SANTA CRUZ — A Santa Cruz Superior Court Judge ruled Thursday that there is enough evidence to send a former neurosurgeon and his female accomplices to trial on charges that they sexually abused both of the women’s children.
James Kohut, 58, Rashel Brandon, 44, and Emily Stephens, 31, now head to trial, likely next year, on 30 charges that could send them to prison for life.
The decision by Santa Cruz Superior Court Judge John Salazar capped a preliminary hearing that occurred in early October.
During that hearing, Salazar heard evidence that the three sexually abused Stephens’ children, a 3-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl, and Brandon’s son, 9.
As part of the preliminary hearing, Salazar watched two videos of the abuse taken in Scotts Valley and in a Watsonville hotel room.
According to prosecutors, Kohut sought relationships with women who would become pregnant with his children to be sexually abused.
Police say that Kohut and Stephens were in such a relationship, and that three of her four children were sexually active with adults.
Also according to police, Stephens was pregnant with Kohut’s child, and was blackmailing him by threatening to expose the child and the relationship to Kohut’s wife.
In an attempt to neutralize that threat, Kohut asked Brandon to make videos of Stephens sexually abusing children to have leverage over Stephens, prosecutors say.
The case against the three came to light when Brandon’s husband found one of the videos and contacted the Watsonville Police Department.
During the hearing, Salazar dropped about 15 charges against the three after defense attorneys argued, among other things, that kidnapping charges cannot be applied in the case.
That charge stemmed from a scene in the video in which the 3-year-old girl refused commands to orally copulate the 9-year-old boy, and ran out of the room shouting, “no.” Stephens then went to retrieve the child, carried her back and, as she continued to protest, put her on the bed as the boy said, “make her.”
The judge also agreed with defense attorneys that the defendants cannot be charged with rape for forcing the children to touch each other.
Santa Cruz County Assistant District Attorney Steve Moore said he will ask a judge to reverse the decisions when the trio is arraigned on Nov. 15.
Despite the dropped charges, Kohut, Stephens and Brandon still face numerous serious charges.
“Today all of the defendants were held on multiple life crime counts,” Moore said. “They all face multiple, multiple consecutive life sentences for the crimes they committed. There were certain ones that the court disagreed with our theories. We still believe we're correct on that and we look forward to litigating that in the future.”