This case concerns the rush to vilify and convict an innocent man of child molestation in Allentown, Pennsylvania. This is the story of Felito Mendoza.
The case began on February 25, 1992, when ten year old J.V. was called to the Washington Elementary School office because he had a black eye and swollen nose. At the office Ms. Nancy Snyder, the school nurse, looked at the injuries of J.V. and attempted to get a history of the injuries.
After speaking with J.V., Ms. Snyder called his half brother, A.G. to the office. When asked about the injuries of J.V., A.G. narrated that J.V. was struck on the face and back of the legs with a stick.
Felito Mendoza was then living with his girlfriend, Mercedes Hernandez and her four children, her sons A.G., J.V., and L.H. and her daughter J.H (age five). A.G. and J.H. were brother and sister. The boys were their half brothers. L.H., the youngest child and the only child not in elementary school, was Felito Mendoza's son.
As Felito Mendoza describes events on February 22, 1992, the prior night at 7 PM he left his home to work all night at K Mart and also at Best in King Of Prussia at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. As usual Felito worked all night shining and buffing the floors and generally cleaning both stores. After work he arrived home around 11 to 11:30 AM. Felito took a shower, ate something, and went to sleep. This was Felito's routine since 1988. Later that day his fiancee, Mercedes Hernandez, awakened him and explained that her nephew disappeared when she sent him to a nearby pharmacy with her son J.V. J.V. said he lost the nephew in this store. Although very tired Felito got up and into his car and started looking for Mercedes' nephew. After awhile he returned home to 915 Tilghman Street to see if the nephew returned. His nephew was not there, but a half hour later the boy came home. According to Felito, Mercedes was really upset with her son, J.V., and punished him by hitting him until Felito stopped it.
J.V. did have Bruises on his eyes, back, and legs, but they were relatively minor bruises which would have completely healed in a week. Felito told Mercedes that she should not have hit the kid because the officials at the Elementary School would ask all kinds of questions. Mercedes then came up with the idea that they would say J.V. was injured playing street hockey. Felito says he agreed to the story. The parents then allowed J.V. to stay home from school on Monday, February 24.
On February 25, 1992, J.V. was sent to school. Around 12:30 PM a social worker from the school appeared at the home of Felito and Mercedes. She told Felito and Mercedes that they might have to take J.V. to the hospital. Both Felito and Mercedes then went to the school. There a school teacher, Wilma Soto, told Felito and Mercedes that J.V. had told her what happened to him and that he should not be playing street hockey.
Around 2:30 PM of February 25 Denise Scharle, a case worker from the Offices of Children and Youth Services (OCYS) of Lehigh County arrived at the school and called Felito and Mercedes into an office. Apparently Denise Scharle had already concluded that Felito had hit J.V. In the office Denise Scharle told Mercedes that she must remove Felito from their home on Tilghman Street. Felito had been responsible for paying the bills for this home such as rent, food, and clothing. According to Felito, Mercedes became hysterical and angry as did Felito himself. Both refused. Felito asked Denise how in the world she could say that. Denise responded that she did not have to say anything more.
Around 3 PM two policemen entered the school and arrested Felito on charges of assault.
It might be useful to ascertain the possible reasons Denise Scharle immediately accused Felito Mendoza. Felito and Mercedes had prior contact with Denise. Denise once went to the house of Felito and Mercedes because Mercedes had hit J.V. for disciplinary reasons. At the time Denise visited, Felito was at work and Mercedes told Denise to come back when Felito was off the job. Denise later came back with a translator. At this next meeting Denise accused Mercedes of hitting J.V. and demanded that Mercedes enter into therapy. Felito countered by stating that Mercedes would not be going to therapy and protested what he felt was an intrusion to take control of his and Mercedes' family. On another occasion Felito had an argument with Denise after he disciplined J.H. for breaking a window pane. Felito admits he did discipline J.H., but claims that Denise made him out to be a monster, which he was not. At this latter visit he asked Denise to leave. Given these prior alterations, it is not so surprising that Denise Scharle might be resentful enough to jump at the chance to direct accusations against Felito. However to accuse without proper investigation demonstrates a lack of professionalism and a surfeit of bias on the part of a law enforcement official.
As a result of the assault charges, OCYS officials removed J.V., A.G., J.H., and L.H. from the home. After routine physical examinations the children were placed in foster homes. Soon the youngest sibling, L.H., was returned to his mother's care. J.V. and A.G. were placed together in a foster home in Slatington, Lehigh County. These boys also entered into prosecution sponsored therapy sessions. J.H. was placed in the foster home of Anna Boyer who lived in Whitehall, Lehigh County.
Later, Felito Mendoza's assigned public defender, William Wismer, told him that the District Attorney offered him a plea bargain of one to three years. Felito discussed it with Mercedes. Mercedes advised him not to take the plea bargain. Felito was innocent anyway. Also a friend told her that Felito could be charged later with more offenses. Felito then refused the plea bargain.
On April 8, 1992, Anna Boyer reported to OCYS that while she was bathing J.H. earlier, J.H. reported that Felito had touched her private parts with his private parts. Actually J.H. had used a Spanish word "fresqueria" that Ms. Boyer took to mean sexual abuse. Since Ms. Boyer did not speak Spanish, she called Nora Ramos, a friend from church and asked J.H. to repeat the words to Ms. Ramos for translation. Ms. Ramos then questioned J.H. and then indicated that sexual abuse had occurred. She stated that "fresqueria" connotes sexual touching and intercourse.
J.H. was sent to the Lehigh Valley Hospital for a physical examination. Dr. Sarah Fernster examined J.H., took an oral history and ordered various tests and cultures to be performed. The examination results revealed J.H. was suffering from vaginal gonorrhea as well as a notched hymen. Dr. Fernster opined the notching of the hymen was due to trauma. Although at the time J.H. denied she was sexually abused, Dr. Fernster reported that, given the information available to her, it was her opinion that sexual contact had occurred.
At this time the rush to vilification took hold completely. The police had already charged Felito Mendoza with child assault. It was a simple matter for the police investigators to believe that Felito was also a sexual predator who sexually abused the daughter and older sons of Mercedes.
Police detective Richard Mongilutz of the Allentown Police Department Sex Crimes Unit and Denise Scharle from OCYS conducted the investigations. Mercedes' sons, J.V. and A.G., were repeatedly interviewed. The police investigators put considerable pressure on both children to relate episodes of sexual abuse concerning the man the police wanted to convict. After several interviews J.V. and A.G. obliged. They stated that they had been forced to engage in oral and anal intercourse with Felito on multiple occasions, sometimes in the presence of each other. They also claimed they saw Felito performing intercourse on J.H.. They stated that their mother, Mercedes Hernandez, was sometimes at home when these incidents occurred. Supposedly sometimes Felito punched J.V. in the back. A.G. indicated that Vaseline was used and described in detail alleged episodes of sexual molestation.
Both children asserted after several police interrogations that the abuse occurred on numerous occasions over a period of roughly six months prior to February, 1992, or from September, 1991.
There are indications that as well as suggestive interviews, other inducements were made to get the children to provide the testimony the prosecution desired. Specifically pocket money was given to A.G., and probably J.V., when they answered questions in a manner favorable to the prosecution.
Considerable police pressure was also applied to Mercedes. At a preliminary hearing Mercedes was not allowed to speak. Instead Denise Scharle was able to testify that the children, J.V. and A.G., related that Mercedes would soon go to Puerto Rico and that she knew abuse was occurring and would say nothing.
At the same hearing Detective Mongilutz stated that Mercedes had sex with Felito in front of the children and that she told A.G. to say nothing about the sexual incidents. The prosecutors also brought in a woman who was an employee of the Lehigh County OCYS. She testified that she heard Mercedes tell J.V. not to say anything of what happened in the Lehigh County Court building hallway. Mercedes has since consistently denied she said anything like that in the court building hallway. Also Anna Boyer testified that J.H. told her that Mercedes had instructed her daughter not to say anything about what occurred.
Both J.V. and A.G. were taken to the Lehigh Valley Hospital and examined by Dr. John Kenvin. Dr. Kenvin found no physical evidence of sexual molestation.
Due in part to orders from the prosecutor, Felito and Mercedes were both medically tested for infection from many diseases. The results were negative for the presence of any disease or contamination. In particular, neither Felito nor Mercedes demonstrated the presence of gonorrhea. It should be remembered that Mercedes' daughter, J.H., did test positive for gonorrhea a few months after being taken from the parental home.
Yet authorities arrested Felito on charges of sexual assault on all three children.
The trial of Felito Mendoza on charges of assault and sexual abuse began on April 26, 1993. The Judge was Lawrence J. Brenner. The prosecuting attorney was Kelly Waldron. At the trial both J.V. and A.G. testified against Felito. J.V. described in detail various acts of sodomy. He also stated that he saw Felito forcing A.G. and his sister J.H. to engage in anal intercourse. A.G. testified that he was hurt from anal intercourse with Felito. He also alleged he saw Felito engaged in vaginal intercourse with his sister J.H.
Anna Boyer, J.H.'s foster mother of J.H., testified about the statement J.H. made concerning sexual abuse. Dr. Fernsler testified about her examination of J.H. and provided her opinion that sexual abuse occurred.
As a result of the testimony of these witnesses and some others Felito Mendoza was convicted on both the assault and sexual molestation charges and sentenced to 65 years.
There are a number of very disturbing elements in this trial. First was the entrance of the hearsay testimony of J.H. Both the prosecution and defense agreed that J.H. was incompetent to testify. Like most other five year olds J.H. fantasized readily. She did not possess the ability to remember and accurately communicate what she remembered. She often was unable to distinguish fact from imagination: at one time she stated that Felito caused a bogey man to enter into her room.
As a Pennsylvania Supreme Court pointed out: "Experience has informed us that children are particularly susceptible to the world of make believe and of suggestions." (from Rosche vs McCoy 397 Pa 615, 156 A. 2d 307 (1959)).
Moreover, the fact that J.H. used a Spanish word that was taken to indicate sexual abuse is troubling. The only person J.H. conversed with in Spanish was her older brother A.G. After the children were placed in foster homes and her brothers had entered into prosecution sponsored therapy, she spoke with her brothers several times. Thus her relation of sexual abuse might well not have spontaneous, but merely a repetition of something one of her brothers was induced to say in therapy.
When questioned by Dr. Fernster in Lehigh Valley Hospital, J.H. denied being sexual abused. It was on the evidence of the positive medical test for gonorrhea that Dr. Fernster made her opinion that sexual abuse had occurred.
Moreover there was the statement J.V. made to a youth caseworker. The caseworker reported that J.V. "thinks his brother and sister are saying things are happening so they don't go home."
Taking all these conditions together, the testimony of J.H. should have been excluded altogether. The statements of J.H. are inconsistent, fantastical, and most probably contaminated by other witnesses.
The hospital J.H. gonorrhea test was a positive piece of evidence. However this evidence was not against Felito as will be seen below.
Another very disturbing facet of this trial was the linking together of the assault charge with the sexual abuse charges. Along with sexual abuse Felito was charged with aggravated assault. Specifically the prosecution witnesses A.G. and J.V. narrated at the trial that J.V. was sent to a pharmacy with a younger cousin. The cousin became lost in the store and J.V., not seeing his cousin around, went home without him. Since the cousin was not at home, J.V. and his mother Mercedes went out to find him. When J.V. and his mother returned the cousin was at home. It was then alleged that the defendant lost his temper and struck the child J.V. Specifically it was alleged that Felito struck J.V. in the face causing his nose to bleed and his eye to shut, and then struck J.V. in the back of legs with a stick.
Several points must be mentioned about this assault that the prosecution charged to Felito Mendoza. First, however deplorable and disquieting the incident, J.V. suffered no serious bodily injury. Second the assault stemmed from a lost temper and an effort to discipline the child J.V. The assault was not an attempt to prevent the children from reporting sexual abuse. Obviously, this single incident did not keep the children quiet about any presumed sexual abuse from September, 1991, to February, 1992.
Yet the prosecution, by introducing testimony about this alleged assault, was able to get the jury to postulate other assaults occurred. These tactics were clearly prejudicial against Felito.
In order to introduce evidence about other crimes into a trial the prosecution must demonstrate that the other crimes prove motive, intent, absence of a mistake or accident, or a plan or design by the defendant. Obviously the aggravated assault charge proved none of these points. The assault charge was an alleged episode where the loss of temper and desire to discipline the child got out of hand.
At the trial no witness stated that Felito told the children not to tell the truth. It was Mercedes who was alleged to have made that request. Nor was any evidence introduced indicating that Felito requested Mercedes to help prevent the reporting of sexual abuse.
Moreover the charge of aggravated assault was clearly untrue. The alleged assault was to punish a minor, not to inflict serious bodily injury.
A third very disturbing feature of the prosecution and trial was the prosecution's deliberate influencing and intimidation of witnesses. After J.V. and A.G. were placed in foster homes, they were also placed in prosecution sponsored therapy where they were encouraged to relate episodes of sexual abuse. Moreover, they were often questioned by the prosecutors and by the social worker, Denise Scharle, about sexual abuse. Often leading questions were used. Thus the prosecutors were able to turn the two sons, particularly A.G., against Felito.
There is some very disturbing indications that the two boys were to some degree bribed for their testimony. Prosecutors rewarded the children for providing the testimony they wanted, namely that Felito sexually abused them. Mercedes has related that A.G., in particular, often got spending money from some of the prosecution interrogators. According to Mercedes, who saw the children on visits, the prosecutors would also bring A.G. gifts and take him to Burger King.
Moreover pressure was applied to people who at first volunteered to be character witnesses for Felito. Wilma Soto, a teacher at Washington Elementary School, where J.V. and A.G. went to school, at first volunteered but later refused to testify as a character witness for Felito because she believed she could lose her job. The boss of the cleaning and maintenance company for which Felito worked every day at first offered, but then suspiciously declined, to serve as a character witness on the behalf of Felito.
Then there is Mercedes. She has declared in many letters that Felito is innocent of all sexual abuse. She was not allowed to testify at the preliminary hearing. Later her court appointed lawyer told her that she would either have to plea bargain and not testify in behalf of Felito or the state would take away all her children, including the infant. The prosecutors gave Mercedes three months to decide. Mercedes did not have the financial resources to hire a decent lawyer. Therefore, to keep her children and her liberty, she complied with the deal proposed by her appointed lawyer.
Before going along with the prosecution sponsored deal, Mercedes spoke to a lawyer about the situation. The lawyer, Mr. Santana, told Mercedes that if she could bring ten people with the same problem, he could file a class action suit against both the county and the District Attorney's office.
And there is the matter of the ineffective defense of Felito at the trial. The lawyer for Felito, William Wismer, did not present witnesses or evidence that would have been favorable to Felito. The prosecution pressure on and intimidation of witnesses who would have testified in favor of Felito went unchallenged. Evidence concerning the gonorrhea infection of J.H. was also not presented.
The first hearing for Felito was suspended because William Wismer was on vacation. Wismer did not attend the preliminary hearing on the case of Felito because he was at another trial. And at a hearing before Judge Brenner on November 24, 1994 Wismer joked that the District Attorney was paying him thousands of dollars to frame Felito. Given his inaction on the prosecution pressure on actual and potential witnesses this joke becomes a very serious matter. Did the prosecutor try to influence Wismer as well? If there is the remotest truth to the joke by Wismer major prosecutorial misconduct occurred. The prosecution is not allowed under any circumstances to tamper with the defense.
Given these factors, the introduction of the testimony of the child J.H., the deliberate use of the assault charge to inflame the jury against Felito, the prosecution tampering with the witnesses, and the ineffective defense of Felito by William Wismer, the trial of Felito Mendoza can be seen for the utter travesty of justice it was. Under these circumstances there was no way Felito Mendoza could have his case fairly heard or receive justice.
But now comes the question, what about the gonorrhea test? This evidence was the sole positive physical evidence that sexual abuse had occurred.
To answer this question we must note that in 1991, Mercedes' brothers G.H. (Guillito) and R.H. (Chito) were living in the same house with Mercedes, Felito, and the children. According to witnesses, G.H. had sexually assaulted Mercedes when she was a little girl. He had also physically and sexually assaulted Mercedes when she was a woman. Mercedes later placed G.H. in a psychiatric hospital while in Puerto Rico because of his physical and sexual abuse against her and her sisters. Felito Mendoza only became aware of these facts after he had been with Mercedes for some time. When Guillito came to their home, Felito confronted him with what he knew and told Guillito that he would treat Mercedes with respect from then on.
According to potential witness Felix Morales, Mercedes' uncle, Manual Apontes Martinez, related these details to others. Martinez also claimed that G.H. left Puerto Rico with a venereal disease virus.
Yet none of this evidence was examined by the Lehigh County prosecutors or the trial defense attorney. These prosecutors used an alleged assault to make a rush to vilify and convict an innocent man of the very serious crime of sexual abuse and let a guilty man escape indictment. To restore the credibility of the American justice system this glaring injustice must be rectified. Felito Mendoza must be freed.
Support: Felito Mendoza BV3355, Box 244 Graterford, Pennsylvania 19426-0244