California Valley men accused in bizarre torture case plead no contest

Daniel Andrew Zeller, 42, was arrested Monday, Nov. 14, 2011, on suspicion of false imprisonment with violence, torture and possession of a controlled substance. Original story »
Daniel Andrew Zeller, 42, was arrested Monday, Nov. 14, 2011, on suspicion of false imprisonment with violence, torture and possession of a controlled substance. Original story »

Two men accused of torturing and beating a 28-year-old man with a hammer and blowtorch in California Valley in November entered pleas of no contest Friday to an assault charge in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

But a more sordid tale emerged from Sheriff’s Office reports that cast doubts on the credibility of the victim in the case — Travis Michael Lord — who is a registered sex offender in New York after being convicted of molesting a 7-year-old boy in 2003.

Daniel Andrew Zeller, 42, and Philip Clyde Williams, 45, entered their pleas to one count each of assault likely to cause great bodily injury.

But several other charges were dropped as part of the plea deal, including torture, false imprisonment by violence and criminal threats to the victim’s life.

Lord, who also goes by the name Travis Dames, claimed in a Sheriff’s Office report that the men tortured him over a three-day period in November in a mobile home after he “disrespected” Williams’ wife.

But Zeller denied the allegations, saying that he and Lord had been on a 32-day methamphetamine binge and that Lord hit him after Zeller stopped supplying him with the drug, according to the report.

Zeller told detectives that he and Lord exchanged multiple blows after the drug-related argument.

Zeller also speculated to detectives that Lord’s burns and cuts may have come from someone else.

Law enforcement officials say that Lord recently stopped talking with detectives.

His criminal history, which they learned about after the arrests, also presented challenges in the prosecution of the case.

Lord and his partner, who isn’t connected directly with the California Valley case, had been staying on the property where Williams lived with his 86-year-old wife.

Williams denied the torture allegations as well, though he admitted that he was in a methamphetamine-induced fog, and that he allowed Lord and his partner to stay on his property.

Lord initially told detectives that he didn’t use drugs and only smoked methamphetamine because he was forced to by the men during his capture.

Lord, of California Valley, accused the defendants of inviting him to help dig a koi pond on Nov. 9. They then assaulted and tortured him with a hammer, dinner fork and blowtorch, according to a search warrant filed by Sheriff’s Office detectives.

He was also forced to stay in a cupboard, over three days, before he escaped, according to the warrant.

The defendants and Lord deny any sexual relationship among them, though Lord told detectives that Zeller wanted Lord to give him oral sex, according to the sheriff’s report. Zeller denied that allegation.

Zeller and Williams are expected to receive credit for time served in County Jail and three years’ felony probation at their respective sentencing hearings in March.

The bizarre case captured widespread media attention, including an article in the New York Daily News.

Deputy District Attorney Andy Cadena said in court that Lord was aware of the plea agreement and consented to it.

Judge John Trice read through the sheriff’s reports in court Friday and returned them to Cadena to verify a factual basis for the plea, which will not result in a strike on the defendants’ records.

Zeller and Williams have spent about four months in San Luis Obispo County Jail and are being held without bail until their sentencings.

Williams is scheduled for sentencing March 27 and Zeller is scheduled for sentencing March 29 in Trice’s court.

The defense attorneys representing the two men declined to comment Friday.