Preliminary hearing starts, stops for woman accused of bilking Stanislaus supervisor

Serena Essapour
Serena Essapour

Department Five in Stanislaus County Superior Court was full of legal insiders Friday, all waiting for a show that never quite happened, with defense attorneys filling the seats on the left, and prosecutors keeping to the right.

A young woman who is suspected of fraudulently obtaining credit cards in Supervisor Jim DeMartini's name, and ringing up $10,000 in charges, wore dark sunglasses in court, using them as a headband to pull back her long, tousled locks.

Serena Essapour's defense attorney, Mark Geragos of Los Angeles, who repre- sented convicted murderer Scott Peterson and provides legal commentary on cable television talk shows, said he objected to the entire proceeding and would participate only under protest.

And a preliminary hearing that had been planned for months took hours to get going, and suddenly was suspended soon after it started.

First there was a crowded docket that delayed the 9:30 a.m. hearing several hours.

Then there was a challenge by Geragos, who said local prosecutors should turn the case over to the state attorney general's office, because DeMartini is one of five county supervisors who control the budget of the district attorney's office. That, he said, amounts to a conflict of interest.

"He controls the purse strings," Geragos said.

On the other side was Deputy District Attorney Dawna Frenchie, who said the supervisors have no say over the handling of criminal cases, adding that Geragos should not have waited until the last minute to mount his challenge.

"We're handling this case just like any other matter," Frenchie said.

Judge Thomas Zeff said the hearing would proceed after the lunch break, which begins at noon and ends at 1:30 p.m.

Prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against the 22-year-old Essapour in October 2006, charging her with false impersonation, misuse of personal identifying information and grand theft.

Geragos took the case a few months later. Essapour, of Turlock, has pleaded not guilty.

The afternoon brought a fresh start and a second challenge from Geragos, who reiterated much of what he had said before the lunch break.

The judge said the show must go on.

Detective takes the stand

The prosecutor began calling witnesses to back up her contention that Essapour used DeMar-tini's name and Social Security number when she filled out online applications to obtain credit cards from Chase Manhattan Bank and Washington Mutual Bank.

Then a detective took the witness stand, to talk about an investigation that used video surveillance tapes from local merchants to tie Essapour to the credit cards. He started to explain how he confronted Essapour, then called DeMartini before making an arrest.

But it was about 2:40 p.m., time for the court's afternoon break.

Geragos and Frenchie went into the judge's chamber, and when the break was over the hearing was suspended. Lawyers mingling in the hallway said Geragos must have had a plane to catch.

DeMartini, who was waiting to testify, was the last to hear the news, and he was disappointed, saying he is eager to see the case roll out. It turns out he must return Dec. 4, when the hearing resumes. And that's a Tuesday, the day the Board of Supervisors holds its weekly public meeting, which begins at 9 a.m.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.

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