A San Diego County sheriff's deputy who was accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women over recent months turned himself in to law enforcement officials Thursday and was quickly arraigned on 14 criminal counts.
Deputy Richard Fischer, 31, pleaded not guilty to eight felonies and a half dozen misdemeanors related to allegations that first surfaced last fall. He appeared in a Vista courtroom barely three hours after the district attorney's office announced the proceeding.
"Mr. Fischer has a strong desire to go through this process to clear his name," defense attorney Richard Pinckard said during the arraignment.
In all, Fischer was charged with one count of sexual battery and 12 counts of assault and battery by an officer and one count of false imprisonment. The charges could put him in prison for up to 14 years if he is convicted. Judge David J. Danielsen also issued protective orders for the 12 victims cited by prosecutors.
Pinckard issued a statement after the hearing saying, "Richard Fischer has dedicated his entire adult life to public service. He has served his country as a decorated United States Marine and he has served his communities as a police officer and a deputy sheriff. These allegations are wholly inconsistent with who Mr Fischer is. He categorically denies each of the allegations and looks forward to clearing his name. He has the full support of his family and everyone else who knows and loves him."
Fourteen women filed legal claims and lawsuits against San Diego County in recent months. It was not immediately clear which of the women who filed civil claims against the county were counted as criminal victims by the district attorney's office.
The arraignment Thursday afternoon is the result of a months-long investigation that began in November, when the first allegations of sexual misconduct were lodged by an attorney representing Fischer's alleged victims and reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Some of the charges accuse Fischer of committing crimes while the victims were detained or in custody; others allege he returned to victims' homes after responding to calls for help and assaulted them.
Accusations against Fischer began piling up within days of the first news stories. The deputy was placed on desk duty, then administrative leave. The sheriff's department launched a criminal probe and an internal investigation as more women came forward with more allegations.
Sheriff's investigators referred their case to prosecutors Jan. 19, about the same time Fischer stopped being paid by the department.
According to Dist. Atty. Summer Stephan, who hosted a news briefing immediately following the arraignment, Fischer took advantage of his authority as a sworn law enforcement officer.
"When crimes involve those who are in positions of trust, no stone will go unturned," Stephan told reporters at the North County Regional Center minutes after the proceeding. "This causes tremendous harm to the trust in the community and the confidence of those that we serve."
Stephan, who said the felony charges generally involve a pattern of touching victim's intimate parts over their clothing, urged any other victims to contact her office at (619) 531-3965.
Sheriff Bill Gore said there is probably no investigation more serious than that involving a law enforcement officer.
"When any deputy conducts himself in an inappropriate manner, it impacts not only every sheriff's deputy but every peace officer in this county and across the country," he said.
In response to questions about why the case took months to result in criminal charges, Gore said, "We dedicated every possible resource to this investigation, and will continue to do that."
Fischer did not speak during the arraignment, except to assert his innocence when asked for his plea. He wore a business suit and handcuffs.
The former deputy was allowed to remain free on $100,000 bail. Prosecutors asked for a $180,000 bond; Pinckard sought a reduced bail amount, saying his client had no income but a family and strong ties to the community.
A trial readiness conference was scheduled March 26 and a preliminary hearing was set May 2.
The Fischer case roiled the sheriff's department for months, as the number of legal claims and lawsuits against the county exploded.
By Thanksgiving, a half-dozen women leveled sexual misconduct allegations against Fischer, many with similar stories about him asking for a hug or improperly touching them.
By Christmas, the number of alleged victims had climbed past 10 -- and the accusations were more serious. Fischer was being accused of pushing women's hands onto his genitals and groping women's breasts.
Many of the women also reported this disquieting behavior: Fischer made implied threats, reminding them that he knew where they lived and alerting them that he would be checking up on them.
Upon arriving at the home of a San Marcos woman who called 911 for a health emergency in 2016, Fischer removed his jacket as if he planned to stay for some time, one claim states.
Fischer told the woman "she was 'hot' and that she needed a hug. Without her consent, he then hugged [her] with a full embrace that included fondling of her buttocks with his hands and inappropriate massaging of her breasts with his own chest," the claim states.
The legal claims also turned up another unsettling allegation: One woman who encountered Fischer warned the sheriff's department about the alleged sexual misconduct in a handwritten letter in May 2016.
"He's a predator, not an officer," that alleged victim wrote.
The sheriff's department insisted it has no record of the letter. Officials said they surely would have acted on the information if they received the nearly two-year-old warning.
In December, as the sheriff's investigation dragged on and the department declined to discuss its progress in the case, three of Fischer's alleged victims came forward to tell the Union-Tribune they were afraid that Gore and Stephan were protecting Fischer because he was a deputy.
"They should already have dealt with it," Alpine resident Liza Russell told the Union-Tribune late last year. "They should have finished this case. My biggest fear is I have kids. I don't want something like this to happen to my daughter."
According to Russell, Fischer arrested her after finding prescription pills during a traffic stop. She and her husband were returning from an out-of-state trip and the medicine was in a baggie rather than a pharmacy bottle.
The claim alleges that Fischer groped Russell repeatedly before taking her to jail. A nurse refused to book Russell into custody because her blood pressure was dangerously high and directed her to an emergency room.
Russell said Fischer volunteered to take her to a hospital but instead groped her again before letting her go near where she had been pulled over.
"I took my shoes off and ran all the way home," she said.
Attorney Dan Gilleon, who represents the 14 women who filed legal claims or lawsuits against San Diego County, said his clients have been on edge for months wondering why criminal charges had not been filed.
"It's about time," he said by email.
Gilleon also expressed worry that prosecutors may accept a guilty plea to less serious charges, like former Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis did with San Diego police Officer Christopher Hays, who was accused of sexual assault but allowed to plea to simple battery.
"Let's hope Ms. Stephan doesn't give another bad cop preferential treatment because she needs 'law enforcement support' for political reasons," he wrote.
The civil claims have been consolidated for the purpose of mediation, a process that aims to resolve civil disputes out of court. Gilleon said a daylong mediation session Feb. 16 did not produce a settlement.
Each of the claims is seeking up to $6 million in damages.