Politics & Government

Shocking new details emerge in Fresno Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula’s child cruelty trial

A document filed Tuesday in Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula’s misdemeanor child cruelty trial is a bombshell, accusing Fresno police of illegally obtaining confidential records while revealing that Arambula’s 7-year-old daughter told authorities of several previous instances of cruelty in addition to the alleged crime.

Arambula, D-Fresno, was arrested, cited and released on Dec. 10 after police were called to his 7-year-old daughter’s school. The Fresno County District Attorney’s office filed a misdemeanor charge against the assemblyman in March.

The assemblyman was in court Tuesday for the beginning of his trial, with jury selection expected to start Friday. He has taken a leave of absence from the Assembly until the trial is completed.

He is accused of injuring his daughter, which Arambula and his wife, Elizabeth, have flatly denied. They say he struck her on the buttocks as part of normal discipline.

However, Arambula’s attorneys – Michael Aed and Margarita Martinez-Baly – provided their summary of the facts related to the alleged crime. They describe police and a county social worker saying the alleged injury was a bruise on the girl’s head – allegedly from Arambula’s ring as he slapped her.

The attorney’s summary is part of a motion to dismiss the case.

According to the summary, Arambula’s daughter described several other instances of cruelty, including punches and kicks by her father and spankings with a stick by her mother. The summary says both parents told police they would never hurt their children.

The 7-year-old also admitted to police that she sometimes hurts herself, and she originally told her teacher she had fallen the night the alleged crime occurred.

The summary describes interviews with several staff members at the school who said they have never noticed any previous injuries or heard the girl talk about any instances in which she was hit in the past.

After the detailed summary, the motions asks Fresno County Superior Court Judge Alvin Harrell to dismiss the case for two main reasons: It is not a crime to be an “imperfect parent,” and Fresno police obtained confidential records without a required court order.

On the second allegation, Aed and Martinez-Baly provided a copy of an email they say was sent to Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer by District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp. In the email, she says that the confidential reports were included in the case submitted by police. She asks Dyer to discover how these records were obtained, adding, “in my 22-year career as a prosecutor, I have never seen this happen.”

In interviews with The Bee on Tuesday evening, both Dyer and Smittcamp said Arambula’s attorneys are wrong; police are allowed to obtain records from Social Services without a hearing. They added that additional emails not included in the motion show the two law enforcement officials conferred with Fresno County attorneys, who signed off on the police department’s action.

Harrell is expected to rule on the motion on Wednesday, as well as both sides’ attempts to have certain pieces of evidence excluded.

What happened?

The defense’s summary provided several descriptions of what occurred on Dec. 10, based on what Arambula’s daughter allegedly told police, county workers and her teachers.

Officer Stephen Phebus arrived at the school just before 2 p.m. He was told by Amber Fithian, identified as a child protective services worker, that Arambula had slapped the girl with both hands, causing injury. Phebus noticed a one-inch bruise on the right side of the girl’s face near her right eye.

The girl told Phebus that her younger sister had teased her, which led the elder girl to throw her sister’s toys on the floor. When the younger sister began to cry, Arambula entered the room and demanded to know what happened. He yelled at the elder daughter, she said, and accused her of hurting her sister. The elder daughter denied this to Arambula.

According to the defense’s summary, Phebus said the girl told him Arambula placed both of his open palms against her head with some force. She told the officer his ring caused the bruise. Phebus noted that Arambula wears a wedding ring on his left hand, and the girl’s bruise was on her right temple. He then relayed information to his superiors, arrested Arambula and instructed Fithian to place the girls on a 48-hour hold with the county.

The girls were placed with Arambula’s father, former Assemblyman Juan Arambula.

The defense provides what it says is an email chain in which various Fresno police personnel report Arambula’s arrest up the chain of command to Dyer.

The next morning, Arambula’s daughter was interviewed by Josie Roderick, a forensic interviewer with the Family Healing Center. The center is part of the multidisciplinary interview center, meaning it provides qualified specialists to conduct a single, videotaped interview that is available for a variety of local agencies, including law enforcement, Fresno County and advocacy groups.

The summary quotes the girl’s interview with Roderick several times. The full interview was not made public.

When asked by Roderick about the bruise, she described the argument with her sister and how her father had allegedly hurt her.

He first pushed her on the bed, the quoted section says, then when she began to scream, he hit her in the mouth while holding her head with his other hand. As he attempted to leave the room, he tripped on a toy and accidentally hit her again, the girl reportedly said.

They then had a conversation before Arambula left the room to check on another daughter.

“When my dad came back in, I talked to him and this time he understood, and he said that he would give me a treat in the morning, because of all the mean things that he did,” the girl said, according to the summary.

When asked about other times in which her dad did things that were not nice, the girl mentioned several examples. She said Arambula once kicked her because she had kicked her sister after her sister had punched her. Another time, he squeezed her very hard when she would not leave the restroom.

The girl was asked why she did not tell her mom after she was kicked, and she said she worried that her mom “was going to call the police on her dad.” She told Rodrick that she knew about “child laws” that say a child should not be injured.

She then said that several people, including her father, make her feel safe.

The girl gave a similar interview to Fithian, the county social worker, with the exception that she described Arambula’s physical contact as slaps.

Arambula and his wife were cooperative with police the following day, the summary reports, and denied any sort of violence against their daughter – saying only that open-palmed spankings on the girls’ clothed buttocks were a last resort in normal family discipline.

The assemblyman noted he has spent his life as a healer (Arambula is a physician), and that he was well aware of the adverse effects of childhood trauma – something he said he would never inflict on his children.

The girls are normally given timeouts or lose privileges when in trouble, Arambula told police.

Elizabeth described her husband as a gentle man, and told police she had never seen him hurt their children.

Detectives spoke to the girl’s teacher and several other school employees, who each said nothing like this had happened before.

Her second-grade teacher said the girl arrived late on Dec. 10 and seemed a little annoyed but was otherwise participating as normal. She eventually told her teacher about a bruise she had sustained the night before. The girl told her teacher she fell while playing with her sister.

One teacher said she did not notice a bruise when the girl asked her for an ice pack during recess.

Fithian conducted a follow-up interview with the girl in January. She told Fithian that things were good. She said she sometimes gets jealous when her father pays too much attention to her younger sisters.

When asked if she had ever hurt herself when frustrated or mad, the girl told Fithian she had done so several times in the past.

Fithian then contacted the girl’s teacher for another interview, in which the teacher said the girl was intelligent and more advanced than other students in the class, but she can sometime be difficult or defiant.

The Department of Social Services released the Arambulas’ three children back to their parents two days after Arambula’s arrest. The summary said that on March 7, the county’s Department of Social Services found there was insufficient evidence to prove either abuse or neglect and decided against further intervention.

In an interview with The Bee on Tuesday, Department of Social Services Director Delfino Neira said he could not comment on any specific cases handled by his office. In general, he added, case workers are looking to assess whether a living situation presents the possibility of further risk to the child.

Neira said his department’s investigations have separate criteria from those used in the criminal investigation process.

Motion to dismiss

After the 12-page summary of the facts, Arambula’s attorneys ask for the case to be dismissed.

The motion contains the email the defense says is from Smittcamp to Dyer, in which she asks Dyer how his detectives obtained documents from the Department of Social Services.

Smittcamp notes that these records must be obtained through a court order from a juvenile court. She said she was not aware of this happening in this case, and instructed her attorneys not to provide the confidential Social Services documents until they can conduct a proper hearing.

Dyer then forwarded this email to Deputy Chief Pat Farmer, who he asked to figure out what happened and explain it to him through email. Farmer in turn sent it to Lt. Tom Laband. No further emails in this chain are attached to the motion.

Arambula’s attorneys argue that the sensitive Social Services records were obtained illegally, saying that even Smittcamp admitted this in her emails.

On Tuesday, Dyer denied that his investigators violated the law by collecting the documents from Social Services. He said the law was changed about a decade ago to allow for law enforcement to obtain the reports without a court hearing.

Dyer said there are additional emails, which the defense did not include in its motion, that show the Fresno County Counsel’s office clarifying this for both Smittcamp and Dyer.

“I don’t know if (Arambula’s attorneys) know that the law has changed, but we did not obtain any evidence illegally,” Dyer said.

Smittcamp confirmed Dyer’s telling of what unfolded between himself, Smittcamp and county attorneys during the email conversation. She declined to comment any further on the case.

In addition to the alleged illegal evidence collection, Arambula’s attorneys argue that he has a Constitutional right to parent his children using reasonable discipline and loving practices.

They say the court must be especially wary of any alleged crime that involves such discipline, and note several times that Social Services did not deem Arambula a future risk to the child.

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