MLPD instrumental in prosecution of Santa Barbara sex predator
In many cases, says Mammoth Lakes Police Officer Jesse Gorham, you don’t get the payoff. The innocent victim doesn’t get justice and the bad guy doesn’t get punished.
But last month, almost eight years to the day of an attack on an innocent woman at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, justice was served in Santa Barbara County. Sex predator Steven Neff, 42, of Goleta, who tackled and then injected a date-rape drug into a woman skiing off Chair 12, was sentenced to 23 years in prison by Judge Rick Brown last month.
Though Neff admitted to the ski area attack, that’s not what he was tried for. He was actually tried and convicted for two other attacks which occurred in Santa Barbara County. But it was evidence gathered at the crime scene in Mammoth which proved pivotal in his prosecution on two counts of attempted unlawful penetration and additional enhancements.
Gorham, who has served 12 years with the Mammoth Lakes Police Dept., including two stints as detective from 2001-2003 and then 2006-2007, says the resolution of this case represents the proudest moment of his career.
On January 20, 2002, Cecile Zimmermann, a petite woman who had never skied before and was visiting Mammoth for the first time, was out skiing on Sesame Street by herself. Her friends, more experienced skiers, were skiing elsewhere on more challenging terrain.
According to Gorham, Zimmermann got a little lost, rode to the top of Chair 12, and was headed down a lightly-trafficked trail when she was tackled from behind by a male snowboarder. He then took off his glove and held her down as he injected her with a syringe.
Zimmermann was able to struggle to her feet and when she saw his glove on the ground and the syringe in his hand, she not only screamed for help, but she instinctively stepped on the glove with her boot (her skis had ejected during the spill).
Zimmermann’s feistiness, said Gorham, was the key to the whole case.
A group of teenagers uphill heard her cries and skied down. The attacker, Neff, got on his board and rode away.
Leaving the glove behind.
Zimmermann passed out moments later.
It turned out that Neff had overdosed her and in the ambulance ride to the hospital, she went into respiratory arrest. Without the fine work of emergency personnel, she would’ve died.
Gorham was off that day, but Sgt. Karen Smart, based on the bizarre nature of the incident, sent out a teletype to fellow law enforcement agencies asking if they’d had any similar cases.
There was. Out of Santa Barbara. Which had occurred 11 days prior.
So Gorham got to work. He first had MMSA run a scan of all MVP passholders who had been scanned at Chair 12 that day.
There were three hits from Santa Barbara. A third suspect, however, looked like a possible.
He was a organic chemistry major with a history of issues with women, and although police could not put him at the scene of the Santa Barbara crime from Jan. 9, they did know he had been pulled over on a traffic stop just blocks away on Jan. 2.
Perhaps he’d been casing the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, the glove was sent in for DNA testing.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Dept. ultimately got search warrants and a look at his computer even revealed that he had researched information on ketamine (the date rape drug used to inject Zimmermann).
They ultimately arrested him.
They had the wrong guy.
The man could prove he was nowhere near the scene of a rape (bearing similarities to the two previous attacks) which occurred in Goleta in April.
And when the DNA results came back, they didn’t match.
Hello lawsuit. Hello ignominy. Even though Santa Barbara had made the arrest (over, Gorham says, his objections, because he didn’t think enough of a case had been established), the man sued both the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Dept. and the MLPD.
The Town of Mammoth Lakes setlled for $70,000.
The DNA results were filed away in some faraway FBI computer and the case went cold for five years.
Until Dec. 2006, when a DNA match to Steven Neff was revealed.
Thanks to a recent law, DNA is taken from anyone who is found guilty of committing a felony. Neff’s DNA was taken because he committed check fraud in Santa Barbara in 2006.
Ironically, the law requiring DNA submission had only recently been passed.
Ironically, Jesse Gorham’s turn in the MLPD rotation had come up and he was working as a detective again.
By this time, understandably, his relations with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Dept. had turned a bit frosty, so Gorham went with this new information to Santa Barbara City Police Det. Marty Ensign.
And Ensign was quite familiar with Steven Neff. Santa Barbara Police had a huge file on the guy. Included in the file was the observation of one probation officer who thought that Neff was a real danger to society, a “Ted Bundy” in waiting.
At the time, Neff was living in a former fraternity house which had been purchased by the Calvary Chapel and turned into a Christian dormitory.
Yep. Neff was posing as a Christian.
Gorham said that each dorm resident also had use of a small 10-foot by 20-foot outbuilding on the property to use for storage.
When police ultimately examined Neff’s outbuilding, what they found was a sex den. A bed, mirrors on the ceiling, video monitors, the works.
But back to the narrative. Before they even got to the sex den, police began to revisit some of the former crime scenes.
For example, there had been an attack on a Santa Barbara jogger. The clothes worn by the jogger on that day had not been DNA-tested, but they were still in evidence. A subsequent DNA test found that there was semen on the jogger’s shorts. And the DNA matched Neff.
Neff later testified in court that he had only been planning to rob the jogger and that in the excitement of the moment, he had masturbated through his shorts as his victim drifted in and out of consciousness.
It was Neff’s courtroom testimony, made against the advice of his attorney, which “ended up being his own worst enemy” according to stories on the case written by Santa Barbara Independent reporter Chris Meagher. (If you’d like to read Meagher’s account of the case in full, visit the Independent’s website at www.independent.com).
According to Meagher, “His decision to take the stand opened up the legal door for the prosecution to put into evidence his journals, which were very detailed, and filled with notes and scribbles and story ideas.”
Background: Neff claimed he received formal training as a writer at the University of Iowa.
More Meagher: “In an entry from 1998, he described a character who was ‘planning to chloroform women and gratify himself with their unconscious bodies.’ In another he indicated he had dreamt of spying on a former girlfriend and then raping her.
… He testified that over a one-and-a-half year period with an ex-girlfriend, he injected her with Ketamine roughly 75 times, often having sexual intercourse with her in an unconscious state. The two would travel to Mexico to get the tranquilizing drug.”
During his testimony, Neff also admitted to the attack on Cecile Zimmermann at Mammoth Mountain.
The Mammoth case was not included in the trial because the statute of limitations had expired. Gorham, however, did travel to Santa Barbara to testify in the case.
In sentencing, Meagher reported that Judge Brown determined that Neff, despite contrition offered in court, had shown “callous disregard for the victims.”
But he was sentenced for just 23 years. That means that a dangerous Neff could possibly reenter society at 65.
Not so fast, says Gorham. As a result of the trial coverage, Gorham said there may be another woman stepping forward and another case pending.
So for Jesse Gorham and for the many victims of Steven Neff, justice has been served. And as Gorham said, with this case, and based upon the courage of one feisty Cecile Zimmermann, he was “very motivated” to see it to its completion.