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Abuse Cases in O.C. Jolted

The Supreme Court's rejection of a California sex-offender law could free several convicted molesters and halt other prosecutions.

June 28, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer and Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writers

A U.S. Supreme Court decision that reinstated deadlines to prosecute some child molestation cases may force the release from prison of several Orange County convicted molesters and could stop seven other cases from going to trial.

The court struck down part of a California law that allowed prosecutions of sex offenders even after the statute of limitations expired.

Since 1999, with the blessing of the state Supreme Court, prosecutors throughout California have used the law to go after hundreds of suspected molesters whose crimes often occurred decades ago -- crimes the offenders once thought had been cleared by the passage of time.

Now many of those convictions stand to be overturned and the perpetrators freed from prisons and jails. Several pending cases could also be dismissed, regardless of the strength of the evidence -- even remorseful confessions caught on tape.

"The impact is going to be huge," said Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Randy Payne, who filed one case that involved an 87-year-old former Fullerton church elder that's now likely to be dismissed.

"Not only is it just the cases they have filed, but there are numerous cases that are in the investigative state that suddenly we can't do anything on," Payne said.

Assistant Dist. Atty. Rosanne Froeberg, who supervises the office's sexual assault unit, said she has not determined how many convictions in Orange County will be affected, but "I don't think it will be a huge number.... We have maybe less than two dozen."

One case likely to be affected is that of Angel Amado Perez, 57, convicted in 2000 of molesting two Santa Ana sisters 20 years earlier. He is serving a nine-year sentence at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, but could be released soon because of the ruling, his attorney said Friday.

Also affected is former Huntington Beach schoolteacher Carl Robert Bucy, 58, who pleaded guilty in April to three felony charges involving the molestation of a 12-year-old student in 1973. He was sentenced to three years' probation and ordered to register as a sex offender.

"He will no longer be a sex offender, and he will no longer be on probation, and those things are very important to him," said Bucy's attorney, Jennifer Keller. "But he's lost a great deal. He lost his good name. He's lost his profession. He lost a good deal of his retirement.

"That's the problem with this statute. You're trying to reach back into ... time. You're taking people who are now 80 and prosecuting them for things that happened when they were 30 or 40. It's just extraordinarily difficult to have any type of fair prosecution at that point."

Among the pending cases likely to be affected are three involving former Catholic priests, one against a former Orange County judge and one involving a former Fullerton church elder.

The three former priests are Gerald John Plesetz, accused of molesting a teenage girl in the 1970s; John Peter Lenihan, accused of impregnating a teen 25 years ago; and Denis Lyons, charged with molesting a teenage boy more than 20 years ago.

Former Orange County Superior Court Judge Ronald C. Kline was arrested in January 2002 and charged with molesting a boy nearly 25 years earlier. Because the statute of limitations expired long before the new law passed, it's likely his case will be dismissed. He still faces federal charges of possession of child pornography.

"I'm disappointed but I can't take it personally," said Irvine Police Detective Ron Carr, who investigated that case. He said he has not yet informed Kline's alleged victim about the case's fate.

"It's one of those things we've been avoiding," he said.

"I'm just going to tell him it's out of our hands. We did the best we could. I know it was very difficult for him. And he suffered for a long time."

Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas issued a statement that described the Supreme Court's ruling as "bad news for some people who were victimized in the past by sexual predators."

"The Supreme Court has erased the hopes of these victims," the statement said.

"This decision will allow some sexual predators to breathe easy."

Attorneys in the Orange County public defender's office are studying their former cases to see whether any of their clients' cases should be overturned because of the ruling, said Assistant Public Defender Kevin Phillips.

He applauded the decision, saying it was improper for the state to set a deadline to prosecute these cases and then go back years later and erase the deadline.

"This is exactly what we've been arguing since it was enacted," Phillips said. "When the statute of limitations has run out, you can't go back and say, 'We're going to prosecute you anyway.'

"Nobody is in favor of people molesting children and getting away with it. But there comes a time where you have to say, 'You know what, so much time has passed and we never prosecuted you. It's just unfair to do it now.' "

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Pending cases

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