Lawsuit alleges Orange County D.A. ‘sabotaged’ Robicheaux sexual assault case
An investigator who led the probe into sexual assault allegations against a Newport Beach surgeon and his girlfriend is accusing Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer of sabotaging the prosecution of the case and retaliating against her for investigating the couple, according to a lawsuit filed against the county this week.
D.A.'s office investigator Jennifer Kearns alleges in the lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court, that Spitzer colluded with Grant Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley’s defense attorneys while “engaging in a concerted political campaign to undermine the prosecution, discredit the victims, and ultimately destroy the criminal case” against the couple, the lawsuit states.
A spokesperson for the district attorney’s office said the county hadn’t received the claim. County Counsel Leon Page said Friday that he had not yet received a copy of the lawsuit and did not immediately have a comment.
Kearns, who has spent nearly 30 years in law enforcement, began looking into Robicheaux and Riley, a former schoolteacher, in late 2017 after learning of several reports taken by Newport Beach police describing sexual assault allegations against the couple. Roughly a year later, the couple was charged by Spitzer’s predecessor, Tony Rackauckas.
At the time, prosecutors painted the couple as sexual predators who used their good looks to prey on vulnerable women, drug them and take them back to their posh Newport Beach home to assault them. Robicheaux was charged with sexually assaulting seven women and Riley was charged with assaulting five. The couple have pleaded not guilty and have denied any nonconsensual sex.
Kearns alleges in the lawsuit that Spitzer first tried to sabotage the case during his campaign against Rackauckas in 2018 by providing to reporters copies of the search warrant that had been served on Robicheaux’s home, and sealed by a judge, without redacting one of the victim’s names. Spitzer said at the time that he had obtained a copy of the warrant before it was sealed.
In spring 2019, a member of the couple’s defense team told Kearns and Deputy Dist. Atty. Jennifer Walker, who was prosecuting the case at the time, that Robicheaux believed the charges would be dismissed once Spitzer took over the office, citing Spitzer’s personal relationship with an attorney defending the couple, according to the lawsuit.
Shortly after Spitzer took over as the county’s top prosecutor, the resources for the investigation shrunk considerably and he removed Walker from the case. Kearns continued to try to pursue leads in the investigation, but her superiors directed her not to follow up, according to the lawsuit.
Spitzer later assigned two deputy district attorneys to conduct a review of all the evidence collected in the case. The unusual move came after one prosecutor pointed out “serious proof problems” with the case, Spitzer said at the time. Over three months, the prosecutors reexamined thousands of photographs and videos taken from the couple’s computers, hundreds of hours of audio recordings, thousands of pages of documents and tens of thousands of text messages between Robicheaux and Riley spanning a four-year period.
Ultimately, they determined there was insufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Spitzer accused his predecessor of overreaching on the case to bolster his reelection campaign and moved to have the charges dropped. The request, however, was denied by Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregory Jones. Instead, Jones removed the district attorney’s office from the case and ordered it be turned over to the California attorney general’s office.
As the review of the case was underway, the lawsuit alleges that Spitzer was openly expressing contempt for the women who had accused the couple of assault. According to the suit, he denigrated them for drinking alcohol, having consensual sex and filing a civil suit against the couple. Kearns openly disagreed with Spitzer.
Orange County Dist. Atty. Cmdr. Clint McCall criticized the top-to-bottom review of the case in a July 2020 memo to Chief Paul M. Walters, who leads the investigative bureau at the office, saying it was “incomplete and contained inaccurate and misleading information.”
Kimberly Edds, a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, has said that the criticisms voiced by investigators in the memo were not a denunciation of the entire review of the Robicheaux case. She said the investigators reached their conclusions while looking into alleged misconduct by a D.A.'s office employee who was involved in the Robicheaux case and based their findings on a small part of the full review.
The lawsuit alleges the prosecution team’s review of evidence in the case was merely “window dressing.”
“Its predetermined outcome was to provide justification for Spitzer’s agenda of disrupting the criminal prosecution,” the lawsuit states.
In January 2020, Kearns said she was removed from her role as lead investigator in the case and placed on administrative leave without explanation. She was stripped of her peace officer status and escorted out of the office under what her attorneys describe in the lawsuit as a “cloud of suspicion.” She remained on administrative leave for more than six months.
In August 2020, Walters notified the California attorney general that Kearns’ personnel file included material outlining her alleged misconduct related to her investigation of the Robicheaux case. The California Supreme Court ruled in August 2019 that law enforcement agencies can alert prosecutors that an officer who might testify in a criminal case has a history of misconduct.
Kearns’ attorneys allege in the lawsuit that Walters passed on that information to the attorney general not because of any failings in her performance as an investigator, but because she brought to light evidence in a case that did not suit what they called “Spitzer’s political agenda.” The lawsuit, which alleges whistleblower retaliation, seeks unspecified monetary damages for pain and distress, loss of wages and attorneys fees.
Staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report
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