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
The key figure in a fascinating civil case involving a minor and gay pornography is neither the plaintiff nor the defendant, but a witness: Charles Maple, founder of the prestigious Maple Conservatory of Dance in Irvine. Not that Maple, an accomplished dancer, was himself involved in anything seedy or illegal. The controversy arose when Rhonda Meier Hanson, a self-described "concerned parent," outed one of Maple's popular dance instructors and choreographers as a porn star who'd attempted "to recruit" her 15-year-old son into pornography. Maple took detailed notes of Hanson's claims and, worried about keeping his business "wholesome," fired Gerard La Rocca in 2007 after finding the ballet teacher's image on an X-rated website.
La Rocca—who hadn't kept secret he'd been a male model who posed for Playgirl—sued Hanson for slander, defamation, extortion, invasion of privacy, blackmail and orchestrating a conspiracy to get him fired from Maple's school. In his lawsuit, the choreographer said Hanson had been "determined to discriminate against" his "protected status as a gay man and adult-erotica model." He said that Hanson had tried to "deliberately harm" him by asserting reckless falsehoods about attempts to molest her son and induce him into pornographic acts.
Although she contacted Irvine police about La Rocca, Hanson responded by calling the lawsuit "spiteful." She denies accusing him of criminal acts and asserted he was fired not because of any falsehoods, but rather because of an acknowledged fact: He had been a gay porn star, gay porn producer and operator of a website that sold access to his X-rated images. La Rocca's claims about her accusing him of molestation were "pure fiction" unsupported by "any evidence," according to Hanson's court briefs.
At a 2009 jury trial, La Rocca didn't win any damages after the panel returned most of the verdicts in Hanson's favor, except for voting 9 to 3 that she had, in fact, accused Hanson of attempting to molest her son and recruit him into teen porn. Nevertheless, Hanson declared victory and demanded La Rocca pay her legal bills—more than $150,000—because, she said, his lawsuit had been frivolous from the outset. The trial judge, Richard Luesebrink, refused the monetary request, noting his belief that La Rocca had cause to believe he'd been wronged: namely, Maple's initial report of Hanson's assertions, the ones she denies ever making. (In a separate, pending lawsuit against Maple, Hanson claims he reneged on an alleged promise to keep confidential the content of their telephone conversations about La Rocca.)
La Rocca's lawsuit is now at the California Court of Appeal based in Santa Ana. Neither he nor Hanson is satisfied. She wants the three-justice panel to overturn Luesebrink's lawyer-fee decision. La Rocca wants a new trial, claiming that Hanson's lawyer improperly tampered with Maple during a critical deposition bizarrely conducted without the presence of any plaintiff's representatives.
During a public hearing last week, La Rocca attorney Jim Toledano accused the defense of "coaxing" Maple to change his original statements and deny that Hanson made allegations about molestation or teen porn. Maple had recorded Hanson's assertions in a detailed, three-page note obtained by the Weekly.
According to Maple's written record, Hanson outed La Rocca as a porn star before telling him, "[La Rocca] wanted to take pictures of [her 15-year-old son] and was trying to recruit him into porn . . . [and that her son] felt like he had been raped."
But later, during Maple's deposition, Patrick J. Richard—Hanson's defense lawyer—repeatedly showed the witness "inflammatory . . . lurid" images of La Rocca—the star of Fur Fun, Truckstop Daddy, Bear Country and Naked Cocktail Party—involved in gay porn, according to Toledano.
Richard also asked Maple this question: Did you know La Rocca was using your studio for pornography?
The assertion contained in the question was "outrageous," but, according to Toledano, it rattled Maple.
"All of a sudden, [Maple] was disgusted with [La Rocca]," Toledano told the justices.
As a result of this "intentional attempt to change the mind of a witness," Toledano contended, Maple buckled and altered his version of events to jibe with Hanson's claims.
By the end of the defense deposition, Maple was unequivocally claiming Hanson had not accused La Rocca of using anyone underage—including her son—either for sex or pornography or both.
"This case turned on these [new, inconsistent] statements," Toledano claimed. "This was clearly tampering with a witness. [Maple's deposition testimony] was tainted."
The trial jury didn't see Maple's original notes, hearing only the evidence from his deposition answers.
But Richard blamed Toledano for choosing to not attend the Maple deposition (or even explain his absence) and said granting a new trial would be "a gross miscarriage of justice" because "[La Rocca] has not shown that he was prejudiced" and "at every level his argument fails. . . . Mr. Maple did not terminate [La Rocca] because of my client's words."
Justice William Rylaarsdam asked Richard how much Luesebrink had ordered La Rocca to pay for Hanson's defense. Richard said zero, claiming the trial judge botched that ruling.
Rylaarsdam responded by quipping about his own preliminary thought on the topic: "Greed is a basis for denying the fees."
A ruling is expected before summer.
This column appeared in print as "Dances With Depositions: A civil jury never heard that a key witness changed his story about being tipped off to his employee allegedly recruiting a minor for gay porn."