Crime

Atascadero cellphone peeper got a lax sentence, victim says. She wants judge to rethink that

The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office is asking a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge to recall a sentence given to an Atascadero man convicted of peeping with a cellphone in order to allow the victim to weigh in on his punishment.

Eric Lee Owens was convicted in August of a single misdemeanor charge of using an electronic device to view underneath the clothes of an unsuspecting person — a neighbor he filmed six years prior while performing general contracting services in her home.

According to District Attorney Dan Dow, Deputy District Attorney James Graff-Radford originally requested a plea deal that included a 30-day jail sentence.

On Aug. 19, Superior Court Judge Jesse Marino suspended the jail sentence for Owens and imposed 100 hours of community service and three years of formal probation, court records show.

Owens, 38, is required to stay at least 50 yards away from the victim and her husband and pay a $280 fine. He served no jail time.

But on Oct. 16, the District Attorney’s Office filed a motion saying the prosecutor erred in offering the plea deal without notifying the victim in the case, or address the issue of restitution.

The motion, authored by Graff-Radford, asks Marino to recall the sentence in order to have another sentencing hearing in which the victim may deliver a victim’s impact statement to the court and schedule a hearing for restitution to install a home security system in her home.

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A screenshot from the Atascadero Youth Football League Board of Directors website shows a photo of Eric Lee Owens, a former coach with the league convicted in August of taking an upskirt video of a neighbor. Matt Fountain mfountain@thetribunenews.com

The Victim’s Bill of Rights, also known as Marsy’s Law, requires that victims of crimes be noticed of any proceeding and have the right to provide input. The prosecutor wrote that he had since learned that the victim was not alerted of the hearing and wanted to make a statement to Marino.

Marino will rule on the motion Nov. 18, court records show. If he changes Owen’s existing sentence, Owens will have the option of withdrawing his no contest plea and the criminal case would again proceed toward trial, Assistant District Attorney Eric Dobroth said Thursday.

An ongoing civil lawsuit filed in September on behalf of the victim and her husband, Tanya and Robert Degnan of Atascadero, seeks an excess of $25,000 and is ongoing in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

On Friday, the couple’s civil attorney, Brian Kreowski, said his clients are “pleased that the DA’s Office has recognized this mistake and is seeking to correct it and bring justice to this matter.”

Convicted peeper fired as youth coach

The couple learned of the intrusion in November 2018, when Tanya Degnan received a phone call from Owens’ wife, who is currently seeking a divorce, stating that she discovered a video “of an intrusive and revealing nature” of Tanya Degnan on Owens’ computer.

According to Graff-Radford’s motion, the video was a “non-consensual, up-skirt recording of the victim’s crotch area that was recorded without Ms. Degnan’s knowledge when the victim was home alone.” A forensic search of the phone showed the video was taken in May 2013.

Owens, owner of local general contracting company Handy Home SLO, also served as a coach and sat on the board of directors for the Atascadero Youth Football League.

The league declined to verify any details about Owens’ tenure when contacted Friday through its Facebook page.

Bethany Mattis, public relations director of the Central Coast Youth Football League (CCYFL), of which the Atascadero league is a chapter, said that Owens was immediately removed from any affiliation with the CCYFL when it learned of his situation on Sept. 21 — the same day The Tribune published its first article on the case.

Mattis said she could not speak to when the Atascadero league learned of the situation, but said the CCYFL is currently reviewing its background check policies.

“CCYFL has in place stringent background check protocols which includes relying on reporting from the DOJ (state Department of Justice),” Mattis wrote in an email Friday. “In light of the current event, the board is reviewing these protocols to make sure we are continuing to do everything to ensure the safety of the youth players.”

Defense attorney speaks

Owens’ attorney, Peter Depew, defended him on Friday, saying that his client has cooperated fully with authorities and accepted his current sentence.

He wrote in an email that Owens, a veteran of the U.S. Army and the Iraq War, had a clean criminal record prior to the misdemeanor charge.

“The event in question took place more than six years ago. There have been no controversies before or since,” Depew wrote. “Mr. Owens voluntarily allowed police to search all requested files with no prior notice and without requiring a search warrant. Atascadero police found nothing questionable on any of Mr. Owens’ devices.”

Victim ‘wants her voice heard’

Owens’ case made the news on the heels of two other high-profile electronic peeping cases in San Luis Obispo County.

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Chris Berdoll, an Atascadero Fine Arts teacher facing 44 child pornography-related felony charges, appears in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court on Monday, September 24, 2018. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Chris Berdoll, a former teacher at Atascadero Fine Arts Academy, is currently charged with 44 felony counts related to child pornography after he was allegedly caught filming up the skirts of at least 14 victims whose ages ranged from 9 to 15 — some of them his students, according to the District Attorney’s Office complaint.

He’s pleaded not guilty and is due back in court Oct. 29.

In September, former Cal Poly psychology professor Jason Alan Williams was sentenced for his no contest plea to a misdemeanor charge for taking an up-skirt cellphone photo of a female colleague in a campus mail room.

Williams, who destroyed his phone before investigators examined it, received five years of probation but no jail time as a result of his plea. While on probation, he is subject to searches of his electronic devices and ordered to stay away from his victim.

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Jason Alan Williams, a Cal Poly psychology and child development associate professor, stands next to his attorney Shauna Cunningham after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of using an electronic device to view a person’s undergarments. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Cal Poly announced a few days later that Williams was “no longer employed” by the university but was appealing “the decision regarding his employment.”

Kreowski, the Degnans’ attorney, said by phone Friday that it is unclear whether Owens could serve any jail time if Marino grants the District Attorney’s Office’s motion.

Kreowski said that his client is eager to deliver her statement to the judge so that the court considers “not only her rights but the gravity and severity of this defendant’s actions.”

“Ms. Degnan feels that she is essentially a victim of a sex crime and this case — unlike the case dealing with the Cal Poly professor — there was direct evidence and video that the defendant had not only taken but continued to utilize and maintain on his computer and in the cloud,” Kreowski said. “She wants her voice heard; she doesn’t believe a suspended 30-day sentence and nominal fine of $280 and the fact that he doesn’t have to register (as a sex offender) for this offense should be addressed.”

Kreowski said the “biggest thing she’s worried about” is the possibility that Owens has other victims “that haven’t had their voices heard.”

The attorney added that evidence collected on Owens’ devices showed “images of other individuals that he did not get charged for.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article contained incomplete information. It has been updated to clarify the nature of Eric Owens’ no-contest plea.

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Matt Fountain is The San Luis Obispo Tribune’s courts and investigations reporter. A San Diego native, Fountain graduated from Cal Poly’s journalism department in 2009 and cut his teeth at the San Luis Obispo New Times before joining The Tribune as a crime and breaking news reporter in 2014.
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