Santa Maria officials announced Nov. 23 that a settlement had been reached in the case of a teenage Police Explorer who claimed she was sexually assaulted multiple times by a supervising officer and that the police department allowed the abuse to occur. City Attorney Gil Trujillo said in a prepared statement that the city agreed to pay the unnamed victim and her attorneys a sum of $185,000 plus the costs of mediation “in an effort to put this unfortunate chain of events behind us.”
“Unfortunately, there are no winners in this situation, and the City sees this settlement as a just resolution to a very tragic situation,” Trujillo wrote.
By settling, the city doesn’t admit to any wrongdoing or negligence.
Bradley Gage, an attorney for the victim, told New Times that the $185,000 figure was the result of several months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, and Gage said he could have pushed the case further to win more money for his client, but her therapist warned that courtroom battles reliving the assaults would only add to her suffering.
“It’s more important to have the case behind her than to continue with a lengthy litigation for what could have been a larger settlement,” Gage said. “We did not want to subject this young woman to further trauma and turmoil.”
Gage and his associates filed a complaint in federal court on Aug. 12, alleging that officer Albert Covarrubias used his position to manipulate the victim, develop a false sense of trust, and intimidate her into succumbing to his lewd demands. She said she was assaulted multiple times throughout January 2012. The victim reported that Covarrubias threatened to harm her loved ones if she refused his advances or told anyone about their relationship. He allegedly said he wouldn’t be punished because he was a police officer and had friends in the department.
The complaint states Covarrubias often arranged to have the victim alone in his patrol vehicle past midnight, a violation of Explorer Program policies intended to protect vulnerable minors from abuse by authority figures. Other officers were allegedly involved in such arrangements and had reasonable cause to suspect Covarrubias was up to no good, including inappropriate comments he made about her appearance. Still, Covarrubias was allowed to remain active in the Explorer Program and to supervise the victim. The complaint blamed a department-wide “code of silence” that punished officers who shed light on misbehavior among their brothers in blue.
In late January, the department began investigating Covarrubias, but Gage alleged at least one sexual assault happened after that investigation was underway.
When officers believed they had sufficient evidence to arrest Covarrubias, they moved in; he resisted and was shot to death by another officer. The Santa Barbara District Attorney’s office later concluded that the use of deadly force was justified. Former Police Chief Danny Macagni stepped down amid the resulting controversy.
“I certainly hope the new chief will implement policies that will protect the Explorers and prevent this kind of thing from happening again,” Gage said.