No Rest for the Wicked
In our last installment, we told you about Vanessa Obmann, the Rancho Cucamonga High School senior who once counted among her friends the girl now known as Jane Doe. Prosecutors say Greg Haidl, Kyle Nachreiner and Keith Spann, then 17 years old, plied Doe, then 16, with beer, marijuana and possibly a drug-laced glass of liquor and then savagely gang raped her when she passed out.
The case might be nothing but horrific if not for this fact: Haidl, you'll undoubtedly recall, is the son of Don Haidl, a high-ranking political appointee in the Orange County Sheriff's Department.
Obmann once might have been considered a witness for the prosecution. Interviewed shortly after the July 6, 2002, incident, she told police that Doe had told her the boys had drugged her, that she'd been unconscious throughout the ordeal.
In California, it is illegal to have sex with someone who cannot give consent; Obmann's early statements would seem to add to the evidence that Doe was incapable of that consent. But just four days before her recent court appearance, Obmann changed her written statement to conform with the defense's contention that Doe had been conscious throughout the taped Newport Beach encounter and was, therefore, a willing participant. The defense says the four kids were assembled in Don Haidl's garage to produce their very own porn film, and if Doe appears unconscious, well, that's just a testament to her budding skills as a porn star.
Why did Obmann change her testimony?
That's what deputy DA Dan Hess wanted to know. On May 26, Hess asked Obmann if Joseph Cavallo, head of the nine-man Haidl legal team, had offered her an internship. Cavallo objected, but Superior Court Judge Francisco Briseo overruled him. "No," said Obmann, there'd been no offer of an internship. Minutes later, Hess returned to the subject. This time, Haidl's lead attorney demanded a meeting in the judge's chamber; the judge agreed to the meeting, but it apparently proved fruitless: as soon as it ended, Hess continued drilling down into the subject of a possible quid pro quo. Obmann continued to deny any deal.
Despite those denials, Hess' confidence suggested he knew something the rest of us did not. And then it seemed we might never know: responding to a family emergency on the defense side, Briseo called a one-week recess.
But with the jury absent, the Haidl trial seemed to move into overdrive.
Monday, May 31, the court observed Memorial Day. But within a few hours of honoring the nation's war dead, on June 1, the Haidl defense team asked Briseo if they could use a porn star to educate jurors about pornography--and not just any porn star, but Sharon Mitchell.
Mitchell can't decide if she was born in 1952, 1958 or 1962, or if her measurements are a voluptuous 36-24-36 or a svelte 34-24-35. But she speaks the truth when she calls herself a porn legend. The adult-industry reference Adam Film World calls Mitchell "a tough, no-nonsense ball-drainer who is rather butch-looking but able to become completely feminine at the drop of a garter belt."
Bringing in an adult-film star is part of a defense effort to transform into an asset its greatest liability--taped images of the Haidl Three, drunk and drugged, jamming into a drugged Doe a Snapple bottle, lit cigarette and a pool cue. They say the video is evidence that Doe not only craved sex with the defendants, but also demanded to be in a porn film to impress her girlfriends. Mitchell--whose credits include That's My Daughter!, Both Ends Burning, Furburgers, Chug-A-Lug Girls 2, Enema Obedience, Jail Bait, and volumes one and two of Gang Bang Girl--could "amplify" that theory, said Haidl lawyer Peter Scalisi.
Briseo is a conservative judge, remarkable not only for his humor and mental acuity, but also for his patience with the defense. He let Scalisi use the jury's hiatus as a chance to convince him that Mitchell's views would be relevant.
Tall, thin and wearing a black pantsuit, Mitchell outlined her expertise. She'd acted in, directed or produced more than 1,000 adult films during the past quarter century. She had watched the 21-minute Haidl gangbang film several times, she told Briseo, and concluded that "all in all, it was a very amateur effort to make a porn film."
Briseo began sinking lower in his chair as Mitchell told him that porn actresses often fake intoxication or unconsciousness to satisfy consumer tastes. "There's a fantasy and fetish for everything," she said, noting that some people want to see porn involving actors "pretending to be dead."
But most important for the defense, Mitchell concluded her 13-minute appearance by claiming that Doe was "clearly conscious." Her evidence? Doe had assumed a "reverse cowgirl position" during the filmed sex and, at another point, "was positioned to receive objects." She congratulated the defendants, who kindly "lubed" the foreign objects before using them--indicative, she said, of porn-industry professionalism.
It's a measure of Orange County's ethical flexibility that Haidl, a Republican assistant sheriff and self-described conservative businessman, would think it helpful to pay a porn star to testify that his drunk and drugged teenage son created an illegal, "semi-professional," necrophilia-themed porno with an underage girl.
But Briseo appeared unimpressed, perhaps because Mitchell hadn't noted that Doe's head and arms were lifeless and that Doe had not accomplished the reverse cowgirl on her own, but rather with the obvious assistance of two defendants. And while there has been no evidence that the teenagers used anything other than their own spit to lube the foreign objects, forensic testing did find traces of feces on the pool cue the defendants used to repeatedly penetrate the unflinching girl's vagina and anus.
The judge didn't even wait for the porn star to hit the door before making his ruling: no. Briseo said jurors are smart enough to see that the tape resembles a porno and noted that he'd later allow medical experts for the defense to assess the girl's consciousness. If jurors are paying attention, those experts will face an uphill battle on the question of Doe's capacity to resist the Haidl Three. Prosecutors, detectives at three police departments, a famed drug-intoxication specialist, California's attorney general and three judges--including Briseo--have said the girl looked either so intoxicated that she couldn't resist or was unconscious during the incident.
But Scalisi wouldn't retreat. Denying the jury Mitchell's testimony "negatively impacts the defendants' right to a fair trial," he said. Briseo frowned. Scalisi sat down. Cavallo slowly shook his head in frustration.
It won't get any easier. About the same time, the DA's office delivered a bombshell witness statement that amplifies a different theory--the prosecution's. According to Kevin Rogers, a friend of Nachreiner and Haidl, the defendants bragged on July 7, 2002, that they'd filmed a gangbang the night before with a girl they described as "passed out" and boasted that they'd "gotten her with pool sticks." One day later, Rogers told prosecutors, Nachreiner and Haidl were less enthusiastic; they were indeed panicked: they'd lost the Sony Hand-Held camcorder containing the sex video. According to Rogers, the pair said they would "do anything" for its return or destruction. He also remembered that Nachreiner was "upset, irritated and yelling" and that Haidl was so distraught he cried. Teenagers staying in a Newport Beach rental discovered the camera and video. They're no experts, but their reactions to viewing the video are telling: they were so convinced Doe was dead that they turned the camera and video over to police.
A day after Mitchell's star turn in Briseo's courtroom, we got one possible explanation for the evolution of Vanessa Obmann's testimony. On June 2, Hess' colleague Brian Gurwitz carried into court a boom box containing a jailhouse recording the prosecution says contradicts Obmann's denials. The tape, recorded covertly by the Riverside Sheriff's Department without the Orange County DA's knowledge, reveals Obmann's friend Jessy Heidt talking to her incarcerated boyfriend, whom the 49-year-old Cavallo also represents.
When Gurwitz hit play, we heard Heidt tell the inmate Obmann had been bragging that she went to Cavallo's office "all the time!" She continues:
Heidt: And [Obmann is], like, yeah, she goes, "I was trying to hook him up with my mom, but he wasn't gonna have that because he said he doesn't date anybody over 25!"
Inmate: Yeah. [Laughing] He's like that! Heidt: Then she said she's gonna do her internship there. Joe [Cavallo] said he would let her do that because Fox News is all after her, trying to talk to her, because, I guess, she knows a lot of stuff. John Barnett, Nachreiner's attorney, thought so much of the recording that he immediately asked Briseo for a mistrial or, in the alternative, that his client's case be severed from Haidl's. Whether the DA's tape is legitimate or not, Barnett said cryptically, "The damage is done." Cavallo sat silently in his seat, staring blankly at Gurwitz's boom box. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss OC Weekly's biggest stories. Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts