Jerry L. Steering with Diane Sawyer

Click here to see Diane Sawyer interview of Jerry L. Steering

Man Defends Mother of His Young Accuser

Handfield said Friday that, though the Police Department would not issue a formal apology to Nordmark because it had done nothing wrong, “from a human side, yeah, we’re sorry this happened and we would never want to see someone spend [unwarranted] time in jail. Our job is to put the right person in jail — every one of us at the Police Department is sorry that this guy spent time in jail, but we think it’s not something that we caused.”

By H.G. Reza Times Staff Writer

A man who spent eight months in jail falsely accused of attacking three girls criticized Garden Grove police Friday for arresting his young accusers and threatening to arrest one mother for allegedly failing to tell authorities promptly that her daughter lied about the assault.

In a statement released by his lawyer, Eric Nordmark said the investigation of Veronica Mendez Ochoa for not turning in her daughter to police is a mistake.

“No one should be prosecuted for failing to turn in their children to the police,” said Nordmark in the statement released by attorney Jerry L. Steering of Newport Beach.

Late Friday, Lt. Mike Handfield, a spokesman for the Garden Grove Police Department, characterized the lawyer’s statement as “positioning” in advance of a lawsuit likely to be filed against the city on Nordmark’s behalf.

“It’s clearly an attempt to put the police in an unfavorable light,” he said. “He’s trying to better his position by releasing a comment against us. He’s clearly trying to do whatever he can to make us look like we didn’t do our job.”

Steering is representing Nordmark in a claim for damages against Garden Grove police for his false arrest and prosecution.

Nordmark was jailed in May after the three 11-year-old girls accused him of attacking them in a park near their homes.

His trial ended abruptly last month and he was released after Mendez’s daughter — who had testified against him — admitted the story was fabricated.

On Monday, police arrested the three girls. Each was charged with conspiracy, and Mendez’s daughter, who was the prosecution’s star witness, also was charged with perjury.

Police announced Thursday they are investigating Mendez and other members of the girls’ families for obstruction of justice.

In Mendez’s case, police allege she failed to inform authorities about her daughter’s deception when the girl revealed on Jan. 22 that no attack occurred. Prosecutors learned of the deception four days later, when the girl failed to appear in court as trial resumed after a weekend.

According to Handfield, however, no decision has been made on whether to prosecute the mother. “We will be investigating this just as we do all other events,” he said. “We will gather all the information, complete our reports, and then forward them to the district attorney’s office [which will decide] whether her failure to disclose reaches the level of a crime.”

City officials have strongly supported police handling of the case, arguing that the time Nordmark spent in jail on a groundless charge makes the lie a serious crime.

“There is quite an outrage in the community,” City Councilman William Dalton said on Thursday. “They have to understand what they did wrong…. The police were duped, and this poor man who did nothing wrong spent eight months in jail.”

But Nordmark, a drifter who immediately left Southern California, focused his outrage on the conduct of Garden Grove officers.

Alleging that police removed his glasses before asking the girls to identify him so he would match the description they had given, Nordmark said in his statement that officers “were high-fiving each other when they took off my glasses to make me look like the suspect description for their street line-up, and apparently they haven’t changed much since then.”

A lawyer representing Mendez’s daughter also has criticized police for suggesting the mother could be arrested on suspicion of obstructing justice. Shirley MacDonald Juarez said Mendez did everything she could to make the deception known to authorities, leaving messages on Jan. 23 and 26 with the girl’s advocate at the district attorney’s Victim-Witness Assistance Program.

According to Juarez, Mendez was finally able to speak with the advocate on Jan. 26 and the advocate instructed Mendez to bring the girl to the courthouse immediately.

The lawyer said the advocate accompanied Mendez and her daughter into the courtroom, and the mother revealed that her daughter’s story was a lie.

On Friday, Susan Linker, director of the Victim-Witness Assistance Program, declined to comment about the discussions between Mendez and the advocate, citing the confidentiality of victim-advocate communications.

She said that the advocate has not been interviewed by police or prosecutors in the case against the girls. “But there’s a possibility that we could be called to testify,” she said.

Though members of the department have attempted to talk to Nordmark about the case, he said, their efforts have been rebuffed.

The worst thing, he said, is that “these girls have now created a situation where we have to think twice about what children are saying when they report criminal actions. They will be looked at in a different light now, and that’s something I hate to see.”

Times staff writers David Haldane and Jennifer Mena contributed to this report.