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Ventura County

Evidence Coerced, Attorney Says

Hearing: Defense wants charges dropped for a Ventura woman who told officers about a slaying but later was implicated.

July 10, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An attorney for murder suspect Bridget Callahan set out Tuesday to prove that law enforcement officials violated her rights so severely that charges against her should be dismissed.

Callahan, a 30-year-old Ventura resident, is charged with one count of first-degree murder for allegedly helping two skinhead gang members kill a teenage girl in October 1998.

State prosecutors began presenting evidence to support the charge Tuesday during a preliminary hearing in Ventura County Superior Court. But Callahan is not the only person under scrutiny in the case.

Oxnard defense lawyer Joseph O'Neill contends that an investigator and a prosecutor with the Ventura County district attorney's office, as well as detectives with the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, coerced and deceived Callahan in order to obtain information concerning the slaying.

In his opening statement, O'Neill said evidence to be presented at the hearing will focus not only on the killing of 17-year-old Nichole Hendrix of Ventura, but also on the actions of law enforcement officers involved in the investigation.

But state Deputy Atty. Gen. Michael Katz, whose agency took over the case at the request of county prosecutors, told Judge Vincent J. O'Neill Jr. that the defense theories of misconduct will not hold up.

"When we are done with it, I'll be back up here talking about the evidence that her statement was voluntary," Katz said.

"There will be a spectacle," he said of the hearing, which is expected to last up to two weeks. "But there will be no evidence to support the conspiracy theory."

Callahan is accused of standing guard while skinheads David Ziesmer, 29, and Michael Bridgeford, 25, stabbed, kicked and beat Hendrix to death in a motel bathroom Oct. 15, 1998.

According to Tuesday's testimony, Hendrix was reported missing around that date and her partial skeletal remains--a skull and a few bones--were found six months later in a ravine near Pine Mountain.

An autopsy revealed that Hendrix sustained blows to the face, including a possible stab wound near an eye, Sheriff's Sgt. Michael Powers testified.

Duct tape, bed linens and a trash bin were also found at the scene, prompting the coroner to rule the death a homicide, he said.

Asked about his initial contact with Callahan, Powers testified that he helped move her from Arizona to New Mexico after she entered an agreement with the district attorney in December 1999 to provide information about the case.

Powers said the move cost about $3,000, which came out of the district attorney's budget.

Powers went on to become the lead detective in the Hendrix homicide case.

He testified that no threats or promises were made to Callahan to induce her statements about the slaying.

On cross-examination, Powers acknowledged that he knew authorities had intended to arrest Callahan despite her assistance as an informant and that she believed she was a witness--not a suspect.

"She was of the belief that she had an agreement with law enforcement, isn't that right?" attorney O'Neill asked.

"Yes," Powers said, admitting that he purposefully did not correct her misconceptions.

"She made the agreement with the district attorney's office--not Mike Powers, not the Sheriff's Department," he said.

Testimony is scheduled to resume this morning before Judge O'Neill, who is not related to the defense attorney Joseph O'Neill.

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