State Blocks Plea Bargain to Save Cost of Sex Trial

Times Staff Writer

The expense of bringing to trial a Red Bluff man accused of kidnaping a female hitchhiker and holding her for seven years as his sex slave prompted the district attorney in financially depressed Tehama County to enter into plea bargain negotiations, he said Thursday. "In face of the financial pressure, I said, 'OK, I'll agree . . .' but I've been hoping somebody would get up in arms," said Dist. Atty. James Lang.

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 yield a maximum 115-year sentence.

10-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, 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, now living in Los Angeles County, who was allegedly tortured on a rack and held captive in a box in Hooker's Red Bluff home.

Hooker allegedly kept the woman 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 she 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 headlines around the world.

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 escalated 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 its 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.

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