A look back: Kern County's 'Witch Hunt'

Posted at 12:12 PM, May 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-20 15:08:46-04

It was a time Kern County is still trying to forget. 

Visiting the neighborhood where Gerardo Gonzales used to live, people are still wary when they see news cameras...32 years after the fact. 


When he describes the night he was arrested in June of 1984, Gonzales recalls it as, "Dramatic, horrible. Unbelievable. I believed in the justice system before that." 

"I still remember. Perfectly. So do my kids. We were eating ice cream and peach cobbler and we just served. I got up to go to the bathroom and I heard someone at the door," said Gonzales. A Kern County Sheriff's deputy was at the door, demanding he come outside. 

"He took me out to the middle of the yard, he started saying well I’m going to go in and search your house." Gonzales says the deputy who arrested him never gave him any reason for the arrest and never asked for Gonzales by name--an omission that still bothers him to this day.

Gonzales was booked into jail later that night. While sitting in an interrogation room, he could hear detectives questioning his two children next door. "They had my little girl and boy in the next room. I could hear them crying. I could hear my little girl say, ‘My daddy never did that.' "

He was booked on nine counts, ranging from sodomy to oral copulation. Gonzales was accused of molesting a young girl that lived down the street, his son and his daughter. His wife was later also accused of the same crimes.


The story of Gonzales's arrest was similar to at least 26 others, convicted in eight sex ring cases in Kern County during the 1980s.

The District Attorney at the time, Ed Jagels, was known for being tough on crime. Jagels led the DA's office in the conviction of dozens, saying they were responsible for molesting and performing satanic rituals on as many as 60 children.

Some of the defendants in those cases were:

The accusations swept the attention of the county, depicted in a documentary called 'Witch Hunt' narrated by Sean Penn.

"It was a time or era when it was such a new, new  type of crime that was becoming public.  The allegations were so horrific at the time you didn’t have people that were used to doing [prosecuting] them," said Deputy District Attorney Andrea Kohler. Kohler currently heads the homicide division, but worked for years in the sex crimes division.

Kohler says looking back in retrospect, it was a time where prosecution and law enforcement were inexperienced at handling such serious accusations of sexual abuse. 

"The best thing we can ever do in these type of cases or any case is to make sure the cases are fully investigated and that all people that have any knowledge of the case are talked to, interviewed, that we’re appropriate. That physical evidence is seized," said Kohler.

Kohler did not work in the DA's office during the 1980s, but says the office has learned from mistakes made during that time, especially concerning how child interviews are conducted. 

"The thing that we can fall back on now with some confidence is that law enforcement have been trained differently. That they conduct the entire investigation in a much different manner than years ago before anyone really was aware of how do we interview a child without possibly influencing what they’re going to say," said Kohler. 


"In Kern County in those days, you were guilty before you even went in there. You had 150 counts of molestation on you alone? You were done." Gonzales was charged with 150 different counts, meaning if convicted, he'd serve 1200 years in prison–something Kohler says would never happen today.

"It’s very rare, I would say very unusual to see a case come out of this office where there’s 50, 100, 200 counts," said Kohler.

The counts that arose from the interrogation of children now serve as a lesson for prosecutors. 

"I think that’s the biggest thing that’s been learned is how do you interview a child and you make sure people who investigate or prosecute these cases are that they do it correctly," said Kohler. 

Kern County ultimately dropped all of the molestation charges against 25 people who were convicted in the sex ring trials. One died in prison before their convictions could be overturned.

John Stoll settled with the county for the most amount of all people who sued the county, receiving $5.5 million in 2009. He was released from prison in 2004. Upon leaving, he told 23ABC news, "There are other people. No doubt in my mind. This happened to other people. Not just in Kern County. Don’t give up. Just hang in there."

Gonzalez hasn't received any settlement money from the county but he's spent more than $50,000 appealing his sex offender status under Megan's Law.

When asked if he still thinks it's worth it to fight after 32 years, Gonzales was quick to answer. "Yes. Absolutely. All I want is for the whole truth to come out, for them to admit they did those things."