There is sufficient evidence for a former Contra Costa County sheriff's deputy who resigned in the wake of a law enforcement sexual exploitation scandal involving several Bay Area agencies to stand trial for sex crimes against a child, an Alameda County Superior Court judge ruled on Thursday.
Ricardo Perez is charged with one felony count of oral copulation with a minor and two misdemeanor counts of lewd conduct in a public place.
Jasmine Abuslin, the now-19-year-old woman at the center of the case, testified at a preliminary hearing for Perez on Thursday about dozens of lewd messages and naked photos she exchanged with the ex-deputy after sending him a Facebook friend request in July 2015, when she was 17 years old.
The two allegedly met several times for sex later that month, according to Abuslin's testimony and electronic messages that are evidence in the case.
Perez's defense attorney, Joseph Motta, said there was no evidence that his client "either knew or should have known" that Abuslin was under 18.
Abuslin, whose mother is an Oakland Police Department dispatcher, testified that she established relationships online with numerous police officers and that she often slept with them as a form of protection. She said she had worked in the sex trade since she was 12 years old.
"You can prostitute yourself -- it’s a lot more than money. You can trade your body for … anything you can use," she said. "It’s like, they talk and they, you know, they most likely won’t bother you if you’re giving them the cat." She clarified she meant "vagina."
The broader case involves Abuslin's relationships with officers from Oakland, Livermore, Richmond and San Francisco, as well as Alameda and Contra Costa County sheriff's deputies, according to legal claims filed against those jurisdictions. It also involves a former guard for a military equipment facility in Stockton who was fired late last year for soliciting sex and prostitution work from Abuslin after the case became public last summer.
She says she was involved with a deceased OPD officer, Brendan O'Brien, whose suicide in September 2015 brought Abuslin to the Oakland Police Department's attention.
He reportedly left a note indicating several other officers were involved with the teen.
OPD leadership, including former Police Chief Sean Whent, kept internal and criminal investigations about Abuslin quiet, and quickly closed both probes. Whent resigned after the case became public, followed by a quick succession of replacement police chiefs. A report by a court-appointed investigator found serious deficiencies in OPD's response and investigators' treatment of Abuslin in a report released last month. The case has indefinitely extended federal court oversight of the Oakland Police Department.
Abuslin wiped tears from her eyes when she testified about O'Brien.
"Brendan O'Brien was a person she had very strong feelings about," said civil rights attorney John Burris, who represents Abuslin in her civil claims. "There was some significant conversations that had taken place right before he committed suicide."
Oakland settled Abuslin's claim against the city for $989,000 last month.
Abuslin testified that she became enraged with Perez and other officers in early 2016, after OPD Officer Warit Utappa stole her cellphone and shared its contents with what she called "the little group" of officers, referring to a cadre of cops who were talking about her.
"I think it’s really low of men who gossip about women," she said in court. "I think that’s really low."
Utappa was among seven officers who Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley announced would be charged in September, but prosecutors ended up declining to file against him.
In messages she sent to Perez in January 2016, Abuslin called herself "Satan" and threatened to "snitch" on all the officers she'd been involved with, according to her testimony and messages read aloud in court.
Defense attorney Motta asked her why she referred to herself as "Satan."
"I gave my life over to God," she said. "But I used to think this is the devil’s work and if all these bad things are happening to me, then I used to think the devil must love me."
Perez sent multiple photographs of his naked penis to Abuslin between July 2015 and April 2016, and Abuslin, though sometimes she protested, sent several naked, sexually explicit photographs of herself to the former deputy, sometimes while he appeared to be on duty.
She told Perez that she had been 17 years old when they had sex several months later, after she'd turned 18, Abuslin testified, and she also told him she worked in the sex trade.
"I do not remember his words but I remember his attitude. It was like 'whatever,' " she said. "He did not seem shocked."
The former deputy continued to request naked pictures, and Abuslin testified she sent at least one explicit photo to him taken after they had sex, when she was 17.
They also discussed her relationships with other law enforcement officers. Perez joked about it in the messages read in court.
"This is pretty strong testimony that he willfully engaged in the conduct, there’s no doubt about that: Whether sex, texting on duty or off duty, having sexual conduct with her on or off duty, willing to have other officers participate as well, and having discussions about all of that," Burris said. "This is very lowlife conduct."
But whether it's criminal will likely hinge on whether Perez knew Abuslin was under age. The graphic nature of their communications doesn't matter, Motta argued.
"As offensive as it may be to the court, it’s not illegal," Motta said. "It’s the equivalent of pillow talk with people who aren’t next to each other."
Retired Judge Joan Cartwright, who presided over the hearing, found there was sufficient evidence to reasonably believe Perez is guilty, however, and ruled the case to move toward trial.
"She was clearly 17 years old when this was occurring," Cartwright said from the bench.
Perez is scheduled to be back in court Aug. 10.
The original version of this report misidentified the judge presiding over the July 27 preliminary hearing in this case. It has been corrected to attribute retired Judge Joan Cartwright.