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
Getting on Orange County Superior Court’s panel of licensed investigators turned out to be not so easy. The secretary at Alternate Defense Services told Ford he needed to talk to the agency’s manager, Robert Matherly. “Matherly gave me so much trouble,” Ford recalls. “He was telling me, ‘Well, we don’t really have any formal panel. Some attorney needs to appoint you.’ And I said, ‘You must have some sort of procedure; at least give me an application.’”
After Matherly reluctantly approved his application, Ford was hired as an investigator for Stephen Carlstrom, one of nine inmates at Theo Lacy Jail who are currently being charged in the November 2007 murder of John Chamberlain, a fellow inmate whom others in the jail thought was a suspected child molester (see “I Lit the Fire,” April 3, 2008). “I got that case because Carlstrom insisted that I do the work and, quite frankly, because I don’t think anybody else wanted the work,” Ford says.
Ford fully expected that McKenna would be his next client. However, when McKenna sought to have Szeles removed from his case and replaced with Ford, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, who handles all pro per criminal cases in Orange County, denied the motion. Meanwhile, McKenna had given Ford’s telephone number to numerous other inmates, all of whom had had Szeles appointed as their investigator by Goethals and all of whom wanted that PI taken off their cases: George Cross, Victor Garcia, Eugene Pool, Douglas Mackenzie, Curtis Metcalf, Joseph Preciado, Christopher Rodriguez, and the aforementioned Lake and Ramirez.
The Weekly obtained these complaints, all of them handwritten, all voicing the same concerns about Szeles: He was acting as if he were an attorney, claiming he was friends with both the judges and prosecutors at the courthouse, and could work out a deal for them if they used him as an investigator. More important, they assert that Szeles was refusing to interview witnesses if he didn’t think it was necessary and that he was sharing information about their cases with the DA’s office.
“At first, I thought McKenna was just exaggerating or maybe that he was a little bit crazy,” Ford says. “But when all these guys started telling me the same things—not exactly the same stories, but various versions of the same thing—I started to wonder about Szeles.” So on May 26, 2009, Ford sent a letter to Goethals detailing the complaints and asking the judge to investigate them. “I do not know Mr. Szeles, and I am not trying to get him into any trouble,” Ford explained in his letter. “I do not know what is true or false in regards to these complaints. I do not want you to think I am trying to capitalize on this situation and take any business from Mr. Szeles. I really feel this is a very important issue that the court needs to be aware of, so that it can be dealt with.”
Meanwhile, seven of the inmates who complained to Ford filed motions asking to have Szeles removed from their cases and replaced with Ford. “These motions all came up to Judge Goethals, and he denied them,” Ford says. “Goethals did not respond to my letter at all. Most judges care about what’s going on in their courtroom, but all Goethals did was deny the motions. I’m 100 percent convinced that he has a bias against pro pers.”
After McKenna filed a motion to have Goethals dismissed from his case, Goethals filed a response to his claims of bias. “I am not biased or prejudiced against or in favor of the defendant in this action,” Goethals argued. “At all times, the statements and actions taken by me in this and every proceeding over which I have presided have been done in furtherance of what I believe were my judicial duties.”
Goethals did, however, agree to send McKenna’s case to a new judge, Gregg L. Prickett. On Jan. 5, McKenna appeared in Prickett’s courtroom. In handcuffs, from behind a wire cage, McKenna sought to argue once again that Szeles should be removed from his case and replaced with Ford, whom he hoped to call to testify about what other inmates had said about Szeles. “You can call him if he has any actual testimony, not hearsay testimony,” Prickett said. McKenna also sought to read a lengthy statement into the record, which appeared to be a mixture of his life story, a claim of not guilty by reason of insanity, his allegation that he was framed in a prior case in Riverside County, and his general dissatisfaction with Szeles.
Impatient, Prickett reminded McKenna that he’d already submitted his statement in writing. “You may call Mr. Szeles to the stand if you wish,” Prickett added. Szeles, a roughly 6-foot-tall man with thinning white hair and dressed in a worn-looking gray suit, took the stand. Because McKenna seemed incapable of actually asking Szeles any questions, Prickett instructed Szeles to explain what he’d done for McKenna.
“When I found out that this was a 3-year-old case, I contacted the DA to get any new discovery, and I contacted the prior public defender . . . three times, and did not get a response,” Szeles said. “Then I wrote a letter that did not get any response. I contacted her supervisor, went to the judge and clerk to get that discovery. Ultimately, I did get that discovery a month or so later.”