SANTA ANA, Calif. - A 19-year-old man who got lost with a friend while hiking in Trabuco Canyon pleaded guilty today to possession of methamphetamine in a plea deal that will allow him to enter a drug-treatment program with a chance of getting the conviction cleared from his record.
Before Nic Cendoya pleaded guilty to possessing 497 milligrams of methamphetamine, attorneys for the Orange County Fire Authority and a volunteer injured while searching for the defendant failed to convince an Orange County Superior Court judge that they should be financially compensated as victims under a statute known as Marsy's Law.
According to authorities, the drug was found in the car that Cendoya drove up to the mountain before getting lost Easter Sunday night with his 18-year-old friend, Kyndall Jack. Cendoya was assigned to a drug rehabilitation program. If he successfully completes the program and stays clean until Jan. 12, 2015, the guilty plea will be set aside and the conviction will be dismissed. Part of the program includes periodic drug testing.
OCFA officials filed court papers last month asking that Cendoya pay $55,000 in restitution to cover part of the fire agency's costs during the extensive search. Nick Papageorge's, a 20-year-old volunteer who helped in the search, also applied under Marsy's Law for financial compensation to cover his back surgery and a weeklong hospital stay that his attorney said today could cost his client between $500,000 to $1 million in medical expenses. Papageorge's had titanium screws put in his back after he fell about 110 feet from a cliff during the search.
But Orange County Superior Court Judge Gerald Johnston rejected the claims, saying there was no legal basis to force Cendoya to pay for the search costs. He noted that Cendoya was only charged with possession of methamphetamine, and there were no allegations that he was under the influence of the drug when he and Jack got lost in the canyon, prompting the search. Cendoya's attorney, Paul Meyer, said after the hearing, ``The judge made the right call.''
It was an unusual hearing, the attorneys and judge conceded, because there was no specific legal precedent they could cite to guide them. Prosecutor Brock Zimmon told the judge he did not want to oppose efforts by the defendants to seek financial compensation, but he was forced to contradict the arguments made by the attorneys for the OCFA and Papageorge's because they sought public records in the case from the District Attorney's Office. Ironically, Meyer, the defense attorney, kept deferring to Zimmon in arguments against the victims.
``My goal was not to prevent the victims from recovering losses due to harm,'' Zimmon said during the hearing. ``I'm not trying to advocate one way or the other.'' Johnston said the case was ``really interesting'' from a legal standpoint, but he acknowledged the ``tragedy'' of Papgeorge's injury, which his attorney said may derail the victim's career goal of serving as a firefighter or rescue worker.
``I don't want the tragedy Mr. Papageorge's suffered lost in all of this,'' Johnston said. ``Sadly, because of the very selfless act on his part, he was gravely injured.''
In the end, however, the judge had to reject Papageorge's claim to losses because, ``I'm limited by what Mr. Zimmon has charged ... Here what I have is a simple charge of possession.'' After the hearing, Papageorge's attorney, Eric Dubin, said, ``We're thankful the judge acknowledged the heroics of my client.'' Dubin added, ``We'll get him justice. It just depends on the path we take.'' Dubin said his client could either appeal the judge's ruling or pursue damages with a civil lawsuit, but that he will follow the lead of the Orange County Fire Authority.
The OCFA's attorney, Robert Kaufman, told the judge during the hearing he was ``taken aback'' by the prosecutor's position on whether the government or Papageorge's could be considered a victim. Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who represented the Papageorge's family in court during the last hearing, criticized the District Attorney's Office and the judge's ruling.
"This ruling today, and the position of the District Attorney, sends a horrible message to individuals who engage in criminal activity and then call for help, which results in injuries and expenses,'' Spitzer said. ``The District Attorney and court agreed the Fire Authority and Papageorge's are not victims under Marsy's Law, and I think that's an interpretation I disagree with, and I think it's quite upsetting to think the taxpayers are not victims of Cendoya's illegal activity.''
County officials are pursuing state legislation that would revive a law allowing the government to seek compensation when rescuing someone engaged in illegal activity, Spitzer said.