When Love Freezes Over

by Bruce McEwen, July 8, 2009

Remember when motherhood was sacred? When it was simply unthinkable that Mom's underwear could possibly be Exhibit A in open court?

No more.

There it was, Mom's undergarment.

Not the unmentionable itself, but a photograph of it showing that it had been violently torn, barbarously ripped from the sacred flesh it shielded.

Mr. Benjamin Torango stood charged with sexual battery on his estranged wife, Ms. Amber Pennock.

Officer Jeanine Gregory testified that Ms. Pennock had told her that Torango had plunged his hot hand into her vaginal area, grabbed her underwear and pulled, ripping the garment “and asking her if she liked it rough, now.”

Ms. Pennock had gone to the TravelLodge in Fort Bragg, the scene of this uncomfortable encounter, to see if her ex, Mr. Torango, would mind their baby while she went out into the night with her sister. The torrid Mr. Torango, according to Officer Gregory, informed Pennock that if she expected him to babysit she would have to give him sex first. Ms. Pennock rejected the trade and tried to leave with the infant, but Mr. Torango, his carnal desires frustrated, wouldn’t give his aliented mate that precious little fruit of what had once been their mutual desire.

An altercation ensued.

Ms. Pennock was choked, Mr. Torango was scratched on his face and chest and took an appropriately aimed kick to his pills.

Love had fled.

Mr. Torango’s public defender, Thomas Croak, asked Officer Gregory if she had examined his client’s groin, apparently in a desperate attempt to establish a crude parity between Ms. Pennock's vandalized underwear and Mr. Torango's allegedly wounded manhood. The investigating officer had produced a photo of Ms. Pennock's torn undergarment but had failed to produce evidence of Ms. Pennock's frontal assault on Mr. Torango's mogambos.

Officer Gregory conceded that she hadn't examined Mr. Torango's crotch.

Croak: “I don’t see anywhere in the report where there were any injuries except Mr. Torango’s scratches. Did you see the scratches on his chest?”

Officer Gregory: “Not full-view, no.”

Croak: “Why not?”

Gregory: “I saw the photos later.”

Croak: “Did you see photos of the defendant’s groin?”

Gregory: “No, sir.”

Croak: “Why not?”

Judge Lehan broke in to ask, “What’s the protocol on a sexual assault case? There was no SARS [Sexual Assault Response System] exam in this case. She’d been grabbed, not penetrated, forcefully grabbed. She wasn’t complaining of pain?”

Gregory: “No. She didn’t ask to document any of that.”

Judge Lehan turned to Deputy DA Tim Stoen.

“Mr. Stoen?”

“The evidence is clear, your honor,” replied Stoen. “Two crimes have been established here: false imprisonment — she wants to go with her sister and he won’t let her leave. He wants to take advantage of her sexually, and when she refused, he won’t let her leave with her child. And then — then he grabs her underwear — forcefully — of course she’s going to fight back — according to California Criminal Code 935, this is sexual battery.

“With regard to the criminal code,” Croak countered, “the only evidence, such as it is, is that Mr. Torango grabbed Ms. Pennock’s underwear and pulled on them — the sub-section requires that the perpetrator touch the bare skin of the victim. Now — the evidence might perhaps support a misdemeanor under 244.4 — ‘touching on the outside,’ I would submit, and reserve further argument.”

“If you took the extreme interpretation of Mr. Croak,” said Stoen, “you’d have anyone who wanted to going around touching women’s underpants! And she did testify he touched her groin!”

“Your honor,” said Croak. “There’s another part of the California Criminal Code which clearly states he must have touched skin for felony sexual battery.”

“Just a moment, your Honor,” interjected Stoen. He hastily read a passage in his law book.

“He has to touch bare skin,” insisted Croak.

Judge Lehan interjected, “Let’s everyone, counsel, take a quick look at the Criminal Code sections in question.”

“That’s exactly my point!” said Stoen. “That’s the statute the defendant’s accused of! Which, used in this context, means, as used in subdivision 4.a — you have to have physical touching.”

“Bare skin, your Honor,” repeated Croak. “We don’t have that.”

“Mr. Croak’s argument,” continued Stoen, “with all due respect, just doesn’t cut it, your honor. The statute was included to protect women in just these situations. Touching the outside of the clothing in such a way is sufficient.”

“Are we submitted, counselors?” asked Lehan.

His Honor found the former Mrs. Torango's torn underwear and the accompanying testimony of Officer Gregory sufficient to hold Torango accountable.

The bailiff whispered something to the judge.

“Is anyone driving a gray Silverado?” asked Lehan. “There’s been a baby locked in a gray Silverado out front and the officers say it’s screaming it's head off.”

I went out to look.

The Silverado was parked in the full sun. A woman was fussing over the child as an officer wrote her a ticket.

Back inside, a Mr. Thomas Vansycoc wanted to re-enlist in the Army, but.....

“He’s been preferred for Officer Candidate School,” Attorney Bart Kronfeld said. “This probation stands in the way.”

Mr. Vansycoc stood at parade rest, straight as a bayonet. Stoen said The People had no objection to clearing away this petty obstacle to Mr. Vansycoc's career as an officer and a gentleman. The request was granted and the judge said, “Good luck…” adding with considerable sincerity, “Sir.”

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