MOLESTATION TRIAL RIVETS SAN MATEO COUNTY
Daily Journal Staff Writer
REDWOOD CITY - San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman peered with concern at the sobbing young man in the witness box last week, the first alleged victim to testify in the trial of a prominent child psychiatrist accused of molesting adolescent boys.
"Take some breaths," Freeman advised, motioning to a courtroom deputy to fetch the witness a cup of water. "Deep, slow ones. It's OK."
It was shaky opening testimony in a high-profile trial that has implicated much of the county's juvenile justice system and raised questions about why defendant William Hamilton Ayres was allowed to treat children for years despite the accusations against him.
The witness, a college student identified as Orion B., broke down as he was recounting how Ayres fondled and masturbated him as a 9-year-old boy during therapy sessions at Ayres' San Mateo office.
Ayres, 75, has pleaded not guilty to 10 felony counts of committing lewd and lascivious acts on six children under the age of 14 between 1988 and 1996 and is free on $750,000 bail. Another dozen or more alleged victims are outside the statute of limitations. People v. Ayres, 06-4366.
The charges have riveted the county, and Freeman spent part of a morning in court rejecting requests by television and still photographers to record opening statements by the prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Melissa R. McKowan of San Mateo, and defense lawyer Doron Weinberg of San Francisco.
The Ayres trial has been delayed several times, most recently because Weinberg was in Los Angeles representing record producer Phil Spector at his murder retrial. The current trial is expected to continue through July.
Who's on trial here?
Ayres faces disgrace and imprisonment, but in a way, San Mateo County juvenile authorities themselves are in the dock. Ayres was a respected figure in the county's juvenile services system for 40 years as school nurses, social workers, judges, court-appointed attorneys and other physicians referred young patients to him.
At least three of Freeman's fellow jurists on the San Mateo County bench sent youths in the juvenile justice system to Ayres.
Former Superior Court Commissioner Patricia T. Bresee of Atherton, who retired in 2003 after years hearing juvenile court cases, is among those who made referrals.
"Yes, I sent kids to Ayres, and I now have great, great guilt and regret," Bresee said. "Thank goodness a police investigation finally led to charges."
The current presiding juvenile court judge, Marta S. Diaz, who also referred cases to Ayres, has come under withering criticism from some in the county who contend she should have known Ayres was a problem as early as 1987, when a man came forward with pedophilia allegations against Ayres - allegations police could not verify.
Diaz at the time was a deputy prosecutor. Her critics assert her assignment in the district attorney's sexual assault unit means she must have heard the allegations against Ayres, and so should have been on notice as a judge to not refer juveniles to him.
Diaz did not return a call last week. In a March interview she dismissed the claims as "bullshit" and said her critics have a "little jihad" against her.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Stephen M. Wagstaffe, who was Diaz's supervisor, said she was on the district attorney's sexual assault team from 1984 to 1986, before the report on Ayres' alleged crimes was filed.
"Her detractors feel she was in a position to know about him, but within our system timewise that doesn't fit," Wagstaffe said. "Is it impossible? I can't say that."
As a judge, Wagstaffe said, "Diaz was known to have appointed [Ayres] with some regularity and spoke very highly of him, even socialized with him."
The third San Mateo County judge known to have referred juveniles to Ayres was Margaret J. Kemp, who retired in 2004 and now works as a neutral for ADR Services Inc. of San Francisco. Kemp could not be reached last week. In a 2007 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, she said Ayres had a "glowing" reputation and "always did good work for the court."
"Every time we saw someone charged with child molest, family and friends would stand up in court - even after the person had pleaded guilty - and say there had to be a mistake, he wouldn't do such a thing," Kemp said. "I hear echoes of that in what I'm saying to you. Oftentimes, child molesters, particularly middle-class, educated people, are completely unsuspected by people who live with them or work with them."
Ayres was president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry from 1993 to 1995. In 2002 the county's board of supervisors voted Ayres a lifetime achievement award for his work with youth.
Allegations take hold
Word of his alleged crimes, however, later erupted, and Ayres was arrested in 2006.
"This is a big case, one that has garnered more attention and more child victims than any other here," said Wagstaffe, the chief deputy district attorney. "If he committed these crimes, he should be locked up for life.
"The district attorney's office feels regret for what happened, but we never referred anyone to him."
In her opening statement, Deputy District Attorney McKowan described the physical exams Ayres allegedly gave his victims as "a ruse designed by a pedophile" that turned into molestations and "creeped out" adolescent males sent to him for treatment.
Defense attorney Weinberg insisted there was no improper touching, only routine physicals administered by a pediatrician who later became a child psychiatrist.
Physical exams are no longer the norm for psychiatrists, Weinberg said. "Some things shifted in the profession. Some things became too dangerous to do."
Weinberg elicited testimony from Orion B.'s mother that the youth had had some sexual issues with a sibling and a playmate and that he'd been born with a hormonal imbalance that sometimes inhibits genital development. The clear implication was that Ayres was correct to conduct a physical.
In the 1960s Ayres generated controversy by working with the public television station KQED to produce a series of films for youths that included sex education content, then a controversial topic.
The films were shown in San Mateo County schoolrooms to fifth and sixth graders, provoking a parental backlash. "Dr. Ayres became a lightning rod symbol in a very polarized community," Weinberg said.
"Am I saying he was targeted because of his announced views? No. What's really going on here is that young people with emotional psychiatric burdens have misconstrued, elaborated and exaggerated. I'm not saying it's their fault. But they brought their own set of problems to their experience with Dr. Ayres."