Oakland Police Officer Brian Bunton pleaded not guilty Friday to felony conspiracy to obstruct justice for allegedly alerting a young woman working in the sex trade to an undercover prostitution sting. He allegedly received sex in exchange, and also pleaded not guilty to engaging in prostitution. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)
Oakland Police Officer Brian Bunton pleaded not guilty Friday to felony and misdemeanor charges related to a wide-ranging sexual exploitation case involving several Bay Area law enforcement agencies.
Bunton listened without emotion to the charges against him inside a packed courtroom in the Hayward Hall of Justice, including felony conspiracy to obstruct justice for allegedly alerting a Richmond teen working in the sex trade to an undercover prostitution sting.
Bunton is the first of seven officers to be arraigned in Alameda County following an investigation of statements by now 19-year-old Jasmine Abuslin, who was also known by the alias "Celeste Guap."
His prosecution for the felony charge appears largely based on text messages with Abuslin, who nicknamed the officer "Superman."
"Want some advice?" the officer allegedly wrote to the then 18-year-old in March, according to screenshots of a text message exchange published by the East Bay Express.
"Stay off E14 from Fruitvale to 42 tonight," the texts say, describing an area known for prostitution in East Oakland. "There's a UC [undercover] operation."
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley is also prosecuting Bunton for engaging in an act of prostitution, a misdemeanor. He allegedly received sex in exchange for the information he provided, according to charging documents.
Defense attorney Dirk Manoukian entered not guilty pleas on Bunton's behalf, denying each allegation and the "overt acts" prosecutors laid out to substantiate a conspiracy charge. Bunton said very little at the hearing, answering simply that he understood the charges against him.
Alameda Superior Court Judge Armando Cuellar set Bunton's bail at $12,500. Manoukian said his client expects to post bail by Monday, before he is required to turn himself in to Santa Rita Jail.
"At this point he’s the type of person that is remorseful for some of the decisions that he made," Manoukian told reporters after the hearing.
He said Bunton has a wife and children.
"That obviously makes the situation all the more difficult," Manoukian said. "Absolutely he understands there’ll be consequences and those are going on right now."
Manoukian said Bunton had changed careers to law enforcement less than two years ago. He declined to specify what Bunton did before joining the Oakland Police Department.
Abuslin has said she had sex with 30 officers, some when she was under 18.
Civil Rights Attorney Pamela Price filed a legal claim on Abuslin's behalf against the city of Oakland last week, and says she plans to take similar steps toward lawsuits in other jurisdictions.
“He obviously knows who else was involved in this sex trafficking of minors and we hope that he will find a way to tell that story,” Price said outside the hearing.
Bunton is the first law enforcement officer to be arraigned on charges stemming from the sexual exploitation scandal involving at least seven Bay Area law enforcement agencies.
Two more officers involved in the sex scandal are scheduled to be arraigned in the Hayward Courthouse on Sept. 30.
Ricardo Perez, a former Contra Costa County Sheriff's deputy faces one felony charge for oral copulation with a minor and two misdemeanor charges for engaging in a lewd act in public.
Retired Oakland Police Officer Leroy Johnson faces a misdemeanor charge for failing to report child abuse.
O'Malley's office has yet to formally file misdemeanor charges against Oakland Police Officer Warit Utappa and former Officer Tyrell Smith, who resigned in May. She outlined charges she plans to file against those and other officers at a Sept. 9 press conference.
Both officers allegedly searched criminal justice databases for Abuslin.
O'Malley said her office's investigation uncovered potential crimes in at least three neighboring counties -- San Francisco, San Joaquin and Contra Costa.
Richmond -- in Contra Costa County -- moved to fire one officer and discipline eight others Friday. That city's police chief, Allwyn Brown, reported last week that an internal investigation found no criminal wrongdoing by Richmond officers.
Alex Emslie of KQED News contributed to this report.