A Judge Fears Politics ‘Infected’ the O.C. Surgeon Rape Case and Won’t Dismiss It Yet

Former O.C. DA Tony Rackauckas breaks down the discrepancies between his and his successor’s views of the case against accused rapists Dr. Grant Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley

Newport Beach surgeon 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.

On Friday, something else stunning happened: Judge Gregory Jones delayed dismissing the case, claiming that politics had “infected” the proceedings. “Politics have infected this case,” Jones said at a hearing today. “Mixing politics with prosecution gives you a toxic cocktail.” The judge requested briefings from both sides in hopes of gaining “a better understanding of the facts involved.” Another hearing is expected to take place on April 3.

Local prosecutors had argued that the orthopedic surgeon and his girlfriend were sexual predators who used their looks—and an array of mind-altering pharmaceuticals— to lure an untold number of victims into their web.

Robicheaux, who was once featured in a short-lived Bravo reality TV dating show and was chosen as one of Orange County’s most eligible bachelors by Orange Coast magazine, faced sexual assault accusations from seven female victims; Riley, his longtime girlfriend and co-defendant, faced accusations from five women.

A police search of the couple’s home found drugs in Robicheaux’s home, including GHB, a known date rape drug.

Spitzer, who inherited the case from the previous DA, Tony Rackauckas, said that a three-month review of the evidence by prosecutors from his office found “insufficient evidence to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Spitzer blamed his attempt to drop the charges on Rackauckas, whom he accused of having “manufactured this case” and misstating the evidence in a way that misled the public. He called his predecessor’s handling of the case a “travesty.” Long-time antagonists, Spitzer and Rackauckas waged what was perhaps the most bitterly contested election campaign in Southern California in 2018.

After Spitzer’s announcement that he’d seek to drop the charges but before the judge’s Friday decision, Rackaukas agreed to an exclusive interview with Los Angeles to discuss his recollection of the Robicheaux case and respond to the accusations that Spitzer made against him.

Rackauckas, 76, was the District Attorney of Orange County for 20 years, from 1999 to 2019. Previously, he was a judge on the Orange Superior Court for nine years. He also worked as a prosecutor for the Orange County DA for 16 years, specializing in homicide cases. Like Spitzer, he is a Republican.

Spitzer’s office put out a statement on February 4 that said: “The prior District Attorney and his chief of staff manufactured this case and repeatedly misstated the evidence to lead the public and vulnerable women to believe that these two individuals plied up to 1,000 women with drugs and alcohol in order to sexually assault them—and videotape the assaults.” (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

What is your reaction to District Attorney Spitzer’s decision to attempt to drop the serial rape case against Grant Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley? 

I just have a major, major concern with dismissing this case that’s being brought by seven independent women who are doing what they have to do to come forward with these humiliating statements they have to make. That’s a huge thing. And the fact that they’re being treated so secondarily, they’re just dismissed. They didn’t learn about this happening until the press conference. As victims they were treated very poorly. It’s just kind of like a backslap with the back of his hand.

It’s unheard of that a case with seven separate Jane Does who came forward and gave their statements as to the things that happened to them would have their case dismissed. I’ve never heard of such a case being dismissed. I would say it’s unprecedented.

To me the real serious concern is what happens now? What happens to women who are considering going to the police to complain about date rape or a humiliating thing that’s happened to them at the hands of some sexual predator-type person. Obviously they’re going to have a harder time with it because of this incident. I don’t know if our DA thought about that before he decided to dismiss this case with all these ladies who independently came forward.

How are the alleged victims in this case faring after hearing that the case could be dismissed? 

At least a couple of them are quite distressed about this and wonder what’s going to happen next and is their identity going to be disclosed in some way by the district attorney.

What are your feelings about the way the DA’s decision was handled? 

There is a tremendous lack of transparency. How hard would it be for him to have a preliminary hearing and bring these statements of victims forward and see if the judge thought there was enough evidence to bring it forward? At least the people would be able to see what the statements are, what these victims are claiming happened and make their own decision about the fairness of a dismissal.

He’s saying there isn’t any evidence so let’s see what the evidence is. I think it would be easy for him to allow the preliminary hearing to happen in a public forum. And have a prosecutor present the DA’s evidence in a public forum.

“He’s saying there isn’t any evidence so let’s see what the evidence is.”

Todd Spitzer has made a lot of claims about being a victims’ advocate, about being a supporter of and champion of Marsy’s Law. So it’s incredible that someone with that kind of background would do this to so many people.

At the press conference at the time of the arrests in 2018, you said that “thousands” of videos in evidence suggested there could be as many as “hundreds” or even “more than a thousand” victims of the couple. Your office later clarified in a statement that it “never said all the images are incriminating, sexual in nature or show incapacitation or intoxication.” Did you knowingly misstate what was on those videos at the time of the arrests? 

Absolutely not. I was being brought up to date on this by the attorneys and investigator on the case and they’re people I have a great deal of trust in and still do. Basically I was going by that. I think those were true and accurate statements.

District Attorney Spitzer announced that his office’s review found there was “not a single video or photograph depicting an incapacitated woman being sexually assaulted by Robicheaux or Riley.” How do you account for the discrepancy between your view and his?

What I was told is that there are lots and lots of material. It’s a tremendous amount. And it contains various images of women in various states of intoxication and various [states of undress] and that sort of thing.

I think it needs to be clear: all of that is ancillary to the case. The fact of matter is the case doesn’t depend on that sort of thing to be a strong case to be brought in court. The central core of the case is the victims and what they say happened and what they say was done to them by these defendants and the evidence that corroborates that.

From your recollection, what evidence supported the filing of criminal charges in this case? 

There was a search warrant. There were a number of things that were recovered as part of the search warrant. Let’s not forget about the date rape drug that was confiscated that was in his possession. In addition, there was a tremendous amount of digital material. Lots and lots of videos and images and that sort of thing. That’s there.

There are seven women with the counts that have been charged as well as others that weren’t charged because they occurred in other districts outside the jurisdiction [of Orange County] or outside the statute of limitations. Most prosecutors I know would say this was a case that could easily be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

How many women came forward with similar accusations against Robicheaux and/or Riley after you urged any additional victims to come forward? 

When we first filed the case and had a press conference there were two or maybe three victims, I can’t remember which it was, two or three. After the press conference, a number of victims came forward calling our hotline that we had put out there to call. As a result we filed more cases that included four or five others. So it went from that small number to seven.

And there were others that couldn’t be filed because, as I said, they were outside of the jurisdiction or outside of the statute of limitations. And others couldn’t be filed because the statements when vetted out weren’t strong enough to file a case. Not all women [under such circumstances] of course want to be identified publicly. They don’t want to take the risk of having their identities disclosed.

Initially, three separate women reported Grant Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley to the Newport Beach Police for sexual assault. The local police did not refer the incidents to the DA for prosecution at the time. An investigator from the DA’s office was instrumental in ultimately bringing the charges.  Why is that? 

I can’t really speak to the Newport Beach Police. I can tell you our investigator was very critical of that [determination] and in her view that should have never have happened. I didn’t talk to the investigators [in Newport Beach].

I don’t know what an individual investigator in Newport might have had in mind or not had in mind at the time after interviewing the victims. What they said in the report or what I recall was that [the victims] were not cooperative and didn’t want to cooperate in the investigation. I know that if that happened it certainly changed later when our female investigator talked to them.

Do you believe, as Spitzer has claimed, that the early statements you made about video evidence in the case jeopardized the defendants’ ability to get a fair trial? 

No. They can get a fair trial. I don’t think there is any question about that. The jury selection process is very careful about that sort of thing. I can tell you that you’d be surprised how many prospective jurors don’t even know about a particular case during the jury selection. I think the jurors are serious about doing their duty and can be fair and impartial.

“To me his reasoning is flimsy at best. And to blame it on digital evidence, or that there aren’t enough images as were originally thought, is flimsy.”

To me his reasoning is flimsy at best. And to blame it on digital evidence, or that there aren’t enough images as were originally thought, is flimsy. It doesn’t go to the core of the case, which is the independent statements of the victims and any corroborating evidence that goes along with that. And what each one said happened corroborated the others to an extent. So I just don’t think he’s being truthful about the evidence.

You once likened the defendant in this case, Dr. Grant Robicheaux, to a “wolf dressed up in sheep’s clothing.” How did wealth and appearances factor into this case, if at all? 

I’ve been in this business for a long time and had exposure to quite a large number of cases. Only in a small number of cases, just a small handful of cases, have I ever had a feeling that justice was meted out or imposed in favor of someone rich or connected. But that’s the kind of a feeling I have with this case, to be honest with you. You have all of that here. You’ve got the wealthy good-looking defendant with high-powered attorneys and attorneys who are connected and friends with the District Attorney. And how this District Attorney has been critical of this case since the beginning and all of sudden it’s being dismissed, and all the statements and what these women have been through since coming forward is being flushed. It just gives you a sick feeling, to be honest with you.

“Only in a small number of cases, just a small handful of cases, have I ever had a feeling that justice was meted out or imposed in favor of someone rich or connected. But that’s the kind of a feeling I have with this case, to be honest with you.”

Riley’s defense attorney is a longtime friend of Todd Spitzer’s. They’ve been friends for a long time and you could see him being friendly with the defense attorneys during the time of the arraignment over at Harbor court. So I’m not making it up.

Attorneys for the defendants were prepared to argue that their clients were not rapists but swingers who indulged their appetites for drugs and group sex while recording many of those encounters and using GHB as a kind of social lubricant—in effect, that they were being targeted because of their lifestyle. What is your response to those claims? 

That’s why I say I’d like to see more transparency on the part of the district attorney. It would be appropriate for him to go ahead with a preliminary hearing and bring statements out and show the validity of the statements of all these independent women. I think it would be appropriate for the public to hear and for a judge to hear it and see if he would agree with a defense of that sort. I don’t think he would.

You referred to a “twisted political motivation” at play here in Spitzer’s decision. Why do you say that? 

When this case first was brought out and the charges were filed it was at a time close to the election of 2018. And Todd Spitzer, without knowing anything about the case, immediately started making strong statements to the effect that this was all done for politics. That the case was timed in order to coincide with the election, that it was a completely political kind of case. And he was friendly with the defense attorneys. He was doing things, releasing court documents, things of that nature, all very questionable conduct on his part. He’s never changed that tone. He brought that attitude into the DA’s office when he took over. And it’s been a straight line with him making these same sorts of ridiculous allegations throughout, until now there’s a dismissal.

The longtime animosity between you and Spitzer has been well-documented. Where does it originate? 

You probably can’t get a greater enemy than a disgruntled former employee that you fired. I think the amount of animosity that can come out of something like that is unlimited.

In 2010 he was working in the District Attorney’s office as special counsel to the DA. I hired him after he had been in the Assembly in the general theory that if he did his job well he could be groomed to be the next district attorney. That was 2009. In 2010, I fired him because he was just very difficult to work with and exceeded his or abused his authority. So that was kind of the problem. Obviously—and I don’t know if anything’s obvious, but—certainly that would be the basis for it.

Why was there an eight-month delay between the execution of the search warrant and the arrests? Were you, as Spitzer has alleged, manipulating the timing of the charges to benefit your reelection campaign? 

There was a long time period where the Newport Beach police didn’t finish their part of the case and bring it to the office. And other things that took place. None of it had anything to do with politics. Once I was even made aware of the case it was just a short time between then and the time it was filed.

In October, Spitzer assigned two deputy district attorneys to review all evidence collected in the case, including thousands of photographs, videos, and chats from computers; tens of thousands of text messages between the defendants; and thousands of conversations on on Bumble, Tinder, Facebook, and other social media services spanning a four-year period.  According to the district attorney, there was not a single video or photograph depicting an incapacitated woman being sexually assaulted by Robicheaux or Riley. How do you respond to that? 

One of the early things he did in the DA’s office was to have the case reviewed. He had the case reviewed and announced now that he’s reviewed the case he has to continue with the case and it should be prosecuted. Not long after that he removed the experienced trial deputy that he had put on the case because of her experience and strong trial abilities; removed her and put some other people on the case and now he’s saying that he’s decided to dismiss it. Nothing changed as far as evidence in the case. He’s not pointing to new evidence or any change of statements of the witnesses. He’s not even saying it didn’t happen. He’s just saying that now he doesn’t think the evidence is strong enough and he’s dismissing the case.

“Is it open season on date rape victims in Orange County now?”

For him to say that all these victims are lying or their statements don’t amount to anything, it’s crazy. Is it open season on date rape victims in Orange County now? It’s distressing that he would flush all these charges against all these different victims out of hand.

RELATED: Accused of Serial Rape, a Newport Beach Surgeon and His Girlfriend Used the Swinger Defense

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