Richmond police detective Stina Johanson provided contentious testimony in a Martinez courtroom Wednesday concerning Marcelles Peter and his account of fondling the 16-year-old Richmond High student who police say was raped and beaten by multiple men on school grounds in October 2009.
Johanson was the 18th witness to testify in a preliminary hearing before Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Gregory Caskey.
The detective said she was one of the officers who went to Peter’s Pinole home on October 27, 2009, with a warrant for his arrest after people present at the assault implicated him in the crime. Peter was not at home when police arrived at 9:30 p.m., but he turned himself in to Richmond police shortly after midnight on the same night. Officers then interviewed Peter for three hours, Johanson said.
For the first two hours of the interrogation, Peter insisted he had not come into physical contact with the girl on the night of the assault, said Johanson.
In the interview’s third hour, the detective testified, she tricked Peter into believing police had incriminating DNA evidence and video surveillance footage. She said Peter admitted his involvement shortly thereafter saying, “I’m just going to cut to the chase. I fondled her.” He continued to deny ever penetrating the victim.
She said Peter’s eyes began to tear up, and he said if the victim was someone in his family, he’d want people to step up and tell the truth and that he didn’t want to be a hypocrite.
In cross-examination by Peter’s attorney, Johanson admitted that she pressed Peter to incriminate himself. “I don’t want to see you go to prison for 20-25 years for something you may not have done,” she recalled saying. “If you just fondled her, even only a little, you have very little to worry about in the scheme of things.”
“Just touching her isn’t really a big deal,” Johanson recalled saying to Peter.
It was shortly after these statements that Peter admitted to having touched the student in a sexual manner.
Johanson testified that Peter described arriving at the dance with his friends Ari Moralles, Joe Dank—street name of Jose Montano—and another friend who was not charged in connection with the crime. After being denied entrance to the dance, the group of young men eventually moved to the basketball courts behind the school, where Peter told Johanson they thought they could drink and avoid being caught.
Police and school authorities were heavily criticized in the aftermath of the assault for not having a stronger security presence outside the school, where many young people—mostly males—lingered for hours after being turned away from the dance.
Johanson testified that Peter said a man he identified as Elvis Torrentes rode up on a bicycle and told the group of young men that “a drunk girl was having sex with a bunch of guys” back in the courtyard.
Upon arriving at the scene, Peter told Johanson, he saw a young, unconscious female being assaulted by various men and that he thought she was dead until he saw her throw up. Johanson said Peter then told her he saw a man—whom he later identified in a photograph as Manuel Ortega—kicking and punching the girl in the head.
Peter said Ortega was frustrated because the girl was not performing oral sex on him and she threw up on him, Johanson testified. “He went from zero to 60 like that” and at one point was “stomping on her head,” Johanson recalled Peter saying in the interview.
Johanson said Peter made an analogy of how the scene unraveled as a group of young men formed around the girl and began slapping, pinching, and groping her.
Peter said it was like if you saw someone with a wad of money and you needed some money, so you took $2 and everyone else took $2, and you asked for $2 more, and all of the sudden everyone converged on that person, Johanson testified.
Johanson also testified about an interview with Robert Barroga—a witness to different parts of the assault—whom she said gave six different and at times inconsistent accounts of the night’s events.
District Attorney Dara Cashman has called several officers whose testimony included conflicting statements from witnesses about who did what, who said what, and who was at the scene at different times. The conflicting testimony hints at potential difficulties ahead for the DA should the case go to trial.
Throughout the hearing, defense attorneys have raised questions about how much the girl drank on her own and if anyone forced alcohol on her, as the victim told police in her early recollections after regaining consciousness.
On Monday, Dr. Jim Carpenter, a pediatrician with the Contra Costa College Regional Medical Center who specializes in child abuse, testified about his review of the medical records from the girl’s three days at John Muir Medical Center. Carpenter said the girl had a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .355.
According to the Campus Alcohol Abuse Prevention Center at Virginia Tech, a BAC of .21 can result in severe motor impairment and memory blackout. With a BAC between .30 and .39, one may have impaired breathing, heart rate, and bladder functions; and the result could be unconsciousness and possible death.
At the end of the hearing, the judge will decide if there is sufficient evidence against each defendant to proceed to trial.
Set to testify next week are the final witnesses, including lead investigator Sgt. Lori Curran and a DNA expert who is expected to provide testimony that will explain why John Crane Jr., 43, has been charged in the case.
Crane is the only one of seven defendants who has not been identified by a single witness as being present at the scene on the night of the assault.
The defendants—Cody Ray Smith, 16; Ari Morales, 17; Marcelles Peter, 18; Jose Montano, 19; Manuel Ortega, 20; Elvis Torrentes, 23: and Crane—face charges ranging from assault and robbery to gang rape and rape with a foreign object.
All defendants except Torrentes face life sentences if convicted.
The preliminary hearing will continue on Monday, Dec. 13, at 9:15 a.m. in Contra Costa Superior Court in Martinez.