Judge rules against guitarist in prelim hearing on online underage sex case

mfountain@thetribunenews.comApril 10, 2014 

Steve Klein in a San Luis Obispo courtroom for a preliminary hearing Thursday. He faces five counts of lewd act on a child, one count of contact with a minor with intent to commit a sex offense and one count of possession of child pornography.

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Attorneys sparred in a pretrial hearing in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Thursday over a former pop-punk band guitarist accused of sexual misconduct with underage girls.

Atascadero resident Steve Lee Klein, 34, formerly of the band New Found Glory, is charged with five counts of lewd acts on a child, as well as one count of contact with intent to commit a sex offense and possession of child pornography, after his now-ex-wife discovered sexual two-way chat room videos on an external hard drive.

Nothing in the court records indicated that the charges involved physical contact.

Early in the hearing, which was to decide on two motions by the defense, Superior Court Judge John Trice rejected Encino-based attorney Debra White’s request to impose a gag order on the case because of her client’s high profile.

Trice then had to decide on White's motion to suppress the evidence against Klein because of questions over whether detectives’ search of the hard drive was lawful. Trice ultimately rejected White's second motion.

Klein’s attorney attempted to poke holes in the prosecution’s case, accusing the ex-wife — who had already filed for divorce and was seeking custody of the children — of having a motive to “snoop” around Klein’s belongings and hand them over to sheriff’s deputies.

It was not established in the hearing whether the evidence showed anything illegal.

Deputy District Attorney Lee Cunningham called Klein’s visibly distraught ex-wife, Amanda McCullough Klein, to the stand. Amanda Klein testified that, in September 2012, while her husband was out of town and days after she had filed for divorce, she opened an external hard drive found on a desk in her husband’s office — a drive she said the couple shared and used to store downloaded feature films.

She testified that she discovered at least 100 videos of two-way chats between Steve Klein and unidentified females who appeared to be underage. At least one of the videos showed Steve Klein masturbating while two females — who were clothed — watched, she testified.

She said she contacted a criminal attorney, who advised her to turn the drive over to police. A sheriff’s deputy arrived and picked up the device the next day.

Under cross-examination, she admitted that she was looking for evidence that Steve Klein was having an affair at the time and that she didn’t see any undressed underage girls in the videos.

Senior Deputy Douglas Scotto, the chief investigator in the case, testified that he was aware Amanda Klein was going through divorce proceedings and had two children when she turned the drive over to the Sheriff’s Office.

He said she told him she never saw naked underage girls on the videos but that she heard her daughter’s voice in one of them and was “troubled.”

Scotto explained Amanda Klein’s action by saying, “She didn’t think it was right for Steve to be masturbating to underage girls whether they were clothed or not.”

After receiving the hard drive, Scotto said he called a deputy district attorney for advice on whether he needed a search warrant to look at its files and the prosecutor said no.

White, however, questioned whether the drive was shared between the couple and argued that Scotto should have gotten a warrant because the deputies did not have enough probable cause that a crime had been committed based on what Amanda Klein told them.

White said Amanda Klein was essentially “working as an agent of the police” when she gave the hard drive to authorities.

“They’re trying to get over the warrant issue,” White told Trice. “You can’t just get around the Fourth Amendment because one deputy district attorney says you don’t need one. They wouldn’t have gotten a search warrant, and they know that.”

In ruling against White’s motion, Trice found that Amanda Klein was acting as a private citizen and that there were “no red flags” that would have told investigators they needed a warrant.

Thursday’s hearing was limited to whether the evidence should be tossed out, and there was little testimony about the content of the videos.

However, in Stephen Klein’s September 2012 response to his wife’s divorce filings, he discusses alleged computer evidence that shows him masturbating while an unidentified female looked on.

“The videos don’t show me or the virtual partner doing anything that I have not done with my wife. When I was away, we occasionally had Skype sex and did exactly the same thing,” Steve Klein wrote.

The case will continue at a May 22 preliminary hearing in San Luis Obispo Superior Court, when a Sheriff’s Office computer forensic specialist is expected to testify.

 

Staff Writer Patrick Pemberton contributed to his report.

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