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Orange County

O.C. Man Vindicated in Mexico

Courts: Decision clears Aliso Viejo church volunteer who was imprisoned 6 1/2 years on child sex abuse charges.

January 25, 2002|SCOTT MARTELLE and DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN YSIDRO, Calif. — An Orange County church volunteer who spent 6 1/2 years in a Baja prison was cleared of child sex abuse charges Thursday by a Mexican federal appeals court, ending a protracted legal odyssey with an emotional celebration amid the smog and bustling traffic at the Tijuana border.

"I'm very relieved and very grateful," David Cathcart, 60, said, adding that his incarceration was marked by more than the passage of time. "My father passed away. Eight granddaughters were born. Two sons were married. You can't put a price on that."

But he's going to try. While the decision ends the criminal case, Cathcart said he plans to take legal action against those he believes conspired to imprison him to protect a politically connected director of La Puerta de Fe, or Door of Faith, orphanage, where Cathcart had volunteered.

In the near future, though, Cathcart said he planned to celebrate with a vodka martini at the Aliso Viejo apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Tammy Stoller.

"I cried this morning--I don't know if it's sunk in yet," Stoller said. "I worked for seven years to make this happen. I finally got what I prayed for."

Cathcart was released from prison in May when a state judge overturned his 1994 conviction on charges that he had sex with children at the orphanage in La Mision, a dusty crossroads town near Ensenada.

Judge Marta Flores Trejo ruled that the case was built on the lies of four boys who were coerced by former orphanage director Gabriel Diego Garcia, with whom Cathcart had argued over how orphanage donations--mostly from Orange County Christians--were being spent.

Diego, who could not be reached Thursday, has repeatedly denied misusing funds or orchestrating the accusations against Cathcart.

In October, a state-level appeals court overturned Flores' decision and ordered Cathcart to finish the 12-year sentence. Cathcart appealed, leading to Thursday's 35-page decision issued in Mexicali.

Rosa Arce, a spokeswoman for the state prosecutor in Ensenada, said the ruling had not been forwarded to that office, so she had no comment other than to reiterate its belief that Cathcart is guilty.

"This ruling means that I'm free, that I don't have to live in fear of being extradited, and my name is cleared," Cathcart said as old Dean Martin songs seeped from speakers outside a duty-free shop about 100 yards from the border.

Cathcart insisted that he harbors no general anger toward the Mexican judicial system.

"It's the evildoing of one man in the beginning and several others after that," Cathcart said. "I dearly love the [Mexican] people. I would love to live there. I have a friend there that came between me and a knife. So how can you be angry?"

Cathcart and Stoller received word of the ruling in an 8:30 a.m. phone call from their Irvine attorney, William Bollard, who had traveled to Mexicali to pick up the decision. Then the couple sped to the San Ysidro border crossing to greet Bollard and Cathcart's Mexico City attorney, Enrique Gandara Zepeda, and to talk to reporters--including TV crews from Mexico, where the case has been closely followed.

Cathcart, a former travel agent, said he owes about $250,000 in legal bills, including about $60,000 to Bollard, the last in a series of lawyers Cathcart employed to try to win his freedom.

The years spent sleeping on a cement prison bunk exacerbated arthritis problems, Cathcart said, and he now is unable to work. "There's days I can't move," he said.

Yet Cathcart said those problems did not lessen the sense of relief that came with Thursday's ruling, which ended fears that he might have to finish the 12-year sentence.

Cathcart's religious faith continued to buoy him Thursday, as it did during his time in prison. Despite his health troubles, he said he remains optimistic.

"God brought me to this point, and he's not finished with me," Cathcart said, wearing a fleece pullover in patriotic red, white and blue. "He's not going to let me down.... Today has been one of the best days in a long while."

Bollard said the ruling was unequivocal and "remarkable."

"This federal court panel unanimously states that Mr. Cathcart never should have been convicted and that he spent six years of his life in Ensenada unjustly," Bollard said.

Bollard said no decision has been made on what civil action to pursue against whom, but that the federal ruling could serve as a loaded gun by finding there was "credible evidence" that the accusations against Cathcart were coerced by Diego and unnamed co-conspirators.

Bollard declined to say whether those involved included Americans. He said any civil actions would be pursued in Mexican courts.

Cathcart was charged while volunteering as a liaison between St. Timothy's Catholic Church in Laguna Niguel and the orphanage, which is financed by a network of Southern California Christians--including an Irvine-based foundation whose star-studded galas have raised more than $1million for the Door of Faith and other Baja orphanages.

The charges were based on statements by four boys who later recanted their allegations, saying Diego had coerced them to lie. The orphanage now is under the direction of a former Orange County couple, and Baja orphanage supporters say problems that plagued the facility in the mid-'90s have been cleaned up.

*

Times staff writer H.G. Reza contributed to this report.

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