For the victims who came to court, today was supposed to be a day of closure.
It was their chance to stand up in front of a judge and say how John Fickas, the former high school coach and political consultant who pleaded no contest in January to multiple counts of drugging and raping former students who volunteered to work on campaigns, impacted their lives.
In exchange for the plea, which came Jan. 22 as a surprise during what was to be a routine pre-trial hearing, Fickas had agreed to a sentence of 28 years and eight months in prison.
But today came another surprise: Fickas, Deputy Public Defender Mike Belter told Monterey County Superior Court Judge Pam Butler, wanted to withdraw his plea.
Belter had just been placed on the case; it was announced yesterday Gov. Gavin Newsom had appointed Fickas' former attorney, Deputy Public Defender Jennifer Davenport, to the Superior Court bench.
"As the court is aware, Mr. Fickas' attorney, Jennifer Davenport, is no longer on this case," Belter said. And then he dropped the bombshell.
After consulting with Belter and Deputy District Attorney Elaine McCleaf, Butler agreed to hear a Marsden motion, a hearing in which a defendant seeks to fire a court-appointed attorney. The hearing will take place on March 30; Marsden hearings are closed to the public and the prosecutor.
"We are not going to proceed to sentencing today and I apologize to anyone who is here" for this case, Butler said. Fickas, who has been in Monterey County Jail awaiting trial, declined to be transported to court for today's sentencing hearing, but Butler ordered him to appear for the Marsden hearing.
"You will physically come to court on March 30," she told Fickas.
Should Fickas change his mind again, and keep his no contest plea in place, he will be sentenced on April 2.
Fickas had pleaded no contest, which has the same effect as a guilty plea, to five counts of raping and sodomizing four girls or women. In a sixth count, he pleaded no contest to oral copulation on a teenage boy he coached at North Salinas High School; in that instance, Fickas rented a motel room, drove the boy to the motel and furnished him with a sex worker.
He pled to three counts of rape by use of drugs involving three separate victims, two charges of sex assault on a girl under the age of 18 and the charge involving the boy.
The pleas represent an act committed on every victim connected to the case.
Fickas coached the girls' junior varsity field hockey team and also acted as the varsity shot put coach for the track and field team at North Salinas High School; a school district spokesman described him as a "walk on, off-campus" coach, meaning he wasn't directly employed by the school or the district.
But he used his position as a coach to recruit students eager for community service hours to work on various campaigns. According to testimony during his 2019 preliminary hearing, Fickas used his position at North Salinas High to groom victims, ply them with alcohol and then drug them without their knowledge before raping or sodomizing them.
After his July 2019 arrest, Fickas posted $40,000 bail and remained out of custody for some time. After prosecutors filed a second round of charges that totaled 24 in all, his bail was reset to $1.5 million and he's been in custody ever since he was arraigned on July 22, 2019.
Just after his arrest, a pair of FBI agents came to town to question several people about Fickas' finances and investigate whether Fickas had been involved in laundering campaign contributions tied to cannabis interests. Local detectives found Fickas had a large—and as-yet unexplained—amount of cash during the rape investigation.
So far, nobody has been charged in federal court in relation to that investigation, and it's not clear whether or not that the investigation remains ongoing.
After his arrest, those same electeds who valued Fickas for his ability to rally large numbers of students to volunteer on campaigns moved quickly to distance themselves from him. Salinas City Councilmember Steve McShane returned a cash donation Fickas made to him. Fickas also brought student volunteers to work on Sheriff Steve Bernal's 2018 campaign, and was listed on a campaign manager for a successful tax measure campaign in the city of Salinas.
Fickas also sat for a time on the Santa Rita Union School Board and ran in 2015 for the Salinas Union High School District board, losing to incumbent Carlos Rubio 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent.
The website Ballotpedia, which tracks campaigns, noted that Fickas was endorsed by the Salinas Valley Leadership Group for that race.
In addition, according to SmartVoter.org, Fickas also worked on the campaigns of Mike Kanalakis for sheriff, Butch Lindley for Monterey County supervisor, Abel Maldonado for State Senate and Jeff Denham for State Senate, as well as a number of local school board races.
Fickas had been listed on the website of PJF Communications, a Salinas-based political consultancy co-founded by his brother, Paul, as a project manager and consultant who provides clients with precinct walkers, phone bankers and strategy to target absentee voters during election seasons. "During a campaign in Salinas in 2010, John Fickas organized over 100 walkers and phone bankers in less than 48 hours," the website stated.
Shortly after his arrest, his bio was scrubbed from the PJF website.