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Inmate Accused of Molesting Girl on Her Prison Visits

Courts: He is being prosecuted for allegedly continuing to abuse his stepdaughter after his release. State official defends agency policy.

July 11, 2002|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A convicted felon repeatedly molested his 8-year-old stepdaughter during family overnight visits at Corcoran State Prison, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office has alleged.

Eugene Leonard Lee spent five weekends with his wife and stepdaughter at the prison south of Fresno while serving an 18-month sentence for driving drunk with a prior manslaughter conviction, according to records.

California Department of Corrections spokeswoman Margot Bach defended the prison visiting policy, saying there was no way the alleged abuse could have been predicted. She said the department did not learn of the allegations until after Lee's release.

"There was no reason for us to suspect that any molestation was going on," she said.

The case raises troubling questions about how to safeguard children, said Kristin Hall, who works at the Sexual Assault Crisis Agency in Long Beach.

"It's disturbing that a child is going to be sexually abused at all, especially if it's in that setting," said Hall, director of community education and outreach for the agency. "You would expect that children would be safe there."

Family visits take place on prison grounds in small, furnished apartments. The visitors bring food and can spend one or two nights at the apartment. During the visit, correctional officers check on the inmates at least four times a day, Bach said.

The department does not plan to independently investigate Lee's actions while he was in prison, Bach said, but will cooperate in the Los Angeles case, in which Lee is charged with abusing his stepdaughter after his release. Lee was housed at a substance abuse treatment facility at the prison from Aug. 23, 2000, to March 18, 2002. He had previously served time for vehicular manslaughter and had been convicted in the latest instance of drunk driving.

Los Angeles prosecutors said Lee fondled his stepdaughter and forced her to touch him while at Corcoran. Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Goul said the inmate should never have been allowed overnight visits.

"There is a sense of moral outrage at the irresponsibility of the state prison system to allow any convicted felon to be alone with a child, especially a felon who was convicted of killing someone," he said.

Lee allegedly continued the assaults after his release from Corcoran until the abuse escalated into a "horrifying three-day period" between April 21 and 23, Goul said.

Lee faces three counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child, two counts of forcible rape and one count of a forcible lewd act with a child. He is scheduled to appear July 25 in Superior Court and, if convicted, faces 69 years to life in prison. His wife, who reported the alleged abuse to authorities in April, does not face any criminal charges.

Goul said he plans to present evidence of the alleged Corcoran crimes at trial. That evidence will probably include testimony from the stepdaughter and what the prosecution says is a taped admission from Lee.

Prosecutors did not file charges on the alleged molestation at Corcoran because Lee is already facing a possible life sentence from the other charges and because there were potential "jurisdictional hurdles" with the prison case, Goul said.

Bach said the Corrections Department is very careful how it reviews requests for overnight family visits. Inmates convicted of sex crimes or violent acts against family members are not eligible.

Staff at Legal Services for Prisoners With Children agrees that the abuse, if it did occur, was horrible.

But Donna Willmott, the family advocacy coordinator, said this is the first time she has heard of such a case. She said she hopes it doesn't lead to more restrictions on family visits in prisons.

"I can see the possibility for this going in a direction that would make even more draconian measures that would have very negative impacts on children," she said.

Willmott said the overnight visits are crucial in helping inmates preserve relationships with their families so they are able to reintegrate into the community upon release.

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