The tale sounded like bullshit from the start. On the morning of Valentine's Day, a frantic woman called 911 and told a dispatcher that her male friend “got beat up by a couple of guys” at Cal State Fullerton's Fraternity Row, “and our [other] friend is missing.”
The dispatcher calmly asked when everything happened. The worried voice on the other side chatted with the alleged male victim, Reef Bensworth, before responding that it was about an hour ago. “And you're just calling now?” the dispatcher asked.
Fullerton police quickly arrived to interview Bensworth, a Cal State Fullerton student, and search for the missing friend, Kirsten Wooley. Bensworth told the officers that the two had decided to park on Fraternity Row for a 6 a.m. stroll after a night of partying in downtown Fullerton with friends. But three angry Latino dudes with a pit bull interrupted their morning walk and accused them of slashing tires in the neighborhood. They beat up Bensworth before he managed to escape, leaving behind Wooley without her cell phone or purse. Bensworth later returned for the rescue, but he couldn't find her on Frat Row or at his home, which is when he had his other female friend call 911.
Wooley reappeared two hours later with her own horror tale, according to a police report: Bensworth got jumped by six people; a bald man had dragged her by the hair to a garage; his friends made comments about raping and murdering her; a bald guy head-butted Wooley when she wouldn't stop crying; the man and his girlfriend forced her into a Chevy Trailblazer and drove around from ATM to ATM, demanding Wooley give them $1,000. After she was able to pull only $500 from her mom's card, the couple—openly complaining that Wooley had ruined their Valentine's Day—drove the 22-year-old back to her La Habra Heights home after seeing Fullerton police cars outside Bensworth's place and on Frat Row.
Fullerton detectives noted Wooley had no bruising or markings from the supposed assault, but they went to Frat Row and conducted a search of the apartment of Josh Eddleman, a bald man whom police knew was on parole. While walking out, police noticed his girlfriend, Jerrie Harvey, driving a Trailblazer and pulled it over at gunpoint. They immediately arrested the two. “Is this about the girl I drove home?” she asked as they forced her into the squad car.
At the police station, Harvey told the officers they had it all wrong: There was a confrontation, but it was Eddleman and his friends flagging down Bensworth and Wooley for slashing his tires. Wooley not only admitted that Bensworth had done it, but she also offered to pay for the damages. Furthermore, Wooley agreed to hop into the Trailblazer for a ride to Bensworth's home so she could grab her purse and pull money to help pay for her pal's mayhem.
Police didn't believe Harvey, and the Orange County District Attorney's office (OCDA) charged her and Eddleman with felony kidnapping, robbery, burglary and assault, holding them on $1 million bail, which neither of them was able to make. The two were looking at 15 years to life if convicted. But Eddleman had a savior in his lawyer: Frederick Fascenelli not only got the case against his clients tossed out of court, but he also exposed the shoddy work of the Fullerton PD and OCDA.
“The Fullerton police took Bensworth and Wooley's story hook, line and sinker,” Fascenelli says. “I wish I could say that Fullerton PD just overlooked these glaring inconsistencies by mistake, but I doubt it. This story was about as absurd as 'A dingo took my baby.'”
Armed with months of evidence that he and an investigator had gathered, Fascenelli's magic started during a Sept. 29 pretrial hearing before OC Superior Court Judge Nick Thompson. During a deposition, he asked lead Fullerton detective Barry Coffman if he didn't find the one-hour gap between Bensworth's supposed escape and him having a friend call the police “a little strange.” After Coffman admitted it sounded weird, Fascenelli referred to bank videos that showed Wooley twice exiting the Trailblazer to use an ATM machine without incident. She had told investigators that she had seen officers twice, yet Fascenelli pointed out to Coffman that the video didn't show her in any agitated state, nor did she ever try to flag down the police. “Didn't you find that a little strange?” he again asked Coffman.
Fascenelli wasn't done. He presented the court with apartment surveillance-video stills showing Bensworth making a stabbing motion at a car tire as Wooley looked on; she then darts off past trash bins with a mischievous grin. Bensworth follows with something sharp-looking in his hand, and then Wooley, Eddleman and another person return to the car, which is now markedly lower. Fascenelli asked Wooley's mother under oath if that was her daughter on the stills; she claimed she couldn't tell, even though the sequence offered a clear view. And when Fascenelli called Bensworth and Wooley to the witness stand, the two pleaded the Fifth.
Thompson promptly dismissed the case on Sept. 29, ending Eddleman and Harvey's judicial nightmare. Free after sitting in Orange County jail for nearly eight months, Harvey finds her ordeal hard to put into words. “I thought my whole life was over,” she says. While locked away, the mother of three missed her son's high school graduation. “That's something I can never get back.”
Eddleman was unavailable for comment.
Harvey admits she should've just called the police on Bensworth and Wooley that day, but she didn't because Wooley agreed to pay for the tire slashing. “I didn't look at it like we were doing anything wrong because we weren't,” Harvey adds. “I was just taking her to the bank . . . and then I took her home.”
Fullerton police requested that all Weekly questions be passed on to the OCDA, who only offered, through spokesperson Roxi Fyad, “The case was dismissed, and we are now reviewing the case from all angles before a decision is made, and until then we won't be commenting further.”
But Fascenelli isn't done fighting for Eddleman and Harvey. Making a false police report of a crime is a misdemeanor in California, punishable by up to six months in jail. “Coffman knows that Wooley and Bensworth have lied to the police and fabricated a story that put people in jail,” he says. “The Fullerton police department hasn't reached out to Harvey and Eddleman to ask if they want to press charges against these people.”
There's also the matter of the slashed tires, a vandalism charge under law. “I just don't understand why the police didn't investigate what we said,” Harvey says. After missing out on much of this year, she wants to move on, but not quite yet. “I have to rebuild my life, but I don't think that justice has been done. I think their actions should have consequences.”