- Photo by Taliesin Gilkes-Bower
Tia Katrina Taruc Canlas thought she had a strong case. Her client, Ellena Bondesson, was nine months pregnant when police found her in 2012, bound in handcuffs in the San Jose home she shared with her husband. Bondesson was chained to her bed with a dog leash, covered in bruises, with dried blood on her face and urine on her bed.
Investigators discovered Bondesson's personal documents, including her passport and social security card, in the trunk of her husband's car. A medical examination found evidence that she'd been raped. Bondesson said her husband, Silicon Valley real estate tycoon Clyde Berg, had raped her with his golf putter, which police found propped against her dresser. Bondesson told investigators that Berg chained her in her bedroom for days without food, held her at gunpoint, and forced her to take pills.
Police arrested Berg, and Santa Clara County prosecutors filed multiple felony criminal charges against him, including sexual assault. Berg, who made a fortune developing tech campuses, is the brother and business partner of billionaire Carl Berg, one of the richest people in the country. The sensational criminal case made international headlines when photos of Bondesson in her hospital bed with her bloody face became public.
But during a 2013 preliminary hearing, a judge threw out the charges against Berg, concluding that Bondesson had made up the whole story. The judge even went so far as to declare Berg factually innocent and sealed all of the court records.
At the time, Bondesson had already filed a lawsuit against Berg over the alleged rape and was in the middle of divorce proceedings with him. But then her attorneys quit, and a law professor at UC Berkeley heard about the case and referred it to a former student, Taruc Canlas. In 2011, Taruc Canlas had founded a nonprofit legal aid clinic in Berkeley for domestic violence survivors: the Alipato Project. Bondesson became Taruc Canlas' second client.
The professor, Nancy Lemon, had inspired the Alipato Project years earlier when she pointed out that tort law was an often-overlooked recourse for domestic violence victims, but one that could be vital because battered women frequently find themselves financially dependent on their spouses or partners. According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, abusers limit victims' access to money in 98 percent of abusive relationships, depriving victims of the resources they need to leave.
So by helping victims sue their abusers, Taruc Canlas hopes to help give them a chance to attain their independence. "People can't leave the relationship," Taruc Canlas said during a recent interview at her Berkeley office. "If we had a better safety net in our society, it would be easier for people to leave. But we don't. So for now, I'm trying to hold the batterers accountable — take their money to compensate the victims."
Lemon told Taruc Canlas that Bondesson's case was one of the worst she'd ever seen and concluded that Bondesson was suffering from severe trauma. When Taruc Canlas met Bondesson, she arrived with her baby and hundreds of pages of court documents.
"I read the [court] transcripts, and I saw they didn't show all of the evidence that Ellena was showing me — like years and years of journal entries, mental health records, a diagnosis of PTSD from a psychiatrist that wasn't ever brought up," said Taruc Canlas.
Taruc Canlas thought that, based on the strength of the evidence, particularly a Sexual Assault Response Team nurse's testimony that Bondesson had been raped and battered, the case was winnable, even against Berg's high-priced attorneys. She filed an amended complaint on Bondesson's behalf in March 2015.
But she lost the case in March 2016 when a jury ruled in Berg's favor. Berg responded by filing a malicious prosecution suit against the Alipato Project and its volunteer lawyers — a suit that could have destroyed the small organization.
"I was very worried that the Alipato organization may not survive when I read the Berg vs. Alipato Project complaint," Bondesson told the Express in an email. "The complaint and the timing of its filing indicated a desire to litigate just for the sake of litigation."
Ultimately, the Alipato Project prevailed in that case, convincing Alameda County Superior Court Judge Julia Spain in July to toss Berg's suit. The case also failed to dissuade Taruc Canlas from attempting to hold other domestic abusers accountable.
In fact, the same day Spain dismissed Berg's lawsuit, Taruc Canlas filed a civil action against former San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald, who had been arrested three times for alleged domestic violence against his ex-fiancée. He was charged with violating a restraining order in 2015 as well for an unrelated sexual assault, though the sexual assault charges were later dropped. The Alipato Project's suit alleges an even more extensive history of abuse than has been publicly reported.
"It's a very hard situation; I'm filing this lawsuit now to basically seek justice, to make Ray be held accountable for his actions, letting other women know it's okay to speak out, as hard as it is, it's okay," said McDonald's ex-fiancée, Kendra Scott.
Tia Katrina Taruc Canlas said that when she was 1 year old, her mother escaped her abusive father. Her mother had come to New York from the Philippines, but her immigration status was dependent on her husband's student visa. So Taruc Canlas's great-grandfather, the Filipino liberation leader Luis Taruc, leveraged his extensive network of connections in the United States to help her mother find a job and a home in California.