Mel's Angels

Editor's note: The names of the victims, their parents and the assailant -- a relative of A. Melvin McDonald's -- have been changed. Some details of the crimes are intentionally vague so as to protect those identities. Everyone else named in this story is accurately identified.

In 1990, Janet Brooks of Gilbert discovered that her 3-year-old daughter, Sharon, had been molested by a teenage girl named Patty Lake.

Instead of calling the police, she alerted a relative of Lake's, A. Melvin McDonald, a prominent Valley lawyer who once had been U.S. attorney for Arizona and a Superior Court judge.

McDonald smoothed things over, promising Brooks that Patty would get immediate professional help. Later, Brooks believed McDonald when he assured her it was safe for her two children to be alone with Patty.

But in late 1992, Janet discovered Patty, then 15, in bed with her 10-year-old son, Tim. Both were naked. Janet again contacted McDonald, who, this time, did call the police.

But he didn't notify the Gilbert Police Department, which should have had jurisdiction. Instead, he called Phoenix Police Sergeant Susan Porter, whom he had once represented in a lawsuit. McDonald told Brooks that Porter was a close friend who would know the right thing to do.

Porter assigned a sex-crimes detective to interview Tim Brooks and Patty Lake: Tim wouldn't say much. Patty confessed.

But the case quickly and quietly went away: Phoenix PD never sent it to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office for possible prosecution. And in a highly unusual move, the detective didn't file any reports about her findings, on orders, she said later, from Sergeant Porter.

Patty went into psychological counseling as a perpetrator. Tim and his little sister went into counseling as victims.

Six months later, however, Tim Brooks decided that justice had not been served. So, with his mother's blessing, he called Gilbert police and said he wanted Patty Lake behind bars. He happened to make the call two days after Mel McDonald had been sworn in as a new Gilbert city councilman.

If McDonald had stepped back at this point and let the case run its course, Patty likely would have been charged as a juvenile. Provided she didn't molest again or get into other serious trouble, her record would have been expunged when she turned 18.

But that's not McDonald's style.
He managed to meet with Gilbert detectives before they even spoke with the officer who had taken Tim Brooks' call. Phoenix police already had dealt with the allegations, he told them.

The detectives confirmed Phoenix PD's prior involvement, then decided to ignore Tim Brooks. Within days they closed the case without interviewing Tim or his assailant, Patty Lake.

Unlike her counterpart in Phoenix, however, the lead Gilbert detective on the case did write reports--in which she tepidly attempted to justify the failure to investigate the felonies.

The case would become variously known at the Gilbert Police Department as an APE ("acute political emergency"), a "political hot potato," a "can of worms," a study in STP ("small-town politics") and finally, simply, "the Mel McDonald thing."

As with Phoenix police, Gilbert officers did not inform county prosecutors of the multiple-molestation case. The County Attorney's Office wouldn't hear of the crimes until the summer of 1995, when a Gilbert police sergeant blew the whistle.

That led to a seven-month investigation, during which members of the County Attorney's Office pieced together what had happened at the two police departments. Prosecutors then analyzed the dormant case against Patty Lake.

Despite McDonald's meddling and County Attorney Richard Romley's unwelcome intervention into his own department's probe, the completed investigation led to two inescapable conclusions:

1. Patty Lake got special treatment from police because she's related to McDonald.

2. If prosecutors decided to charge Patty Lake with sex crimes, they probably would win a conviction.

It's not surprising that Mel McDonald did everything in his estimable power to get authorities to go easy on a relative.

The results he got, however, are stunning.
"[McDonald] orchestrated that case more than any other case I've ever worked on," one Gilbert officer told county investigators in 1995. "He had his hand literally on the steering wheel somewhere the entire time."

But McDonald's hand has slipped off that wheel. Patty Lake no longer is a juvenile. Now a 19-year-old college student, she would be prosecuted as an adult, and face far more severe penalties than she would have faced as a juvenile.

Is it fair for Patty to be punished as an adult when--but for Mel McDonald's successful manipulations--the system would have treated her as a juvenile?

Prosecutors have grappled for months with that and other unprecedented issues. A few weeks ago, they crafted a novel resolution that would push Patty Lake into the criminal justice system, but afford her a good chance of avoiding a criminal record if she stays clean and undergoes intensive counseling.