Is James Roberts III Shielded From Justice?
During an 18-month period beginning in July 2007, a beaten and raped Huntington Beach crime victim landed in a frighteningly bizarre situation. The local police department didn't just ignore her cries for help; it repeatedly aided her assailant.
Shannon Roberts was stalked, falsely imprisoned, assaulted, raped and sodomized by her ex-husband, who threatened to "blow her brains out"—all serious crimes. But police officers didn't care because her ex-husband was a cop.
Those are the sensational allegations she is making in Orange County Superior Court, where she has a pending lawsuit against James Roberts III and six of his onetime colleagues at the Huntington Beach Police Department: chief Kenneth Small and officers Greg Reese, Michael Metoyer, James Hume, Robert Warden and Michael Mello. Through their lawyers, the cops deny any wrongdoing, saying they did not give special treatment to one of their brotherhood.
Yet, according to the lawsuit, officer Roberts was given unofficial carte blanche by the department to commit his crimes. For example, on July 23, 2007, he allegedly called his wife, who had filed for divorce weeks earlier, and said, "If I can't have you, then no one can." The lawsuit further alleges he told Shannon he'd blown up her house. Fearing for herself and her minor son, she reported the threat to Huntington Beach Police Department (HBPD) officials, who, she claims, decided "they would keep the incident off the record."
When she returned home that day, "Shannon discovered that Roberts had used a propane tank to destroy her furniture, walls, granite countertops and personal belongings," the lawsuit states. "The HBPD refused to take a report of the incident or otherwise take any action whatsoever. Instead, HBPD officers fraudulently informed Shannon that Roberts was allowed to destroy the property because it was community property."
Shannon claims Roberts returned to her home the next day, "refused to leave, and held Shannon and Devin [their son] hostage." When she called HBPD for help, she alleges that officers conspired with the assailant to "keep a lid on things," in part by allowing him to "pick which [fellow] HBPD officer he wanted to respond" to the scene—in this case, Mello.
On Halloween 2007, Roberts entered her home without permission, tossed her around by her hair, kicked a bedroom door, destroyed her cell phone, punched her in the eye and raped her while telling Shannon "he owned her and was going to get her pregnant so that they could be a family again," according to the lawsuit.
A few weeks later, an "enraged" and intoxicated Roberts drove to Shannon's home, pummeled her again and said he would "blow her f-ing brains out" if she reported his conduct because he feared losing his cop job, the lawsuit states. "HBPD officers simply gave Roberts a ride home, drove his truck home for him and refused to provide [Shannon] with any assistance . . . or arrest him." According to Shannon, when she reported the rape, callous officers told her "a husband cannot be criminally liable for raping his wife."
The lawsuit claims police ignored at least five other instances of violence or threats, including one in which Roberts told one of Shannon's alarmed male neighbors to mind his own business or risk having "HBPD mess with him."
(Shannon may not have been the only victim. Prosecutors claim they have proof that Roberts beat another woman he was dating. Those charges are included in the criminal case against him.)
By ignoring their duty to provide honest public services, HBPD officers intentionally inflicted emotional distress by their "pervasive cover-up" of Roberts' crimes and should pay damages, Shannon alleges.
A unified front by police is normally enough to crush a citizen's complaint of abuse. Though each year brings plenty of examples of corrupt cops in Southern California local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies, our community still routinely considers a cop's version of events as unimpeachable—even when absurd. I recall one cop who handed taxpayers thousands of dollars in cocktail bills from his own Elks Lodge because he claimed the alcohol was a prop in his undercover investigation of organized crime. In 1977, police unions got then-Governor Jerry Brown to sign a state law that discourages citizen complaints of police abuse and, in most cases, prohibits the public from learning about crooked cops.
But Shannon's situation is unusual. It's not just her word versus the boys in blue. She has a weighty ally: prosecutors inside the Orange County district attorney's office. It's not often that a cop is charged with 20 felonies involving brutal domestic violence, vandalism, criminal threats, false imprisonment, sodomy by force, assault with a deadly weapon and rape.
After his 2009 arrest, Roberts posted a $250,000 bail bond, pleaded not guilty and hired criminal defense lawyer John Barnett, the acclaimed Laguna Beach-based attorney who specializes in representing accused police officers. Barnett is also defending Fullerton cop Manuel Ramos, who faces a second-degree murder charge in the gruesome killing of Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old homeless man. As presently scheduled, Roberts' criminal trial is set for April 20 in Judge William R. Froeberg's Santa Ana courtroom.
"There's much more to the story" than Shannon's version, Barnett says. He cautioned me to not rely on her veracity. For example, he says, her claims of rape and domestic violence are undermined by her emails and consensual sex after the alleged sexual assault.
Meanwhile, Shannon's hope for justice in her civil lawsuit is teetering on collapse, but not based on the merits. Her Irvine law firm demanded a more profitable fee deal and quit when it didn't get it. The move has pushed the case into limbo. A future jury may never get a chance to decide if unethical HBPD officials tried to protect a deranged member of their force.
At a late-February hearing, Judge John C. Gastelum accepted the firm's resignation and asked Shannon if she'd found new counsel. Visibly distraught, she said multiple lawyers have declined to represent her. A sympathetic-sounding Gastelum gave her 60 days to find new counsel or risk dismissal of her lawsuit. The 36-year-old Roberts—who is no longer with the police department—left the courtroom looking relieved. Sources say he is hoping to get his badge back.
Asked to comment on her experiences, Shannon said she is too afraid to comment because she fears police retaliation.
This column appeared in print as "Shield From Justice: Did Huntington Beach police conspire to protect a cop accused of violently sodomizing his ex-wife?"
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