LOS ANGELES -- A fugitive witness in the McMartin Pre-School molestation trial who refused to return to court because of a threatening telephone call was arrested Friday and jailed in lieu of $1 million bail.
Jailhouse informant George Freeman, a key prosecution witness, was arrested without incident by sheriff's deputies at his residence at about 5:45 a.m., said Schuyler Sprowles, a spokesman for District Attorney Ira Reiner.
Freeman was brought before Superior Court Judge William Pounders, who ruled that Freeman was likely to flee again if he remained free, and ordered him jailed in lieu of $1 million bail, Sprowles said.
Freeman, a five-time convicted felon, was scheduled to resume testifying at the trial Tuesday. Freeman has testified that while sharing a jail cell in March 1984 with Raymond Buckey, 29, the chief defendant and former teacher at the Virginia McMartin Pre-School, Buckey admitted molesting students at the school.
Buckey, and his mother, Peggy McMartin Buckey, 60, are on trial on one count each of conspiracy and 99 counts of molestation for allegedly sexually assaulting 14 pupils at the now-closed Manhattan Beach preschool from 1978 to 1983.
When filed in 1984, the McMartin case was the largest molstation case in U.S. history. Since then, however, hundreds of charges and five co-defendants have been dismissed because of insufficient evidence.
Freeman, who began testifying last week, was unable to resume his testimony earlier this week because of an attack of bronchitis. He had been scheduled to return to court Thursday morning, but reportedly sought further treatment at a hospital.
Deputy District Attorney Lael Rubin said a prosecution investigator went to the hospital to look for Freeman but could not find him.
Pounders issued an arrest warrant for Freeman Thursday afternoon after Rubin informed the judge that Freeman told her in a telephone conversation he was afraid to return to court because of a telephone call he received Wednesday evening. Rubin said Freeman telephoned her twice over the lunch hour Thursday, but declined to reveal his whereabouts. Rubin told Pounders Freeman interpreted the telephone call as a threat but the prosecutor did not elaborate.
She said Freeman told her that the threatening caller said that if Freeman testified further in the McMartin case, he would be asked questions about the unsolved strangulation of a woman named Ester Rappuhn in 1979 and might have to identify her killer.
Freeman was once charged with murdering Rappuhn, whose body was found near Griffith Park in Los Angeles, but the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. Freeman claims he knows who the true killer is, but refuses to identify him.
Pounders Tuesday threatened to declare a mistrial in Ray Buckey's case after prosecutor Rubin revealed to the court, following Freeman's testimony, that the witness had admitted lying under oath in a murder case stemming from the 1979 Soledad Prison riots. Freeman admitted the perjury during a Sept. 16 meeting with the prosecutor.
The mistrial was averted by Pounders agreeing to grant Freeman immunity, enabling the witness to answer cross-examination questions about the perjury without breaching his constitutional right against self-incrimination.