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Abuse trial starts for lawyer with ties to O.C. power

A former aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and associate of other GOP leaders is accused of sex with a 14-year-old boy he met on the Internet.

February 23, 2007|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

Accused of molesting a 14-year-old boy he met over the Internet, a former aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and onetime intern at the Orange County district attorney's office was portrayed Thursday by a prosecutor as a man who repeatedly preyed on a minor for sex.

But a defense attorney for Jeffrey Nielsen, 36, described his client as the real victim of an investigation that was handled sloppily by detectives so consumed with collaring a successful attorney that they overlooked the contradictory statements of a young accuser.

Nielsen's trial opened in a Newport Beach courtroom nearly four years after he was arrested in front of his colleagues at the Orange County office of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, a prestigious national law firm. The case might have received little attention if not for Nielsen's connections to Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and other influential members of the local Republican Party.

As first reported by the OC Weekly, Nielsen was an aide at Rohrabacher's Washington, D.C., office in the mid-1990s, a period during which the congressman and GOP power brokers Tom Fuentes and Michael Schroeder provided character references to USC Law School on his behalf. Nielsen's father, Ben, is a former Fountain Valley mayor.

Ben Nielsen and other family members watched Thursday from a mostly empty courtroom gallery as Deputy Dist. Atty. Dan Hess outlined the case against Nielsen.

The relationship between him and the accuser, referred to only as John Doe, developed after the two made contact through a website for gay men, Hess told the jury. They met for the first time March 30, 2003, after speaking by phone and choosing the Westminster library as a pickup point, Hess said.

Nielsen arrived in his BMW and drove the boy, who at the time lived in a Westminster mobile home park with his mother, to his Ladera Ranch condominium 30 miles away, Hess said. Once there, they took turns giving each other oral sex, he said.

The next rendezvous was April 3, 2003, on the boy's mother's bed in the trailer, Hess said.

Their last meeting was April 25 at Nielsen's home, where Nielsen sodomized the boy, according to Hess.

Hess said that even though John Doe lied about his age, telling Nielsen he was a year older, and that the sex was consensual, Nielsen knew the boy was a minor.

Hess displayed blown-up copies of e-mails between Nielsen and Doe, which, he said, corroborate the allegations and show that Nielsen pursued the relationship after Doe told him he wanted to end it and find someone closer to his age. Hess closed by handing each juror a folder containing copies of five images of child pornography he said were found on Nielsen's computers.

Taking umbrage at that move, defense attorney Paul S. Meyer asked the judge for special permission to start his opening statement before the recess that is typically given after the prosecution opens the case. He told jurors that there was never any child porn shared between Nielsen and Doe and that the "disgusting" pictures had nothing to do with the molestation allegations.

"The reason I didn't want to take a break is because a picture is worth a thousand words," he said, urging jurors to ask themselves, "Why are we looking at these photos?"

After the recess, Meyer unfolded two large poster boards showing a timeline of events that, he said, raise questions about the accuser's credibility and undermine the theory that his client is a child molester.

Of particular significance, Meyer said, were two e-mails sent after the first March 30 meeting during which they allegedly had oral sex. In the first one, Doe asks Nielsen, "Hey, next time can we make out?" In the second, sent more than a week after that first encounter, Doe asks if they can have a sexual relationship.

"That blows this case out of the water," Meyer said. "There's a real kind of credibility issue that's inherent in the facts."

Also, Meyer said, Nielsen's neighbors will testify that on March 30, Nielsen came home with a "shorter friend" with whom he left to walk his dog, Page, and that the two were never in the condo together for more than a minute or two. The neighbors, who were never interviewed by detectives, were home having a birthday party that day, Meyer said.

Meyer suggested the boy had fantasized about having an intimate relationship with Nielsen, who could help him escape his trailer-park existence, and told a classmate that he was dating an older lawyer who drove a BMW. After the classmate informed school officials, who called police, the boy lied to back up his story, Meyer said.

"There are signposts in this case that clearly show Mr. Doe is lying," he said.

The accuser is expected to take the stand next week.

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christine.hanley@latimes.com

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