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Santa Ana Police Department Delays Investigation of a Child Sexual Assault by an Off-Duty Officer for More Than Half a Year, Commander Alleges

Audit of incident’s handling says delay “severely hampered” investigation. Complaint alleges key information withheld from auditor.

Sign outside the SAPD on a clear day.
Santa Ana Police Department on Civic Center Drive in June 2023 (Photo: Ben Camacho | Knock LA)

Then-Internal Affairs commander Robert Rodriguez delayed the investigation of a child’s alleged sexual assault by off-duty officers of the Santa Ana Police Major Enforcement Team (MET) in August 2020, according to a commander’s complaint submitted to the City of Santa Ana. The complaint further alleges that SAPD withheld key information from an evaluation by the Office of Independent Review (OIR). 

The complainant, commander Manuel Moreno, detailed exactly how Internal Affairs covered up the sexual assault incident, known as the Culichi Town Incident, and shielded the involved officers from investigation and potential prosecution. In his complaint, Moreno stated that during the initial response to the incident, officer Andres Gil, proceeded to “interfere [with] and impede” the investigation. Gil was later “awarded MET” shortly after he helped make the incident go away. Gil denied being contacted by MET that night, according to OIR’s report.

Knock LA’s requests for comment from Gil went unanswered.

“They felt that the sexual assault investigation had not been handled properly because members of the MET team had been involved and other officers (on-duty and off-duty officers) ensured that the proper documentation and notifications were not conducted,” the complaint states regarding some of the responding officers.

Improper Handling of Sexual Assault Allegations

During the initial response to the incident, SAPD officers viewed then-sergeant Oscar Lizardi on cell phone footage captured by the father of the child who was assaulted, according to body-worn camera footage and the complaint. The cell phone footage showed Lizardi outside the restaurant with another officer. The OIR’s report on the incident states that Lizardi never reported the incident to the chain of command even after returning to work. 

No official report on the incident states which officer committed the alleged sexual assault.

The report recommends that SAPD “write policy requiring all personnel to promptly report any allegation of misconduct and/or criminal behavior through the chain of command” but does not mention that Chief David Valentin and then-IA commander Robert Rodriguez knew about the incident within at least weeks of it occurring. The report also does not acknowledge that such policy already exists at SAPD. Lizardi was promoted to commander in June 2022.

Lizardi did not respond to requests for comment.

Following the OIR’s report in March, Valentin released a video statement that omitted information regarding the timeline of the Culichi Town Incident’s cover-up. “Responding officers ultimately concluded no crime had occurred. Seven months later the department received an anonymous complaint: off-duty members of MET were alleged to have been the ones involved in the alleged conduct,” Valentin states in the video. The chief made no mention of Rodriguez being aware of the incident soon after it happened or Rodriguez telling him about the incident around the same time. 

The Consequences of a Delayed Investigation

The OIR’s report also states that when the investigation happened seven months later, an investigator called one of the victims for an interview. The victim “asked why it had taken so long to contact her about the incident; the investigator did not directly answer the question.” 

Rodriguez was promoted to deputy chief in August 2021.

The OIR reported that the seven-month delay “severely hampered” the IA investigation into the incident. The report also states that “SAPD’s command staff was not formally … apprised of the incident and allegations.” This is at odds with Moreno’s account of informing Rodriguez, who had also informed the chief, according to the complaint.

In an email, Michael Gennaco from the OIR stated, “My work was based on a review of the investigative materials that were provided to me. At this juncture, I cannot comment beyond the public report that was issued based on our review of those materials.”

Rodriguez did not respond to requests for comment.

In his complaint, Moreno stated, “It is my belief that the Office of Independent [R]eview was not made aware of the … facts.”

How Gang-Like Behaviors Further Hampered the Investigation

The OIR assessed MET’s culture in response to Knock LA reporting about MET’s gang-like behavior in April 2022, which includes matching skull tattoos, a Latin slogan stating “Let them hate, so long as they fear,” and a challenge coin with an ace of spades and a skull. MET members stated that the tattoo is not a “malevolent” or a “gang-oriented” tattoo because it is not mandatory nor is it visible when in uniform. 

“[T]hey claim that the skull is less about a preoccupation with death or killing than it is something that simply ‘looks cool,’” states the report.  

MET’s slogan, according to OIR, “seems directly contrary to the Police Department’s larger message of community collaboration and trust building. Ideally, no one in the community should either hate or fear those entrusted with providing public safety …” The slogan, according to MET, is directed at “the ‘hardcore criminals’ in the City whom they had antagonized with their suppression campaign.”

According to emails regarding interview scheduling, the OIR interviewed only MET members about the allegations against them. An anonymous source within the department stated that “Nobody else was interviewed for the OIR report because it was never meant to be a full and thorough investigation. The department never made anyone except the MET team members available to Gennaco because they would never want anyone to expose to an independent investigative body what goes on within the police department.”

The ongoing power struggle within the Santa Ana Police Department shows what happens when officials relinquish their leadership and choose to ignore a child’s sexual assault allegations against one of their own. The complaint has also reached the inboxes of the California state attorney general, the FBI and the Orange County district attorney.

SAPD did not respond to requests for comment.