Sex Scandal of Wealthy Men Rocks Quiet Town : Courts: Anthony Mersola, 82, and his 56-year-old son Michael might enter a plea bargain Tuesday to keep the publicity-drawing case private.
It all started rather innocuously, with one of those tips police say they always get about a suspicious-looking man hanging around a high school. Usually, they amount to nothing.
But from that one phone call to police last month, an alleged sex scandal has begun to unfold in Burbank that, if true, could bring down a scion of one of the city’s most prominent families, and possibly his 82-year-old father.
Both men have been arrested on charges of paying teen-age girls for sex. The father has been released on bail. The son, Michael A. Mersola, 56, was released on bail but was arrested a second time--and remains in custody--after he allegedly threatened to kill one of the girls and tried to bribe her and the three others with $50,000 each to keep them from testifying.
Authorities suspect that Mersola, an executive of a wealthy construction and real estate family business in Burbank, has for at least 2 1/2 years provided lodging, clothing, drugs--and a lot of money--to young girls in exchange for sex, authorities allege in affidavits, court records and interviews.
One girl told police she had a sexual relationship with Mersola for a year and a half, starting when she was just 14 and a freshman at Burbank High School. Sometimes, she alleges, he paid her $350 cash for intercourse, and other times, she watched him have sex with other girls.
The case has stirred emotions in Burbank, a normally staid community where in some neighborhoods there are still signs reminding people to keep their horses off sidewalks, and where most urban problems of neighboring Los Angeles are but a distant threat.
“It’s a solid town, a conservative town,” said Donald Mangani, acting principal of Monterey High School, a continuation school where Mersola is alleged to have spied on girls with binoculars. “It’s pretty shocking to the community.”
The Mersola family, after all, is well known in Burbank. Family members frequently make appearances before the City Council on housing issues, participate in local football leagues and other civic activities, and make major contributions to local politicians. The family even opened up a family-oriented batting cage along a main drag in Burbank this summer, parents of some alleged victims note.
Burbank police confirm they are investigating allegations that other young girls between the ages of 14 and 17 were involved over a period of years. The Los Angeles Police Department’s Sexually Exploited Child Unit also is investigating Mersola for alleged activities in Los Angeles.
“No doubt this is one of the biggest sex scandals our city has had,” said Burbank Police Detective Craig Varner. “It is very involved and it is very large. It’s not something that happens every day.”
But what could amount to a potentially embarrassing spectacle of a trial may instead stay a private matter. At an arraignment hearing set for Tuesday in Burbank Municipal Court, Mersola--and his father--may enter a plea bargain to keep the entire matter out of the courts, say some authorities familiar with the case.
“Everyone wants to keep this hush hush,” said the mother of one alleged victim. “I am so angry, there’s no way in hell I will let this drop.”
Said the father of another of the girls identified in a criminal complaint: “If he gets away with this, I’ll be looking for him, and you can quote me on that. . . . Think about how you would feel if something like this happened to your daughter.”
At a court appearance for the Mersolas Thursday, some of the girls’ parents quietly sat in the back row. Some Mersola family members showed up too, and kept the elder Mersola company as he waited outside for the hearing to begin.
“I’ve been advised not to talk about it,” said Anthony Mersola, a thin man with a stooped back and hair that turns from gray at the roots to auburn on top. He referred questions to family lawyer Vincent Stefano Jr., who said, “There has been no admission of guilt on any front.”
Family members had little to say too, except that they are angry at all the fuss being made over the case, especially Anthony Mersola’s arrest.
“Why doesn’t everyone just leave the guy alone,” one family member said through clenched teeth. “He’s an old man.”
Michael Mersola, charged with eight counts of unlawful intercourse and bribery, faces a maximum 14 years in prison if convicted, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Mark Collier. Anthony Mersola, charged with oral copulation with a minor, faces a maximum of three years.
Collier wouldn’t comment on the possibility of a plea bargain, but dismissed complaints that the case could be kept out of court because of pressure from a prominent local family. “No case I handle is going to be swept under the rug,” Collier said.
Michael Mersola, who has a craggy face, shock of gray hair and thick black glasses, “was the one who was actively doing” the procuring of the girls for sex, not his father, Collier said. They allege that he has preyed mostly on troubled girls, including runaways and drug users vulnerable to offers of cash or a place to stay.
And while authorities have acknowledged that the girls, especially the older ones, are too savvy to be portrayed simply as unwitting victims, Collier said they have been taken advantage of, and are now emotionally traumatized.
“These girls aren’t innocent. They’re streetwise,” agreed one woman who acted as a sort of foster mother to some of the girls. “But they’re victims. Mike used them.”
One of the girls’ parents said he complained to the police and Monterey High School officials at least a year ago about Michael Mersola lurking around the school and allegedly harassing his daughter. School officials and police confirm that there have been complaints about Mersola hanging around the school in the past but said there is nothing illegal about that.
Varner said he became suspicious on July 14, however, when a concerned parent called police to say she saw Mersola hanging around Monterey High. Varner began investigating and found a student who said that Mersola was paying two of her friends for sex. One of her friends confirmed the allegations that day, the police affidavit says, and alleged even more--that by the time she met Mersola in 1990 at age 14, he already was providing a place for teen-age girls to live, in exchange for sex.
The girl was taken to various vacant apartments and houses Mersola owned in Burbank, where “she had sexual intercourse with Mersola too many times to count,” the affidavit said. She also told police that, “Mersola told her she could make a lot of money by prostituting herself and told her he knew of people who would pay to have sex with her,” according to the affidavit.
She also told police Mersola had sex with at least four other teen-age girls, and that she watched Mersola have sex with two of them. He gave her marijuana sometimes, she told police, and bought her clothes in exchange for sex before she ended the relationship in July, 1992.
And she told police she was extremely afraid of Mersola, that he told her “he would kill her” if she ever crossed him. She said Mersola often showed up at school in recent months and tried to talk to her.
Varner then tracked down other alleged victims, including a girl who said she initially declined Mersola’s offers but later had intercourse with him in April, 1993, in a vacant apartment for two $50 bills.
After that, “Mersola told her he wanted to own her and that he wanted to do this all the time with her,” the affidavit says. Every time he saw her, it quotes the girl as saying, “he would ask her if she wanted to make money.”
That girl also told police Mersola gave her marijuana, and that she never had sex with him again.
The next day, July 15, police listened in while one of the girls called Mersola at his office. In that tape-recorded conversation, Mersola admitted to having sex with the two girls and discussed future payments, the affidavit says.
That night, Mersola was arrested at 9 p.m. as he stepped outside one of the family’s rental houses in the 3600 block of W. Victory Blvd. that he allegedly used for sex. He was released from the Burbank City Jail the next morning after putting up the $75,000 bail money.
Two days later, on July 18, Mersola confronted one of the girls in person and offered her a bribe and then threatened her, Varner said. A criminal complaint also charges Mersola with offering to bribe the three other girls named as victims. Mersola and his father were arrested July 23.
After his second arrest and the arrest of his father, Mersola’s bail was set at $500,000. Deputy Dist. Atty. Elizabeth Abbott-Siegmund said such high bail was needed because Mersola was dangerous, and a flight risk. She told the judge Mersola had talked to the girls of liquidating his assets to pay off all witnesses, and of threatening to kill at least one of the alleged victims.
“That is absolute fantasy, a figment of somebody’s imagination,” Stefano, Mersola’s lawyer, said of the alleged threats.
Varner disagrees, citing information he said he could not discuss. “I certainly think they have the capacity and ability to do it,” said Varner. “They certainly have the money, and they know the people.”
But authorities said they are less concerned about any alleged threats than they are about the well-being of the girls who claim they were victimized.
“This is a nice suburban community, high school U.S.A.--it’s tragic,” said Abbott-Siegmund. “You wonder why some parents didn’t notice their kids coming home with a couple hundred bucks.”