October 26 - November 1, 1995

B y  V i c k i  H a r t

IT SEEMS THE O.J. style of defense is also practiced here in Pima County. The technique involves hiring high-priced attorneys and blaming anyone and anything other than the accused.

Peter and Lenore Tsakanikas are experiencing it first hand. Their year-old son John was killed March 10.

His babysitter, 13-year-old Elizabeth Clark, has been charged with his murder and for the last two weeks has been prosecuted by Deputy County Attorney Jeanette Gallagher in front of Pima County Superior Court Judge James Carruth in a juvenile proceeding. Defending Elizabeth Clark are attorneys Dan Cooper and Jerome Bromiel.

Even though Elizabeth is the only person charged with John's murder, and the evidence clearly shows the Tsakanikases had not touched their son for about three hours before his death, defense attorneys have been offering what they've labeled "plausible scenarios" as to how the Tsakanikases might have been involved, or how the hospital employees who tried to save John's life might have been at fault.

The Tsakanikases' entire lives have been scrutinized, financially and personally; it seems anyone they ever knew has been questioned, and in some cases, harassed; their home has been invaded by police, defense attorneys and investigators. Insinuations are being made about their financial dealings, parenting, stress levels, their drinking habits and their marriage.

PETER TSAKANIKAS is a successful environmental engineer, well known in Tucson and international circles. He'd been invited on an Antarctic expedition that he was to have joined March 12. Lenore is an attorney specializing in environmental law. Shortly after Peter was to leave, she had tickets for herself and their two children to fly to Illinois to surprise her mother on her sixtieth birthday. Thier plans, of course, were dashed.

Peter and Lenore have been married and living in Tucson for 12 years. They have one other son, Dimitri, age five. They bought their townhouse in the Catalina Foothills to provide a pleasant, safe, environment and good schools for their children.

On March 10, Peter and Lenore went to dinner with friends to celebrate Peter's birthday and his upcoming expedition. After dining for about two hours, they were paged at the restaurant for a call from their babysitter's stepfather, Hamid Mehdibegi. He told them John had fallen and hit his head, and advised them to come home immediately.

From that moment, life changed for the Tsakanikases. As Peter and Lenore raced home, they met the ambulance carrying John to the hospital and followed it to Tucson Medical Center, where they witnessed their comatose son being rushed to the ER. Mehdibegi met them there. His wife, Elizabeth's mother Catherine, arrived later. The Mehdibegis recounted for the Tsakanikases what they understood had happened--John had pulled himself up on a drawer and had fallen.

But paramedics later testified that when they got to the home four minutes after the 10:37 p.m. call to 911, John's condition was deteriorating quickly. They did a "load and go," not treating him on the scene, immediately transporting him to the hospital. TMC emergency room reports reveal John was dying when he was admitted. He had no pulse and literally no blood in his veins.

Peter and Lenore's grief turned to shock when Dr. Robert Berg, a pediatric critical care physician, said the extent of John's injuries in no way coincided with the babysitter's story. He said John's injuries were more consistent with a fall from a five- to seven-story building.

Baby John died around 8 o'clock the next morning. At the time, more than half of his blood was in his head, bloating him beyond recognition.

Still willing--and hoping--to believe John's injuries had been a fluke or an accident, the Tsakanikases waited for the autopsy. But it confirmed their worst nightmare--multiple blows to the head caused John's death. His skull was fractured in two, possibly three places. He had retinal detachment and hemorrhaging. There were bruises in four or five places on his body.

Several days later, Elizabeth Clark, the babysitter, became the youngest person in Pima County ever to be charged with murder. The last bit of normalcy in the Tsakanikases' life was destroyed.

MEANWHILE, ELIZABETH Clark hardly experienced any inconvenience in her life; she was never incarcerated, and, unlike most juvenile suspects, her initial hearing was held within an hour of when she was charged. She was immediately released to her grandparents' custody.

Veteran juvenile workers have questioned why a child charged with first degree murder has been released to her family and not detained. They muse that had Elizabeth Clark been poor and/or a minority, she'd never have seen the light of day again.

On the other hand, the Tsakanikases' lives were immediately thrust into turmoil. Unable to have even the closure of burying their child due to a second autopsy requested by the defense, they were also besieged by investigators and the press.

Defense attorneys and their investigators called the Tsakanikases' neighbors and friends, some of whom the couple hadn't seen for many years. Defense investigators interviewed employees of the restaurant where Peter and Lenore dined the night of John's death, as well as the couple with whom they had dinner. Defense investigators interviewed John's daytime babysitter, the clerk of the 7-Eleven where Lenore bought eggs the night of John's death, and the daycare worker at Dimitri's school. The defense subpoenaed school records, and even attempted to obtain a diary Lenore had started after John's death.

Whispers and second guessing started, fed by the comments of defense attorneys to the media. The most frequent comment aimed at the Tsakanikases was, "Who would leave their baby with a 12-year-old?"

Never mind that Catherine Mehdibegi had solicited the job for her daughter, assuring Peter and Lenore that Elizabeth had been babysitting for some time.

Those who criticized probably didn't know the Tsakanikases had invited Elizabeth over for a couple of hours the week before, while they were home, to see how she handled the children. The night John was killed, they had asked Elizabeth to come over early so the kids could get used to her. The Tsakanikases also knew Elizabeth's parents would be just two doors down, and told her if there were any problems to call across the street to their friend, Jeanne Kramer, who was going to be home that night. They also gave her the phone number of the restaurant, telling her they could return at once if necessary.

A second comment heard shortly after the killing: "A 12-year-old couldn't do this."

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, whose department was investigating the case, was quoted in The Arizona Daily Star as saying, "This is a very difficult case for us. You have to feel uncomfortable when you arrest a very sweet, blonde-headed, blue-eyed girl on charges like this. Your natural instincts are to protect a 12-year-old girl."

As Elizabeth Clark's first hearing grew closer, it became clear to the Tsakanikases they would be accused of somehow causing their son's death. Articles appeared in local newspapers with headlines like, "Sitter's Team Seeks To Use Lie-Test Result; 12-Year-Old Passed, Lawyers Say." Later headlines said, "Tot Had Earlier Fatal Injury, Lawyer For Accused Girl Says." These headlines were not supported by the facts.

IN KEEPING WITH current O.J. defense tactics of "make the victims the enemies," Elizabeth Clark's defense attorney Dan Cooper thundered in his opening statement at the probable cause hearing that the girl was "spiritually, morally, chronologically and, most importantly, legally innocent." He flat out said the evidence was wrong and that John's injuries existed long before the "fall" he'd suffered while in Elizabeth's care.

In opening statements at trial, defense attorney Jerome Bromiel argued John did not die of skull fractures, but from edema. He added Tucson Medical Center was at fault for having given the boy a 2,900cc dose of liquid in the hours before his death. Bromiel later said doctors would testify John had a previous injury that was exacerbated by the fall.

For the trial, the defense flew in "rent-a-docs" from as far away as Maryland, who, at $350 an hour, testified John's death could have been caused by this accidental "fall," or that he had a rare blood disorder. Of course, these doctors had never seen John, alive or dead.

Court records indicate Elizabeth Clark did not seek help when John "fell." Catherine Mehdibegi had come to the Tsakanikases' home twice during the evening and inquired about the baby, once when passing by on the way to the pool and later to drop off a book. According to Elizabeth's mother, the second time she arrived with a school book for Elizabeth and inquired about the baby, Elizabeth told her John had "fallen." Elizabeth reportedly said, "It was weird."

Her mother offered to check on the baby, and after some discussion, finally did. She described finding John lying in vomit in his crib, blue around his eyes, pale and breathing oddly. Even after finding him in such condition, rather than calling 911 immediately, Catherine Mehdibegi sent Elizabeth home to get her stepfather. When Hamid Mehdibegi arrived and saw the baby, he called 911. Dr. Robert Berg testified John's chances of survival would have increased greatly had he been brought in earlier.

WHEN LENORE TSAKANIKAS took the stand during the probable cause hearing, all faith the justice system deals in the truth was dispelled for her. The defense proceeded to take Lenore through the fatal day, inserting innuendo after innuendo.

She was asked if, while she was swimming with her boys before Elizabeth came to sit, she had said, "Don't do that, you'll crack your head open." She was asked if she had taken John with her to the store "alone." She was asked if Peter had been "alone" with John before they left. She was asked if she was under any stress, asked if they were having financial problems, asked if they, in fact, owed back taxes. She was asked about an interview with a Tucson Citizen reporter in which she mentioned her two sons having pillow fights. She was asked things that in the context of any parent's day would be considered normal--unless, of course, you're being questioned by an attorney.

The defense then quizzed Lenore about the dinner they had the night of John's death. They wanted to know how much Lenore and Peter drank with the other couple. A reference was made to a $150 bottle of brandy bought at dinner.

Lenore left the stand in tears and didn't return to the next day's hearing. It had become abundantly clear the defense was going to point to her as the probable murderer of her own child.

During trial the defense had Lenore on the stand for hours, rehashing minute by minute the day John died, making every move Lenore made seem abnormal.

The Tsakanikases have felt the questioning glances of acquaintances; clients have asked them what the "financial trouble" is. They've been embarrassed by what has happened to their friends, relatives and neighbors.

Former law school friends of Lenore's have been called and asked for any "dirt" they might have on her. Local attorney Kelly Schwab says Dan Cooper called her to ask if she knew why Lenore had "perjured" herself on the stand. Schwab says she has no idea what he was talking about and adds she was upset by the call.

Business clients have been contacted. Lenore Tsakanikas' father, Arthur Stahnke, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University, says his neighbors and colleagues were contacted and asked such things as whether he'd abused Lenore as a child.

AS IN THE O.J. case, the defendant and her family have been portrayed by their attorneys as wonderful, loving and close. Character witnesses such as Bunny Clifford, next door neighbor of the Medibegis in Dallas, testified she'd never seen children so happy, and that even though the Medibegis were a blended family, she never knew whose kids were whose until the day before she testified. Nancy Clark, Elizabeth's grandmother, testified she and Elizabeth were "joined at the hip," and that Elizabeth loves babies, animals and plants.

But the facade begins to crack with a little examination. There has been nothing in the press about Elizabeth's siblings being taken from the Medibegis and placed with an aunt for a time earlier this year. Although Child Protective Services will not verify this, sources say it occurred at the request of CPS.

Also unreported is a March 21 incident at Elizabeth's school, in which a student accused her of pouring hydrochloric acid down the student's back. Elizabeth is now being tutored at home.

Brought up in court, but not reported, was the information Elizabeth's natural father died mixing drugs and alcohol, possibly a suicide. It was also revealed Elizabeth has a 7-year-old brother who lives with his father in another state.

In fact, Elizabeth has had at least three "dads," and at least two stepsiblings. She has attended several schools.

And while the case was recently dropped by the Pima County Attorney's Office, it has not been mentioned that Elizabeth's current stepfather, Hamid Mehdibegi, was indicted in July on child abuse charges.

Also not pointed out is Catherine Mehdibegi's admission she cleaned up the Tsakanikas' house after John was taken to the hospital. While she contends she was doing this to help the Tsakanikases, in doing so she obliterated a possible crime scene.

Most chilling, though, is the fact that throughout the hearings and the trial, Elizabeth has shown no emotion--not through Lenore Tsakanikas' testimony, not through her own mother's tearful testimony.

Judge Carruth was expected to render a decision by Friday.

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October 26 - November 1, 1995

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