By Peter Maguire
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Gregory Scott Haidl seems a typical teenager—except for the fact that he's at the center of not only Orange County's latest sensational sex crime but also an unprecedented grand jury investigation into police corruption. He's 18, but baby-faced. His clothes fit poorly on his lanky frame and skinny limbs. His awkward gait belies a skateboarding talent. He's a master of the adolescent bored look: when Superior Court Judge Francisco Briseno asks him a question during preliminary court hearings, Haidl frequently looks up, seemingly surprised, straightens in his seat and replies in quick, hushed, respectful tones.
But there's another side to Haidl. Along with friends Kyle Nachreiner and Keith Spann, Haidl was arrested in July 2002 on charges he participated in the videotaped gang rape of an unconscious minor after she'd been rendered senseless with marijuana and alcohol. He might never have been arrested if he hadn't immodestly shown his homemade sex DVD to high school classmates, one of whom thought the girl was dead and notified police. When police moved him from juvenile detention to the courthouse for an early hearing, Haidl—dressed in a orange, county-issued jumpsuit and shackled at the waist—flipped off observers. Following publication of a few articles in the Weekly about his case in late December, Haidl took a break from the defense table, scanned the courtroom, caught my eye and held it. He was actually mad-dogging me.
Suspects facing up to 55 years in prison aren't usually cocky, but Haidl's attitude is no mystery. Consider his surroundings. There's his overprotective mother, whom prosecutors allege posted fliers seeking dirt on the alleged 16-year-old rape victim (despite the fact that the mother's phone number was listed on the flier, she denies any role in the opposition research campaign); his doting, wealthy father, Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl, has publicly expressed outrage that prosecutors filed charges; another ranking Sheriff's Department official tried to hinder a Newport Beach police probe of the incident; Haidl's professional public-relations consultant has portrayed prosecutors as the villains in the case; and a six-member legal-defense team which insists their client's arrest is "reverse discrimination."
Not many criminal defendants—teenage or otherwise—have such an ensemble at their disposal. But then not many kids have a dad worth an estimated $90 million. The elder Haidl struck gold by winning government contracts to sell vehicles seized by local governments around the country; the money has made him one of Orange County's richest individuals and a powerbroker in local law enforcement races. He received a political appointment to oversee the OC sheriff's reserve units after he generated big contributions to Sheriff Mike Carona's 1998 election campaign.
Even though he carries a badge now, Haidl's past activities drew repeated law enforcement scrutiny in the late 1980s and '90s. According to an Orange County Register investigation in 1999, the state of California conducted three separate probes into suspicions that Haidl's businesses skimmed as much as $1 million from public agencies. The paper discovered that at least one of the investigations ended prematurely after a Haidl friend in the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department convinced state officials to drop it. In the other cases, Haidl paid $104,000 before trial to settle civil suits that he defrauded more than 36 public agencies including almost a dozen in Orange County. Thirteen years ago, Haidl paid $260,000 to a former associate who'd accused him of buying law-enforcement connections with money, jewelry, guns, vehicles, alcohol and prostitutes.
Despite the father's colorful background, Haidl defense lawyer Joseph G. Cavallo has cast his client as a quiet, well-disciplined kid. "He's nice to his mother," Cavallo told a reporter immediately after the rape arrest. His grandmother has said, "He's a good boy."
Whatever his personality, it was undoubtedly influenced by his parents' troubled 23-year marriage, which ended in 1998. One law enforcement source who knows the Haidls said the estranged couple used Gregory as a pawn in their own war, each parent reportedly showering the boy with gifts to win his favor. Don Haidl eventually remarried.
Gregory lived mostly with his mother in the Inland Empire. While at Rancho Cucamonga High School his talent for skateboarding won him a corporate sponsorship for five years, according to the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. One classmate said that Haidl thought of himself as "hot stuff . . . he tells people he can get away with things." A girl who briefly dated Haidl called him "perverted and pushy."
But it would be Haidl's interest in videotape that would come back to haunt him. He dreamed of a career in the film industry and owned an expensive Sony Hand Held camera—the one prosecutors say he used to record the rape. Matt Cataldo, a video production teacher at Rancho Cucamonga High School, told reporters Haidl is "one of those kids with great vision when it comes to video . . . He tapes everything."
There are now two video recordings held in evidence at the Orange County Courthouse that show that Haidl is, at best, a budding juvenile delinquent or, at worst, a drug-using rapist. You're probably already familiar with the 21-minute rape case DVD: Haidl and his two buddies taped themselves laughing as they unloaded their sexual fantasies on an unconscious girl tossed on a pool table in the garage of Haidl's Corona del Mar house during a late-night beer party. Haidl says the girl consented before passing out; the prosecution says that's not true, and that even if she had consented, it's still illegal to have sex with a minor.
Through all of this, there's never been a hint of regret from Haidl. His all-male legal team insists the sex was harmless fun with a poor, "promiscuous" San Bernardino County girl lucky to be in the company of a rich Newport Beach boy like Haidl. They allege the girl had dreams of becoming a porn star.
Not as visually shocking as the sex DVD, the second video—now a critical piece of evidence in a grand jury corruption investigation—caught Haidl in another compromising position last October. Out of jail on $100,000 bail and the promise he'd stay clean until his March rape trial, Haidl was illegally skateboarding in a San Clemente office park. Deputies showed up, their cruiser-mounted video camera rolling. They found Haidl and two other kids standing behind a late-model Chevrolet Tahoe. They also found marijuana and firmly believed the three were stoned.
Most people caught with illegal drugs, high and already on felony bail, would know they were in serious trouble. Most people don't have a powerful cop as a dad. After deputies on the scene telephoned Assistant Sheriff Haidl for advice, young Haidl escaped without citation or arrest and the incident was falsely reported on public records as nothing more than a routine "traffic stop."
Haidl's legal "dream team," as they've reportedly called themselves, claims the pot incident and the resulting grand jury investigation into the cover-up is merely another setup.
"Anyone who views that entire tape would see that Greg Haidl is absolutely, unequivocally innocent of any wrongdoing," Haidl PR consultant Tori Richards told Registerreporters Bill Rams and Larry Welborn after KCBS-TV aired brief portions of the 50-minute video in late December. "He did not smoke or possess marijuana."
When she worked as spokeswoman for the OC District Attorney's office, Richards often struggled with the truth. Her battle continues. I repeatedly reviewed the entire video over a period of several weeks, and found the following facts:
> Sheriff's Deputy J. Roche discovered a bag of marijuana next to Haidl's keys, wallet, cigarettes, lighter and tea bottle, and later told Haidl he had a "deer-in-the-headlights" gaze.
> Haidl informed deputies that his father is their boss, and said, "I'm sure you're aware of my situation," apparently referring to his rape-case bail.
> When Roche originally asked who owned the pot, nobody confessed, and Haidl—arms outstretched in a pleading manner—turned to his companions and said, "Dudes, it can't be my dope! I'm out on bail."
> After the deputy left the teens alone for a couple of minutes, Haidl's 16-year-old companion changed his story and said the pot was his. Roche replied, "I don't believe you at all. It doesn't make any sense for your marijuana to be hanging out with [Haidl's] tea and cigarettes."
> Haidl told Roche he hadn't smoked marijuana in "over a year," but the deputy wasn't convinced. "Look at your eyes, Gregory," he said. "They're all bloodshot and watery." Haidl blamed his intoxicated look on "skateboarding for an hour and a half."
> After Roche said he could fingerprint the baggie of marijuana and conduct a blood test, Haidl began whimpering and asked, "What are my options?" The deputy told him: "Why don't you just tell me the truth?"
> Also during the exchange, Haidl said, "It's not my dope, sir." "Then whose is it?" asked the deputy. "I have no clue, sir."
> About 35 minutes into the incident, as Roche interrogated the other teens, Haidl secretly opened his cell phone. Sitting in the back of the SUV, apparently unaware the police camera was focused on him, he talked to someone for about 40 seconds and then quickly dropped the phone.
> Minutes later, the incident ends with Roche telling Haidl that his dad wanted him taken home.
A Weeklyinspection of sheriff's department telephone records shows that a Sgt. Downing, who was at the scene, called Assistant Sheriff Haidl during the bust. Afterwards, deputies didn't fingerprint the dope bag, take blood or write any citations. The official report of the incident failed to reveal any incriminating evidence against the teenager. If they'd determined the pot was Haidl's, a judge could have tossed him into jail. Instead, a deputy chauffeured Haidl home.
Law enforcement agencies are quasi-military and officers almost always remain silent about internal corruption. But the Haidl cases struck a nerve in some conscientious members of the Sheriff's Department. Without their leaks, the special favors would have remained a secret.
"There is a sense that the Haidls think they are above the law," said one officer. "We're hoping the grand jury does its job and has the courage to hold people accountable for their conduct."
For the Haidl defense team, the leaks are further evidence of government misconduct, of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas' desire to offer up their client as a "sacrificial lamb" in his political rehabilitation. Haidl isn't "Manson, Dahmer or Kraft"—three serial killers—the defense has told Judge Briseno. "So what did he do that justifies the draconian treatment dispensed by the district attorney?"
DA spokeswoman Susan Schroeder has an answer. "He helped rape and then molest a clearly unconscious minor," she said. "But you don't have to ask me. It was Judge Everett Dickey who saw the DVD during the arraignment and said the girl was treated like a piece of meat."
Don Haidl likes to brag that he helped raise "thousands" in campaign cash for the man now trying his son, the district attorney, Tony Rackauckas. In a move that turned political reality upside down, the Haidl defense team has used that financial relationship to argue that the DA is compromised—that he's prosecuting Gregory only to prove he's a tough, independent law-enforcement officer. In December, Haidl's attorneys asked the judge to take the DA off the case, and to replace him with the state attorney general, Bill Lockyer.
Lockyer gravely disappointed the Haidls. As the Weekly went to press, and as Judge Briseno prepared to decide whether Rackauckas will try the case, the attorney general responded. On January 20, he handed the prosecution a new weapon in the PR war over Gregory Haidl: a stinging 13-page denunciation of the young man's character.
"The number and nature of the charges that defendant is facing . . . is based solely upon his participation in a deplorable series of sexual assaults upon the body of a young lady, which included multiple penetrations of her vaginal and anal openings with various foreign objects as she lay unconscious on a pool table," Lockyer wrote. "More importantly, defendant's argument ignores the reality that his own videotape is the beginning and end of this case: there would be no prosecution without it. But because it exists, no prosecutor could ignore the crimes clearly depicted, regardless of who or what the defendant's father is."
It's unclear what the Haidl defense team hopes to get by switching prosecutors in a case where the evidence is so compelling. But what they got was the state's top lawman summing up his take on Gregory Scott Haidl, the boy who dreamed of becoming a film-industry player: "The videotape . . . graphically reveals defendant's character as lacking fundamental decency and respect for human dignity and readily demonstrates that his acts went far beyond mere delinquency."
Photo by James Bunoan