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Date rape case exposes sexual activities in a Bay Area D.A.'s unit

The sex crimes prosecutor was on his way to work when a police officer handcuffed him and told him he was under arrest — on suspicion of rape.

A junior prosecutor told police that Contra Costa County Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Gressett, 54, had raped her during their lunch hour while he was awaiting a jury verdict in a molestation case he had tried.

She said she had wanted sex but not the kind he had in mind. The two had had sexual contact at least once before, and she had described him to a friend as "pretty kinky," according to court records.

In their final sexual encounter, she told a grand jury, Gressett wielded ice cubes, an ice pick, handcuffs and a gun in a brutal rape that stained the sheets with blood.

Gressett, facing life in prison, told investigators that he and the woman had had rough sex but that it was consensual, according to court documents. A search of his home found 200 tablets of Viagra and some marijuana. In his nightstand drawer were an ice pick, a gun and handcuffs.

After nearly three years of prosecution, a judge dismissed rape charges against Gressett in late October on the grounds that a grand jury did not hear evidence that might have undermined the alleged victim's credibility.

State Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris' office is considering whether to file new charges or appeal.

The prosecution of Gressett, a three-time candidate for district attorney, roiled the district attorney's office in this large suburban county northeast of San Francisco. Testimony and court records portrayed its sex crimes unit as a freewheeling fraternity whose members engaged in crude sexual banter and boasted about belonging to a sex club.

Dueling accounts illustrated the difficulty of prosecuting allegations of date rape and spurred charges in last November's election that politics, not justice, had motivated investigators.

Because both the accused and accuser were county prosecutors, the district attorney's office stepped aside and the attorney general took over prosecutorial duties. The county's judges, one of whom had dated Gressett, also bowed out. A retired judge from Santa Clara County was assigned to the case.

Sexual jargon, some of it obscure, all of it graphic, littered the court documents.

After-work socializing among prosecutors included a coed "slumber party," according to court records. A party photograph of two prosecutors in a sexually suggestive pose later made the rounds of the prosecutors' office.

Some prosecutors bragged that they belonged to an informal sex club that included men and women who discussed their sexual activities over lunch and drinks, according to grand jury testimony.

The junior prosecutor, identified only as Jane Doe, 33, participated in these graphic exchanges. She told the grand jury that a woman who is a more senior prosecutor asked if she was qualified to join their club. She replied in the affirmative.

Gressett was "perhaps the most active" participant in office sex talk, an attorney general's brief said. The brief also said he told another deputy district attorney that he was pleased to prosecute sex crimes because they gave him new material for the bedroom.

Just as the rape case was approaching trial, scheduled for February, it began to unravel. A labor arbitrator who took sworn testimony ruled earlier this year that the alleged victim had "strong motivation to lie." Doe refused to testify at the hearing.

The private judge said the evidence also suggested that top officials in the district attorney's office initially had not believed Doe's account because they allowed her to work with Gressett for four months after she accused him of rape.

The ruling faulted the district attorney's office for releasing a two-strike registered sex offender in return for his girlfriend's testimony that she had paid sex with Gressett. The woman, a prostitute, later recanted, and the offender was arrested on suspicion of a home invasion robbery after the district attorney arranged for him to be released without bail.

"This is not an ordinary case," wrote Norman Brand, the private judge who heard Gressett's wrongful termination claim.

"These charges harmed [Gressett's] reputation. If these charges were dismissed solely on the county's failure to meet its burden of proof, that might suggest the accusations … had some factual basis. There is no evidence they did."

In a more equivocal ruling, the judge presiding over the criminal case said in a 67-page ruling issued on Oct. 19 that there was sufficient evidence to have charged Gressett with rape.

But Superior Court Judge Thomas Hastings dismissed all charges because county prosecutors had failed to inform the attorney general and grand jury of potentially exculpatory evidence.

Doe, a contract employee worried about her future career at the time of the alleged rape, scored poorly in job examinations and was not hired for a permanent position. She collected a $450,000 settlement from the county after alleging that she suffered employment retaliation for making the rape charge.

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Gressett has steadfastly maintained his innocence. Short with weathered skin, pointy features and closely cropped gray, receding hair, he is a divorced father who was noted for theatrical courtroom behavior.

He addressed jurors and witnesses in different accents, ranging from a Southern drawl to a twang, and once made a one-sentence opening argument without rising from his chair. He declined to comment on his case while it is pending.

Doe, who grew up in a family of legal professionals and lived in San Francisco, got to know Gressett after she landed the job in the district attorney's office in late 2005. A colleague testified that she later confided that she wanted sex with him, and Gressett's defense investigator said she sent him pornographic pictures.

She told the grand jury that Gressett texted her one morning in May 2008 about getting together at lunch. She met him at his car. Inside his condominium near the county courthouse, he showed her a knife set and began to trace patterns with a knife on her sweater, she said, according to court records.

She said Gressett handcuffed her ankle to her wrist and forced her into a sex act, according to court documents. She walked to a local farmers market later that day with a district attorney investigator. He said he noticed nothing amiss.

She told her sister the next day that she had been raped and repeated the charge a few days later to a private criminal defense lawyer, according to court records. The lawyer called a senior prosecutor in the office and briefed him in her presence.

But Doe did not want to bring charges, and the district attorney's office did not interview her initially, according to the arbitrator's ruling. Gressett was not arrested until five months later.

Brand, the private judge, said in his ruling that then-Dist. Atty. Robert Kochly seemed primarily concerned that Doe would sue if the county did not hire her. "His complete inaction .... demonstrates he lacked conviction that Jane Doe was telling the truth," Brand wrote.

As a result of the Gressett case, Dist. Atty. Mark Peterson, who succeeded Kochly in January, ordered employees to receive training on what constitutes sexual harassment and a hostile work environment.

"We made it clear that inappropriate actions or comments will not be tolerated," Peterson said. Even with the "distraction" of the case, "we are running a very professional office," he said.

Prosecutors from the attorney general's office have two months to decide whether to appeal the ruling that dismissed the charges. They said they would consider Doe's wishes before deciding whether to file new charges. Doe, who now practices law in Florida, was unavailable for comment.

Dan Russo, Gressett's lawyer, said Gressett would never return to the district attorney's office. He has been on paid leave since the arbitrator reinstated him.

maura.dolan@latimes.com

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