By Vicki Hart
SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT records uncovered by the Tucson Weekly reveal prosecuting attorneys botched significant matters relating to the case of Elizabeth Clark, the 12-year-old baby-sitter who, late last year, became the youngest person ever charged with first-degree murder in Pima County.
And because of the prosecutorial fumbling, it's quite possible the conditions which led to the brutal death of 1-year-old John Tsakanikas--whom Clark was baby-sitting when he apparently sustained his fatal injuries--will remain uncorrected.
Clark was tried as a juvenile and acquitted by Pima County Superior Court Judge James Carruth, who ruled prosecutors had not met the burden of proof.
John Tsakanikas' injuries were severe. He died suffering from two or three skull fractures as well as detached retinas. At the time of his death, more than half of his blood was massed in his head.
After her acquittal, Elizabeth Clark briefly became a media darling. Portrait-sized photos adorned the front page of the local dailies along with such headlines as: "Finally, she can smile." Editorials proclaimed Carruth's decision to be "just."
The family even appeared on the national tabloid TV show American Journal, which showed Elizabeth surrounded by a loving family, playing with her siblings and step-siblings in their lovely home.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
The Weekly's examination of Sheriff's records reveal child abuse charges were filed against Elizabeth's step-father, Hamid Mehdibegi, in April of 1995. The charges were later dropped--a serious mistake, admits Chief Deputy Pima County Attorney David White.
White admits there was a "breakdown in the system," and he adds, "The case (against Mehdibegi) should have been prosecuted." White says the County Attorney's "highest standards" were not met in this incident. He says Deputy County Attorney Howard Fell allowed the case to be dismissed on the advice of a state Child Protective Services worker.
White says he's ordered the County Attorney's policies on dismissals altered as a result of the mistake. From now on, child abuse cases will be dismissed based solely on what the County Attorney's Office feels is best for the victims and the community--not on the advice of CPS workers, White says.
Reports of child abuse in the Mehdibegi household were never brought up in the murder case against Elizabeth Clark. If they had been allowed as evidence, the Sheriff's records would have graphically revealed a far more sinister family life for a far more violent Elizabeth--details which might have cut deeply into defense arguments John Tsakanikas was the victim of some sort of "accident."
The Sheriff's records reveal there was turmoil in the Mehdibegi household in April of 1995. That month a report was filed with CPS by officials at the elementary school attended by Hamid Mehdibegi's 6-year-old son. School officials reported observing serious bruising on the child. They reported the child told them his dad "became angry and beat him, stating that, 'It happens a lot...'." He also told detectives it happened to the other children in his family.
Sheriff's investigators photographed the boy. The photographs reveal a contusion on the right side of his neck described as a "pertechial hemorrhage that appeared to be the result of being struck with an open hand," according to the investigative report. Other photos show a contusion below the right shoulder on his back, contusions on both his right and left arms and a scratch above his right eye.
CPS ruled the Mehdibegi children--five in all, including Elizabeth Clark--were in imminent danger, and removed them from the home. That afternoon, Catherine and Hamid Mehdibegi met with Sheriff's detectives. Accompanying them were defense attorneys Dan Cooper and Jerome Bromeil. The Mehdibegis followed their attorneys' advice and did not answer detectives' questions.
But subsequent questioning by detectives and CPS workers of three of the Mehdibegis' children revealed the horror behind their Brady Bunch facade:
Interview with Hamid Mehdibegi's 6-year-old son:
CPS Worker: What did he do exactly? (Referring to Hamid Mehdibegi)?
Boy: He kicked me, he slapped me, he called me names.
CPS Worker: You said your dad kicked you. Why did he kick you?
Boy: He kicked me in the stomach and that's all, he just kept, kick, kept kicking me in the stomach...He got all mad at me and he started to just hit me and stuff.
Detective: How many times did he hit you?
Boy: About nine times.
Detective: Did he say anything to you when this was going on?
Boy: He said names and they, they were like bad names.
Detective: Does anyone else ever hit you?
Boy: Yeah, my brother and Elizabeth and my new half-brother.
Interview with 9-year-old step-brother:
Detective: How does Dad spank you?
Brother: With his belt.
Detective: How about (the older sister)?
Brother: Mm, Elizabeth hits (the older sister).
Detective: When your step-dad is punishing you, does your mom get mad at him?
Brother: Mm, sometimes she says like, no, no, don't do that.
Detective: What, when did she do that?
Brother: Like mmmm, I don't know, but also sometimes she tries to hold him back.
Interview with 10-year-old step-sister:
Detective's Summary: My interview with (step-sister) has her advising that her step-father, Hamid Mehdibegi, when punishing her and her brothers and sisters, will hit them about the head, neck, shoulders, back and buttocks, with an open hand. She advised that he does strike them hard and is usually yelling at them while striking them. She also stated that he would kick them in the buttocks area hard enough to knock them down.
Detective: How many times has he hit you for that one punishment?
Step-sister: Like 10 or something.
Detective: Okay, has he done this to Mom?
Step-sister: Yeah, but he stopped ever since we came here.
Detective: Did he hit her in the face?
Step-sister: Mmm-hmm (yes).
Detective: Does he hit Elizabeth?
Detective: So he'll hit you in your face and neck. He'll hit you in the back and the butt and he'll kick you and he's yelling the whole time? Does mom try to stop him at all?
Step-sister: Mmm-mm (no).
Detective: Is she afraid to try to stop him?
Step-sister: I think so, yes.
Detective: Have you seen him kick the other kids, too?
Detective: Has he done it to Elizabeth, too?
A short time after Elizabeth Clark's acquittal and all the positive publicity in the mainstream and national press, the Mehdibegi/Clarks left town. Recent passersby might have noticed the For Sale sign hanging in front of their empty house. Their telephone has been disconnected, with no forwarding number.
One has to wonder where they'll turn up next--and whether some other innocent baby like John Tsakanikas will die as a direct consequence of Hamid Mehdibegi's apparent brutality toward his own children.
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