The criminal charges were disturbing: A Newport Beach fitness photographer in his 30s carried on a months-long sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl after promising to help her modeling career.
Aiding him, prosecutors said, was the photographer's fiancee, who allegedly gained the trust of the girl's mother before delivering the teenager to photographer Jason James Ellis so they could spend time alone together.
Nearly three years later, as the statutory rape trial draws near, the case has taken a bizarre turn, with Ellis marrying his alleged victim three months after she turned 18.
The alleged victim has stopped cooperating, dealing a blow to the prosecution's case. Last month, the Orange County district attorney's office dropped all charges against Ellis' former fiancee, Michelle Hecker, announcing that it could not proceed without the help of the teen's testimony.
Nevertheless, prosecutors say they have enough evidence to push ahead with a trial of Ellis, 36, who has pleaded not guilty. The photographer, who bills himself as the "King of Covers" and shoots bodybuilders and other fitness models, faces up to seven years in prison if convicted of charges including lewd acts on a child and unlawful sexual intercourse.
The case underscores the unusual challenge prosecutors face if alleged victims and perpetrators wed.
Husbands and wives can refuse to testify against a spouse, but the privilege does not apply in criminal cases in which the spouse is the victim. Legal experts said lawmakers added exceptions to the privilege to prevent offenders from effectively derailing prosecutions by marrying their victims.
Complicating the case is the fact that California law prohibits courts from jailing sexual assault victims if they refuse to testify against their alleged assailants. But the law does not apply to victims in statutory rape cases, leaving prosecutors with a difficult decision in the case against Ellis, said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor.
"What you don't want is to look like you're beating up the victim. I don't think that a jury would like that very much," Levenson said. "But there may not be much to lose.... If the answer is that they had sex, that's the end of the case."
The alleged victim could not be reached for comment. The Times generally does not name victims of sex crimes.
Authorities say the girl's mother introduced her daughter to Hecker in 2006 at a Laguna Hills equestrian center. The mother asked Hecker to be a mentor to the girl, and Hecker encouraged the teen to consider modeling. She introduced the girl to Ellis in early 2007, according to court records.
That June, the girl's mother signed a contract with Hecker and Ellis allowing her daughter to work for the couple in return for Ellis taking modeling photographs of the teen. In November 2007, Hecker, Ellis, the girl and her mother took a trip to Paris together.
Around the same time, an estranged aunt of the teen called Newport Beach police and said she was troubled by how much time her niece was spending with Ellis and Hecker, according to testimony by a detective at the couple's preliminary hearing.
Newport Beach Police Det. Penny Freeman said investigators checked the couple's criminal history, found no record and felt they did not have enough information to follow up with the girl or her mother. Still concerned, the aunt approached a private investigator, who watched the girl for a week in June 2008.
The investigator's surveillance video showed Hecker picking the alleged victim up from school, dropping her off at Ellis' Newport Beach apartment or at the Fashion Island mall, where she would be greeted by Ellis, Freeman testified. One video showed the girl and Ellis eating lunch at a mall restaurant, kissing on the lips and touching affectionately, he said.
The private investigator, Thomas Martin, took the girl and her mother into the Newport Beach Police Department with the evidence he had collected.
Freeman described Ellis as manipulative and said the girl was naive and in love.
"I truly believe that [the girl] loves him," the detective said in an interview this week. "I don't know if it's a genuine relationship the other way around."
The girl told police that Hecker encouraged her to have a relationship with Ellis, according to Freeman's testimony. The teen said she had sex with Ellis, sometimes while Hecker was in the same apartment working on the computer or cooking dinner for the three of them, according to Freeman.
Ellis and Hecker were arrested in July 2008. When police searched Ellis' home, Freeman testified, they found two framed photos of the girl on his bed stand.
Shortly after the arrests, the alleged victim received a text message from Hecker's cellphone signed "J," the initial of Ellis' first name, according to Freeman's testimony. The message asked the girl whether her mother would consent to her marrying at 16.
Ellis' attorney, Ronald G. Brower, did not returns calls seeking comment. Hecker's attorney said his client had no knowledge of a sexual relationship between Ellis and the girl, and he accused the teen's mother of manipulating her daughter to implicate Hecker.
"She felt stupid and betrayed because she didn't see it herself," said Hecker's lawyer, Randy Collins.
The girl's mother did not return a message requesting comment.
In December, Robert VanHoy, an attorney representing the alleged victim, successfully asked an Orange County judge to lift a protective order preventing Ellis from having contact with the girl, who had turned 18 two weeks earlier. On Feb. 28, the couple wed in Laguna Hills, according to a copy of the marriage certificate.
VanHoy did not return calls seeking comment.
Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Drew Haughton said the alleged victim stopped cooperating after hiring her attorney. He described the teenager as the "linchpin" of the case against Hecker but said the prosecution of Ellis would continue.
"Whether they're married or not today," Haughton said, "it doesn't affect substantial evidence that there was an inappropriate sexual relationship between the defendant and a 15-year-old."