As a superior court judge prepared to view the DVD of a 16-year-old girl's alleged 2002 rape by three teenage boys in Corona del Mar, a red-faced Don Haidl stood in the spectator section of the courtroom. The lanky Orange County assistant sheriff—a multimillionaire from the world of used-car sales who fancies expensive boots and speaks with a voice aged by cigarettes—isn't known for tenderness. But at this Nov. 5 preliminary hearing, Haidl couldn't hide his emotions. The lawman's son, Gregory Scott Haidl, is one of the accused rapists. Within minutes, the 18-year-old and fellow defendant Kyle Joseph Nachreiner, also 18, would be forced to watch a replay of the pornographic episode—audio muted—with 10 other people: Judge F.P. Briseo, prosecutors, defense attorneys and court staff. Anticipation of that scene was apparently too much for the elder Haidl. He grabbed his son, hugged him, whispered something in his ear, kissed his forehead and slowly walked out of the courtroom.
This case is shaping up as one of the most dramatic trials in Orange County history. Prosecutors accuse Haidl, Nachreiner and 18-year-old Keith James Spann (who did not attend the Nov. 5 hearing) of drugging the alleged victim senseless before sodomizing, raping and sexually molesting her with a cigarette, bottles and a pool cue.
Exhibit A in the prosecution case is the Sony Hand-Held Camera recording of the incident made by the defendants, each of whom has pleaded not guilty to more than two dozen felonies and remain free on $100,000 bail. On the other side, high-priced defense attorneys hope they can block admissibility of the DVD or negate its impact on a future jury by portraying the Rancho Cucamonga girl—called only "Jane Doe" in court proceedings—as a promiscuous party animal who already knew the three boys intimately and had consented to the gangbang before passing out.
If that isn't sensational enough, add to the mix a budding law-enforcement feud. Sheriff's Department officials say privately that the defendants deserve no more than probation. They bitterly accuse District Attorney Tony Rackauckas of playing hardball solely for political motives. Late last month, they formally asked the judge to disqualify the DA; a decision on that request is pending.
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Prosecutors fire back that Haidl allies want Rackauckas to take a fall—to quietly botch the case or scale down the felony charges as a courtesy among lawmen. They also accuse Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo, a Haidl colleague, of improperly interfering with their investigation when he advised the suspects not to cooperate with police detectives.
The trial won't begin until March, but is it any surprise that CBS already has sent a camera crew to film the unfolding plot for their investigative series 48 Hours?
When you think of a rapist, your mind would never immediately picture these defendants. For instance, a wide-eyed Nachreiner—still pimply from slight adolescent acne—looks like he belongs in high school football practice instead of a courthouse facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life in a state prison. Further evidence of his youthfulness: Nachreiner's ill-fitting, blue-and-white-striped button-down shirt was marked with numerous deep wrinkles and, in part, untucked from his well-worn pants. During one break in the proceedings, he walked to the 11th-floor courtroom window, shoved his hands in his pants' pockets and gazed solemnly at the northwest Orange County landscape.
Haidl has a baby-soft face, short haircut and innocent facial expressions that make you believe he is younger than he is. Though his dad could dress him in the finest outfit from a swank South Coast Plaza shop, he wore the standard prep-school uniform: white button-down shirt, blue tie, off-white khakis (neatly pressed) and brown shoes. He stands well taller than six feet, but his pants would have surely fallen off his rail-thin body if not for the belt wrapped tightly around his waist. Reportedly an excellent student, he answered all questions in court with a soft-spoken, almost shy "yes, sir" or "no, sir." When we passed each other going in opposite directions at the restroom during a break, he smiled and politely held the door open for me.
Those warm images could vanish the moment the jury sees the DVD.
The best evidence so far of the DVD's damning power comes from the defense team itself. After hearing arguments from both sides that the DVD should not be witnessed by the public, Judge Briseo ordered the three courtroom television monitors turned toward his bench. He said a viewing was necessary for the case to proceed. He then lined up all the prosecutors, defense attorneys and two defendants to sit in chairs and face the screens. A bailiff dimmed the lights. From the public seating section, spectators could see the painful, tortured expressions in reaction to the replay of the violent 20-minute encounter.
If you ever wanted to know what the depths of humiliation looked like, it was here, on the crimson faces of the accused. At points, both Nachreiner and Haidl seemed so stiff it appeared they'd stopped breathing. With their heads tilted down, they'd stare at the monitors, then look away for 10 or 15 seconds before slowly focusing again on the video. Haidl sniffled and coughed several times. Nachreiner periodically gulped and nervously twiddled his thumbs in his lap. The courtroom was eerily silent—except when the judge's clerk stopped stealing quick glances and noisily shuffled papers. During the middle of the movie, two of the defense lawyers huddled in animated conversation, occasionally looking at Deputy DA Brian Gurwitz, who was incessantly tapping his right loafer on the floor. Toward the end of the video, one of the defense lawyers' head jerked back; he squinted, shook his head as if in disgust, but quickly regained his composure when he peeked at reporters in the audience. Briseo watched intently but always expressionless.
Sixteen minutes in, the DVD player malfunctioned and went back to the beginning. The defense objected that the judge could not resume watching. The defendants looked close to spontaneous combustion. The judge overruled the defense, ordered a technician to fast-forward to the 16-minute mark and begin again. A minute or so into the replay, someone's cell phone, set to silent, vibrated loudly, ominously in the room.
When it was over, the sullen defendants had slipped several inches in their seats. Defense attorney John Barnett, legendary for devising winning strategies in complex cases, stood and calmly let the court know he was "concerned about this evidence." Among other objections, Barnett last month asserted that the DVD's chain of ownership was uncertain —that someone stole the DVD from Haidl before it was given to authorities.
Nearby, young Haidl poured and gulped three cups of water in rapid succession. He might have felt better if he had remembered the lesson of the Rodney King-LAPD beating case: a video of an alleged crime does not guarantee convictions.
The defense effort to block admissibility of the DVD failed this time. But there's no doubt they'll raise the issue when the court reconvenes Nov. 24.
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