Joaquin Arambula’s wife: Officer got ‘in my face’ investigating child abuse allegation

Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula’s wife testified Monday that a police officer got “in my face” and yelled at her as he was investigating an allegation that her husband injured their daughter.

Elizabeth Arambula and Joaquin’s mother each testified in his defense Monday against a misdemeanor child abuse allegation stemming from an incident in December in which he allegedly injured his 7-year-old daughter.

Elizabeth Arambula was the final witness to speak for the defense on the seventh day of Arambula’s trial. Her mother-in-law, Amy, immediately preceded her. Two therapists – one the family’s counselor and another an expert on interviewing children – also testified.

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Arambula, the Fresno Democrat, was arrested in December after police responded to his daughter’s school after she allegedly told school officials her father had hit her, causing a bruise on her temple. The formal charge was filed in March, and his trial began May 2.

Arambula’s wife testifies

Elizabeth Arambula began her testimony by describing the events leading up to her husband’s arrest. She had picked up her two younger daughters before arriving at the eldest daughter’s school. When the girl did not arrive outside to be picked up, her mother went into the office.

Arambula said she could see her daughter inside a conference room with police, but she was not allowed to see her. After waiting for some time, she told school staff that she would be contacting her lawyer before calling her Amy Arambula, who is both her mother-in-law and an attorney.

Amy began questioning why police had her granddaughter behind a closed door and were not letting Elizabeth in, Elizabeth said, and at one point Amy attempted to enter the room.

Officer Stephen Phebus, the first officer on the scene who was leading the investigation at that point, then pushed her mother-in-law out of the conference room and threatened to arrest her for interfering, Elizabeth Arambula testified. Fresno Police Sgt. Todd Miller then allowed her into the room where her daughter had been interviewed by police and social services.

Arambula disputed previous testimony from Fresno police officers who said she told her daughter not to tell police Joaquin Arambula had hit her, saying she only told her daughter to tell the truth – even after the girl told her mother that “daddy hurt me.” She also told the girl that her husband believed she had hurt her younger sister and that the eldest daughter would not stop screaming prior to Arambula grabbing her.

She said Phebus then grew angry with her and made her feel uncomfortable as he stood over her as she comforted her daughter.

“He bent down into my face and yelled, ‘Ma’am, your husband hit her, and this is from his ring,’ and he pointed to my daughter’s face,” Arambula said.

Miller then told her “you’d better get Joaquin here, or he’s going to look guilty,” Elizabeth Arambula said. She called her husband and told him to come to the school immediately, and he arrived soon after.

Throughout her testimony, Elizabeth Arambula said several times that her husband would not hit or hurt their children. The kids had never come to her with any such accusations, nor had she seen any violent streak in their eight years of marriage. In fact, she described herself as the primary disciplinarian, while saying he is often quite lenient with the eldest daughter in particular.

She said she sometimes told her girls about a “caveman stick” that her father used to use to spank her when she misbehaved as a way of telling them how lucky they were to not ever face that type of physical discipline. She denied having such a stick or using anything like that to spank her daughter, which the girl claimed in an interview with investigators.

She denied that she and her husband gave the eldest daughter gifts, took her on trips or coached her in any way in an attempt to sway her testimony in court. The family went to Mexico in December, Disneyland in March and took several trips to the beach in between.

Margarita Martinez-Baly, one of Joaquin Arambula’s attorneys, asked Elizabeth whether she was afraid of the eldest daughter. She said yes.

Daughter on video

“I know that Joaquin would never hit her,” she said. “So I was afraid, when I had to discipline her, (of) what she would say about me. So when I would have to discipline her, I started just recording it without her knowing.”

Asked how she did this, Arambula said she used her cell phone.

The defense then played three videos – one captured by Arambula, and two by his wife – for the jury.

In the first one, the eldest daughter is hitting herself in her head with her open palms. Arambula is asking her why she was doing this and pleading with her to stop. She appears to be looking directly into the camera at times as she explains that hitting herself “recharges her brain.”

In the second video, Elizabeth Arambula is asking the girl to stop yelling. The girl admits to having kicked her younger sister and appears to be trying to kick Elizabeth while again looking into the camera at certain points. The girl tells her mother she was kicking her sister to get Elizabeth to pay attention to her.

Elizabeth Arambula said this video was taken the week after the alleged child abuse took place. A Christmas tree is visible in the background.

In the third clip, the girl his pointing a broom at her mother and looking directly into the camera. Her mother tells her to put it down, but the girl laughs and does not. She tells Elizabeth she wants attention. Her mother suggests a game of Scrabble, but the daughter refuses.

After some back-and-forth, Elizabeth Arambula uses a more forceful tone to tell her daughter to drop the broom. She questions her daughter further, asking her why she is angry. The girl again expresses a desire for more attention.

In her testimony, Elizabeth said her daughter was “coming at her with a broom” which prompted her to shoot the final video, which took place about 10 days after the alleged abuse.

She said her family has been in counseling since then, which has been helpful in providing new ways to discipline the children.

In his cross-examination, Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright asked Elizabeth how she knew that Joaquin thought the eldest daughter had hurt her sister on the night of the alleged abuse. She said she had spoken to him about the incident, and he had told her he spanked the eldest daughter.

Wright reminded Elizabeth that she had testified she had never seen him strike the kids, and asked if it was unusual to hear of him spanking her. She said it was.

He then asked if she spanked the kids, and she said she did on rare occasions.

Mother takes the stand

Joaquin’s mother, Amy, also devoted much of her testimony to describing the assemblyman as a caring father who had not and would not hurt his children.

Her testimony was not a smooth ride for the court, as she often gave long or compound answers that deviated from the question asked by her son’s second attorney, Michael Aed. Wright routinely pounced on them with objections, which Judge Alvin Harrell typically agreed with. The judge would then go through the testimony and tell the jury to disregard specific sections or all of it.

After Joaquin’s arrest, the children were placed with Amy and her husband, former Assemblyman Juan Arambula. She said her primary focus was comforting the children after they had been taken from their parents.

She denied having used this time to tell her granddaughter what to say and not to say during a forensic interview the day after her son’s arrest – an accusation brought against her by several investigators and the alleged victim herself.

Like Elizabeth, she said any gifts or trips or conversations were never meant to sway her granddaughter’s testimony.

Therapists testify

The defense began Monday’s proceedings with testimony from two therapists: Kyle Weir and Susan Napolitano.

Weir has been the Arambula family’s therapist since shortly after the alleged abuse. He has seen the family in group settings but also spent time with the eldest daughter in one-on-one therapy.

Weir said the girl told him that she had “said something in school that got her father in trouble.” She told him that he had accidentally caused the bruise with his ring as he held her down.

He said Arambula’s version of events differed than her’s in that he told the therapist that he spanked the girl. Weir pressed the daughter on this fact, and she was adamant that he had not spanked her.

The girl did not show any signs of abuse in their 10-12 sessions, Weir said.

Wright’s examination of Weir focused on whether children can be influenced by talking with adults, gifts or lavish trips. He said they could, but that he had “zero concerns” that the girl had been coached. In fact, most of her fear appeared to be derived from having to testify in court.

Napolitano, a therapist and former forensic interviewer for abused children, was then called as an expert witness. The defense hired her to prepare a report critiquing the forensic interview in this instance, which has been a major part of Wright’s case against Arambula.

Napolitano said the interview failed to ascertain exactly what occurred on the night of the alleged child abuse, and said the interviewer also did not ask needed follow-up questions when the girl gave vague or exaggerated answers.

She also testified that interviewing children is particularly difficult, as improper techniques by law enforcement and others can corrupt their stories. However, because the girl’s first interviews with law enforcement and social services were not recorded, she said she had no way of knowing if that took place in this instance.

Napolitano noted that the girl’s story changed each time she told it – first to teachers, then social services, then law enforcement and finally in this forensic interview.

Wright pointed out in his examination that Napolitano’s report also noted several positive steps taken by the interviewer, including setting appropriate boundaries and ground rules.

He asked if Napolitano would have been concerned by the girl saying Amy had told her what to focus on during the interview, and Napolitano said she would.

He also asked if pressure or the fear of a loved one being incarcerated could cause a child to change her story, and she said it could.

Martinez-Baly then readdressed Napolitano, asking if it could be intimidating for a child to talk to a uniformed officer with a gun in a small room. The therapist said this could be stressful and impact a child’s retelling of an incident.

Next step

Arambula’s attorneys have two witnesses left to be called, one of which is believed to be the assemblyman himself. This testimony is expected to take up most of Tuesday, and Wright will also have a chance to call or recall witnesses to dispute statements made during Arambula’s defense.

Closing arguments are tentatively scheduled for Wednesday morning. It appears likely the jury will begin its deliberations sometime Wednesday afternoon, which was also the anticipated end date given to them at the beginning of their courtroom service.

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Rory Appleton is a fourth-generation Fresnan who covers politics for his hometown newspaper. A Fresno State graduate, he has won six first-place California News Publishers Association awards and a McClatchy President’s Award for his reporting and column writing over the last two years.