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Three felony convictions lead to interim suspension

A Glendora attorney at the center of a complex conspiracy case that began as a simple child custody matter was placed on interim suspension by the State Bar following his May conviction for three felonies.

JOHN FRANKLYN WATKINS [#44678], 62, lost his license Sept. 23 after being convicted of conspiracy to obstruct justice, conspiracy to stalk and perjury by declaration. He was sentenced to three years in state prison, but has appealed his convictions.

The case, which led in 1999 to a 266-count complaint against Watkins, his son and law partner J. Brian Watkins, clients Steven and Denise Oleesky and three private investigators, began with a child custody dispute between Steven Oleesky and his ex-wife Claudia.

It escalated into allegations that the Oleeskys hired private investigators to stalk and spy on Claudia Oleesky in order to harass her into giving up custody of the couple's son. And it included allegations of financial fraud, stemming from a scheme in which a charity was bilked out of millions of dollars.

When the case was filed, prosecutors included arson, grand theft, assault with a deadly weapon, insurance fraud, wiretapping, conspiracy and filing false court declarations among the charges. The majority of charges eventually were dropped.

"This is the single most difficult thing I've ever done," said San Bernardino deputy district attorney Larry Roberts. "I hope I never see anything like it again. It was like grabbing the tiger by the proverbial tiger."

As authorized fund-raising agents for the California Association for Blind Athletes (CABA), Steven and Denise Oleesky took possession of at least $9 million worth of food from the Second Harvest Food Bank in Riverside, Roberts said.

Rather than providing the food to CABA, however, they sold it, according to the charges. Roberts said prosecutors aren't sure exactly how much money was involved in the scheme over the years because the Oleeskys shredded their records when they became aware they were under investigation.

In addition, their warehouse burned to the ground days before a soft drink supplier that had donated thousands of cases of juice was set to inspect it.

A house Oleesky was building also burned as a result of arson, Roberts said. The Oleeskys received $1.8 million in insurance settlements and placed that money in the Watkins' client trust account. The money, Roberts said, was used to fund the stalking activities of up to a dozen private investigators.

Roberts said the private investigators placed a listening device in Claudia Oleesky's condominium and watched her through a hidden camera planted in a clock radio they gave her as a prize in a phony contest. They also followed her everywhere she went, according to the prosecutor.

The Oleeskys also sued one San Bernardino County judge and filed a total of 48 lawsuits against the various parties involved in the custody and food bank matters.

The Oleeskys pleaded guilty to grand theft as a result of the charity scam, tax evasion, conspiracy to file a false lawsuit, stalking and conspiracy to stalk. They received six-year suspended prison sentences after spending more than two years in county jail and a halfway house.

All charges against Brian Watkins were dismissed.

The food bank charges against Watkins senior were dropped, but prosecutors charged him with filing false court documents on the Oleeskys' behalf.

He represented in papers filed with the court that he was not getting paid by the Oleeskys over a nine-month period when in fact he received almost $100,000 in legal fees, Robert said.

The conspiracy to obstruct justice charge resulted from Oleesky's and Watkins' efforts "to break Claudia so Steven could get her son," lying to judges, and stalking, Roberts said. Watkins, he added, "knew everything from the beginning."

After a five-week trial and 10 days of deliberation, a jury found John Watkins guilty of the three felonies and not guilty of four stalking charges. They could not reach a verdict on three additional stalking charges, one count of conspiracy to file a false lawsuit and one count of perjury.

Watkins' attorney Randall Waier defended his client's innocence and said he's confident Watkins will prevail on appeal. "There's no evidence he was engaged in any of this," he said. Waier said the judge erred in instructions to the jury and said the conspiracy to stalk conviction made no sense because Watkins was not convicted of the underlying stalking charges.

"Here is a man with an unblemished record," Waier said. "I still say the man is innocent. His only fault was representing these people. That's kind of scary, the fact you can have a mere association as an attorney and be held culpable."

The prosecutor takes a different view. "John Watkins is money-hungry," Roberts said. "He is a lawyer who would do anything for a fee. For him, the law is a hammer."

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