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Tuesday, April 15, 2008 | There is no mistaking what John Hartley was doing in his truck on Vista Street shortly before his indecent exposure arrest late last month, say the two women who reported him to the police.

Hartley, a candidate for San Diego City Council, did urinate into a cup — but that was just the beginning of a several-minute display on the afternoon of March 27 that culminated with him clearly masturbating, said Jennifer Johnson and Jean Talerico, who claim to have witnessed his actions from an open window less than 20 feet from the truck.

Hartley issued an apology last week after pleading no contest in San Diego Superior Court to one count of committing a lewd act in public. He followed up that statement with a vow to stay in the race for the District 3 council seat that will be vacated by a termed-out Toni Atkins.

Despite the arrest and no contest plea, some ambiguity has remained regarding what actually transpired. No official explanation of the incident has been issued. Only a heavily redacted report has been released by the Police Department.

In recent interviews Hartley has maintained that he was not masturbating, characterizing the incident as a “misunderstanding.”

“I have no animosity toward the women who reported me,” said Hartley, who served on City Council from 1989 to 1993, in an interview last week. “I’m sure it was a misunderstanding — but I’m sure they were just looking out for their neighborhood.”

Johnson and Talerico dispute Hartley’s characterization, and in interviews gave detailed accounts of Hartley’s behavior and their unsuccessful attempts to scare him off, which included yelling out the window and walking up to the car.

“There is no way that he didn’t see us,” said the 35-year-old Johnson of her and Talerico’s attempts to make Hartley stop and go away. “It’s impossible.”

Their accounts square with their previous statements to police, contained in a report obtained by voiceofsandiego.org. And San Diego Police Det. Jim Smith, who booked Hartley on charges of indecent exposure and engaging a lewd act in public, called Johnson and Talerico “very credible” witnesses.

The women say they have not spoken until now because they did not want to jeopardize the police investigation. But they are angry over how Hartley and his political consultant have described the incident, and feel like people think they made a big deal out of nothing.

“I don’t want to be called a liar,” Johnson said. “And I don’t want the truth of what happened not to get out there just because he cut a deal.”

Larry Remer, Hartley’s campaign manager, has repeatedly referred to the incident as a minor mistake, indicating that Hartley did nothing more than urinate while sitting in his truck. “He needed to take a leak,” Remer said last week. “That’s what happened.”

Hartley said he was simply urinating and didn’t see anybody watching him.

“I understand they are saying a lot of things,” Hartley said. “I just pulled over to take a leak. I was trying to be as discreet as possible. I did not attempt to masturbate. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t soiling my pants, they just misunderstood what I was trying to do.”

Smith said Johnson and Talerico were strong witnesses who gave clear statements as to what transpired.

“They were very distinct in what they said,” Smith said. “And there was ample evidence to support their claims.”

Hartley was originally booked for indecent exposure and engaging in a lewd act, but later charged with only the lewd act and urinating in public. The urinating in public charge was dropped as part of a plea bargain with the San Diego City Attorney’s Office.

Avoiding the indecent exposure charge was significant for Hartley, who in addition to serving on City Council, has worked as a teacher and in real estate. An indecent exposure conviction would have forced him to register as a sex offender. Registered sex offenders can be severely limited in their movements and face restrictions as to where they can live.

Smith said the indecent exposure booking charge was appropriate given that Hartley’s conduct was obscene and had an element of sexual gratification.

“I wouldn’t have booked him on it if I didn’t think there was sufficient cause to do so,” Smith said. “The case went to the City Attorney’s Office, and they saw it differently than I did.”

Chris Morris, the assistant city attorney in charge of the criminal division, said there is a difference between probable cause for arrest and what would hold up in court. Morris also sought to dispel any notions of political favoritism by making it clear that though City Attorney Michael Aguirre, a Democrat like Hartley, signed off on the charges, he was not involved in the initial decision as to what charges to bring.

“We didn’t feel there were enough facts to make the indecent exposure charge trial worthy,” said Morris, who added that the City Attorney’s Office reduces the charges on about half of the indecent exposure cases it receives.

On the afternoon of March 27, Johnson and Talerico had just come home, and Johnson was opening the front window to let some air into the house when she saw Hartley sitting in his Ford Ranger parked in front of the house, about 20 feet from the window. The roof of the truck obscured Johnson’s view of Hartley’s face, but she could see directly into his lap.

She said she clearly saw him urinating into a cup. She called to Talerico who was sitting on the couch.

“‘Omigod,’ I said. ‘This guy is seriously peeing into a cup,’” said Johnson, who said she had no idea he was a City Council candidate until she saw the incident recounted on the news that night.

After Hartley finished urinating, he poured the contents of the cup into the street, Johnson said. She looked away for a moment, and when she looked back he had placed a T-shirt in his lap and was moving his hand up and down under the shirt, she said.

By this time Talerico had joined Johnson at the open window. In her statement to police, Talerico said she saw that Hartley was aroused and clearly masturbating. Both women said they began motioning and yelling, trying to get Hartley to stop and drive away. But he continued, they said.

“We were hanging out the window, practically heckling him,” said the 24-year-old Talerico. “Our whole intent was to scare him off.”

After about two minutes, Talerico decided to leash her pit bull mix and walk out to the truck. Approaching the truck from behind, she said she saw Hartley grab what she thought was a magazine or booklet and begin flipping through the pages. She walked up to the passenger side of the truck and looked into the window.

By that time, Talerico said, Hartley had stopped and was paging through the booklet. She said he gave her a couple sideways glances, but made no indication that he was leaving. Talerico went back inside and the women called the police.

A couple minutes later, Hartley exited the truck with a sheaf of papers and began walking down the block, the women said. When police contacted him, he was on the porch of the house two doors down, talking with the homeowner. The T-shirt was later taken by police as evidence.

Both women described the weeks since the incident as a “nightmare,” saying strangers, including a private investigator working for Hartley’s lawyer, Michael Pancer, have repeatedly knocked on their door and windows.

“It’s been incredibly stressful for us,” said Talerico, who is a student at San Diego State University. “I spent most of my spring break inside the house with the shades down.”

They said they were even more scared when Manny Lopez, a private investigator working for Hartley’s lawyer, Pancer, came to the street. Lopez, they said, was in the area around their home for two hours one day, going door-to-door talking to neighbors and eventually coming to their home and opening the front door.

“He really freaked us out,” Johnson said of Lopez.

Pancer would not comment on the Hartley case, but said: “In every case I have, I do some investigation.”

Johnson said Hartley’s name was vaguely familiar to her, but both women say they did not know he was a candidate for City Council. Johnson said she has volunteered in the past for the national Democratic Party, but neither she nor Talerico have been involved in local politics.

Their names did not show up in a review of campaign finance reports for any of the District 3 candidates, which in addition to Hartley include: Todd Gloria, Stephen Whitburn, Paul Broadway, Robert E. Lee and James Hartline.

Please contact David Washburn directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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