Felito Mendoza: Rush To Vilification

Editor's Note: Felito Mendoza is not only an innocent man wrongly imprisoned, but he is also a decent human being we've come to know over a 5-year period. When we began writing to him, he told us his desperation and depression were so severe because no one would help him or reach out to him, that he said he was on the verge of killing himself. Today, he's struggling to prove his innocence, and his spirit is restored. His freedom, however, depends on the good will of those who can help him get his case to court. --CATB

Felito Mendoza: Falsely Accused In Allentown, Pennsylvania

RUSH TO VILIFICATION

By Nicholas Peters

Editor, Clara A. T. Boggs

This case concerns the rush to vilify and convict an innocent man of child molestation in Allentown, Pennsylvania. This is the story of Felito Mendoza.

The case began in February 25, 1992, when ten year old J.V. was called to the Washington Elementary School office because he had a black eye and swollen nose. Ms. Nancy Snyder, the school nurse, looked at J.V.'s injuries and attempted to get a history of them.

After speaking with J.V., Ms. Snyder called A.G., his half brother, to the office. When asked about the injuries, A.G. narrated that J.V. was struck on the face and back of the legs with a stick.

Felito Mendoza was then living with Mercedes Hernandez and her four children, A.G., J.V., and L.H., her sons, and her daughter, J.H (age five). A.G. and J.H. were brother and sister. The other boys were their half brothers. L.H., the youngest, and the only child not in elementary school, was Felito Mendoza's son.

As Felito Mendoza describes events on February 22, 1992, at 7 PM the night before, he left home to work all night at K Mart and at Best, in King Of Prussia, at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. As usual, Felito worked all night shining and buffing floors and generally cleaning both stores. Back home after work, at around 11 to 11:30 AM, Felito took a shower, ate, and went to sleep, as had been his routine since 1988. Later that day, Mercedes awakened Felito to tell him her nephew had disappeared when she sent him to a nearby pharmacy with J.V., her son. J.V. said he lost the nephew in this store.

Although very tired, Felito got up and into his car and went to look for Mercedes' nephew. After a while, he returned to 915 Tilghman Street to see if the nephew had returned. The nephew was not there, but half an hour later the boy came home. According to Felito, Mercedes was really upset with her son, and punished J.V. by hitting him until Felito stopped it.

J.V. did have bruises on his eyes, back, and legs from Mercedes' blows, but these were relatively minor bruises that would have completely healed in a week. Felito told Mercedes she should not have hit the boy because the officials at the Elementary School would ask all kinds of questions. Mercedes then came up with the idea that they would say J.V. was injured playing street hockey. Felito agreed to the story to protect Mercedes. The parents then allowed J.V. to stay home from school on Monday, February 24.

On February 25, 1992, J.V. was sent to school. Around 12:30 PM a social worker from the school appeared at Felito and Mercedes' home to tell Felito and Mercedes they might have to take J.V. to the hospital. Felito and Mercedes then went to the school. There, Wilma Soto, a schoolteacher, told Felito and Mercedes that J.V. had told her what happened to him and that he should not be playing street hockey.

On February 25, around 2:30 PM, Denise Scharle, a case worker from the Offices of Children and Youth Services (OCYS) of Lehigh County arrived at the school and called Felito and Mercedes into an office. Denise Scharle had apparently already concluded that Felito had hit J.V. Denise Scharle told Mercedes that she must remove Felito from their home on Tilghman. Felito had been responsible for paying the bills for this home, such as rent, food, and clothing. According to Felito, Mercedes became hysterical and angry, as did Felito. Both refused. Felito asked Denise how in the world she could say that. Denise responded that she did not have to say anything more.

Around 3 PM two policemen entered the school and arrested Felito on charges of assault.

It is useful to ask about the possible reasons Denise Scharle had to immediately accuse Felito Mendoza. Felito and Mercedes had prior contact with Denise. She once went to their house because Mercedes had hit J.V. to discipline him. That visit was made when Felito was at work and Mercedes had told Denise to come back when Felito got home. Denise later came back with a translator. At this next meeting, Denise accused Mercedes of hitting J.V., demanding that Mercedes enter therapy. Felito countered by saying that Mercedes would not be going to therapy and protested what he felt was an intrusion to take control of their family. On another occasion, Felito had an argument with Denise after he disciplined J.H. for breaking a windowpane.

Felito admits he disciplined J.H., but claims that Denise made him out to be a monster for it, which he was not, but only using reasonable discipline. At that visit he asked Denise to leave. After experiencing these prior altercations, it is not so surprising that Denise Scharle might be resentful enough to jump at the chance to make accusations against Felito. However, to accuse someone without a proper investigation demonstrates a lack of professionalism and a surfeit of bias on the part of a law enforcement official.

As a result of the assault charges, OCYS officials removed J.V., A.G., J.H., and L.H. from the home. After routine physical examinations, the children were placed in foster homes. Soon the youngest sibling, L.H., was returned to his mother's care. J.V. and A.G. were placed together in a foster home in Slatington, Lehigh County. These boys also entered into prosecution-sponsored therapy sessions. J.H. was placed in the foster home of Anna Boyer, who lived in Whitehall, Lehigh County.

Later, Felito Mendoza's assigned public defender, William Wismer, told him that the District Attorney offered him a plea bargain of one to three years.

Felito discussed it with Mercedes, and she advised him not to take the plea because Felito was innocent anyway. Also, a friend had told her that Felito could be charged later with more offenses if he accepted. Felito then refused the plea bargain.

On April 8, 1992, Anna Boyer reported to OCYS that while bathing her, J.H. said that Felito had touched her private parts with his private parts.

Actually, J.H. had used a Spanish word, "fresqueria," which Ms. Boyer took to mean sexual abuse. Ms. Boyer did not speak Spanish, so she called Nora Ramos, a church friend, and asked J.H. to repeat the words to Ms. Ramos for translation. Ms. Ramos questioned J.H., then indicated that sexual abuse had occurred, stating that "fresqueria" connotes sexual touching and intercourse.

J.H. was sent to the Lehigh Valley Hospital for a physical examination. Dr. Sarah Fernster examined her, took an oral history and ordered various tests and cultures to be performed. The examination results revealed that J.H. was suffering from vaginal gonorrhea as well as a notched hymen. Dr. Fernster opined that the notching of the hymen was due to trauma. Although J.H. denied that she was sexually abused at the time, Dr. Fernster reported that, given the information available to her, it was her opinion that sexual contact had occurred.

Now, the rush to vilification completely took hold. The police had already charged Felito Mendoza with child assault. It was a simple matter for police investigators to believe that Felito was also a sexual predator who had sexually abused Mercedes' daughter and older sons.

Police detective Richard Mongilutz, of the Allentown Police Department Sex Crimes Unit, and Denise Scharle, from OCYS, conducted the investigations.

Mercedes' sons, J.V. and A.G., were repeatedly interviewed. The police investigators put considerable pressure on both children to relate episodes of sexual abuse concerning the man the police wanted to convict. After several interviews J.V. and A.G. finally obliged. They stated that they had been forced to engage in oral and anal intercourse with Felito on multiple occasions, sometimes in the presence of each other. They also claimed they saw Felito performing intercourse on J.H. They stated that their mother, Mercedes Hernandez, was sometimes at home when these incidents occurred.

Supposedly, Felito sometimes punched J.V. in the back. A.G. indicated that Vaseline was used and described alleged episodes of sexual molestation in detail.

After several police interrogations, both children asserted that the abuse occurred on numerous occasions over a period of roughly six months prior to February 1992, or from September 1991.

There are indications that the children were given other inducements to provide the testimony the prosecution desired, in addition to the suggestive interviews. Specifically, A.G. (and probably J.V.) was given pocket money when answering questions in a manner favoring the prosecution.

The police also applied considerable pressure to Mercedes. Mercedes was not allowed to speak at a preliminary hearing. Instead, Denise Scharle was able to testify that J.V. and A.G. related that Mercedes would soon go to Puerto Rico and that she knew abuse was occurring and would say nothing.

At the same hearing, Detective Mongilutz stated that Mercedes had sex with Felito in front of the children and that she told A.G. to say nothing about the sexual incidents. The prosecutors also brought in a woman who was an employee of the Lehigh County OCYS. She testified that she heard Mercedes tell J.V. not to say anything of what happened in the Lehigh County Court building hallway. Mercedes has consistently denied she said anything like that in the court building hallway. Also, Anna Boyer testified that J.H. told her that Mercedes had told her daughter not to say anything about what occurred.

J.V. and A.G. were taken to the Lehigh Valley Hospital and examined by Dr. John Kenvin.

Dr. Kenvin found no physical evidence of sexual molestation.

Due in part to orders from the prosecutor, Felito and Mercedes were both tested for infection from many diseases. The results were negative for the presence of any disease or contamination.

Neither Felito nor Mercedes tested positive for the presence of gonorrhea.

Please remember that Mercedes' daughter, J.H., did test positive for gonorrhea a few months after being taken from the parental home.Yet authorities arrested Felito on charges of sexual assault on all three children.

The trial of Felito Mendoza on charges of assault and sexual abuse began on April 26, 1993. The Judge was Lawrence J. Brenner. The prosecuting attorney was Kelly Waldron. At the trial, both J.V. and A.G. testified against Felito.

J.V. described various acts of sodomy. He also stated that he saw Felito forcing A.G. and his sister J.H. to engage in anal intercourse. A.G. testified that he was hurt from anal intercourse with Felito. He also alleged he saw Felito engage in vaginal intercourse with his sister J.H.

Anna Boyer, J.H.'s foster mother, testified about the statement J.H. made concerning sexual abuse. Dr. Fernster testified about her examination of J.H. and provided her opinion that sexual abuse occurred.

As a result of the testimony of these witnesses and some others, Felito Mendoza was convicted on both the assault and sexual molestation charges and sentenced to 65 years.

There are a number of very disturbing elements in this trial. First was the entrance of the hearsay testimony of J.H. Both the prosecution and defense agreed that J.H. was incompetent to testify. Like most other five-year-olds, J.H. readily fantasized. She did not possess the ability to remember and accurately communicate what she remembered. She often was unable to distinguish fact from imagination: at one time she stated that Felito caused a bogeyman to enter her room.

As a Pennsylvania Supreme Court pointed out: "Experience has informed us that children are particularly susceptible to the world of make believe and suggestions." (from Rosche vs McCoy 397 Pa 615, 156 A. 2d 307 (1959)).

Another troubling fact is that J.H. used a Spanish word that was taken to indicate sexual abuse. The only person with whom J.H. conversed in Spanish was her older brother, A.G. After the children were placed in foster homes and her brothers had entered into prosecution-sponsored therapy, she spoke with her brothers several times. Thus, her account of sexual abuse might well not have been spontaneous, but instead a repetition of something one of her brothers was induced to say in therapy.

J.H. denied being sexually abused when questioned by Dr. Fernster in Lehigh Valley Hospital. Dr. Fernster formed her opinion that sexual abuse had occurred in the home solely on the evidence of J.H.'s positive medical test for gonorrhea. That Mercedes and Felito had tested negative was not taken into account.

Moreover, there was the statement J.V. made to a youth caseworker. The caseworker reported that, J.V. "thinks his brother and sister are saying things are happening so they don't go home."

Taking all these factors together, the testimony of J.H. should have been excluded. The statements by J.H. are inconsistent, fantastical, and most probably contaminated by other witnesses.

The hospital's gonorrhea test of J.H. was a positive piece of evidence. However, this evidence was not against Felito as you will see.

A most disturbing facet of this trial was linking the assault charge together with the sexual abuse charges. Along with sexual abuse, Felito was charged with aggravated assault. Specifically, the prosecution witnesses, A.G. and J.V., narrated at the trial that J.V. was sent to a pharmacy with a younger cousin.  The cousin became lost in the store and, not seeing his cousin around, J.V. went home without him. Since the cousin was not at home, J.V. and his mother, Mercedes, went to find him. When they returned, the cousin was at home. It was then alleged that Felito lost his temper and struck J.V. in the face, causing his nose to bleed and his eye to shut, and then struck him in the back of legs with a stick.

Several points should be kept in mind about this assault that the prosecution charged to Felito Mendoza. First, however deplorable and disquieting the incident, J.V. suffered no serious bodily injury. Secondly, the assault stemmed from a lost temper and an effort to discipline J.V. The assault was not an attempt to prevent the children from reporting sexual abuse.

Obviously, this single incident did not keep the children quiet about any presumed sexual abuse from September, 1991, to February, 1992.

Yet the prosecution, by introducing testimony about this alleged assault, was able to get the jury to postulate that other assaults occurred. These tactics were clearly prejudicial against Felito.

In order to introduce evidence about other crimes into a trial, the prosecution must demonstrate that these other crimes prove motive, intent, absence of a mistake or accident, or a plan or design by the defendant.

Obviously, the aggravated assault charge proved none of these points. The alleged assault charge was an episode where a loss of temper and desire to discipline the child got out of hand.

At the trial, no witness testified that Felito told the children not to tell the truth. It was Mercedes who was alleged to have made that request. Nor was any evidence introduced indicating that Felito asked Mercedes to help prevent the reporting of sexual abuse.

Moreover the charge of aggravated assault was clearly untrue. The alleged "assault" was to punish a minor for misbehavior, not to inflict serious bodily injury.

A third very disturbing feature of this prosecution and trial was the prosecution's deliberate influencing and intimidation of witnesses. After J.V. and A.G. were placed in foster homes, they were also placed in prosecution-sponsored therapy where they were encouraged to relate episodes of sexual abuse. They were also often questioned by the prosecutors and by the social worker, Denise Scharle, about sexual abuse. Leading questions were often used. In this way, the prosecutors were able to turn the two sons, particularly A.G., against Felito.

There are some very disturbing indications that the two boys were bribed to some degree for their testimony. Prosecutors rewarded the children for providing the testimony they wanted -- namely that Felito sexually abused them. Mercedes has related that A.G., in particular, often got spending money from some of the prosecution interrogators. According to Mercedes, who saw the children on visits, the prosecutors would also bring A.G. gifts and take him to Burger King.

One more highly questionable factor in this case is that pressure was applied to people who volunteered to be character witnesses for Felito. Wilma Soto, a teacher at Washington Elementary School, where J.V. and A.G. went to school, at first volunteered, but later refused to testify as a character witness for Felito because she believed she could lose her job.

The boss of the cleaning and maintenance company where Felito worked, at first offered, but then suspiciously declined to serve as a character witness on Felito's behalf.

Then there is Mercedes. She has declared in many letters that Felito is innocent of any sexual abuse. She was not allowed to testify at the preliminary hearing. Later, her court-appointed lawyer told her she would either have to plea bargain and not testify in Felito's behalf or the state would take away all her children, including the infant. The prosecutors gave Mercedes three months to decide. Mercedes did not have the financial resources to hire a decent lawyer. To keep her children and her liberty, therefore, she complied with the deal proposed by her appointed lawyer.

Before going along with the prosecution-sponsored deal, Mercedes spoke to a lawyer about the situation. The lawyer, Mr. Santana, told Mercedes that if she could bring ten people with the same problem, he could file a class action suit against both the county and the District Attorney's office.

There is also the matter of the ineffective defense of Felito at trial. Felito's lawyer, William Wismer, did not present witnesses or evidence that would have been favorable to Felito. The prosecution's pressure on, and intimidation of, witnesses who would have testified in Felito's favor went unchallenged. Evidence concerning J.H.'s gonorrhea infection was also not presented.

Felito's first hearing was suspended because William Wismer was on vacation. Wismer didn't attend Felito's preliminary hearing because he was at another trial. Then, at a November 24, 1994, hearing before Judge Brenner, Wismer joked that the District Attorney was paying him thousands of dollars to frame Felito. Given his inaction on the prosecution's influencing of witnesses, his joke becomes a serious matter. Did the DA try to influence Wismer as well? If there is the remotest truth to Wismer's joke, major prosecutorial misconduct occurred. The prosecution is not allowed to tamper with the defense under any circumstances.

Counting all these factors -- the introduction of the testimony of the child, J.H., the deliberate use of the assault charge to inflame the jury against Felito, the prosecution tampering with the witnesses, and the ineffective defense of Felito by William Wismer, the trial of Felito Mendoza can be seen for the utter travesty of justice it was. Under these circumstances, there was no way Felito Mendoza could have his case fairly heard or receive justice.

But now comes the question, what about the gonorrhea test? This evidence was the sole positive physical evidence that sexual abuse had occurred.

To answer this question, we must note that in 1991, Mercedes' brothers, G.H. (Guillito) and R.H. (Chito) lived in the same house with Mercedes, Felito, and the children. According to witnesses, Guillito sexually assaulted Mercedes when she was a little girl. He had also physically and sexually assaulted Mercedes when she was a woman. Mercedes later placed Guillito in a psychiatric hospital in Puerto Rico because of his physical and sexual abuse against her and her sisters. Felito Mendoza only became aware of these facts after he had been with Mercedes for some time, and when Guillito came to their home, Felito confronted him with what he knew and warned him that he would have to treat Mercedes with respect from then on.

According to potential witness, Felix Morales, Mercedes' uncle, Manuel Apontes Martinez, related these details to others. Martinez also claimed that G.H. left Puerto Rico with a venereal disease virus.

The Lehigh County prosecutors examined none of this evidence. These prosecutors used an alleged assault to make a rush to vilify and convict an innocent man of the very serious crime of sexual abuse and let a guilty man escape indictment. To restore the credibility of the American justice system this glaring injustice must be rectified. Felito Mendoza must be freed.

Felito's case has met with one disappointment after another. At one time, Ron Christopher of Pennsylvania VOCAL, had taken Felito's case, saying in a letter, "I have conducted a thorough study of the documentation I received from Mendoza and I can only agree that Mendoza has received the royal shaft from the Sovereign of Pennsylvania." Progress on Felito's case was halted for lack of funds. He continues to believe that he can find justice, even though he is now suffering from a heart condition primarily brought on by the stresses of imprisonment. If you can help him, please contact Justice Denied Magazine.

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