Ac­cused of rape, former Questa coach cuts a deal

The Taos News - - FRONT PAGE - By John Miller [email protected]­news.com

A former coach with the Questa School District was granted a con­di­tional dis­charge Tues­day (Dec. 4) after he pleaded no con­test to two counts in an eight-count in­dict­ment charg­ing him with the rape of a 14-year-old girl in 2016.

De­fen­dant John Rael pleaded no con­test to one count of bribery of a wit­ness, a third-de­gree felony, and one count of false im­pris­on­ment, a fourth-de­gree felony.

Re­lated to those charges, the state ar­gued that Rael had paid off his teen vic­tim and briefly held the young woman against her will while he co­erced her to keep quiet about the al­leged sex­ual as­sault.

While not an ad­mis­sion of guilt, a no con­test plea in­di­cates that the de­fen­dant gives up their right to chal­lenge a case, whether through trial, ap­peal or an al­ter­na­tive plea, and still car­ries con­se­quences.

In this case, Rael will be placed on a four-year pe­riod of pro­ba­tion, will be barred from at­tend­ing events with chil­dren un­der 18 – with the ex­cep­tion of rel­a­tives – and will com­plete 20 hours of com­mu­nity ser­vice. He will not, how­ever, be listed as a sex­ual of­fender.

The other six counts orig­i­nally filed against Rael, in­clud­ing two counts of crim­i­nal sex­ual pen­e­tra­tion of a mi­nor in the first de­gree, were dis­missed as part of the plea reached on Tues­day.

The agree­ment was struck nearly seven months after a jury failed to reach a con­sen­sus as to whether Rael had raped the teen on June 9, 2016.

The young woman tes­ti­fied on the first day of the trial that she had be­come friends with Rael, who lived near her fam­ily’s home in Questa. She

said she some­times worked for the older man in ex­change for a small wage.

On the day of the al­leged crime, she said Rael had in­vited her to ac­com­pany him to fix a leak at The Vet­er­ans of For­eign Af­fairs of­fice in Questa. There, she said Rael raped her, and de­scribed the or­deal in painstak­ing de­tail in court. She said Rael later paid her an amount beyond what was nor­mally ex­changed for her la­bor and asked her to keep what had hap­pened a se­cret.

In spite of her tes­ti­mony, Rael’s at­tor­ney, Alan Maes­tas, suc­ceeded in cast­ing doubts as to the girl’s al­le­ga­tions.

Maes­tas re­lied on a lie de­tec­tor test that Rael had passed, slight vari­a­tions in the vic­tim’s story and the ab­sence of ev­i­dence, in­clud­ing DNA, cell phone data and a jour­nal the vic­tim said had con­tained a record of the al­leged rape.

He also noted that the vic­tim’s fam­ily had waited five months be­fore re­port­ing the in­ci­dent. He sug­gested they had done so as a re­tal­i­a­tion to their daugh­ter’s sus­pen­sion from the Questa School sys­tem, where Rael had vol­un­teered as a coach.

Dur­ing clos­ing ar­gu­ments, Tim Has­son, a pros­e­cu­tor with the 8th Ju­di­cial District At­tor­ney’s Of­fice, at­tempted to per­suade the jury of the un­re­li­able na­ture of poly­graph tests. He noted that sev­eral states do not al­low the tests to be ad­mit­ted as ev­i­dence in crim­i­nal cases.

Ul­ti­mately, the jury was di­vided when the trial ended, with seven ju­rors find­ing Rael guilty, and five find­ing him not guilty, a split that made it dif­fi­cult for Has­son to pur­sue a re­trial, he noted on Tues­day at the plea con­fer­ence.

“It’s a sig­nif­i­cant change in ap­proach by the state ob­vi­ously from the in­dict­ment as charged,” he said. “It’s not the out­come the state wanted; it’s a com­pro­mise, the kind of com­pro­mise that some­times hap­pens after a mis­trial.”

The vic­tim and her par­ents at­tended the con­fer­ence, and took turns ad­dress­ing the court after the agree­ment was reached.

“You hurt me. You made me feel less than what I am,” the young woman said. “All I want is jus­tice for what you did to me. I want you to man up and say what you did. I want you to stop ly­ing to me, your wife, your fam­ily and to the court sys­tem, and most of all your­self.”

Ex­cept for ac­knowl­edg­ing the terms of the agree­ment and the po­ten­tial penal­ties should he vi­o­late his pro­ba­tion, Rael re­mained silent.

In a rare mo­ment of per­sonal re­flec­tion, District court Judge Jeff McEl­roy said he was dis­ap­pointed that the jury had not reached a ver­dict. He sug­gested that Rael owed the vic­tim and her fam­ily an apol­ogy.

“I wish you would have in some way been able to apol­o­gize for any­thing that might have hap­pened,” he said, ad­dress­ing the de­fen­dant.

Be­fore call­ing a re­cess, McEl­roy ad­dressed the vic­tim and her fam­ily.

“I feel in some ways that the court sys­tem has failed,” he said, “and yet, know that these at­tor­neys have done a lot of work on these cases to have them pro­ceed through the court sys­tem, and for that, there is ul­ti­mately some res­o­lu­tion of the case.”

‘I feel in some ways that the court sys­tem has failed’ — Judge Jeff McEl­roy

John Miller

John Rael (cen­ter) was granted a con­di­tional dis­charge Tues­day (Dec. 4) in a plea agree­ment reached in a 2016 case that charged him with rap­ing a 14-year-old Questa girl.

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