There was a notorious cat fight in San Diego County in the spring of 2012. It happened at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, but not during the annual cat show. The fight happened during a circus act.
“She had grabbed my hair and shirt pretty much at the same time, and was ripping at it,” said soft-spoken Kallie Lamb Helwig. “At the time I had very long hair. It went past and below my waist, and my hair [hung] down straight.” Not anymore.
Helwig tried to save her beautiful hair. “I attempted to get her hands out of my hair. So I felt up my head through my hair and pulled [at] her hands. And I tried to pull her hands off, but I couldn’t because she’d wrapped my hair multiple times around her hands. So then I followed her arm up to her hair, and I tried pulling it down, and I repeated at least three times, ‘Let go and I’ll let go!’ At the same time, there were so many people converged around us. Everybody was saying, ‘Let go!’ to both of us.”
A witness said both women were bent over at the waist, clutching each other’s hair. Then someone took hold of the other woman’s shoulders and tried to pull her free. Helwig stumbled and fell to the ground.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “I don’t think he knew that she had her hands wrapped in my hair.”
The scuffle was brief, Helwig said. “From when she first struck until we were separated, I would say no longer than 15 seconds. She ultimately let go, and I felt her release.” Helwig was crouched over, down on the ground. Both women were on the ground.
Some of Helwig’s hair had been pulled out. There were scabs, later, where hair used to be. Security personnel took photographs of Helwig right after the fracas. In the photos, Helwig has her hair pulled up into a messy ponytail that spills down one side of her head. “The way she had wrapped her hands around my hair, it had matted, and I could not brush it out. And so I had to put it up.” It was a quick repair, using a hair tie that Helwig’s mother had given her because she was going out on a date.
It was an unsightly incident during a date with a man she was trying to impress. Helwig had arranged the date herself. She bought tickets to the last performance of Cirque du Soleil in San Diego County. This was May 27, 2012. Helwig drove to pick up Gerald Torello, her date. They rented a hotel room near the Del Mar Fairgrounds before heading off to the show.
The scuffle left Helwig hurting. “I had a strain in my neck, and spasms in my neck and back. And headaches. And a contusion to the top of my head.” Because of the bare patches where her hair had been ripped out, Helwig cut the rest of her hair short. “Yes, I had to cut my hair.”
She admitted that she hit the other woman first, in the head. “I punched her.” But Helwig had felt threatened. Then, “I struck her twice more.” She admitted, “She never made any specific threat of bodily harm.”
Helwig denied that, after the circus performance, she was waiting near the exit specifically to attack the other woman. “Well, I was looking for my mom. I was scanning for my mom. I had attempted to go find her, but I was waiting to exit.”
Helwig didn’t know where her mom was sitting during the show; they did not have seats together. “I told her I’d see her after the show. We hadn’t made any specific plans on where we were going to meet.”
Helwig didn’t know where Torello was, either, during the slugging and hair-pulling and the tumble to the ground.
After that day, Helwig said, she and Torello “stopped dating.”
After the other woman let go of Helwig’s hair, someone told her to “Just leave, just get out of here.” She did not see her date, nor her mom, “so I walked down the stairs.” She was embarrassed that her shirt was torn, exposing her bra. “I tried to fix my brassiere.”
She walked out into the dark parking lot. “They had shuttles, but I didn’t take one because I was so embarrassed [about] the way I looked.”
Helwig decided to go to the car; she had the keys, but “Nobody was there. So I started returning to the fairgrounds — we were in the fairgrounds still — but [I started] back to the tent. And as I’m walking, I see sheriff’s vehicles with their overheads on.” Helwig’s mom called her cell phone. “‘Hey,’ [my mom] said, ‘the sheriffs [deputies] are on their way. They’re going to want a statement from you.’ I was already on my way back, so I told my mom, ‘I’m on my way. I’ll be there shortly.’”
That’s when Helwig next saw Torello. She was coming out of the parking lot, walking toward the sheriff’s vehicles. Torello looked concerned. “He said, ‘What happened to you?’ Then he asked me if I was okay because I looked disheveled.”
Kallie Helwig explains
Helwig was 25 years old in February 2013, when she took the witness stand to explain herself. She’d been charged with battery, for hitting the other woman. There were other criminal charges, too.
Her own, friendly attorney asked, “Why did the fight begin?”
“It began because she approached me,” Helwig said. “I felt threatened, and I felt that I had no other choice but to defend myself.”
Prosecutor Tracy Prior said, “Nothing about this was a fight. It was an attack.”
Helwig explained that it began when she bought tickets for the Cirque du Soleil show “as a gift” for her mother. “It was my mother’s birthday.” Helwig bought three tickets to the “Totem” performance. The total cost came to $339.50.
She also invited Torello to the show. They’d been dating about three weeks. They’d gone bowling and to the movies.
Helwig and Torello didn’t sit with her mother. All the other seats in the area where her mom was sitting might have been taken, but Helwig wasn’t sure about that.
That day, a Sunday, Helwig drove to pick up her date, then took him to the hotel, where they met up with Helwig’s mom. They rented rooms, then Helwig drove to the fairgrounds.
Helwig said neither she nor Torello drank anything before the show. “He had one glass of champagne during the first act. I had one glass of champagne during intermission.”
Torello bought a blue aluminum water bottle for his date as a souvenir. Helwig said she drank only water from the “very nice, expensive water bottle.”
During the first half of the show, they were holding hands and kissing. “A little. Closed-mouth kissing.” She said it was not all kissing on the mouth. “A lot of it was on the forehead and the cheek.” It wasn’t “excessive.”
At intermission, Torello went to the bar area and bought three glasses of champagne. It made Helwig “nervous,” because her mom might be “disappointed or uncomfortable.” Helwig is sensitive to drinking. “Both of my parents were alcoholics.” She didn’t tell Torello this because “Well, it was a date.” He didn’t need to know about her “family issues.” She wanted everybody to “have a good time.”
Helwig said, “I asked him if I could have one of the glasses of champagne, and he agreed. I didn’t feel comfortable with him having three, so I figured I would take one of them.”
Torello wanted to continue drinking in the bar area, but Helwig led him away to a bench. “He was concerned about how long it was going to take before the bar shut down.” Helwig was afraid that Torello wanted to buy another drink, and she meant to distract his attention.
Helwig sat on a bench. Torello stood facing her. “I had my arm around his waist, trying to keep him facing me.” She grabbed his belt buckle and his pockets. “Well, he had jeans on, so there were pockets where you could insert your hand. I inserted my fingers, not my entire hand.” Helwig denied that she’d put her hands inside his pants or that anyone was staring at them.
But two witnesses claimed that Helwig “stuck her hands down the front of his pants.”
Torello said something about getting another drink, maybe a shot, but the couple soon wandered off in another direction, away from the bar. “I mean, we weren’t there for any longer than a minute-and-a-half to two minutes.” She insisted that they did not leave the area because people were staring at them. “No, I left when the bar was closed. That’s why I left.” They had a smoke, then went back inside to see the second half of the how.
The seats were close together
“There was shoulder-bumping,” Helwig said, “and, you know, in a lot of circumstances, like at the theater, you’re kind of wrestling for the armrests. You don’t get your own separate one. Gerry had his arm around me, and the seats we were in were very close quarters. So we’re touching shoulders.” They did also touch the man seated next to them. “And he turns over and sarcastically says, ‘Are you guys enjoying the show?’”
This man later said, “I noticed his hand was going under her shirt.”
Helwig said that Torello’s hand was never on her breast. “He was just rubbing my stomach.” Why did he do that? “He was trying to comfort me because I had been having stomach issues. I had been feeling sick for the last two days.” When she told Torello this, “he actually went and bought me some Pepto-Bismol and some over-the-counter medication before we went to the show.”
Helwig denied that Torello was kissing her while rubbing her stomach to comfort her. “We stopped kissing after the first ten minutes of the show.” She also said, “I wasn’t feeling very well, and he was attempting to comfort me and kiss me, and I was just repeatedly telling him to stop, and no, and to cut it out.” Helwig didn’t want Torello to be affectionate during the show.
Then she saw a woman seated in her row “staring at me prolonged.” It made Helwig uncomfortable. “I could not figure out why she seemed, like, so intent on staring in my direction. Then she blurted out, you know, ‘Get a room.’”
An attorney asked Helwig, “Why do you think she said to get a room?”
“I figured [it was] because she felt our kissing was inappropriate.”
Helwig said she told the woman, “I wish I could just leave,” to which the woman replied, “‘I can make that happen.’ At that point in time, I had not been facing her, and I turned to face her, and I said, ‘Excuse me?’ And she said, ‘You heard me.’ In an aggressive tone.” The woman’s demeanor was also “aggressive.”
“It made me feel uncomfortable. I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to go back and forth with a stranger, and, honestly, I didn’t even know what to say to something like that.”
Helwig returned her attention to Torello. “I didn’t want to ruin our date. So I told him, ‘No, it’s not you. I’m just not feeling very well.’ And he put his arm around me, and I put my elbow on his lap, and I rested my head on my hand.”
Her head in his lap?
A prosecutor wanted to know if Helwig’s head was in Torello’s lap.
“Define ‘lap area,’” was Helwig’s quick retort. “In his lap? On his lap? My head was in my hand, my elbow was resting in his lap. That’s my testimony.”
Helwig demonstrated her position for the jury. “What happened is I had my elbow on his lap, and my head was resting on my hand in this fashion — like this. And I had my other hand on the armrest.”
Helwig was charged with lewd acts in public, a serious criminal charge which could require her, if convicted, to register as a sex offender.
Witnesses said they saw Helwig perform a lewd act on her date. But according to Helwig and two defense attorneys, these people were imagining things.
“I had been eating popcorn,” Helwig explained. While she rested her head on one hand, with her other hand she reached for the popcorn, which was “right below our feet.” She’d stretch a hand down to grab the popcorn, then put it in her mouth. Sometimes she drank out of her metal water bottle. Helwig said she “never” had her face down on Torello’s lap.
It was “maybe five minutes” later when Torello kissed the top of Helwig’s head, and the man seated next to them turned and said, “Why don’t you guys just leave?” Torello told the man, “Mind your own business.”
Witnesses later said they heard Torello make a threat that included the word “kill,” but Helwig refuted this.
All during this time, “there were two small children,” seated in the row in front of Helwig and Torello. “During the first act, they had kept [facing] forward. I’m assuming that, because they are small children, their attention span wasn’t able to last the entire length of the show, and [so] they kept turning around and playing with each other.”
Witnesses claimed that the two children had turned around to watch the alleged lewd act Helwig performed on Torello, but Helwig denied this. “At one point, they turned around prolonged,” she said. “And they’re just staring and giggling amongst each other. And then they look at Gerry, and Gerry gives the little boy a high five.”
Mrs. Chai Wu is a lieutenant in the United States Navy. She is in her 40s but looks much younger. Wu has been married for nine years and has two children, two and four years old. That Sunday, she left the kids with a sitter and went out on a “date night” with her husband.
At the Cirque du Soleil show, Wu was seated next to her husband, who was seated next to Torello, who was seated next to Helwig.
Wu said that during the intermission was the first time she noticed Helwig and Torello. She saw the long-haired woman put her “hand down his pants.” Wu said the couple moved away after they noticed all the people around them who were staring.
After intermission, during the show, Wu’s husband bumped against her because he was getting bumped hard by the couple next to him. So Wu leaned forward and looked down the row to see what the commotion was. She saw “groping.” And a certain lewd act. Right there in the seats, during the circus. Wu said the couple had “no shame.”
Wu saw the man reach out and give a “high-five” to a little boy in front of him who’d turned to watch the lewd act. Wu declared: “At that point, I had it.”
She reached forward and tapped the shoulder of the father of the two children, to alert him about what was happening. The man took his children and put them onto their mother’s lap, and then he went to get security.
Wu stood up and used the flashlight function on her cell phone to attract an usher. She called out, “He has his hand on her breast!”
Helwig claims that she corrected the woman. “I said [to her], ‘His hand is on my stomach.’” According to witnesses, Helwig also called Wu a “bitch,” but Helwig said, “I never called her a bitch.”
Helwig said, “I was offended that she would, first of all, think that his hand was on my breast, that I would allow anyone’s hands to be on my breast. And that she would announce it to probably about 30 people. It was frustrating and very embarrassing, because at this point she had her hand raised with her cell phone on, [and she was] jumping up and down. Accusing me of something that was not even close to happening. And there was about a radius of 15 feet where everybody is turning around and staring not only at Mrs. Wu and her husband but at myself and Gerald.”
One witness said it was not only Wu but her husband and other adults in the area who stood up, trying to get the attention of security personnel.
When a security man arrived, “he sat behind us,” Helwig said. She described him as “the person in black who came down and talked to Gerry.” This security person said something, and Gerry replied, “Oh, everything’s fine.” And then, for a while, everyone just watched the show “with no incident.”
An altercation ensued
As soon as the show ended, “I had told Gerry, ‘Come on, I want to go.’” Helwig and Torello left promptly, while others in their row remained. They trudged up a ramp of stairs toward the nearest exit, at the edge of the huge tent. When they were at the top of the stairs, next to the exit, they turned around and watched the performers take several curtain calls.
Helwig said the exit door was “closed,” although it was not a standard door but two flaps of circus tent that are lifted aside so that patrons may exit. Helwig wanted to go out a different exit, “and as I started to walk, he grabbed my arm and kind of like in a twirly, huggy fashion pulled me back toward him.”
Witnesses said that Helwig was punching the air and shadow-boxing. She denied making any “closed-hand punching motions…. There was no play fighting. I was never punching him. We’re kissing and tickling. We’re playing around. We’re trying to have fun. I was trying to have him leave with the impression that we’d had a nice evening.”
Witnesses heard Torello say things such as “I know you can do it” and “You’re not a chicken” and “You’re a tough girl.” Helwig denied that Torello ever said, “You can take her, babe,” or “I’ve got your back” or anything like that.
Helwig saw Wu. “I had initially noticed her because I heard her saying, ‘There she is.’” She knew this was “the woman who had been going back and forth with me” only because she recognized Wu’s clothing. Helwig denied being angry or upset, saying only that she found Wu “aggressive.”
“As she was approaching me, she kept on yelling at me. ‘What are you looking at? What are you going to do?’”
Wu’s husband passed both women and took another step toward the exit. Helwig claimed this was when Wu made a move. “She steps up in that space and she turns to me and she goes ump, and she raised her hand toward me. Within a foot. That would be assaultive. Actively assaultive. And for our use-of-force model, we would then go to the level of ‘strikes.’”
This was the first time she’d ever needed to defend herself outside of work, Helwig said.
“I’m a United States Border Patrol agent.”
Helwig met Torello through work. They’re both Border Patrol agents, both hired in 2008. They met in January 2012, five months before the circus spectacle.
Helwig was 19 when she applied, a tall, slender brunette; she was hired after turning 20, after which she received four months of training in New Mexico.
Helwig is trained in “defensive tactics” used “in order to defend yourself in any kind of hand-to-hand combat situation or to defuse situations, to affect arrests.” That meant one or two hours per day of training for about two months. “And every few months we have to recertify in our defensive tactics and go over arrest techniques and our use-of-force model.” Helwig chose to take several additional classes to get “more training on, like, hand-to-hand combat....
“Basically, we have a use-of-force scale, so, depending on the actions of the person that you’re dealing with, there are appropriate actions that you would take to mitigate or defuse the situation to protect yourself.”
Eight months after the incident, when Helwig was in the courtroom, a prosecutor suggested that she might have used her training to “defuse the threat.”
Helwig corrected her. “In a split-second reaction, you don’t have time to think about what are all the tactics you can use! You go off instinct.”
Helwig described her instinctive moves. After Wu had “put her hands up,” then “I immediately felt the need to defend myself and create space and instinctively struck her.” Helwig took a step back and used her right hand to slug Wu in the face. Then she took a quick look around. “When I looked back, she had re-engaged me and was coming into the aisle where I was. And at that point, there was somebody standing behind me, so there was no way I could create any more space, and I took two more strikes at her face.”
Helwig said she had certain “options” if she’d wanted to “inflict pain on her,” but “that’s not in my nature. I’ve never had a verbal argument with a stranger, or even a friend.” Except for playground fights as a kid, “I’ve never been in a fight.”
“She punched me, one two three.”
As she walked up the steps, Wu said she was fearful. Helwig “looked like she was practicing to fight.” Helwig was “throwing punches in the air.” When Wu got close to Helwig, she stopped to “let her through.” Wu did not want the air-punching woman to step in behind her, so she made a gesture down at the steps in front of her, “And I said, ‘After you.’”
Wu was surprised by three fast punches to her face. She was hit in the left eye and right jaw, with a third punch to the left side of her head. “I lunged for her, after I got punched.” Wu told the jury. “I went in and grabbed her hair, and I pulled her close, so that she couldn’t get any more full swings at me.”
Wu’s husband turned in time to see the first punch. “The female turned around with a hook and she just hits my wife.” He said it was “an attack” that “came out of nowhere.”
After the women took hold of each other, Wu’s husband claimed that Torello stepped forward and pushed him back, then took hold of Wu from behind. Mr. Wu interjected himself, pushing his arm between Torello and his wife. He said he told Torello that he was drunk and ordered him to “just leave.” Fortunately, Torello let go of Mrs. Wu. According to Mr. Wu, Torello walked down the stairs, heading toward the circus arena below.
Torello, however, denied that he was there at all. He denied seeing any part of the altercation between the women.
At one point during the trial, Mr. Wu became red-faced and emotional while testifying. He said, “I let down my wife” and “I wanted to take the punch.” The jury was excused, and the trial was recessed for some minutes so that Mr. Wu could compose himself. Then he finished his eyewitness testimony.
Mr. Wu sounded disappointed when he said, “As far as I was concerned, security wasn’t around for a very long time.”
“I was alerted to an altercation,” said Nicholas Brown, security director for the show that night. Security took control of the situation once he arrived on the scene. Eventually, they started looked for Helwig, who had apparently disappeared. Wu was taken to see a medic, and her bumps and scrapes were photographed.
Brown testified that security searched for Helwig for seven to ten minutes. Then sheriff’s deputies arrived at about 7:30 p.m. (The show began at 5:00, and it was two-and-half hours long, including a half-hour intermission.) The deputies took over looking for Helwig, which they did for another ten more minutes or so.
During the trial, a prosecutor suggested that Helwig had hidden for at least 20 minutes before deputies persuaded her mother to phone her and request that she return. After an additional five minutes, Helwig was seen approaching from the area of the parking lot.
Helwig did not agree with this characterization. “When [deputies] arrived, I was back on scene within minutes, because I had already been walking back.”
“No, I did not bolt.”
The prosecutor accused Helwig of running away after she attacked Wu. “No, I did not bolt. I was very embarrassed. My brassiere was out of my shirt. I was disoriented. I had just been attacked by three people. I’m alone. I do not know any of these people. Gerald is nowhere to be seen. My [mom] — I don’t even know where [she is]. I don’t know if [she’s] amongst the crowd of people. I’m yelling for [her], and I go outside. I don’t see anybody. I’ve never been in a fight. I’ve never been in that circumstance, and these are out of the parameters of work. At work we have protocol. We have our immediate weapons. We have radio. We have backup. Out in the public it’s just us. I’m not armed. I do not have a badge and credentials. I’m a citizen.”
Deputy McCormick said of Helwig, “She didn’t seem nearly as intoxicated as the male subject [Torello].” One of the deputies took Torello to the Encinitas Sheriff’s Station for three hours. Once he’d sobered up he was released. Deputies said they gave him a “citation” for public intoxication.
Deputy McCormick “cited” Helwig for misdemeanor battery, and then she was released.
The deputy said that Wu and her husband did not appear intoxicated at all.
According to Wu, the father of the two children in front of them came up to her after the scuffle and offered her his phone number. But she didn’t want to bother him and declined. She later regretted that.
That night, Wu filled out paperwork for a citizen’s arrest of Helwig. She said she hoped both Helwig and Torello would be “charged appropriately” and that “justice would be served.”
Wu waited some weeks for the sheriff’s department to complete their investigation. She contacted a sheriff’s investigator who said the matter had been forwarded to the district attorney’s office. Wu spoke with a man there. “He said that basically there was no case.” The man at the district attorney’s office didn’t recognize the case number, which the sheriff’s investigator had given Wu. “I was pretty disillusioned,” she said. She was also “scared” because she knew that both Helwig and Torello were “licensed to carry weapons.”
Wu was approached by two San Diego television stations about the incident and she agreed to anonymous interviews. “I wanted the public to know.”
The altercation happened on May 27, 2012. On July 6, a defense attorney went to the courthouse and officially received the charges, or “arraigned” both defendants. This happened at a counter, a clerk on the other side. The clerk checked a box that allowed both defendants to remain out on their own recognizance.
Neither defendant was ordered into a courtroom until August, when judge Daniel Goldstein demanded they appear in his court to hear a verbal “stay-away order,” which would protect Wu. The judge remarked at the time, “You have to take misdemeanors serious, too. They’re crimes.”
A misdemeanor jury trial
The trial was held in San Diego’s North County Superior Courthouse.
Prosecutor Tracy Prior said, “Nothing about this was a fight. It was an attack.” She said, “This is more than disturbing conduct.” As Border Patrol agents, “they should know better.”
The district attorney’s office charged Helwig with misdemeanor battery. The penal code describes battery as “any willful and unlawful use of force or violence upon the person of another.”
Helwig claimed self-defense. “After the totality of circumstances, knowing that [Wu] could have taken another exit, knowing that she could have gone on the other side of the aisle and walked out where there was a bar in between us, seeing her push her husband out of the way so that she could be closer to me, her pointing at me, keeping engaged eye contact with me, repeatedly asking me what I was going to do in an aggressive manner, all led me to believe that she was going to assault me.”
The first week of February 2013, a jury was selected for the misdemeanor trial of Helwig and Torello.
Mid-week, during trial, the judge threw out one count of “annoy child” that had been charged against both defendants. The prosecutor had noted that the offending couple was “inches away from a family with two young children.” Superior Court judge Harry Elias also dismissed one charge of “making criminal threat,” which had been filed because witnesses described Torello as having threatened to “kill” someone if they spoke to his date again. Every remaining crime was charged as a misdemeanor.
Helwig took the witness stand in her own defense for two and a half hours.
The jury went into deliberations on February 7. They deliberated thoughtfully, requesting hours of transcripts to be read back to them by the court reporter. They announced their verdicts on February 11.
The jury reached only one unanimous “guilty” verdict: they found Helwig guilty of battery on Wu.
The jury declared Helwig and Torello “not guilty” of one lewd act, that act allegedly occurring at intermission — the “hands-down-the-pants” incident.
The jury deadlocked on the second lewd-act charge, the head-in-lap allegation. They also deadlocked on whether Torello was guilty of battery on Wu as an “aider and abettor,” for allegedly encouraging Helwig verbally.
The jury foreman reported after the verdicts that the defense attorneys had done a good job of creating reasonable doubt, and that jurors had given a lot of weight to Jury Instruction Number 224. That specific instruction states: If you can draw two or more reasonable conclusions from the evidence, and one conclusion points to innocence and one points to guilt, you must accept the one that points to innocence. (This is not the entire jury instruction.)
For the single guilty verdict against Helwig, for misdemeanor battery, she was sentenced to three years “summary” or unsupervised probation and two days of public service.