An Orange County Superior Court Judge Friday dismissed five felony false imprisonment charges in a sexual abuse case against former county Public Works executive Carlos Bustamante, finding insufficient evidence to let those charges go to trial.
The action by Judge John Conley left two felony counts of false imprisonment and single counts of stalking, attempted sexual battery and grand theft. Another pre-trial hearing is scheduled for Feb. 6.
Although the dismissed charges of false imprisonment could have been prosecuted as misdemeanors, the statute of limitations on those charges has expired.
Prosecutors with the Orange County District Attorney's Office say Bustamante, a former Santa Ana city councilman and a rising star of the Republican Party, systematically targeted at least seven vulnerable women working for him at the county Public Works department, stalked them and then sexually terrorized them.
Bustamante's attorney, who sought to dismiss seven of the false imprisonment charges, argued their client did not use enough force to warrant a felony conviction, especially given that he had previous consensual relationships with some of his accusers.
Deputy District Attorney Matt Lockhart argued the charges of false imprisonment rose to the level of felonies because of his deceitful intent. In addition to trapping women in his office against their will, Bustamante forced himself on women, hugging them and giving unwanted kisses, the DA’s office argued.
At Friday's pre-trial hearing, Judge Conley told prosecutors they were "reaching" for the felony charges.
"Don't tell me how bad the behavior is, I'm not applauding the behavior," said Conley. "I found it shocking that this would happen in the County of Orange where I worked for 20 years. The issue is, is this felony false imprisonment punishable by time in a federal prison?"
Lockhart balked at Conley's comment, describing the egregiousness of Bustamante's conduct as "really, really creepy behavior," calling women into his office under a ruse of a business relationship but "playing Uncle Touchy" instead.
Gina Kershaw, the attorney defending Bustamante, argued in a court filing that prosecutors have used words "designed to inflame and elicit emotion from the court," calling Bustamante names without addressing the issues underlying the motion.
Conley did uphold two of the felony false imprisonment charges challenged by Bustamante's lawyers, although he remarked that they had "barely sufficient" evidence.
In one alleged incident, Bustamante invited his boss's secretary, named only as “Jackie” in court, to a restaurant to discuss her career in finance. As the left the restaurant, Bustamante walked Jackie back to her car and they talked while she had her back against her car.
According to her testimony, Bustamante suddenly grabbed and hugged her tightly. She repeatedly told him she was not interested and asked him to let go.
"One kiss, and I'll let you go. I promise," she recalled Bustamante as saying, and the kiss lasted 20 to 30 seconds.
Kershaw said, although Jackie initially asked Bustamante to let her go, they shared a French kiss for 20 to 30 seconds, quite a long kiss that became an intimate moment between two people.
Deputy District Attorney Lockhart said it was "ludicrous" to call the kiss consensual and that he was "shocked" to hear a woman make such an argument.
Conley scolded Lockhart for the comment, calling it "unprofessional," but kept in place the charge for the unconsented kiss.