LAPD chief ‘disgusted’ by allegations officer fondled dead woman’s breasts

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said he was “disgusted” by allegations that an officer fondled a dead woman’s breasts and added that criminal charges are possible.

Department officials initially thought the alleged act was discovered during a random inspection of the officer’s body camera footage, but officials now say a detective investigating the woman’s death found the video.

The officer, who is assigned to downtown’s Central Division, was placed on leave and assigned to home as the department launched an internal investigation. The Times first reported the incident on Tuesday.

Moore told KTLA on Thursday that the department would “aggressively pursue any criminal violation.”

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“Let me first and foremost apologize to the family,” the chief said. “I can’t imagine the pain that comes from losing a daughter, a 27-year-old woman, who we’re still investigating the circumstances of her death. But then to have that compounded by new reports of an allegation that an officer broke that trust.”

Former L.A. County sex crimes prosecutor Dmitry Gorin said a California health and safety statute makes willful sexual contact with the deceased a felony.

“Every person who willfully mutilates, disinters, removes from the place of interment, or commits an act of sexual penetration on, or has sexual contact with, any remains known to be human, without authority of law, is guilty of a felony,” according to the statute.

The touching of breasts repeatedly for sexual gratification would meet that standard, he said.

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Gorin, though, said he has not seen such a charge.

The alleged incident occurred when the officer and his partner responded to a call about a possible dead woman in a residential unit, sources said. Once the two officers determined the woman was dead, one officer returned to the patrol car to retrieve something. During that time, the accused officer turned off his body-worn camera and allegedly fondled the woman’s breasts, LAPD officials said.

Although the officer deactivated the camera, a two-minute buffer on the device captured the incident. The department is also investigating the officer’s work history.

Currently, when an LAPD officer turns his or her camera on, it automatically begins saving video and audio starting two minutes before the activation. It’s unclear for how long the officer allegedly fondled the dead woman or what triggered him to later activate the camera.

Yoda and Leia are among first stranded sea lions this season. Rescuers blame the weather

A menacing blob of heat bubbling up in the Pacific Ocean has marine mammal rescuers on edge and gearing up for what could be an exceptionally active year.

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach has rescued four baby sea lions since November, an unusually high number so early in the season. The center usually fields calls about stranded pups in January or February.

Officials think “the blob” developing in the Pacific Ocean is to blame for the increased number of strandings, said Krysta Higuchi, a spokeswoman for the rescue center. What’s worse, the weather pattern may grow, creating the same oceanic heat wave that developed between 2014 and 2015 and for years caused thousands of sea lions to become stranded along California’s coast.

The threat comes after an already active year, with 188 sea lion rescues so far in 2019 compared with an average of 150, Higuchi said.

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“During what’s become an abbreviated ‘off-season,’ our animal care team has been purposefully preparing for a potentially dismal year for marine mammal strandings,” marine center Chief Executive Peter Chang said in a statement. “We are hoping for the best, but planning for the worst.”

Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach

Yoda, a 5-month-old California sea lion, who was rescued in distress from the Dana Point Harbor jetty, rests at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Following the 2014 oceanic heat wave, which raised sea temperatures seven degrees above normal, researchers documented the largest harmful algae bloom in the West Coast, which shut down crabbing and clamming for months, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Thousands and thousands” of emaciated marine mammals became stranded on the coast, and the effects lasted far longer than “the blob” itself, Higuchi said.

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The new weather pattern — officially called the Northeast Pacific Marine Heat Wave of 2019 — has developed over the last few months as a result of a high-pressure ridge that dampened winds and contributed to ocean warming. Researchers say the event is on its way to becoming as strong as the last blob and is already one of the most significant recorded.

The effects could be as devastating to the ecosystem as the 2014 heat wave, but there is a chance the oceanic event is temporary.

“It looks bad, but it could also go away pretty quickly if the unusually persistent weather patterns that caused it change,” Nate Mantua, a research scientist at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, said in a NOAA news release.

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center isn’t taking any chances. The organization is collecting funds to increase its research, supplies, volunteers and medical equipment, Higuchi said, with $17,000 raised since Tuesday.

The four sea lions temporarily housed at the center were rescued in the last three weeks. The pups, which are all about 5 months old, are malnourished, dehydrated and much too young to be separated from their mothers, Higuchi said.

The day before Thanksgiving, ahead of a major storm, the center received reports throughout the day of a stranded baby sea lion seen shivering along the shore in Dana Point. The scared pup dodged in and out of the ocean, making it hard for rescuers to help him.

Yoda and Leia

Leia, left, who was rescued in distress from the Newport Beach Pier, and Yoda, a 5-month-old California sea lion who was rescued in distress from the Dana Point Harbor jetty, receive care at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Eventually, the scrawny sea creature retreated to a jetty, allowing rescuers to pick him up. As Higuchi held him in her arms, she could feel how small and malnourished he was. He weighed only 31 pounds instead of the typical 50 for his age.

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Higuchi named the pup Yoda, after “Mandalorian’s” viral Baby Yoda character.

The latest rescue, Leia, was found beneath the Newport Beach Pier after becoming entangled in fishing gear. She had to be sedated so rescuers could remove fishing line from her mouth and one of her fins, Higuchi said.

Yoda and Leia are still being tube-fed, while the two other rescues, named Kam and Clint, have improved enough to eat fish from a bowl. The sea lions will be monitored before they’re returned to the ocean.

California voters strongly support impeaching Trump, poll shows

As House Democrats move forward in their effort to remove President Trump from office, a new poll finds California voters deeply split along party lines, with a majority supporting impeachment.

More than 8 in 10 self-identified Democrats in the state support impeaching Trump and removing him from office while about 8 in 10 self-identified Republicans oppose doing so, according to the latest Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll conducted for the Los Angeles Times.

Independents who don’t lean to either party split closely on impeachment, with 40% in favor and 36% opposed. That’s a relatively small group, however, only about 1 in 8 California voters, since most self-identified independents lean toward one party or the other.

Views of whether the House should impeach Trump divide sharply by party. Self-identified Democrats significantly outnumber self-identified Republicans in the state.

(Chris Keller/Los Angeles Times)

Nationally, voters are closely divided on impeachment, polls show. But in California, where Democrats heavily outnumber Republicans, the sharp divide among partisans translates into a strong margin for impeaching Trump — 57% in favor, 30% opposed, with 13% saying they either don’t know or feel it’s too soon to say.

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Majority of California voters favor impeachment of the president

(Chris Keller/ Los Angeles Times)

The partisan divide also means widespread approval of the two California Democrats who have steered the impeachment process in the House — Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank.

What it does not mean, however, is any significant change in how voters view Trump or his potential reelection — a lack of movement that’s reflected in national polls.

The president has been unpopular in California since he took office in 2017, and a large majority of voters in the state oppose him. That hasn’t changed: California appears on track to reject Trump’s reelection bid, likely by an historic margin.

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But the impeachment crisis has not worsened his standing. Nor does it appear to have changed minds on either side.

Almost all partisans, on both sides, say they feel “strongly” about their positions.

“The net effect of two weeks of televised impeachment hearings appears only to have dug California voters in deeper to their earlier held partisan positions about the president. Few minds have been changed,” said Mark DiCamillo, the poll director for the Berkeley institute.

The roughly 1 in 8 voters who remain uncertain also overwhelmingly say they aren’t paying close attention to the impeachment battle, following the typical pattern that the voters who most closely follow news tend to be the most partisan.

Overall, 42% of the state’s voters said they were following news of the impeachment process very closely, another 40% said they were following somewhat closely, while 18% said they were not paying close attention.

The poll of 3,482 registered voters statewide was conducted Nov. 21-27 — after the conclusion of the two weeks of public hearings that the Intelligence Committee conducted in mid-November. The results for the full voter sample have an estimated margin of error of 2.5 percentage points in either direction.

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing and is expected to begin drawing up articles of impeachment later this month. The full House is expected to vote on impeachment before Christmas.

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If impeachment passes — as seems all but assured given the Democrats’ majority in the chamber — the Senate probably would conduct a trial in January.

Asked what the Senate should do, California voters divided the same way they did on a House impeachment — 55% said the senators should convict Trump and remove him from office, while 28% said they should not and 17% were undecided or said it was too soon to know.

Overall, 50% of voters favored both a House impeachment and a Senate conviction while 39% opposed both and 7% favored the House impeaching Trump, but were either opposed to the Senate convicting him or weren’t sure about it.

The poll findings “really shows the solidification of party lines when it comes to Trump,” said Berkeley political science professor Eric Schickler. “It’s a sharp contrast with Watergate, where over time, you saw Republicans coming around to the idea that President Nixon should go.”

“There has been more news, more surprises in this presidency than almost any, and yet his approval rating has remained the same,” and how people feel about impeachment has largely matched whether or not they approve of Trump, he added.

When Pelosi first announced on Sept. 24 that the House would begin an impeachment inquiry, many political analysts predicted the move would hurt Democrats’ prospects, much as the impeachment of President Clinton hurt Republicans a generation ago.

That hasn’t happened. Instead, both in California and nationally, impeachment appears to have unified the Democrats’ factions.

By 50% to 32%, Democrats in the state said they want Democrats in Congress to focus on impeaching Trump. Republicans, overwhelmingly, said Democrats in Congress should focus on other national priorities.

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The two sides also divide on whether the impeachment process has been fair, with nearly 8 in 10 Democrats saying the process has been fair and impartial, while just over 8 in 10 Republicans say it has not been.

Schiff, who ran the process in the Intelligence Committee and likely will continue to do so if the House votes to send the impeachment to the Senate for trial, has gained stature among Democrats, which could help him if he pursues statewide office, as he has long contemplated.

Four years ago, when Sen. Barbara Boxer announced her retirement and Schiff thought about getting into the race to replace her, a Los Angeles Times poll found only 19% of people statewide felt they knew enough about him to have an opinion.

Now, roughly three-quarters of California voters have a view of him, putting him in the same league statewide as Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, who succeeded Boxer.

Overall, 44% of the state’s voters approve of Schiff’s job performance, the poll found, while 31% disapprove, a more favorable ratio than either of the senators. The poll found voters slightly negative on Feinstein’s job performance, 46% approval to 52% disapproval, and evenly divided on Harris, 50% to 49%.

As with the impeachment that has made him well known, views about Schiff are highly partisan: Democrats approve of his job performance 70% to 7%, while Republicans disapprove 80% to 7%.

Views of Pelosi are similarly partisan. Overall, the state’s voters approve of her job performance 53% to 46%. Democrats approve 81% to 19% while Republicans overwhelmingly disapprove of her, 91% to 8%.

Pelosi, like previous House speakers, has been a polarizing figure through much of her tenure. But Republican efforts to make her a centerpiece of their midterm election campaign fell flat in the 2018 as Democrats regained control of the House.

The speaker’s decision to put Schiff and the Intelligence Committee in charge of the impeachment investigation has “paid off for the party, and for Schiff personally,” Schickler said.

“There’s a long history of members of Congress raising their profiles by leading high-profile hearings. Schiff is providing another example of that.”

Truck hauling 6,000 pounds of condensed milk on Interstate 5 overturns at Lebec

A tanker truck carrying 6,000 gallons of condensed milk skidded off Interstate 5 and overturned Monday morning, closing two southbound lanes.

The truck, carrying the equivalent of 96,000 cups of condensed milk, ran off the road at 4:49 a.m. on the southbound Interstate 5 in Lebec at Smokey Bear Road. The crash prompted the closure of two right lanes as crews worked to pump out the milk and fix a damaged guardrail. The California Highway Patrol issued a SigAlert shortly after 6 a.m., saying it would last until at least 3:30 pm.

According to the CHP, the truck skidded down a 75-foot embankment, through a guardrail and landed in a ditch. There were no reported injuries, but the damaged truck had part of its hood torn off.

It was unclear what caused the crash. Photos from the scene show remnants of snow, which plagued I-5 drivers on Thanksgiving. The winter storm twice forced closures through the Grapevine, leaving travelers to find alternative routes between Southern and Northern California.

Thousands without power in Lake Arrowhead area because of winter storm

Thousands of people in the Lake Arrowhead area were without power Sunday after heavy snow and strong winds resulted in widespread outages in the San Bernardino Mountains, officials said.

About 8,000 Southern California Edison customers were affected in mountain communities, including Skyland, Twin Peaks, Running Springs, Cedar Glen, Forest Falls and Crestline, where many residents have been without power since Thanksgiving Day, according to the utility. It was not clear when power would be restored.

Firewood was being distributed to local residents, according to Edison.

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Joseph Mospan digs his truck out so he can get to his snow blower at his home in Arrowbear, Calif. He got power back again late last night after first losing it Thursday night.

(Patrick Fallon/For The Times)

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Meanwhile, State Route 18 from Lucerne to Big Bear was reopened Saturday after it was temporarily forced to shut down because of heavy snow. On Sunday, State Route 138 east of Interstate 15 was open to residents only, the California Department of Transportation said.

Last week’s storm dumped several feet of snow on local communities. About four feet of snow had already fallen on Big Bear Mountain Resort — east of Lake Arrowhead — as of Friday morning.

The wintry conditions forced Snow Valley Mountain Resort to delay its season opening until Sunday morning. The ski resort planned to open last week, according to its Twitter feed.

Slick mountain roads were jammed Sunday with skiers headed for resorts. The California Highway Patrol and Caltrans reminded motorists that they are required to put chains on their wheels, while those with four-wheel-drive vehicles and snow tires must carry chains with them.

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“If you are traveling to the mountains you must have chains!” Caltrans tweeted. “Don’t be the person who closes the routes that just opened overnight because you don’t have chains!!”

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Sebastien Moukir, of Los Angeles, right, checks out the window to make sure their tire chains are riding properly after passing though a CalTrans checkpoint on route 330 toward Big Bear.

(Patrick Fallon/For The Times)

Across the region, heavy snow that arrived in the Antelope Valley on Thanksgiving Day was quickly disappearing by Sunday. It had been years since the area was blanketed in snow and offered an unlikely tableau — with a frosting on Joshua trees and rooftop solar panels.

But with temperatures climbing into the mid-40s, snowmen were disintegrating and lawns and rooftops thawing.

“I nearly forgot what the stuff looked like,” said Carl Gerker of Palmdale. “I hadn’t used my snow shovel in 10 or 15 years, so I threw it away. I’ve never seen a place so dry. So this was a bit of a novelty.”

Gerker, 71, who grew up in Ohio, said his neighbors had some trouble with the four or five inches of snow they got. “They seemed gun-shy and then others would start out too fast and go sliding all over the place,” he said.

A few blocks away, young people were scraping snow off a front lawn to make snowballs.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Caleb Bobber, 20, who was warming up a new dirt bike. “We had a big ol’ snowball fight out here. We’ll take more, for sure. It’s a lot of fun.”

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More rain is on the way. One to two inches of rain is forecast in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties between late Tuesday and Wednesday night, as a new storm makes its way across the region.

The Bay Area will also see increased rain, with the brunt of the storm hitting the Monterrey coastal range, with the Santa Cruz Mountains expected to get up to 10 inches of rainfall.

One person killed, another injured in Santa Clarita house fire

A bedroom fire that spread into an attic at a single-story home in Santa Clarita on Saturday killed one person and left another in critical condition, Fire Department officials said.

Firefighters were dispatched about 11:40 a.m. to the 28000 block of Flowerpark Drive and extinguished the blaze in about half an hour, according to a Los Angeles County Fire Department dispatcher.

One person was pronounced dead at the scene and another person was in critical condition, he said.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Major sewage spill in Orange County closes beaches from Newport Beach to Dana Point

A spill of about 4 million gallons of raw sewage prompted the Orange County Health Care Agency to close ocean and bay water areas from Crystal Cove State Park in Newport Beach to Poche Beach at the Dana Point and San Clemente border, health officials said.

The spill was caused by a broken force main at the Ben Brown Golf Course in Laguna Beach, first reported at 4:40 p.m. Wednesday, the agency said.

In a statement, Nichole Quick, an Orange County health officer, emphasized that exposure to untreated sewage “can be harmful and result in very serious illness with potentially severe effects.”

Health officials said the affected areas will remain closed until water quality meets state standards.

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In Los Angeles County, authorities warned against swimming at local beaches because contaminants in runoff from recent rainfall could cause bacteria levels in ocean waters to increase. The county Department of Public Health said bacteria levels could remain elevated for up to three days, depending on the intensity of the rain and the volume of runoff.

Elevated bacteria levels in ocean water may cause illness, officials said, especially in children and the elderly. The advisory for L.A. County beaches will be in effect until at least 7:30 a.m. Monday, but could be extended with more rainfall.

A white Thanksgiving in the high desert as snow falls in Antelope Valley and elsewhere

The Thanksgiving Day storm was producing significant amounts of snow in Southern California’s high desert region Thursday.

Up to 8 inches of snow was reported in some parts of the Antelope Valley. Over the last two days, Lancaster has seen 4 to 5 inches of snow and Palmdale 3 inches, according to the National Weather Service. The agency said a weather spotter reported 7 inches Saturday morning in Pearblossom.

Snow was falling along Interstate 15 and Highway 14, but both routes so far remain open.

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Snow was accumulating in both Lancaster and Palmdale, enough to cover cars and for some to build snowmen.

Snow was also falling in some Inland Empire desert communities, such as Apple Valley and Hesperia. Temperatures in that region were hovering in the low 30s, and the snow level had dropped to under 2,500 feet as the powerful storm moved through.

The steady precipitation was expected to turn to scattered rain and snow showers by midday. Isolated thunderstorms were also possible in Los Angeles and Orange counties, especially closer to the coast.

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There was a 40% chance of rain in the high desert Friday with lows in the 40s.

Wesson to step down as City Council president to focus on county supervisor campaign

Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson said Wednesday he intends to step down from the council presidency in January and is pushing for Councilwoman Nury Martinez to succeed him in the post.

Wesson, president of the 15-member council since 2012, said he is leaving the powerful post to focus on his bid for a seat on the Los Angeles County Supervisors in the March election. He introduced a motion calling for a vote on his replacement to be held Tuesday. He will continue to serve on the City Council until his term expires in December 2020.

Wesson, who represents neighborhoods stretching from Koreatown to the Crenshaw Corridor, touted a list of his accomplishments as president, including multiple increases in the city’s minimum wage, passage of a $1.2-billion bond measure to battle homelessness and a shift in the city’s election schedule to even-numbered years, a step aimed at boosting voter turnout.

“I’m so proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish as a unified council over the last eight years,” he said in a statement.

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Still, some have argued that the council has been too unified under Wesson’s tenure, with open debate kept to a minimum and the vast majority of decisions receiving unanimous votes. Rob Quan, an organizer with the the advocacy group Unrig L.A., went further, arguing that Wesson has fostered a culture that discourages dissent.

Quan, whose group is focused on reducing the influence of money in politics, said Wesson led the council as it reduced the amount of time given to members of the public to comment.

Last month, Quan was approached by security officers — and publicly chastised by Councilman Joe Buscaino — at a meeting where he pointed out that the council did not have a quorum to continue conducting business legally.

“I was threatened with arrest if I didn’t leave the council chambers for simply questioning the fact that they didn’t have enough council members on the floor,” he said.

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Wesson is campaigning in the March election to replace County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is facing term limits after 12 years in his post. Other candidates in the contest include state Sen. Holly Mitchell, former Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry and author and political commentator Earl Ofari Hutchinson.

Ridley-Thomas, who has served on the council previously, is now one of the candidates running for Wesson’s seat.

Council presidents wield a great deal of power, deciding when and how policy proposals are discussed at public meetings. The president determines the makeup of council committees that oversee homelessness, public safety, real estate development and other issues — and hands out plum appointments to those who want to head those panels.

Martinez, whose district includes Van Nuys, Arleta and Panorama City, thanked Wesson in a statement for nominating her and said she hopes to earn her colleagues’ support for next week’s presidency vote.

Wesson and several of his colleagues have also nominated Buscaino to serve next year as president pro tem, replacing Martinez.

Are drug-addicted mothers liable for babies’ deaths? A legal and ethical debate rages

Chelsea Becker was ready for Zachariah. She’d bought a crib, a car seat and clothes.

“Here’s your baby brother,” she’d whisper to her 16-month-old son Silas, and the child, her youngest, would hug her stomach.

But alone at a friend’s house in September, the 25-year-old knew something was wrong.

She’d noticed a little bleeding when she’d gotten up to use the bathroom. Before she could make it back to where she’d been lying down, she felt something wet.

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At first, she thought her water had broken. Then she realized it was blood.

When her mother, Jennifer Hernandez, came to take her to a hospital and saw her daughter’s condition, she called an ambulance instead.

Mother meth stillborn

Jennifer Hernandez is the mother of Chelsea Becker, 25, of Hanford, Calif.

(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

About three hours after she arrived at Adventist Health hospital in Hanford, Calif., she delivered a stillborn baby. A staffer handed her the little boy so she could say goodbye.

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The hospital then called the Kings County coroner’s office.

Nearly two months later, on Nov. 6, police arrested Becker. Prosecutors allege she murdered her child, citing an autopsy report showing the baby had toxic levels of methamphetamine in his system. She’s being held in Kings County Jail in lieu of $5-million bail.

About a week after she was taken into custody, Becker sat at a visitation kiosk wearing a green-and-white striped uniform. Her face was puffy and tear-streaked, the skin around her eyes rubbed raw.

At first it was hard for her to find words, then they came all at once.

“I didn’t kill my baby,” she said between sobs. “I was ready for him. He was so pretty. Then they had me see him after he was born, and he was all blue.”

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Jennifer Hernandez shows a photograph of her daughter Chelsea Becker with her third son, Silas, the only one of Becker’s children who was born without meth in his system.

(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

She acknowledged she’s made mistakes and needs help, that she struggles with addiction.

“I wish it could have been me instead.”

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::

Becker is at the center of a legal and ethical debate over the criminalization of drug abuse and pregnancy that’s playing out across the country. Legal experts have raised questions about how the justice system is policing women’s bodies and treating mothers who struggle with addiction.

California’s penal code defines murder as the unlawful killing of a human being or unborn child. The statute was amended to include the word “fetus” in 1970.

Legislators made the change after the state Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Stockton man charged with murder for beating his estranged pregnant wife and causing her to lose the baby.

But the statute was never intended to implicate mothers of stillborn babies, women’s rights advocates argue. In fact, other than one case involving a no contest plea, there have been no convictions in such cases in modern state history — except one.

That one also happened in Hanford.

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A booking photo shows Adora Perez.

(Hanford Police Department)

Adora Perez was arrested there in 2018. Like Becker, she’s accused of using meth while pregnant. She’s now serving 11 years in a state prison after losing an appeal.

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The Kings County district attorney’s office led the prosecution against Perez and is now waging a similar murder case against Becker.

“As prosecutors, we follow the law,” Assistant Dist. Atty. Philip Esbenshade said in an email earlier this month.

In a statement to The Times, Esbenshade said the Hanford Police Department “conducted a very detailed investigation” into Becker and prosecutors “feel that the charge [against her] is appropriate under California law.”

But Lynn M. Paltrow, founder and director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women, says the case is a misuse of the prosecution’s authority. The organization has offered to help Becker with her legal defense.

“There is no role for the criminal law system in response to pregnant women, pregnancy and the outcome of their pregnancies,” Paltrow said. “All these prosecutions do is deter women from getting care and from speaking honestly about their health problems.”

::

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A train rolls through Hanford, Calif., in the San Joaquin Valley.

(Tomas Ovalle / For The Times)

Becker was born and raised in Hanford, a town of neat cul-de-sacs carved into vast tracts of farmland in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

The area’s unemployment rate — 5.7% — is the seventh highest of any metro region in the nation. Almost one-fifth of Kings County residents lived in poverty in 2017, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Methamphetamine is no stranger to the town of 56,000, but that’s not where Becker first encountered the drug, her mother said.

As a teen, Becker moved to Minnesota to live with her father for several years. She returned at 19 an addict and found a steady supply of meth in Hanford, Hernandez said.

The same routes that help make the San Joaquin Valley one of the world’s agricultural meccas also help bring in darker forces. The Central Valley has become a hub for meth distribution in the U.S., according to federal law enforcement officials.

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Melissa Murphy of Hanford says she’s been shooting meth for two years. The Central Valley has become a hub for meth distribution in the U.S., according to federal law enforcement officials.

(Tomas Ovalle/For The Times)

Because of her addiction, Becker admits she’s made poor choices and has struggled as a mother. Two of her three surviving children were born with meth in their systems, according to her family. They have all been removed from her care.

Becker’s aunt, Julie Lance, who has custody of two of her children, thinks her niece should face consequences for her actions.

“If they drop these charges and let her out of jail, she’s just going to do this again,” Lance said. “She needs mental healthcare, she needs drug rehabilitation — and she needs jail time.”

Other members of Becker’s family, however, say the criminal charges against her are unfair and the D.A.’s office has made her out to be a monster.

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Brandon Nikonowicz, the brother of Chelsea Becker, says he is a former meth user who’s been clean for two years.

(Tomas Ovalle/For The Times)

“We don’t condone what happened, but at the same time, what they’re painting her to be is not what she is,” Becker’s brother, Brandon Nikonowicz, said from a coffee shop on the edge of Hanford. “She’s somebody with an addiction problem, not a murderer.”

Since Becker’s arrest, her family members have desperately searched for similar cases involving addiction and childbirth. There are prior court decisions in California and elsewhere that could play a prominent role in her fate.

In 1992, San Benito County authorities charged Roseann Jaurigue with murder after she suffered a placental abruption that led to a stillbirth. Authorities said she’d gone on a cocaine binge the day she was due to give birth and only sought care at a hospital two days later.

Placental abruption has been associated with drug use during pregnancy but is also linked to high blood pressure, abdominal trauma, diabetes, advanced maternal age and some infections, according to medical experts.

Jaurigue’s case was the first attempt in California to prosecute a woman under the 1970 amendment to the penal code.

ACLU defense lawyers argued the amendment — adopted in response to a highly publicized domestic violence case — was not intended to be used against pregnant women. It was meant to prosecute people who attack pregnant women with the intention of killing their unborn babies, they said.

A Superior Court judge in San Benito County agreed and dismissed the case.

A year later, in 1993, Lynda Jones was charged with murder in Siskiyou County after she suffered a placental abruption and gave birth prematurely. The infant died 22 hours later, and authorities blamed methamphetamine use. A judge dismissed the case.

Legal experts are at a loss to explain why now, more than 25 years later, prosecutors are using the same rationale against Becker.

“California law clearly does not permit a prosecution like this,” said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project.

More broadly, Becker’s supporters have pointed to a South Carolina case that wrestled with many of the same issues involving pregnancy-related drug use.

MCKNIGHT

Regina McKnight looks around the courtroom in Conway, S.C., in this Jan. 10, 2001, file photo. McKnight was convicted in 2001 for killing her unborn child by using crack cocaine during her pregnancy. The state Supreme Court overturned her conviction.

(Janet Blackmon Morgan / Associated Press)

In 2001, Regina McKnight was convicted of homicide by child abuse after admitting she used cocaine while pregnant and then delivering a stillborn baby.

McKnight spent years behind bars before the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that she didn’t get a fair trial.

The court found that McKnight’s public defender had failed to challenge testimony from the prosecution’s expert witnesses ruling out natural causes of death.

In its ruling, the state Supreme Court said an adequate defense would have included “recent studies showing that cocaine is no more harmful to a fetus than nicotine use, poor nutrition, lack of prenatal care, or other conditions commonly associated with the urban poor.”

Michele Goodwin, a law professor at UC Irvine and author of the forthcoming book “Policing the Womb,” said women prosecuted in connection with the drug-related deaths of stillborn children overwhelmingly live in poor, unstable environments.

“What makes these prosecutions so deeply problematic is that coinciding with these women’s poverty and also their drug use and addiction happen to be the situations in which they live,” Goodwin said. “This is an area where there’s so much ambiguity.”

Despite legal questions raised by these earlier cases, prosecutors in Kings County are moving forward with Becker’s case after having successfully prosecuted fellow Hanford resident Adora Perez.

Perez, now 31, was charged with murder in January 2018 after suffering a placental abruption and delivering a stillborn baby at Adventist Health in Hanford, the same hospital where Becker was treated.

The baby, named Hades, was her 10th. All but the three oldest were born with methamphetamine in their systems, said her aunt Sabrina Perez.

Initially, hospital employees were sympathetic toward Perez, her aunt said. “They were like, ‘We’re sorry for your loss; we’ll leave you alone with the baby for a while,’ and Adora got to hold him while he was still warm.”

But as soon as Perez’s history of giving birth to drug-exposed babies was discovered, staff immediately took him away, telling her they needed to run tests.

Hospital officials then called the coroner, and a doctor told police the baby died because of methamphetamine use during pregnancy, court records show.

Although there is no state law requiring medical centers to notify the coroner’s office of stillbirths, a spokeswoman for the Adventist Health group in the Central Valley, which includes Adventist Health Hanford, said it is the hospital’s policy to call the coroner about any stillborn babies delivered over 20 weeks.

Police arrested Perez the morning after she gave birth, on New Year’s Day.

“She didn’t get a chance to mourn her own baby,” Sabrina Perez said. “She didn’t get a chance to even do a little reception for her own child.”

Sabrina, her father and Adora’s oldest child picked up Hades’ ashes instead, she said.

About four months after her arrest, Adora Perez pleaded no contest to a charge of voluntary manslaughter as part of a plea agreement. But soon after, she had a change of heart and hired a new attorney, who filed a motion to withdraw the plea.

In court documents, Perez said she hadn’t understood what she was doing and her court-appointed public defender neither investigated her baby’s death nor discussed potential defenses with her.

Instead, a Kings County Superior Court judge denied the motion and handed Perez an 11-year prison sentence.

Perez then paid a private-practice lawyer $10,000, who filed a notice of appeal with the court and then stopped returning the family’s phone calls, her aunt said.

“Pretty much, she just took Adora’s money and that was it.”

The appeal went forward, handled by another court-appointed attorney, who offered no compelling new evidence. On March 26, 2019, the 5th District Court of Appeals upheld Perez’s sentence.

Becker, meanwhile, is due in court Dec. 5, when a judge is expected to set a date for her preliminary hearing.

From her jail cell, she replays events that led up to Zachariah’s death and wonders how things could have turned out differently.

“I’m not going to be OK mentally after this, even if I get out.” But, she said, “I’m not a killer. I just need to go to rehab.”