King of the County Pedophiles

The life, death and final escape of Eleuterio Ramos

He quit after only a couple of months because “their M.O. was identical to what they put me through a decade ago.”

The case of Father Dominic Nguyen particularly galled Michael. In 2002, church officials in Boise found child pornography on the priest's computer. Michael Driscoll, now the bishop of Boise, Idaho, sent Nguyen to Orange County. Here, the sexual abuse review board debated whether they should suspend Nguyen. The Orange diocese had just adopted a court-enforced zero-tolerance policy that automatically suspended any priest accused of molesting a child—the same idea Michael had suggested years earlier.

But Father Michael McKiernan, representative for Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown on the panel, tried to argue that child pornography didn't violate the zero-tolerance policy. “He said, ‘Where is the victim in the child pornography?'” Michael recalls. “They said this to me, a victim of child pornography.”

Father Eleuterio Ramos
Father Eleuterio Ramos
Ramos as a young man.
Ramos as a young man.

That day, Michael visited Manly's office and told his friend everything.

*   *   *

After meeting with Michael, John Manly wanted Father Eleuterio Ramos behind bars—but not just yet. Manly had big plans for Ramos. He didn't want merely to depose Ramos or win settlements for his clients. Manly wanted to use Ramos as his prime piece of evidence for what he calls the St. John's Protective Society: the network of alumni of Ramos' alma mater, St. John's Seminary in Camarillo, that protected him throughout his career.

In the past decade, St. John's has emerged as a focal point for the Catholic Church's sex-abuse scandal, a seminary that produced child-molesting priests the way USC produces Heisman Trophy winners. Among Ramos' fellow graduates in 1966 were two of Los Angeles County's most notorious pedophile priests: Peter García, accused of sexually assaulting 12 boys, and Seal Beach resident Michael Wempe, who admitted to molesting 13 boys beginning in the 1960s and who's currently awaiting trial for molesting a 10-year-old. A third classmate, James M. Ford, faces one child-abuse accusation at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange during the 1960s. Michael Harris attended St. John's, as did Patrick Ziemann, a former Mater Dei teacher who resigned in disgrace as bishop of Santa Rosa in 1999 after reports came out he used a Costa Rican priest as a sex toy. Other graduates of St. John's include Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney (class of 1962) and former chancellor John Rawden, the man who first sent Ramos to counseling; Ramos' boss at St. Joseph in Placentia, George Breslin; Orange Bishops Tod D. Brown ('63) and Jaime Soto ('78); and former Orange Bishops Johnson ('44), Driscoll ('65) and John T. Steinbock, who graduated in 1963 and is now the bishop of the diocese of Fresno.

If there was one key to the Orange diocese sex-abuse scandal, Manly now says, “Ramos was it. Getting his deposition would've blown everything apart.”

But before Manly could arrange to have Ramos deposed, a Ramos victim named Juan filed criminal charges against Ramos with the Orange Police Department. In 1982, when Juan was 12, according to an Orange police report, Ramos took him to Camelot after Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Habra, where Juan attended school and served as an altar boy. After a couple of hours, the two went to a movie at the old Cinedome Theater in Orange, where Ramos repeatedly fondled Juan as the boy silently prayed. After the film ended, they crossed the street to the Motel 6, where Ramos had already rented a room. Ramos gave Juan a four-pack of wine coolers and made him drink it. After a couple of sips, Ramos pushed Juan down on the bed and fellated him as the 12-year-old cried.

The molestations continued once a week for four years. Juan always tried to beg out of serving for Ramos, only to have his devout Mexican Catholic parents say he had no choice. Ramos took Juan to seedy motels in San Diego and left him in rooms with strangers who attempted to rape him. The abuse continued until Ramos left for Tijuana.

Juan told Orange police detectives he would meet with Ramos face to face and secretly record their conversation. Since Michael's suit, Ramos had lived the life of a nomad. He moved for a bit to his sister Mary's house in La Mirada before relocating to San Ysidro for eight years; sources say former parishioners still welcomed Ramos into their homes. In May 2003, Manly tracked Ramos to the Hacienda Trailer Rancho in Whittier: he discovered the priest poor, alone and near death. Ramos had lived there since 2000.

“Ramos was a good man,” says August Tafoya, manager of the Hacienda Trailer Rancho. “Kept mostly to himself—would usually just pass by and say hi, but that was about it. Sometimes, his brother and sister would come by to visit.

*   *   *

On May 1, 2003, Juan knocked on Ramos' trailer. Orange police wired Juan to record the conversation. A tape of that recording shows Ramos did not recognize Juan until he began crying.

Ramos was near the end. He was no longer the burly, gregarious giant everyone knew as Big Al. His weight stood at 177 pounds. He had difficulty walking due to his diabetes. Ramos was on the waiting list for a kidney transplant and had to visit his doctor weekly for dialysis treatment. But Ramos was still a priest; despite the various lawsuits brought against him in the preceding years, the Orange diocese never bothered to defrock Big Al.

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