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Strangers bail soldier out of jail

Ashley Ramos, 5, and grandmother Gaylene Ramos wait outside the courthouse Sept. 11, 2007, in support of Army Pfc. Matthew Nicholson. ( Bart Ah You / The Modesto Bee )
Ashley Ramos, 5, and grandmother Gaylene Ramos wait outside the courthouse Sept. 11, 2007, in support of Army Pfc. Matthew Nicholson. ( Bart Ah You / The Modesto Bee ) Modesto Bee

Matthew Nicholson, the 22-year-old soldier accused of beating a man he thought was assaulting two women, was bailed out of jail Monday night by people he'd never met before.

After being released Monday night, Nicholson returned to Stanislaus County Superior Court on Tuesday morning and then was let go on his own recognizance. The people who bailed him out no longer are responsible for him if, for example, he skips town.

"Not that I would," Nicholson said Tuesday while having breakfast with his family in Oakdale.

During a court appearance last week, Nicholson asked to be released without bail so he could clear things up with his commanding officer at Fort Campbell, Ky. Rather than be released, his bail was increased from $20,000 to $50,000 in response to Nicholson's request of the judge that began, "Sir, I know you told us not to ask to be released on our own recognizance, but ..."

The judge already had warned defendants not to make such a request.

"They just think I'm some hardened criminal," Nicholson said later during a phone interview from jail.

Bill Rommel, a Modesto-based construction company owner, and Angela and Mark Garcia of Garcia Family Bail Bonds put up the money for Nicholson's release. Although the soldier later was released on his own recognizance, Rommel and the Garcia family do not get back 10 percent of the bail money, said Angela Garcia.

"It just felt right. (Nicholson) has given so much and is willing to give more. We're in a position to give back a little," she added.

Boy pleaded for help

Nicholson was arrested Sept. 1 after he responded to a frightened boy's plea for help. While walking with his sisters and girlfriend, Nicholson came upon a boy who said his father was hurting his mother and grand- mother. The boy didn't know his address, Nicholson said, so the group escorted him home so they would know where to send police when they called.

The boy, who told the group he was afraid his father would hit him if he returned home, stayed with one of Nicholson's sisters while Nicholson, another sister and his girlfriend approached the house. Nicholson said he heard and saw a commotion in the house and the door was wide open, so he walked in to help the women.

Martin Lemas asked why Nicholson, whom he'd never seen before, was in his house. Before leaving, Nicholson said: "You like to hit women?" according to Nicholson's sister Shelby Wolf, 16.

The situation quickly escalated, ending with Nicholson under arrest on a felony charge of assault and Lemas, 35, seeking medical attention for several bruises on his face, a punctured lip and what he thought was a broken jaw.

By the time officer Joseph Carrillo arrived, Lemas' mother had left. Carrillo saw no evidence of assault to Lemas' wife. The officer spoke with Lemas' mother on the phone. She told police she and her son had been drinking and they all got into a row.

When witnesses related the story to police, it seemed Nicholson had knocked Lemas to the ground and continued to punch Lemas, who wasn't in a position to defend himself, Carrillo said.

Neither woman pressed charges, so Lemas was not ar- rested.

Lemas couldn't be reached. He told KOVR Channel 13 that he has put his history of domestic violence behind him and didn't deserve Nicholson's treatment.

Lawyer takes case for free

Nicholson was sitting on what had become his usual perch in his jail cell Monday when a guard told him a lawyer wanted to speak with him.

"I said 'I don't have a lawyer.' And he said 'You do now,' " Nicholson said, recalling how he met attorney Martha Carlton-Magaña.

Carlton-Magaña said she was astounded by Nicholson's situation, so she offered to represent him for free.

"It was clear to me he was trying to do the right thing. He was in a position he shouldn't be," Carlton-Magaña said.

"Hopefully, the case will be dismissed once the district attorney has all of the information. But if not, we'll take it to trial."

Most cases like this are dismissed, or the prosecutor and defendant arrange a plea bargain, said Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold, who hasn't reviewed the case.

"It's common for cases to be disposed of," he added.

If convicted, Nicholson could spend a year in county jail or as long as four years in state prison.

If he had it to do over again, Nicholson said he would.

"I think I did the right thing, but that's for the court to decide. I think it will work out."

The Army private first class has not found out what will become of his military career or his dream of becoming a police officer. He was scheduled to return to Iraq in two weeks for his second tour.

"Everyone back East has seen me on the news, and they're supportive," Nicholson said of his commander and fellow soldiers stationed at Fort Campbell.

The soldier likely will report for duty somewhere in California until his case is settled.

Nicholson said he is grateful for the support he has felt since his story has gotten out.

"One hundred percent, with all my heart," he said.

Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at ehightower@modbee.com or 578-2382.

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