In May, 2003, Eric Nordmark arrived in Anaheim, a town about fifty kilometers south of Los Angeles, California. Eric had been in the US Army. He had gone to college, but he had dropped out before finishing. He was a drifter—a person who has never taken a steady job or settled down in one place. He was passing through Anaheim on his way north to Seattle. He had left Seattle two years earlier and moved south because he wanted to escape the cold northern winters. He was hoping to find some work in Anaheim so he could earn enough money to pay for a bus ticket.
On May 14, he was arrested for being drunk in public . He spent the night in the Anaheim jail and was released in the morning. The following day, on May 16, he was in the neighbouring town of Garden Grove. In the late afternoon, he was looking for cigarette butts on the sidewalk. Suddenly two police officers approached him, handcuffed him, took off his glasses, and made him sit on the curb. Eric asked the police if they were arresting him. They said, No, they were only “detaining” him because he matched the description of someone they were looking for. They kept him sitting on the curb for a few minutes. Then they told him that they wanted him to come to the police station so they could take some photographs—“mug shots.” They also said that, if he didn’t cooperate with them, they would arrest him on suspicion of being drunk in public. Eric agreed. He went to the station; the mug shots were taken, and he was released.
That evening, Eric found work setting up rides at a carnival site, but he had to wait in Garden Grove for five days before doing the job. On May 20, Eric worked for thirteen hours setting up the rides. When he was finished work, he went to buy some beer and cigarettes. Just after he left the store, he heard someone call his name. He turned around and was immediately handcuffed by two policemen. They told him he was under arrest for assault. They refused to tell him anything more, so, until he was taken to court five days later, he didn’t know why he was in trouble. That day he found out he had been charged with child molestation. Eric spent the next 250 days in jail, waiting for his trial.
The first time they stopped him, the police had told Eric to sit on the curb because they wanted to bring two young girls by in a police car. They wanted to see if the girls would identify Eric as the man who had attacked them. On May 15, the day before the police photographed Eric, the two girls, Yolanda and Catili, along with a third girl, Aurora, got home late from school. Yolanda and Catili were eleven at the time and Aurora was twelve.
The girls told their mothers that they were late because they had been attacked on the way home. As they were walking across a park, they said, they passed a man. Just as they were leaving the park, he came up behind them and grabbed Yolanda. He threw her on the ground, the girls said, and pulled her hair from side to side. Catili tried to pull Yolanda away from the attacker, but he grabbed her and began to attack her. Then Aurora came running up and kicked the man in the groin. This gave them a chance to escape.
The girls described their attacker to the police. The officer who noticed Eric picking up butts on the sidewalk the next day thought he fitted their description.
Four days after Eric’s mug shots were taken, the police put his picture in a “photo lineup“ along with pictures of several other people and asked the girls to identify their attacker. Catili and Yolanda pointed to Eric’s picture but Aurora didn’t. The photo lineup was also shown to two boys who lived in the same apartment complex as the girls. They said Eric looked like the man who had spoken to them in a frightening way in the park just a few days before the girls were attacked. That was when the police decided to charge Eric.
On January 23, 2004, after being in jail for eight months, Eric finally went on trial. From the beginning, Eric had insisted that he was not guilty. He was very afraid of being convicted. He knew that, if he was, he’d have to serve a long term in prison, and he knew how cruelly child molesters are treated by other prisoners. He also knew that even after he got out, he’d suffer all his life from the stigma of being a convicted child molester. If he was found guilty, he planned to kill himself immediately. He was going to tape a razor blade to his skin with a bar-code sticker from the prison store, and then, while he was in a special cell waiting to be sentenced, he was going to cut his throat.
On the first day of the trial, Catili was in the witness stand. Once again, she told the story of the attack. She answered questions from Eric’s lawyer and the government lawyer who was prosecuting him. Her testimony was credible: everyone believed her. That was a Thursday. The court did not meet on Friday. After the weekend, on Monday morning, as Eric was led from his prison cell to the courtroom, he noticed he was being treated more kindly. When he arrived in the courtroom, he was surprised to see there was no one there except his lawyer, the prosecutor, the judge, and Catili. The prosecutor quickly asked the judge to dismiss the charges against Eric. The judge did this and Eric was free.
Eric’s lawyer explained to him that after she had testified, Catili had confessed to her mother that the story was a lie. There had been no attack. None of the girls had ever seen Eric before the trial began.
On Monday morning Catili was supposed to continue her testimony but she didn’t show up. When the prosecutor phoned her home to find out what was wrong, her mother told her that Catili had gone to school because she didn’t want to go back to court. The prosecutor told Catili’s mother to bring Catili to the court. When she got there she told the prosecutor that she had been lying.
-information from: The Los Angeles Times, 04.01.30 (Daniel Yi); The Los Angeles Times, 04.02.10 (H.G. Reza, Joel Rubin); The Los Angeles Times, 04.02.12 (Joel Rubin, Christine Hanley); The Los Angeles Times, 04.02.13 (H.G. Reza, Jennifer Mena); The Los Angeles Times, 04.02.23 (H.G. Reza, Christine Hanley, James Ricci);The New York Times, 01.02.15 (Sam Dillon)