Despite the urging of county Supervisor Todd Spitzer, the Board of Supervisors decided against charging teen hikers in Trabuco Canyon for $160,000 in rescue costs--although the board did agree Tuesday to seek state legislation that would allow passing future rescue costs on to reckless victims.
But Spitzer is not done with at least one teen hiker. He showed up at Nicolas Cendoya's court hearing this morning on a felony drug possession charge, with the supervisor seeking financial compensation for an injured rescuer who racked up $350,000 in hospital costs while trying to save Cendoya and Kyndall Jack in April.
The judge rescheduled 19-year-old Cendoya's arraignment for alleged possession of methamphetamine until July 12. In the meantime, attorneys will discuss a claim made by 20-year-old Nick Papageorge IV, a volunteer searcher who fell 110 feet in rugged Trabuco Canyon and required back surgery and a weeklong Mission Hospital stay that cost $350,000.
"I would like to get compensation for my parents,'' Papageorge reportedly told City News Service outside the courtroom.
Spitzer said he went to court today not as an attorney or supervisor but as a volunteer for Papageorge's family. The politician, whose current supervisorial district includes Trabuco Canyon just as his past state legislative districts did, raised the issue of how Marsy's Law factors into the criminal prosecution of Cendoya.
Marsy's Law, also known as the state "Victims' Bill of Rights," is named after Marsy Nicholas, the sister of billionaire Broadcom founder Henry Nicholas III. Marsy was stalked and killed by an ex-boyfriend, and Henry bankrolled the voter initiative campaign, which Spitzer chaired. The supervisor has been a legal adviser for the law since its passage in 2008.
Cendoya's attorney, veteran Orange County criminal defense lawyer Paul Meyer, has "been very gracious'' in discussions on resolving the medical expense issues, Spitzer reportedly said.
Papageorge's family says it has so far been billed $10,000 in out-of-pocket expenses and does not know how much insurance companies will cover. The young man had titanium screws put in his back, but doctors have said he can expect a full recovery that will not inhibit his intended career as a firefighter-paramedic.
Papageorge said he went looking for Cendoya and Jack on April 1 and April 3, believing his experience frequently hiking in the area would give him an advantage. After Papageorge fell, he immediately knew from his paramedic training that he had broken his back, he now says. His hiking partner could not get a cell phone signal, so they had to shout for help from others searching nearby. It would be an hour before Papageorge was airlifted to Mission Hospital.
"It's just a miracle that God spared me,'' he told City News Service.
"There's no logical reason why his spinal cord was not severed,'' added his father, Nick Papageorge III, who noted the medical bills are a "pretty major financial hit to us."
Mission Hospital is the same hospital that treated Cendoya, who also cited the same career choice as Papageorge IV--before the meth charges came down. Sheriff's deputies claim they found 497 milligrams of methamphetamine in the car Cendoya drove up to the canyon. Deputies said the car was searched for clues that might help them find Cendoya and 18-year-old Jack. He was charged April 30 with a felony count of possession of a controlled substance.
Jack and Cendoya, who were new friends, went missing on Easter Sunday night after they became lost and separated while hiking. Cendoya was rescued late April 3, and Jack was found the next morning.
Papageorge reportedly says he had heard rumors the two hikers had been using drugs before getting lost in the canyon, but it did not discourage him from joining the search. "I would go out and do it again,'' he is quoted as saying, adding, "I'm not angry. ... We all make mistakes.''
In the case of Cendoya, it's a mistake he can erase. He's eligible for a drug diversion program that, if completed, would have a conviction wiped from his record.
That could also, according to Spitzer and Deputy District Attorney Brock Zimmon, prevent Papageorge from receiving compensation from Cendoya. The supervisor said he will argue that's "unconstitutional'' under Marsy's Law.
Meyer tells City News Service he and Cendoya have not yet decided whether to seek diversion, saying, "We're looking at the evidence and all the options."
Spitzer said it was the rumors of drug use and discovery of meth in Cendoya's car that "totally changed my perspective'' on the cost of the rescues, compensation he pushed hard for even before it was disclosed a felony count had been filed against Cendoya.
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The supervisor tells City News Service he will seek deputies' reports to buttress claims that Cendoya and Jack told investigators they had used drugs before the hike. If denied those reports, Spitzer said he will push for investigators to testify. "We absolutely believe there's a connection between the drug use'' and the two hikers getting lost, Spitzer explained.
He also shared some good news: a reserve deputy was also hurt in the search is back on the job. But he does not want to be involved in the Cendoya case, according to Spitzer.
His Board of Supervisors have asked Assemblyman Don Wagner (R-Tustin) to sponsor a bill allowing government rescue costs to be passed along to reckless people who have been saved.