A Brutal Scene Caught on Tape
When Gregory Haidl pressed the “record” button on his Sony hand-held video camera four years ago, lives began to unspool.
The tape he produced fits easily in a shirt pocket. To law enforcement, what it depicted was luridly clear: the son of an Orange County assistant sheriff and two friends, all 17, sexually assaulting an unconscious teenage girl on a pool table in a Corona del Mar home. The 21 minutes of footage would visit wreckage, in ways direct and indirect, on many of the lives it touched. No one could have predicted its reach.
The accuser fell into the grip of methamphetamine. The girl who slipped the tape to police changed her name. Three of Orange County’s most powerful lawmen saw their careers ended or battered. Three boys became men under the specter of hard time. And Friday, an Orange County Superior Court judge may finally send them to state prison.
“Everyone will suffer, and most of it is not calculable, except that it’s enormous,” said attorney John Barnett, who represents Kyle Nachreiner, one of the defendants. “That’s sort of the definition of the classic Greek tragedy, where no one ends up ahead. Everyone loses, and I think that’s where we are.”
For a party in July 2002, skinny, fresh-faced Haidl gathered two teenage buddies and a 16-year-old restaurant hostess in the garage of his father’s home. The girl drank too much, and according to descriptions of the video in court, the boys took turns on her limp body, using a pool cue, a cigarette and a Snapple bottle.
Prosecutors saw incontrovertible evidence of sexual assault, but defense attorneys argued that the tape told an entirely different story -- of a would-be porn actress who consented to an orgy and feigned unconsciousness for dramatic effect. At trial, a defense neurologist minutely analyzed the tape, saying the girl’s movements showed her alertness. Jurors deadlocked, saying they found the evidence ambiguous. At the second trial, jurors convicted the three of sexual penetration, but not rape.
For the accuser, the ordeal was harrowing -- a four-year legal process during which defense attorneys picked through her sexual habits, cast her as a sexual predator, and put her ex-friends on the stand to characterize her as a chronic liar.
Though publicly known only as Jane Doe, the victim’s identity was hardly a secret in Rancho Cucamonga, where she and the defendants lived. The defense dispatched investigators to check out her past. Fliers turned up in the neighborhood bearing her name and seeking information about her family.
She was forced to switch high schools. The lawyer representing her in a civil suit against the defendants, Sheldon Lodmer of Beverly Hills, said the case savaged her self-worth and drove her to drugs, culminating in her arrest in 2004 for methamphetamine possession.
She tried college but was too distraught to continue. “I don’t even think she made it through a semester,” Lodmer said. “The violation to her person that occurred -- that’s not anything a woman, let alone a girl, should endure.”
He said Jane Doe, now 20, went through drug rehabilitation and is holding down a part-time job. He said she would address the judge at Friday’s sentencing.
After capturing the incident on his camera, Haidl left the tape at a house in Newport Beach being rented by some teenage acquaintances. Lindsay Picou, 18, the girlfriend of one of the renters, was so horrified by the footage that she sneaked it away in a towel, hid it in her car and later slipped it to a policeman.
“They knew there was a problem there, but they didn’t want to do anything. They didn’t want to be a rat,” prosecutor Chuck Middleton said of the teenagers who watched the tape. “But Picou felt strongly enough about it that she did it.”
Picou found herself vilified by supporters of the defendants. She moved away from home. She changed her name. “My daughter was raised in a Christian home and did what she’s supposed to do, and for that, no deed goes unpunished,” said a woman who identified herself as Picou’s mother in a telephone interview. “It’s been four years of hell.”
Meanwhile, the defendants -- Haidl, Nachreiner and Keith Spann -- have grown into men in the glare of the national media, their faces maturing before millions while their frames filled out in jail scrubs. Haidl is now 20, Nachreiner and Spann 21.
Convicted last March for sexually assaulting the girl, they are now at the Orange County Jail. They will sit before Superior Court Judge Francisco Briseno for sentencing Friday, where a prosecutor will ask for prison and their lawyers will plead for mercy. Haidl could face up to 18 years, Spann 16 and Nachreiner 14.
“This is a time in their lives when growth is exponential, and that makes it all the more tragic and troublesome,” said defense attorney Barnett.
He characterized the case as unique, saying it involved teenagers from relatively ordinary families, no serious criminal records and a national media spotlight.
And not least, the explosive videotape. “You have a tape which is graphic and disturbing, and which is a reflection of a subculture that is really unknown to middle-class America,” Barnett said.
Haidl’s attorney, Al Stokke, said his client wants to study business when he leaves lockup. For now, he is being isolated from other inmates.
“He’s the son of a police officer,” Stokke said.
Spann’s attorney, Peter Morreale, said his client was “relatively inexperienced socially” when the tape was made. “You’re talking about a kid that’s never been in trouble,” he said. “Because of what happened when he was 17 years old, he is constantly a target.”
The tape also rattled Orange County law enforcement at the highest levels. Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl -- Gregory’s father, a millionaire who raised funds for Sheriff Michael S. Carona -- quit his law enforcement job in 2004 to devote attention to his son’s trials.
Another assistant sheriff, George Jaramillo, invited prosecutors’ scrutiny by his behavior in connection with the Haidl case. Days after the crime occurred, Newport Beach detectives arrived at Haidl’s home to interview him and found Jaramillo present and in uniform. The Newport Beach police chief would accuse Jaramillo of encouraging Haidl’s father not to permit his son to speak to police, thereby thwarting the investigation.
Jaramillo drew attention again in October 2003, when he tried to bury an incident in which deputies allegedly caught Haidl with marijuana. Eventually, Carona fired Jaramillo and prosecutors charged him with misusing public funds and conflict of interest involving an unrelated matter.
Carona himself has not been spared. In July 2002, the same month Haidl made his tape, Carona vaulted to national stardom in Republican circles after the successful hunt for the killer of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion. Since then, his political prospects have sagged under bad publicity and a raft of allegations -- including campaign funding irregularities and sexual harassment -- unleashed by Jaramillo’s troubles.
Prosecutor Chuck Middleton said it would have been difficult to file charges against Haidl, Nachreiner and Spann if not for the tape. Without it, it would have been the word of Jane Doe against the defendants’.
“It just grows and grows,” Middleton said of the lives upended by the case. “It’s unbelievable to me. A lot of it is brought on by the defense. The way they went about it really destroyed some lives, the victim and her family. They’ll never be the same.”
The small tape that had such large implications could have easily been buried in a drawer or lost behind a couch.
“I’m sure the defense would’ve liked that to happen,” Middleton said. “But it didn’t.”
Only a few people have viewed the tape. At trial, Judge Briseno refused to let it be seen by the public, despite media entreaties. It rests under seal in a manila envelope in the judge’s Santa Ana courtroom, among 17 volumes of court files and three boxes of exhibits.