Geragos stalls ID theft case

Serena Essapour, in the courthouse Tuesday, is accused of theft.
Serena Essapour, in the courthouse Tuesday, is accused of theft. Modesto Bee

High profile defense attorney Mark Geragos of Los Angeles had a big smile on his face Tuesday when he pulled out a stack of documents that halted a preliminary hearing involving allegations of theft from Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMar-tini.

As promised, Geragos challenged the district attorney's ability to handle a case involving a Turlock woman who is accused of using personal information she received from the su- pervisor to obtain credit cards from two banks, then ring up $10,000 in unauthorized charges.

Geragos, a lawyer who handled Scott Peterson's murder trial, said the California attorney general's office should take over the case, because DeMartini is one of five supervisors who craft the county budget, setting spending limits for the prosecutor's office in the process.

Instead of pressing forward, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Thomas Zeff, who shot down similar arguments from Geragos three months ago, said lawyers can argue the matter Feb. 11.

That procedural twist angered DeMartini, who said he thinks a run-of-the-mill identity theft case is being exploited for political purposes.

"I think Judge Zeff is a weenie for letting Mark Geragos make a mockery of our justice system," DeMartini said when he was reached for comment after the hearing.

The case has garnered attention -- even inspiring an anonymous video hit piece that was posted on YouTube -- because it involves a young woman alleged to have used her position with the Republican Central Committee to gain DeMartini's trust.

DeMartini said he gave 22-year-old Serena Essapour $6,500 and co-signed her car loan because he felt sorry for her.

A year later, Essapour used DeMartini's Social Security number to obtain credit cards that were used at Starbucks and Quiznos and In-N-Out Burger, according to bank and law enforcement officials who testified when a preliminary hearing got under way in October.

The hearing, which has stalled midstream, is needed so the judge can determine whether Essapour should stand trial on three felony charges. She is accused of false impersonation, misuse of personal identifying information and grand theft, all from May 16 to June 16, 2006.

In October, Geragos stood before the judge and argued that the district attorney's office has a conflict of interest and should turn Essapour's case over to state prosecutors. The judge shot him down, saying the defense would have to file a formal motion to be heard on the matter.

This time, Geragos had paperwork in hand, having given state and local prosecutors a recusal motion only minutes before the judge called Essapour's case. Rather than shoot the defense down again, the judge scheduled a hearing, giving the attorney general's office 10 days to respond.

Meanwhile, a prosecutor who was ready to proceed with the preliminary hearing seemed irritated by the turn of events, but unable to ward off another delay.

"It seems to me that counsel has had months to bring this motion," Deputy District Attorney Dawna Frenchie said.

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

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