Karen Mathews Davis, former clerk-recorder of Stanislaus County, pleaded guilty Thursday to lying to federal agents investigating death threats she had sent to herself when she was a congressional candidate three years ago.
Mathews Davis, 68, faces up to five years in federal prison when she is sentenced Sept. 28, although the plea deal confirmed Thursday suggests a shorter term. She and her lawyer declined to comment after the hearing in federal court.
Still unknown is how her case might affect, if at all, the man who spent 19 years behind bars based on Mathews Davis’ testimony when she was a popular public figure in Modesto. She moved to Lodi years ago.
Authorities in late 2015 said they would revisit the older case, which ended in prison convictions for nine people involved in an extremist tax protest. Mathews Davis was the star prosecution witness 20 years ago against Roger Steiner, saying he beat and cut her and sodomized her with a pistol in a 1994 ambush in her Modesto garage.
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Steiner, 79, frail and using a walker for the past year, did not attend Thursday’s hearing. His Fresno attorney, Patrick Fortune, said he is disappointed that nothing was said touching on Steiner or the older case.
She was going down either way, so (Steiner’s) presence wouldn’t make a difference.
Patrick Fortune, Roger Steiner’s attorney
“When he thought about it, it came down to his personal motives,” Fortune said. “She was going down either way, so his presence wouldn’t make a difference.”
How do you plead?
Troy Nunley, U.S. District Court judge
Guilty, your honor.
Karen Mathews Davis
In the hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Troy Nunley asked Mathews Davis: “How do you plead?”
She responded, “Guilty, your honor.”
Asked about treatment for mental illness, she said she is seeing both a psychiatrist and a psychologist, and takes medication.
Although the maximum punishment for her crime, a felony, is five years in federal prison, prosecutors agreed to recommend a shorter term. The judge said he’ll decide after reviewing a background report to be produced before sentencing in September. At that hearing, victims will be afforded an opportunity to say how Mathews Davis’ actions have affected them, but it’s not clear whether Steiner fits that definition.
50 years in federal prison for nine defendants, in combined sentences
Steiner was the only defendant jurors in 1997 found responsible for the ambush. In the longest trial to that date in Fresno’s federal court, she identified Steiner as the assailant. Three years ago, she published a book called “The Terrorist in My Garage.”
“As God is my savior, you have condemned and convicted an innocent man,” Steiner blurted at the trial’s end, and he has steadfastly proclaimed innocence since.
Mathews Davis, Stanislaus’ clerk-recorder from 1990 to 2001, stood up to tax extremists, refusing to record bogus documents or to remove a $416,000 IRS property tax lien. Authorities said she received threatening calls and letters; a bullet was fired through the recorder’s office window and a fake bomb was left under her car.
A recent Bee review suggested problems with the case. For example, Mathews Davis provided at least four versions of the attack in accounts to various officers. The judge would not allow questions about her mental health; he also kept jurors from hearing that Steiner had passed a polygraph test administered by Oregon State Police before his arrest, reportedly clearing him from involvement in the Modesto ambush.
Steiner’s attorney said it would have been impossible for Steiner to attack Mathews Davis at night in Modesto and show up to work 800 miles away early the next day. The attorney and several others representing his co-defendants told The Bee, after her arrest, that they always believed he was innocent.
A year ago, congestive heart failure put a scare into Steiner, who has been living in squalor in a broken-down trailer in a pasture west of Fresno. He offered to recommend a lenient sentence if Mathews Davis would come clean about what really happened 23 years ago; she acknowledged recent missteps but insisted her testimony back then was true.
Mathews Davis had feared for her safety when Steiner was released from prison, about the time her candidacy for Congress was ramping up, she told The Bee in May 2016. After she reported receiving new death threats resembling the old ones, agents said she steered them toward Steiner, who was living in a Fresno halfway house at the time, and also suggested they might have come from her grandson, a neighbor’s nephew or a member of her church.
In actuality, Davis wrote both letters, placing the first in her own mailbox and mailing herself the second.
U.S. Department of Justice press release
She admitted fabricating the threats after an investigator could not tie evidence to any suspects and asked if she had been treated for dementia, an arrest warrant affidavit said.
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390