You might guess that if a school district’s trustees had nothing to hide, they would insist on helping to discover damage caused by an adult sports coach who relentlessly pursued sexual relations with 13- and 14-year-old boys.
But that’s oddly not the case at the Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD), where at least seven freshman baseball players endured Carlos Salcito Sales Jr.’s illicit attention during the 2014-15 school year. The junior-varsity coach sent photographs of his genitalia, inquired about the students’ penis sizes and issued date invitations. Sales also authored love messages, initiated unwanted fondling, masturbated in the players’ presence and urged the kids to send him their personalized child pornography.
Though district bureaucrats would later pretend the offenses were inconsequential, those abuses at Segerstrom High School ended when the mother of one victim saw alarming messages on her son’s cellphone and called the police. Arrested, fired and charged with 16 child-molestation-related felonies, Sales eventually admitted guilt in exchange for a plea deal that held him accountable for just one crime.
“I did willfully, lewdly and unlawfully attempt to commit lewd and lascivious acts upon the [bodies] of children under the age of 15 with the intent of arousing, appealing to and gratifying the lust passion desires of me and said children,” he confessed in writing.
On May 18, 2018, Superior Court Judge Sheila Hanson, a former prosecutor, accepted the sweetheart deal with Sales’ defense lawyer, Michael Molfetta, her colleague in the Orange County district attorney’s office for half a decade. Molfetta also endorsed Hanson’s campaign for the bench.
The punishment for his client? Officially, two years of incarceration—but that term was a mirage.
Even prison officials were shocked as Sales’ one-year anniversary in prison approached. Noting that Hanson’s ruling required them to free the 28-year-old inmate on May 18, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) sent a late-April letter to the judge, notifying her that a possible “illegal sentence exists.” According to their interpretation of state law, the punishment appeared low for a chronic abuser of kids.
Four days before Sales’ scheduled release, Hanson placed a memo in the court file stating she’d received the CDCR notice but observed that “upon imposition of sentence, there was no objection by the People [during then-District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ administration] or defendant.” Hanson concluded her memo by indicating she would take no step to extend the incarceration. According to the CDCR, Sales—who was housed at a medium-security state prison in Norco—is now free.
Meanwhile, the chase to obtain some semblance of justice has fallen to John Manly, the attorney representing the SAUSD victims. Manly is internationally respected for his dogged pursuit of sex-abuse cases, especially involving two-faced Catholic Church clergy, college leadership and USA Gymnastics officials. In 2014, he won his clients a $140 million judgment against the Los Angeles Unified School District after Mark Berndt, one of its elementary-school teachers, repeatedly fed his unwitting students semen-laced cookies.
Manly’s courthouse opposition in the SAUSD litigation is Dana Alden Fox, a talented Los Angeles-based lawyer routinely summoned at lucrative taxpayer expense to rescue government agencies, particularly tainted law-enforcement departments, caught in ugly scandals. Having covered Fox for years, I most recently featured him and his flamboyant, cutthroat courtroom tactics when he defended the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and one of its deputies, Nicholas Caropino, who’d raped the daughter of a former member of The Real Housewives of Orange County while on duty in June 2014. (See “Feisty Lawyer Couldn’t Save OC Sheriff in Blown Sexual Assault Probes,” Aug. 10, 2017.)
In late November 2017, Manly launched the battle by filing an 85-page lawsuit alleging sexual harassment, negligence, constructive fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of fiduciary duty and public-entity liability. “[Sales] used his position of authority and trust acting on behalf of [SAUSD] to gain access to children, including the minor plaintiffs, on the school facilities and grounds and off campus, where he would take the plaintiffs to [college] baseball games and movie theaters, in which he engaged in sexual talk and innuendo,” the lawsuit states. “Such conduct was in front of and/or with the full knowledge of other baseball coaches and staff at the high school and the school district.”
Manly also alleged that the “serial sexual abuse of this nature, duration and extent of that engaged in by Sales could not have been accomplished without the aid and assistance of many other school-district staff or administration officials.”
He believes SAUSD managers “turned a blind eye” to criminal conduct that has left the victims emotionally scarred, robbed of their childhood, anxious, depressed and untrusting of adults.
To derail the plaintiffs, Fox devised a series of roadblocks on behalf of the school district’s leadership, which now includes Valerie Amezcua, Rigo Rodriguez, Alfonso Alvarez and John Palacio. First, he moved for summary judgment by claiming the controversy should be “time-barred” from jury consideration. That failed.
Fox then refused Manly’s request to inspect documents related to allegations of sexual misconduct involving all SAUSD employees since 2010, around the time of Sales’ hire as an “athletic specialist” for $3,566 per season. He said he would only hand over records pertaining to the convicted baseball coach. Otherwise, the demand was “grossly over-broad,” he opined.
In recent weeks, Superior Court Judge Martha K. Gooding rejected the stance, calling it “untenable” given well-established California case law.
Manly next asked SAUSD to surrender school yearbooks for the period when Sales coached. That evidence could help investigators discover additional victims and more potential district negligence. Fox again objected. “The yearbooks are full of photographs of and information about totally unrelated minors [his emphasis],” he argued as justification for secrecy. Asking for such records was simply a way for the plaintiffs to “harass” the school district. After all, he said, “third-party minors” should have public-school-yearbook privacy.
Gooding wasn’t impressed here either, ruling “persons in the yearbooks do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy” in a publication that already has been readily distributed in the community. She ordered SAUSD to comply with Manly’s requests. Over Fox’s objections, the judge slapped a $3,000 sanction on the district for its stall tactics.
A jury trial is tentatively set for Aug. 26 in Santa Ana.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; earned six dozen other reporting awards; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.