When Karen Mathews said a domestic terrorist had assaulted her in her Modesto garage in January 1994, people were horrified.
The popular, elected clerk-recorder of Stanislaus County from 1990 to 2001 retold the captivating story many times – to authorities, to newspaper and TV reporters, to policy makers in Sacramento and Washington, D.C, to audiences learning about tax-protesting extremists, and perhaps most important, to a jury.
Mathews was hailed as a hero. Legislation was introduced to better protect public figures brave enough to stand up to depraved bullies. The Modesto City Council officially proclaimed an October day in 2001 “Karen Mathews Day.”
But one of those closest to Mathews suspected her compelling story was just that – a story.
“From the very beginning, from the very first morning, I knew everything was a lie – everything,” said Joyce Goudie-Clarot, assistant registrar in Mathews’ office who at the time was “best friends” with Mathews. The relationship ended, Goudie-Clarot said, when she openly questioned Mathews’ honesty as people were facing prison based on her stories.
“I know where the stories came from,” Goudie-Clarot said, describing a troubled friend who craved attention and sought a book or movie deal. “Her and I would talk for hours. We were tight. And I knew it was absolutely a lie.”
She bases suspicions on intimate knowledge of Mathews’ private life, elements of which Goudie-Clarot saw coming out in drips as Mathews recounted her version of events.
Others have wondered about the truthfulness of Karen Mathews Davis – she married and moved to Lodi several years ago – since she was arrested in October 2015 on suspicion of fabricating death threats to herself during an ill-fated run for Congress in late 2013 and early 2014. The violent threats sounded eerily similar to ones she said she received two decades earlier, arriving not long before she said she was cut, punched, kicked and sodomized with a pistol in the garage ambush.
Two weeks ago, Mathews Davis, now 68, admitted in federal court that she made and sent herself the more recent threats. Her sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 28. She and her attorney did not return calls seeking comment for this report.
So ... did she start lying three or so years ago, or two decades ago?
The art of deception
Is it possible for one woman to deceive a nation?
What about the nine people convicted in connection to the alleged ambush, sentenced to a combined 50 years in federal prison? What is Roger Steiner supposed to think about his 19 years behind bars, plus three years of probation, convicted largely on the word of a woman whose credibility now is in tatters?
“When I saw Steiner’s picture in (The Modesto Bee), I felt like I had to do something,” Goudie-Clarot said. “It’s so wrong that he lost 20 years of his life. Is she going to get away with it?”
She won’t get away with lying to federal agents as she tried to pin the more recent death threats alternatively on Steiner, who had been released from custody, as well as her grandson, a neighbor’s nephew and a member of her church. Having changed her plea on June 1 to “guilty,” Mathews Davis could face up to five years in prison. A copy of the plea deal says prosecutors will recommend six months, partly because she has cooperated since coming clean under questioning in February 2015.
Shortly after her arrest, federal authorities said agents would revisit with a new investigation her role in the 1997 trial. Although questioned multiple times since, they have refused to comment on the new probe, and Steiner’s attorney from 20 years ago, Fresno’s Daniel Harralson, suspects they may never.
They haven’t contacted Harralson, at least. Nor have they reached out to Goudie-Clarot, nor Kelly Cerny, who for more than a decade was Mathews Davis’ executive assistant.
Authorities did contact Jim Waterman, a retired Modesto policeman who was the lead detective after Mathews reported the ambush. He too has lately pondered whether she was truthful back then, in light of her recent admissions.
“I never got the sense that she was making it up,” said Waterman, now a private investigator. “But I also never thought Steiner did it.”
Waterman traveled four times to Oregon, where Steiner lived at the time, trying to link him somehow to Mathews’ story. At one point he and other officers searched the small travel trailer Steiner lived in, parked outside Vern & Bink’s Muffler and Brake in Baker City, and his car. They found nothing.
“He just didn’t strike me as having the capability of doing it, physically or mentally,” Waterman said. “I just didn’t get the sense that he knew what the hell it was all about.”
It was about the Juris Christian Assembly, a Modesto-based group focused more on taxes than religion. Some members in tax trouble tried to have IRS liens removed by presenting phony documents which Mathews’ employees refused to record, angering the group before the reported garage ambush. She pointed to Steiner’s picture in a photo lineup assembled not by local law enforcement, but by federal authorities. He since has steadfastly denied knowing anyone in the Juris Christian Assembly, having ever been in Modesto and having anything to do with the alleged assault.
‘The DA felt there was not enough to charge him, and I agreed.’
“We could never find any evidence (Steiner) did it,” Waterman said. “The (district attorney) felt there was not enough to charge him, and I agreed.”
The biggest problem, Waterman said, was how Steiner could have assaulted Mathews around 8:10 p.m. and driven 845 miles to show up for work in Oregon early the next morning. Beyond that, “I talked to him, and I didn’t think he did it,” Waterman said. “If they had asked me in the trial if I thought he did it, I would have said, ‘no.’”
With the local investigation stalled in 1995, the feds swooped in.
“The FBI (and Treasury Department) took over and did what they did,” Waterman said. “They ran with it. They’ve got all the bells and whistles and they get the pats on the back.”
Federal authorities declined comment for this article.
Goudie-Clarot said she tried back then to share her doubts – including suspicions of self-inflicted wounds – with federal agents, but they didn’t want to hear it. She felt intimidated and backed off, she said, and has felt guilty since.
What was wrong with Mathews’ story?
She would wow people with an account of a bullet piercing the office window. Here’s how it went down in Mathews Davis’ book, “The Terrorist in My Garage,” self-published not long after she lost the Congressional Primary in 2014:
We heard the sound of breaking glass at the front of the election office window. Employees sitting close to the window jumped back, startled. Someone had actually shot through the window!
Soon after the 1997 trial – the longest to date in Fresno’s federal court – Mathews issued a long narrative with a curious reference in plural, reading, “bullets were fired through the office windows.”
The truth, according to Goudie-Clarot, was much different, and certainly less spectacular. She oversaw an employee who noticed a small crack in a ground-level window, she said. Because it could become a safety issue, Goudie-Clarot reported it to Mathews, who freaked out and called authorities, who surmised that vandals could have used a slingshot or BB gun, or perhaps a passing vehicle could have flung a rock.
“We weren’t even there,” Goudie-Clarot said. “Nobody heard a shot.” But Mathews’ dramatic version has been retold time and time again, on TV, on Capitol Hill and in various publications on domestic terrorism.
Convenience, or coincidence?
At Steiner’s sentencing in November 1997, Mathews stunned the courtroom – and people far beyond – with a sudden revelation that he had sexually assaulted her. She had kept that part of the story to herself after the attack, explaining in her book that she had been ashamed, a reaction common to sexual abuse victims. I knew somehow that if I told, everything would change – they’d look at me differently, she wrote in the book.
“From this, I have suffered tissue damage which may also require future surgery,” she told the courtroom.
Waterman was as shocked as anyone. Soon after the ambush, he had traveled to another state to interview her where she’d taken refuge at family-owned property. He found her “scared – or acting scared,” he said.
“I would have thought she would tell me everything that happened, but I didn’t hear about the sexual assault till trial,” Waterman said.
Goudie-Clarot suspects her friend, early on, had not yet made up that part of the story.
Several months before, Mathews confided that her rectum had sustained “damage” during rough sex with a man she had dated, Goudie-Clarot said.
“She said it hurt her and something was wrong,” Goudie-Clarot said. “Then all of a sudden, in her (ambush) story, it’s the same injury – the same thing she told me happened with her boyfriend.”
Cerny was not nearly as close to Mathews, but came to question her boss’s mental stability – and penchant for the sensational.
“She was very dramatic with things that happened to her,” Cerny said, recalling horror-dating stories and Mathews’ threats of quitting when work pressure became intense. “We would say, ‘OK, Karen is going through her moods; she’s having a bad day.’ I tried not to feed into it.”
After the attack, “she became consumed by it,” Cerny said, “She would get snappy. She would say, ‘I was assaulted and nobody can understand till it happens to you.’
“I was glad when she stepped down, so she could get the mental health help she needed,” Cerny said.
Two weeks ago, Mathews Davis told a judge she was seeing a psychiatrist and a psychologist and taking medication for mental health. In October 2015, a federal agent wrote in an arrest warrant affidavit that she admitted lying after he asked if she had been treated for dementia, and after she failed a polygraph examination.
Twenty years ago, U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger disallowed questions about her mental health when Mathews testified. He also blocked evidence that Steiner had passed a polygraph about the garage ambush, administered by authorities in Oregon.
A doctor who examined Mathews after the attack conceded at trial that cuts he found could have been made by fingernails.
‘Pretty thin stuff’
A Bee analysis at the time called trial evidence against Steiner “pretty thin stuff.” His attorney told jurors that Mathews knew it wasn’t Steiner who attacked her, but admitting her mistake would be a political embarrassment – something she couldn’t afford because she would run for re-election soon.
Attorneys representing his co-defendants recalled that Steiner looked shifty. The former crop duster and truck driver years before had been arrested for phoning threats to two state lawmakers, including Modesto’s state Sen. Dan McCorquodale, asking that they not support legislation restricting assault weapons. Authorities and reporters seemed to like recounting that Steiner had been sleeping with a 12-gauge shotgun when he was arrested; they never mentioned that he had just helped authorities search seven buildings on the property where Steiner lived, looking for two escaped convicts.
The government had it in for Steiner, Harralson said then, “because he calls up officials and complains.”
Over the years, Steiner and Harralson have never wavered in their belief that justice was not served.
“I honestly believed Roger was being charged with fabricated charges,” Harralson said in a recent interview. “Roger paid a price he never should have had to pay. His life was ruined over this thing.”
How did prosecutors overcome thin evidence?
“In the final analysis,” the judge said then, “the jury found Ms. Mathews to be a credible witness.”
On Thursday, Wanger – who returned to private law practice in 2011 – said some aspects of the trial have stayed with him over the years. But he declined to venture a link between that big case and Mathews Davis’ current legal trouble.
“I don’t have the knowledge or basis to speculate, and I wouldn’t speculate,” Wanger said. “All I know is what was presented then.
“If anything needs to be revisited or reanalyzed,” he continued, “I have great confidence in the legal system, and hopefully that will occur.”
In May 2016, Mathews Davis told The Bee she had made recent missteps, but was not mistaken about Steiner 20 years ago.
Prison is hell
“How can she live with knowing she stole 20 years of (Steiner’s) life?” said Goudie-Clarot. She has not spoken with her former boss since her abrupt exit from county employment in 2001 after a civil grand jury said Mathews had misused a government credit card, improperly hired her son and assigned a secretary to edit a book manuscript based on the alleged assault. Some employees had complained that she was often gone giving speeches about the ambush, and said Mathews “talks excessively about personal matters.” A year earlier, she had sued the county, claiming she was underpaid compared to men, but dropped the lawsuit.
Life in prison is as bad as people imagine, said Steiner, now 79, frail from congestive heart failure, using a walker and living in squalor.
“It was hell,” he said. “It’s hard for an old person to deal with white supremacists, riff raff, gang bangers, men who want sex. You have to say, ‘If you want sex with me, buddy, it’s going to be your life because I’ll kill you.’ That’s what you have to deal with. You have to talk their language. I don’t like to talk that way, but you have to because that’s what they understand. You look them in the eye and say, ‘Hey, dude, I may be old, but I’m not weak. Don’t ever go there ‘cause I’ll kill you.’”
Goudie-Clarot, crying, said, “I’m just so, so sorry he had to go through that because of (Mathews Davis). I wish I could have done something, and I hope something comes out of this (interview). Tell him that, coming from me, that there were people who believed him when he said he didn’t do it. He may not have known that.”
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390
1993 – Members of the Modesto-based Juris Christian Assembly, a tax protest group, object to IRS liens and try to contest them with phony documents presented at the office of Stanislaus County Clerk-Recorder Karen Mathews. She reports receiving threats, including notes, a fake bomb and a bullet in the office window.
January 1994 – An unknown assailant waiting in Mathews’ garage beats and cuts her and pulls the trigger of an unloaded pistol placed against her head, she says.
February 1995 – Modesto police detectives search the property of Roger Steiner in Oregon after Mathews picks him from a photo lineup. He says he’s innocent.
Spring 1997 – A federal jury in Fresno finds Steiner guilty. Eight others also are convicted on lesser tax-related charges.
November 1997 – Steiner, maintaining innocence, is sentenced to 22 years in prison. He eventually spends 18 years behind bars in addition to one year while awaiting trial.
Winter 2013-2014 – Karen Mathews Davis, aware that Steiner is out of custody, reports new death threats and steers federal agents toward Steiner and others. Having married and relocated to Lodi, she announces her candidacy for Congress, saying she won’t “give in to bullying and terrorism.” She later finishes last in a four-way race.
February 2015 – Mathews Davis fails a polygraph given by federal agents suspicious about the latest threats, and she admits having created and sent them. She is arrested eight months later. Authorities say they will revisit her role as a key witness in the 1997 trial.
June 1, 2017 – Mathews Davis pleads guilty. A written plea bargain says nothing about events of two decades ago. Sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 28.