Photo by James BunoanFor 22 months, accused rapist Gregory Scott Haidl remained silent, letting defense lawyers—and, once, his middle finger—speak for him about his role in the videotaped gangbang of an unconscious minor. But on the eve of Orange County's most sensational teen-sex-crimes trials, Haidl appeared on an April 21 national news broadcast and spoke for himself.
In a two-sentence statement, the 18-year-old blamed alcohol and then took no questions.
"We'd been drinking pretty heavily, and she showed up, and she started drinking," Haidl told CBS News about the July 2002 Newport Beach incident in which prosecutors say Haidl and high school buddies Kyle Nachreiner and Keith Spann gave a 16-year-old girl alcohol and marijuana and gang raped her after she fell unconscious. "Pretty much one thing lead to another, and we just started making stupid decisions."
Stupidity comes easily for Haidl. His father, wealthy Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl, has recently tried to bail his son out of everything from a minor drug bust to trespassing and the alleged sex felonies. But Haidl's CBS statement is perhaps the closest thing to a confession we're likely to get from defendants surrounded by an eight-member legal defense team (not including the publicist and army of private investigators). Though large and often angry, the Haidl team can't decide on a consistent public-relations strategy for the teens who've pleaded not guilty to more than 20 felonies.
Following the CBS appearance, Haidl lawyer Peter Scalisi faced off against OC District Attorney Tony Rackauckas on the Fox News show Day Side with Linda Vester. Scalisi didn't mention alcohol. He blamed society, the pornography industry and the then-unconscious girl for what happened after she was stripped, tossed on Haidl's garage pool table and, as one OC judge said, used "like a piece of meat." Scalisi, however, believes the incident has been overblown.
"This [wild teenage group sex] is happening in every neighborhood in the country," he said. "It's essentially become a national tragedy how much our teenage boys and girls are bombarded with images from the porn industry. [Jurors are] going to see this girl's dream to become a porn star. . . . This young girl is a tragic figure."
Fox's in-house audience groaned. Scalisi's comments drove an often-mumbling Rackauckas to articulation. He replied firmly, "That is absolutely ridiculous." The DA then won applause when he said that the defendants had stolen the girl's "humanity" by engaging in sex after they had "taken away her right" to willingly participate.
The defense media blitz continued on April 26, after a chain-smoking Don Haidl granted Los Angeles Times reporter Claire Luna an exclusive interview. In it, the assistant sheriff expressed sympathy for the alleged victim, called the incident a "stupid, terrible situation" and hailed his son as "the most kind, caring, sweet kid you've ever met in your life."
If jurors want a reason to side with the defendants, they won't have to look far. By my count, the defense has now voiced at least seven major excuses. In addition to alcohol, porn and society, they've accused the Newport Beach police and San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department of removing exonerating scenes from the videotape, a claim Judge Francisco Briseo ruled preposterous. They've blamed Rackauckas for taking a "harmless . . . teenage sexcapade" and making it into a felony case solely to bolster his career. They've even attacked the two individuals who "stole" Haidl's 21-minute video and gave it to police. Haidl had a "reasonable expectation of privacy," his lawyers told Briseo. The judge ruled against them.
But most of the defense team's wrath is aimed at the alleged rape victim, known in proceedings only as "Jane Doe." Earlier this year, lead Haidl defense lawyer Joseph G. Cavallo stood in court and, while smiling, said he had no intention of intimidating the girl. He must not have remembered that the defense had already tailed her, posted inflammatory fliers in her neighborhood and called her a "slut" who wants to be a "porn star" in open court. He suggested she was poor white trash eager for sex with a rich kid. On March 31, Cavallo sent the minor a legally unsupported letter demanding that she submit to defense-sponsored "comprehensive neurological and psychiatric" exams immediately before the scheduled May 3 trial start.
Don Haidl told the Times he didn't agree with some of his defense team's tactics but opined, "Lawyers have to do certain things to ensure success."
All of those things miss a simple point of law: it's illegal in California to have sex with an unconscious person. (For those men who've e-mailed me on this point, please note the difference between unconscious and asleep.) Although the state's supreme court rejected the notion of advance consent for sex in connection with a cataleptic person, Cavallo insists the defendants had an expectation of consent because they'd all had a sexual history with the girl.
Law-enforcement officers acknowledge the girl's promiscuity but say it's irrelevant once the girl fell unconscious. Even though two judges, the DA and the state attorney general say the girl appears lifeless on the video, Cavallo is expected to tell the jury she was faking. A prosecution source called that assertion "sickening."
Police who've seen the video say that while the girl was groggy but awake at the very beginning of filming, she resisted Haidl's attempts to take off her shirt and flatly told him, "no" before falling unconscious. Soon after, one of the defendants held the girl's arms up while another copulated her from behind. Later, the intensity of the sex almost forced the girl's body off the pool table.
To prove the girl was feigning unconsciousness, the defense has some tough questions to answer: Why didn't the girl recoil when the defendants shoved a Snapple bottle, juice can and lit cigarette into her vagina? Would a play-acting girl urinate on herself during group sex? Why didn't she flinch when they spread her ass cheeks and took turns poking both ends of a pool stick into her anus?
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If convicted, the defendants face as little as seven years and as many as 55 years in prison. "Look at them, they wouldn't last a week [incarcerated]," one worried defense source said.
That fear shows most prominently on Don Haidl's face. The assistant sheriff, who made a fortune selling used government cars and has been a major campaign contributor to Rackauckas, was recently huddled in a courtroom hallway with defense attorney Al Stokke, a longtime DA friend. It's an open courthouse secret that Haidl's team has sought a pretrial deal with the DA; in one proposal, the boys would accept nine-month sentences in exchange for guilty pleas. But veteran prosecutors Dan Hess and Brian Gurwitz don't seem receptive to negotiations. And why should they? They've got Haidl's graphic 21-minute video.
But Haidl's defense team has an ace: John Barnett, who technically represents only co-defendant Kyle Nachreiner. If Cavallo and Scalisi are easily imagined as obnoxious bar patrons, Barnett is the consummate gentleman. He's known for succeeding in long-shot cases. Most important, a filmed record of his client's conduct has yet to defeat him. Barnett won acquittals for a police officer involved in the infamous Rodney King beating and, more recently, for the Inglewood cop who punched a handcuffed suspect. It'll be up to Barnett to prove the camera blinked.