In a lawsuit filed on April 5, an investigator for the Orange County District Attorney’s Office accused her boss, DA Todd Spitzer, of sabotaging the case against a prominent Newport Beach surgeon and his girlfriend, who are accused of several drug-induced rapes. The investigator, Jennifer Kearns, began a probe into the couple, Grant Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley, in late 2017. She had learned from Newport Beach police that multiple women reported becoming incapacitated after taking drugs or alcohol provided by the couple, and being sexually assaulted when they were then too debilitated to resist.
In late 2018, the investigation led by Kearns resulted in then-DA Tony Rackauckas’s decision to charge the couple for using their good looks—and an array of mind-altering pharmaceuticals—to lure unsuspecting women back to their lair on Balboa Peninsula. Robicheaux, who was once featured in the short-lived Bravo reality TV dating show Online Dating Rituals of the American Male, was accused of seven sexual assaults; Riley, his longtime girlfriend and co-defendant, a former teacher, was charged with sexually assaulting five women. Two of the women reported being filmed by the couple in the act of their alleged assault.
With Kearns in the lead, a search of the couple’s swanky apartment in early 2018 yielded a large quantity of the so-called date rape drug GHB, as well as thousands of text messages, videos, and photos taken from the couple’s phones. 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. Several sources close to the case say the evidence does not show sexual encounters between the defendants, nor does it show as many as a thousand women in various states of incapacitation, as Rackauckas asserted in comments about the case that made headlines around the world.
When Rackauckas lost his reelection bid and was replaced by Spitzer in late 2018, Spitzer reversed course on the Robicheaux case, declaring that there was insufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, accusing his predecessor and rival Rackauckas of “prosecutorial misconduct,” and even publicly apologizing to the defendants, whom he said were being prosecuted for their swinging lifestyle rather than any real crimes.
Spitzer’s subsequent attempt to have the charges dismissed, however, was rebuffed by Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregory Jones, who argued in June 2020 that the charges against Robicheaux and Riley should be put before a jury and not be dropped as part of a “back-room dismissal.” Jones took the case away from the Orange County DA’s office and referred it for prosecution by the California Attorney General’s office.
In the civil suit filed against the county last week, attorneys for Kearns allege that Spitzer “colluded with the defense while engaging in a concerted political campaign to undermine the prosecution, discredit the victims, and ultimately destroy the criminal case against the Criminal Defendants.” According to Kearns, a seasoned investigator, a “de novo” review of the evidence conducted by Spitzer in late 2019 was “mere window dressing,” the outcome of which was predetermined to upend the prosecution.
Kimberly Edds, a spokesperson for the Orange County DA’s office, tells Los Angeles that prosecutors who were members of the “de novo” review team said in a court filing that their review was “conducted without interference and without any pre-ordained conclusion” and was “based on our sincere—and continuing belief that the totality of the evidence in this case is insufficient to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Leon Page, the County Counsel, tells Los Angeles that complaints like Kearns’s, involving unspecified money damages for pain and distress, loss of wages, and attorneys fees, are typically referred to County Risk Management and assigned to outside counsel.
In an internal memo last July, Orange County DA Commander Clint McCall criticized the review of the case to the head of the investigative bureau in the DA’s office, Chief Paul Walters, saying it was “incomplete and contained inaccurate and misleading information,” the L.A. Times reports.
In August 2020, Chief Walters of the investigative bureau in the DA’s office notified the State Attorney General’s Office of Kearns’s supposed misconduct in the Robicheaux case, alleging that she had gone “rogue” and had persuaded victims to slant their narratives against the couple. In discussing the DA’s allegations of misconduct against Kearns in his pivotal ruling that kept the case from being dismissed, Judge Jones found no fault with the investigator’s conduct.
According to the lawsuit, Kearns’s efforts to investigate the case were repeatedly thwarted by Spitzer, who also considerably reduced the resources available for the investigation. Kearns further alleges that Spitzer retaliated against her by removing her from the investigation in January 2020 and putting her on administrative leave for more than six months. He also removed lead prosecutor Jennifer Walker, a highly regarded homicide and sex crimes trial attorney, whom he replaced with two lesser-known prosecutors selected to conduct the “de novo” review.
Walker had unsuccessfully tried to have Spitzer held in contempt of court over a bizarre episode involving Spitzer in the heat of the DA’s race in late 2018. During a recess in court on the day Robicheaux and Riley were arraigned, Spitzer stood outside the Newport Beach courthouse and accused his opponent of timing the arrests close to the election for political advantage at the expense of public safety. He handed members of the media copies of the search warrant affidavit that was under court seal at the time and included sensitive details about the rape allegations, including the unredacted name of one of the alleged rape victims. Spitzer said at the time that he had gotten a copy of the warrant before a judge had ordered it sealed.
Kearns is accusing Spitzer of retaliating against her because she brought to light evidence against the couple that did not suit what she described as Spitzer’s “political agenda.” In the complaint, she alleges that Spitzer’s personal relationship with an attorney on the defense team influenced the DA’s decision to drop the case. She also describes a tense work atmosphere with Spitzer “openly expressing contempt for the victims, whom he denigrated for drinking alcohol, having consensual sex, and filing a civil lawsuit, despite never bothering to meet them.”
Attorneys for Kearns say in the lawsuit that the 30-year law-enforcement investigator, who worked for 14 years in the sexual assault unit of the Long Beach police department, was “placed on administrative leave without explanation, she was stripped of her peace officer status, and she was further escorted out of the OCDA under a cloud of suspicion.”
Kimberly Edds of the Orange County DA’s office tells Los Angeles, “Anyone can make allegations in a claim, but those are not facts. We look forward to litigating this in a court of law where it belongs.”
Grant Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley deny any wrongdoing. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for April 21.
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