I . . . Shot My Son

Everyone Agrees that Shantae Molina killed her baby. The only question is: Was it murder?

Guest's testimony was so critical—and so inflammatory —that it made that night's television news broadcasts on the Los Angeles affiliates of CBS, ABC and NBC. The Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times reported on the front page of its Jan. 30, 1999, Metro section that Armani had died from a gunshot contact wound.

But the assertion appears to be as wrong as it was sensational. Three days after the Oct. 16 shooting, forensics experts in Guest's own Sheriff's Department tested the gun that killed Armani. Oddly, they would keep the result secret for more than half a year. The department's gun experts determined that if Molina had placed the Beretta's barrel within six inches of the baby's head, the fatal shot should have produced "heavily apparent" powder burns around the wound.

The first medical experts at the scene of the shooting reported nothing of the sort. On Oct. 21, 1998, five days after the shooting, veteran Orange County Fire Authority paramedic Rick Bergstrom told the Sheriff's Department that he did not see any obvious signs of powder burns. That same day, Bergstrom's partner Scott Ashbach told detectives the same thing: he saw no powder burns around the wound.

A third expert contradicted Guest's claim of a muzzle-to-flesh wound. Dr. Michael G. Muhonen, the neurosurgeon who operated on Armani at Children's Hospital, told Sheriff's investigators that the baby's head wound was "stellate," or star-shaped. The investigators asked the doctor to show them what the wound look like. Taking a notebook from a deputy, the doctor drew a picture of the jagged-shaped wound. Ballistics experts say a point-blank shot would have likely produced a circular hole from the barrel, not a jagged, star-shaped wound. Asked by Lampel's expert if he saw circular entry point. Muhonen said, "No, for sure there was not that. . . . It had a starburst appearance."

The Sheriff's Department reports ignored Muhonen's critical observation about the appearance of the wound. Of their Oct. 23, 1998, interview with him, the detectives noted merely that the doctor observed the wound was "complicated." Even more noticeably missing from the investigators' account was Bergstrom's climactic statement that "instead of a direct shot" the wound appeared to be the result of a "ricochet."

Guest's last hope for a determination supporting a contact wound was Dr. Joseph J. Halka, the Sheriff's Department forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Armani one day after the shooting—and well after six-plus hours of emergency surgery dramatically altered the wound. In his Oct. 17, 1998, autopsy report, Halka reported nothing about a muzzle-to-flesh wound. In fact, according to Guest's handwritten notes of the autopsy, Halka was not able to say he'd seen a contact wound. The detective—who had observed the procedure—scribbled in his notebook, "No estimate of distance."

Despite evidence that tended to confirm Molina's version of events, Guest seemed determined to prove she had murdered her child. On Nov. 2, Lampel's legal assistant says he made a courtesy call to the Sheriff's Department to notify them that the attorney would be out of town for the weekend beginning the morning of Friday, Nov. 5. What happened next was curious: one day after the phone call from Lampel's office, a Sheriff's Department employee sent a memo to Halka. "The homicide guys would like to file [an arrest warrant for Molina] with the D.A. on Nov. 5. They are waiting to hear your official opinion." On Nov. 4, records show that Halka—without any additional physical evidence than he had 19 days earlier at the autopsy —then concluded that the wound to Armani was "contact, if not close."

Though puzzlingly worded, the ruling likely was music to Guest's ears. On the basis of Halka's finding, he immediately obtained an arrest warrant. On Nov. 5, Lampel boarded a plane at LAX for an East Coast business trip. Meanwhile, Guest ordered Molina taken into custody and further interrogated. She was handcuffed and arrested as she worked in her aunt's Mexican restaurant in San Diego County.

At about the same time, Guest made two additional shows of intimidating force. According to Molina's parents, the detective sent at least six Sheriff's Department cars—possibly 12 officers in all—to tail the family. The officers claimed they only wanted to know if the family would give new statements about the shooting. Skeptical of the officers' intentions, they declined.

Records obtained by the Weekly show that the Sheriff's Department used another government agency to pressure the family. Guest's notes show that it was his department that prompted social workers to "be looking at family for general neglect of" Desiree. According to the family, the bureaucrats unnecessarily caused the teenager to live apart from her sister. Welch, Molina's stepfather, wept when he described the "antics" employed against his family.

For five days, deputies kept Molina in the mental-health ward of the jail, where she was subject to the around-the-clock company of various deranged inmates. Authorities forced her to wear an uncomfortable plastic poncho that made sleep near-impossible. They also refused to allow her family visitation rights.

"They knew I was out of town, and they were going to do anything to break her," said Lampel. "Their [the deputies'] conduct was disgraceful."

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