More lawsuits filed against ex-Riverside County sheriff’s deputy who extorted women

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Seven people filed lawsuits this week saying they’re victims of the former Riverside County sheriff’s deputy who admitted using his job to extort women for sexually graphic material.

The suits allege that the ex-deputy, Christian Phillip Heidecker, had a relationship with an employee of the company that supplies equipment for the county’s house arrest program and that she knew about his extortion of women serving sentences.

Heidecker, 32, pleaded guilty to 13 counts of extortion, bribery, dissuading a witness and engaging in a sex act as a detention officer. He was sentenced to five years in prison earlier this month in a plea deal directly to a judge. Prosecutors had asked for the maximum 12-year sentence, as did victims and their attorneys who were at the hearing.

Attorneys Denisse Gastelum and Christian Contreras said the judge’s refusal to impose the maximum sentence sent the wrong message to other offenders and to victims they believe have yet to come forward.

“We all received a message from Riverside County that sex abuse victims don’t matter and that women’s rights don’t matter,” Gastelum said Thursday. “Despite 18 felony counts, Heidecker was sentenced to five years in prison. That tells sexual predators working for the government that they can do whatever they want.”

In the newly filed lawsuits, Gastelum and Contreras are claiming constitutional violations, failure to intervene, municipal liability, negligence, sexual assault and more against not only Heidecker, the county and its department, but Sheriff Chad Bianco, Correctional Sgt. Jessica Yelenich, and the company that provides electronic monitoring, Sentinel Offender Services.

Spokespeople for the sheriff’s department could not immediately be reached for comment on the lawsuits Thursday.

Claims of ‘hush money’

The civil suits, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, had been the topic of some controversy in the weeks after Heidecker was arrested by his own department. In late September, three lawyers came forward claiming their clients had been paid to sign agreements to not sue the county over Heidecker’s crimes.

The “hush money” scheme, as the lawyers called it, unfolded simultaneously with the department’s criminal investigation of the deputy, who was employed in the department’s electronic monitoring program, county records show.

Attorney Denisse Gastelum, with attorney Christian Contreras at right, discusses a claim filed against Riverside County on Sept. 26, 2023, alleging that the county is responsible for the conduct of correctional deputy Christian Phillip Heidecker, who has been charged with extorting four female inmates for sex. (Brian Rokos, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Gastelum, Contreras, and two of their clients who were not identified due to the nature of the allegations, were present at a press conference Thursday in Riverside, where they detailed how, in their words, the county’s lawyers ambushed the victims before Heidecker’s arrest.

Most of the women, who were then in custody on the county’s house arrest program, were called to meet with investigators only to find that lawyers representing the county were also there. The women did not have their own attorneys present who could advise them on whether to sign the agreements, thereby waiving their right to seek more money and other corrective actions in lawsuits.

Brooke Federico, a Riverside County spokesperson, said the county holds its 25,000 employees to the highest professional standards. She disputed the lawyers’ characterization of the agreements as a hush-money scheme, instead saying they were ordinary settlements.

“Pre-litigation settlements do not contain non-disclosure agreements,” Federico said. “To characterize any pre-litigation settlements as an effort to buy silence is a clear mischaracterization.”

Gastelum and Contreras advance that claim in adding Yelenich to the case, saying she worked with an attorney representing the county, Nicole Roggeveen, to orchestrate a “plan to cover up the sexual abuse and to prevent the public from hearing the victims’ accounts,” according to the complaint.

Gastelum described how criminal investigators interviewed Heidecker at his home on Sept. 1, 2023, but didn’t arrest him until Sept. 15. In the interim, the victims were called by the department. One, who was identified as K.P., said she was called into a station after being told that her ankle monitor had malfunctioned. There, instead, she was questioned about Heidecker and compelled to sign a 10-page agreement she said she didn’t understand. She asked if she could go outside to discuss it with her mother, but was told she couldn’t.

Another victim, Y.V., said she was called by Roggeveen, who told her “she was trying to help me and that she was not working with the sheriff’s department.” She agreed to meet with the lawyer at a playground. When she arrived, she said, there were multiple people in sheriff’s department uniforms. She said she felt betrayed and helpless.

“They did the same thing Heidecker did,” she said Thursday. “They made us feel afraid and feel threatened if we did not cooperate with signing their documents. If we didn’t do what they wanted us to do, they’d take us back to jail.”

More allegations

Sentinel Offender Services and one of its employees, Karisma Vaca, are also sued as they were obligated to ensure the protection and safety of inmates being monitored on their equipment. The complaint alleges Heidecker sent Vaca sexually explicit texts that suggested the two had a relationship and that Vaca knew about his extortion of the women on the house arrest program.

The civil lawyers further revealed the existence of a video they claim shows Heidecker had a history of sexual deviancy, namely that he and other sheriff’s department employees appeared in a video joking about male genitalia while in uniform and featuring footage shot within a county jail. The lawyers claim the department and county previously knew about the video and did nothing about it, saying that it had been the subject of an internal affairs investigation.

“He was using his title and his uniform to make this video,” Contreras said Thursday. “Not only was it very sexual, they were making this inside the jail. They all should have been fired on the spot.”

The plaintiffs, who were on the Riverside Alternative Sentencing Program, were given a chance to serve their time outside of the jail while the criminal cases against them were resolved. To be admitted to the program, they were required to sign agreements. If those agreements were violated, they would be reincarcerated. The suits claim Heidecker preyed on the women while the threat of being sent back to jail loomed.

The civil suits formally alleged what the attorneys had long said, that Heidecker had victimized more people than those identified in the criminal case against him. He was convicted of extorting four women, while seven civil suits were filed.

Seven people filed lawsuits this week saying they're victims of the former Riverside County sheriff's deputy who admitted using his job to extort women for sexually graphic material.
Christian Phillip Heidecker, 32, pleaded guilty Friday to 13 felony counts: four each of extortion, bribery and dissuading a witness, as well as one count of engaging in a sex act as a detention officer. | Courtesy Photo of X

With his plea coming about six months after his arrest, Heidecker’s criminal case moved rapidly through the Riverside County Superior Court. Prosecutors presented hundreds of text messages seized from his personal and work phones, which evidenced how he compelled women he was monitoring to send him sexually graphic material in exchange for more lenient house arrest terms.

Over several hearings, victims described how they were at first in disbelief of the deputy’s advances and then alarmed about what he had the power and willingness to do to them should they not comply. Most said they feared they would be sent back to jail and for their safety, as Heidecker knew their location at all times.

Beyond these lawsuits, Bianco’s department is under an ongoing civil rights investigation by the California Department of Justice, launched last year due to a record number of in-custody deaths and department uses of force.

Gastelum and Contreras both said Thursday they believe there are additional victims and urged them to come forward with more information.

“Come forward and tell us what they did to you,” Gastelum said. “Don’t let them silence you.”

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