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Politics and sex implied at Essapour hearing
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The preliminary hearing of Serena Essapour got underway again on Tuesday, March 18 with both the defense and the prosecution giving a glimpse of what is to come if a trial is ordered.

Deputy District Attorney Dawna Frenchie laid out a straight-forward case of identity theft, presenting evidence of fraudulent credit card charges, while defense attorney Mark Geragos hinted at a more complex story with innuendoes of afternoon rendezvous and political motivations.

The preliminary hearing is being held to determine if Essapour should go to trial on felony charges of false impersonation, misuse of personal identifying information and grand theft. The charges stem from allegations that Essapour used the personal information of Stanislaus County Board of Supervisor Jim DeMartini of Ceres to fraudulently open up credit card accounts and charge up to $10,000 in about one month's time. The prosecution contends Essapour got the information off of loan documents DeMartini co-signed with Essapour to help her buy a new car. DeMartini also supplied Essapour with a $6,500 loan as a down payment, none of which has been repaid. Essapour has pled not guilty to the charges. The preliminary hearing is scheduled to resume on April 1.

Both attorneys brought up questions regarding the exact nature of DeMartini and Essapour's relationship. Stanislaus County Sheriff's Detective Mason Mineni testified Tuesday that during his interview with Essapour after her arrest, she said the two were friends.

"She said they hit it off, which struck me as odd," Mineni said.

DeMartini classified the relationship as a friendship to an acquaintance and that the two knew each other through the local Republican party. DeMartini said that he first came into contact with Essapour when she called him from New York about getting a job with the Republican Central Committee. At the time he was the chairman of the committee. DeMartini said he met her in person after she moved back to the area and that she subsequently was hired for a part-time temporary job with the committee. Under direct questioning from Frenchie, DeMartini said the relationship was never romantic nor sexual, a claim Geragos attempted to cast doubt upon when he questioned DeMartini taking Essapour to a hotel.

"Have you ever been inside a hotel with Miss Essapour?" Geragos asked.

"I do not recall ever going into a hotel with her," DeMartini said.

"Have you ever been to a hotel in Patterson with her?" Geragos asked.

"I don't recall going there with her," DeMartini said.

After the hearing DeMartini's lawyer, Mary Lynn Belsher, called the questioning about the hotels "nonsense."

Geragos questioned DeMartini about the number of lunches the two had and appeared interested in knowing where DeMartini would pick her up at and if he had any meetings or conversations with her employer. At the time, Essapour was employed with Mike Warda, a Turlock-based land use attorney.

When questioned as to why DeMartini helped Essapour purchase a car, he said it was because Essapour told him she was having difficulties getting back and forth to Stanford University, where she was a student. No records have been found that Essapour was ever a student at Stanford.

DeMartini also said he had previously helped two other people purchase vehicles. He testified he loaned money directly to his secretary for her to purchase a car and that he carried the note on another car for a man he knew. Under cross-examination from Geragos, DeMartini said he had never co-signed a loan for a friend.

"I had never done it before and I will never do it again," DeMartini said.

"Is that because you got caught?" Geragos asked.

"No, because my identity was stolen,"" DeMartini replied.

In a previous hearing, the prosecution had presented evidence against Essapour that showed the online applications of two credit cards that used DeMartini's personal information and listed Essapour as an authorized user. In Tuesday's hearing, Frenchie presented further evidence about specific charges made on the credit cards. The credit card charges ranged from Starbucks to Hazel's Fine Dining restaurant in Modesto. They also included purchases from convenience stores and retail outlets. In a bizarre and as yet unexplained detail, two of the charges were for items that were sent to a woman in Michigan. Mineni testified that during his investigation he learned Essapour ordered a $1,700 Movado watch and over $500 worth of flowers and balloons and had them all sent to a Rita Somo in Southfield, Mich. When contacted by investigators, Somo said she believed the birthday gifts were from a man named "Steve," who she only knew via the Internet, according to Mineni's testimony. The woman said she did not know Essapour, Mineni said.

Mineni testified that during an initial interview with Essapour, she made statements saying she had opened the credit card accounts without the consent of DeMartini and that she did so because she wanted to improve her own credit rating and wanted to buy some items.

"She said she knew it was morally and ethically wrong," Mineni said.

On July 11, 2006, the day of Essapour's arrest, she told detectives she had spoken to DeMartini earlier that day and acknowledged using the cards to make purchases and said she would pay the charges, according to Mineni's testimony. Geragos did submit evidence that the charges were subsequently paid off.

Mineni also testified that Essapour asked detectives to retrieve DeMartini's cell phone number from her own cell phone, so she could call him and ask him to bail her out of jail.

"I'm begging you, can't I call him right now? I'm begging you," is what Essapour said to the detectives, according to Mineni.

DeMartini testified that he had spoken to Essapour that day, just prior to him leaving for the swearing-in ceremony of the newly elected Sheriff Adam Christianson and District Attorney Birgit Fladager. According to DeMartini's testimony, the two had had a prior conversation about some red flags on his credit report that involved her name. In that conversation she said she knew nothing about it. In the conversation that took place on the day of her arrest, DeMartini testified Essapour told him a female cousin had gone through her paperwork and was responsible for opening the fraudulent credit cards. Hours later on that same day, DeMartini said he was contacted at the swearing-in ceremony by Mineni, via Sheriff Christianson's phone and was told investigators had obtained video surveillance of Essapour using the credit cards.

"He (Mineni) asked, "Do you want me to arrest her?' and I said yes," DeMartini said.

During previous testimony Mineni said he had collected video surveillance from two Turlock stores, which showed a woman that appeared to be Essapour, using the credit cards to make purchases that corresponded to the transactions listed on the fraudulent cards. 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.