Jesse: A Case Study in Sexual Assault


The young woman moved confidently through the early morning chill, oblivious to the traffic and other people around her, caught up in thoughts of her upcoming math test. Life was just fine--her boyfriend, her job and school, her conservative existence in a religious organization's dormitory for young ladies.

Suddenly the tall, thin black man leaped from his parked car, grabbed her, and quickly forced her inside. She wrestled, screamed, and pounded the horn. Assistance came in the form of a hospital security guard who challenged the thin man, withstood his threats of karate violence, and wrote down the license number as the assailant sped away.

It was all over so quickly. A scary interruption in her life. A bit of a delay while making a police report, an explanation for being late to school, and life was pretty much back to normal.

As police reports go, it wasn't much. Attempted kidnap, briefly and casually written. But it did contain that precious license number that for once didn't belong to a stolen car, long since abandoned.

Forget it, my partner insisted. It was nothing. The District Attorney's Office wouldn't be interested. The most I could get was a misdemeanor battery charge from the city attorney, he said.

I would remain on loan from uniformed patrol to the rape investigation team only a few more weeks and, heaven knows, we had two major rapists working our area and (even more important to the bureaucracy) tons of overdue follow-up reports to be made for an upcoming audit.

But something about this "nothing" attempted kidnap case captured me, making it my obsession during my brief investigative loan. The car was registered to a man named Jesse. It would take just a few moments. Run the name for driver's license information; run the name and birth date for a criminal record. After all, criminals do sometimes caper in their own cars.

Bingo. Numerous prior arrests for kidnap and rape or attempted rape, with a few car thefts, and more, thrown in along the way. There was a gap of over five years, then one arrest for assault and another year silent on his record. I ordered a booking photo from his last arrest and began to work frantically on my pile of other cases while I waited for it to arrive. But I couldn't wait. I stumbled through the delays and transfers calling the various police departments involved in his past, trying to locate crime reports, now six years old, hard to find and even harder to read from the blurred copies.

Each case was virtually identical. Each time he had accosted the girl on the sidewalk or parking lot, and each time he had dragged her into a car--either his or hers.

As rapists go, he wasn't highly successful. Half of his victims had been spared the ultimate indignity. Whatever the problems were that drove him to rape also prevented him from leaping confidently into it.

When his photograph arrived, I stared long and hard at his odd, light eyes, the expression on his face.

Great care is required in preparing a photo lineup of six pictures to show a victim so that it will pass the court's test of fairness. Each subject has to approximate the victim's description so that the possible suspect won't stand out like a sore thumb.

My victim looked at it only two seconds, pointed to Jesse, andshuddered. "His eyes. I can't forget those awful eyes." My security guard witness studied the photos, giving proper respect to each, and stated emphatically, "There's no doubt about it; that's him. I couldn't forget those eyes."

Jesse had been imprisoned for the various assaults and thefts in one trial with all pending cases combined. He had done more than five years in prison, had been paroled, and survived only a month before threatening his wife with a shotgun and getting thrown back in for a year's parole violation. He had been paroled again, just seven days before the assault on my victim. He was now living with his wife and infant son (the product of his one month of freedom the year before) in an adjacent division.

Armed with a special arrest warrant, allowing me to arrest him in his own home, we approached the house.

The car was there and a tow truck was ready to take it away for us. I also had a warrant to seize it and search every inch of it. His description and car matched another kidnap-rape so perfectly that I was sure we had him on that one, too. But that, unfortunately, would result in nothing decisive. Her fractured jaw wired shut, this victim would describe his car but with two details significantly different. And she would pick suspects from the photo lineup and live lineup at the county jail most similar in every detail to Jesse, without really looking at or commenting on him.

That case fell by the wayside later, leaving me with the personal conviction, which I never quite gave up, that she was too terrified to identify him.

The man with the eyes of violence opened the door at my knock. The smile faded instantly and the new velour bathrobe must have suddenly become overly warm as his forehead broke into a sweat. I dangled the warrant in his face and gave him the good news. He asked only that he be allowed to dress. My male partners accompanied him upstairs, leaving me alone with his disbelieving wife.

All 250 pounds of that woman shook with rage. What did I mean kidnap and attempted rape? This man had slept with her every night since his release, she bellowed. Well, he had gone to sleep with her and woke up with her but admittedly she couldn't account for every moment in between, as she, too, had slept. But she knew it wasn't possible. Not again.

I thereby resolved that in the future I'd help the suspect dress and let my partners face such wrath. Her desperate grip on her crying son seemed to be all that spared me a physical assault.

The deputy district attorney had been specific in his order to bring the man's wallet along. It hadn't registered as terribly important, but it was an order. At the station, we advised Jesse of his rights under Miranda and gave him his chance to present his side of the story.

He would tell us all, if only we wouldn't tell his wife. Yes, it was true; he had slipped out of the house during the night in question to find a whore in Hollywood. He had found one and had stopped for gas when she grabbed his wallet and ran. Frantically he had cruised the streets looking for her--needing his money and knowing he'd be unable to explain the loss to his wife--and thought he had found her.

Of course, the location he gave for losing her was far beyond walking distance to where he had grabbed my victim, firmly believing, he said, that she was the one with his wallet. As soon as he grabbed her (neglecting the part about her being stuffed inside his car) and just when the security guard approached (disregarding his threats to kill the guard) he realized she wasn't the long lost hooker and willingly let her go.

He paused, and I waited for him to go on, slowly turning in my hand the well-used leather wallet, brimming with his identification and papers. When he failed to continue, I noted, "Jesse, I have your wallet." The sweat was really pouring from his forehead now. Finally he broke the silence and stated weakly, "Well, I saw the right one later and she threw it back to me."

But victory was not to be mine just yet. Before the deputy DA would file this unusual case, I had to have the consent of at least one prior victim to testify against Jesse in order to establish that his intent was to commit rape. Without that, he reminded me, we had only a little old attempted kidnap.

From the standpoint of our justice system, our helpful security guard had been too quick, had interrupted too soon. Good cases are measured by the completion of crimes, by the level of suffering and/or bloodshed of our victims.

Since my victim had suffered so little, Jesse's prior victims would have to suffer again.

Finding the current addresses and phone numbers of the girls proved easy. Triumphantly, I called the one whose case most resembled mine.

But police reports and court records leave out the human aspects, the gory little details of how one coped, or failed to cope, with the personal assault and the aftermath of a bitter trial. Nowhere did I read how Karen, who was only an attempted rape victim, had been tormented by Jesse's friends, who had possession of her purse, identification, and other personal papers, how she had lost her job, her boyfriend, and even her mental health.

Yes, I knew rape was tragic. It was an evil, painful intrusion into one's most private existence, an unfair robbery of the highest degree. But I had never really examined the long-range effects. My time had come to learn.

Karen had regained her strength and found a new job and a new boyfriend. I cannot express how small I felt when she came unglued over the phone. I apologized, left my name and number, and said I'd never call again.

I stared at that dumb old phone for a portion of eternity before I could dial another victim. The next two were reluctant but agreed to meet the Deputy District Attorney and talk about it, with no commitment about testifying. One step at a time.

Ellen would arrive clutching her Bible. She said simply, "If I hadn't found him, I'd be in a funny farm right now." Tanya would be our tower of strength, though she insisted she felt more like a "puddle of warm jello."

The Deputy District Attorney would inspire them with the need to put Jesse back in prison for a year or more and thereby spare someone else the suffering they had endured for at least a little longer. It was the best we could do, and we needed them. They would show up for the preliminary trial.

Meanwhile, my forty-eight-hour hold on the suspect, during which I had to file the case or drop the whole matter, had long since expired. Jesse was in jail thanks only to his parole officer, who could hold him seven days pending a report of his alleged violation of parole.

What a patient, trusting man he was. Unable to complete his report until I'd accomplished some sort of action, I know he must have been relieved when I finally called to verify that I'd filed attempted kidnap and attempted rape charges on Jesse. A mere six and one-half days had elapsed.

Police officers, uniformly bitter about the liberal courts that let hard-core criminals walk away from crimes of every degree, are often suspicious of parole officers, who also have a hand in deciding when a criminal sees daylight again. But with Jesse's parole agent around, there's still hope.

Jesse's attorney, with his irritating personality and his unfortunate but distracting stutter, had been annoyed by the delay in filing. He couldn't get copies of the police reports until then, and he was anxious, he said, to contact the victim and get this thing over with. It was, after all, merely a simple case of mistaken identity and he would explain it all and have the victim sign off the case. Did he really believe that? Hadn't he seen the defendant's prior record? I offered to let him read the past cases, but he "didn't have time."

Carefully, I explained to my victim and witness that they might be contacted by the attorney who would offer explanations and possibly even money to drop the case. They had the right to talk to him if they desired to do so. I had to be careful. I wasn't to pressure them on the matter.

I had already told my victim of the search for the other victims and why it was needed to put on an MO trial (to show his "modus operandi," his method of operation). She hesitated, then answered, "Well, I don't think I'm going to talk to him. I guess this case is kind of special. I was really pretty lucky, wasn't I?"

The preliminary trial went smoothly, my victim patiently surviving the defense attorney's attempts to confuse her and reverse her statements. She handled it much better than I would have done, since I have always found it difficult not to react to the absurd statements made by such desperate defense attorneys in the courtroom.

The Deputy District Attorney stated our intentions to call one of the prior victims to the stand to show the suspect's intent, and we waited breathlessly for the judge to decide whether or not he would allow it.

A suspect's prior record as such is not generally admissible in court. This judge didn't need to hear anything more to make his decision, and he had made it clear he was in a hurry to get out early. He listened to the defense attorney's objections and studied the expressions on my face and the Deputy District Attorney beside me.

Though there was no communication before or after, I'm sure he knew our thoughts. If denied in the preliminary, we might have a tougher time getting the testimony admitted in a trial before another judge.

Tanya testified calmly and effectively.

The attorney made a motion to dismiss the entire case as it was a big nothing and we hadn't proved any sexual intentions. The judge merely replied, "Now for what other reason does a man drag a woman off the street? Defendant is held to answer."

Clearly defeated, Jesse would plead guilty on his trial date and hope for a lenient judge at sentencing time. My victim could now blank out this interruption in her life, and the prior victims could move ahead cautiously, wondering how long before they would be called again and be reminded of what they'd never be able to forget anyway. I certainly didn't want to be the one to call them again.

While searching Jesse's car, I had read his letters to his wife, written while in prison, full of promises to be a good father and husband, never to stray again. He would be a different man, he wrote just two weeks before his release. I also read his own notation that the psychiatrists did not want him paroled because of his extremely violent tendencies. I had read his thoughts, seen inside his soul.

Maybe someday I'll pick up my typewriter again, drag my old journalism career out of hiding, and write something about this creature I had come to know so well--well enough to know that those haunting eyes of violence would surface again someday in the photo lineups of other rape investigators and in the nightmares of his victims yet to be.

Note: True to form, this suspect indeed was arrested repeatedly after his release on this case for ongoing sexual assaults and various other crimes.

Trinka Porrata retired from the Los Angeles Police Department after 25 years of service.


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