Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Look Inside: A prosecutor’s perspective on crimes against children

EDITOR’S NOTE: Part one of a two-part series.

By Lori Fowler
San Bernardino Sun

Deputy District Attorney Melissa Rodriguez has learned a few things since she filed her first child pornography case nearly six years ago.

Part of her job includes hearing accounts of crimes and seeing evidence of the most unimaginable assaults on children. But when it comes to pictures or videos, she now knows not to look too close.

“I can’t look at their faces or their eyes because that’s what I remember,” Rodriguez said. “That will stick with me forever.”

A case from about three years ago remains a troubling memory. It involved a father and his 9-month-old daughter.

“That stayed with me for a really long time,” she said. “I can still close my eyes and see that video.”

Rodriguez handles human-trafficking cases throughout San Bernardino County. Before that she spent almost 5½ years in the district attorney’s Crimes Against Children Unit.

“Some cases are harder than others, some stick with you longer than others,” she said. “It’s hard not to take it home with you.”

Rodriguez credits her after-work sanity to two things — a strong family support system and fitness.

“I work out like crazy,” she said. “It’s such a huge stress reliever.”

But it’s her husband and three boys — 18, 16 and 10 — who really help.

“I talk about some of the cases at home. There are times when you have those cases where you go ‘I cannot believe what I saw today,’” Rodriguez said. “For the most part, I try to have some sense of normalcy at home. We try to have dinner every night as a family.”

For Karen Schmauss, a deputy district attorney based in Rancho Cucamonga, it wasn’t easy to separate her home and work life the first time she worked in the Crimes Against Children Unit.

She started in 1987, when she didn’t yet have children of her own.

But then she got pregnant in 1989 and was prosecuting sex crimes against children with a baby at home.

“It was much more difficult when I was the parent of an infant child,” she said.

Schmauss left the unit in 1992 and transferred to general felonies and the gang unit. She came back to crimes against children in 2008. She works on cases dealing with major crimes against children — anything from physical or sexual abuse to death.

“I don’t personalize it like I did when my child was small,” she said. “And I’m glad I don’t have small children.”

One of Schmauss’ first cases was that of twin sisters in their 30s who molested about six teenage boys, ranging in age from 13 to 16. The women would entice the boys to skip school by furnishing alcohol, then have sex with them, Schmauss said.

In 1990, she prosecuted the case of an amateur filmmaker who befriended an 11-year-old neighbor girl, offered her $1,000 to star in a pornographic movie and filmed himself having sex with her. The girl’s mother accompanied her to the hotel and sat in the lobby while this went on, Schmauss said.

In 2012, she had the case of two brothers who tortured a 3-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother with a ‘stun gun.’ The girl had close to 30 pairs of burn marks from her neck to her ankles. The children’s mother was also charged for not removing them from the home after they were tortured.

Schmauss also relies on a supportive home life, which right now includes a husband — who retired from law enforcement — and three dogs. Her children, now 19 and 23, are out of the house.

“I want to talk about the cases at home, get it out of my system,” Schmauss said. “If there’s a terrible case, I want to talk about the details and get them out of my head.”

So why do they choose to work in an environment where they are constantly reminded of how evil people can be?

“One of the things that drew me to this profession is that I can be a voice for that child who can’t speak for themselves,” Rodriguez said.

It’s gratifying “to be that person that says I can do something for you. ... I can make (the defendant) accountable,” she said.

Schmauss said there is a sense of vindication every time she puts a molester or abuser behind bars.

“When I did it the first time around, sentences were not as long then as they are now,” she said. “But the sentencing scheme has changed dramatically. We have a lot more bargaining power now.”

Schmauss said she really enjoys what she does and that she can’t think of any other assignment she would want.

“You’ve taken somebody off the street who’s hurt children — whether sexually or physically — and hopefully put them away long enough so they won’t hurt someone else,” Schmauss said. “That is tremendously satisfying.”

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