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Women who alleged sexual assault by 2 LAPD officers testify: 'I didn't really feel like I had a choice'

Women who alleged sexual assault by 2 LAPD officers testify: 'I didn't really feel like I had a choice'
Two Los Angeles police officers face charges of repeatedly sexually assaulting four women. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

She first met the two narcotics officers in July 2009 when they drove her to jail after she was caught buying methamphetamine in Hollywood.

If she gave them names of drug dealers, they said, they could get her out of jail. The woman didn't make any promises, she recounted, but took one cop's phone number before she was booked.

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Three days later, she was released. As she left a downtown Los Angeles courthouse that evening, she said, the officers were waiting outside in an unmarked police car. They rolled down a window of their Volkswagen Jetta and offered her a ride. She accepted.

What followed, the woman testified during a preliminary hearing on Friday, was a series of dark run-ins with the two officers, including an encounter weeks later while she was walking her dog in Hollywood. That night, the officers ordered her into the back seat of the unmarked police car, she said, where one unzipped his pants, pulled them down and forced her to give him oral sex. The other, meanwhile, faced forward in the front passenger seat, holding her dog, she testified.

Shocked and scared, she said, she didn't fight back.

"He tried to kiss me after that and say it wasn't that bad," the woman testified, weeping at times when recounting details of the assault.

The testimony came during a two-day hearing where she and two other women gave evidence against Officers Luis Valenzuela and James Nichols, accusing the pair of raping or sexually assaulting them. Prosecutors allege that the officers targeted four women between late 2008 and 2011, forcing victims into having sex or performing oral sex, sometimes in the back seat of their unmarked police car after driving to a secluded area. The Times generally does not name victims of sexual assault.

At the end of the hearing, Superior Court Judge Rand Rubin ruled there was enough evidence to require Valenzuela and Nichols, both 44, to stand trial on multiple felony charges alleging that they preyed on the women whom they had previously taken to jail or used as informants. Valenzuela is also charged with assaulting one woman with a handgun.

They have pleaded not guilty.

Outside the courtroom on Monday, their attorneys contended that the women all know each other and said their accounts were uncorroborated.

"They're not random women passing in the night," said Robert Rico, an attorney representing Nichols.

"We know the community of drug dealers and drug users is there," said Bill Seki, an attorney representing Valenzuela.

During the hearing, the two officers sat next to their attorneys in orange jail jumpsuits, their wrists shackled to chains around their waists. Valenzuela bowed his head during much of the testimony, while Nichols wrote in his legal pad or stared blankly.

Both officers, who were placed on unpaid leave more than two years ago, have been in jail since February, when they were arrested by detectives from their own department. They are each being held in lieu of more than $3.7-million bail.

The Times first reported the allegations against the officers in 2013 when LAPD detectives obtained a search warrant to seize the men's computers and phones.

The first woman to accuse Valenzuela and Nichols came forward three years earlier.

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She testified Monday that the officers picked her up near her home one evening in December 2008. She expected the usual routine as an informant – they'd send her out to buy drugs and she'd get at least $40 in exchange, a deal she agreed to after she was arrested for drug possession.

But in the back seat of the car, Nichols exposed himself and asked the woman to touch him. She did, and eventually he pushed her head into his lap, she said.

Another accuser was arrested in December 2009 after she was caught selling heroin. That night, Valenzuela and Nichols drove her from a Hollywood police station to a Van Nuys jail, she testified. But before she was booked, she said, the officers took her to a secluded alley.

There was something she could do, Valenzuela told her, to avoid staying in jail, she testified. They had sex in the back seat of the car while Nichols stood outside.

"I was in a dark alleyway with a guy with a gun," she said on the witness stand Monday afternoon. "I didn't really feel like I had a choice."

She was later released without having to post bail.

Later that month, she said, she had sex with Nichols under similar circumstances in a Denny's parking lot near the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown L.A.

A fourth woman, who did not testify at the hearing, told an internal affairs investigator in 2012 that she had sex with both officers multiple times to "earn points" to get a pending drug charge dropped, according to Monday's testimony.

Once, Valenzuela texted her asking what she liked to drink, LAPD Sgt. Greg Bruce testified. The woman reported that when he showed up at her home with alcohol, they drank and had sex, Bruce told the court.

"He told her if she had sex with him, it would count towards her working off her case," Bruce said.

With Nichols, the arrangement was the same, he said. The woman feared that if she didn't comply, the officers would send her back to jail, he said.

"There is a pattern here," Deputy Dist. Atty. Ann Marie Wise argued in court. "These officers placed these women in situations where they were extremely vulnerable."

All four women filed civil lawsuits against the city. Two cases settled, with the city agreeing to pay one woman $575,000 and another $750,000. In the two pending cases, the plaintiffs are each seeking more than $3 million in damages. A joint mediation session is set for December, according to Dennis Chang, an attorney representing two of the women, including one whose case settled.

Follow me on Twitter @AleneTchek

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