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 in Sacramento.
Still unknown is how her case might affect 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. She testified Steiner beat her, cut her and sodomized her with a pistol in an ambush in her Modesto garage in 1994.
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’s case.
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 the matter after he reviews 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 if Steiner would be allowed to speak.
In 1997, Steiner was the only defendant whom jurors found responsible for the ambush in Mathews Davis’ garage. Mathews Davis identified Steiner as her assailant in what was then the longest trial held in Fresno’s federal court.
“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 his innocence ever since.
Three years ago, Mathews Davis published a book titled “The Terrorist in My Garage.”
Mathews Davis, Stanislaus County’s 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, they said.
A recent Modesto Bee review suggested problems with the case.
For example, Mathews Davis provided at least four versions of the attack to officers.
During the court case, the judge would not allow questions about Mathew Davis’ 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 north early the next day. The attorney and several others representing Steiner’s co-defendants told The Modesto Bee, after Mathew Davis’ arrest, that they always believed Steiner 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 Modesto 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 the threats might have come from her grandson, a neighbor’s nephew or a member of her church.
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