Underage Sex Scandal Explodes at Oakland Police Department and Mayor Fires Succession of Interim Chiefs
(Editor's note: Since the East Bay Express broke this story, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has appointed and removed three police chiefs as more details have surfaced, including racist texting. On Friday, she said, "We are hell bent on rooting out this disgusting culture" and "I'm running a police department, not a frat house.")
Celeste Guap was only seventeen in February of last year when a pimp chased her down International Boulevard. She spotted an Oakland police car and approached for help. That's when she met officer Brendan O'Brien.
"He saved me," Guap said of the lanky ex-Marine, who joined the Oakland Police Department in 2013 after graduating from the 166th police academy.
Rather than detaining Guap as a victim of human trafficking and turning her over to guardians, she said O'Brien released her. "We flirted a little," she recalled, adding that she told O'Brien her mother was a dispatcher in the department.
Two weeks later, Guap saw O'Brien on patrol again in East Oakland. He and his partner were making an arrest near a taco truck. She struck up a conversation and they exchanged numbers. Shortly afterward, O'Brien and the girl began "dating"—a word Guap used to describe their relationship.
Guap said she had sex with the Oakland police officer numerous times while she was a minor.
The OPD and other East Bay law-enforcement agencies have positioned themselves as national leaders in the fight against human trafficking and the sexual abuse of children. But O'Brien and other East Bay cops betrayed this reputation with their exploitation of Guap. Officers trafficked her among their ranks and used the minor for sex for half a year.
The scandal is unprecedented: According to multiple sources close to the department and the city of Oakland, and documents obtained by the Express, at least fourteen Oakland police officers, three Richmond police, four Alameda County sheriff's deputies, and a federal officer took advantage of the teenager. (The Express is not publishing her real name because she was a minor when her abuse began.)
Three Oakland police officers committed statutory rape of Guap when she was underage. By the state's legal definition, they engaged in human trafficking. The victim says every law-enforcement agent who had sex with her knew she was a sex worker.
Guap, now eighteen years old, said she sometimes slept with cops as a form of protection from arrest or prosecution. Experts in human trafficking told the Express this amounts to coercion.
In addition to the sexual abuse, some police endangered their fellow officers' lives, and the public, by leaking confidential information about undercover prostitution stings to Guap. One Oakland cop obtained police reports and criminal histories and shared them with the victim, which is against department policy. Sex-worker advocates explained that, by providing anything of value to Guap after she turned 18, including information or protection, law-enforcement officers were purchasing sex and, therefore, violating state law.
The Express published parts of Guap's story this past Friday, June 10, just hours after a press conference at City Hall, where Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced that police Chief Sean Whent had resigned for "personal reasons." The mayor reiterated that morning that his departure had nothing to do with this sexual-misconduct scandal. But this paper's investigation disproved Schaaf's claim.
Now, Oakland officials are reeling. "We are horrified, shocked and sickened at recent, additional revelations about abuse and misconduct within the Oakland Police Department," Oakland Councilmembers Annie Campbell Washington, Abel Guillen, and Larry Reid wrote on Facebook this past Sunday in response to the Express' reporting.
Oakland City Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney wrote that, if the allegations prove true, they "fully undermine the incredible work OPD has done in recent years to lead the state in combatting the sexual exploitation of our children."
Even state officials' eyes are now on Oakland and the East Bay. "The allegations of misconduct, if true, are disturbing and reflect a serious breach of the trust placed in law enforcement by the communities we are sworn to serve," said Kristin Ford, a spokeswoman for California Attorney General Kamala Harris. "There must be swift accountability for any wrongdoing."
But OPD has dragged its feet. Multiple department supervisors knew about Guap's abuse by Oakland cops last year, yet did not report it. In fact, according to interviews with the victim and other city and OPD sources, department higher-ups repeatedly failed to report Guap's exploitation.
Now, this explosive scandal has cost Whent his career and exposed Schaaf to severe criticism—but the blowback for OPD, other agencies, and Oakland's elected officials is far from over.
The Eastmont Boys
After officer O'Brien committed statutory rape of Guap, he later introduced Oakland police officers Terryl Smith and James Ta'ai to the victim. Smith, Ta'ai, and O'Brien worked in the same squad out of OPD's Eastmont substation, patrolling streets that are saturated with prostitution and child-sex trafficking.
According to Guap and Oakland officer Luis Roman, a total of three cops committed statutory rape of Guap while she was seventeen. Her interactions with officers as a minor fit the legal definition of human trafficking.
This week, the Contra Costa County district attorney reported that Smith had sex with Guap, but only when she was an adult, and that there was insufficient evidence to charge him with statutory rape.
OPD did not respond to a request to discuss these allegations.
Over several interviews, Guap maintained that officers were "tricks," who she voluntarily had sex with in exchange for protection, or because she wanted to.
"I think cops are fine. They're cute and all, but it's like one less officer that's gonna arrest me," she said. "I would hook up with [Smith] like every Saturday night for three months straight. He had a mattress in his back seat and slept in his car in the OPD parking lot, so we would hook up after work."
Oakland police officer Giovanni LoVerde met Guap through Facebook, which Guap used to connect with law-enforcement agents across the region. She says they had sex when she was 18. LoVerde then introduced Guap to another Oakland police officer, Roman.
According to text messages obtained by the Express, Roman and Guap had frequent late-night conversations. Roman would send messages while on duty, and Guap would respond with naked pictures of herself.
Roman spoke to the Express and told us he knew of Guap's sexual exploitation at the hands of his fellow officers. But he denied any wrongdoing himself.
He also confirmed that LoVerde had a sexual relationship with Guap and is on leave as part of an investigation. After a brief phone conversation, Roman demanded that we speak to his attorney and hung up.
Guap said that O'Brien, Smith, Ta'ai, LoVerde, Roman, and other police officers all knew that she was a sex worker.
Guap met other cops on the streets. In February of this year, she said she was stranded in West Oakland after exiting a BART train from San Francisco. She was drunk and lost. She saw an Oakland police vehicle and asked the officers for help. A tall, heavy-set, white officer called her a cab.
"I don't remember giving him my number," Guap said. "Next thing I know, it's 2 a.m., I'm getting home in the cab, I got a text that said 'I hope you got home safe.'"
Guap said she didn't recognize the number, but the person texting her wrote: "We just met." She gave him a name: Superman.
Superman then began leaking confidential OPD information to Guap. "Stay off E14 from Fruitvale to 42 tonight," Superman wrote Guap in a text message on March 5 of this year. "There's a UC operation," referring to an undercover prostitution sting.
"Thank u daddy I appreciate it [I don't] wanna go to jail lol," Guap wrote back.
Guap said that Superman never gave her his name, but his voicemail message identified the officer as "BJ." Last week, the Express called BJ's cell phone number, which is a 209 area code, and an Oakland police officer answered. "You need to speak to public information officer Johnna Watson," he said.
Watson later emailed the Express to demand that this newspaper refrain from contacting an officer "Bunton." According to OPD's most recent roster, there is an officer named Brian J. Bunton, who graduated from the 171st basic academy on April 3, 2015.
At least two other Oakland cops leaked confidential law-enforcement information to Guap. One of them was Smith.
"He frequently tipped me off to stings," she said. "He'd be like, 'Don't go out there's an undercover operation tonight." Text messages obtained by the Express confirm that Smith provided her with information. Guap said that Smith also downloaded police reports, including the arrest records of her friends, to his cell phone, and would show them to Guap.
This past Sunday, OPD announced that another officer had been placed on administrative leave as part of the investigation. The department did not disclose this officer's identity.
As of this week, two Oakland cops, Smith and Ta'ai, have resigned, and three more are on administrative leave because they are being investigated for sexual misconduct and other possible violations.
No East Bay police officer from any agency faces criminal charges yet. The Alameda County district attorney would not discuss whether it is investigating the conduct of the officers identified by the Express.
Police as Human Traffickers
According to several legal experts, any police officer who had sex with Guap before she was eighteen is guilty of human trafficking.
"Based on the information shared through this story, it appears that this young woman was the victim of trafficking," said Kate Walker Brown, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law, a local nonprofit that works with at-risk kids. "Under federal law, after she turned 18, if there's any indication she was coerced, she would also be considered a trafficking victim."
Dr. Alexandra Lutnick, a senior research scientist with RTI International and author of the book Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains, studies marginalized populations, including people who have experienced trafficking and sex work. She said that she wasn't surprised when she first read the news about Oakland officers involved in an apparent case of child sex trafficking.
"For people well versed in sex work and minors involved in the sex industry, it's common knowledge that a lot of folks have experienced exploitation and abuse by law enforcement," Lutnick said. "Throughout the United States, we frequently hear from young people how they've been physically, sexually, or verbally assaulted by at least one officer."
Lutnick said Guap's case shows how social-control agents, including cops, can abuse their power, especially in environments where sex work is highly criminalized and law-enforcement agencies emphasize cracking down on the activity.
For more than a decade, Oakland's cops have prioritized going after the city's sex industry. They have framed their enforcement efforts as an attack against human trafficking and the exploitation of children.
For example, in a recent report on sex trafficking, OPD called Oakland the "hub of the West for underage prostitution," a status underlined by the fact that 43 percent of all human-trafficking cases in California were prosecuted by the Alameda County DA in 2014. The DA's office calls Oakland the "epicenter of a trafficking triangle" between San Francisco and Contra Costa counties.
Numerous OPD initiatives to save children from sex trafficking have been adopted by other police departments across the nation. And other East Bay agencies—including the Richmond police and Alameda County Sheriff's Office—have been deeply involved in OPD's efforts to stop the sexual exploitation of children.
Katherine Koster, an organizer with the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a national group that supports people in the sex trade, said that it's difficult to define a sexual relationship between a cop and a sex worker as consensual, even when both parties say it is. "Some of these cops might not be predatory, but the criminalization of sex work, and the sting operations against sex workers, creates a system that promotes these kinds of inherently exploitative relationships," she said.
For example, Koster pointed to evidence, first published by the Express last week, that Guap was tipped off by some of the police officers she had sex with about undercover operations.
Even if the cop isn't actively seeking out opportunities to exploit sex workers, criminalization creates a situation where the police have a lot of power—information about stings, the discretion to arrest or not arrest someone, which ads on Backpage to call. Koster said this creates situations where sex workers exchange favors to shield themselves from arrest or other harms at the hands of law enforcement.
Koster said that what happened to Guap is best defined in her own words. "It's an injustice to people who say they consented to things to doubt what they're actually telling you," she explained. "This may have made sense to her and she viewed these police officers as people who were helping her."
But Koster said this doesn't negate the fact that the police officers broke the law if they slept with her when she was a minor. Later, when she was eighteen, others helped her evade arrest, which Koster described as a "coercive situation."
No matter how one parses the legal and ethical aspects of the case, Lutnick said the scandal involves multiple departments across jurisdictions, and that this "highlights the need for a hard look at the cultures within police departments."
Not Just Rookie Cops
Throughout 2015, Guap worked along International Boulevard in East Oakland, and out of hotels in Oakland and Richmond. She said that on-duty police officers would see her on the street and solicit her for sex. She met other cops online.
Previously, city and police officials had blamed rookie cops for this bad behavior. Schaaf and Whent characterized it as "off-duty" conduct. But Guap said high-level current and former Oakland police also contacted her through Facebook and text messages, apparently seeking sex.
One retired Oakland police captain contacted Guap through Facebook. She said the two began talking beginning in 2015, when she was still underage. But she was eighteen years old in December of last year when the retired captain met her in a hotel on San Pablo Dam Road in Richmond, where he paid $250 for sex.
The Express called the retired OPD captain, and he admitted this.
He said he met Guap on Facebook and friended her because she was already friends with other retired Oakland cops. The former captain said Guap told him she was twenty when they had sex.
(The Express is not publishing his identity for medical reasons. "Please don't publish my name. I will die. I have a heart condition," he said via phone. He currently draws a $125,000 pension from the city.)
Captain Ricardo Orozco supervised seventy patrol officers as commander of OPD Area 3 operations until he retired in April 2015. Area 3 encompasses International Boulevard from Lake Merritt to Fruitvale Avenue. A 2014 OPD "anti-human trafficking report" identified this part of Oakland as having the "highest concentration of younger prostitutes 'working the streets' along with online dates at motels along Embarcadero." Orozco was in charge of Area 3 for several years and was part of an OPD initiative to shame people by sending "Dear John" letters to those suspected of soliciting sex workers on the street.
In 2013, Orozco had a demotion overturned through arbitration: He had been relegated from captain to sergeant for his failure to properly supervise during the March 21, 2009, incident where parolee Lovelle Mixon killed four Oakland police officers.
The Oakland City Council honored Orozco on April 21 of last year for his 28 years on the force. At the ceremony, former chief Whent said that OPD's top priority was changing the relationship between the police and the community. "You're one of the people that was really helpful in driving that change we're trying to accomplish," Whent told Orozco. "You embody what that change means."
That same night, the city council voted to designate the week of April 20 through 26 as "Sexually Exploited Minors Awareness Week."
Orozco was at one point friends with Guap on Facebook and also followed her on Instagram, according to social-media accounts reviewed by the Express. On December 24 last year, Orozco sent Guap an Instagram private message:
"I would love ur taco!"
The Express contacted Orozco on May 23 via Facebook, but he did not respond—and subsequently deleted both his Facebook and Instagram accounts.
Orozco currently works as an investigator employed by Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley.
Oakland Police Sergeant Byron Reed, who recently retired, also flirted with Guap on Instagram, according to social-media accounts reviewed by the Express. "We did flirt. We were actually getting to it, making googly eyes with each other," Guap said, but added that they never slept together.
She says she told Reed that she had slept with other police officers when she was seventeen. According to multiple sources close to the department, Reed has been previously investigated by internal affairs for improper conduct toward minors.
Not Just an Oakland Scandal
This sexual-misconduct investigation also extends to other East Bay law-enforcement agencies.
Guap disclosed in several interviews that she had sex with three Richmond police officers, including a lieutenant and sergeant.
The Express spoke to the accused lieutenant last week. He referred the paper to internal affairs, which has opened an investigation into "several" officers but declined to identify any of those suspected of misconduct or crimes.
Richmond Police Chief Allwyn Brown spoke to the Express and said that he didn't know if the information regarding the officers was true or not. "We are just now learning about the connection between several of our officers and the girl at the center of the Oakland Police Department scandal," the chief said.
Brown added that his department was informed of this connection by OPD investigators, and Richmond's own investigation only began last week.
Also, at least four Alameda County deputies also had sex with Guap. She said she had sex with one deputy in his personal automobile while his K-9 police dog sat in the back seat.
The Express has learned that the sheriff's internal affairs unit has been briefed about the new allegations, including the names of the accused deputies.
One deputy, Eric Chaloner, was briefly investigated by internal affairs last month, but was cleared of any wrongdoing.
The sheriff's office actually blamed Guap for not coming forward. "She never came to our agency with any sort of complaint," spokesman J.D. Nelson told the Express. "We had no way of knowing about this sort of conduct."
Another police agency never opened an investigation into one of its officers even after the Express contacted them multiple times. The Defense Logistics Agency, a branch of the U.S. military, operates a facility in Stockton. One of the police officers who guards the facility, William Johnson, contacted Guap just days after KRON 4 ran the first news story about the OPD sex scandal.
"He requested me on [Instagram] and we started talking," Guap said. She added that it was strange that Johnson contacted her after the police sex-crime scandal became public.
The Express obtained copies of Instagram messages confirming Johnson's contact with Guap and attempted to contact him through Instagram last month. He subsequently deleted his account.
Why the Chief Was Fired
This sex-crime scandal first surfaced after the suicide of officer O'Brien in September 2015. A few days before the officer killed himself, Guap informed Leroy Johnson, an Oakland police sergeant and close friend of her mother, that she had been seeing O'Brien since she was seventeen, according to multiple city sources. It's unknown if Johnson informed internal affairs about O'Brien's conduct with a juvenile.
Johnson, who has since retired from the department, declined to answer questions and referred us to his attorney, who did not return calls.
OPD policy requires supervisors and officers to immediately report any misconduct as soon as they become aware of it.
Guap says she told multiple officers and sergeants that she had sex with OPD officers while she was underage.
Multiple city sources say Whent was forced out last week by Independent Police Monitor Robert Warshaw, who is responsible for overseeing OPD's progress with its thirteen-year-old federal reforms. Warshaw hand-selected Whent to run the department in 2013 because Whent was seen as an incorruptible Boy Scout committed to implementing court-ordered reforms.
But Warshaw recently learned that Whent's wife, Julie, knew of Guap's relationship with O'Brien as far back as June of last year, according to multiple sources.
Guap said Julie Whent reached out to her online. She claims that she told the chief's wife last year that she had been sleeping with O'Brien since she was a minor. Warshaw did not become aware of O'Brien's death, and the relationships O'Brien and other rookie officers had with Guap, until he was tipped off earlier this year.
This March, Warshaw discovered that Whent also knew about O'Brien's sexual relationship with the underage girl, and that the investigation had been mishandled. U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, the ultimate authority overseeing the department's federal reforms, wrote in a March 23 order that there were serious "irregularities" and "potential violations" that occurred in the investigation. Sources with the city and inside law enforcement say Warshaw put OPD Deputy Chief John Lois in charge of the sexual-misconduct investigation—and ordered Lois not to report to Whent, but directly to him.
Whent's failure to hold his officers accountable, and the subsequent actions taken by Warshaw, demonstrate a massive lapse in OPD's internal-accountability system, which was supposedly rectified by the federal court.
Jim Chanin, one of the attorneys who helped bring the original suit behind Oakland's federal court oversight, said it's clear that OPD command knew about the scandal since at least September of last year. "That's ample time to start taking some action on this, but they didn't," he said.
The attorney argued that the scandalous behavior and botched investigations show that OPD is not remotely close to completing its federal reforms. "Without the [Negotiated Settlement Agreement and federal oversight], none of this would have happened and this poor woman would have been exploited without any consequences to the officers who did it," Chanin said.
Despite Whent's ouster by Warshaw, Mayor Schaaf repeatedly claimed last week that the former chief resigned for personal reasons, and that she and City Administrator Sabrina Landreth accepted his resignation. It's still unclear whether Schaaf knew about the scope of these sex-misconduct allegations.
After the Express released its investigation this past Friday, Schaaf put out a statement on Saturday evening reiterating her anger at the department's scandal. Nevertheless, Schaaf continues to stand by her statement that Whent resigned on his own terms. She's also assured that independent investigations would lead to swift justice.
The mayor tapped BART Deputy Police Chief Benson Fairow as interim chief. Fairow left the OPD in 2011 and will serve while the city conducts a national search for a permanent replacement.
One of the most immediate consequences for the city could be a federal takeover of the recruitment, hiring, and training of new OPD officers. All of the officers who allegedly slept with Guap and passed her departmental intelligence were hired after December 2013. Chanin said the involvement of so many rookie officers in this sort of misconduct raised major red flags.
"In my 38-and-a-half years of litigation involving the Oakland Police Department, I've never seen behavior like this," he said. "One or two outliers is understandable in a large organization. But the number here is completely unacceptable."
He said the first step for the city is to try to correct the hiring and recruitment process. If that doesn't happen, he said, "the next step is to ask for this to be put under the compliance director and court oversight." If this happens, the OPD would be the biggest local law-enforcement agency in the state to go under federal receivership.
"I'm angry and disappointed," Chanin said. "I feel betrayed, and that the city's been betrayed by officers at the highest levels."