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Emotions High as '85 Abuse Case Reviewed

Prosecutor grills men who recant childhood testimony. The hearing will decide whether inmate gets retrial.

January 19, 2004|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

BAKERSFIELD — Christopher Diuri's temper was smoldering as he sat on the witness stand, enduring a prosecutor's withering cross-examination.

The 27-year-old mechanic's memory was challenged. His motives for coming forward as a witness were questioned. Even a past run-in with the law -- a DUI arrest -- was brought out.

Diuri, a plain-spoken man with a closely shaved head, finally snapped. "This case tore my whole family apart when I was a kid," he spat at Deputy Dist. Atty. Lisa Green. "And it's still doing it now."

Diuri's experience was repeated again and again last week as four former witnesses in one of the nation's biggest child molestation cases from the 1980s took the stand to say they had never been molested as children. They had only said they were, they now confessed, because law enforcement had hounded and threatened them.

The witnesses wanted to set the record straight, they said, because their false testimony had sent four innocent people to prison, including John Stoll, who is still there 19 years later. In wrenching testimony, one of the former child victims, a burly sign painter named Edward Sampley, tearfully addressed the bald, 60-year-old inmate in jailhouse brown. "I'm sorry," Sampley said, as both he and Stoll wiped away tears.

A touching scene of reconciliation? Hardly. If these young men, all in their mid-20s, thought Kern County authorities would welcome their heartfelt confessions, they were mistaken. Green hammered away at them, questioning whether they might be planning to file suit against the county and raising the prospect that they had formed some sort of conspiracy to free the very man who molested them.

As the first week drew to a close in an unusual hearing to determine whether Stoll should get a new trial or win his freedom, the prosecutor's strategy became clear: Make the witnesses look like liars, opportunists and social outcasts. The court battle shows that even two decades later, the infamous child molestation investigation that, along with Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, helped put Bakersfield on the map refuses to go away. Years later, the cases are still upending people's lives.

The prosecutor's tactics, meanwhile, are enraging Stoll's attorneys.

"This is just a continuation of what went on in 1985," fumed Kathleen Ridolfi, executive director of Santa Clara University's Northern California Innocence Project. Project attorneys, along with the California Innocence Project at the California Western School of Law in San Diego, are representing Stoll.

"For them to continue to badger these young men after what they went through as children is just outrageous," Ridolfi said.

Even Stoll, sweating out his own future, expressed outrage in a jail interview. "They're picking on those kids again," he said. "Why can't they just leave them alone?"

Besides being risky, the prosecution strategy is replete with irony. Those who are targeted are the same people who, two decades earlier, were portrayed by the district attorney's office as tender victims of a vast interlocking network of child abusers and pornographers.

Stoll was one of more than 40 people convicted in the eight Bakersfield cases that began in 1984, one of the first of the wave of multi-offender molestation cases that swept the nation in the 1980s and '90s.

Authorities in Bakersfield contended that they had uncovered eight multi-offender rings, of which Stoll's was one. Many were centered in the working-class area east of Bakersfield called Oildale. Some sheriff's investigators believed they had stumbled on a network of abusers that had its roots in the Ozarks. The investigations fell apart two years after they began, when allegations of child abuse grew into reports of satanic activity, and when the children, who until then were thought to be unable to lie, began accusing sheriff's investigators and even a prosecutor of molestation.

In the intervening years, many convicted in Kern County have been released after appellate judges found prosecutorial misconduct and a variety of other errors. The state attorney general's office also issued a scathing report blasting the way the investigations had been handled. Among the findings: Investigators were so convinced they had stumbled on career-making child abuse cases that they did not bother to do routine police work, such as taking the alleged victims in for medical tests.

Of those convicted nearly 20 years ago, Stoll is among the last remaining in prison.

Green has repeatedly refused to answer questions about her trial strategy. The challenge facing her, however, is to answer a question that looms large. What do these young men, a cross section of working-class America -- cooks, salesmen, mechanics, with homes, wives and families -- have to gain by helping to free the man convicted of subjecting them to perverse acts?

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