Part 2: False Allegations Almost Cost Father Life in Prison

This piece continues my earlier one about Tracy West’s false allegations against Louis Gonzalez III.  When we last saw him, prosecutors had just withdrawn criminal charges against Gonzalez, but retained the ability to refile them at any time.

Co-workers looked at him sideways; women he asked out learned of the charges and said “thanks, but no thanks.”

And then there was the battle in family court.  West had a restraining order issued against Gonzalez based on her allegations in the criminal matter.  That meant he couldn’t see his son for eight months after his arrest. 

So his attorneys attacked the order which West withdrew rather than face a hearing in family court.  Gonzalez, after all, had no fewer than 10 alibi witnesses and a straight-arrow veteran police detective who said there was no way Gonzalez could have done what West claimed.

The court awarded him $55,000 in attorneys fees for having to fight a fraudulently-obtained order.  West filed for bankruptcy protection and hasn’t paid a dime.

Next came custody of the child.

In her closing argument, Gonzalez’s custody attorney, Denise Placencio, said West had been trying to divide father and son for years — attempting to change the boy’s surname, moving him from Nevada to California, offering Gonzalez money to relinquish parental rights.

“The last resort was to frame Mr. Gonzalez and put him in jail,” she said.

The judge concluded that West’s insistence on Gonzalez’s guilt “with no rational basis” was an attempt to remove the boy from his father’s life.

“She continues to maintain that he’s guilty of this heinous crime, and he’s not,” the judge said. “The court finds if mom is allowed to maintain primary physical custody, she’s more likely to continue with this.” She appeared to be a good mother otherwise, he said, and it was with “a heavy heart” that he awarded custody to the father.

In 2009, Gonzalez’s attorneys asked the criminal court to do a thing that’s almost never done – declare him “factually innocent.”  Over the objections of the county prosecutors, the court did just that.

The last act of the drama was for Gonzalez to try to convince prosecutors to charge West with criminal wrongdoing in filing a false police report.  They refused.

Asked why West hadn’t been charged with filing a false police report, Ellison, the Ventura County prosecutor, gave this explanation: “We could not say with 100% certainty that Tracy West was lying.”

That rationalization looks a lot like the family court judge’s when he tried to decide whether West had fabricated the incident or perhaps another person had committed the crimes.

In that regard, it’s worth noting that West knew Gonzalez well and always said he was her attacker.  She told the same story again and again both under oath and not.

The judge also had testimony from a psychologist who seems to have held a much firmer grasp of the case than the judge did.

No, testified John Paglini, the court-appointed psychologist who had interviewed West four times: Either Gonzalez attacked her, or she lied.

“She could have said, ‘On Feb. 1st I was attacked by somebody, I don’t know who it was,’ but she picked this guy out, and she was very definite,” Paglini told the court. “It couldn’t be somebody else. She said, ‘I heard his voice, I saw his face.'”

And since it couldn’t have been Gonzalez, that means West lied, fabricated the entire incident.  That was obvious to Paglini and, I suspect, to most readers, but not to the family court judge.

The judge was not, however, prepared to accept the psychologist’s either-or view of the case — that if Gonzalez didn’t do it, she made it up. What West believed about Feb. 1, 2008, “remains unclear,” and the possibility that she suffered a “delusion” had not been ruled out, the judge said.

West would stay in her son’s life. She moved back to Nevada.

Writer Christopher Goffard deserves high praise for these two articles.  He patiently and in great detail tells the story of a mother who would go to the extreme of injuring herself and lying to police, prosecutors and the family court, all for the sake of denying custody to a fit, loving father.

The articles acquaint the reader with the intimate details of Gonzalez’s torment in jail and the readiness with which everyone believed the lies with which West sought to imprison him for the rest of his life.  Police, prosecutors, his own attorney all believed her.  They all looked at Louis Gonzalez III and saw another man, a monster.

Perhaps more importantly, the articles show the astonishing good luck that saved Gonzalez from a lifetime in prison.  The simple fact is that, through witnesses, security camera footage and credit card transactions, he was able to account for every minute of the time during which West claimed he was attacking her.  But for that, he’d be in prison to this day without a prayer of ever seeing his son, or the outside of the prison walls, again.

So let’s be clear about one thing.  The justice system correctly found Louis Gonzalez III innocent of all charges against him.  It could easily have convicted an innocent man.

And then there’s the prosecutor who, when it came to charging a mother whose malice almost destroyed a good man and a loving father, demanded “100% certainty” of guilt.  That raises an obvious question: “how often do prosecutors have that level of certainty about the guilt of an accused?” 

I can’t answer, but, if they aren’t sure of the case against West, they’re not sure about many of the charges they bring against people every day.  Prosecutors, like most other attorneys, rarely know to a certainty that their case is a winner.  They look at the evidence and make a call about whether to bring a case to trial or not.  Ultimately, it’s for a jury to decide and it’s the rare ADA who’s never lost a case.

So it’s noteworthy that in this case, the Ventura County prosecutor refused to charge a clearly guilty woman because he saw some slight chance she might be found not guilty.  For myself, I look at the facts of the case and I see a verdict of guilty.

Likewise, the family court judge, Bill Henderson, couldn’t seem to wrap his brain around the obvious – that West had made the whole thing up.  The evidence admits of no other possible conclusion, but Henderson found one last straw at which to grasp – that maybe West was delusional.  Maybe she hallucinated the whole thing.

But of course no one had ever raised such a possibility.  She’d been interviewed four times by a psychologist who never said a word about West’s being so extremely unbalanced.  And how did Judge Henderson figure that “delusion” caused the bruising to her face, the burns on her skin?

Faced with those remarks by an experienced prosecutor and judge, it becomes hard not to notice their willingness to impose extraordinary conditions on themselves before punishing a mother who cried ‘rape.’  That special pleading on her behalf by the men who should have brought the weight of the law down on her, speaks volumes about the American judicial system here in the 21st century.

That’s a system whose family courts give primary custody to mothers 84% of the time and whose criminal ones give sentencing discounts to women vis-a-vis men equal (in one study of federal sentencing) to that of whites vis-a-vis blacks.

Unlike other mothers about whom I’ve written, Tracy West didn’t get away unscathed.  She lost the custody of her son, although she seems to still have visitation rights.  She was forced into bankruptcy and her insurance company paid a confidential settlement to Gonzalez for the multiple civil wrong she did him.

Still, does anyone pretend that those negatives would be sufficient to deter future false claims by other mothers involved in custody cases?  It surely escapes no one’s notice that Gonzalez is free due to one thing only – his own dumb luck.

And few will overlook the fact that, given the opportunity to demonstrate that the judicial system doesn’t tolerate liars, the prosecutor and the judge refused. 

The message is the same as we’ve so often seen.  For a mother in a custody battle with a father, false allegations are a free shot.  They may work and they may not, but whatever the outcome, she can be confident that she’ll pay no price.

Thanks to John for the heads-up.

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