By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
By Charles Lam
Reopening the ‘Chest of Horrors’
The infamous OC videotaped-sex-with-toddlers case has an unlikely sibling
Trials occasionally give birth to bizarre sideshows. Take the case of Sheila Sikat, who lured young, female relatives—including a 4-year-old niece—to her Rancho Santa Margarita home under the guise of baby-sitting. In reality, Sikat and her husband, David Hwang, forced the kids to consume highly intoxicating drinks and waited for them to become delirious. Next, they videotaped themselves having intercourse with, orally copulating with and sodomizing their helpless prey. When sheriff’s deputies arrested the couple in September 2003, they found 212 homemade child-porn videos in what they called a “chest of horrors.” Separate, sensational trials repulsed Orange County juries and produced similar results. Sikat and Hwang, a professional couple, were convicted. For at least 50 years, they’ll reside in gated communities with same-sex housing and taxpayer-funded meals.
But in January—just as the dust was settling on those case files, something novel happened. A woman in her 20s filed a related lawsuit using the identity Jane Doe. The lawsuit isn’t aimed at Sikat or Hwang, the villains of the trial. Although the suit names the Los Angeles Times, Fox 11 news in LA, News Corp. KTLA and the Orange County district attorney’s office, its primary target is the prosecutor who put both of the pedophiles in prison: Beth Carmichael, a no-nonsense veteran of the sex-crimes unit.
Let me explain: Doe showed up at Sikat’s Feb. 22, 2008, sentencing hearing with the sincere if misguided hope of coming to the 28-year-old woman’s rescue. (Sikat deserved no pity; in videotaped scenes, she positions the preschoolers for sex and, at one point, orders her husband to “put it in her butt.”) Nonetheless, Doe wanted Superior Court Judge Gary S. Paer to exchange the serial pedophile’s likely prison sentence merely for a promise to regularly visit a psychiatrist.
“Those years [of molesting] were not her,” Doe told Paer. “It just wasn’t her. . . . I think she’s served a lot of time [in pre-conviction lockup]. She needs to have her life back because it was taken from her.”
People routinely seek leniency on behalf of convicted felons. But here’s where this story turns weird. Doe isn’t just Sikat’s younger sister. According to prosecutor Carmichael, Doe—when 13 years old—was also a victim of her sister and brother-in-law’s deviancy.
“I do think it’s important, for the record, to let the court know that [Doe] was the subject of testimony in this trial,” a miffed Carmichael told Paer after Doe spoke. “I don’t know what [Doe’s] knowledge is, and quite frankly, I am shocked and appalled to see that the defense has brought this person into court because most of us have seen her on [a molestation] video [played as a trial exhibit].”
The prosecutor’s open-court assertion was news to Doe, who says her victimization was compounded after Carmichael outed her a second time as an underage sex-crimes victim to a group of print, television and radio reporters huddled in a courthouse hallway after the hearing.
“At no time during the hearing did I give Ms. Carmichael permission to use my name in any report to the media,” Doe wrote in a declaration to the court. “To the contrary, it was my understanding, based on what was said by the judge and what I witnessed in court, the identities of those speaking at the sentencing hearing and the victims were to be kept confidential.”
(I know Doe’s real name but am not publishing it because of her status as a sex-crimes victim.)
According to Doe attorney Paul W. Ralph, Carmichael’s revelation “negligently, recklessly and unlawfully revealed the fact that Jane Doe had been a victim of a sex crime while a child.” Ralph described the prosecutor’s action as an “ambush” that violated several pro-victim state laws and what he calls the U.S. Constitution’s “right to privacy, free speech and anonymity.” Worse, says Ralph, the prosecutor was motivated by “anger” and an alleged unwritten DA policy of “punishing witnesses who testify favorably for a criminal defendant at a sentencing hearing.”
In the complaint that seeks unspecified actual and punitive damages, Ralph wrote, “[Carmichael’s] conduct was outrageous and done without regard for the plaintiff’s rights [and] without good cause or public interest.”
Doe claims the prosecutor’s “invasion of privacy” caused her to seek extensive medical (including chiropractic) and psychological help, and forced her to quit working. “When the news hit the papers, Internet and television, I felt unprotected, victimized, and I lost trust in our system,” Doe wrote. “In my mind, I saw images of me losing my virginity during the making of those videotapes. . . . I have been imagining terrible scenarios, and my mind seems clouded and disturbed, even to this day.”
According to Lynberg & Watkins, which represents Carmichael and the county, Doe’s lawsuit is “fatally flawed” in numerous ways. They argue that prosecutors have “statutory immunity” in their jobs, that the California laws Ralph claims were violated don’t protect Doe, and that the Constitution doesn’t guarantee anyone “anonymity.”
Indeed, according to the firm, Carmichael cannot be held liable for her on-the-job conduct “even if she acts maliciously,” though they don’t concede that she acted with malice.
“Not only were Elizabeth Carmichael’s statements made during the sentencing hearing privileged, but it is also well settled [in case law] that statements made by the DA’s office to the press are likewise subject to immunity,” attorneys S. Franklin Harrell and Shannon L. Gustafson wrote in their brief. “The DA’s office was under no duty to protect [Doe] from the psychological harm that might result from her speaking in favor of her family member after that family member had molested her.”
“What Carmichael said at her press conference was not germane to pending criminal matters—especially since it had already been tried, was a decade removed in time and violated numerous statutes having to do with the protection of sex-crimes victims, particularly those victimized while a minor,” he says.
Doe is also suing Southern California news outlets for invasion of privacy, though they referenced Carmichael’s assertion without specifically naming Doe.
Carmichael—who has described the Sikat/Hwang case as “egregious, heinous and disgusting”—declined to discuss the lawsuit. DA spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder says, “We have confidence that the justice system will vindicate us at the end of this lawsuit.”
In July, Doe’s case was assigned to Superior Court Judge Kazuharu Makino, who hasn’t set a trial date.