A Troubled Rape Case 

The high-profile rape charges against Deputy District Attorney Michael Gressett are tainted by questionable facts, unorthodox prosecutorial conduct, and the unmistakable whiff of politics.

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But despite being on the outs with his bosses, the 21-year veteran deputy DA was popular with most of the 85 attorneys in the office. He had a reputation for being a good attorney who worked hard and was fun to be around, if a bit coarse at times.

Jane Doe, meanwhile, was a 29-year-old deputy district attorney who had worked for the office for slightly less than three years when the alleged rape occurred. She was considered smart, ambitious, and aggressive. But several co-workers described her to investigators as rough around the edges, and more than one of her supervisors described her as mentally unstable. Even Assistant Chief District Attorney Paul Sequeira, who conducted the investigation into Jane Doe's rape accusations, said she was "unstable," "up and down," and "manic," according to notes taken by Alameda County Investigator Cynthia Hall.

Jane Doe wrote of herself that "drama is part of my charm" in a September 2008 text message to co-worker Diana Weiss about a boyfriend who had broken up with her because he said she created too much drama. And in her November 5 statement to investigators, she admitted having a difficult working relationship with at least four female co-workers whom she regarded as sexual rivals for the attention of a male deputy district attorney who was not Gressett. Jane Doe said she hated one of the women with such intensity that it bordered on the "primordial."

Indeed, the workplace environment in which Gressett and Jane Doe began their office flirtation was sexually charged. The sex conversations that took place in the district attorney's office were freewheeling and seemed to know few bounds. Although last year the office moved into a new $26 million building, its culture seemed firmly locked in the 1970s.

Administrators have long been known for hiring female attorneys based partly on their appearance. The DA's reputation for hiring a particular type of attractive woman is so widespread that at a recent retirement dinner for Public Defender David Coleman, one speaker quipped that "someone should tell the DA that diversity doesn't mean different types of blonds," according to several people who attended the dinner.

And even though about half the attorneys in the DA's office are female, women are rarely promoted into the upper tiers of management. There is only one woman in charge of a division and there is only one woman who has reached the highest pay grade, according to Elle Falahat, an outside candidate for district attorney who has never worked in the office. "For women in the district attorney's office, the ceiling is not glass — it's stainless steel," Falahat said. "There are no women in the top three administrative positions and there are no minority women in management at all."

It isn't clear whether this culture existed before Kochly took over in 2002, but if it did, he did nothing to curtail it, according to several deputy DAs. During his reign, sexual banter was commonplace. And it was not always men who initiated the conversations. According to notes from the investigation and interviews conducted by this newspaper, women participated equally in tales of rough sex, bondage, extramarital affairs, and sexual encounters involving multiple partners.

Explicit conversations are common in most sexual assault units, noted Deputy DA Tom Kensok, who works in the DA's gang unit. Attorneys who work in sexual assault become desensitized to discussing extreme sexual acts. But in Contra Costa County, the rest of the office also proved to be fertile ground for sexual banter, Kensok said. "You could hear the same types of conversations on the fourth floor of the courthouse in the offices, hallways, and conference room where many of the attorneys gather for lunch," he said. "A lot of it was joking. I made jokes myself."

Other lawyers scoff at these claims. "We have one hundred attorneys who are working very hard on different floors, different departments and different buildings, and the idea they are all talking about sex is an exaggeration," said Deputy DA Mark Peterson.

Still, sexual banter appears to have occurred at levels far beyond the norm. Anal sex was the hot topic among one group. According to one deputy DA, the topic became such a regular part of conversation that, about five years ago, two female deputy DAs founded the "Anal Club" at a wedding reception for two of their co-workers. Prospective club members had to state that they had participated in and enjoyed anal sex. The club was more talk than action, but its existence became well known. In fact, deputy DAs who didn't meet the club's membership requirements felt so left out that they started their own "Butt Pucker Club," according to interviews conducted by Gressett's attorneys.

Some people who have been following the case believe this highly charged atmosphere is partly responsible for what has turned out to be a shattering event for Michael Gressett, Jane Doe, and the district attorney's office. One longtime public defender says the office's reputation and effectiveness has been seriously compromised. "In court these are the same people who act like sanctimonious prudes about the people they are trying to convict," he said. "They all ought to be incredibly ashamed of themselves."

Gressett himself was known for talking about sex, which made some co-workers uncomfortable. But Jane Doe was not among them. Her former co-workers say she used foul language even in casual conversation and, like Gressett, talked about enjoying rough sex. In fact, Deputy DA Andrea Tavenier told investigators that one day when she and Jane Doe were at Starbucks, Doe talked about having a regular safe word, which was "banana." A safe word is a code word or phrase used by the submissive partner in a rough-sex scenario to unambiguously communicate to the dominant partner that things have gone too far. In one of her statements to investigators, Jane Doe said that several co-workers including Gressett joked with her about the safe word, but that it was simply a joke.

Co-workers also told investigators that Jane Doe had expressed an explicit interest in Gressett prior to the alleged assault. Tavenier told investigators that during a casual breakfast with a group of deputy DAs at the Copper Skillet restaurant in Martinez, Jane Doe told everyone at the table that she wanted to "fuck Gressett." Tavenier told investigators that on another occasion, at La Tapatia Restaurant, Doe told at least four attorneys, including Gressett, that she enjoyed rough sex and the use of weapons during sex. Deputy DA Teri Leoni told investigators that Doe told her in a private conversation that she wanted to have sex with Gressett while using a gun as a prop.

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