Two officers from the Los Angeles Police Department have been charged with repeatedly raping and sexually assaulting several women while on duty.
The men threatened their victims with arrest if they did not comply with their demands and abused at least some of the women in the back seat of the unmarked police car they drove together, according to court records.
Luis Valenzuela, 43, and James C. Nichols, 44, face more than a dozen felony charges, each stemming from allegations they preyed together and alone on four women from late 2008 to 2011, according to a complaint filed Tuesday by the county district attorney’s office. They are accused by prosecutors of forcing some women to have sex and others to perform oral sex. Valenzuela also is accused of assaulting one woman with a gun.
The charges carry a possible punishment of life in prison.
Both men were arrested Wednesday by detectives from their own department and held on more than $3.5 million bail. They are scheduled to appear in court Thursday. The men and their attorneys could not be reached for comment.
“It is a wonderful development, although it is years overdue,” said Dennis Chang, an attorney representing two of the women. “It’s a ray of light that these women will finally see some justice.”
The LAPD placed the officers on unpaid leave more than two years ago after a stop-and-start internal investigation that was launched when a woman came forward to report the men.
Detectives from an elite investigative unit eventually took over the case in 2014 and reworked it in an effort to gather sufficient evidence for prosecutors to bring a criminal case against the men.
“These two officers have disgraced themselves, they’ve disgraced this badge, they’ve disgraced their oath of office,” a somber Chief Charlie Beck told reporters Wednesday. “I am extremely troubled by what they’ve done.”
Beck declined to say much about the investigation, but said the case included dozens of interviews, forensic analysis, long-term surveillance and search warrants. Detectives also retraced the officers’ movements, he said, checking prior contacts they had made and going to Hollywood in search of other potential victims.
Beck said investigators worked a difficult case, complicated by the fact that the officers “preyed on folks that are sometimes reluctant witnesses, reluctant victims.”
“When we got the district attorney’s assurance that she would file, we went out and physically tracked down these — and I use the term loosely — officers and put them in handcuffs,” Beck said.
The Times first wrote about the allegations against Nichols and Valenzuela in 2013 when LAPD detectives sought a search warrant to confiscate the men’s computers and phones.
An affidavit that accompanied the warrant described a dark pattern of behavior. The pair, who worked together as narcotics officers in the LAPD’s Hollywood Division, were accused of targeting women they had arrested for drug possession and, in some cases, had used in their narcotics work as confidential informants.
They repeatedly used the threat of jail to get women into an unmarked Volkswagen Jetta they drove on duty and took them to secluded areas where one of the officers demanded sex while the other kept watch, the warrant alleged.
One woman, who settled a lawsuit against the police department for $575,000, was arrested in 2010 by the officers, Chang, her attorney, said in an earlier interview with The Times. The officers then offered to help free her from custody and win her a lenient sentence if she agreed in exchange to work for them as an informant on other investigations.
Over the next year, Nichols and Valenzuela confronted the woman repeatedly, telling her they would no longer help her unless she had sex with them, Chang and the affidavit said. She agreed, she told investigators, out of fear the officers would send her back to jail if she refused.
Valenzuela later showed up at the woman’s apartment while he was off duty and, several months later, had sex with her in the back seat of an unmarked undercover car while he was working, according to the affidavit. Nichols, the woman told investigators, brought her to a hotel and, on a later encounter, had sex with her in her apartment, the affidavit alleges.
The first woman to accuse the men came forward in early 2010. She told a supervisor in the Hollywood narcotics unit of being stopped by the officers more than a year earlier, according to the affidavit. The woman, who worked as an informant, said Valenzuela had threatened to take her to jail if she refused to get in the car, then got into the back seat with her and exposed himself, telling the woman to touch him, the affidavit said.
An attempt to look into the woman’s claim went nowhere when the detective assigned to the case was unable to locate her, according to the affidavit.
A year later, however, another woman gave a similar account to a station supervisor after being arrested. She recounted how two officers driving a Jetta had pulled up alongside her as she was walking her dog in Hollywood in 2009. The officers, whom she recognized as the same cops who had arrested her previously, ordered her into the car.
Valenzuela then got into the back seat with the woman and handed her dog to Nichols, who drove the car a short distance to a more secluded area where Valenzuela forced her to perform oral sex on him, according to police records contained in the warrant.
The department’s internal affairs office reopened the case, but for reasons not explained in the warrant, the investigation stalled again for the next year and a half. During this time, police records show, the officers were transferred to different divisions.
Then, in July 2012, a man left a phone message for the vice unit at the LAPD’s Northeast station, where Nichols was assigned. The man relayed a conversation he had had with a prostitute, who said patrol officers in the area were picking up prostitutes and letting them go in exchange for oral sex, the warrant said.
It is not clear how, but from this lead an investigator identified two more women who reported encounters in which Nichols and Valenzuela coerced them into performing sex acts in exchange for leniency.
Beck had harsh words for the officers Wednesday, saying they had abused their authority as police officers.
“It’s a violation of public trust,” the chief said. “That’s what makes it so horrific.”