Jury deliberations got underway Wednesday in the trial of a felon accused of molesting an underage relative for more than eight years in the San Jacinto Mountain community of Pinyon Pines.
Stanford James Stelle III, who was arrested in 2015, is charged with sexually assaulting the girl from 2003, when she was 5 years old, until 2012, when she was 13.
The Pinyon Pines resident, who turned 42 on Wednesday, faces a maximum 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.
During her closing argument Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Gypsy Yeager played for jurors a recording of a phone call in which Stelle can be heard apologizing to his alleged victim.
“I would go back in a time machine if I could,” Stelle told her in the March 2015 call. “Nothing was worth making you feel bad. I never thought you would.”
During the recording, Stelle appeared to attempt to normalize his interactions with the girl, saying “it’s not all that uncommon. It’s pretty normal.”
Despite being prodded to divulge additional information, Stelle refused to go into much detail over the phone, but at no time — according to the audio clips played by the prosecution — did he deny sexually assaulting her.
Charges against the 6-foot-5-inch-tall defendant were filed 10 days later.
The trial got underway Nov. 30 at the Larson Justice Center in Indio. The alleged victim in the case, now in her early 20s, was the first witness to be called for the prosecution. She cried on the stand as she detailed the alleged molestation, which she said occurred on a weekly basis for years.
“He told me it was normal, that it happened in every family,” she said.
The defendant took the stand in his own defense last Wednesday, testifying that the charges against him stemmed 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,” Stelle said.
Defense attorney John Patrick Dolan alleged the girl’s mother sought — unsuccessfully — to extort vast sums of money from his client because he is the beneficiary of a trust worth a considerable amount of money.
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.
The mother eventually alerted law enforcement after several counseling sessions with the victim, defendant and other family members, the prosecutor said.
Two of the alleged crimes occurred in a shower, according to the prosecution. While the defendant did not admit in his testimony to molesting the young girl, he did say he took a shower with her once.
“I remember taking a shower and having (her) come in the shower,” he said.
According to prosecutors, she was 5 years old at the time.
A declaration in support of an arrest warrant prepared by a Riverside County sheriff’s investigator said that in March 2015, after the alleged molestation had stopped, Stelle and the girl spoke over the phone and she recorded the conversation and handed it over to law enforcement.
During the call, the document says he admitted to saying “he was seeking help from a doctor for his problems.”
One of the last alleged acts occurred during a birthday party for a 91-year-old relative, according to court papers.
Stelle, who has a previous marijuana-related felony conviction, according to his attorney, 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.
Stelle remains behind bars in lieu of $1 million bail at the Smith Correctional Facility in Banning.
His trial is one of the few slated to go forward for at least the next several weeks in Riverside County amid an order 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.