Lt. Chris Piombo had seen enough. The veteran Lodi Police lieutenant and occasional News-Sentinel contributor had the type of sexual assault case come through his unit that he'd seen too many times before: an adult male suspected of having sexual relations with a teenage girl. This time it was 21-year-old Arturo Garcia, who was arrested in November for allegedly having unlawful sex with a 14-year-old girl — for the second time in 19 months.
Appalled by the number of incidents, Piombo wants to get the word out in the hopes it may curb what he sees as an alarming trend. In the past year, one-quarter of sexual assault cases in Lodi have involved adults arrested for suspected sexual relations with minors, according to Piombo. There have been 15 such cases, Piombo said, and in all but one case the suspect was an adult male.
"It angers me how these girls are being victimized," Piombo said. "They're being manipulated ... and it's frustrating."
Most of the girls are in their early teens, Piombo said, and the men involved have been as old as 38, and mostly Latino.
"I don't think it's an indictment of that culture or people from Mexico — it's a misunderstanding," Piombo said. Suspects born in other countries often say they didn't know their actions were unlawful, Piombo said, but that is not an acceptable defense.
"The system doesn't care how you misunderstood," he said.
Often the repercussions of the crimes go beyond just criminal charges; Piombo said at least half of the victims were pregnant when the incidents were reported.
"Think about a girl who, one minute she's 12, the next minute she's 13 and she's seven months pregnant," Piombo said. "How's that going to affect the rest of her life?"
Detective Carlos Fuentes has investigated sexual assault cases for the last two years, and said one of these cases came to him as recently as this week. In most instances, Fuentes said, the suspect is someone the victim knew or was connected to through a friend or relative.
Once suspects are arrested, police are no longer in control of the case; the county District Attorney's Office must decide if the suspect can be prosecuted. That decision is based on evidence and the kind of case that can be built, said San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Kristine Reed, who handles child abuse and sexual assault cases. Evidence can be hard to come by when the victim or even their parents don't want to cooperate, which happens occasionally, Piombo said.
"Inability to prosecute with the victim (cooperating) certainly makes it complicated," Reed said.
Sometimes the parents don't want to report the acts because they occurred with their permission, or they consider it consensual sex between two people in love, Piombo said. But Reed made it clear that there is no such thing as consensual sex with a minor in the eyes of the law.
"A minor under 18 cannot consent to intercourse under the law of California," Reed said.
There are several different crimes that offenders could be charged with, which carry various amounts of jail time. If an adult is convicted on just one felony count of having sex with a minor under 13, they could go to prison for up to eight years, Reed said. If the minor is 14 or older, one felony conviction could carry a sentence of up to four years. And a sex crime conviction always carries the possibility the defendant could be forced to register as a sex offender for the rest of their life, at the sentencing judge's discretion.
Both Piombo and Fuentes said there are likely many other incidents that go unreported, which may be due to the cultural background of some of the suspects and victims: Since the vast majority of those arrested for unlawful sex with teenage girls in Lodi are Latinos, Fuentes believes it impacts the number of sex crimes that go unreported.
"Sometimes, with the Hispanic culture, you don't like calling police," Fuentes said. "I bet there's probably a lot (of incidents) going unreported."
Most of the cases are discovered when the girls seek medical care, Piombo said, and a doctor or nurse is told something that raises a red flag. They contact the police department, and Fuentes or Detective Hettie Schaeffer investigate.
In nearly every case, the suspect claims they did not know the victim was underage, Piombo said. But both he and Fuentes agree that in most cases, the victim made it clear at some point they were not 18.
"A lot of times, they know how old the victim is," Fuentes said. "Or all the signs indicate that the girl is underage."
"(The suspects) really think they're the first one that ever used that defense," Piombo said.
In the end, Piombo said what bothers him the most is the fact that offenders are taking advantage of teenage girls, because they believe it is OK to have sex with them.
"It's pretty easy for them to manipulate a 13- or 14-yearold," Piombo said. "These guys know exactly what they're doing ... They know what they're doing is wrong."
Contact reporter Fernando Gallo at fernando@lodinews. com.