Lawyers in two high-profile cases--the investigation of sexual molestation allegations against pop superstar Michael Jackson and the probe of the deadly Calabasas/Malibu arson fire--said Wednesday that Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti should charge their clients or exonerate them now that a grand jury investigating both matters has disbanded.
The county’s 23 grand jurors ended their term last Thursday without handing up criminal indictments against Jackson, who was accused last year of sexually molesting a 13-year-old male acquaintance. The grand jurors also took no action in the case of Steven Shelp and Nicholas Durepo, two firefighters whom sheriff’s officials have accused of setting one of the most damaging arson fires in Los Angeles history. A new grand jury has been impaneled and could take up the work of its predecessor, although officials would not confirm that either case is now before it.
No charges have been filed in either case, and defense lawyers said they are frustrated that their clients have been left under a very public cloud of suspicion for so long--almost a year in Jackson’s case.
The firefighters, like Jackson, have denied wrongdoing.
The allegations against Shelp and Durepo, their lawyers contend, have prevented the men from advancing their careers as firefighters. Shelp has been taken off active firefighting duties and placed on administrative duty by the Los Angeles Fire Department while the investigation continues. Durepo, a volunteer with the Manhattan Beach Fire Department, has been placed on unpaid leave.
“I’m upset. They have to either fish or cut bait,” said Donald Calabria, a lawyer for Durepo. “They have to let us know so we can defend these guys. If they have something, I want to see it.”
Sheriff’s officials named Shelp and Durepo as suspects late last year, asking Garcetti to file a criminal case against them. But the district attorney balked at immediately filing criminal charges, sending the case back to sheriff’s homicide detectives for more investigation. Several months later, prosecutors began presenting witnesses to the grand jury in an effort to obtain an indictment.
Sheriff Sherman Block, while not mentioning Shelp and Durepo by name, has said he believes they started the fire so they could put it out and be heroes, and increase their chances of getting full-time firefighting jobs as a result.
The Nov. 2 fire killed three people, caused more than $350 million in damage and took days to bring under control.
Scott Safechuck, a friend of Durepo’s, said he has spoken to both firefighters recently. “They really don’t know what’s going on,” Safechuck said. “They are frustrated. Nobody will say anything to them. They are in limbo. They want to know what’s going on.”
Johnnie L. Cochran, a lawyer for Jackson, also expressed frustration at the slow pace of the sexual molestation investigation, and said he plans to contact Garcetti soon about resolving the case as quickly as possible.
“I am hopeful there are no new witnesses and that this thing is over,” Cochran said. He said Jackson, who cut short a world tour last year in the midst of intensive media coverage of the allegations, has slowly begun emerging from seclusion and is busy recording an album in New York.
“He would certainly like to have resolution in this matter,” Cochran said. “He would like to get on with his life.”
Lawyers representing Jackson said they have not heard of, or been notified of, any witnesses going before a grand jury in recent months, and they said they have seen little, if any, activity to suggest that a criminal investigation is continuing.
When Jackson’s mother was brought before the grand jury four months ago, Garcetti said he expected to wrap up the Jackson investigation within a month. At that time, the entertainer’s lawyers were criticizing the slow pace of the inquiry, in which evidence was being gathered not only by the Los Angeles County grand jury but also by authorities in Santa Barbara.
On Wednesday, Cochran suggested that the emergence of Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman as one of the prosecutors in the O.J. Simpson murder case is a good sign for his client because Hodgman had been assigned to the Jackson investigation and presumably would not be asked to handle both, particularly if a prosecution of Jackson was imminent. “I am optimistic about that,” Cochran said. “But it is pure speculation.”
Authorities had no comment Wednesday other than to say that both criminal investigations are continuing. One source close to the grand jury said the Malibu arson case is expected to be brought before the new grand jury within two weeks, an indication that authorities are still seeking to establish enough evidence to bring criminal charges.
Bringing such a case to a new grand jury requires that prosecutors virtually start over in trying to persuade grand jurors to indict a suspect, although the jurors can be provided with sworn testimony from witnesses who went before prior grand juries, according to court experts.