MARTINEZ, Calif. — The California Highway Patrol officer accused of stealing nude photos from a DUI suspect’s phone told investigators that he and his fellow officers have been trading such images for years, in a practice that stretches from its Los Angeles office to his own Dublin station, according to court documents obtained by the Contra Costa Times Friday.
CHP Officer Sean Harrington, 35, of Martinez also confessed to stealing explicit photos from the cell phone of a second Contra Costa County DUI suspect in August and forwarding those images to at least two CHP colleagues. The five-year CHP veteran called it a “game” among officers, according to an Oct. 14 search warrant affidavit.
Harrington told investigators he had done the same thing to female arrestees a “half dozen times in the last several years,” according to the court records, which included leering text messages between Harrington and his Dublin CHP colleague, Officer Robert Hazelwood.
Contra Costa County prosecutors are investigating, and say the conduct of the officers — none of whom have been charged so far — could compromise any criminal cases in which they are witnesses. CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow said in a statement that his agency too has “active and open investigations,” and cited a similar case several years ago in Los Angeles involving a pair of officers.
“The allegations anger and disgust me,” Farrow said. “We expect the highest levels of integrity and moral strength from everyone in the California Highway Patrol, and there is no place in our organization for such behavior.”
Rick Madsen, the Danville attorney for the 23-year-old San Ramon woman who was the first to report Harrington, said the implications of the case are “far-reaching and very damaging.”
“The callousness and depravity with which these officers communicated about my client is dehumanizing, horribly offensive and degrading to all women,” he said. “It’s going to lead to another level of mistrust and skepticism to the motive of law enforcement in general.”
The San Ramon woman’s DUI case already has been dismissed because of the investigation into Harrington’s conduct, and Harrington has been placed on “desk duty,” a CHP spokeswoman indicated. Deputy District Attorney Barry Grove said he expects a decision about charges against officers in the CHP probe to be made next week.
In the search warrant affidavit, senior Contra Costa District Attorney inspector Darryl Holcombe wrote that he found probable cause to show both CHP officers Harrington and Hazelwood and others engaged in a “scheme to unlawfully access the cell phone of female arrestees by intentionally gaining access to their cell phone and without their knowledge, stealing and retaining nude or partially clothed photographs of them.” That behavior constitutes felony computer theft, the affidavit said.
As the Times first reported earlier this week, the investigation began with a single incident: Harrington’s conduct during the Aug. 29 arrest of the San Ramon woman. The woman discovered that photos had been stolen from her phone five days after her release, when she noticed on her iPad that the photos had been sent to an unknown number. A record of the messages had been deleted from her iPhone, but the phone had been synced to the iPad.
In his investigation, Holcombe compared video surveillance and time-stamped text messages from the woman’s phone and determined Harrington was in possession of the woman’s phone at the moment the photos were forwarded. The woman — who registered a blood-alcohol level of .29 percent, more than three times the legal limit — was being processed in the Martinez County Jail when the photos were stolen, according to court records.
During questioning, Harrington admitted to stealing five photographs from the woman and said he forwarded at least one to Hazelwood, according to court records.
Reached by phone by this newspaper on Friday, Hazelwood declined to comment. Messages to the other two officers were not returned.
“Harrington said he first learned of this scheme when he was working in the Los Angeles office,” Holcombe wrote in the affidavit. “Harrington said when he was assigned to the Dublin office, he learned from other officers that they would access the cell phones of female arrestees and look for nude photographs of them. Harrington said if photographs were located, the officers would then text the photographs to other sworn members of the office, and, to non-CHP individuals. Harrington described this scheme as a game.”
The new court documents describe a second incident involving a 19-year-old woman who was in a DUI crash in Livermore on Aug. 7. On Harrington’s phone, Holcombe located two photos of that DUI suspect in a bikini accompanied by a text message from the day of the arrest from Harrington to Hazelwood: “Taken from the phone of my 10-15x while she’s in X-rays. Enjoy buddy!!!”
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A “10-15x” is CHP code for a woman in custody. The woman may have been at a hospital to have X-rays taken after the crash.
Hazelwood replies: “No f — — — nudes?”
A short time later, the affidavit says, Harrington sent another Dublin CHP officer, Dion Simmons, the bikini photos with the same message indicating they were of a female arrestee. Simmons texted back “Nice” and “Hahahaaaa” and Harrington replies: “Just rerun a favor down the road buddy.)”
Holcombe also detailed Aug. 29 text messages between Harrington and Hazelwood discussing the photos of the first woman in various states of undress.
Hazelwood asked to see her “dl,” possibly referring to her driver’s license photo, and Harrington texted back: “When we get back to office. And we’ll have MDF (county jail) mug shot too.”
The pair continued the text back-and-forth, commenting on her “rocking” body and breasts.
©2014 Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)
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