Officers testify in Richmond gang rape case

Seven county sheriff's deputies flanked the walls of the small courtroom inside the Justice Wakefield Taylor Courthouse in Martinez. Only 30 members of the public were allowed to attend the preliminary hearing.

Seven county sheriff's deputies flanked the walls of the small courtroom inside the Justice Wakefield Taylor Courthouse in Martinez. Only 30 members of the public were allowed to attend the preliminary hearing.

The first two officers to arrive at the scene of the October 2009 rape and beating of a Richmond High student testified Monday at the preliminary hearing of her alleged assailants. The officers described stark details about the girl’s condition—previously unreleased by police—when they found her outside her school’s homecoming dance.

County sheriffs escorted the seven suspects, wearing handcuffs and ankle chains, into Judge Gregory Caskey’s courtroom in Contra Costa County Superior Court in Martinez. Fewer than 30 people—mostly reporters and the family of the suspects—were allowed to enter the small courtroom. Sheriffs turned extras and latecomers away.

District Attorney Dara Cashman first called to the stand Officer Todd Kaiser of the Richmond Police Department.

Kaiser said dispatch called him at 11:48 p.m. on Oct. 24 to investigate a report about an unclothed white female—possibly intoxicated—walking around the northern part of the Richmond High School campus.

He said he drove past the main school building toward the back courtyard with Officer Gunnar Googins following in a car close behind.

Slowing down, Kaiser said he shined his car’s spotlight through the chain link fence into the courtyard, where he saw five to seven individuals gathered near a picnic table.

Within seconds, Kaiser said, the group took off running. The two police cars looped around the block to a locked gate at the north side of campus and caught up with what the officers believed to be the tail end of the fleeing group—described as mostly Hispanic and possibly black males.

Officer Googins later testified that he saw a young man’s face and identified him to the court as the suspect, Manuel Ortega.

A county sheriff's deputy cleans up after suspects were escorted from the courthouse and sent back to jail.

The officers called in the description to dispatch and then climbed over the gate onto school grounds. Kaiser spotted a figure at a picnic table with his flashlight. The two officers ran to the scene where they found the 16-year-old girl.

When DA Cashman asked Kaiser to describe what he saw, he pursed his lips and raised his fist to his mouth. He was silent for a good 15 seconds collecting himself with several deep breaths. After a drink of water, Kaiser described the scene.

Kaiser said the student was folded at the waist over a crossbar that ran under the picnic table. “Only the tips of her feet and the side of her face were touching the ground,” he said. Her underwear was on the ground—Googins testified he found it in a search of the area—and her dress was up above the small of her back, revealing several small abrasions.

At this point in the hearing, the suspects—who had for the most part been writing notes or looking down—were for a short moment all staring at Kaiser.

Her body was wet, clammy, and white; her face was covered with vomit, he said. “I thought she was dead.”

Kaiser said he only knew she was alive after he shook her and she moaned. The officers said they didn’t try to move the girl for fear of causing further damage.

After a more thorough examination of the scene, the officers testified that they found discarded condom wrappers, an empty bottle of E&J Brandy, the girl’s school ID, a walkie-talkie radio, and contents of a purse, among other items scattered on the ground.

Around the same time, another officer in the area detained 20-year-old Manuel Ortega three blocks from the school at 24th Street and Humphrey Avenue. The suspect was allegedly loud, agitated, and slurring.

Officer Googins testified he later went to that intersection and saw Ortega intoxicated, repeating, “Just go ahead and kill me.”

At one point, Ortega allegedly said, “I just wanted to pimp her out.”

Ortega, of Richmond, is one of seven suspects charged in connection with the crime. The others are Pinole resident Marcelles James Peter, 18; San Pablo residents Cody Ray Smith, 16, and Ari Abdallah Morales, 17; and Richmond residents Jose Carlos Montano, 19, Elvis Josue Torrentes, 23, and John Crane Jr., 43.

All but two suspects arrived in the courtroom wearing yellow jumpsuits and white sneakers, which identified them as adults. Morales and Smith, both juveniles being tried as adults, wore dark sweatpants—one in a gray T-shirt and the other in a maroon shirt.

Charges against the suspects include assault, robbery, and forcible rape and rape by a foreign object while acting in concert—the legal terminology for gang rape.

During the day’s proceedings, Public Defender Jack Funk tried several times to ask Officer Googins if he believed the girl was intoxicated. The exchange provides some clues about a possible defense strategy should Funk’s client, Manuel Ortega, go to trial.

Funk argued that knowing the level of the girl’s intoxication was important. “My client and several others here are accused of certain sexual acts, and the level of her cooperation and participation in some sexual event is a relevant factor here,” he said to the judge.

The judge blocked Funk’s attempts, saying the officer’s opinion on this issue wasn’t relevant but he fully expected later witnesses would testify on that question.

All suspects except Torrentes face enhancements that could result in life sentences if convicted. The maximum penalty for Torrentes’s alleged role in the crime is 26 years.

Cecily Gray, court-appointed attorney for Torrentes, said the two officers’ testimony Monday had no direct bearing on her client. “Not much of this is going to affect my client,” she said. “He left before things got bad.”

The other attorneys declined to comment about the impact of the officers’ testimony on their clients.

Kaiser testified that on the night of the 24th, he talked to the girl’s father, who said he got concerned when his daughter didn’t call home after the dance.

His daughter didn’t answer several calls to her cell phone, Kaiser testified. The girl’s father eventually drove to the school, continuing to call his daughter’s cell phone.

Kaiser said at one point a male answered the phone and described in crude sexual terms what he had done with the daughter.

After the father got to the school he saw medics wheel his daughter away, to be flown by helicopter to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek.

By that time, several onlookers had gathered at the fence on 23rd Street outside the school, said Kaiser.

While the District Attorney declined to comment on the ongoing hearing, at least two defense attorneys said that none of DA Cashman’s 19 scheduled witnesses are civilians.

If true, officers will be providing hearsay testimony throughout much of the hearing. State law allows police to testify at preliminary hearings on behalf of the victims involved.

The hearing is expected to last through the week and possibly through next week. At that point Judge Caskey will determine whether there is sufficient evidence against each of the suspects to proceed to trial.

The hearing is set to continue on Tuesday at 10:00 a.m.

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