Sex, drugs and guns

Those in charge of Tehama County’s juvenile hall may be contributing to the kids’ delinquency

Photo illustration of model by Tina Flynn

The city of Red Bluff has been buzzing with rumors of juvenile-hall employees having sex with their inmates, offering them guns and drugs, and in some cases manhandling them. The charges have come out in the Sacramento Valley Mirror newspaper quite plainly, in multiple stories that started when freelance reporter Barry Clausen was allegedly attacked at gunpoint by a juvenile-hall employee.

The amazing thing is, with all the interviews the Valley Mirror did—with Tehama County employees, former employees (Clausen himself worked in the juvenile hall for two years), inmates and former inmates—nobody with any clout is saying word one about the allegations.

Valley Mirror reporter Sara Inés Calderón has interviewed a dozen witnesses, and Clausen probably talked to twice as many.

He was fired from the facility—called the Juvenile Justice Center—shortly after calling attention to what he considered to be child abuse. But when reporters have questioned county supervisors, the district attorney, even the head of the juvenile hall, mum’s the word.

So what exactly is going on? Two women quit over the summer, as did their boss, former Chief Probation Officer Dan Emry, but nobody has yet been acknowledged as a perpetrator. Is there a conspiracy to hide child abuse, sexual misconduct and other serious crimes being performed by staff? If not, why hasn’t anyone come forward to deny the allegations?

When Barry Clausen walked into the Tehama County Courthouse hallway last Monday (Sept. 28), the room erupted with chatter. Clausen is not a movie star, nor does he command attention, but this was his day in court, and everybody knew it.

Clausen, with his gray hair combed neatly and beard sharply trimmed, smiled despite the seriousness of his reason for being in the courthouse. On March 31, Clausen says, while working as a freelance journalist, he had a gun pulled on him in a church parking lot after questioning a woman, Melissa Lynn Jones, about certain employees’ alleged sexual encounters with boys in juvenile hall, where she worked as a counselor.

Clausen had been working on a story for the Valley Mirror. According to police reports, he followed Jones from her place of employment—Tehama County’s Department of Mental Health—to the church parking lot, a place she had chosen for the interview. After a few minutes of her not answering his questions, Clausen told her the interview was over and walked to his car.

He heard a noise behind him.

When he turned around, Jones screamed, “I’m going to kill you!” according to Clausen’s description to officers that day. She had a .45-caliber Glock pistol pointed at his face. After a brief struggle, 67-year-old Clausen managed to get the gun from Jones, who at 5-foot-8 and 130 pounds, is hardly a force to be reckoned with, considering Clausen’s military experience.

According to reports, Jones then went after Clausen with her fists and he hit back with the gun, striking her in the head. Then she threw rocks at him, which missed, and he was able to grab his cell phone to dial 911.

When the police arrived, they retrieved the Glock, which was not loaded, and found a box of ammunition, along with prescriptions for Alprazolam (Xanax, an antidepressant), Cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril, a muscle relaxant) and Tramadol (a pain killer) in Jones’ vehicle.

Melissa Jones speaks with a young Hispanic man outside the courtroom shortly before sharing an embrace and kiss.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Now Jones, who lives in Chico, faces felony charges of assault with a firearm and making terrorist threats. Sept. 28 was her trial-readiness hearing. As the attractive 40-year-old blonde, her hair cut in a cute bob that reached her shoulders, stood before the court, Clausen and his supporters looked on, fingers crossed that the DA wouldn’t just throw the case out.

Jones’ lawyer asked to postpone the trial by judge until Nov. 19 from its previously scheduled Oct. 22 date. His wish was granted. Jones, a licensed marriage and family therapist, cannot use that license for the time being, as a condition of her bail.

Upon leaving the courtroom, Clausen and his supporters stood in the hallway once more, among them, his wife, Julie, and a boy—now an adult—who claims to have been a witness to some of the crimes juvenile-hall employees allegedly committed. There were also a few Hispanic families, sitting in the chairs lining the windows on this second floor, awaiting their turn at the judge. Jones had apparently left the building.

Then, not five minutes after walking out of the courtroom she came confidently back up the stairs to talk to one of the young Hispanic men. They walked down the stairs together, embraced, and shared a kiss.

The young man, later identified by witnesses as a possible Norteño gang member, said he and Jones were just “friends” and that the kiss (on the cheek) was simply to thank her for wishing him luck in his trial. He faces charges of assault with a deadly weapon and possession of a controlled substance.

In August, the Valley Mirror, based in Willows, launched a series of four articles exposing the results of a lengthy investigation into actions taken by certain employees at juvenile hall. After talking with former employees (Clausen being one of them), current employees and a number of juveniles and their parents, reporter Calderón was able to piece together a depiction of events that, if true, constituted inmate abuse at best and serious criminal behavior at worst.

According to her articles, one former male detainee described a female counselor’s sexual advances toward him, how she would rub his leg and “talk sexy” to him during their counseling sessions. He refused her advances, but said he knew of other guys who did not. According to Calderón’s stories, this woman and another who worked in the facility were widely known for their sexual relationships with kids in juvenile hall—inside and outside its walls.

One particularly graphic story Calderón relates involves a kid who went to a party where he saw a female employee in a car, having sex with one young man after another. Another former inmate, a female, described seeing the same woman snorting cocaine and smoking pot with teenagers. All of the young people have asked to remain anonymous, as they are fearful of retribution, but Calderón and this reporter have their names.

There are yet other stories of employees offering to buy drugs and guns for the kids, some of whom are known gang members. One in particular involves an employee going to the home of a Norteño member and offering $2,000, Xanax, a gun and a trip to Hawaii in return for intimidating a person of her choosing.

The stories just keep flowing.

In one letter addressed to Clausen in February 2009, a former juvenile hall inmate—a young woman—describes events that happened three years ago after meeting a young man who had also been in the hall: “He was 17 years old at the time. He later let me know that she [a juvenile-hall employee] had messed up his life and they no longer were seeing each other. … But all of us knew about him and [her] having a sexual relationship. She let him drive around in her car and gave him money, we all knew of this.

“I had even went over to a house where she was getting high with marijuana and I left cause I knew I’d be the one in trouble.”

She’d be the one in trouble because, while most everyone seemed to know what was going on, if a person said anything to anyone in a position of power, he or she was allegedly marked for retribution: dirty drug tests, solitary confinement, or even physical abuse. The few kids who have come forward and spoken to a detective in Tehama County District Attorney Gregg Cohen’s office said certain employees involved learned about it immediately, despite a promise of confidentiality.

Barry Clausen comes to court prepared for a showdown with Melissa Jones Sept. 28.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

A mother, Leslie Wright, told the Mirror she had complained to Emry since 2006 about inappropriate actions in juvenile hall, in which two of her children had been confined and where they witnessed sexual activities, drugs and physical abuse. Her daughter maintained a sexual relationship with one of the male staff members inside the hall, but her son managed to steer clear of the offending female employees, she said.

Some of the kids inside the hall also spoke up against what they believed was wrongdoing by their superiors, as did former employees like Clausen. While the county apparently once opened an investigation into the improprieties, nothing seems to have come of it. And those who did blow the whistle paid a price.

Even beyond the alleged sexual activities of certain employees, none of whom could be reached for comment, other abuses were occurring in the juvenile hall that Clausen says were the impetus for his investigation.

These involved a male counselor who several former inmates said was abusive.

“Everyone in there is all scared of him,” one former juvenile told the Valley Mirror. “He’s mean; he’ll talk to you like you’re a piece of shit. He’s got a lot of power.”

Clausen described this employee as “a big bully.” While Clausen worked as a counselor in the juvenile hall from 2003-2004, he witnessed some of the man’s scare tactics—from pepper-spraying to physically harming kids. Based on numerous interviews with detainees that Clausen collected, the man seems to have been on a power trip, his favorite statement being: “If you don’t behave, I’ll take you to intake and make you cry,” as Clausen writes in his notes (he was unable to speak directly to the CN&R because the Jones case is pending).

In a typical story, one former inmate describes an altercation with the counselor, as written in Clausen’s notes: “He slammed me once and he had me in a chokehold—he had his knees in the middle of my back, he choked me into unconsciousness—he made me pass out. I tried to tell him I couldn’t breathe, but he said I would wake up eventually if I passed out.”

Another inmate described his altercation thusly: “He became angry with me and threw me to the concrete floor, jumped on me, put his knee in my back and twisted my arm up behind my back. During this time I was yelling for him to stop. [He] told me, ‘It’s my house and I can do what I want here. I call the shots.’ ”

Clausen brought these stories and other, similar ones to the attention of his superiors, alleging serious child abuse was occurring in the juvenile hall, and was fired shortly after. He doesn’t think it was a coincidence, either.

“Why was I fired? Because I had the audacity to speak up for both staff and minors within the Juvenile Justice Center. I wrote grievances and reported abuse. That was not acceptable,” Clausen writes in his notes.

Clausen also brought the issue of child abuse before the Tehama County Board of Supervisors and the Juvenile Justice Commission, to no avail. The people he spoke to seemed not to believe or care that child abuse was occurring in one of their facilities.

“If the Tehama County commissioners and the Juvenile Justice Commission do nothing, then it is my belief that they are also guilty of allowing abuse to continue and are as guilty as those few who continue to abuse the children within the facility,” he writes.

The CN&R of course has the names of the alleged offenders, but because Tehama County authorities have failed to act on the numerous allegations and complaints, there are no official records, and the newspaper has chosen for legal reasons not to reveal the names.

Tehama County’s juvenile hall, located in Red Bluff, has become the center of controversy of late.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

So what’s happening now? One thing’s for sure—Jones is facing some serious charges for allegedly attacking Clausen with a gun she’d bought a month prior. According to the police reports, an unspent round of ammunition was found on the ground near where the altercation took place.

“Last night, while lying in bed, he [Clausen] began thinking about how the live round … ended up on the ground in the area where Melissa Jones had pointed the gun at his head. Clausen stated he then remembered hearing the sound of the ‘receiver going back on the gun.’ … Clausen further stated it was his belief that if the gun had been loaded when Melissa Jones pulled the receiver back on the gun, the gun would have ejected the live round from the chamber,” a police report dated April 1 reads.

The impact of the struggle to get the gun has caused Clausen pain in his right shoulder, in which he has an artificial joint as a result of his time serving in the Vietnam War. His post-traumatic-stress disorder, also from the war, was triggered as well, and he has been forced to take medication to ease the strain.

“I don’t believe the facts are there for the assault-with-a-firearm [charge],” said Jones’ lawyer, Michael Erpino, of Chico. “The other one [terrorist threats] might be there. We tried to negotiate it and come up with some kind of agreement, but there’s a factual dispute about what happened.

“She’s going through a lot right now,” he added about Jones. “A lot of stuff from the past is coming back to haunt her.”

But beyond Clausen’s case against Jones, nothing seems to be coming of allegations of child abuse in Tehama County’s Juvenile Justice Center. Richard Muench, who took his new post as chief probation officer Thursday (Oct. 1), said, “I will foster ethical behavior in my officers and the focus is on public safety and public-service programs.

“Any wrongdoing will be investigated and appropriate action taken,” continued Muench, who comes to Tehama County from San Diego. However, he noted that if those in question no longer are employed by the Probation Department, no action will be taken. Furthermore, with just one day on the job, he had little in the way of background information with which to work.

A phone call to Louise Peters, superintendent of the center, yielded close to nothing—a referral to the brand-new chief and a message of, “I’m not at liberty to discuss this issue.”

Other phone calls—to Tehama County District Attorney Gregg Cohen and Clausen’s attorney, Larry Baumbach, were not returned by press time.

Calderón, of the Valley Mirror, came up against the same tight lips, writing recently that “not a single official in Tehama County would comment directly on the allegations.”

And thus far, at least to the public’s knowledge, nothing has been done to investigate the abuse so many young people say is occurring in juvenile hall. Cries for help—from employees, parents and the children themselves—seem to have fallen on deaf ears. The local paper, the Red Bluff Daily News, hasn’t touched it, except to mention the March 31 incident between Jones and Clausen in the police blotter.

Cohen told the Mirror that his office had investigated just one case of sex with a minor within the past six months, but it did not pursue it because the three-year statute of limitations had passed on the case.

That doesn’t mean Clausen is giving up. He’s been pushing the issue for more than five years—why stop now? He says both The Associated Press and 60 Minutes have expressed interest in the story.

“They all know,” Clausen told the Valley Mirror about county officials. “They just didn’t do anything.”