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Former prison counselor says staffer in sex abuse suit was protected

Earlier this month, a jury awarded $1.2 million to four young offenders who said they were sexually abused by a counselor at the Heman G. Stark Correctional Facility in Chino.

Now a key witness in that case, Patrick Barber has said he is filing his own lawsuit, claiming that he was harassed repeatedly by a superior in an effort to keep the scandal quiet.

Barber, a counselor at Stark from 1999 to 2004, also contends in his suit that the earlier court case understated the extent of the alleged sexual abuse by the fellow former counselor, James Shelby.  

The conflicting legal actions provide a troubling glimpse into the tensions at the state’s youth correctional system, the California Youth Authority, which receives far less public attention than the state’s troubled prisons. Officials at Corrections and the state Attorney General’s office declined to comment for this story.

Despite the judgment, Shelby has not been convicted of a crime and he has denied any wrongdoing. His lawyer says inmates provided spurious testimony in order to damage Shelby, who was perceived as a no-nonsense officer. He also says that Barber, who was fired from the Corrections Department, has filed other suits and has “an ax to grind.”

Barber also claims that the superintendant at Stark, Xavier Ruiz, covered up Shelby’s activities for years. Ruiz also was named in the lawsuit that led to the $1.2 million award. He was represented by the state Attorney General’s office, which declined to discuss the case.

Stark is a 900-bed facility in Chino that houses offenders between 18 and 25 years old. Barber testified that Shelby’s sexual relationships with the inmates – called wards in the youth prison system — were so well-known in the facility that guards joked about it.

Other testimony in the trial noted that Shelby is HIV positive, though may not have been at the time of the alleged assaults. The four plaintiffs in the original case against Shelby have tested negative for HIV.

Barber contends that Shelby had many more victims. He alleges that the abuse may have begun in 1997, two years earlier than stated by other witnesses at the trial, and that the superintendent in charge at Stark covered up Shelby’s crimes for years.

Barber said that several wards talked to him about advances made by Shelby, breaking a code of silence that usually surrounds these kinds of allegations in prison. Being coerced into sex with another man would make a ward look weak, Barber said, which could make them a target for violence.

“This kind of stuff, it’s just not talked about. Nobody wants to admit they’ve been abused. It’s not in their best interests,” he said.

Shelby’s attorney, Bradford Child with the Los Angeles firm of Millard Holweger Child & Marton, said that his client did not engage in criminal conduct and that the allegations stem from unsubstantiated comments from inmates.

“We feel strongly that there were a lot of errors in the case,” Child said. “The only evidence is the statements of the inmates. There has never been any physical evidence. There have never been any other witnesses.”

Child said the case against Shelby was fabricated by wards to get rid of a tough counselor who enforced the rules — and also because he was perceived to be a homosexual. He said that an internal affairs investigator testified that some of the wards in the case talked with each other to get their stories straight before talking to investigators in February, 2004, and were unaware that she spoke Spanish and could understand them. That testimony was excluded from the case, he said.

He also questioned how sexual abuse could have gone on so long in a crowded facility. Many of the alleged encounters would have taken place in an office with a glass window in the doorway, facing out onto a busy hallway. Barber said the window was frequently covered, and that Shelby also used neighboring offices with more privacy.

Barber, Child said, “had his own ax to grind” because of his firing from Corrections in 2004 and two subsequent lawsuits he had filed. Shelby was put on leave in 2004 and took a medical retirement in 2006. Ruiz resigned under pressure from Corrections in 2004. Barber was later reinstated but fired again last year, also due to hit turning whisteblower in the Shelby case, for a total of 11 years at Corrections.

Child said that he did not yet know if there was going to be an appeal to the judgment or if his firm, which was brought in by Corrections, would be involved. The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office has so far declined to press any criminal charges against Shelby or Ruiz.

The four plaintiffs who won their civil case against Corrections — Guillermo Ruelas, Oscar Miranda, Alejandro Espinoza and Martin Mendoza—alleged that they had been subjected to forced sexual relations with Shelby between 1999 and 2004. But Barber said that Shelby had been coercing sex with young Hispanic inmates since 1997.

The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s office has so-far declined to file any charges against Shelby, reportedly due to a lack of evidence. The deputy DA in Chino did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

Shelby worked at Stark from 1995 to 2004; Barber worked as a counselor in the same section of Stark with Shelby between 1999 and 2001. Counselors are considered guards, but they have a supervisory role. They also provide counseling to a caseload of prisoners. According to his own testimony, Shelby’s areas of expertise included “anger management” and “gang awareness.” These roles would have made it easier for a guard to carry out sexual relationships with wards, according to Barber.

“Being a counselor brings legitimacy to moving a ward around or taking to him in your office, because that can be part of your duties.”

The Superior Court jury in Rancho Cucamonga found unanimously that Shelby used a combination of incentives and sometimes violent coercion to pressure inmates into sexual relationships. Shelby offered preferential treatment to favored inmates, including access to better food, clothing, CDs, movies, cell phones and even drugs.

When wards turned away his advances, he would sometimes arrange for other wards to attack them, according to testimony. In one instance, a ward who had rebuffed Shelby’s advances had his jaw broken by another ward using a football helmet — allegedly under Shelby’s order. Shelby himself was also eventually assaulted by wards, something which Barber said came in retaliation for his sexual activities. According to Shelby’s testimony, he missed work from March to June 2003 due to injuries he sustained in this attack.

According to Joshua Watson, attorney for plaintiff Martin Mendoza, he and other attorneys involved reached an agreement on “reasonable punitive damages” of $200,000 against Shelby, Ruiz, and Jerry Harper, who directed the California Youth Authority between 2000 to 2003.

The money is not a settlement, given that a jury ruled 12-0 last Thursday against the three defendants in San Bernardino Superior Court and has already awarded $1 million in compensatory damages. The state is on the hook for that money, as well as legal fees stemming from the case.

Rather, the sides sat down and agreed on penalties based on the defendants’ resources and level of blame. Shelby and Harper each must pay $50,000, while Ruiz is on the hook for $100,000. Ruiz and Harper were both represented by the office of the state Attorney General.

Now Watson has agreed to represent Barber. He said it was unusual, though in no way illegal, for
an attorney to take on a former witness as a client so soon after the conclusion of the trial. Watson said that Barber’s detailed descriptions of events at Stark were key to the case.  

“He came forward and gave some pretty dramatic testimony,” Watson said.

Shelby’s own testimony paints a picture of a deeply conflicted man. Under questioning from Child, his own attorney, Shelby said that he was bisexual who had had sex with men in the past. But he was “not proud of it,” especially due to a Pentecostal upbringing.

“I was raised to believe it was an abomination,” Shelby testified. “I’m not happy with the things that I have done.”

Much of Barber’s testimony focused on the role of Ruiz in protecting Shelby. Ruiz repeatedly ignored complaints from wards who said that Shelby was trying to coerce sex from them, and that he later interfered with investigations that may have brought the abuse to an end sooner, according to both Barber and Watson.

“Here’s the guy who is supposed to be making sure the wards are safe,” Watson said. “He gets an allegation like that and does absolutely nothing.”

Both Watson and Barber agreed that Ruiz was motivated, at least initially, by a misplaced belief that the abuse could not really be happening.

“He testified to this in court, he did not believe the sexual component,” Barber said. “He did not believe that Hispanics would engage in gay sex.”

Barber also alleges that he was singled out for harassment as part of an ongoing cover-up of Shelby’s activities. He said that in November 1999 he was assaulted by a ward named Jason Perez. Perez, he said, had also attempted to assault Shelby the month before, motivated both times by a desire to get sent to a higher-security adult lockup where he could get away from Shelby.

In that case, Barber’s partner removed handcuffs from Perez while he was in a small holding cell but forgot to tell Barber — who then opened the cell, thinking Perez was still handcuffed, and was caught by surprise. Barber was cited for negligence in the incident, though his partner acknowledged his mistake.

This began a series of run-ins with Ruiz, Barber said. In each case, Ruiz sought to blame Barber for real or imagined mishaps while keeping investigators away from Shelby and the wards he allegedly abused.

Barber was also on duty when ward had his jaw broken on the football field in October 1999, though he denied any negligence in the case. Instead, he said, he was scapegoated in an attempt by Ruiz to keep investigators away from Shelby and the wards he had been involved with. Barber also contends that a ward was paroled early in exchange for testifying in a case against him; that ward was later involved in a vicious murder and is serving a 170 year sentence.

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