Judge rejects Harry Baker's motion to dismiss child molestation charge

Evidence that Harry Baker touched a 13-year-old girl's breasts and put his mouth on her chest is sufficient for him to stand trial on a felony charge of committing a lewd act with a minor, a judge ruled Friday in Fresno County Superior Court.

Lawyers for the former Madera County supervisor wanted the charge dismissed; they contend Baker was tricked into touching the girl inside a Fresno motel room in 2007 so her family could extort him.

But Judge W. Kent Hamlin rejected the motion, saying, "This case is about touching, not extortion."

The extortion allegations, Hamlin said, should be argued to a jury.

Baker, 85, sat silent at the defense table as his lawyers, Richard Berman and Roger Nuttall, made their pitch to Hamlin. If convicted, Baker, who is president of Sierra Telephone Co. in Oakhurst, faces up to eight years in prison.

The case was launched in August 2008 when Baker and Berman turned over a secret video recording of Baker with the girl and her friend in the Fresno motel room.

During Friday's hearing, Berman told Hamlin that Baker knew the victim's mother and that he was trying to help the woman escape an abusive husband. At the Fresno motel, they got separate but adjoining rooms.

According to Berman, the girl went to Baker's motel room with her friend while her mother was sleeping in the other room. "She was stark naked," Berman told Hamlin, and it was her idea for Baker to touch her. She pretended to have a lump on her breast, he told the judge.

Berman said Baker did not fondle the teen or kiss her breasts for sexual gratification. When Baker put his mouth near her chest, it was a show of affection to say everything would be all right, Berman said.

Berman said he had sought information about the girl and her family, who allegedly extorted about $230,000 from Baker. Berman told Hamlin they are a group of gypsies who had long criminal records.

Berman asked for the felony charge to be dismissed because he said the prosecution did not turn the information over to him in a timely fashion. Therefore, he said, he could not adequately prepare a defense in time for Baker's preliminary hearing in May 2012, which resulted in Judge M. Bruce Smith ordering Baker to stand trial.

But prosecutor Becky Gong told Hamlin that she turned over the information to Berman once she received it.

After rejecting the motion, Hamlin wanted to schedule a trial date. But Berman told the judge he plans to file a discovery motion for more evidence before Baker is tried.

Baker's health has caused several delays in his court case. Two summers ago, he underwent open-heart surgery and received an artificial aortic valve, according to his attorney at the time.

And just this year, he's been the subject of two bizarre twists -- he made news in June for firing a gun inside a motel room in Merced, and earlier this month was the subject of a reported kidnapping -- later debunked by authorities.