Tiny County’s Plan to Save Money on Sex Slave Case Blocked by State
The expense of bringing to trial a Red Bluff man accused of kidnaping a hitchhiker and holding her for seven years as his sex slave prompted the district attorney in financially depressed Tehama County to enter into plea-bargaining negotiations, he said Thursday.
“In the face of the financial pressure, I said, ‘OK, I’ll agree,’ but I’ve been hoping somebody would get up in arms,” Dist. Atty. James Lang said.
Somebody did. The proposed plea bargain was blocked Thursday by state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, and Lang said he will now try the case and figure out how to pay for it later.
The case involves lumber mill worker Cameron Hooker, who is charged with 16 felony counts of kidnaping, rape, false imprisonment and other crimes that could amount to a 115-year sentence.
The proposed plea bargain would have allowed Hooker to plead guilty to reduced charges and serve a maximum 10-year term, with parole possible after four years, according to attorneys familiar with the case.
“I am totally dismayed that this question of finances is even one that would come up at all,” said Marilyn Barrett, attorney for the 27-year-old victim, who is now living in Los Angeles County She was allegedly tortured on a rack and held captive in a box in Hooker’s Red Bluff home.
Hooker allegedly kept her locked in a homemade coffin-like box for months on end, leaving her naked and lying in her own filth, according to a police report. He fastened her to the ceiling by her wrists, chained her to a table, forced her into sadomasochistic sexual acts and tortured her with electrical wires and matches before finally putting her to work outside his home.
She was cowed by threats of a Big Brother-like organization that Hooker said would capture her if she fled, but finally escaped when she was told by Hooker’s wife that it was safe to leave. Hooker was arrested last November, and the case prompted widespread headlines.
Alerted State Office
Barrett said she alerted lawyers in the California attorney general’s office this week to the impending plea bargain. They dispatched a letter to the Tehama County prosecutor, warning that budgetary concerns are “an inappropriate basis” for disposing of a case, a spokeswoman for Van de Kamp said.
The letter advised that the attorney general’s office is empowered to take over the case if it is in the public interest, and then bill Tehama County for the cost.
What has driven up the cost of the trial was a change of venue to San Mateo County, granted at the request of defense attorneys who argued that Hooker’s trial in Tehama County would be compromised by pretrial publicity.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Christine McGuire said this means that Tehama County will have to foot the bill for transporting and sheltering about 35 witnesses, as well as having to reimburse San Mateo County for their courtroom, clerks and judge.
‘County Has No Money’
“It will cost us at least a couple hundred thousand dollars,” she said. “And that may seem like a drop in the bucket for the County of Los Angeles, but it’s astronomical here. This county has no money. Walk down Main Street here and you’ll see half the businesses are closed.”
Teetering on the verge of a deficit, the Tehama County Board of Supervisors this month shortened the county workweek by one day to save $60,000 and is considering laying off about 35 of the 330 county employes now paid from the general fund, according to Supervisor Jim Hoffman.
He said that for the last several years the county has avoided making cuts in public services and “if we don’t bite the bullet soon, we’ll be between $1.1 million and $2.3 million in the hole next year.”
Dist. Atty. Lang said that the Board of Supervisors pressured him to negotiate a plea bargain with Hooker’s attorney in order to save money. He said he feared that otherwise the supervisors would cut his staff next year “so that we couldn’t even prosecute the small cases.”
‘That’s a Crock!’
But Hoffman countered, “That’s a crock!”
“No board member ever said that seriously,” he said. “This is the kind of case you don’t plead.”
Lang said that the attorney general’s office stopped plea negotiations. “I’m going to try the case now,” he said, “and let the Board of Supervisors worry about where they’re going to get the money.”