By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Staff Writer
ALHAMBRA — What might have been a routine arraignment took a dramatic turn in Alhambra Superior Court on Oct. 23, in the case of alleged sexual misconduct by former basketball coach Joe Kikuchi.
Kikuchi, 56, was scheduled to appear on charges of having a sexual relationship with a teenaged member of the Mark Keppel High School girls’ basketball team, which Kikuchi coached until resigning on Sept. 15. He was out on bail after being arrested Sept. 24 on multiple felony counts, including lewd and lascivious acts with a minor.
The arraignment, during which Kikuchi presumably was to enter a plea to the charges, was postponed to Dec. 1, after the defense said it had recently received a “tremendous amount” of discovery information.
A day before Friday’s hearing, however, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office formally charged Kikuchi, adding several counts, bringing the total to 19 felonies and five misdemeanors.
With the added charges, the bail amount jumped from the previous $100,000 to $1.47 million, a development that became a point of wrangling between defense attorney Paul Geller and Deputy District Attorney Rena Durrant.
“Something like a $1.47 million bail is almost equivalent to no bail,” Geller argued, citing Kikuchi’s middle class status and his deep ties to the community. Geller also provided Judge Jared Moses with a thick stack of letters from friends, relatives, former players and colleagues, all in support of Kikuchi’s character and unblemished history in the local community. There was even one letter from a bench officer who was present in court.
“We have received more letters than I can explain in support of Mr. Kikuchi,” Geller said, adding, “He has no previous criminal record, will remain in the area and is no danger to the community.”
So voluminous was the packet of letters that Judge Moses took a recess of more than 40 minutes to read through them. During the break, Kikuchi, dressed in a grey suit and dark tie, sat quietly alone, speaking to only his attorney once. A small group of supporters, including his wife, waited in the hallway outside the courtroom during the entire hearing.
When Judge Moses returned, he said it was clear that Kikuchi had a great amount of love and local admiration, saying, “It’s very rare to see that much community support.”
The deputy DA, however, had her own set of documents to present. Saying the investigation had obtained “tens of thousands” text messages between Kikuchi and his alleged victim, she insisted the standard bail amount for the charges was warranted, and asked permission to read one of the texts in open court to support her claim. A hush fell on the mostly filled room as Durrant read an angry note punctuated with profanity, that she claims Kikuchi sent after the then- 16-year-old girl had threatened to break off her illicit relationship with her coach.
“Don’t piss me off,” Durrant read, “If you do this, I will move up other girls,” a reference Durrant said is to the claim that Kikuchi allowed the girl to advance in the Keppel program based on their relationship.
“Don’t push me because I’ll get ugly as (expletive). OK? Don’t push me,” the message continued, with the threats that he would take back shoes, jewelry and other items he is accused of providing the student. “I am pissed as (expletive). If you don’t want this to get ugly, you’d better say sorry.”
The reading of the text message appeared to have some affect on Moses, who freely disclosed that he has known Kikuchi for some years. At the end of the hearing, he granted the prosecutor the bail she requested, based on the serious nature of the accusations and the claim that the situation had existed for a period of some seven months, beginning when the girl was 15 years old.
“We have a bail schedule for a reason, and it’ s a rare day when we should deviate from that schedule,” Moses said. “These are very serious felony charges with the potential for a lengthy prison sentence.”
Moses ordered Kikuchi remanded into custody, and he was handcuffed and led into the rear of the courthouse. Moses delayed his transfer to County Jail, as a bail bondsman was said to have already been contacted. The L.A. County Sheriff’s inmate information website lists that he was released on bail shortly after lunch the following day. One condition of his release was to be the requirement that he wear a tracking device. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in state prison and lifetime sex offender registration if convicted as charged.
Following the hearing, Geller met with Kikuchi’s wife, while other supporters in the hallway struggled to make sense of the entire matter. For many, the developments have been difficult to fathom about Kikuchi, the popular coach who over the last several years transformed the Keppel girls’ basketball program into a powerful state contender.
“They’re trying to screw him over, they’re railroading him,” claimed Hubert Hirano, who said his daughter, a former Keppel student, is among those who submitted a letter in support of Kikuchi. “All the kids trust him. Everybody trusts him. He’s a good guy.”