Riverside County sought to pay off women before deputy was charged with sexual assault, extortion

RIVERSIDE, CA - NOVEMBER 4, 2020: Riverside County Sheriff Deputies stand guard at the historic county courthouse as demonstrators gather in support of "Counting Every Vote" and democracy on November 4, 2020 in Riverside, California. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Riverside County sheriff's deputies in 2020. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Days before a Riverside County sheriff's deputy was charged with sexually assaulting and extorting several women in a home electronic detention program, three of them say, county officials got them to accept $1,000 to $2,000 in compensation for the acts.

The women and their lawyers said the victims, having already suffered sexual exploitation at the hands of Correctional Deputy Christian Heidecker during the last year, were again mistreated by the Sheriff's Department and a county-hired lawyer in being forced to accept payoffs.

"I feel my rights were violated by Heidecker and then again by the county," said a 36-year-old Coachella Valley woman, who says the deputy forced her to send images of her feet and engaged in sexually inappropriate conversations. "I felt I had to do what he said and what choice did I have but to take the money because I feared going back to jail."

The allegations made in interviews and two government claims filed Tuesday against Riverside County come a week after Heidecker, who monitored the women in a diversion program with ankle monitoring as an alternative to jail, was charged with 18 felonies.

The Riverside County Sheriff's Department began investigating Heidecker on Aug. 31 and arrested him on Sept. 15. Last week, prosecutors charged him with forcing four women under his supervision into sex acts, extorting sexual images from them, and accepting bribes in the form of sexual material. In exchange, he allowed the women more freedom.

Heidecker has pleaded not guilty and remains in jail in lieu of $1-million bail. He is one of three Riverside County deputies arrested recently; others were caught with narcotics, including one who works at the jail and was captured with $5 million worth of fentanyl tied to a drug cartel.

The women said that shortly before Heidecker's arrest, they were called into the office of the jail diversion program in Banning because of issues with their ankle monitors.

Attorney Denisse Gastélum said her two clients were questioned by sheriff's criminal investigators about Heidecker. Then the women were seen by an internal affairs investigator and an outside lawyer for the county, who offered them $1,000 each to sign an agreement to resolve any liability for the county.

"They were buying off their silence. They told them they could speak to no one about it," Gastélum said.

At first, one of her clients did not sign, and sheriff's officials spent a couple of days applying pressure and even came to her home.

"My client heard them say as they left the day before the deputy's arrest, 'That's the last one,'" the lawyer said her client recalled. "This needs to be investigated by the FBI."

Gastélum said the outside lawyer for the county is the wife of a high-ranking sheriff's official in Sheriff Chad Bianco's administration.

"We are here because we’d like other victims to come forward and not to be afraid,” a 24-year-old accuser said during a news conference Tuesday announcing the filing of legal claims against the county, a precursor to a lawsuit against a public entity. Two of the women spoke at the news conference, and they both filed claims against the county.

“We just want justice because, as you see and hear, there [are] crimes being done ... inside the jails,” said a 27-year-old accuser. The Times does not identify victims of alleged sexual assaults.

In an interview Wednesday, a third accuser, the woman from the Coachella Valley, said Heidecker began inappropriate conversations not long after becoming her supervisor. Then he told her that he could give her more hours of freedom in exchange for photos.

"He made me send pictures of my feet," she said. "He asked about the color of my undergarments and then he texted I was the emoji for on fire." She said he told her he deleted the texts on his county phone before they were uploaded to the county server.

She said Heidecker was suddenly replaced on Sept. 7, and she was eventually called in on Sept. 13 and interviewed by two detectives about the deputy's behavior. That is when the sheriff's officials told her they would compensate her with $1,000.

"I felt pressured to sign the document. When I said I needed to step out, they bumped it up to $2,000."

David Ring, who represents the Coachella Valley woman, was firm about the actions, which he called outrageous.

"Deputy Heidecker's misconduct was despicable. He will suffer the consequences of his criminal case," he said. "However, for law enforcement and county officials to then mislead and dupe these victims into signing away their legal rights in exchange for some insignificant amount of money is beyond outrageous. These officials will need to suffer the consequences also."

Neil Gehlawat, who also represents the Coachella Valley woman, said she received a county check in the mail and a document indicating that the county had declined a claim she never filed.

In response to the allegations, county officials said in a statement that the pre-litigation settlements do not contain nondisclosure language.

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

"It is not uncommon to seek settlement prior to litigation to avoid the time and expense for both sides associated with lawsuits. In general terms, the County’s risk management team may seek that settlement, which often includes outside counsel. If the risk management case involves the sheriff’s department, then a representative from the Professional Standard’s Bureau will accompany counsel.”

But Gastélum, a civil rights lawyer who has also represented police agencies, said such a discussion without representation in a coercive setting is highly unusual.

The Sheriff’s Department said there may be additional victims and asks anyone with additional information to contact Riverside Sheriff’s Master Investigator R. Deanne at (951) 955-2777.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.