By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
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Photo by James BunoanDon Haidl is like most dads, except that he's an assistant sheriff and his 18-year-old son is accused of participating in a 2002 videotaped gang rape of an unconscious 16-year-old girl on a pool table in Haidl's Corona del Mar home. At each of his son's preliminary hearings, Haidl sits in the same seat in the courtroom. His face is preternaturally red and he is mostly silent. He rarely talks to members of his son's expensive six-member legal defense team, and even less frequently to reporters. The best he'll do is nod his head or offer a firm handshake before quickly departing the courtroom. Haidl's pain is most visible when he puts his arm around his son's shoulders and squeezes while both look down and away. Despite his estimated $90 million, most of it from used-car sales, Haidl couldn't buy his son a dollar's worth of common sense.
Nor, apparently, could his money influence Tony Rackauckas' Orange County District Attorney's (OCDA) office. Haidl openly brags that he raised thousands for the DA's two successful campaigns. He's lobbied the DA personally on his son's behalf. He's tried to open private channels to the DA by hiring as advisors longtime Rackauckas confidante Al Stokke, a local trial lawyer, and Tori Richards, Rackauckas's former spokeswoman at the OCDA. At his urging, CBS' 48 Hours has reportedly considered airing an anti-Rackauckas feature before the scheduled March trial. Haidl has even threatened to fund a Rackauckas opponent in 2006.
None of his efforts have succeeded, and the powerful assistant sheriff is seething. He believes his son, Gregory Scott Haidl, should not serve one day in jail because the sex was nothing more than a harmless teenage "sexcapade" with a girl he regards as promiscuous. Mention Rackauckas' name and he'll utter something unpleasant under his breath. Said one law enforcement source familiar with Haidl, "What Don doesn't seem to grasp is that there was a videotaped rape of a minor that took place in his house and Tony just can't look the other way for him."
Nevertheless, the defense team—which often looks as if it's going to explode in the courtroom—is relentless. They've hoped for months that the DA would bow to behind-the-scenes pressure and drop charges, offer a generous plea bargain or shift the case to a less-hostile setting in juvenile court. Having failed, they're now going after Rackauckas publicly.
The anti-Rackauckas campaign had been going on for weeks, hissing behind the proceedings like a lit match held inches from a rag stuffed into a bottle filled with gasoline. But the hissing turned out to be hot air, and the gasoline turned out to be nothing more dangerous than methane.
Hitting Rackauckas was just one part of a three-pronged defense of young Haidl: block admissibility of the videotape, attack the alleged victim, and challenge Rackauckas' right to prosecute the case.
On Dec. 22, that strategy fell apart a prong at a time. That day, Superior Court Judge Francisco Briseno refused the defense's motion to block admissibility of the graphic 21-minute videotape. Then a skeptical-looking Briseno delayed Haidl defense attorney Joseph G. Cavallo's request to dismiss the case altogether.
In allowing the case to go forward, Briseno is likely to wave away Cavallo's claim that the real villain in the case is Rackauckas and not the accused teenagers who, after having sex with the unconscious girl, laughed and danced to blaring rap music as they penetrated her vagina and anus with a lit cigarette, Snapple bottle, juice can and pool stick. The teens finished the night by putting the unwashed, disheveled girl in a vehicle and driving her from Newport Beach to San Bernardino County, where they left her to wake up alone in a car parked on the street. Despite that evidence, Cavallo claims that Rackauckas—who has aided his campaign contributors in the past—is prosecuting the Haidl case only to show that he no longer will "favor friends" and has gone "to outrageous lengths to find some hope of public redemption."
That claim is based on the fact that Haidl is, indeed, a Rackauckas campaign contributor who admitted in an affidavit that he vocally touted the DA's competence in the years before his son was charged with rape. Though he acknowledges he's raised a "substantial" amount of money for Rackauckas, Haidl says his opinion of the DA has now changed.
Cavallo argued that Rackauckas is fervently pressing the case "in order to counter widespread complaints that the DA is cutting deals with his political pals. . . . The DA and those working at his direction have finally found a case which might just do the trick of deflecting growing public concern about his ability to do the job he was elected to perform."
In one respect, the defense has a point about possible prosecutorial overzealousness. Judge Briseno recently dismissed several serious counts that accused the boys of using a deadly weapon (the pool stick) or of inflicting "great bodily harm" on the girl even though she suffered numerous internal tears and a bruised mouth. In a Dec. 17 ruling, Briseno said the acts showed a "complete disregard for the welfare of another person who is obviously unconscious," but did not meet the legal definition for the additional charges. Though more than 20 felony counts remain, Cavallo called the rulings a "devastating blow" to prosecutors.
Few if anyone outside the defense team is taking Cavallo's recusal motion seriously. For weeks, the Haidl defense team had hinted at devastating testimony of the DA's corruption in the rape case. But when the moment came to reveal their hand, Haidl's defense attorneys asked the judge to keep the recusal motion under seal. Deputy DA Brian Gurwitz, who is handling the Haidl case with prosecutor Dan Hess, said the defense tactic was an attempt to win a quid pro quo from Rackauckas and a generous plea-bargain agreement before a jury can ever see a DVD that caused one veteran police detective to vomit after watching it.
During the Dec. 22 hearing, Briseno tentatively sided with the defense but flip-flopped after Gurwitz argued that he knew of "no statutory authority" to keep the public in the dark about Haidl's attack on Rackauckas. When the judge asked him how long he'd need to unravel the defense theory, Gurwitz calmly replied, "Less than a minute."
The quip was fitting. The defense had tried to file the 2001-2002 grand jury report as proof the DA should be blocked from prosecuting the case. Unless additional information is forthcoming, the report—though highly unflattering to Rackauckas—isn't connected to the alleged rape.
Briseno will hear arguments and decide the motion on Jan. 22. But with blockbuster DVD evidence, courthouse sources don't believe there's a chance he'll agree that the DA is pushing the rape case solely to bolster his career. If the motion is dismissed, the assistant sheriff will have taken his last big swing at Rackauckas for his son—and missed.
That scenario has to be a humorous one in the DA's Santa Ana headquarters. When Don Haidl awakes from his stupor, he'll realize that he's inadvertently handed the man he hates a gift. For if any California district attorney needed a public-relations makeover, it was Rackauckas, who is expected to run for reelection in 2006. Now—for the first time in his five years in office—the DA has newfound credibility. In the sensational Haidl case, Rackauckas can legitimately claim he didn't twist the criminal justice system to help a fellow Republican pal.