BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Three people who spent years in jail before they were acquitted on charges including kidnapping and torture are suing the county, sheriff’s department and District Attorney’s office, alleging evidence was fabricated and withheld.
Norik Ter-galstanyan, Ingo Gonzalez and Alexis Pule filed suit last week seeking damages in an amount to be proven at trial for multiple alleged civil rights deprivations. A hearing is scheduled Oct. 6 in federal court in Fresno.
They were charged in connection with the alleged 2015 kidnapping of a couple who owed Ter-Galstanyan money. Investigators said the couple was tortured and sodomized.
The three were acquitted of all charges in 2020, in part due to video evidence — which the DA’s office had in its possession — “that clearly displayed that the alleged victims were not held captive, but rather were free to leave premises and engage in any activity they wished,” according to the suit. Videos showed the alleged victims came and went as they pleased, used cellphones and talked with others, the suit says.
According to the suit, 25,000 pages of discovery were withheld “for unreasonable amounts of time,” leading to lengthy delays, and the credibility of the lead investigator was called into question after the prosecutor who first handled the case said he attributed false statements to her.
Prosecutor Courtney Lewis was removed from the case. Lewis has since left the Kern County District Attorney’s office.
“Due to blatant violations by defendants, plaintiffs were held in pre-trial detention for approximately five years,” the suit says.
According to a memorandum written by Lewis which she kept from defense counsel for 2 1/2 years, investigators told her then-Detective Dustin Contreras said not to execute a warrant against a person known as “Chino” in connection with the case.
A deputy said Contreras implied Lewis was not interested in apprehending “Chino,” according to the memo. He said Contreras told him, “The DA doesn’t want to know about it,” and “The DA is concerned for her safety.”
Lewis said in the memo she never told Contreras not to execute the warrant and she never made those statements.
A judge in 2019 removed Lewis from the case after finding it likely she would be called as a witness by the defense in an attempt to impeach Contreras. The defense had said they planned to call her.
“Due to blatant violations of discovery rules by defendant Lewis, the judge removed defendant Lewis as prosecutor after determining she could be called as a witness at trial due to her evidence tampering,” the suit says.
Judge Kenneth C. Twisselman II said it would be improper for Lewis to prosecute the case if called as a witness.
A second prosecutor was appointed but recused herself for medical reasons and a third prosecutor who worked on the same floor as Lewis was appointed, “thus creating a great threat of conflict and prejudice to plaintiffs,” according to the suit.
Ter-Galstanyan and Gonzalez had each faced life terms in prison if convicted.
“Plaintiffs were arrested, subject to improper police investigation, prosecutorial misconduct, and subsequently subject to prosecution for crimes they did not commit,” according to the suit.