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Disclosure May Kill Plea Bargain in Religious Deprogramming Case

Times Staff Writer

The ticklish prosecution of five people for the alleged kidnaping of Ginger Brown from a San Diego-based religious group took an unscheduled twist Wednesday after one of the defense attorneys publicly discussed plea-bargain negotiations in the high-profile case.

The disclosure of the plea negotiations so angered the deputy district attorney assigned to the case that, by day’s end, he said he expected to pursue the prosecution of all five defendants, including Ginger Brown’s parents and sister, without pulling any punches.

At issue was the disclosure by defense attorney Joseph Judge that, if his client, self-proclaimed deprogrammer Cliff Daniels, pleaded guilty to a felony, then guilty pleas to less-serious misdemeanors would be accepted from the four other defendants: Ginger Brown’s parents, Earle and Dorothy Rae Brown, both 57; their daughter, Holly Rae Brown, 24, all of Santa Cruz, and Hank Erler, 22, in whose Escondido home Ginger Brown was allegedly held in custody for four days last May.

Scenario Supposed to Be Secret

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Other defense attorneys in the case said such a plea-bargain scenario was to have been kept secret by supposed common agreement among them and privately said they were angry at Judge for jeopardizing an out-of-court settlement. One attorney said that, in Judge’s defense, he may not have been present at a joint meeting of defense attorneys when the secrecy pledge was made.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Gary Rempel reacted irritably to Judge’s disclosure, saying:

“All offers are withdrawn. I won’t confirm or deny or discuss any negotiations. It’s not a matter for the press. These are best handled when they’re not debated in public.

“But I’m pretty doggone sure now that there won’t be any pleas on Friday,” when the next pretrial conference among attorneys is scheduled, Rempel said. “Besides, I’m led to believe that a couple of people wouldn’t plead guilty to anything. If there is to be a plea bargain, it would have to involve everybody’s participation.”

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Client Prepared to Go to Trial

Indeed, Saul Wright, the attorney for Earle Brown, said his client was prepared to go to trial unless he is absolved of any and all criminal liability.

Wright said Brown holds a high-security clearance as an electrical engineer for an aerospace firm and that a guilty plea to even a misdemeanor would force him to forfeit his job.

“My client has a job that we’re trying to preserve,” Wright said. “A plea or conviction of even a misdemeanor would jeopardize that.

“We have entered into very strenuous negotiations with the district attorney’s office whereunder we are trying to resolve this dispute amicably for all parties involved. I’ll either get my client out of this 100%, or we’ll have to go to trial. I’m prepared to do that.”

Ginger Brown, 23, is one of 17 members of a group called Great Among the Nations, which characterizes itself as a tight-knit, fundamental Christian Bible study group hoping to develop a teaching ministry through public meetings and the sale of videocassettes featuring the preaching of their leader, Benjamin Altschul.

Critics contend that Altschul holds his 17 followers in a psychological and emotional grip, and enjoys a lavish personal life style at the expense of his followers’ so-called love offerings to him and the group’s coffers.

Resisted Deprogramming Efforts

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Daniels, 34, of Los Angeles, has publicly stated that he has helped “rescue” eight members out of the group. He said Ginger Brown was released because she resisted deprogramming.

All five defendants pleaded not guilty in January in Vista Municipal Court to felony charges relating to kidnaping, false imprisonment and battery.

The preliminary hearing is scheduled to begin April 11, with Ginger Brown the primary prosecution witness against her parents and the others.

The proposed settlement had not resolved the specific charges to which the five would be expected to plead guilty, Judge said Wednesday morning during an impromptu press conference at the Vista courthouse after a procedural pretrial hearing.

“I don’t know the nature of the felony (to be pleaded), and I don’t feel comfortable discussing it further,” Judge said.

Rempel said later Wednesday that he didn’t expect an out-of-court settlement. “There are five attorneys and five defendants, and all 10 of them have to agree--and then they have to agree with me. That’s pretty tough.”


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