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The boy’s pot habit was out of control, so his parents enrolled him at The House, a nonresidential rehab facility attended by the kids of well-connected Westsiders. Now his family questions everything
When the end finally came, it came fast. Spotting Steve’s red BMW convertible parked in the driveway, Culver City police in tactical vests and armed with assault weapons quickly deployed, swarming the front and rear entrances. Wearing a green nylon jacket with RAID splashed across the shoulders, Sergeant Jason Sims knocked on the front door, then ordered his men to break it down with a battering ram. Inside, kids screamed, cried, or just stood there trying to wrap their heads around what they were witnessing—and what their parents were witnessing. Because this was a Thursday, this was Family Night. Expecting to endure an evening of candor with impunity—Guess what, Mother? The world doesn’t revolve around you!—parents had their bean dip and decaf upended by an armed raid. Tilling the big wayward ship of their children’s adolescence had left them chronically alert to trouble, but not like this.
In their nightmares the cops came for Junior, not the person they entrusted with his health, his welfare, his very life—not Steve Izenstark, held to the floor with a knee against his spine, demanding to know why he was under arrest. Sims told him he could hear the charges in front of the kids and parents or in the squad car. When Steve chose to go quietly, he took with him all the crisis counseling, the group sessions, the one-on-ones, and the desperate 3 a.m. promises. There would be no more hard sell of sobriety or buying coffee in bulk. The relapses, the victories, the stylish homilies, and the countless family dramas lit up by a billion synaptic fires of repressed memories were over. All of it ended like a bullet to the brain. Bang. On May 17, 2007, The House was history. That’s what Steve called the nonresidential treatment facility he founded in 2005 for adolescents with chemical dependency, substance abuse, and behavioral problems—just The House.
Being a teenager did not go well for my son, Bey. Bad luck went out of its way to find him. One night he sneaked out of our house to hook up with his girlfriend and was so nervous, he ran a stop sign—where a cop on break was parked. On another occasion Bey drove his pals around while they chucked eggs at passers-by. The only one he threw happened to hit a rabbi, who later tried to file hate crime charges against him. In preschool my son had the look of a troubled Shetland pony about to bite. On sturdy little legs Bey shook his fist at life. He was so naughty that his second-grade teacher made him keep a journal of his behavior, to be signed by my wife and me each night. When he was 12, we found him training a flashlight on the backyard, where he thought a stalker he’d met on the Internet was hiding, which, of course, wasn’t the case. Eventually Bey sought sanctuary in weed. About to graduate from high school, he decided his buddies were assholes, his girlfriend wanted his soul, and he was hopelessly addicted to pot. He’d been seeing a child psychologist since the flashlight incident, a man whom my wife and I respected for his objectivity and his relationship with Bey, who was quite fond of him. We trusted his professional judgment, so when the two of them hit a proverbial wall and Bey’s therapist strongly suggested a different approach to our son’s problems, we listened.
My wife and I met Steve at The House a few months after he had opened the facility. He was 47, with a big, distressed face and a soiled elegance, like a longshoreman who was into the classics. His voice was a brassy head cold of a thing, devoid of treble and bass, his posture stooped. While kids took Bey on a welcome tour, we discussed our son’s situation with Steve—in particular his mounting reluctance to socialize. “Hey, don’t you worry about that, my friend,” Steve reassured me, “my friend” being one of his signature phrases. “Have you seen some of the girls around here? Have you? Huh? They’re drop-dead gorgeous.” His remarks seemed brazenly inappropriate, and yet they fell in line with what we’d heard about his nutty charm, his willingness to tell it like it is. He cooked like a sous-chef and had drivers schlep the kids from school to the dentist or the zit doctor. In keeping with his meat-and-potatoes style, Steve couldn’t have cared less about his appearance. His wrinkled shirts dangled on hangers from the front of his desk. There were nights when meetings went late or one of his kids needed a letter of recommendation for college first thing in the morning or another kid went into crisis and wanted to talk, so Steve just slept at The House. That was Steve. He sold indulgence by the ton. The day we went with Bey to meet Steve, he was in a group session with his kids. A lissome 15-year-old in painted-on jeans and a gravity-defying Danskin top was going on about her father, about her interpretation of her dreams, her misinterpretation of her dreams, her obsession with fashion and the Abbey Road album. Nobody stopped her, least of all Steve.
This was 16 months before police stormed in and Steven Joel Izenstark faced nine felony charges of a sexual nature, including oral copulation with a person under 18, sexual intercourse with a minor, sexual battery, contributing grave bodily harm to a child, and two counts of providing narcotics to a minor. His accusers, A.J. and Belinda (their names have been changed to protect privacy), were 16 and 17 when the alleged crimes were committed. For many of us—parents of children who were under Steve’s care—our world imploded. Whether we should have recognized the potential for abuse such a situation presented or heeded signs that things might not have been what they seemed are valid questions. But on the day our son entered Steve’s program, this is what we saw of Bey: He had buzz cut his curly brown hair and narrowed his deep brown eyes with such hard-core resentment, he could’ve bent silverware had he not already done so using it to mount stereo speakers in his room, his fortress. He had withdrawn; he had barricaded himself from his family, his friends, and his dog. The little time he ventured outside only resolved the anxious hum of his isolation into an inexorable siren. We watched him hurting and wanted his suffering to end. We longed for the son we used to know, while Bey yearned to be anybody but who he was and what he had become. Bey wanted to get well. At that point we would’ve done anything to help him.
Though it’s tempting to say Steve Izenstark came from outer space—meteors struck the earth three times in the past 100 years on his birth date—he was born in Los Angeles on January 18, 1958, and raised in the parched bosom of the San Fernando Valley. With adulthood came authority issues and a list of priors, among them DUI, assault with reckless intent, failure to appear in court, and a handful of traffic violations. At one time or another Steve had a wife, a daughter, a job in food management; substance abuse problems came and went, but never for good. Looking for a fresh start and respite from working canned goods, he followed Dale Carnegie’s advice about finding diamonds in your own backyard: He turned to helping people quit drugs and alcohol. Hired as a narcotics counselor at an established West L.A. facility, Steve was on staff with highly credentialed experts. Although a coworker described Steve as “charming, charismatic, and extremely likable,” he was eventually terminated under questionable circumstances (California state law prevents employers from saying negative things about former employees), and he set out to start his own program.
In California, residential facilities providing nonmedical alcohol and drug recovery treatment must have a license issued by the Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. The intent is to protect the public against building code violations, unsanitary food service, unlicensed or unqualified personnel, and personal rights infringements like involuntary detainment and physical or sexual abuse. But nonresidential programs don’t require such a license to operate. To be identified on the ADP Web site, nonresidential programs need only request certification, which necessitates little more than the incentive to chase down the proper forms and the patience to fill them out. Anyone with a working knowledge of substance abuse and a way with people can tap into the 2.7 million Californians who suffer from alcohol or chemical dependency. For some programs applying to the ADP, the Web site gives them the appearance of legitimacy.
Steve ran his first nonresidential program out of his apartment in West Los Angeles. His initial patients were poached, according to Steve’s former boss, “while I went on vacation. When I confronted Steve, he denied it.” One such patient, Greg (not his real name), remembered it this way: “Steve had a blowout with the guy who ran the facility we were in before. When Steve left, some of us went with him because the other guy was a symbol of authority, and Steve made himself out to be a rebel.” Call it an appreciation for the meaning of quality time or grasping the longsighted value of fronting privilege, Steve didn’t take patients off the street; they needed to know somebody he knew—an exclusivity that is catnip for a Westsider. Add the unwitting endorsement of a celebrity (So-and-so had his daughter there, and they loved it!) in a city whose gold standard is the guest list, and the buzz about Steve’s program soon spread across the green lawns of Beverly Hills, Hancock Park, and Bel-Air. To accommodate a growing clientele, Steve moved to Culver City and leased a home in a modest neighborhood behind the Sony Pictures lot. The main structure was a geodesic dome connected to a two-story bungalow, with a narrow wrought-iron stairway spiraling up to the bedrooms. In contrast to nonresidential facilities using commercial space in more urban areas, The House—with its comfy, mismatched couches, barbecue in the backyard, and leafy surroundings—felt like a home. The sense of closeness and intimacy among clients, of being with an extended family, was amplified by Steve’s policy of treating a maximum of ten patients at a time.
His methods spoke to the simplicity of his program’s generic name. He kept it small, and he kept it basic. Kids in Steve’s program were allowed to be in only two places without his permission: school and home. Otherwise they were supposed to be at The House. If your child was “in crisis”—Stevespeak for an emotional breakthrough, a killer fight with the folks, or a kid who ended up using—he or she would spend the night at The House with Steve as a constant guardian. In the morning Steve would provide clean clothes and toothpaste; he would even write excuse notes to teachers. Subscribing to the idle hands theory, he put the kids to work and kept them busy. They cleaned, gardened, did errands, went to the gym. And they mourned—over their lost addictions, over friendships they ended for the sake of sobriety, over lost habits, over the routines they would miss, over the old stomping grounds they knew. “Grieving,” my son told me not long after he entered The House. “Steve is into grieving. And writing. We do lots and lots of writing.” Above all, Steve had an extraordinary talent for holding his audience—kids and parents. He had a knack for being all things to all people: the dreamer, the drill sergeant, the world-weary mentor, the rebel pied piper, the vocation-devoted divorcé, the gentle soul, the gulag colonel. He reversed the weaving permissiveness of baby boomer parents and at the same time seduced them by tapping into the moldering resin of their counterculture youth with his shambling charm and his different-drum approach. Parents were impressed with his connections. An uncanny networker, he knew judges, probation officers, cops, college administrators, and the headmasters of private schools across West Los Angeles.
“I have heard every bullshit story you can imagine, OK?” Steve once told me. “These kids will lie until they get tired of being busted for it or it’s too late and they’re thrown out of here, OK? Everybody who walks through that door lies.” To the kids, that way of thinking made him a pain in the ass—and a genuine advocate. It was half the reason they loved him. Steve could see through their bullshit stories because he was one of them. The kids got a kick out of listening to him recount the highlights of his rogue youth. Steve knew the road to hell, the kids figured, because he had walked it himself. But unlike their parents, their authority figures, Steve was willing to admit it. He set himself apart by being their leader, not by pretending to be better than they were.
“When I was there, I bought him hard,” said Greg. “I bought the whole world. I agreed with Steve on everything.” So won over by Steve’s program was Greg that he urged his cousin to join The House. Belinda was ethereal, willowy, and nomadic—a gypsy life drenched in fabric softener. She was also a daily drinker and used cocaine heavily. After some resistance, she agreed to meet with Steve but made it clear that “if this was some kind of ambush or intervention, I will run.” Tipped to Belinda’s wariness, Steve loaded his van with House kids and drove to Pacific Palisades, where Belinda lived with her aunt (who was Greg’s mother). “We drove all over the place, did errands, stuff like that,” Belinda recalled. Later Steve showed her The House: “He brought me into his office. I just kind of spilled my guts. He said, ‘I have another solution for you other than drugs and alcohol,’ and that’s all I needed to hear.” When Belinda joined The House in August 2005, she was just about to turn 17. “Sexual tension was there between the both of us,” she told me. They snuggled in front of the TV, ate popcorn, and shared back rubs. In November 2005, Steve allowed Belinda to live at The House—despite its strictly nonresidential status. “I didn’t want to stay at my aunt’s anymore,” Belinda explained. “Steve said, ‘Come live at The House.’ ”
According to Belinda’s preliminary testimony in the matter of The People of the State of California v. Steven Izenstark, Steve took the back rubs to another level in late November 2005—just after he told her that he had prostate cancer:
Q: Did there come a time when the defendant asked you to masturbate him?
Q: OK. And do you remember how this all started?
A: Yeah, he said that it was to make him feel better, that it helped him release a lot of stuff because he was sick. So when he—when this happened…he felt a lot better.
Six months later, she said, they had intercourse. I asked how it felt to have sex with her counselor—someone acutely aware of her weaknesses and vulnerabilities—Belinda answered, “Oh, I felt really special. I felt I never had any love for myself. Someone was there and giving me everything I ever wanted.”
Bey had been at The House for about three months when I began to question Steve’s methods. Our health insurance had already declined to cover The House after Steve emphatically guaranteed the opposite. By then we’d learned that trying to get him on the phone was hopeless and that the messages my wife left rarely had an impact. Once, Steve and I walked out of his office after a meeting just as some kids had finished cleaning the living room. It looked immaculate. “Didn’t I tell you to clean this pigsty up?” Steve growled, and the kids kept cleaning what was already clean. Later, when I took exception to his autocratic gruffness, we argued. As part of Bey’s therapy, Steve had him build a wall in The House’s backyard. When Bey finished, Steve ordered him to tear it down and reconstruct it on the other side of the yard, which Bey did without saying a word. Instead, I did. When Steve told me he had the kids secretly followed to ensure that they were going where they said they were going, we fought over the meaning of trust. When Steve threatened to kick Bey out of The House—because, he said, if I didn’t respect him, neither would Bey—we fought about that, too. “Why should Bey be punished for my behavior?” I argued, but I pulled back and kept my mouth shut even when Steve insisted that Bey end his relationship with Jenna, his girlfriend of four years. Because the one thing I couldn’t dispute was Bey’s condition: He was getting better. For Bey, the pot smoking, the self-imposed isolation, were tools he had been using to hide from himself. At The House he found friends; he and Belinda were nearly inseparable. His car no longer smelled as if Ziggy Marley was his chauffeur, and when he was home we saw less of the disenfranchised emo-nonversationalist.
As a little boy, Bey collected bags—not baseball cards or autographs, but bags—as if he sensed that one day he would need something to contain his hemorrhaging identity. At five, he ordered his mother to drive him downtown, where they paid $367 to legally change his name from Flannery—my bad—to Bey. At ten, he didn’t just sell lemonade, he sold shares to his lemonade stand. Bey was always different. About six months into my son’s treatment, Steve arranged for a conference. On a breezy Saturday afternoon our son revealed to us in Steve’s office that he was gay. We hugged and reassured Bey that what we wanted most was for him to be happy. I added an inane comment about how my only concern was that his life might become harder, missing the point that what he had just done was far more difficult than hearing a homophobic remark from some evangelical garbage collector or living with Proposition 8. We were thankful to Steve; under his guidance our son had confronted and embraced his sexuality.
But soon after, as we talked to Steve about Bey leaving The House to begin college at UC Santa Cruz, the man had a meltdown. “You take Bey out now, and he will go up there and he will use, he will fail. I guarantee it,” he said. “You think his pot problem won’t turn into something else? Bey is not fine, he is not ready, OK? When your son came here, he was suicidal. Suicidal. That doesn’t concern you?” It was the first time I recognized the odd potency of Steve’s voice: Flat and lathered up in grave admonition, he went to the whip with his cadence, as if by doing so he could lunge to a conclusion and nose out the possibility of our getting in a word edgewise. Although I was sure Bey loved his mother’s blue eyes, his dog, and Curb Your Enthusiasm too much to do himself in, Steve had us by the short hairs. Mentioning suicide and our son in the same context, Steve conjured Probability, a concept that strikes fear into the heart of every loving, caring parent because no matter who you are and what you do, anything—anything—can happen to your child. Another factor in my decision to back off was Steve’s health: At the height of my war with him, Bey told me about Steve’s prostate cancer, and that was the clincher for me. You don’t hit a man when he’s down. After discussing things with Bey, the family agreed he would stay at The House for another four months.
A.J. had chosen a Starbucks in San Francisco’s Sunset District as a place for us to meet. I found her at a table closest to the door and windows, her features reminiscent of Jane Fonda in her Klute days. A minor freeway accident the night before had put a bruise over her cheek. There were other bruises. She said her mother was a prostitute; her father, hooked on meth. John and Joy, A.J.’s paternal grandparents, raised her as their daughter to the point where, for a time, she thought her birth father was her older brother. “A.J. hit 16, and the wheels started coming off,” John told me. “I adore my granddaughter, but she could be incredibly headstrong and intractable before Steve. There were continual battles.”
A.J. joined The House in November 2006, one year after Belinda moved in. “My first month in the program, Steve was ready to kick me out. He was like, ‘There’s nothing I can do for you. You’re going to mess up, and I’m going to have to send you away,’ ” A.J. told me. “But these two kids, Shane and Cody, who went to school with me, were in the program and said, ‘We’ll watch her.’ They were by my side for two weeks straight.” Sometime later, according to court-documented testimony, Steve practiced “intimacy therapy” with A.J. at The House:
Q: … Could you please tell us what [Steve] told you?
A: … My goal…would be to be in love with him and want to have sex with him. And at that point, I’m at my intimate peak, and it’s my healthiest that I could be. And he would say no to having sex with me and I would be done with my intimacy therapy.
Q: Was there ever a time during this intimacy therapy where he put his penis into your vagina?
Violating the terms of his nonresidential operating license again, Steve allowed A.J. to move into The House in December 2006. At first Belinda hated having A.J. living there every night with her, “but we started talking, and I got to be cool with her,” she recalled. Soon after A.J. and Belinda became friends, they fell in love with each other. Though kids at The House were forbidden from having romantic relationships during treatment, Steve apparently made an exception for his two live-ins. According to A.J., “he was like, ‘OK, you can have the relationship together, but you have to do it the way I tell you to do it.’ ” In her testimony Belinda described the first time the girls had sex: “[A.J.] was on the ground and laying on the bed that was on the floor. [Steve] was just holding her vaginal lips open and showing me basically how to get her off…”
Belinda said they rationalized that if they wanted to be together, that was the price the two would have to pay. “I really started getting upset about the situation,” she said, “when Steve would do stuff with her alone and lied to me about it. If he was doing stuff with me, I knew he could be doing it with her. I was there alone one night when they were in the office together. You can hear everything through the floor. It was so fucked up. I was jealous that she was with him, and I was jealous that he was with her.” According to A.J., Steve used their weaknesses to obtain sex: “For me, if I wouldn’t do it, I wouldn’t get better. And it was therapy. It was only therapy. For [Belinda], Steve convinced her that he was in love with her. And she was weak enough that she needed that in that moment.”
Gina (not her real name), a 24-year-old with a psychology degree from UC Berkeley, began working at The House the month after Belinda moved in. Steve had hired her to cook, monitor the kids, do clerical tasks. On her first day she drove 17 miles southeast of Culver City, where Steve and the kids were staying at the Commerce Casino hotel. The weather was hot; The House had no air-conditioning, and Steve said he wanted to give the kids some relief, a change of scenery. After Gina arrived, she found the kids in adjoining rooms, and it was loud. “One’s trying to do a college essay,” she recalled. “Steve wasn’t there, and I’m like, ‘What’s the plan? What are you kids doing?’ ” Steve, occupying a suite several floors above, phoned down for Belinda and A.J.. “I’ll never forget the look on A.J.’s face when she said, ‘He wants to work with us.’ She gave me this look,” Gina recalled. Wanting to know what her duties were, Gina went up with the girls. “He tells me, ‘Everyone needs a break. Why don’t you take them shopping at the Citadel mall. Have a fun day.’ ”
Less than a month earlier, at around 10 p.m. on December 21, 2006, Steve paid $40 to an undercover detective for breath mints that had been altered to resemble rock cocaine. The detective noted in his written report that Steve used street vernacular for “Are you selling?” Steve let Gina know about his legal trouble soon after she was hired. The arrest was a misunderstanding, he explained. Steve told Gina that “he was searching for a kid who no one had heard from and he was worried about. He’d asked some guy, ‘Have you seen this person?’ He thought the guy wanted money for the information, so he gives him the money, and all of a sudden he’s being arrested.” Gina was dismayed, but she felt inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. “There were all these parents—a judge, lawyers, all these professional people—leaving their children there,” she said. Weeks after they discussed his arrest, Steve had Gina go to Van Nuys to find out the date of his court appearance. A clerk looked up his file and wanted to know which case. What put Gina over the edge was something Steve said when they had lunch the weekend before she quit. “He said, ‘You know, I don’t really care as much as people think. A lot of it is an act to help the kids along.’ I was like, ‘Holy cow, this guy is a monster.’ It was too overwhelming to deny it anymore.”
Though Steve still denies he was buying drugs that day, foil bindles with what appeared to be cocaine had been found in his desk after the raid. People around him have also made claims that he had a loose relationship with chemicals. Sam (not his real name) was 17 when he entered The House in the spring of 2007 and, like Bey, smoked a lot of pot. “When I first talked to Steve about coming to the program, he said, ‘You know, pot’s no big deal. Maybe it’s even helping you. I could probably get you a medical recommendation for it,’ ” Sam told me, his claim echoing court documents in which Belinda testified that Steve had provided her with cocaine:
Q: OK. Did he say what you should do?
A: He said, OK, like go ahead and use it and then, you know, check with me. If you need more, let me know, because, like, he wanted us to hit our peak so we wouldn’t use it again or want to use it again.
“I didn’t want to use drugs,” Belinda told me later, “but Steve said that taking them will make me better. Just like he told me having a relationship with him will make me better. He was my God. I trusted him.” Until one day in the spring of 2007, Belinda stopped. “I told Steve that I didn’t want this to happen any longer, that A.J. and I were getting a place, and that I didn’t want him to touch her anymore,” Belinda said. “At first he was like, OK. Then he said, ‘How can you do this to me?’ He’d get really mad. Then he started crying. He scared the living shit out of me. He said, ‘Pack your shit,’ but then was like, ‘How are you leaving me? Why are you doing this to me? I don’t understand.’ ” Belinda and A.J. decided to continue their group sessions at The House, but by the next month A.J. and Belinda had had enough. They called Gina for help.
“A.J. told me that Steve said sex was part of her therapy,” Gina said, “and he would do things like put his hand on her knee, then ask her, ‘How are you feeling about this?’ then go up touching her. It’s easy to say, ‘Hey, these are 17-year-old girls, they should’ve known better,’ but these kids have been through hell. They’ve never had authority they can trust.… I’m a normal-functioning, healthy, high-achieving person, so imagine how easy it would be to manipulate these kids if he could manipulate me that easily. These kids didn’t stand a chance. He could do whatever the fuck he wanted, and he wouldn’t have any problem getting away with it.” After calming the girls, Gina called the police and then stayed the night with them. In the morning she drove the girls to the D.A.’s office.
Moments before the raid, people had gathered, ready to begin Family Night. Steve was in his office wrapping up a meeting with Selena Spurgeon and her parents when they heard shouting. Selena, 14 at the time, said that as they entered the living room, “we see police jumping over the fence, ordering everyone out there against the wall. We hear all this yelling, ‘Open the fucking door!’ and, of course, no one is going to go open the door. They broke it down with a battering ram, charged in, shouting, ‘Get on your fucking knees!’ Each of us had a cop standing over us, and I was just sobbing and freaking out.” As far as the Culver City police were concerned, Steve was a probable sex offender with a record. People stumbled, bodies crashed into each other, as Steve’s Rhodesian Ridgeback furiously barked and the police shouted commands. Parents and kids were herded outside and made to sit, hands over knees, on the sidewalk—“like we were being arrested, like we were a gang,” Selena recalled, “and I had absolutely no idea what was happening or why.”
After Steve’s drug arrest, John, A.J.’s grandfather, received frantic phone calls from Steve. John posted two bonds for two separate charges. “I considered Steve a good friend, and really, he kept A.J. out of trouble,” he said. “He was in need and asking for help, a friend who suffered through cancer, went into remission, then had it again.”
A day later we got a call from Bey, in the middle of his freshman year at UC Santa Cruz. He was breathless and amped, beside himself with anxiety. “Dad, Dad, I have to come home right now, right now! Everything Steve taught me was a lie! I have to come home! I have to be with my friends! I have to know they’re OK!” That was how my wife and I found out about The House being raided. Bey was just beginning to feel comfortable with himself and his place in the world. Now he felt betrayed, he felt helpless, he felt tremendous sorrow and anxiety for his friends who suffered from the incidents. He wanted to quit school and return to L.A. It took some time to convince him that the progress he’d made, the problems he’d overcome, the person he had become—all of it—was still real and genuine and not a lie because the person responsible for guiding him was sitting in jail. I remember thinking of Steve’s freakout when Bey said he wanted to go off to college—and how, four months later, as Bey readied himself for school, Steve encouraged him to call if he started feeling anxious or insecure. During freshman week, Bey called repeatedly and left messages but never heard back from Steve. So I left messages for Steve. When he eventually returned them, Steve admonished me, saying that responding to Bey would have compromised his independence. All right, but why tell Bey to call in the first place? To Steve, the answer was obvious: “What was I gonna say, ‘Bey, don’t bother calling me?’ ”
Steve’s bail had been set at $1 million while he awaited a trial date. Among potential witnesses for the prosecution was Selena. “Steve would call me to his office and say, ‘Watch TV with me, come into the bed,’ and I was so uncomfortable,” she said to me. “I just didn’t know why we were doing this, but I always did what he said.” Worst of all, if the case went to trial, Steve and a jury of his peers would listen to the detailed testimony of Belinda and A.J., some of which he had already heard during the preliminary hearing on April 14, 2008:
Q: And did something sexual happen? Did you masturbate him while he was in the bath?
Q: What happened after that?
A: After that, [Belinda] and I got in the bath and then her and I took a bath. And then after that, [Steve] was on the bed. And we masturbated him when he was lying on his bed.
However, within those transcripts and their lascivious details lies a key to Steve’s freedom. At one point during the hearing, seeming to veer off topic, Steve’s attorney posed questions to Belinda about the constant writing Steve would have the kids do:
Q: …was another exercise [to] write down how you’ve made mistakes, how you’ve screwed up?
One of the mistakes A.J. wrote down for Steve was that she had once lied to him. According to her, Steve had repeatedly told her that she was repressing memories of being molested, that the sex they were having would help her remember things. She testified that when she said she wanted to stop having sex with him, he responded, “ ‘This is your therapy, and if you just stop now, first of all, you’ll never get better. Second of all, your relationship with [Belinda] will fail.’ He had total control over my relationship.” A.J. decided to come up with a story that would put an end to things: She claimed she’d been raped in the past. Steve called her on it and told her to admit her lie on paper.
It’s safe to say that when she fabricated that incident, A.J. had no idea what a profound effect it would have on the people whose lives intermingled at The House. After filing continuances and motions that put nearly a year and a half between the alleged sex crimes and their recollection in court, Steve’s lawyer cited A.J.’s story as evidence that she had a history of lying. Though deputy D.A. Mary Hanlon Stone was convinced of Steve’s guilt, she wasn’t convinced that she could prove it beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury. “I had massive files on each girl, on the case, and I spent long hours with my colleagues, D.A.s who worked on these types of cases for years, who specialized in these cases. And the consensus was that with a girl lying about a rape in the past, a conviction would be difficult to guarantee.” Without that assurance, A.J.’s grandparents were reluctant to expose A.J. to a protracted trial and what promised to be a brutal cross-examination.
After cutting a deal with the D.A. in March 2009, Steve pleaded guilty to a single felony count of possession of a controlled substance. The charge stemmed in part from the foil bindles found in his desk, but Stone also pointed to witness accounts of the odors of “foreign substances” being smoked behind his closed door. “Steve would always say, ‘If you ever tell, I’ll get away with it—I promise you that. You’ll never catch me,’ ” A.J. said with a sigh. “And he was right. He got off.” After Steve’s sentencing, Stone seemed determined to focus on a more upbeat assessment: “Steve Izenstark is a convicted felon. He won’t be able to treat children for what essentially constitutes the rest of his life, which is a significant win. I care deeply for A.J. and Belinda. They’re really wonderful kids, and what they did took a tremendous amount of courage. That said, my first responsibility was to protect them. A.J.’s grandparents requested to not have her testify unless we could guarantee a win. Based on the new evidence, I couldn’t do that.” Under the terms of his five-year probation, Steve was required to perform 250 hours of community service and to attend 52 Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. The court forbade him from individually counseling any male under 18 or any female under 23 for a period of 40 years.
A month after sentencing, Steve agreed to talk with me. “I’ve been quiet, I’ve held my tongue for almost two years,” he said in a phone conversation, “but I refuse to be afraid for my life anymore. This is America. The reason they had to drop the charges is right in the court transcripts—it’s entered in the record. They lied. These girls lied, and they admitted so in court.” For the record, that’s not the case. In a statement Stone read to the court on March 4, 2009, A.J. was cited for the lie she told Steve; no evidence was brought forth to indicate that Belinda had lied to Steve while under his care.
However, there is reason to question the veracity of what Steve told Belinda and other kids about his medical condition. Stone maintains that Steve never had prostate cancer. When I confronted Steve with Stone’s claim, he denied ever saying that he had cancer. When I reminded him that he told my son he had prostate cancer, Steve sighed into the phone and asked me, “OK, you know what PSA levels are?” referring to the prostate-specific antigen doctors consider a sign of cancer. “Well, mine are elevated.”
As we talked, Steve expressed bitterness. “A.J., she was the ringleader,” he told me. “Belinda, she’s really a sweetheart—a nice girl not out to harm anyone, and she just got swept up in the whole thing. Neither of the two girls is terribly bright. There’s below-average intelligence there—you’ll see for yourself.” I didn’t see anything of the sort. Could it be that Steve based his decision to consign A.J. and Belinda to the dunce farm on how he had fooled and manipulated them? If so, the same could be said of the therapist and the surgeon and all of the other parents, including my wife and me, who had trusted him with their children. As for the testimony of the two girls, “they missed on one very important point,” Steve said. “They were unable to identify a significant trait of my genitalia”—he paused to laugh—“and it’s very obvious.”
In the three years since Steve Izenstark’s arrest I went from believing in his innocence to believing that his actions were those of a man whose good intentions had been destroyed by his own drug abuse. A life coach today, he says that the case ruined him, costing more than $600,000 in legal fees. “My house, any money I had, bank accounts—it’s all gone,” he said. I asked him why, if he was innocent, he had agreed to a plea. “I just couldn’t put the kids through that, and believe me, it would’ve gotten ugly, OK? Could you imagine having Bey called up to the stand and testify? I don’t care about me. It’s all about the kids,” Steve said.
Last year Bey graduated from college and settled into his life in San Francisco. He’s happy but remains rattled by his experience with Steve; the man who helped him find himself betrayed him at the same time. Belinda, who lives in Santa Monica, recently completed her studies at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. A.J. returned to San Francisco. She said she wanted to be a writer, but things never were easy for her. On December 30, 2007 (six months after Steve’s arrest on Family Night), A.J.’s birth father was stabbed to death in front of his West L.A. apartment. On April 30, 2010, A.J. was about 30 miles north of San Francisco on Interstate 101 when her car veered off the road and slammed into a tree. She died instantly.
In that last conversation I had with Steve, he did admit one untruth to me: “You know when I’d call to say Bey was in crisis? A lot of those times he wasn’t. He didn’t have to be at The House. I wanted him there to keep an eye on Belinda. She looked up to him.” On those nights when Bey was supposedly in crisis, my wife and I rarely slept. Was he OK? Was he getting high? Was he suffering, was he roiling inside, did he hate us, did he love us? We were worried and profoundly concerned. But like everyone else, we had faith in Steve.
Michael Angeli is co-executive producer of Law & Order: Criminal Intent.
This feature was originally published in the November 2011 issue of Los Angeles magazine