Newly reviewed government communications underscore how Tony Rackauckas’ spin machine inside his Orange County district attorney’s office (OCDA) manipulated reporters around the world last fall by selling a sensational, dishonest, serial-rape case against a Newport Beach doctor and his girlfriend.
At the time, Rackauckas, already in office for two decades, desperately wanted to retain control of the powerful law-enforcement agency from an advancing Todd Spitzer, his longtime nemesis, in November’s election.
The incumbent DA’s charges against then-38-year-old Dr. Grant Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley, 31, breathed life into his faltering campaign by providing months of millions of dollars’ worth of free international news coverage that portrayed Rackauckas as a noble protector of abused women.
Incredibly, the responding 2,806 pre-election media reports in radio broadcasts, network-TV shows and newspapers couldn’t save Rackauckas. His image had already been soiled after spending years stumbling through a series of courthouse scandals with the same motive: not justice, but winning at all costs. Spitzer now occupies the office.
But, as OCDA emails show, the defeated DA’s taxpayer-funded public-relations operation worked feverishly behind the scenes to transform People v. Robicheaux and Riley from a calm, fact-based prosecution into a media spectacle designed to hand the 75-year-old Rackauckas the biggest plank of his re-election campaign.
In multiple press conferences, numerous press releases, dozens and dozens of telephone calls, and constant emails, the prosecutorial PR machine gave the impression the couple had been roaming monsters, using good looks and charisma to find unsuspecting victims at bars, planting powerful knockout drugs in their drinks, then ushering their prey home to videotape themselves conducting rapes.
That tale put some of the world’s most powerful media organizations—The New York Times, Dr. Phil, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, ABC, CBS, NBC, BBC, Rolling Stone and USA Today, for example—at Susan Kang Schroeder’s feet. Schroeder was Rackauckas’ chief OCDA flack, private campaign manager and gatekeeper with lone approval to grant or block access to her boss. She maintained a well-earned reputation for rewarding hagiographic coverage, which explains why, according to one of the emails, she secretly gave ABC’s Good Morning America an exclusive in the case while pretending to other outlets she wasn’t playing favorites.
The resulting feeding frenzy may be Schroeder’s greatest, most devious known work—never mind that it robbed two constitutionally presumed innocent pretrial defendants of their rights to due process. A sampling of the headlines reveals what anyone should have known was a lie generated by a shameless DA’s office: “CA Surgeon, Girlfriend Accused of Rape, Possibly Preyed on More than 1,000 Victims”; “TV Surgeon and Girlfriend Stun and Rape Over 1,000 Women”; “Surgeon From Bravo Reality Show Charged with Rape, May Have 1,000+ Victims”; “Reality TV Surgeon and His Lover Feared to Have Drugged and Raped Up to 1,000 Women on Camera After Luring Them From Bars and Festivals”; “Man Featured on Bravo Dating Show Charged With Rape, Other Felonies; Might Be ‘a Thousand’ Other Victims, DA says.”
One mainstream-television-network reporter believed it was her role to sell the OCDA’s case, sending a “Dear Brave Women” letter to the supposed victims and making this point in hopes of winning exclusive interviews, with Schroeder’s assistance: “I would like the opportunity to speak with you before the defense begins their campaign; that way, we can have your side of the story already out.”
Within the first weeks of the case, the Weekly began investigating, discovering that its foundation was based on three old cases described most generously as weak. You don’t have to rely on our word: Newport Beach Police Department probes couldn’t verify the rape stories, even saw holes in them and documented those facts in their official reports.
Meanwhile, there is reality to consider. If Rackauckas’ tale is correct, Robicheaux would possess superhuman powers. Is it really possible that he victimized 9.6 women per week on average during a two-year period?
After the Weekly first exposed the shenanigans in an Oct. 31 article, some journalists began voicing concerns about being duped. ABC News producer Jim Vojtech sent such an email to the OCDA on Nov. 5. Incensed the concocted tale showed signs of crumbling, Schroeder—who nowadays is a private media consultant—sent a high-importance memo to Rackauckas, alerting him to the situation. The next day, the DA, who’d trampled four of his five prior opponents, lost to Spitzer by 60,000 votes.
Orange County is a place where irony abounds. Spitzer, the new DA who criticized the case last year, is now backing it. Given the Rackauckas/Schroeder mess he inherited, he should tread carefully. Defense lawyers insist not a single video shows anyone being clandestinely drugged or raped, whether conscious or not.
There’s a July 26 pretrial hearing scheduled in Newport Beach’s Harbor Court.
GAY-CONVERSION DUDE UPSET
A pastor, who claims he was gay for several years before self-identifying as “a former homosexual,” marrying a woman and having three kids, is suing Vimeo, the online video platform giant, for removing 89 of his films preaching sexual-orientation conversion.
In his 13-page federal lawsuit filed in Orange County, James Domen, founder of Church United, wants his videos restored on Vimeo’s website, plus more than $79,000 in compensation for what he’s calling illegal, “oppressive censorship” and violations of California’s statutory protections based on sexual orientation.
Vimeo terminated Domen’s account in December, sending correspondence that the company “does not allow videos that harass, incite hatred, or include discriminatory or defamatory speech.”
The pastor believes the move tramples his free-speech rights and is hypocritical, noting the company accepts videos “which advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) students who are bullied or discriminated against.”
Attorneys for Vimeo have less than three weeks to file a formal response in court.
For unknown reasons, Orange County has been a national hotbed of gay-conversion-therapy advocates for decades and may have comprised the perfect jury pool for the plaintiff.
Though filed in the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana, Domen’s lawsuit was moved to a more gay-friendly Los Angeles, where U.S. District Court Judge Stephen V. Wilson will preside.
Nada Higuera, Domen’s attorney, has worked for Focus On the Family, a Christian, conservative project of evangelist James Dobson, one of the country’s most vocal and well-funded anti-gay advocates.
KAMALA HARRIS HYPOCRISY
The national media continues to fawn over U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, who is running for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Before her current gig, Harris served as California’s attorney general, and in that role, she played a major villain in what is known nationally as the Orange County jailhouse-snitch scandal. Sheriff’s deputies, with the protection of local prosecutors, ran unconstitutional scams against pretrial inmates, destroyed evidence and committed perjury.
Harris knew of the corruption, having placed an aide in the front row of the Santa Ana courtroom where the scandal unfolded in 2014-16. But she did worse than nothing. As a PR stunt, she pretended to open a real investigation that, as she finally admitted this year, wasn’t intended to hold anyone accountable and didn’t. Now, her pals in the media are returning the favor by letting her get away with declaring during the first televised presidential debate that she is all about “honesty” and “speaking with truth.”
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.