he said.

According to Bamieh, authorities tracked Callahan to Arizona to talk to her about an unrelated murder case and learned she had information about the Hendrix slaying.

Callahan later voluntarily entered into an agreement to provide information, according to a transcript of the December 1999 interview.

Although authorities thought she had only been a witness to the slaying, after hearing her version they determined she was culpable of first-degree murder.

Bamieh said he encouraged his supervisors to let Callahan plead to a lesser charge based on her cooperation. They eventually offered her a chance to plead to second-degree murder, but Callahan refused.

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