In the wee hours of February 27, 1999, John Holland and Carl Wald decided to end their night of bar-hopping. Holland, who felt he was too drunk to drive, handed his keys to his rugby buddy and agreed to go to Wald's Palm Beach Gardens home for some breakfast.
They arrived at the Giralda Circle apartment and found Carl's brother Jonathan Wald, who had been out drinking with them earlier that night, asleep on the couch. Carl Wald headed straight for the kitchen to cook some eggs, and Holland, who felt dizzy, made his way to the guest bedroom. To Holland's inebriated surprise, Jonathan Wald's 19-year-old girlfriend, who had also been out with them that night, was asleep on the bed. Feeling disoriented, Holland climbed in anyway. After sleeping for a short while, Holland woke up.
Only two people know what happened in the few minutes between that moment and 3:30 a.m., when Jonathan Wald called 911 to report that Holland had sexually assaulted the young woman. The strange legal battle that ensued came to an end January 5, 2001, when Holland pleaded no contest to one count of misdemeanor battery.
At first glance the case, reported in two brief articles in the Sun-Sentinel and one in The Palm Beach Post, seems like just another enigmatic, he said/she said tale. In reality it is rife with perceived and real conflicts of interest, bad choices, and theories that prosecutors were unjust. Holland, a sandy-haired New England native with a thick accent, is a Sentinel reporter who covers the legal system and has a reputation for aggressively pursuing hard-hitting stories. (Until May 1999 he worked for The Palm Beach Post.) He spoke only hesitantly about the case. Jonathan Wald, who was an intern in the Palm Beach State Attorney's Office (SAO) at the time of the incident, declined to comment. He is now in private practice.
According to a police report, the victim told detectives who responded to the incident that Holland had kissed her, touched her breasts, spanked her, hit her with a belt, and penetrated her with his fingers. She said she did not resist Holland at first because she mistook him for Jonathan Wald. She explained she was already naked and passed out on the bed when Holland and Carl Wald arrived home.
In a statement to police, Holland argued the two had what amounts to a consensual make-out session. He acknowledged kissing, caressing, and lightly spanking her once. He maintained, however, that he never touched her vaginal area or hit her with a belt. According to the police document: "[Holland] states that at one point they looked at each other and [the victim] said, "This is wrong.' John stated that he got out of bed and left the residence."
Police found no mark on the victim's body to indicate Holland had hit her with his hand or a belt. They did not pursue Holland that night, nor did they arrest him. Holland contends he only heard of the investigation five days later.
Then, in a three-way call with Palm Beach Gardens detective John Boyle and Carl Wald March 3, 1999, Holland emphasized the encounter was consensual. Detectives then waited more than two months, until May 10, to again interview the reporter. Around that time Holland accepted a job covering courts at the Sentinel, where editors apparently knew about the probe. "I always thought John was forthcoming with his supervisors," says Ellen Soeteber, a former Sentinel managing editor, who is now editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "And we had no complaint with him." She declines to comment further.
On June 15 Detective Boyle filed a probable-cause affidavit, which showed the victim's accusations would constitute one felony count of sexual battery. Boyle did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
After Boyle filed the affidavit, the case landed on the desk of Charles Burton. Then a prosecutor, Burton has since become a judge. He is known across America for his role as chairman of the Palm Beach County canvassing board during the recent presidential ballot fiasco. "She told me she was 75 percent sure about penetration," Burton says of his interviews with the victim. "That's not [sure] enough." Her uncertainty was significant. If a defendant penetrates a victim with his fingers, he can be charged with felony sexual battery. Otherwise the crime might be classified a misdemeanor. But, Burton remembers, "I found [her story] credible."
When Burton realized the young woman's boyfriend, Jonathan Wald, had been an intern in the Palm Beach SAO, he became concerned about a potential conflict of interest: Prosecutors may have known Wald, so they might have trouble objectively considering the case. In August 1999 Gov. Jeb Bush signed an executive order assigning prosecution of the case to the Broward SAO. (It would, however, still be heard in a Palm Beach County court.)
Dennis Siegel, Broward's assistant state attorney in charge of the sex crimes/child abuse unit, took over the case. In February 2000 Siegel filed four counts of misdemeanor battery against Holland. Next, Palm Beach criminal court judge Cory Ciklin recused himself at least partly because Holland had written a 1997 Palm Beach Post series on courtroom leniency. The series begins: "In Palm Beach County, child molesters rarely go to prison. Men who beat their pregnant wives almost always get probation. And a person who breaks into your house is more likely to get a break here than anywhere in the state."
After several months of legal maneuvering, Judge William Bollinger on October 25 reduced the charge to one misdemeanor battery count. The reason, Bollinger explains, is that because the alleged spanking and other events happened in quick succession, they constitute only one offense.
The case finally ended January 5, 2001, when Holland pleaded no contest. "He wanted to move on with his life, and that is the only reason [for the no contest plea]," Tom Gano, Holland's attorney, says. A 73-word story in the Sentinel on January 6 summarized the result.
Holland, his attorney, and some of his fellow reporters at the Sentinel have cited numerous problems with the case. Holland is quick to point out inconsistencies in the victim's story. She told police she yelled when she realized Holland, not Wald, was in bed with her. But the Wald brothers, who were in the next room, both told cops they heard nothing. Second, she told officers that she fled the bedroom, realized she wasn't wearing anything, and ran back into the bedroom to put on a shirt. That choice would seem to indicate she wasn't afraid of Holland. (It could, however, mean she was too frenzied to make a good decision. The woman could not be reached for comment.)
Two facts suggest detectives had trouble believing the victim, Gano says. First, police never arrested Holland, and second, they waited four months to file a probable-cause affidavit. "If they had wanted to have an arrest warrant issued right away, they could have done that," Gano says. "Obviously there was some question in someone's mind as to whether this occurred as alleged."
Holland agrees. "If any of [the victim's accusations] happened, they would have arrested me," he says. "The stuff in that [police] report is fiction."
Some Sentinel reporters have suggested that prosecutors at both the Palm Beach and Broward SAOs intentionally let the case drag on because they didn't like Holland's reporting. At the time of the incident, Holland covered the Palm Beach SAO. And Holland wrote a few stories about the Broward SAO when that office was investigating him. (He says he didn't know of the Broward probe.) At the Sentinel he has generally focused on federal courts, although he has written stories involving Broward prosecutors.
Indeed Holland first heard from his editor that the victim was pressing charges. "One of the editors at the Post called an editor at the Sun-Sentinel," Holland recalls. "They had the information, and I found out then." The SAO likely notified the Post, Holland says. (Post deputy managing editor Bill Rose did not return a call seeking comment.)
Siegel and Burton both say switching from the Palm Beach SAO to that of Broward ate up a lot of time because Broward prosecutors had to do their own investigations. "I don't think [Holland's job] had anything to do with it. Ultimately we looked at him like anyone else," Burton says. "The question is, is there a case, and can we prove it?"
Holland has a surprisingly strong base of support for someone who was accused of sexual assault. "John is a talented reporter and a fine person," says Bruce Kestin, Sentinel day city editor. His colleagues also like him.
"I don't know anything about what happened or didn't happen, but John Holland is a fine person," says Sentinel reporter David Fleshler. "He's a terrific reporter. I'm glad he's at the paper."
And Sentinel writer Stacey Singer comments: "All I know about John Holland is that he is a talented, smart journalist and a likable person. I think the Sentinel made a smart decision by hiring him. I like his stories."
Outside the newspaper some have questioned whether editors made a mistake by occasionally assigning Holland to cover the office that pursued charges against him. He did, after all, help out with several stories about the case of 14-year-old Pembroke Park resident Lionel Tate, who was recently convicted of murder after being prosecuted by the Broward SAO. Holland says his courts reporting is not an issue. "My judgment is good," he says. "The paper's judgment is even better."
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.