A matter of survival

A Chico woman’s hellish and hazy nightmare of rape, robbery and—finally—revenge

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

On Aug. 5, 2003, Vanessa Ward and a friend visited LaSalles in downtown Chico to check out “Phat Tuesday,” a popular night-time theme at the club where a disk jockey spins hip-hop music and a diverse crowd gathers, usually packing the joint by midnight.

The dance floor fills, bodies grind together as alcohol is consumed, and sometimes good judgment—by both men and women—takes flight.

Ward and her friend, a woman she had known for about two months, arrived around 10 p.m. The last time Ward, 39 at the time and separated from her husband, had stepped foot inside LaSalles was 15 years ago, when it was a fern bar and entertainment hotspot for Chico’s 30- and 40-something professionals who sipped chardonnay and rocked to cover bands playing songs like “Sea Cruise” and “Louie, Louie.”

But that was a different time in Chico: before students took over the downtown nightclubs and bars, before the wall-shuddering beat of hip-hop music, and before date-rape drugs slipped into the scene.

Ward’s life would be changed forever on this warm August night in a four-hour span during which she would be drugged, raped and robbed in her north Chico home by two younger men from Yuba City who regularly made the weekly trip to Chico for Phat Tuesday.

Ward brought her story to the News & Review both as a sort of self-therapy and to share a cautionary tale with other women telling of the dangers that can lurk below the peaceful surface of a town like Chico.

Initially she was willing to use her real name and an untouched photo for the story. But after reliving the incident by relating it to the CN&R, she changed her mind, still afraid of possible ramifications more than a year after she was attacked.

Ward seldom smiles. Any hint of amusement or joy seems to have drained from her face, which is defined by high cheekbones, dark-brown eyes and a strong, almost defiant chin. Her skin is smooth, her hair a thatch of fiery red ringlets.

She speaks haltingly, resigned to the fact she can’t change what has happened. She has had to learn to live with her waking nightmare, which includes a divorce, estrangement from her teenage daughter, sleepless nights and an inability to trust anyone fully or ever truly feel safe in her own home.

Rape is a crime that seldom ends with a conviction. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey says his office is successful about 30 percent of the time. Rape Crisis, the community agency that helps rape victims, estimates only 15 percent of rapes are successfully prosecuted because many are never reported.

And, if they are, investigators must first establish that a crime has indeed occurred. Is the alleged victim credible? What about the accused? Even DNA evidence, first brought to the nation’s attention during the infamous O. J. Simpson murder case 10 years ago, establishes only that the accused was there. He can always say the sex was consensual; that it was enthusiastically shared by both parties and perhaps got a little rough. Think of the Kobe Bryant case.

Mix in alcohol, impaired judgment and a foggy memory, and the chances against arrest and prosecution climb.

Even then, there is no guarantee the case will be prosecuted. As a rule, the District Attorney’s Office files only the cases it believes it can win. And, after all of this, if the victim decides not to testify, which often happens, the case is dead.

Ward and her friend Adrian decided to go to Phat Tuesday that August night to check out the disk jockey. At the time Ward also worked as a DJ, spinning CDs in the lounge at the Holiday Inn. The DJ working that night at LaSalles had a good reputation in the trade. Ward thought she could pick up some tips to polish her own act.

When they first arrived, Adrian went to the bar and ordered two rum and Cokes.

“We sat down and those guys were at a table and we walked by and one of them waved at me,” Ward recalled. “We just kept walking. I ignored him, and then I stopped and thought maybe I know him. I turned around and walked back to the table and said, ‘Do I know you?’

“He goes something like, ‘No, but I’d like to.’ And I thought to myself, ‘Whatever.’ I’ve heard it all.”

The man, who said his name was “Frankie,” asked the women if they would dance once the music started, and they said sure. They took a table across from the four men, finished their drinks and then ordered a second. The disk jockey began playing music, and the women hit the dance floor. The men followed.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” Ward said. “My girlfriend went back and sat down because she didn’t want to lose our table. So she kind of leaves me out there. We’re just kind of dancing and that’s all that is happening.

“The guy who called himself Frankie asked me for my address, and I just looked at him and said, ‘I’m not going to give you my address. I don’t know you.’ I said, ‘Whatever happened to asking a girl for her phone number?'”

A bit put off by the man’s aggressive approach, Ward rejoined Adrian at their table. A short time later Frankie approached with a rum and Coke in hand, offering it as an apology for his behavior (he had asked Ward earlier on the dance floor what she was drinking).

“I drank about a third of it, and I thought it didn’t taste right,” she said. “I went back out on the dance floor and those guys started dancing with me again and after about 15 minutes I started feeling really funny.”

Her legs, she said, “felt like noodles.” Frankie and one of his friends shuffled her to a corner of the dance floor.

As it would turn out, Frankie was in fact Melvin Terrell Halsey; his friend was named Don Juan Smith. Both were from Yuba City, were married and had children.

“They started to grind up against me, and then he asked me again for my address,” Ward recalled.

She again refused. He asked for her phone number.

“I gave it to him,” she said. “This is something that I would never do. I didn’t give my husband my phone number on our first date.”

She gave Halsey the number, she said, in hopes he would back off.

When she exited the dance floor, Adrian asked if she was OK, noting that she seemed pretty drunk for the limited amount of alcohol she’d consumed. At about 12:30 they decided to leave. They looked around and saw the men had gone.

“I remember telling my girlfriend that I thought those guys were kind of creepy,” Ward said.

Adrian drove Ward home, dropped her off and saw her stumble as she made her way to her front door. She would later say she thought the stumble was a result of the night of dancing.

According to court documents, a woman named Christie Leach was with the group of men that night, though Ward said she never saw them together at the bar.

Robert Ponce, the Butte County Sheriff’s Department detective who worked on Vanessa Ward’s case, has been with the department seven years, the last three as a detective. Sexual assaults, he said, are the most difficult cases to prove: “The D.A. has a moral obligation not to take cases to trial that he does not feel he can win.”

Photo By Tom Angel

Leach would later tell investigators that she and the four men went to a Chevron station for something to eat after leaving the bar. She used a cell phone to call Ward and get directions to her home. Leach lived in Chico and knew the streets. Leach and Ward continued to talk on the phone as the group drove toward the house.

Ward said she is at a loss to explain why she gave directions to her home in the early morning hours to these people she didn’t know.

“At this time the drug is really taking effect,” she said. “You just tell them whatever they want to know; it is like a truth serum.”

The last thing she said she remembers in full is a car load of people arriving in her driveway and then forcing their way into her house. The rest, she said, comes in flashes.

Court records, based on the testimony of those involved, say Ward either turned on the television or offered to put on a movie for her late-night visitors and told them there was food in the refrigerator.

According to Halsey’s attorney, Donald Wahlberg, “It was Christie’s opinion that [Ward] was trying to make everybody comfortable because she was going into the back bedroom with defendant Halsey.”

The court record goes on to suggest Ward went into the bedroom with Halsey and undressed with him willingly.

Ward would later write in a journal that she recalled Halsey taking her by the arm and leading her to the bedroom.

“That is one of the last full memories I have of that night,” she wrote. “The rest of my experience was as if I was out of my own body and came to me in flashes and nightmares. Flashes of being an observer, and not a participant. Flashes of being naked and not knowing how I got that way.”

Halsey, according to court documents, at one point grabbed Ward by the wrist and threw her down on the bed. Ward told Halsey “no.” But Halsey forced himself on her and began having intercourse. Within a few minutes, Smith knocked on the door. He later told investigators that he was greeted by a naked Halsey, who went back to having intercourse with Ward and then asked Smith if he wanted “a piece of this.”

According to court records, Smith tried to engage in anal sex with Ward, using his fingers and penis. All the while, Ward kept telling the men to stop. She said the pain was horrendous.

A medical exam would later reveal a torn rectum among Ward’s many injuries. Her vagina was also damaged to the point that she had to have corrective surgery. Both men had sex with Ward. Their testimony to the sheriff’s investigator sounds more like a Penthouse letter than a description of a rape.

Halsey left the room. Smith continued to have sex with Ward. At one point, there was a knock on the door and a woman’s voice said it was time to go. Ward would later wonder how another woman could stand by and allow this to happen. Smith said he was almost done, to give him a few more minutes.

According to court records, Leach said she was passed out on the couch while the assault took place and had no idea what was going on. Charges were never brought against Leach or the other two men in the group.

After another knock on the door, a frustrated Smith gave up. When the bedroom door opened and the light came in from the hallway, Ward saw it was Smith who had assaulted her in the darkened bedroom.

She said she slowly started regaining her awareness. At about 4 a.m. she was alert enough to notice things had disappeared from her home. There was $250 missing from her purse, which was sitting on the kitchen table. A number of her CDs and DVDs, the hard drive from her computer and even pieces of meat from her refrigerator were gone as well.

She called Adrian and told her the men from the bar had come over and now things were missing. She also said she remembered kissing the man named Frankie. Adrian told her to call the Sheriff’s Department.

Matt Keeling, the deputy who responded to her call, arrived at about 5 a.m. He observed that Ward seemed highly intoxicated. Ward thinks she was still under the influence of the drug slipped into the drink Halsey brought her.

“He treated it nonchalantly,” Ward said of Keeling. “At that point I couldn’t remember I’d been raped.”

In his report Keeling said Ward told him she had engaged in consensual sex with Halsey. He suggested she call back after she’d sobered up. A few hours after the deputy left, Ward noticed the pain.

“I was really, really sore and was bleeding out the rectum,” she said. “The memories started coming back, and I called the Sheriff’s Department again.”

On the afternoon of Aug. 6 Sheriff’s Detective Robert Ponce was on his way to interview another victim in another crime when he received a phone call from a patrol sergeant asking for help with a case just received from dispatch.

It was Ward calling back.

This time Ward not only reported things were missing from her home but added that she had been assaulted by two men. By that time, Ponce said, Ward had started to figure things out. Ponce met with Ward, her husband and friend Adrian in Ward’s home and interviewed her for about 45 minutes.

This was at about 3:30 in the afternoon, more than 12 hours after she’d been raped. Ponce scheduled a forensic exam with Dr. Lisa Benaron.

During the interview, Ward pieced together for Ponce what had happened the night before: meeting the men, the drinks, the dancing and her suspicions that she’d been slipped a drug.

She told him about the phone call she received once she got home and how she had given directions to her house.

“She said once inside the house these guys just kind of took over,” Ponce said. “She said they started going through her pantry and her refrigerator looking for things to eat or drink. They made themselves feel at home.”

Ponce said he reserved judgment. He was looking, as he does in such cases, to establish the accuser’s credibility.

“When you first meet victims, you look at how they are retelling the story,” he said. “Are they getting upset or is the story being told in just a matter-of-fact manner. You try to establish what would be their motive for fabricating this story.”

Ponce says he listened for such clues in the first 30 minutes.

“The one thing I’ve learned from being a cop is all we do is gather facts,” he said. “That’s all we do. We write down what people tell us. We don’t judge them based on what they tell us.”

Ward told Ponce that initially her behavior with Halsey was consensual, at least until he grabbed her by the wrist, spun her around and threw her down on the bed.

Don Juan Smith, top, and, Melvin Terrell Halsey, bottom, each pled no contest last May 3 to charges of forcible rape against a Chico woman. Halsey was sentenced to eight years and Smith to six in the state prison system.

Courtesy Of Butte County District Attourney's Office

“At this point she said her head was buried in the pillow and she said even if she wanted to scream she couldn’t,” Ponce said.

Ward described the feeling to Ponce as “an out-of-body experience.”

She told him she felt she was watching it take place from somewhere else, that she could see it unfolding but had no way to stop it.

“She said even if she were sober she didn’t think she could stop these men because they were bigger and stronger and very, very aggressive,” Ponce said.

After the interview, Ward went to Enloe Medical Center with Ponce for the examination by Dr. Benaron, who told Ponce that it was obvious from Ward’s injuries that she had been raped.

“I had so much bruising on my body that the rape exam doctor said she’d never seen anything like it,” Ward said.

Dr. Benaron later reported Ward’s bruising was greater than any she had seen in the more than 80 rape cases she has attended.

Ward’s blood was drawn. GHB, the drug she suspects she was given, stays in the system four to eight hours, so by the time she was tested, it had vanished. However, there was no alcohol in her blood either. Her acute level of intoxication when Keeling talked to her earlier, Ward believes, was due to the drug.

“At this point I felt we had a very legitimate victim,” Ponce said. “But we didn’t have any names. We had nothing to go on. Basically, we had that they were black men in their 20s. One was short and stocky, the other was taller and thinner. That was it.”

For the next few weeks, Ponce said, Ward would call him and ask how the case was coming along.

“The only thing I could think of was going to LaSalles,” he said. “She was surrounded by a support group of friends very willing to help her.”

The initial plan was for Ponce and another detective go to LaSalles and to have Ward’s friend Adrian try to identify the suspects. They tried it over one month, hitting LaSalles on Phat Tuesday each week. The first two times they struck out. The suspects were not there or at least could not be located.

The third time, Adrian reported seeing the suspects inside.

“My plan was after last call to have a patrol officer ready to conduct a vehicle stop for any kind of vehicle violation we could think of,” Ponce said. “They would ID the passengers and then conduct a photo line-up with [Ward] to see if they had the right men.”

But the plan unraveled when a commotion broke out on the sidewalk—someone mentioned a gun, and people panicked, running in different directions.

“We lost these guys during all the craziness,” Ponce said.

By the fourth Phat Tuesday, Ponce’s bosses were becoming impatient with the lack of progress. The set up at LaSalles could take place only once a week, but each time it tied him and a partner up for six hours.

On top of that, Ponce had his own life to attend to—his wife had a baby and his father-in-law died.

During the whole time Ward, who had Halsey’s phone number from her caller ID, kept in contact with the man who had raped her. With support from the Sheriff’s Department, she had to convince him she remembered nothing of the assault, though on the first call she did ask why he had taken things from her home. He denied any knowledge of the missing items.

“He kept calling, and he started to think we had some kind of relationship,” Ward said. “It was creepy. At this point, he thinks he’s gotten away with it. I wanted to catch them so bad, I didn’t care what we had to do. It was vengeance more than anything that kept me going.”

She talked on the phone with Halsey six times. In one call, she said, Halsey mentioned something about wanting to come over to her house, go to dinner, and “spend quality time” with her.

“That is what he said. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘You’re sick,'” Ward recalled.

Finally, with his bosses breathing down his neck, Ponce made one last trip to LaSalles. Ward wanted to come along. Halsey and Smith were expected to be there. She had set it up.

Ponce said he questioned the wisdom of having Ward there.

“I was leery of this because I didn’t want her to freak out when she saw this guy,” he explained. “I mean, this guy and his friend had just raped her. I didn’t want her to have a confrontation with this guy that may damage the case in any way.”

That night Ward called Ponce on his cell phone to tell him she was waiting at LaSalles with her friend.

“All of her friends, including her husband, told her not to go, but she is determined to find this guy, identify him and help put him in jail,” Ponce said.

Ward told Ponce she had seen the men in line on the sidewalk. Once they were inside, Ward walked up to them and started talking.

“When I saw him for the first time after the rape I wanted to run out the door,” she recalled. “Then I got really pissed off, and I went right up to them and started talking to them like nothing had ever happened. At first they were a little apprehensive.”

She and Ponce still didn’t have the suspects’ real names—or at least they couldn’t be sure. She tried to get their names, but without luck.

“I told her at that point to just leave, that she had done more that night than anyone could have expected,” Ponce said.

Ponce had the LaSalles bouncers call the men out of the bar, where he told Halsey and Smith that he was with Alcohol Beverage Control and that a couple of women had complained that the men were harassing them on the dance floor. He asked for their IDs and got Halsey’s name.

Ward and Adrian had learned Don Juan Smith’s name that first night but thought it was made up. An investigation of Halsey revealed he indeed had a friend named Don Juan Smith. They got Smith’s DMV photo and showed it to Ward, who made a positive identification.

Prosecutor Tamara Mosbarger warned rape survivor Vanessa Ward that if the case against Halsey and Smith went to trial, it would take only a single juror doubting her story for the men to escape punishment.

Photo By Tom Angel

Ponce got an arrest warrant for both men. He planned to go to Yuba City to arrest them, but before he was able to do so, he learned Ward had made plans to meet with Halsey again at LaSalles.

“She knew that I wanted to arrest them, so she told them to meet at a specific spot,” Ponce said. “She called the Sheriff’s Office and told them that Halsey was wanted. They saw the warrant and called me.”

A deputy arrested Halsey outside LaSalles that night.

They next day Halsey told Ponce that he didn’t know Ward. Then he changed his story to say he knew her but never had sex with her. He changed his story again and said they had consensual sex.

“If you had sex with a person and it was consensual, why wouldn’t you just come out and say it?” Ponce reasoned.

Halsey named Don Juan as the other fellow involved. It turned out Halsey had been convicted of rape 10 years earlier. He and Smith had attended a party in Marysville. According to Butte County prosecutor Tamara Mosbarger, court records show that, just as in this case, Smith walked in on Halsey in a back bedroom where he was having sex with a woman and Halsey asked, “Do want some of this?”

Halsey was also convicted of sexual battery on a minor at the same party. He is a registered sex offender.

Smith was arrested at his Yuba City home a few days after Halsey’s arrest outside LaSalles. Smith admitted he had taken some of Ward’s things, including DVDs and the computer hard drive. Smith said Halsey had taken the meat from Ward’s refrigerator.

“Smith came across as very arrogant,” Ponce said. “He referred to himself at the Don Juan. He said, ‘I don’t have to rape girls, because I am the Don Juan.'”

He kept changing the details of exactly what had happened that night. Ponce confronted him with the diagram of injuries the doctor found on Ward.

“The Don Juan said, ‘I didn’t do those. That must have been Halsey.'”

The men started pointing fingers at each other.

The arrests were made in October. The DA’s Office filed on the case but held off on the preliminary hearing until December while deciding how to move forward. The deputy DA assigned the case, Jerry Flanagan, was about to retire. And he had his doubts about the case.

Ward’s blood test had showed no evidence of a date-rape drug; she had given the men directions on how to get to her home and initially consented to have sex with Halsey. After Flanagan retired, Deputy D.A. Mosbarger, a 15-year veteran with 11 years working rape and sex crimes, took over.

“Ponce really pushed for this case to go forward. He believed in the victim, and he really wanted to see them prosecuted,” she said.

“We had something in our favor—a good witness and a lot of bruises; she was covered with bruises.”

Mosbarger met with Ward, then DA Mike Ramsey and finally with Ponce. In the end the decision to go forward had to do with a number of factors, including the doctor’s report, the victim’s credibility and Halsey’s criminal history.

“I found that victim [of the earlier crime], and she was willing to help us,” Mosbarger said. “I could have brought that in to show propensity to commit sexually violent crimes.”

Halsey learned of this development while he and Smith were sitting in the Butte County Jail, each charged with multiple counts including forcible rape, felony assault, sexual battery by restraint and receiving stolen property.

Mosbarger amended the complaint.

“We have a one-strike law, and we have a habitual-offender law,” she said. “Each one carries 25 years to life. And because it was a rape with great bodily injury, there was another 15 years to life. I felt I could prove rape with great bodily injury, with all the bruises and the doctor’s testimony.”

There was an obvious factor here—the fact that a white woman had accused two black men of rape. Could a trial turn into To Kill a Mockingbird, with charges of racism against the accuser?

“My only concern about the race factor—two black men accused of raping a white woman—was that there would be prejudice against her for choosing a black man over a white man and I might have to deal with that with the jury,” Mosbarger said. “It never really crossed my mind they would be prejudiced toward the defendants. I thought they would be prejudiced toward the victim.”

With these charges arrayed against them, Halsey was facing 66 years to life; Smith, 52 years to life. In the end they each pled to a single charge of forcible rape. Halsey, because of his prior conviction, received eight years in state prison; Smith got six.

At the sentencing Ward read a statement.

“I just want to share with you what the last year has been like for me. Following the first 48 hours, I’ve had some incredible medical problems because of what happened in that event. And I had a marriage that was in separation at the time. The event was the straw that broke my marriage’s back. I’m now divorced.

“I have a 17-year-old daughter that was living with me at the time, and because of this crime, she did not feel safe in the same house with me anymore, She said if I, if that horrible thing could happen to me, how could I protect her? She left home early, and I missed out on her senior year at high school. I lost a job because of this event; I could not work for four months, just trying to put myself back together again. I have nightmares. I can’t sleep anymore. I know that it didn’t just affect my life; it was a rippling effect. It’s going to affect the lives of the defendants’ families too.”

Today Ward is trying to put the pieces of her life back together. She takes some comfort in knowing she played a role in putting her attackers behind bars.

“I know that I have everything to do with the fact that these guys were convicted,” she said. “All I could think of was, how many women before me? I’ll be damned if I’m going to have that on my conscience knowing they are still out there doing the same scam and other women are getting hurt and abused and raped. I didn’t want that on my head.”

But while that knowledge has helped, she said, she still feels empty. “I still look at my life and I think this isn’t what I had planned.”

She is managing her own business and, though divorced, remains good friends with her ex-husband.

Now when she’s in a bar setting, she sees what goes on.

“I watch girls walk away from their drinks all the time. I watch guys walk up to the bar and bring these girls drinks and they accept them and they don’t know that guy from Adam and I think, ‘That is what happened to me.’

“I want to yell ‘Hey! Watch your drink, don’t be stupid.' That is why I want the story out there."