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Murder Suspect's Lawyer Asks for Dismissal

July 19, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Criminal charges against murder suspect Bridget Callahan should be dismissed because prosecutors violated her rights through coercion and deceit, a defense lawyer argued Thursday.

Attorney Joseph O'Neill asked the judge presiding over Callahan's preliminary hearing to throw out the case based on "extreme prosecutorial misconduct."

Recounting what he described as an elaborate tale of deception and intrigue, O'Neill suggested in court that a prosecutor and investigator with the Ventura County district attorney's office manipulated his client with false promises of immunity to obtain information about a 1998 homicide.

After gaining her trust and cooperation, O'Neill argued, authorities used Callahan as an informant and then charged her with murder. He asked that any of her statements about the crime be suppressed.

But California Deputy Atty. Gen. Michael Katz, whose agency is now prosecuting the case at the request of the district attorney, argued that the defense lawyer has no evidence to back up his claims.

Katz urged Ventura County Superior Court Judge Vincent J. O'Neill Jr. to reject the defense motion.

He asked Judge O'Neill--who is not related to the defense lawyer--to hold Callahan to answer a charge of murder and related allegations for her role in the slaying of 17-year-old Nichole Hendrix of Ventura.

And he argued that Callahan's statements to law enforcement were voluntary and should be admitted as evidence against her.

"The upshot is she lied repeatedly to law enforcement," Katz argued. "It wasn't that they were tricking her--she was tricking them."

Callahan, a 30-year-old Ventura resident, is accused of helping two skinhead gang members kill Hendrix in a Ventura motel room in October 1998.

Authorities say Callahan, a gang associate, knew that skinheads David Ziesmer and Michael Bridgeford intended to kill Hendrix and kept her from leaving the motel bathroom.

According to Callahan's December 1999 statement to authorities, she was ordered by Ziesmer to guard Hendrix after Ziesmer became suspicious that Hendrix had reported them to police for selling stolen goods.

Callahan told detectives that the men stabbed and beat Hendrix to death in the motel room bathtub, then packed her body in a trash can filled with wet cement.

The trash can was later dumped by Callahan and others over the side of California 33 in the mountains north of Ojai, authorities said.

According to testimony at the preliminary hearing, Callahan moved to Arizona after the slaying and was tracked down in October 1999 by Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Ron Bamieh and investigator Mark Volpei, who wanted to talk to her about an unrelated homicide case.

During their conversation, Bamieh testified, Callahan asked about an eyewitness who had cut a deal with prosecutors. Bamieh said Callahan indicated that she, too, had information about a slaying. Two months later, she approached authorities about arranging a deal.

Callahan agreed to provide information about the Hendrix slaying in exchange for authorities moving her to New Mexico.

According to court testimony, she signed a written agreement crafted by prosecutors, then provided a detailed account of the slaying. To the surprise of Bamieh and others, that account directly implicated her in the killing.

"I never in my wildest dreams thought she was going to say what she told us," he testified. Callahan's lawyer now contends that Bamieh and Volpei coerced her during the meeting in Arizona. He further alleges that law enforcement officials acted unethically by using her as an informant once they knew she was a suspect--and not a witness.

"Never once was the idea in mind to proceed in an honorable fashion," he said. "My client was bamboozled completely."

As for her alleged role in the slaying, Joseph O'Neill argued that Callahan acted under duress because she feared Ziesmer and Bridgeford. He said she was culpable only as an accessory after the fact for helping dispose of Hendrix's body.

Judge O'Neill is expected to rule on Tuesday.

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