Former Stanislaus official released on bail

Karen Mathews
Karen Mathews Modesto Bee file

Karen Mathews Davis, accused of fabricating death threats against herself during her congressional campaign last year, was released Thursday upon posting a $50,000 bond after a hearing where a federal judge reviewed a letter from her psychiatrist.

Former Stanislaus County officials who served with Mathews Davis in the mid 1990s expressed surprise and sadness at news of her Wednesday arrest by U.S. marshals. Some attorneys, however, questioned whether she had similarly concocted evidence that helped send nine conspirators to prison in 1997.

“I’m sure she made it up from the start,” said Fresno attorney Daniel Harralson. He represented Roger Steiner, whom Mathews identified as the man who beat and cut her, and sodomized her with a revolver, in a nighttime ambush in her garage.

Steiner has denied the attack for 21 years, including in telephone calls to The Modesto Bee since his early 2014 release from federal prison.

Mathews Davis, 67, of Lodi is accused of lying to federal authorities who responded to death threats she said she received before and after announcing her candidacy, in late 2013 and early 2014. She later failed a polygraph test and admitted to creating the letters herself, an arrest warrant affidavit said.

Her Woodbridge attorney, Randy Thomas, was not reached Thursday. He handed a letter from Mathews Davis’ psychiatrist to U.S. Judge Kendall Newman during the hearing, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office said; Newman read the letter and returned it, and its contents were not discussed, nor was the letter entered into evidence, the spokeswoman said.

Mathews Davis had gained famed for resisting extremist tax protesters when she was Stanislaus’ clerk-recorder in the mid 1990s. Members of the Modesto-based Juris Christian Assembly pressured her to remove a $416,000 IRS property lien, and harassment included threatening comments at the office, bullets fired through an office window and a fake bomb found under her car, authorities said.

She reported receiving written death threats, prompting around-the-clock protection for three years from deputy sheriffs. The ambush occurred when security was relaxed in January 1994, she wrote in “The Terrorist in My Garage,” a book published last year after her unsuccessful attempt to oust U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney.

Mathews Davis told no one she had been sexually assaulted for more than a year, saying in the book that she had been too ashamed, and the story was not publicly revealed until Steiner’s sentencing. She testified about the danger posed by extremist groups in government hearings in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., and has spoken to many groups around the country.

“It’s kind of a relief not to be worried all the time about what I’ll find in the mail,” she told The Bee in 2001.

Her former associates said the ordeal changed her, and she said in her book that she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. In 2000, she filed and later dropped a sex discrimination lawsuit against the county based on her pay, and a civil grand jury the following year said she misused a county credit card on personal purchases, improperly hired her son and assigned her secretary to perform tasks not related to county work. Mathews Davis cited lingering problems from the assault when she went out on medical leave and did not seek re-election in 2001.

“I always liked her and thought she did a good job,” said Nick Blom, a county supervisor at the time. “Then things started to change.”

Ray Simon, also on the board in those years, said Mathews Davis appeared “emotionally injured” and “wrapped up in what allegedly happened to her.” Yet another county supervisor, Paul Caruso, recalled Mathews Davis as “a great lady, smart, who did her job. Then everything went kind of sideways.”

Simon and Caruso said they and their families received home security training, and Caruso said several county officials received permits to carry guns for protection.

The threat of violence “turned the board topsy turvy at the time,” said Simon. “That foundation caused people to believe her story.”

But how much of it was real, given the recent fraud allegation?

“I think it never happened and she made all this up to help her get elected,” said Harralson, Steiner’s former attorney who believes Steiner never left Oregon, where he lived, on the night of the reported assault. “They pieced all these fabrications together to convict him of a crime he didn’t commit, and the jury bought it.

“It was one of the biggest losses of my career, and I honestly believed he was innocent,” Harralson continued. “I still believe he was innocent.”

When Steiner called The Bee in late January 2014, he complained of being “railroaded” in the newspaper and said, “I’m the victim, not Karen Mathews.” He referred to himself as “wise enough” and “humble” and apologized for appearing “a little growly and in your face.”

Four days later, Mathews Davis announced her candidacy. A news release cited recent death threats and her decision to press forward “after prayer and a great amount of support from my husband,” whom she married after moving from Modesto years earlier. In an interview, she told The Bee that the threats almost kept her from running, because “to deal with threats again is not something I want to do or look forward to.

She added, “But it didn’t work with me in 1994 and it’s not going to work with me today. I guess I’m too stubborn to let that happen,” and mused that “the timing is just too odd; that man (Steiner) just got out (of prison).”

A couple of days later, she mailed herself another death threat, the arrest warrant affidavit said, and steered investigators toward Steiner, her grandson, a neighbor’s nephew and a member of her church as possible suspects.

She lost the primary a few months later, and Steiner called The Bee again in July – just before Mathews Davis’ book was released – reasserting, “I’m totally innocent.”

“I’m disappointed that a woman would have to resort to fabricating on the magnitude that this case developed into,” Steiner said, adding that he was “wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years, for what somebody else did.”

On Thursday, Harralson said he has no idea whether Mathews Davis’ arrest could cast a shadow on the 1997 convictions.

“It conceivably could,” said Fresno attorney Roger Nuttall, who represented another defendant. “As I recall, in large part, the prosecution was predicated on her recitation of certain threatening activities. The fact is, no one was there and it was all based on her word.”

Zenia Gilg, a San Francisco attorney associated with another defendant, said, “I remember feeling in my gut that (he) was not guilty of what he was accused of. He was, and I’m hoping still is, a really good person with a good family.”

Mike Lynch sees things differently, remembering “some pretty clear corroboration by investigators.” He was chief of staff then for former U.S. Rep. Gary Condit, who provided support to Mathews Davis for years.

“I think it (would be) real hard to make that stuff up, to that extent,” Lynch added. News of Mathews Davis’ arrest left him “frankly, kind of bewildered,” he said.

“It’s a big shocker,” Simon agreed. “You read about things like this in old detective novels. But a lot of people who go for public office make up stories about their lives to make them appear much better than they really are. It’s happened throughout history.”

Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390