Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Settlement Law Justice Clipart
I've been thinking a lot lately about when and how I first became interested in criminal cases. My personal initiation was during my second year of college. It was quite an induction -- and one I shared with three others.

As a teenager, I regularly followed crime stories in the local newspaper and I was always interested in TV reports, although during that era growing up in San Diego County, there wasn’t much crime. I watched "Perry Mason" because it was one of my mother's favorite TV shows.

I lived in La Mesa, a suburb east of San Diego known as the “Jewel of the Hills” with its near-perfect weather and safe neighborhoods, which still have walkable, tree-lined streets. It was a quiet, middle-class, crime-free 'burb – and a good place to raise children.

And so it was shocking in the spring of 1969 when, in that same neighborhood, I became a victim, along with my twin sister Cordelia Mendoza and friends and neighbors Vickie Pynchon and Sharon Lawrence. And while we were victimized, it was so absurd that we laughed -- mostly out of embarrassment -- about it at the time.
We were jogging to prepare for a 30-mile benefit walk for hunger, plus my sister and I were getting swimsuit-ready for spring break in Palm Springs with college friends. So we took a week-night run like we had dozens of times before. We never felt at risk -- until that night.

We started out running from the end of our block, from the cul-de-sac on 71st Street. About two blocks later, a man sitting in a dark-colored Volkswagen bug stepped out of his car as we jogged by. The four of us were chatting it up as usual, but I remember it creeped us out enough to step up our pace.

Our route was to run a few blocks before turning right onto Colony Road then jog three blocks east to Harbinson Avenue. We typically ran seven blocks down Harbinson until we got to the La Mesa Presbyterian Church, then we’d hang a right onto Stanford Avenue and head up the hill for home.

But halfway up the hill, the same man we had seen blocks earlier stepped out of the darkness and under the light of a street lamp. He was naked from the waist down with his trousers around his ankles.

It was startling. But we moved so quickly that the man was as shocked as we were. He started running too, away from us, but stumbling because his pants were still wrapped around his ankles. He hobbled away while we crossed the street to the home of a neighbor, Mrs. Harris, to call the police. Sharon, in the meantime, screamed at the top of her lungs.

“I recall us making a mad dash up the hill toward LouJean Harris' house in the dark and, as we got farther away from the man, I remember laughing our heads off because Sharon was screaming and waving her arms hysterically a la Blanche in Bonnie and Clyde,” Cordelia said.

“The three of us, Sharon excluded, were together pretty fearless -- until it sank in later as to what the heck the guy was doing,” she continued.

Mrs. Harris made the call to police. When a police unit arrived, an officer had us describe where we had first seen the man and where we had seen him after he dropped his pants. We also described for the officer the man’s car. Then we all went home.

Probably 30 minutes later, an officer telephoned and said they had located the car in a driveway around the corner from our homes. Police needed the four of us to meet the officer on the street in front of the man’s house. So we drove there. Standing outside with the officer was the same man we had earlier seen on the street. The officer asked us to identify the man as the perpetrator. We did. Then he explained that because he hadn’t personally witnessed the crime, one of us would have to make a citizen’s arrest.

“Which one of you wants to do it?” the officer asked as he looked at each of us.

Without hesitation and almost in unison, Cordelia, Vickie and Sharon told him, “Cathy will do it.”

And so, reluctantly, I did.

The officer asked me to stand in front of the suspect and identify him. I remember I was trembling; I was just a few feet away from him. The guy was probably in his late 20s, maybe early 30s, and short. I tried not to look at him. I remember hearing nervous giggling in the background from my sister and friends as I repeated what the officer said as I made the citizen’s arrest.

In the ensuing days, Cordelia recalled, I remember how angry our older brother Michael was. I also remember being shocked, possibly a little fearful, that the man had a family and lived a block and a half away from us. I remember Mother feeling sorry for his wife.”

A while later, we all were summoned to a hearing at the El Cajon Superior Courthouse on East Main Street. Our mothers accompanied us. Outside the courtroom, we met the deputy district attorney who was prosecuting the case. He informed us that the suspect had just pleaded guilty. He was charged with a misdemeanor for lewd conduct. I recall our mothers were vocal about it being a lesser charge than they had expected. But, as Vickie, now an attorney, said, “Having him flash us was just ridiculous and embarrassing; I didn't feel let down by the justice system.”

And so ended my first involvement with a criminal case. It was, to say the least, an odd experience. I’ve been fascinated with criminal law ever since.

Vintage photos, top, of Cathy Scott, center, Vickie Pynchon, and, bottom, Cordelia Mendoza.


Anonymous said...

A humble, humorous (in retrospect) beginning to the career of one of our best crime writers. I love the touch with the old, formal photos. Good stuff.

Author Cathy Scott said...

Thanks so much! Wish I could thank you by name.

Vickie Pynchon said...

Even though the story is not a warm & fuzzy memory of our teen years (we were SO YOUNG!) the impressions of the neighborhood and the easy way in which we roamed it from childhood until we all eventually moved away, is spot on and makes me nostalgic for a time gone away forever when mothers didn't much worry about their kids running the neighborhood so long as they came back home by the time it turned dark!

solaroy said...

Two things from an eyewitness: (1) you certainly DID get swimsuit-ready for spring break and (2) the flashing likely did happen again in Palm Springs, only then, it was called "streaking" and "skinny-dipping"

Author Cathy Scott said...

Well, thank you, Roy. Very kind! Yes, you were a witness, weren't you, and very much a part of our spring break in Palm Springs with you and your buddies -- including our next-door neighbor Brian -- bunking in our Travelodge hotel room. We got kicked out of the room the next morning because we had too many people in the room. We did see plenty of skinny dipping in the pool. Halcyon days.

Cordelia of Cottage Antiques said...

Little did we know how insulated we were in our neighborhood and the community where we hung out freely with no worries. Yes, Vickie, we were all so young.

Great summary of that night, Cathy.

Roy - and all that! Hah! Thanks for the memories!

Gina said...

What a great story. So many girls get flashed and it feels strangely creepy but funny. It struck me as odd that the cop required one of you to identify the guy. They didn't make it easy for you. Now we know more extreme sex criminals often start out as "weanie waggers."

Author Cathy Scott said...

Thanks, Gina. It was odd, and it certainly did make it more difficult. We had just been asked graphic -- and embarrassing -- questions by the police. Looking back on it, though, and knowing what I know now, it was probably far easier for police to have a victim make a citizen's arrest right then and there than having to get an arrest warrant later -- a smart thing for the cops to do, albeit awkward for us. :-)

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