SANTA ANA, Calif. – Neighbors say Isidro Garcia is a doting father, loyal husband and good provider for his family. That doesn’t mean he’s not all the things prosecutors say he is: an abusive rapist who kidnapped a 15-year-old girl and eventually made her his wife.
The narrative that unfolded around the couple this week in a Los Angeles suburb spans a decade, but the criminal case against Garcia centers on a three-month period when he is accused of grooming the teen through sexual abuse and taking her from her Santa Ana home.
Authorities focused on the early allegations of abuse because they occurred in the county and are not subject to a statute of limitations, according to Whitney Bokosky, deputy district attorney for Orange County. She said the charges may be amended or expanded.
“Nobody is saying this girl was tied up in some basement somewhere. This was more of a mental kind of prison she was living in,” Bokosky said.
Garcia, 41, is charged with rape, kidnapping and three counts of lewd acts on a child dating to 2004.
A lawyer for Garcia, who is being held on $1 million bail, says the woman lied about being abused because the couple is separating.
Police say Garcia, who had been dating the girl’s mother, drugged and abducted the victim, telling her that her family wasn’t looking for her and that if she contacted authorities, she would be deported. In 2007, he forced her to marry and fathered a daughter with her who is now 3, police said.
The case broke Monday when the woman, who is now 25, went two blocks from her apartment to a police station in Los Angeles County’s Bell Gardens and accused the man of domestic violence. Authorities then connected her to a 2004 missing person report filed by her mother. Police have not identified the woman.
The story has transfixed many who wonder how the woman could keep quiet for so long, and it prompted comparisons to other high-profile kidnappings, including one involving three women who were locked up in Cleveland and broke free after about a decade.
While police said Garcia initially locked up the woman, she was later allowed out and had a job, and neighbors said they seemed like a loving couple.
Steve Meister, a criminal defense attorney and former Los Angeles County prosecutor, said the lack of charges stemming from the years the woman lived with Garcia and neighbors’ reports that she appeared happy highlight potential challenges to her credibility.
“In any case, but especially a sexual assault case, you can’t pick and choose what of the victim’s story you want to believe. You either believe them or you don’t,” Meister said. “That’s how district attorneys should analyze it because that is how a jury is going to see it.”
Lawrence Rosenthal, a professor at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law, said he believes the victim’s age and the statute of limitations influenced how prosecutors approached the case. Some prosecutors might have pursued additional rape charges, he said, but not all, adding that kidnapping carries a potential life sentence.
“Other prosecutors would say it is a waste of time – I’ve got a slam-dunk on plenty of serious charges,” Rosenthal said, adding that he tells his law students to think about criminal cases like movies.
“I tell them you want to pick the frame of the film you think is the easiest to charge, and it may be the prosecutors have approached this case in the same way.”
Since Garcia’s arrest, neighbors of the couple have rushed to his defense, describing him as dedicated family man. Law enforcement officials have cautioned against blaming the victim.
The case bears some similarities to the story of Pennsylvania teen Tanya Kach, who ran away with a security guard and only broke away after spending years locked in a bedroom as his captive, said Lawrence H. Fisher, a lawyer who represented Kach in a civil suit and co-authored a book with her. The guard is now serving a five- to 15-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to sex assault and other charges in 2007.
In both cases, the public was initially elated to learn of the miracle recovery of a missing child, then began questioning the victim, he said.
“People have a hard time putting themselves in the victim’s shoes,” he said. “No matter what anyone has to say about this young lady out in California, she has nothing but a better future ahead of her.”