Riverside County accused of paying to silence sexual assault victims

Riverside County attempted to pay two women $1,000 apiece to cover up a sheriff's deputy's sexual assault of them, according to legal complaints filed this week. And a third came forward saying she was offered more in exchange for a compelled signature.

The accusations came more than a week after Deputy Christian Phillip Heidecker was charged with 18 felonies, with prosecutors saying he used his position to extort sexual material and force sex acts on at least four women, including the three who now allege they were offered money. He has pleaded not guilty.

Civil attorneys Denisse Gastelum and Christian Contreras announced during a press conference in Riverside on Tuesday that they have filed claims with the County of Riverside alleging not only that two of their clients were sexually assaulted but that the payoffs were both illegal and compelled because the women were in the county's custody.

Such claims can be precursors to lawsuits, if the government agency doesn't resolve them.

In a statement Tuesday, county spokesperson Brooke Federico said the agreements the women signed don't include clauses that require them to stay quiet.

"In fact, as this specific case involves an ongoing criminal investigation, these women may testify in a criminal trial," Federico said. "To characterize any pre-litigation settlements as an effort to buy silence is a clear mischaracterization.

She added: "It is not uncommon to seek settlement prior to litigation to avoid the time and expense for both sides associated with lawsuits."

The women's lawyers said they could not verify what's in the documents they signed because the women were denied copies at the time. The Desert Sun has also requested copies.

3rd accuser comes forward

Another civil lawyer, Neil Gehlawat, contacted The Desert Sun on Tuesday afternoon, after an initial version of this article was published online, saying his firm Taylor and Ring plans to file a suit on behalf of a third woman by the end of the week.

Gastelum and Contreras said that days before Heidecker's arrest, the sheriff's department ordered women who had contact with him into a meeting under a false pretense, to ask questions about the criminal investigation and ultimately compel them to sign an agreement.

"The sheriff's department was offering them money in exchange for remaining silent about the deputy's criminal sexual behavior," Gastelum said.

Gehlawat said Tuesday afternoon that the county increased its offer from $1,000 to $2,000 after the third woman asked for and was declined the opportunity to call a lawyer to consult about the agreement.

"The county confronted a victim of sexual abuse with a bag of money," Gehlawat said. "These sheriff's department employees and lawyers knew exactly what they were doing. They knew the deputy was bad news. And instead of helping, they revictimize these women by offering them hush money."

Told of the county spokesperson's description of the agreements, Gehlawat called it "abhorent," adding in an email: "The victims (including our client) were not allowed to consult a lawyer (or anyone) before being pressured into signing the settlement agreement. There is absolutely no justification for the County’s cover up."

In their response to the county's statement, Gastelum and Contreras wrote, "These $1,000.00 bribes to young women who were forced to endure these types of obscenities and inhumane treatment to their bodies speaks volumes of how the County of Riverside perceives them and the little value they place on victims of sexual abuse."

Gastelum and Contreras called for a federal investigation of the allegations, saying the sheriff's department and county officials could not do so impartially. Gehlawat said he also would support a review of the case by the state attorney general, which already has an open civil-rights investigation into allegations of wrongdoing in the department and the jails it oversees.

Deputy's arrest followed meetings with accusers

Heidecker, 32, turned himself in to his own department on Sept. 15, and was charged with 18 felony counts of forcing sex acts, extortion, bribery and dissuading a witness. He worked in Banning in the sheriff's department's out of custody monitoring program. The women, who have not been identified publicly, were technically in the county's custody but were not physically in the jail as they were being remotely monitored.

The charges indicate that Heidecker was extorting women in the program for sex and in exchange for sexually explicit material. He is being held on $1 million bail at the Cois Byrd Detention Center in Murrieta.

Gastelum and Contreras said Tuesday and in government claims submitted to the county that both a staff member of the sheriff's department and a lawyer who said she represented the County of Riverside contacted at least two of the victims in a hush money attempt.

The women's lawyers claim to have evidence of voicemails, calls and meetings during which the payoffs were attempted. They say that on Sept. 12, three days before Heidecker turned himself in, a group of women who he was responsible for monitoring or otherwise had contact with him were summoned to a sheriff's office in Banning.

"They were told they needed to have their ankle bracelets inspected," Gastelum said Tuesday. "But they were actually called to be questioned about Heidecker and forced to sign the agreement."

Gastelum said that after the group were asked questions about their contacts with Heidecker, they were sent to another room where they met with representatives from the sheriff's department's Professional Standards Bureau, which investigates claims of employee misconduct and other internal affairs. They were asked to sign agreements seeking to keep them quiet about the sexual assaults, Gastelum said.

Gehlawat said he wasn’t shocked to read that account in The Desert Sun, because it was nearly identical to the story of his client. She was arrested in May and placed on the department's house arrest program, where she was largely confined to her home except for a few hours a day when she was permitted to run errands. Heidecker was her case manager.

"He got right into it," Gehlawat said. "Telling her that if she sent him pictures he would increase the hours she was allowed out. And the exploitation unfolded from there. He would ask for pictures. She sent them. He would increase her hours."

On Sept. 7, the department called her into the station to inspect her ankle monitor, Gehlawat said. During that meeting, she was inexplicably assigned a new case manager and told that if she was called in about the monitor again, she would be readmitted to jail. Again, on Sept. 12, the sheriff’s department notified Gehlawat’s client that the device needed to be inspected. But this time, he said, she was questioned about Heidecker and his advances.

"She had frantically written names and numbers on her arms before the meeting, thinking she was going to be booked into jail," Gehlawat said. "Instead, she was questioned, offered money and compelled to sign an agreement she said she hardly understood."

The woman later told Gehlawat there were several people at the meeting who she presumed were either sheriff's department employees or county lawyers. She said she was uncertain about the nature of the meeting, and even at one point asked them if "this is hush money," according to Gehlawat.

"She was told the money was for emotional distress damages," he said. "When she asked if she could call someone to discuss it, they said there were county lawyers present for her to consult with."

They ultimately offered her $2,000 and compelled her to sign the papers, Gehlawat said. She was told that a check would be mailed to her by that Friday, Sept. 15. When she asked for a copy of the agreement she signed, they declined to give it to her. As of Tuesday, she had yet to receive the check.

Gastelum and Contreras said an attorney for the county, Nicole Roggeveen, and sheriff's Correctional Sgt. Jessica Yelenich later contacted additional victims and presented legal agreements that their two clients, who were still in custody of the county, also felt compelled to sign. One of the agreements, Gastelum added, was discussed during a private meeting with her client the day before Heidecker turned himself in, after which the client said she heard the group refer to her as "the last one."

"They forced the victims of a sexual predator to sign settlement and release agreements in exchange for $1,000," Gastelum said.

Gastelum and Contreras said the materials they reviewed in preparation for filing the claims indicate these were arrangements in which the county attorney and sheriff's employee attempted to pay the victims in exchange for silence about Heidecker's crimes. Their clients were also declined copies of the agreements.

"What the County of Riverside fails to recognize — time and time again — is that the reason why Sheriff (Chad) Bianco and his sheriff’s deputies act with impunity is because they know that the County and their attorneys will figure out a way to absolve them of any liability," Gastelum and Contreras wrote in a statement.

"The crimes were bad enough, but the cover up is arguably worse," Gehlawat said. "Whether they got the money or not, this reeks of fraud. They wanted to bury these crimes. These are marginalized women they thought they could pay off. Their game plan is falling apart."

Christopher Damien covers public safety and the criminal justice system. He can be reached at christopher.damien@desertsun.com or follow him at @chris_a_damien.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: California county accused of paying to silence sexual assault victims