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Ventura County

Prosecutor Admits Dishonest Dealings in Homicide Inquiry

Justice: Ron Bamieh says his office failed to 'do the right thing' for a woman who helped in a case not knowing she could be charged.

July 17, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Ventura County prosecutor admitted Tuesday that law enforcement officials were dishonest in their dealings with a woman who provided key details about a 1998 slaying and was then charged with murder.

Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Bamieh told a judge presiding over Bridget Callahan's preliminary hearing that his office failed to "do the right thing" by not offering Callahan a deal in return for her cooperation.

"We should have dealt her out prior to the grand jury," Bamieh testified. "It was a no-brainer."

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 in December 1999 is valid.

Callahan, a 30-year-old Ventura resident, alleges that prosecutors promised her immunity in exchange for her statements and told her she need not consult a lawyer before signing the agreement.

She was later indicted on charges of first-degree murder along with two skinhead gang members she implicated in the slaying.

Called as a defense witness Tuesday, Bamieh, who was removed from the case after announcing his candidacy for district attorney last fall, denied that anyone coerced Callahan or gave false promises.

But he acknowledged that law enforcement officials were "less than honest" with Callahan and never corrected her misconceptions that she was a witness and not a suspect.

"It was my opinion that she didn't understand that she was culpable for the murder of Ms. Hendrix," Bamieh testified. "All of us knew, or believed, that she didn't understand that she had confessed to a murder."

Bamieh and a district attorney's investigator flew to Arizona in October 1999 to talk to Callahan about an unrelated murder case and learned she had information about the Hendrix slaying.

Two months later, Hendrix volunteered to tell authorities details of the killing in return for them moving her to another state.

Bamieh testified that based on information uncovered during the homicide investigation, he believed Callahan was culpable as an accessory after the fact for helping dispose of Hendrix's body.

But after hearing her account, Bamieh said, he realized that Callahan was liable for first-degree murder for drugging Hendrix and standing guard while the two skinheads killed her.

"I never in my wildest dreams thought she was going to say what she told us," he testified.

According to Callahan's account, the men stabbed and beat Hendrix to death in a motel bathroom after becoming suspicious that she had reported them to police for selling stolen goods.

Bamieh said that the day after Callahan gave her statement he discussed the situation with Ron Janes, then his supervisor in the district attorney's office.

"Mr. Janes said, 'Let the Sheriff's Department work her and help them only when they ask,' " Bamieh testified.

Detectives and investigators for both agencies later went on to use Callahan as an informant, even though they knew she was a murder suspect and not a witness, Bamieh said.

Callahan was later indicted for murder. She has been held at the county jail without bail for nearly two years.

After the August indictment, Bamieh said, he encouraged his supervisors to let Callahan plea to a lesser charge. They eventually offered to let Callahan plea guilty to second-degree murder, but she refused.

Callahan's case has since been turned over to the state attorney general at the request of the Ventura County district attorney.

On Tuesday, defense attorney Joseph O'Neill questioned Bamieh about his dealings with Callahan and his opinions of the agreement crafted by law enforcement.

Seven months ago, O'Neill suggested in court papers that Bamieh intentionally deceived Callahan for his own political gain.

O'Neill described Bamieh's dealings with Callahan as "a Faustian bargain for favorable publicity."

Bamieh called O'Neill "a nut" who had no evidence to back up his claims.

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