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Essapour in court over ID theft of DeMartini
The preliminary hearing for Serena Essapour, the Turlock woman accused of identity theft of a Ceres area county supervisor, got underway Friday, but only after her lawyer lodged an objection to the Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office prosecuting the case.

High-profile attorney Mark Geragos asked the county district attorney's office to recuse itself from prosecuting the case because the key complainant, Stanislaus County supervisor Jim DeMartini, of rural Ceres, controls their funding. In his request, Geragos also pointed to campaign contributions by DeMartini to District Attorney Birgit Fladager during her bid for election. His contention was that the district attorney's office would be beholden to DeMartini to prosecute the case in a certain manner.

"On its face value, it is a violation of her due process and rights," Geragos said.

"The Stanislaus County Board of supervisors has no right to determine the direction of the district attorney's office," said Deputy District Attorney Dawna Frenchie. "We are handling this case just like any other matter."

A motion to recuse a district attorney has to be filed within 10 court days before the motion can be heard, according to state penal code 1424. Geragos' request was only brought up on Friday, the day the preliminary hearing was scheduled to start.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Thomas Zeff denied the request, citing its untimely nature and because he did not believe a conflict of interest existed.

"I find it hard to believe that Mr. DeMartini's status as a supervisor has been unknown to you," Zeff said. "I'm concerned why this motion was not brought forth at an earlier time."

"A conflict of interest is never untimely," Geragos replied back.

In making his ruling, Zeff pointed out that DeMartini alone does not determine the funding for the district attorney's office.

"He's one of five, so he himself does not control the purse strings of the district attorney's office," Zeff said.

Geragos had it placed on record that he was proceeding with the preliminary hearing under protest.

Once the preliminary hearing got underway, the prosecution presented witnesses and evidence to link Essapour with credit cards under DeMartini's name.

Essapour, who worked for the Journal for eight months, is accused of using Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini's identity to open up credit cards.

Essapour pled not guilty in October 2006, to charges of false impersonation, misuse of personal identifying information, and grand theft.

The Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office contends that Essapour used DeMartini's Social Security number from a loan document to open up at least two credit cards over the Internet. The district attorney's office said Essapour rang up close to $10,000 in charges during a one month period.

The on-line applications list DeMartini as the primary card holder and Essapour as an authorized user. The applications have his Social Security number, but the billing address is for Essapour's residence.

The majority of the transactions listed for the two cards are for businesses in Turlock, including coffee shops, convenience stores, and restaurants. At least one charge made in a Santa Clara store was for $1,764.47 and another for $526.99 was made to a floral company.

Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department Detective Mason Mineni testified that he collected video surveillance from two Turlock convenience stores that showed a woman matching Essapour's description purchasing items that matched with the credit card transactions. Mineni said one video recorded in June of 2006, showed the woman wearing a "distinctively colorful outfit" using one of the cards and then leaving in a white, two-door Honda with paper plates. When Mineni went to Essapour's residence on July 11, 2006, the same Honda was parked outside and Essapour answered the door in the same outfit.

During a conversation with the detectives, Essapour allegedly told them that she knew why they were there, that she had opened the cards over the Internet and that she did not have permission to do so.

In his report, Mineni states that Essapour told the detectives that she had that very day contacted DeMartini to tell him about the cards and that she would pay the charges. When DeMartini was reached by the detective he denied talking to Essapour that day, according to Mineni.

Despite the evidence being presented against her, Essapour appeared to be unnerved.

A recess was called during Mineni's testimony and the preliminary hearing was scheduled to pick up again on Dec. 4.

Geragos indicated that during that time he would file a motion to have the entire district attorney's office removed from the case. The motion would require a separate hearing and if approved, the state attorney general's office would have to take over the prosecution.

The presence of Geragos - who defended Scott Peterson, Winona Ryder, Michael Jackson, and other high profile clients - in a Stanislaus County courtroom was enough to draw some onlookers, most of them other attorneys.