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Saturday, February 8, 2020

Dr. Grant Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley: Prosecutorial Politics in a High Profile Rape Case

     In 2007, 26-year-old Grant Robicheaux graduated from the Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans. He did his residency as an orthopedic surgeon at the University of California at Irvine Medical Center. Dr. Robicheaux, in 2008 resided in Newport Beach, California, an Orange County city 45 miles south of Los Angeles. He practiced medicine at the Chapman Spine and Orthopedic Institute in Orange, California and at the Newport Care Medical Group in Newport Beach.

     In 2008, Dr. Robicheaux's girlfriend, a 19-year-old dance instructor named Cerissa Laura Riley, moved in with the doctor at his Newport Beach home.

     In September 2009, detectives with the Newport Beach Police Department questioned a woman who reported she had been raped. She claimed to have met Dr. Robicheaux at a bar in the city after which he took her to his house and sexually assaulted her. The alleged victim said the doctor owned a lot of guns and that she was afraid of him. The woman's rape complaint did not result in any charges against Dr. Robicheaux.

     Some publication, in 2013, named Dr. Robicheaux Orange County's "Most Eligible Bachelor of the Year." In 2014, the doctor appeared on an episode of Bravo TV's short-lived series, "Online Dating Rituals of the American Male." The low-brow show, typical of the network's offerings, featured the plight of a busy young doctor in search of the perfect woman. Doctor Robicheaux was quoted in the program as saying: "I am not looking for a party girl. I am looking for a wife to raise a family." While on television advertising for the perfect woman, the doctor was still living with Cerissa Riley in Newport Beach.

     In 2016, two women, in separate complaints, informed detectives with the Newport Beach Police Department that at Dr. Robicheaux's house, they had been drugged and raped. One of the alleged victims described the doctor and his girlfriend as a "Bonnie and Clyde" team who drugged and forced her to engage in sex acts.

     The second complainant said she met Dr. Robicheaux at a Newport Beach Halloween party. She went home with him and it was there he spiked her drink with the date rape drug GHB (Dopamine Beta-Hydroxylose, a substance that quickly metabolizes in the body and is therefore difficult to detect). The alleged victim said she awoke during the sexual assault.

     In April 2017, another woman reported being raped by the orthopedic surgeon at his Newport Beach house. The complainant told detectives she had met Dr. Robicheaux on an Internet dating site. While having drinks with him at a Newport Beach bar, they were joined by Cerissa Riley who held herself out as his friend. After getting the alleged victim drunk, the couple took her to their house and raped her while she was out cold.

    In the summer of 2017, another one of Dr. Robicheaux's dates came forward alleging he had raped her. This woman told the police she had met the doctor at a Fourth of July party. A few days later, she was spending an afternoon with Robicheaux and Rily on a boat. The couple, according to the woman's story, invited her back to the house where they drugged and raped her.

     In January 2018, officers with the Newport Beach Police Department showed up at Dr. Robicheaux's house armed with a search warrant. Officers seized the couple's cellphones and computers, and according to police documents, found cocaine, ecstasy and the date rape drug DBH. Searchers also seized two assault rifles and several other guns.

     Newport Beach police officers, on September 2, 2018, arrested Dr. Grant Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley at the doctor's house. Officers booked the couple into the Orange County Jail on charges of rape, illegal gun possession, and possession of controlled substances. The magistrate set their bail at $100,000 each. Through their attorneys, the suspects pleaded not guilty.

     The Robicheaux-Riley date rape investigation and arrests generated an enormous amount of media attention. The case had everything the true crime media loves--violent sex, drugs, and prominent, glamorous suspects. Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, in the midst of a re-election campaign, had taken full advantage of the publicity. He had appeared frequently on local and national television, had given dozens of interviews in the print media, and held regular, well-attended press conferences. He essentially tried and convicted the doctor and his girlfriend in the media.

     Critics of the district attorney accused him of timing the suspects' arrest with an eye toward the upcoming November 2018 election. Rackauckas was being challenged by his old political rival, Todd Spitzer who was ahead in the polls.

     At a press conference held on the day of the arrests, District Attorney Rackauckas announced that the couple had been charged with 17 counts of rape covering the period 2009 to 2017. The suspects faced charges of rape by use of drugs; oral copulation by anesthesia or controlled substance; assault with the intent to commit a sexual offense; and possession of controlled substances for sale. Dr. Robicheaux had also been charged with several gun violations.

     A few days after the high profile arrests, District Attorney Rackauckas, through his office spokesperson, announced that six more women had come forward with date rape accusations against Dr. Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley. Moreover, according to the district attorney's spokesperson, there could be many more victims--up to 1,000. And there was more: detectives had viewed more than 1,000 cellphone videos that depicted the suspects having sex with women who were either unconscious or semiconscious. The district attorney told reporters that Dr. Robicheaux and his girlfriend had used their "good looks" to lure their victims to the Newport Beach house where they  drugged and sexually assaulted them.

     Dr. Grant Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley, on September 12, 2018, posted bail and were released from custody. If convicted as charged, they could both serve up to 30 years in prison. Dr. Robicheau was now 38, and Riley 30.

     On November 2, 2018, voters in Orange County, notwithstanding all of the publicity generated by the Robicheaux-Riley case, voted District Attorney Tony Rackauckas out of office.

     The date rape defendants' attorneys, in January 2019, accused the former district attorney of making false and reckless public misstatements regarding the videos allegedly depicting the defendants sexually assaulting drugged and intoxicated women. The attorneys had hired a team of consultants who viewed more than 1,000 cellphone videos. According to the defense lawyers, only a few of the videos showed any kind of sexual activity. None of the sex videos depicted women who were in any way unable to consent.

     Shortly after taking office, Todd Spitzer, the new Orange County District Attorney, assigned a team of prosecutors to review the Robicheaux-Riley rape investigation. These prosecutors combed through a trove of evidence that included photographs, videos, text messages, and alleged rape victim interview transcripts.

     In March 2019, one of the women who claimed to have been raped by the suspects in 2016, asked an Orange County judge to put a hold on her $12 million lawsuit against the couple until the criminal case against them played out.

     In early February 2020, District Attorney Todd Spitzer made a shocking press conference announcement: His investigators had not found "a single piece of evidence or video or photograph that shows an unconscious or incapacitated woman being sexually assaulted by Dr. Robicheaux or Cerissa Riley."

     At that press conference, District Attorney Spitzer accused the former Orange County prosecutor of using the sensational rape case to help in his bid for re-election. In Spitzer's opinion, there was not enough evidence against the couple to support a rape conviction. As a result, the district attorney planned to ask a judge to dismiss all charges against Dr. Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley. "I didn't create this situation," he said, "but it is my responsibility to fix it. Doing justice is not always pretty. But these are important decisions that affect people's lives."

     At his own press conference, former district attorney Tony Rackauckas said, "I feel terrible for the women who had the courage to come forward and give their evidence to the authorities in this case. Certainly, any prosecutor should think long and hard before dismissing such a case where multiple women have independently come forward and subjected themselves to the hard process of baring their souls to the authorities."

     Defense attorney Thomas M. Ferlauto, in publicly thanking District Attorney Spitzer, said, "He made a very courageous decision. It was the right decision, but one that might expose him to criticism. Grant and Cerissa's lives were destroyed by the prior administration's misuse of the justice system."

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