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After an Imperial County sheriff’s officer was charged with domestic battery, he was allowed to keep his job. When he returned to work, he groped and harassed a colleague.
Imperial County Sheriff’s correctional officer Richard Edward Sotelo closed the bedroom door and pulled his wife onto the bed, face down.
Sotelo got on top of her and began biting her back, buttocks and arms, according to a police report from the November 2012 incident.
The former Marine then threw his wife farther onto the bed, straddled her and began to unbutton her pants.
“You need to remember you’re my wife, and I can take it when I want,” Sotelo told the mother of their three children, according to the police report.
Sotelo was charged in early 2013 with misdemeanor domestic battery, but he was allowed to keep his job with the sheriff’s office while the charges were pending.
In the ensuing months, Sotelo allegedly groped the private parts of a fellow male sheriff’s employee multiple times at work. It was only after the Imperial County district attorney’s office filed felony sexual battery charges against Sotelo in December 2013 that he left the department.
Sotelo pleaded no contest in 2014 to two felonies stemming from the incidents involving the co-worker and was given probation, though he ultimately successfully petitioned for the charges to be taken off his record.
Meanwhile, the co-worker Sotelo groped filed his own legal claim against the county. The county has denied records requests seeking additional information about the claim and any subsequent settlement.
Sotelo, 35, showed up on a list of current and former California law enforcement officials with criminal histories, prompting a Voice of San Diego review of how his criminal cases were handled by the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office and the court system.
An unprecedented statewide investigation of the officers’ criminal cases revealed that after DUI and other serious driving offenses, domestic violence was the most common charge filed against them. The reporting also found that officers accused of domestic violence are often able to plead to lesser charges and keep their firearms, though that did not happen in Sotelo’s case.
Sotelo and his wife married in the summer of 2004, and Sotelo started work in the sheriff’s office in November 2006.
At the time of the 2012 domestic incident, the couple had been separated for several months and verbally agreed to share custody of their three children.
Sotelo was supposed to pick up the children on Nov. 16, 2012, but asked his wife if she could bring them to his place because he was in pain.
His wife brought the children over early that evening with a hamper holding their belongings. When she went into Sotelo’s bedroom to place the hamper down, Sotelo closed the door and grabbed her arm to pull her onto the bed.
After Sotelo began unbuttoning his wife’s pants, she started kicking her legs in attempt to get Sotelo off of her, she told police.
But Sotelo used his body weight to pin his wife down and started kissing her by her chest and neck, saying, “You know you like it,” according to the police report.
Their 7-year-old son walked into the room and said, “What are you guys doing?”
Once their son left the room, Sotelo’s wife told Sotelo to get off of her. Sotelo finally relented, which his wife said allowed her to leave the residence.
When Sotelo’s wife spoke with police three days after the incident, she had bruising on her right arm and both shins. She also had redness on the upper right portion of her back, according to police.
When police visited Sotelo on Nov. 19, 2012, he told them that he had worked a graveyard shift and then gone to a party before the incident with his wife. He drank at the party, so he was not sober enough to pick up the children, according to the police report.
Sotelo told police he did not remember a lot from the incident due to his level of intoxication, but he remembered his wife telling him that he bit her. Sotelo said he not remember biting or holding his wife down on the bed. He told police he did remember trying to block someone from passing, and he perhaps did that to prevent his wife from leaving.
Sotelo was arrested for domestic violence at the conclusion of his Nov. 19 interview with police.
The Imperial County district attorney’s office charged Sotelo with misdemeanor domestic battery in late January 2013. He pleaded not guilty.
In April 2013, Sotelo was served in open court with a criminal protective order requiring him to stay away from his wife for three months. The order also mandated Sotelo not possess or own any firearms.
The judge noted in court that Sotelo was a correctional officer, not a peace officer. California Code of Civil Procedure provides exceptions to certain firearm prohibitions for peace officers, but not correctional officers.
Imperial County Sheriff’s correctional officers were not required to “wear a sidearm as part of their duties” during the period Sotelo worked there unless they were assigned to transportation, said Imperial County spokeswoman Linsey Dale. She said the county possesses no records of Sotelo being assigned to transportation.
Court records indicate the Sotelo protective order was faxed to the sheriff’s office.
In response to a question about whether Sotelo was disciplined after being charged with domestic violence, Dale said the county “has no comment in response to individual questions posed about personnel matters involving current or former [Imperial County Sheriff’s] employees.”
The Imperial County Sheriff’s Standards of Conduct say that a violation of federal, state, local or administrative laws could prompt disciplinary action, as could “any act on- or off-duty that brings discredit to this department.”
Maria Haberfield, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said she was not surprised Sotelo kept his job.
“Domestic violence is one of the most difficult complaints to deal with because you never really know who instigated what,” Haberfield said. “Probably the majority of departments would have handled it the same way by waiting for more information or another event.”
Sotelo did not respond to interview requests. His ex-wife could not be reached for comment.
Attorney Edgard Garcia, who represented Sotelo in the domestic case, declined to comment. (Garcia, who is now El Centro’s mayor, is facing DUI charges of his own. He has pleaded not guilty and remains in his job.)
Imperial County Sheriff Raymond Loera, who took office in 2007, did not respond to interview requests.
The correctional officer who alleged he was groped by Sotelo told the Imperial County DA’s office that the initial incident took place on the first day Sotelo returned from administrative leave due to a “domestic violence issue” involving Sotelo’s wife.
While the victim was working as the tower officer at the Herbert Hughes Correctional Center in July 2013, Sotelo allegedly came up from behind and wrapped his arms around the officer.
Sotelo began to tickle the officer before grabbing and groping his crotch area, the officer told sheriff’s investigators.
Five days later, Sotelo again tickled the officer, prompting him to try to get away.
At one point, the two officers struggled down the stairs and Sotelo allegedly pinned the officer against a door near the bottom entrance of the tower.
“Sotelo took his hand and placed it in between his but[t] cheeks and slid his hand up his butt crack,” the victim told a sheriff’s investigator.
“I felt abused, I felt violated,” he told a sheriff’s investigator.
The officer told investigators that Sotelo’s physical harassment continued in August 2013.
On one occasion, Sotelo allegedly grabbed him from behind and pinned his arms down to his side. Sotelo circled his finger on the officer’s lips.
“Sotelo then began to kiss him with an open mouth starting on his neck, ear, cheek and jaw,” the victim told a sheriff’s investigator.
A fourth incident occurred when the officer ended up in a lock-controlled visitation area with Sotelo, whom the officer said “had a gross looking grin on his face.”
The officer tried to escape into a restroom, but it was locked. Sotelo then came at the officer, prompting him to shout over his radio numerous times for a door to be opened.
Instead of the door opening, the song “It’s Raining Men” by The Weather Girls started playing over the speakers.
The officer “felt that the choice of song was probably to condone the behavior or humiliate him,” he told a sheriff’s investigator.
Amid the officer’s struggle to keep Sotelo off of him, a door finally opened, allowing him to escape.
Voice of San Diego is declining to name the correctional officer because he is a victim of inappropriate sexual contact.
The internal sheriff’s investigation into Sotelo’s workplace conduct involving a co-worker began in August 2013, according to documents Voice of San Diego obtained.
Sotelo was placed on paid administrative leave that month after sheriff’s investigators “received information alleging criminal misconduct,” according to a press release the department distributed later in 2013.
In early October 2013, Sotelo’s divorce from his wife was finalized. Later that month, he pleaded no contest to the domestic battery charge for the incident involving her.
Sotelo was sentenced to three years of probation and ordered to complete one year of anger management.
On Dec. 4, 2013, the Imperial County DA charged Sotelo with three counts of felony sexual battery by restraint and one count of felony stalking for the incidents involving his co-worker.
A press release issued by the sheriff’s office on Dec. 5, 2013, noting the criminal complaint against Sotelo said he was “currently employed” as an Imperial County Sheriff’s correctional officer.
Sotelo was employed by the sheriff’s office until Jan. 24, 2014, according to the county. The county has not said whether Sotelo was terminated or resigned voluntarily.
Voice of San Diego made a public records request for Sotelo’s “resignation, termination, settlement and/or other similar agreement with the Imperial County Sheriff’s Office relating to the conclusion of his employment with the agency.”
The county said it could not locate any responsive records, nor did it possess any documents covering any discipline of Sotelo during his employment.
In July 2014, Sotelo pleaded no contest to one count of felony battery on a custodial officer and one count of felony stalking for the incidents involving his former co-worker.
He was sentenced to three years of formal probation and ordered to pay restitution. Sotelo was also sentenced to one day in Imperial County jail, but given credit for one day previously served.
In addition, a 10-year criminal protective order was issued against Sotelo requiring him to stay away from his former co-worker.
The victim told the court in a written statement that Sotelo’s conduct prompted him to suffer severe anxiety and depression.
“I do not feel safe at work, in public, nor at home in fear that I may have future encounters with Richard Sotelo and/or receive retribution from him or an associate of his,” he wrote in 2015.
In a response to a Voice of San Diego request for any claims the victim of Sotelo’s workplace behavior filed against Imperial County or the sheriff’s office, the county provided a largely redacted two-page claim form filed on July 15, 2014.
Jessica Pride of San Diego was listed as the claimant’s attorney. Pride declined to comment for this article, as did her client.
Voice of San Diego requested all settlement or similar agreements between Imperial County and the victim of Sotelo’s groping concerning claims he filed. The county said the records were exempt from disclosure.
The county also said a request for the amount of any funds paid to the victim by the county as a result of a settlement agreement sought records that were exempt from disclosure.
In late 2017, Sotelo successfully got his felony convictions dismissed.
The Imperial County DA’s office did not oppose the petition for expungement “because the defendant had successfully completed probation, paid all fines/fees/restitution, and had no new criminal matters pending,” said Senior Deputy District Attorney Kevin Cayton.
But the expungement was not the last of Sotelo’s interactions with Imperial County Superior Court regarding the attacks on his co-worker.
In September 2018, the 10-year criminal protective order against Sotelo was terminated without notice to the DA’s office or to Sotelo’s former co-worker. The termination was granted in response to a request by Sotelo.
When the DA’s office became aware of what happened, it filed a motion to reinstate the protective order, said Cayton.
The protective order was reinstated, with an end date of July 1, 2024.