Photo from Pixabay.
Photo from Pixabay.

A man accused of molesting an underage relative for more than eight years in the San Jacinto Mountain community of Pinyon Pines near Palm Springs testified Wednesday that the allegations stem from a blackmail scheme perpetrated by the alleged victim’s methamphetamine-addicted mother.

“She told me I could afford $100,000 because it was going to cost a lot more than that if I went to jail,” said Stanford James Stelle III, 41, of Pinyon Pines.

Stelle, who is accused of sexually assaulting the girl from 2003, when she was 5 years old, until 2012, when she was 13, said the victim’s mother asked for various sums of money in the lead up to his arrest in 2015 in order to pay back her drug dealers.

He has refuted the allegations of sexual assault.

The defendant faces a potential life sentence if convicted of six counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child, one count of committing sex acts on a child under 10 years old and three counts each of oral copulation on a minor and lewd acts on a child under 14 years by using force.

Defense testimony began Wednesday at the Larson Justice Center in Indio, a day after the prosecution rested following about a week and a half of calling its witnesses.

The alleged victim was the first witness to testify last week. The woman, who is now in her early 20s, cried on the stand as she detailed the alleged molestation, which she said occurred on a weekly basis for years in Pinyon Pines.

“He told me it was normal, that it happened in every family,” she said.

Deputy District Attorney Gypsy Yeager alleged in her opening statement that the abuse came to light when the victim was 16 years old. Yeager said the girl and her mother were having a conversation two days before Thanksgiving 2014 about her interest in dating an older man, who a sheriff’s investigator said was about 20 years older than her.

The mother eventually alerted law enforcement after several counseling sessions with the victim, defendant and other family members, the prosecutor said.

“This has broken up the entire family,” Yeager said. “It is not a feel-good story that has a happy ending.”

Two of the alleged crimes occurred in a shower. While the defendant did not specifically admit to molesting the young girl while on the stand, he did admit to taking a shower with her once.

“I remember taking a shower and having (the victim) come in the shower,” he said.

According to prosecutors, she was 5 years old when the shower incidents occurred.

A declaration in support of an arrest warrant prepared by a Riverside County sheriff’s investigator said that in March 2015, after the molestation had stopped, the victim and Stelle spoke over the phone in a recorded conversation, when he admitted to molesting her. During the call, he allegedly said he would “take it all back” if he could and said “he was seeking help from a doctor for his problems,” the document alleges. He was charged 10 days after the call, court records show.

One of the last acts occurred during a birthday party for a 91-year-old relative, court papers say.

Stelle has a previous marijuana-related felony conviction, according to his attorney.

He was previously found mentally incompetent to stand trial and was transferred to a state mental hospital for treatment. Criminal proceedings were restarted last year after the court found his competency had been restored.

The defendant remains behind bars on $1 million bail at the Smith Correctional Facility in Banning.

Stelle’s trial is one of the few slated to go forward for at least the next several weeks in Riverside County amid an order issued Monday barring new jury trials from beginning due to a second surge in COVID-19 cases.

The order, set to remain in effect until Dec. 31, forbids new jury trials from starting, but does not affect ones already in progress, which will be addressed on a case-by-case basis, according to the Riverside County Superior Court.

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