The Case of the Traveling Semen
Let's start with the mystery presented in an Orange County courtroom last week: How did a 21-year-old man's sperm land deep inside the vagina of an unconscious 73-year-old Vietnamese American grandmother?
There are endless hypothetical possibilities. But we can rule out one immediately.
It sure wasn't love.
* * *
In the wee hours of May 31, 2005, Huong (the Weekly is not publishing her last name) couldn't sleep. She left her husband of 57 years in bed and put on a coat and hat. At about 3:10 a.m., she walked through her neighborhood and collected discarded cans on the streets. The tiny, frail, oval-faced woman wasn't afraid; the early-morning activity had become routine. Besides, who would want to hurt her?
Several streets away, Patrick Daniel Piceno hadn't slept. The McDonald's employee was searching for a positive ending to an unfortunate night. Piceno liked to get drunk with his only friend—Nick, a co-worker. Earlier in the evening, the two men visited a bar, drank countless beers, slammed numerous liquor shots and attempted to meet women.
A soft-spoken loner who likes to skateboard and play guitar, Piceno would later tell a jury that he'd sometimes been able to pick up women from bars and have sex. But "not often," he said. (Never married, he has a child.)
On this night, the two men left alone. After taking Nick home at about 2 a.m., Piceno drove to the Garden of Eden adult-video store. The pictures on the video boxes made him hornier, he testified.
When Piceno left the shop, his dilapidated car was gone. Though intoxicated, he called police, who explained that his vehicle had been towed. Bummed and still horny, he began walking home. He saw prostitutes soliciting business on Harbor Boulevard near Trask Avenue, watched them from a distance, and briefly thought about employing one. But "I didn't have any money," he said.
At about 3:25 a.m., Piceno saw a female walking alone through a strip-mall parking lot. The woman didn't see him. She entered an enclosed Dumpster area. He decided this was his chance to satisfy himself, he said.
Unknown to Piceno, a video camera hidden inside Cafe Tinh, a nearby Vietnamese restaurant, recorded parking-lot activity. Spooky footage recovered by Garden Grove police shows a tall, silhouetted man wearing a black leather jacket following a woman to a Dumpster area. He circles like a shark, slips behind the walls and disappears from view.
What happened next will make you want to cry.
"I followed her in there, and I, uh, she turned around, and I punched her in the head and face maybe three or four times and knocked her out. I saw blood, and it scared me."
Or excited him? The battered woman landed unconscious on the pavement amid smelly, overflowing garbage. Inches away, flies swarmed stale loaves of bread covered in a red sauce.
Instead of fleeing or even calling an ambulance, Piceno did the unthinkable. He yanked off the woman's shoes, pants and underwear. He got on his knees, spread her legs, digitally penetrated her vagina, pulled his own pants down and grabbed his penis.
"I was masturbating, trying to get myself aroused," Piceno recalled.
He blames the woman's physical condition for thwarting his erection. But the mental hurdle wasn't Huong's age. It was the massive amount of blood he saw oozing from her head.
"I didn't know she was old," he testified. "Even when I got close, I didn't know. I didn't know until the news reports."
The ambush left the woman severely disfigured and silent. She literally didn't know what hit her. It looked as if her face and head had been put through a "meat grinder," Dr. Michael Lekawa, a trauma surgeon, recalled. "This case was memorable because of the impressive injuries on this petite person. . . . They could have been fatal."
Piceno had used his bare fists to beat the woman. He explained that he'd been drunk, so details of the attack remain fuzzy. But he said he is sure about one point: He "never" inserted his penis.
"I just didn't do it," he said.
* * *
Deputy Public Defender Arlene Speiser is a poised veteran, but representing a violent, sexual deviant can't be fun. Inside Superior Court Judge David A. Hoffer's Santa Ana courtroom last week, Speiser faced a monumental task: How to get a not guilty verdict on the rape count?
"What Mr. Piceno did was serious, violent, horrible, offensive and inconceivable," she said in her opening statement.
Speiser also conceded that Piceno ejaculated. She had no choice. The Orange County Sheriff's Department crime lab concludes that the odds of the sperm belonging to someone other than the defendant are one in one trillion.
"He ejaculated on her as she lay there unconscious," said Speiser. "The key is: Did he penetrate her vagina with his penis? No."
She argued two theories. First, she said Piceno's sperm could have dripped inside the woman because the defendant held open the vaginal lips as he ejaculated from a distance of several inches. Or that a sloppy hospital nurse pushed the semen from the vaginal exterior deep into the vagina during a subsequent rape examination. She said either theory was just as plausible as claiming Piceno had raped the woman.
"If there are two reasonable explanations for the same facts, you must accept the one that favors the defendant," Speiser said. "You must do this in this case. End of discussion."
Prosecutor Kal Kaliban is a calm fellow, but he had one word to describe the defense's sperm theories: "ridiculous."
"Use your common sense," Kaliban told the seven men and five women of the jury. "We all know how his semen got in her vagina. He was inside her."
* * *
It wasn't a surprise that Piceno testified. The defense needed a miracle. The victim, now 75, and her husband had given emotional testimony through translators. Jurors looked sickened by the assault.
After a two-minute hushed discussion with Speiser, Piceno stood. Wearing an untucked white button-down shirt and khakis, he walked slowly to the witness stand. His hands were shoved into his pants pockets. His eyes focused on the carpet.
"Nobody wants to be in this position," he said softly. "I'm sorry for everything that's happened."
"Why did you pull her pants off?" Speiser asked.
"Because I wanted to have sex with this lady," he said. "I tried to get hard, and I couldn't. I just masturbated."
Every prosecutor dreams of drilling a defendant. When it was his turn for questioning, Kaliban pounced, asking if Piceno expected the jury to believe that he stalked that woman, beat her, pulled her clothes off, digitally penetrated her, ejaculated but never entered her?
"I couldn't get it up," Piceno said. "I don't know what I was thinking that night. It just happened. I didn't plan it out."
An incredulous Kaliban fired back, "If you couldn't get erect, how did you come?"
"I don't know what happened. All of a sudden, I just came. It just came out."
The surveillance video proves Piceno's assault lasted 10 minutes. After he finished, he walked away, stopped, turned around and re-entered the Dumpster area. Seconds later, he re-emerged carrying something.
"Why did you go back inside?" Kaliban asked.
"I took her shoes," he said. "I thought they had my fingerprints on them."
In one of his last moves, Kaliban displayed four enlarged pictures of Huong taken in the UCI Medical Center. A large, gory cut required numerous stitches. Her face was black, blue, purple and red. White fluid dripped from her swollen-shut eyes. An eardrum had been ruptured. There were abrasions and lacerations outside and inside the vagina. Her upper chest showed discoloration as if she'd been scalded. Three of her ribs were broken. There was extensive bleeding in her brain. Blood had poured into her lungs, stomach and urine. Two hours after the attack, a trash-truck driver rescued her. The intensive-care unit at the hospital held her for eight days.
"Take a look at those pictures," Kaliban ordered Piceno.
"I don't want to look at it," he said. "I didn't hit her that many times. I don't remember hitting her in her ribs."
"But you remember that you didn't put your penis in her?"
An annoyed Piceno shot back, "I know for a fact I didn't."
The jury didn't buy it. After less than six hours of deliberations on June 18, they announced that Piceno was guilty of two felonies: rape and inflicting great bodily injury on an elderly person. The statutory minimum sentence is 15 years to life in prison.
Piceno showed no emotion. In fact, he asked to be punished "immediately." Hoffer declined. Sentencing is set for July 17.
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