Suicide follows allegations against longtime rancher

GILROY
– A longtime San Martin rancher and horseman accused of
molesting two area teenage girls seven years ago took his own life
Tuesday, closing the pending court case against him and leaving
family and friends cringing over the public perception that Paul
Raymond Kessler killed himself because he may
have been guilty.
GILROY – A longtime San Martin rancher and horseman accused of molesting two area teenage girls seven years ago took his own life Tuesday, closing the pending court case against him and leaving family and friends cringing over the public perception that Paul Raymond Kessler killed himself because he may have been guilty.

“If this went to trial he would have been found innocent. But you and I both know that everyone would have been looking at him and his family differently anyway. He wouldn’t have been able to live with that,” said Bob Graves, a longtime business acqauintance and friend of the Kessler family. “That’s the man we’re talking about. That’s the Paul Kessler I knew.”

Kessler, 56, was pronounced dead at 4:40 p.m. Tuesday from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the center of his chest. Kessler endured a second gunshot wound to his left leg and left no note behind, the Sheriff’s Department said.

The county coroner has officially declared the incident a suicide.

“When the coroner rules it a suicide, we go on that unless there is overwhelming evidence to see it otherwise,” said Deputy Terrance Helm, a Sheriff’s spokesperson.

The molestation case will be formally closed by a judge Feb. 14.

“This is standard procedure done purely for the reason of this man’s death. This does not exonerate anyone, it just ends a procedure,” Deputy District Attorney Charlotte Chang said. “If someone dies, there’s not much use in moving forward with the case.”

The Valentine’s Day date was originally slated as Kessler’s preliminary hearing – the court’s first step in determining whether there is enough evidence to go to trial.

Kessler, a long-time area resident and avid horseman, was arrested Oct. 30 on three counts of lewd and lascivious conduct with a 13-year-old girl and a single count of similar charges with a 14-year-old, according to court documents. He was released on $100,000 bail.

“Mr. Kessler was proceeding with this case and we had every confidence the charges against him would have been dropped,” Kessler’s attorney Richard Weese said Wednesday. “It’s unfortunate when these allegations are made because they are quick to be believed, suspects are quick to be arrested and the public is quick to presume guilt. The stigma that goes along with this is incredible.”

Kessler’s wife Joann remains adamant about her husband’s innocence.

“He hated confrontation. Did he want to go to a preliminary hearing? No. That’s not my husband, he was a private man,” she said. “I think it’s a sin that people can say whatever they want and Paul is not here to defend himself.”

Opinions on the alleged victims’ credibility differ vastly.

Defense Attorney Weese said the then 13-year-old girl recanted her accusations and admitted she and then 14-year-old made up the whole story.

Detective James Kuyat, the Sheriff’s sex crimes investigator, said the girl who is now 19 years old did recant, but later reaffirmed her original statements.

“The suspect offered her a horse and made other promises if she would take back her story,” Kuyat said. “He even offered to do probation. He wanted to make this go away so he wouldn’t have to go to prison.”

Kuyat said the girl worried about feelings of shame and enduring resentment from the equestrian community she and Kessler both were a part of. In the end, she was ready to testify, Kuyat said.

Graves, Kessler’s long-time friend, said the horseman provided animals, riding gear and training in exchange for labor on his ranch. Graves said it was a typical way to offset expensive equestrian costs.

“You cannot pay a child in a paycheck. He may have offered someone a horse, it doesn’t mean he was trying to keep them quiet,” Graves said. “He told me he did not do this,” Graves said of the alleged molestations.

The first of the alleged molestations began in 1996 and were not reported to the Sheriff’s until October 2002. Kessler was arrested after Sheriff’s investigators tape recorded a phone conversation between one of the alleged victims and Kessler.

During the conversation, Kessler apologized to the girl for his past behavior, according to the police report.

Graves has an alternative take on that piece of evidence, too.

“This man was a hard taskmaster in business. He could have been apologizing for how he treated them professionally, not sexually,” Graves said.

Kessler is accused of kissing and caressing both the teenage girls and eventually fondling and penetration of one of the girls. No sexual intercourse is alleged.

Kessler is survived by, among others, his wife Joann and a daughter, Ann Marie Guinn, and a granddaughter from Morgan Hill. He owned and operated Kessler Hay and Horses in San Martin for 25 years.

Both victims worked at Kessler’s Sycamore Avenue establishment when the molestations were alleged to have occurred.

The Sheriff’s Department said it is still looking for information concerning Kessler’s suicide as well as anysexual assault victims who have not come forward.

“This is standard procedure. If there is someone out there who saw something different than what was reported to us, we want to know,” Helm said.

The Sheriff’s Department wants to hear from other victims to, among other reasons, protect itself from potential lawsuits brought on by Kessler’s survivors, Helm explained.

“People can come to us and say he was wrongly accused. Plus, there are services (such as counseling) we offer to sexual assault victims,” Helm said. “We owe it to the victims to pursue this information. We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t.”

A third woman, who was an adult at the time of the alleged molestation, came forward with accusations before Kessler’s death. The victim alleges that Kessler fondled her breasts and crotch area over her clothing, Kuyat said.

The victim, referred to as “Lisa” in other newspaper reports, could not be contacted before deadline. Kuyat would not give her last name, but confirmed that it was not Lisa Crumb, a former neighbor of the Kesslers who other victims said was molested by Kessler.

Kuyat said he contacted Crumb after he was told from another source she had been offered a horse to keep quiet about Kessler’s past – a pattern he is accused of by other alleged victims. Phone calls to Lisa Crumb by The Dispatch were not returned.

“She yelled at me and said ‘this man was a father figure to me,’ and then she hung up,” Kuyat said.

The family contends that Kessler never had an opportunity to make advances on Crumb.

“I believe in my father,” Guinn said. “Abuse is said to start in the home and he always treated me like a princess.”

The unnamed woman’s testimony would have been presented at the Feb. 14 hearing, Kuyat said. Her claims would have charged Kessler with misdemeanor sexual battery.

As Kessler’s Saturday funeral approaches, numerous phone calls supporting the man have come in to The Dispatch.

Debbie Barncord, who spent 16 years as a co-worker of Kessler’s at The Grass Farm in Morgan Hill, said she had been alone with Kessler multiple times as a youth and young adult.

“This was a man of honor. He treated me like a second daughter. He never did one thing that was inappropriate,” Barncord said.

Long-time friend Bob Vaughn recalled Kessler as someone who “would never even dance with another woman besides his wife.”

“I loved this guy,” Barncord said.

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