By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
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Prickett then asked Szeles how he responded to McKenna’s allegation that he often refused to investigate specific things McKenna hoped could help his defense. “I explained to him what I said to all my pro per defendants,” Szeles said: That he worked for Alternate Defense Services, and that if a request “doesn’t make sense to me, if it’s an unusual request,” he wouldn’t fulfill it. “I’d be defrauding the county of Orange,” Szeles said. “That was in April, and from about that point, he was upset with me, and he refused to see me.”
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After failing to get Goethals to investigate Szeles, Ford forwarded the complaints to the Orange County district attorney’s office—which sent them back to Goethals. “We determined that no crimes had been committed and that it was a matter between the defendants and the court,” says DA spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder. “We were told by Judge Goethals that he would take care of it.” Ford also sent the complaints to the California Attorney General, the Commission for Judicial Performance and the Department of Consumer Affairs, which grants licenses to private investigators.
The more Ford learned about Orange County’s system for handling pro per cases, the more he perceived an inherent bias against such defendants, he says, and the more he felt he was being subjected to some kind of discrimination, perhaps because he’s African-American. And the more he learned about Szeles, the angrier Ford became that this man was the only person who seemed to be benefiting from the system, earning anywhere from $500 to $2,000 or more per case he handled.
“So, I confronted Szeles,” Ford says. “He was sitting outside a courtroom, and I said, ‘My name is C.J. Ford, and I think we have some things to talk about.’” Szeles refused to talk. “He said it was none of my business,” Ford recalls. “So I said, ‘Well, you’re right. At this point, we have nothing to talk about.’”
One of the last things Ford did in his investigation was to drive out to a courthouse in Riverside to look up a case number that had Szeles’ name on it. As it turned out, Szeles had become a private investigator after he was fired from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1990 for hitting his 15-year-old stepdaughter. The incident came to light after Szeles’ stepdaughter told her maternal grandmother and reported the assault to her school principal. Szeles sought to overturn his dismissal, arguing that because the assault took place at home and not at work, it was irrelevant to his job. The court upheld the dismissal.
The appeals court’s ruling on Szeles’ motion to have his termination reversed describes the assault in detail. “On Oct. 17, 1990, while seated at the dinner table, you . . . and your daughter Amber were having a discussion regarding a problem with the electrical outlet in Amber’s bedroom,” the ruling states. “Amber, who is 15, made a comment that you thought was disrespectful. You responded by striking Amber in the face approximately four times, resulting in traumatic injury, to wit: nose bleed, discoloration around both eyes, bruised lips, and swelling around the lips and nose areas.”
Part of the reason Szeles was fired by the sheriff’s department was because the agency felt he had been dishonest about the assault, stating that when the department interviewed Szeles, he was “evasive” in his answers and stated he had only struck his daughter twice instead of four times. Szeles also stated that he was never “contacted by Child Protective Services regarding allegations of [his] prior abuse of Amber,” when he was in fact “contacted on Jan. 3, 1990, by a Child Protective Services worker and refused to answer questions or set up an appointment to discuss the matter.”
Furthermore, the court noted, Szeles appeared to have had disciplinary problems on the job. On July 15, 1988, Szeles had been docked 13 days’ pay “for creating a disruption of court proceedings and treating the court’s Traffic Commissioner discourteously,” and on April 19, 1990, he’d been demoted from sergeant to investigator for “incompetency and discourteous treatment of employees.”
Given that track record, Ford believes that Szeles never should have been granted a license to work as an investigator. According to the state’s guidelines, licenses can be revoked if the applicant has committed “assault, battery, or kidnapping, or using force or violence on any person, without proper justification” or for “dishonesty, fraud or deceit.” Ford says he forwarded this information to the Department for Consumer Affairs and that the agency is investigating Szeles; the agency refused to comment for this story—or confirm the existence of an investigation.
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On Feb. 23, Ford filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against Alternate Defense Services and supervisor Matherly, alleging he was being discriminated against because of his race. “Plaintiff has been denied appointment to specific criminal cases involving pro per defendants,” the lawsuit states. “Explicit requests for Plaintiff’s appointment by 14 pro per defendants have been denied. During that same period, another less-experienced panel investigator [Szeles] . . . has been awarded and continues to be awarded all pro per cases. This practice continues even though that other investigator is under investigation by the Department of Consumer Affairs.”