7 Bay Area officers charged in sex scandal, DA says

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7 Bay Area law enforcement officers will be charged with sex offenses and other crimes in a scandal that has rocked the Oakland Police Department, threatening its hopes of ending 13 years of federal oversight and causing a major shake-up in its command staff.

The plan to charge the officers was announced Friday by Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy E. O’Malley, who said she could not file the charges until the teenage woman at the center of the scandal returns to California after being sent to a rehabilitation program in Florida by another agency.

“Anyone, particularly in a position of authority, who engages in sexual exploitation or inappropriate sexual conduct with a minor or a young adult will be held accountable if we have the evidence,” O’Malley said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re a police officer, a doctor, a probation officer, or a lawyer or a judge.”

Two law enforcement officers — Giovani LoVerde of the Oakland Police Department and Ricardo Perez, who has resigned from the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department — will be charged with felony oral copulation with a minor, O’Malley said. Perez will also be charged with two counts of engaging in a lewd act.

Four other Oakland police officers will be prosecuted: Brian Bunton, on charges of felony obstruction of justice and engaging in an act of prostitution; Warit Utappa and Tyrell Smith, who allegedly searched a criminal justice computer system without an authorized purpose; and LeRoy Johnson, on charges of failing to report sexual misconduct against a minor.

Johnson has retired and Smith has resigned from the department.

Dan Black, who has retired from the Livermore Police Department, will be charged with two counts of engaging in an act of prostitution and two counts of a lewd act in a public place.

The alleged sexual offenses do not appear to have occurred while the officers were on duty, O’Malley said.

The officers could not immediately be reached for comment.

Earlier this year, Contra Costa County prosecutors declined to charge Smith after he had been accused of attempting to forcibly sodomize the woman. O’Malley said she believes Smith and Utappa had sexual contact with the woman in Contra Costa County, but her office has no jurisdiction outside of Alameda County.

In a television news interview in June, the 19-year-old Richmond woman claimed she had sex with more than a dozen Oakland police officers. Some of the encounters happened in exchange for information about planned prostitution raids, the woman has alleged, and others occurred when she was underage.

The scandal soon widened, as the woman claimed she also had had sex or other inappropriate contact with officers from other police agencies.

The woman’s name has been widely reported, but the Los Angeles Times has not published her identity because she may be a sex crime victim.

Some officers who engaged in “sexting” with the woman cannot be prosecuted because the victim was not underage, said O’Malley, who characterized the online activity as “sexually explicit or inappropriate chatter.”

O’Malley said that many police officers who were “friends” with the woman on Facebook had never met her in person, including Oakland police Officer Brendan O’Brien, whose suicide in September 2015 caused the city’s internal affairs unit to begin digging into the scandal. The woman has said in numerous interviews that she met O’Brien along International Boulevard when he saved her from an attack by a boyfriend or pimp.

O’Malley repeatedly stressed that those linked to the scandal did not represent the larger Oakland Police Department.

The actions of a few have really shone a very negative light on all of the hardworking men and women who come to work every day as police officers to protect our community,” O’Malley said.

Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland Police Officers’ Assn., also emphasized that the vast majority of his colleagues were not involved in the scandal.

“Our officers are just as disappointed as everyone else in the blemish these events have made on the reputations of Oakland police officers who come to work every day and serve with honor in our community,” Donelan said in a written statement.

The decision to file charges was made public days after Oakland’s mayor announced that the city would fire four officers and suspend seven others without pay in connection with the scandal.

Local activists said O’Malley’s decision to prosecute might lead other victims of police misconduct to step forward and help flush bad officers out of the agency.

O’Malley showed “real leadership” in choosing to prosecute, but every officer implicated in the scandal should be forced out of the department, said Kenyatta Carter, a 37-year-old Oakland native and activist who founded Victims Of The System, a group that helps people bring grievances against state and city agencies.

“These officers should not be allowed to remain suspended and come back,” Carter said. “Training is not enough if you knew about what was going on with a minor, or sexting.… That’s unacceptable. Period.”

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said Friday that she hoped the announcement of the charges would make clear that city officials are committed to eliminating a small group of officers who committed “disgusting misconduct.” Asked about calls to fire, rather than simply suspend, some of the officers connected to the scandal, Schaaf said the city attorney’s office and Oakland police internal affairs investigators were hamstrung by when and where some of the alleged misdeeds occurred.

“This case is complicated because most of the misconduct occurred off-duty,” she said in a telephone interview. “Not all of it — certainly, the improper use of databases was done on duty — but that should be taken into consideration.”

She said she could not comment on LoVerde’s, Bunton’s or Utappa’s status with the city police department.

O’Malley said her office had uncovered evidence of additional misconduct in several other jurisdictions, including the city of San Francisco, as well as San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties. On Thursday, Contra Costa County Chief Dist. Atty.  Doug McMaster told The Times that his office had not been presented with any prosecutable cases in connection with the scandal.

McMaster previously told The Times that the woman at the center of the case was sent to Florida with funds from a state victims’ advocacy program. He scoffed at the idea that she was “spirited away” to keep her from testifying. Calls to McMaster seeking additional comment Friday were not immediately returned.

On Aug. 29, the woman was arrested and charged with aggravated battery in Florida after she bit a security guard at the rehabilitation facility in Stuart, Fla., according to an arrest report filed by the Martin County Sheriff’s Office.

Police were called to the facility after the woman became physically combative with several staff members. In interviews with sheriff’s deputies, she repeatedly discussed her past drug abuse and sexual encounters with police officers and later attempted to solicit sex from the deputies, according to the report.

An attorney representing the woman could not be reached for comment.

John Burris, the civil rights attorney who negotiated a legal settlement that placed Oakland under a federal monitor in 2003, said the woman’s arrest in Florida, coupled with O’Malley’s investigation poking holes in some of her narrative, could allow the officers’ attorneys to attack her credibility at trial.

The sex scandal grew in scope after Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent, who had been credited with bringing the department out of the shadow of the 2003 brutality scandal that led to the implementation of a federal monitor, resigned the same weekend the woman’s TV news interview aired.

Whent’s successor stepped down within days, as did the next police chief. The department is now run by a civilian city administrator.

Schaaf, the city’s mayor, said she will focus her attention on helping heal the widening rift between police and citizens, adding that she remained hopeful Oakland could attract a progressive, reform-minded candidate to fill the vacant chief’s post.

“No doubt this scandal has shaken not just community trust, but the forward momentum that this department was feeling,” Schaaf said. “But I have every confidence that we will move forward.”

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