By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Police Pilots Say They Got the Pointer
Laser-beam assault case brings cops up against a longtime courtroom ally
Among Southern California criminal-defense lawyers, few rank ahead of Laguna Beach’s John Barnett. Over the years, he has represented not only millionaires, but also a slew of police officers, including one snared in the infamous, taped Rodney King beating. So when Barnett publicly accuses law enforcement of lying, as he did in Orange County Superior Court on April 3, you pay attention.
Barnett sat in Judge Richard Toohey’s eighth-floor courtroom defending Peter Gregory Kontos, who was scheduled to be sentenced in a wild Newport Beach case that involves a half a million dollars in embezzled homeowners’-association funds, packaged cocaine, a vial of methamphetamine, forgery, grand theft, more than $134,000 in hidden cash, deadly metal ninja-like throwing stars and accusations of attempting to crash police helicopters with a common laser pointer.
Now, shining even a common laser pointer into the cockpit of an aircraft is a crime—please don’t do it. But in this case, it would seem preposterous that a then-unemployed 33-year-old man with ample reason to keep a low profile would stand on his balcony on two separate nights in the spring of 2006 and point his bought-from-Fry’s, 5.5-inch Alpec cylindrical laser into the cockpit of a low-flying Eagle One, part of the fleet of helicopters for the Newport Beach and Costa Mesa police departments.
But the pilots swore they’d been attacked by green laser blasts and, though they supplied no evidence of their reasoning, claimed they were positive the beams had originated precisely from Kontos’ second-story balcony at the Villa Point Condominium Association, close to Fashion Island. Based on those assertions, their colleagues in the detective division secured a search warrant, raided Kontos’ condo and—voila!—discovered the illegal bounty and a laser pointer.
Barnett has worked out a deal for his client to plead guilty in exchange for a light sentence. At the sentencing hearing, with Barnett by his side, Kontos listened with his back to a hostile crowd of former neighbors who said they’d been embezzlement victims when the hefty, Porsche Carrera 911-driving, first-generation Greek-American served as president of their condo association. According to court records, more than $548,000 went missing from association coffers under Kontos’ watch. Numerous speakers told Toohey that the defendant is an arrogant sleazebag prone to using the justice system to, well, thwart justice. They pleaded for a two-year prison sentence, which would include restitution payments.
Also present was John Susman, a retired Costa Mesa P.D. helicopter pilot. He came to court to say that, while he can’t prove it, he believes Kontos’ laser-beam assaults on his helicopter cause him to suffer from epiphora, an uncontrollable overflow of tears that distorts vision. Susman, who indeed had teary eyes in court, said he’s paid the medical expenses out of his own pocket and wants the defendant to reimburse him.
“The cockpit was completely illuminated with green light,” said Susman. “Bob Rivers [his co-pilot during one of the laser-beam incidents] got itchy eyes and was in pain from headaches. I suffer from watery eyes.”
Barnett not only views Susman’s medical claim as “a sham” and a “convenient excuse to claim a disability” in the early stages of government retirement, but he also argues that Susman, Rivers and Jeff Van Es, another pilot, lied in crafting official laser-beam-assault reports. (Full disclosure: I’ve flown with all three helicopter pilots and have covered Barnett in trial on multiple occasions.)
“There were conflicting descriptions of the source of the laser light, with reckless disregard for the truth,” Barnett told Toohey. “It is impossible that a laser directed from behind [as the officers alleged] could not only be seen by the pilots, but actually penetrate the inside of the helicopter.”
The veteran lawyer went further, alleging corruption in the police air squad. He described factual inconsistencies about the laser incidents as an indication of “a conspicuous effort on [the] part of the [pilots] to buttress” an improperly desired search warrant on Kontos’ property.
In Barnett’s view, the laser villain might not have been a villain at all, but rather the innocent work of entertainment staff preparing for an outdoor show at the nearby Toshiba Classic golf tournament, an event the pilots noted in their flight log.
While addressing the court, Susman—who has been struck by laser beams at least 25 times as a pilot—said he wasn’t pleased by Barnett’s accusations, noting he was positive “we pinpointed [Kontos’ condo as the source of the beam]” and that “if it [the beam] didn’t cause [his eye disability], it advanced it.”
“The truth is the opposite,” said Barnett, who asked for probation for his client.
Prosecutor Marc Labreche told me that a cocky Kontos confessed to using the laser when first questioned by detectives—and that Kontos also admitted to using the laser pointer in his plea agreement. In court, Labreche urged the stiffest available punishment because “had the helicopter crashed, the potential damage is great.”
But a hesitant-looking Toohey decided to postpone sentencing. “I’m remanding the defendant for a 90-day [prison] evaluation, and then I’ll make my final decision on June 26.”
Nobody in the courtroom seemed happy. Susman beckoned Barnett to a corridor. A heated exchange ensued. Minutes later, as his stone-faced victims watched, Kontos stood and then was handcuffed and hauled away by a deputy.
POLICE-PROSECUTOR TRYST DOESN’T HELP CONVICT
Jealous that his ex-girlfriend had gone on a South Coast Plaza-area date with another man in 2007, Metin Reza Gurel raped her and threatened to disfigure the woman’s vagina with a stove-heated screwdriver. Gurel’s defense? They had consensual kinky foreplay and sex. A jury didn’t buy it. After Gurel’s 2008 conviction, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas learned that Suzy M. Snyder, the deputy DA on the case, had secretly slept with the police detective who headed the probe, a huge ethical no-no.
I revealed the scandal last year (see “The Rapist, the Judge, the Lawyer and Her Lover,” Oct. 30, 2008); soon thereafter, Snyder found herself out of the DA’s office. Subsequently, an incarcerated Gurel attempted to get his convictions overturned, claiming he’d been robbed of a fair trial. But Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals determined that, based on the strength of the victim’s testimony alone, Gurel would likely have been convicted even if Gurel’s lawyers could have discredited the detective as biased. Goethal left the convictions intact.
STILL UNREPENTANT CARONA HEAVES HAIL MARY
Need more evidence of ex-Sheriff Mike Carona’s shamelessness? The convicted felon recently tried a cute legal maneuver to nullify a jury’s guilty verdict for sabotaging a federal grand jury investigating corruption at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. Through his Jones Day lawyers, Carona told federal Judge Andrew Guilford that the jury found him guilty of a statute that prohibits convincing a witness not to testify.
Carona’s angle? He didn’t try to block the testimony of Don Haidl, a wealthy businessman who says he gave Carona $1,000 per month in cash bribes. He pointed to secret FBI recordings of his efforts to convince Haidl to testify and lie to the grand jury.
Guilford was not amused.
Carona’s sentencing date remains April 27. Federal officials recommend a 6.5-year prison term. Carona, once OC’s most popular Republican politician with a eye on the U.S. Senate, seeks leniency—not a minute in prison.