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After a festive night in the Gaslamp Quarter, restaurant manager Perri Spiller couldn’t believe the somber tone in her friend’s Facebook update: “After last night, I think I’m going MIA.”
Spiller texted her friend, who called moments later. The woman told Spiller a downtown cop had pulled her over the previous night and offered to let her go for a sexual favor. If she didn’t comply, she said, the cop had threatened to arrest her for drunk driving.
It was March 2011. The circumstances sounded eerily familiar. Spiller had heard a similar story 18 months earlier. Another friend said a cop had pushed for a sexual favor in exchange for not arresting her. Although the woman refused to offer the cop anything, she said, he let her walk.
The second time, the allegations appeared more damning. Spiller’s friend said the officer asked for her panties. But when the officer followed her into a 7-Eleven restroom where she planned to take them off, she told Spiller the officer had sexually assaulted her.
A question raced through Spiller’s mind: Could it possibly be the same downtown cop?
Prosecutors say it was. They say police officer, Anthony Arevalos, pulled over and solicited favors from both women — and five others. The former traffic officer, an 18-year department veteran, faces 21 felony charges and a maximum 21 years in prison if found guilty. A jury will continue deliberating his fate this week.
Spiller told her story during Arevalos’ ongoing criminal trial several times in the last month. After her first friend complained to a detective in September 2009, nothing happened. After her second friend complained to a different officer in March 2011, police launched a full investigation. Its findings backed up both stories, spurred more women to come forward and stripped Arevalos of his badge.
The charges also spurred public apologies from the police chief and fanned concern about lagging internal oversight at the Police Department. Spiller’s story and other testimony showed that a critical difference in the Police Department’s response to the two women’s allegations came down to internal reporting.
One officer immediately told his supervisor.
The other didn’t.
The First Traffic Stop: September 2009
Spiller noticed something was wrong with her friend, a co-worker at the Gaslamp Quarter restaurant Dick’s Last Resort. The normally vibrant and outgoing woman appeared reclusive, so Spiller walked over and prodded for the reason.
It was September 2009. The friend told Spiller that a cop had solicited her for a sexual favor in exchange for avoiding a DUI arrest the previous night. The woman said she refused to comply, but the cop promised to stop by the restaurant later to pick up his favor.
After the conversation, Spiller called Detective James Clark, a friend who worked in the Police Department’s Narcotics Unit. She asked him to talk with the woman and suggest a response.
The 24-year department veteran did. The woman told Clark that the officer had wanted a favor. She didn’t know the cop’s name or which agency he worked for. She didn’t specifically say what he wanted in exchange for letting her go.
“She was vague with me over the phone about some things, but did give some detail,” Clark testified Oct. 26. “I listened to what she said to me and I remember thinking the officer was acting unprofessional, that he was trying to pick up on her.”
Clark suggested the woman call the department’s Internal Affairs Unit, which investigates police misconduct. He didn’t notify the unit or his supervisors about the conversation.
He was off-duty at the time and testified that the complaint didn’t seem important enough to merit further investigation.
The woman testified that she ignored Clark’s advice and didn’t call internal affairs. She feared she’d be charged with drunk driving in retaliation. She was planning to move out of state.
She said she just wanted to put the whole situation behind her.
The Second Traffic Stop: March 2011
After working on a Mardi Gras parade float together last March, Spiller and her other friend parted ways for the night. Her friend drove north toward the freeway, but didn’t make it out of downtown before a cop pulled her over.
The next day, the woman told Spiller what happened. She said the officer had accused her of drunk driving and pushed for a sexual favor to avoid arrest. Breath tests showed the woman had been driving above the legal limit.
But unlike Spiller’s other friend, this one said she agreed to the officer’s suggestion. The woman drove to a nearby 7-Eleven and the officer followed in his squad car. The woman testified that the cop wanted her panties in exchange for letting her go. She would later identify the officer as Arevalos.
The woman told Spiller she planned to take off her panties in the store’s restroom, give them to the officer and leave. But to her surprise, she testified, the cop followed her inside the restroom, groped her and asked her to flash her breasts. She said she complied.
Spiller told the woman the incident sounded like another friend’s experience and suggested she report it to police. Spiller also called Clark and asked him to speak with the woman. By the time Clark called Spiller back a day later, the woman had already contacted police.
The woman called Officer Kelly Besker, a 16-year department veteran who knew her boyfriend, and provided him with more information than Spiller’s other friend had given Clark. This time, the woman knew the officer’s initials and that he worked for San Diego Police.
Besker advised the woman to contact internal affairs. But unlike Clark 18 months earlier, Besker took another step. He reported the woman’s complaint to his supervisor as soon as they hung up the phone.
The supervisor, Sgt. James Milano, told Besker to call the woman back and get more information. Police needed to know about the breath tests she took so they could figure out who administered them.
When Besker talked to the woman a second time, she said the officer who pulled her over had texted her and identified himself as “Officer Anthony.” Besker testified that he then told the woman an investigation had begun.
After talking with Besker, the woman also called the department’s Traffic Division, where Arevalos worked. A sergeant there again listened to her story and promised an investigator would contact her soon.
The heat was on. Detectives set up a sting the next day and taped two phone calls between the woman and Arevalos. After talking in graphic detail about groping the woman in the restroom, Arevalos was arrested, charged and later fired.
Missed Clues in September 2009
As news of Arevalos’ arrest spread, Spiller called Clark again and asked him to re-examine the September 2009 incident.
Now having Arevalos’ name, Clark confirmed he’d been the officer who stopped the woman. After the woman also identified Arevalos through a picture online, Clark reported the incident to his supervisor.
In retrospect, Clark said he didn’t have enough information in September 2009 to identify Arevalos and connecting the dots would have been a laborious process. “It would take a lot of research without the name,” he testified. “It’s possible. It could have been done.”
But it wouldn’t have taken that much research, Clark discovered in March 2011. All he needed was one detail: The woman’s car had been towed that night.
Though Arevalos didn’t arrest the woman, another police officer had her vehicle towed because she had expired plates. Once Clark tracked down a record of the tow, he said he was able to confirm that Arevalos had pulled her over.
Clark testified that he couldn’t recall whether the woman told him in September 2009 that her car had been towed. “She was relaying her frustrations with the police officer,” he said. “In 2009, all I did was give her advice to call internal affairs.”
Spiller broke down in tears several times during her testimony. She repeatedly lamented that nothing had happened after the September 2009 incident. She didn’t blame Clark or her friend. She blamed her own inability to convince her friend to report it.
“I feel guilty,” she told the jurors, lawyers and cameras in the courtroom. “I’m crying because I found out how long it was happening.”
Keegan Kyle is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He writes about public safety and handles the Fact Check Blog. What should he write about next?
Please contact him directly at email@example.com or 619.550.5668. You can also find him on Twitter (@keegankyle) and Facebook.
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