The preliminary hearing in the Carlos Bustamante Public Works Department sex abuse case enters its final phase Tuesday afternoon with Superior Court Judge Kazuharu Makino scheduled to hear arguments from both sides about whether there is enough evidence for a trial.
On one side, prosecutors allege Bustamante systematically targeted at least seven vulnerable women working under him at the Orange County Public Works Department, stalked them and sexually terrorized them. They contend he committed 12 sex-related felonies and one grand theft for illegally obtaining more than $3,100 in tax funds as tuition reimbursement.
On the other side, Bustamante’s defense attorney James Riddet is focusing on inconsistencies in the alleged victims’ statements and whether they were willing participants in the alleged incidents.
The witnesses and their accounts span seven years, from 2004 until October, 2011, when Bustamante resigned from his $178,277 a year position as executive manager for OC Public Works. He oversaw the Facilities and Fleet Services divisions, including the department’s Human Resources office.
Here are some of the questions that have been raised in the hearing so far:
1. Did Any Women Consent to the Charged Acts?
Many of the alleged victims say Bustamante did not seek their consent to touch them, and that he continued to perform sexual acts after they physically pushed back against him and made clear that they didn’t consent.
Bustamante’s attorney, meanwhile, has pointed to contradictory statements made by some of the women, including whether they made their opposition clear.
One of the alleged victims has described as “consensual” all of the acts involving her for which Bustamante was charged, while others insist they were clearly resisting as he would fondle their breasts, kiss them or try to reach under their skirts.
2. What Kind of Pressure Were the Women Under?
Several of the alleged victims said they feared challenging Bustamante or reporting the incidents because of his powerful connections with top county officials.
Additionally, they point out that Bustamante oversaw Human Resources within the Public Works Department, which would have been the primary place to report his behavior.
Some of the women said this led them to not resist as forcefully as they would have otherwise, though nearly all say they physically and verbally resisted.
The judge, meanwhile, has shown an interest in knowing whether Bustamante himself made any verbal threats to retaliate or physically injure an alleged victim.
3. How Accurate Are The Alleged Victims’ Accounts?
Almost all of the women have given detailed descriptions of what they allege took place.
Under cross examination, meanwhile, some have contradicted parts of their accounts, though the significance of those contradictions to the judge remains to be seen.
The contradictions range from the year that an alleged incident occurred to whether an alleged victim verbally resisted Bustamante.
But many key elements of their accounts, apparently have matched up with what they told the DA’s office about two years ago.
4. Is There Enough Evidence for a Trial?
That’s the ultimate question before Makino, who must decide whether there is “some rational ground” for assuming Bustamante committed the charged offenses.
The burden of proof for the preliminary hearing is “probable cause,” defined as leading an ordinary person to suspect the defendant is guilty.
The judge must analyze evidence, assess the credibility of witnesses and resolve conflicting facts.
Makino could allow the case to proceed to trial, or end up dismissing some or all of the charges. Additionally, he can reduce felonies to misdemeanors, if they can also be filed as such.
If some or all of the case is dismissed, prosecutors could try to re-file the charges with a different judge or seek a grand jury indictment.
Tuesday’s arguments start at 1:30 p.m. in room C49 at Superior Court in Santa Ana. Check back tonight for a report on what took place.
You can reach Nick Gerda at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.