Wrongly convicted man reflects on his 20 years in prison

May 6, 2004

BAKERSFIELD – Even murderers and rapists detest child molesters. Behind bars, life can be brutal for people convicted of sexually abusing children – they're the bottom rung, marked men, constantly living in fear. Many seek shelter from other inmates by agreeing to "protective custody," rarely leaving their cells.

Found guilty of 17 counts of child molestation, John Stoll knew he'd never survive with that stigma. So he lied, posing as a drug runner for 20 long years – and somehow avoided attack until his conviction was reversed last week.

Stoll walked free on Tuesday after most of his alleged victims recanted and said they lied about being molested back in 1984.

During his first days in prison, Stoll began researching crimes that could carry a 20-year sentence. He came across a newspaper article about a man convicted of smuggling marijuana and guns. He became that man – "And that's what I was for 20 years."

Stoll, now gray and balding, revealed details of his life in prison as he joined his lawyers for a celebratory meal on his first night as a free man – his 61st birthday. Gorging on filet mignon, calamari, and a chocolate birthday cake, he marveled at his freedom.

Stoll's ability to keep his conviction a secret was "quite remarkable," said Anne Mania, an attorney at the San Rafael-based Prison Law Office, which handles civil rights issues for inmates.
"There's a huge stigma attached to being a child molester so they're often the victims of violence by other prisoners," Mania explained.

"For 20 years nobody stabbed me so I must've said the right things," Stoll said. "I don't know what kept me alive ... You're really walking a fine line in prison because you can't be yourself."
As Stoll sat at the steakhouse dinner table, he cleaned his glasses with his cloth napkin and rubbed his head.

He was a fit man when he went to prison in 1985, a carpenter with strong hands, a full head of dark blonde curly hair and a winning smile. Now, a row of deep wrinkles crosses his forehead, and his gray mustache frames a mouth with just seven teeth remaining. Stoll, who seemingly loves to laugh, lost most of his teeth to gum disease and medical neglect while in prison.

Two Innocence Project groups in California won Stoll's freedom after tracking down his alleged victims and persuading most of them – now adults – to come forward once again.

Stoll was convicted as part of an alleged child molestation ring that purportedly involved sodomy, group sex and pornographic photography. But no pictures were found – in fact, prosecutors presented no physical evidence at the trial. None of the children, ages 6 to 8, were examined by doctors. The case rested on testimony alone. Four of those accusers testified in January that investigators pressured them until they lied. A fifth testified he has no memories from that part of his childhood." full story

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