Newport Beach surgeon and reality TV star Grant Robicheaux and his girlfriend Cerissa Riley faced decades in prison for allegedly drugging and raping multiple women. On February 4, in a stunning reversal, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer announced that he plans to drop all charges against the couple. In our February issue, Jason McGahan delved into the sordid saga of Robicheaux, his model girlfriend, and their stunning defense.
It was a cool October night in 2016, at a little past 11:30, when the usually peaceful, manicured stretch of Newport Beach homes was pierced by an insistent shrieking. An elderly woman, roused from bed, was the first to dial 911 to report the woman’s screams. A few minutes later she ran downstairs and outside into the alley to find a small but growing group of neighbors looking in the direction of the gray house where the screams seemed to be originating.
“Get off of me!”
By midnight the screams had grown so loud that two other neighbors had called the police. One of them reported that he was worried a woman was being “abused sexually.” Four officers from the Newport Beach Police Department arrived and tracked the screams to the home, owned by the young surgeon and reality-TV star Dr. Grant Robicheaux. The handsome young doctor, shirtless and in shorts, greeted them at the door. The screaming, he said, was coming from a woman who had accompanied him from a local bar and was upstairs in his bedroom. They went up to find the woman, whom authorities are calling Jane Doe Number 4, bewildered, slurring her words, unsteady on her feet, and unable to decide if she wanted to press charges. She told police she had no memory of how she ended up in the room that night. She said she was sitting at a local bar, having drinks with a girlfriend, when she was approached by an attractive woman who struck up a conversation. A few hours later, she said, she woke up in her shirt and underwear on the doctor’s bedroom floor with Robicheaux on top of her, hitting her face, while the woman from the bar stood over them recording the scene with a cellphone. When she had finally freed herself, the doctor picked up the phone and recorded her as she sat on the floor and wept. She and her friend, who was on the floor beside her, got up, ran to the bathroom, and locked the door until the police arrived. Her friend told the officers she had no memory of what caused Jane Doe 4 to scream. When the officer who interviewed Jane Doe 4 spoke with her again five minutes later, she did not remember talking with the officer the first time. The third woman in the room, the doctor’s girlfriend, Cerissa Riley, said she couldn’t remember who the women were, and that they must be friends of Grant.
The police then turned their attention to Robicheaux, who didn’t bother to put on a shirt for the interview on his couch. He said he was asleep when the screaming began and got out of bed in an effort to calm the woman. He was vague as to how the two women ended up in his bedroom. Strangers spend the night at his house all the time, he told police. He encourages it so they don’t drink and drive home. Yes, he had recorded the incident on his cell phone; no, he would not show the recording to the police.
The officers decided no crime occurred at the residence. Their report classified the suspicious incident as “cleared/non-crime.” They informed neighbors still waiting outside that the screams were related to a “private sexual matter.”
Three years later, Jane Doe Number 4 is one of seven women accusing the made-for-TV surgeon and his pretty girlfriend of a multitude of crimes. Robicheaux and Riley have been charged with rape by drugs, oral copulation by anesthesia, kidnapping with intent to commit sexual offenses, and assault with intent to commit sexual offenses, among other crimes. Then-Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said investigators uncovered thousands of electronic files from the couple’s cellphones and iCloud accounts, including dozens of videos showing the couple in sexual encounters with women in varying states of consciousness.
What the videos actually show has spurred a standoff between the former DA, who filed the charges against the couple, and his successor, Todd Spitzer. Rackauckas said that investigators discovered more than 1,000 cellphone videos of alleged assaults, a claim the DA’s office later walked back, and which Spitzer disavows. The quarrel between the prosecutors raises the question of whether Robicheaux and Riley are dangerous sexual predators who used their looks—and an array of mind-altering pharmaceuticals—to lure an untold number of victims into their web, or, as their lawyers will argue, they are O.C. swingers who are being targeted because of their lifestyle. The story has drawn international interest, generating a circus atmosphere when the couple is in court.
Since the charges went public, as many as 18 women have accused the pair of drugging and sexually assaulting them. Seven of them are charged as victims in the case; the allegations of the others are not being pursued in court because the statute of limitations expired or their alleged incidents occurred outside of Orange County; prosecutors will attempt to use their testimony to establish a pattern of abuse. Police also found a large stash of drugs in the couple’s home, including GHB, a drug that in liquid form prosecutors say can serve as a prelude to the kind of date rapes the pair is accused of and that the body can metabolize quickly enough to make it difficult for a toxicology test to detect. But the couple’s high-powered lawyers say their clients have been smeared, that the evidence against them has been misrepresented and misconstrued, and their convictions are far from assured.
Within days of their indictment, camera crews from across the country converged on the gray beach house on the Balboa Peninsula where Robicheaux was already something of a local celebrity. The successful doctor had the white, beachy good looks of a surfer and all the material trappings of success for a 30-something living it up on the Orange Coast.
The square-jawed MD with the Johnny Bravo hairstyle first arrived in O.C. to complete his residency at the UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange after he received his medical degree in 2007 from Louisiana State University’s School of Medicine in New Orleans.
He certainly didn’t seem like the usual suspect, which accounts for the attention the case has received. At the time he was arrested, the trim and suntanned board-certified orthopedic surgeon was 38 years old and living with his buff brunette girlfriend in a $2 million duplex a stone’s throw from Newport Bay. His apartment was packed with high-tech gadgets, a home wine distiller, a Jacuzzi, a fireplace, and a cavernous private garage to park his Mercedes G-Wagon.
Relentlessly social, he was named the county’s most eligible bachelor by Orange Coast Magazine in 2013. A year later he was chosen to play a lead role on Bravo’s short-lived reality show Online Dating Rituals of the American Male. He came across as a perfectionist and was featured skateboarding in an unzipped wet suit while toting a surfboard under a well-toned bicep.
“I’m a perfectionist and I definitely expect perfection around a woman that I’m dating,” he said on one episode. At one point, one of his dates remarked, “He seems a little too perfect. I think there might be some dark skeletons in that closet.” Prosecutors say she was right.
Less is known about Riley, who met Robicheaux a few years ago while they were both on vacation in Las Vegas. The smoky-eyed 31-year-old with the prominent cheekbones, pouty lips, and porcelain complexion was in her late 20s at the time, a former Christian missionary from Brea who divorced her high school sweetheart after he came out as gay. She studied dance at Chapman University and was working as a dance instructor and substitute teacher at a high school when she first met the charming doctor.
The couple became a familiar presence in Newport Beach, making their way on the local bar circuit and traveling to festivals like Burning Man, Splash House, and Dirtybird. For years they lived a swinger lifestyle in which they indulged their appetites for drugs and group sex while recording many of those encounters.
The prosecution of the couple is one of the most fascinating and sordid cases in Orange County in years. The sexual assault accusations against Robicheaux date to 2009, although women have reportedly come forward with allegations dating to his high school days in Lafayette, Louisiana. The earliest report that authorities have of the couple preying on women dates to March 2015; they allegedly raped a woman in her mid-20s who was under the influence of “intoxicating and controlled substances.” Robicheaux faces up to 40 years in prison; Riley up to 30 years.
Lawyers for the picture-perfect couple will argue that drugs, including GHB, were a regular part of the party scene of Newport Beach and that the alleged victims knew what they were getting into. The defense will try to reframe the accusations within the sexually permissive culture that reigns in this balmy beachside playground for the wealthy. They might be helped by the fact that the county’s new top prosecutor had questioned the handling of the case before taking office.
The case against Robicheaux and Riley first began as a series of isolated reports. Newport Beach police received their first report of sexual assault against the couple in April 2016. The alleged victim was a 30-year-old woman who says she met the pair in the lounge of a Chinese restaurant on the West Coast Highway, not far from the office where Robicheaux then practiced medicine. Days later she joined the flirtatious doctor and his hard-partying girlfriend for a boat party in Newport Harbor. She has a memory of being aboard the boat and watching Riley pour a liquid from a contact lens case into a beer bottle cap and drink it. When the boat docked and the party moved to the doctor’s home, she was unable to enter the duplex on her own, even though she remembered having only a few drinks of beer and champagne, served by Riley. She lay down near a fireplace for warmth, and when the party thinned out, the couple carried her upstairs to a bedroom. She told police that the way they handled her in her impaired state was methodically “routine.” Robicheaux gave her a white powder to snort and an orange pill to swallow that left her feeling at once euphoric and paralyzed. She described the pair as stripping off her clothes from her limp body—Riley, her top and bra; Robicheaux, her pants and underwear. There had been, she said, no prior discussion about sex, no kissing, and no caressing. One moment they were all dressed; the next they were all naked: Robicheaux had sex with her while Riley recorded it with a blue iPhone.
The woman, whom authorities call Jane Doe Number 3, went to the Newport Beach Police Department and reported that she had been drugged and raped. The toxicology report found cocaine, ecstasy, and MDA in her system. She went to the hospital and submitted to a rape examination. She said Robicheaux sent her a text message the next day: He told her he had fun and invited her on a weekend trip to Santa Barbara. She didn’t respond.
Six months later Jane Doe 4’s screams woke the neighbors and brought the police to Robicheaux’s 44th Street home.
Nine months after that October night, a woman in her early 20s stood outside the doctor’s home wearing the same clothes she had on the night before and called the Newport Beach police. It was just after daybreak on a July morning in 2017, and she was the third woman in a year to claim that Robicheaux and Riley had drugged and sexually assaulted her after a night of partying in the doctor’s home. The last memory she said she had before waking up in bed with the pair and a fourth woman was of accepting a drink of “vodka and Canada Dry” from Riley.
At the time, the female accusers had what the police regarded as credibility issues and showed varying degrees of willingness to cooperate with the investigation. But investigators worked the case for two years, and police eventually obtained a warrant and searched Robicheaux’s home in the early morning hours of January 9, 2018. They found guns, including assault rifles; a synthetic steroid called Stanozolol; and enough ecstasy, cocaine, and GHB to merit charges of possession of controlled substances for sale. When police later gained access to Robicheaux’s iCloud they found the electronic files of the couple having sex with many different women.
At a September 2018 press conference announcing the couple’s arrest, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackaukas referred to incriminating evidence culled from thousands of images and videos taken from Robicheaux’s phone. “There are several videos where the women appear to be highly intoxicated, beyond the ability to consent or resist, and are barely responsive to the defendants’ sexual advances,” Rackaukas said. “Based on this evidence, we believe there may be many unidentified victims out there.”
Within hours of the DA’s press conference, more women with accusations began coming out of the woodwork. By the next day prosecutors had received more than 50 calls and determined that more than a dozen of the alleged victims were credible. The women told investigators that they had met Robicheaux on a dating app, or at a bar or restaurant, or at a Halloween costume party. Sometimes he was alone, but more often Riley was with him or showed up unannounced, posing as a platonic friend. Most of the women claimed their drinks were spiked with drugs at a venue or party or after they went home with the couple. According to one source with knowledge of the case, there are as many as 18 different women, who do not know each other, who have leveled similar accusations against the couple.
“There are several videos where the women appear to be highly intoxicated, beyond the ability to consent or resist, and are barely responsive to the defendants’ sexual advances.” —O.C. DA Tony Rackauckas
When a reporter pressed the 75-year-old Rackauckas about the number of potential victims, the DA said the electronic files might show sexual encounters between the defendants and as many as a thousand women in various states of incapacitation. The statement was splashed across news stories around the world, including coverage in the British tabloid The Sun, which headlined a story: “Reality TV surgeon and his lover feared to have drugged and raped up to 1,000 women on camera after luring them from bars and festivals.”
At the time Rackauckas was locked in a heated race for reelection and in jeopardy of losing the office he had held for 20 years. He welcomed the publicity to aid his campaign, holding three press conferences about the case in the weeks leading up to the vote. But local prosecutors had only scratched the surface of the digital evidence at that time, and several sources close to the case say the evidence does not amount to the kind of smoking gun that Rackauckas had suggested. None of the sex-related photos or videos show alleged victims in the case; and whether the women shown were too impaired to consent to sex might be less cut-and-dried than the DA led the media to believe. By November the DA’s office issued a statement emphasizing that the “case is not about the video evidence, it is about the seven women who bravely came forward to report their assaults.”
The hard-nosed team of lawyers for Robicheaux and Riley raised a great hew and cry about the DA’s misstatement, equating what he said to fabricating evidence, and pushed for the case to be dismissed based on “outrageous government misconduct.”
The case will probably go to trial later this year unless Robicheaux’s bulldog attorneys manage to have it dismissed. They’ll be facing off against Spitzer, Rackaukas’s 58-year-old Republican successor, who shares many of their misgivings. As a candidate Spitzer made sweeping pronouncements about the supposed misconduct of his predecessor’s handling of the Robicheaux case that have since come back to haunt him as the county’s top prosecutor. His sharp attacks on Rackauckas have uncannily mirrored the “outrageous misconduct” defense that the couple’s lawyers are making in court.
Spitzer and Rackauckas are political foes with a long and bitter personal history. A decade ago Rackaukas was grooming Spitzer as his heir apparent when he abruptly fired his protege for alleged ethical lapses. After his dismissal Spitzer held a two-hour press conference in which he denounced his former boss as a corrupt prosecutor.
The political feud spilled into the courtroom and angered the alleged victims in the serial rape case. During a recess in court on the day Robicheaux and Riley were arraigned, Spitzer stood outside the Newport Beach courthouse and handed members of the media copies of the sealed search warrant affidavit that includes sensitive details about the rape allegations. The ostensible purpose of the stunt was to hold Rackauckas responsible for the months that had elapsed between the execution of the search warrant and the couple’s arrest, which Spitzer denounced as his opponent playing politics with a rape case. Several of the Jane Does, however, saw things differently. One of the accusers nearly withdrew from the case, explaining in a letter to the DA’s office that she found Spitzer “sleazy and not someone I want overseeing our case.”
Since his election, Spitzer has done everything in his power short of dismissing the charges to wash his hands of the Robicheaux case. In September, citing his own conflict of interest, he tried to punt responsibility for the couple’s prosecution to the state attorney general. When the attorney general’s office rejected that move, Spitzer changed tack. He removed the lead prosecutor from the case, replacing the highly regarded homicide and sex crimes trial attorney Jennifer Walker with two relatively unknown subordinates. (Walker had unsuccessfully tried to have Spitzer held in contempt of court over the search warrant affidavit episode.)
Spitzer declined to be interviewed for this story. A spokeswoman for the DA’s office said it was conducting a thorough review of the Robicheaux case to be completed in January, at which point the DA would determine “if the case should go forward as currently charged.”
Robicheaux and Riley are each out on $1 million bail and reportedly have left Newport Beach, traveling among Mammoth, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. The Medical Board of California has suspended Robicheaux’s medical license pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings against him.
The couple has stuck together through their ignominious fall from grace. They have enlisted a hard-bitten legal team and an executive from L.A.’s blue-chip crisis PR firm Sitrick and Company to reset the narrative in the case. While it has been rumored that Robicheaux and Riley married after their arrest so that they do not have to testify against each other, the couple’s publicist denied knowledge of the nuptials.
Robicheaux is being represented by a larger-than-life Bronx-born L.A. lawyer named Philip Kent Cohen. At a hearing at the Newport Beach courthouse in December, the attorney swaggered into court wearing a porkpie hat, two-tone wing tips, and a cobalt-blue suit with a purple-polka-dotted pocket square. Before the Robicheaux case, Cohen’s most high-profile client was a former founder of the Pinkberry yogurt chain who was convicted of beating a homeless man with a tire iron. Backing up Cohen is an expensive crisis PR exec named Holly Baird, who has spent 14 years at Sitrick, a firm whose previous clients include R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein.
When we talked, Cohen and Baird were setting up their strategy, claiming that Robicheaux and Riley are being prosecuted for their lifestyle rather than any real crimes. Baird said the couple’s prosecution is part of a law enforcement crackdown on the county’s notorious swinger culture. In fact, since the 1990s, dozens of articles, including ones by Los Angeles, have chronicled the flourishing sexually permissive culture in one of Southern California’s reddest communities.
Cohen and his team, which also includes an L.A. lawyer for Kim Kardashian, have attacked the credibility of the couple’s accusers, arguing that some of the women are well-known party girls in the local swinger community. They say the women willingly dated Robicheaux, willingly barhopped or party hopped with the doctor and his girlfriend, and willingly went back to the doctor’s home. Some of them, they add, also willingly engaged in drugs besides GHB or willingly had sex with one or both of the defendants on a previous occasion, even once on the same night of an alleged rape. In addition, according to Cohen’s team, the only DNA match from a rape kit in the case ended up being an alleged victim’s boyfriend. The defense appears poised to question prospective jurors during voir dire on the recreational uses of GHB as a kind of social lubricant for the swinger crowd. “GHB is a less expensive and lower caloric alternative to alcohol and is a very popular recreational drug in the Newport Beach ‘party scene,’” reads a filing that Cohen’s team made in a related civil case.
Cohen is reluctant to discuss what is actually depicted in the possibly hundreds, or even thousands, of images and videos that allegedly show the couple with women in various states of undress and unconsciousness, citing a gag order that prevents him from talking about that area of evidence. But sources close to the case say the recordings do not depict Robicheaux or Riley having sex with unconscious women—and none of the alleged rape victims appears among the women featured in the cache of digital files.
Cohen approvingly referred me to Spitzer’s statements that Rackauckas’s mischaracterization of the digital evidence was part of what made the case, in Spitzer’s words, “rife with prosecutorial misconduct from the very beginning.” Such statements from the current DA, including his thoughts on exculpatory evidence from the police reports, are now part of the case discovery.
If there is no smoking gun among the photo and video evidence—including videos showing the couple having three-way and four-way sex—then the prosecution of Robicheaux and Riley may be less clear cut than it seemed back in 2018. The likelihood of a conviction will rest on the swinger defense, the sensationalizing of the seedier aspects of the Newport Beach party scene, and the use of the couple’s highly sexed lifestyle as part of an effort to undermine the credibility of the accusers.
“I don’t want to give my closing argument,” Cohen says. “But there’s a tremendous nightlife scene in Newport Beach. Look at the back of any local newspaper, talk to anybody familiar with the party scene. There’s a tremendous subculture that involves sex and drugs and a whole myriad of partying that goes on between adults. Men and women are hooking up and doing drugs and enjoying each other, consensually.”
No one knows how the prosecution of Robicheaux and Riley will end. But it’s a safe bet that the reality-show doctor and his pinup girlfriend will continue to be a national sensation, thanks to the efforts of their publicist, Holly Baird.
A few months ago, Baird worked out a deal that provided ABC News with exclusive access to the couple. If and when the case goes to trial later this year, the TV-ready doctor and his partner will plead their case on Nightline, Good Morning America, and hundreds of local ABC stations across the country, finally catapulting the B-list Bravo star to becoming a household name.
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