Superior Court Judge Frank Briseo isn't fat or female, and we can all pray he doesn't sing. But on March 10, the fat lady finally sings in the Haidl Three gang-rape saga. Court watchers say the judge who allowed a series of lengthy defense delays is ready at last to punish Greg Haidl, Keith Spann and Kyle Nachreiner.
Sentencing has been a long time coming. A year ago, a jury convicted the trio for the 2002 videotaped sexual assault of a minor who had passed out at a high school party in Newport Beach. You may remember the story: it featured then-assistant sheriff Don Haidl's ocean-view home, illegal drugs, booze, money, porn, a complete absence of parental supervision and the raging hormones of three young men. There was also the ugly specter of a Snapple bottle, lit cigarette, apple-juice can and pool stick repeatedly shoved into the lower orifices of a girl who had been tossed on a garage pool table. The defendants lost their video after proudly showing it to friends. A good Samaritan discovered it and turned it over to the authorities. Originally fearing the girl in the film had been a corpse, police arrested Haidl, Spann and Nachreiner.
With the jury's verdict collecting dust, all eyes now turn to Briseo, whose decision will send a strong signal about the how local law enforcement views the defendants' refusal to accept responsibility. (See OC Weekly's Haidl case story archive.) By law, punishment can range from mere probation to more-than-14-year terms. Prison officials and psychiatrists have evaluated the men and determined there is no valid reason to exempt them from the penitentiary. Assistant District Attorney Chuck Middleton, who won the case, is asking that Haidl serve 12 years, Nachreiner 10 and Spann 6. Some veteran law-enforcement sources, particularly a number of sheriff's deputies, believe the judge will ignore Middleton's request. They predict the judge will give probation and require counseling, but no prison time.
If Briseo goes soft, the move will not only alarm Orange County prosecutors. But it will also seemingly contradict his own previous public statements that the case is "a very serious matter." Those of us who watched the judge the first time he viewed Haidl's video remember his distraught, almost-nauseated look.
The man who led the Haidl jury to its 2005 guilty verdict has also seen the video, and he believes Briseo should reject defense lawyer Al Stokke's plea for leniency.
"Probation would not be appropriate because of the severity of the crime," Robbie Ruiz, a 28-year-old mortgage banker, told the Weekly. "I'm not saying it should be a throw-away-the-key deal, but it should be a fair conclusion. Nobody drove the girl to the party. Nobody made her drink. But those guys violated her when she was out. She is a human being, and they treated her like she wasn't. You really want to find a shower after you watch that video the first time. It's disgusting."
Lost in the buildup to the sentencing hearing is Jane Doe, the name prosecutors gave the victim, who was 16 years old at the time of the crime. She was thrust suddenly into the bright lights of the national media, as well as the intrigue of bitter defendants and some cops who openly sympathized with the Haidls. For example, Sheriff Mike Carona used his second in command in a bold-faced but ultimately vain attempt to influence the Newport Beach police investigation. Seeking dirt on the victim, Greg's mother, Gail, hired people to post fliers in Doe's neighborhood. Later, the defense hired a professional publicist and several teams of private detectives to attack her and her family. She was tracked like a dog and subject to countless smears. She found temporary relief in methamphetamines, a drug she says she's been working hard to overcome in recent months.
It's hardly surprising her life spiraled out of control. One Haidl dick—John Warren, a former ranking FBI agent in Santa Ana—disclosed Doe's identity to students at the high school she had transferred to. Most of her friends abandoned her, shamelessly siding with Haidl, the son of a man reportedly worth more than $40 million. The defense illegally leaked her private medical records to the media, a move that Los Angeles Times columnist Dana Parsons rewarded by downplaying the crime and belittling District Attorney Tony Rackauckas for filing felony charges. On the witness stand, Doe was called "a slut" and "a liar" by lead defense lawyer Joe Cavallo. She was forced to stare at enlarged pictures of her own vagina during torturous cross examinations. The defendants floated the idea that she had raped them. In front of the jury, defense lawyer Peter Morreale asked her if she liked to swallow after oral sex. At another point, defense lawyers argued that she faked unconsciousness to shoot a necrophilia-based sex video. They claimed she wanted to launch a porn career and the defendants were merely obliging her wishes.
"Faking?" asked jury foreman Ruiz. "No way. You can see on the video that she was only conscious for the first couple of minutes. After that, they were propping her up. Whatever they gave her knocked her out in my opinion. Even before they let go of her and her head hit the couch, it was obvious the line had been crossed. She did not put herself in those positions on the pool table."
Although there were heated moments during jury deliberations, Ruiz is proud his panel of "honest, decent people" could render a verdict after a deadlock in the first trial. "Man, I don't know what those people were seeing," he said of jurors in the first trial. "The tape proved they were guilty. If you show that video on the news, everybody's view would be that these guys should hang. People would go crazy. You know what I mean? It was primal. It looked like savages having their way with a piece of meat."
Married and a fourth-generation Mexican-American from El Toro, Ruiz can look physically intimidating. If you passed him on the street, you'd see a husky guy with a shaved head, a goatee, big dark eyes and a right arm full of tattoos. But in a three-hour interview, he was also articulate, perceptive and easygoing.
But the case provided startling moments for Ruiz even outside the courtroom. During the latter part of the trial, he says, he was clumsily tailed by Haidl PI Warren to the Costa Mesa Inca Grill for dinner. One night, after the trial, two jurors from the first trial knocked on his front door. They wanted information to discredit the guilty verdicts. He says those ex-jurors, who were on the Haidl payroll, insisted the defendants are "really good boys."
Ruiz has a different view. He sees Spann as the guy "who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he didn't stop what was happening." He remembers Nachreiner as a seemingly temperamental fellow who repeatedly yelled "nigger" during the rape and the irony that he sat at the defense table next to Spann, who is part African-American. He says baby-faced Haidl was transparently coached to look naive and innocent, often posing with his head bowed and hands folded in something like prayer.
"If I had one word for the defense tactics, it would be 'overkill,'" he said.
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Ruiz has his own unsung hero in the case: Doe's father, whom the defense had called as a witness in hopes of getting embarrassing revelations about the girl. "My hat goes off to the guy," he said. "He's a soldier. The way he stood up to Cavallo made it clear that what was done to his daughter was wrong. I'll have a lasting impression of that."
He plans to attend the sentencing hearing. "We did our job as a jury," said Ruiz. "We did what we were asked to do—reach a verdict. We did what each of us believed was right. Now I hope the court does its job, which is to hold those guys responsible for their actions."
To see the Haidl Gang Rape story archive, click here.