Former Judge Sentenced for Sex With Defendant

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former Superior Court Judge George W. Trammell III was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison Wednesday for giving favored treatment to a criminal defendant with whom he had a clandestine sexual relationship.

"This case is not about sex. It's about the betrayal of the public's trust," U.S. District Judge A. Howard Matz told Trammell before handing down his sentence.

In keeping with a plea agreement with the defense, prosecutors had asked Matz to sentence Trammell to 18 months in custody, but the judge rejected that term as too lenient.

He said the 64-year-old Trammell deserved tougher punishment because of the "inherently coercive" nature of his relationship with the defendant, Pifen Lo. He said the former jurist "definitely pressured her to have sex with him."

Trammell, who retired from the bench a day after learning he was under investigation in 1997, declined an invitation to address the court.

He was ordered to begin serving his term May 29. But Trammell's lawyer, John Barnett, said afterward that the defense might appeal the sentence to a higher court.

The allegations against Trammell were initially investigated by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. Local prosecutors considered charging him with rape under the color of authority and obstructing justice, but twice declined to do so, contending that they could not build a strong enough case.

Then, federal authorities launched an investigation and subsequently charged Trammell with abusing his authority by arranging for Lo to reclaim a Mercedes-Benz, several Rolex watches and other valuables that were seized when she and her husband were arrested in a kidnap-ransom case.

Lo told authorities that Trammell forced her to have sex with him after he released her on probation. She said he threatened to send her husband to prison for life if she did not comply.

Trammell has contended that he was set up by Lo and her husband, Ming Ching Jin, a reputed cardsharp with suspected ties to Asian organized crime.

The California Commission on Judicial Performance found, however, that Trammell "acted for a corrupt purpose--to further his relationship with Lo." It publicly censured him and banned him from ever serving again as a California judge.

Lo could not be reached for comment after Wednesday's sentencing hearing. Her lawyer, Richard C. Binder, said: "We're pleased that some government agency saw fit to proceed against Trammell. This is a fitting resolution, but we're still disappointed that the district attorney chose not to prosecute him."

The case originated in 1995, when sheriff's detectives arrested Jin, Lo and their live-in baby-sitter, Yu Ching Chu, on charges of kidnapping a La Puente couple and holding them for ransom.

After the couple were freed, deputies searched Jin's home in Rowland Heights and found plastic explosives, a variety of loaded and unloaded weapons, handcuffs and counterfeit Microsoft computer programs.

The case was assigned to Trammell's Pomona court. Lo, a 37-year-old mother of three, pleaded no contest to child endangerment, counterfeiting and money laundering. Trammell sentenced her to five years' probation over the objections of prosecutors, who had asked for prison time.

Jin and Chu were convicted by a jury of kidnapping for extortion in July 1996, and faced prison terms of life without the possibility of parole.

Immediately after Jin's conviction, according to the Commission on Judicial Performance, Trammell invited Lo to visit him in his chambers alone.

"He told me if I wanted my husband to come home early, I would have to pay a price," she testified two years later, during a hearing by a judicial disciplinary panel.

She said Trammell put his hand inside her clothes, fondled her breasts and began kissing her on the mouth.

A few days after that episode, she said, Trammell invited her to his Pomona home, saying "You know what I want."

Lo testified that she began going to Trammell's home two to three times a week to have sex with him. She said he warned her not to tell her husband, her lawyer or the prosecutor.

During the course of their four-month affair, Lo secretly taped four telephone conversations with Trammell.

On one tape, Trammell talked about a plan he had devised to send her coded love messages via her pager. The number '55' meant 'I love you.' The number '11' meant 'I want to make love to you.' And '100' meant 'I love you 100%," he explained.

On Jan. 2, 1997, the sheriff's gang unit at the jail intercepted an outgoing letter from Jin to his wife that disclosed the affair.

Attached was a handwritten petition from Jin to the California Court of Appeal, alleging that Trammell had "fallen in love" with Lo and had offered to "take care of her and her three children when Jin went to prison."

In a separate note, Jin wrote: "Wife: make one copy and send it . . . and please keep the original. Hope we don't need to use it."

On Jan. 6, sheriff's detectives showed the letter to Trammell, who admitted having an "undisclosed personal relationship" with Lo, according to a memo prepared by the district attorney's special investigations division.

Trammell also acknowledged having invited Lo to his home on several occasions and having professed his love for her, but he said he did so "to get close" to her because he feared he was being stalked by Jin's organized crime associates.

Sheriff's investigators took their findings to the district attorney's office and on Jan. 9 they executed a court-authorized search of Trammell's chambers and home in Pomona. He retired the next day.

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