A former sheriff's clerk was relieved when a janitor unwittingly interrupted a disarming sexual advance from a drug agent, she testified Thursday on the opening day of a trial with potentially far-reaching implications for the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department.
Sheriff Adam Christianson, running for re-election on the June ballot, is expected to testify sometime during the case, which could last through the month, attorneys said Thursday in opening statements.
Lydia Lopez, 36, repeatedly was punished and eventually was forced to quit after reporting sexual harassment from Bill Pooley, who since has been promoted to Riverbank police chief, Lopez's lawyer said in an opening statement.
But a lawyer representing Pooley and the county said Lopez came under scrutiny because she might have fed sensitive information to her husband, a Norteño gang leader serving a life sentence. Attorney Morin Jacob also flatly rejected Lopez's claims of Pooley's advances.
Lopez said Pooley put his hands on her hips and suggested having sex in a briefing room or a sergeant's office on Christmas Eve 2004, when the drug unit office was quiet. He grasped her hand and put it to his crotch, she testified.
Asked how she felt, Lopez said: "Scared. Degraded. More frightened than anything."
She said the situation ended when a custodian walked into the room and Pooley backed away.
Pooley targeted her because she had separated from her husband seven months before and because "the married ones don't look for commitment," she said he told her. She felt "trapped," "overpowered" and "defenseless," Lopez testified.
Jacob, however, said in her opening statement that Pooley had returned home from work hours before the alleged incident and was not even assigned at the time to the same unit as Lopez. "The evidence will show this incident never happened," said Jacob, who grew up in Modesto but works for a San Francisco firm hired by the county.
Jacob introduced Pooley's wife, who was in the audience, to the six-man, six-woman jury.
'Shopping for lawyers'
Lopez waited 2½ years to file a complaint, Jacob said, and "went shopping for lawyers" with a disgruntled co-worker who also might testify. Jackie Bernal, one of three women who obtained a combined $545,000 settlement against the county last fall just before their discrimination lawsuit was scheduled for trial, and Lopez hired the same Pleasanton firm.
In his opening statement, Lopez's attorney Jeffery Hubins said: "Employees have a right to do their job without being sexually harassed. Employers have an obligation to try to prevent sexual harassment and discrimination from occurring in the workplace."
The sheriff and his second in command, Undersheriff Bill Heyne, disciplined Lopez at separate hearings shortly after she named them as potential defendants, Hubins said.
Heyne tried to learn whether Lopez's children were fathered by someone other than her husband, the attorney said. "How does whether her kids are illegitimate have anything to do with whether Bill Pooley forced her to grope him?" Hubins said.
Lopez, who has worked lower- paying jobs since leaving the Sheriff's Department, has been unemployed since November. She was raised in Mountain View and lives in Ceres with her daughter and son, she said.
Lopez said that, in 2006, Pooley whispered comments about oral sex to her after someone rearranged a Betty Boop figurine on her desk in a compromising position with a plastic toy solider. A co-worker saw the exchange and Lopez confided in her later that day, she testified.
Officials uneasy about gang link
Hubins said administrators transferred her from the drug unit, made unreasonable demands, put her on a graveyard shift and forced her to drive 35 miles to a satellite office in Patterson. When Christianson assigned her to a constantly rotating shift of two weeks each on day, swing and graveyard shifts, "she gave up," Hubins said.
Lopez's spiral started when she was transferred from the drug unit, Jacob said. Lopez's supervisor felt uneasy about her access to information about drug informants after a car registered in her name was used in the commission of a crime in 2006, Jacob said.
Paul Lopez and two others were convicted in May 2007 of attempting to kill a cellmate in the county jail, and of committing a crime for the Norteño street gang. The victim was a marked man because he had been selling heroin in jail without permission from the gang, a prosecutor said.
Lydia Lopez referred to him Thursday as her ex-husband.
She found confidential information about his gang buddies on the first day she gained access to a restricted database, Jacob said.
"Concerns about Ms. Lopez were entirely warranted," Jacob said.
Lopez seeks "hundreds of thousands of dollars," Hubins told jurors. In addition to claims of sexual harassment and retaliation, the county failed to accommodate her depression disability, Hubins said.
Hubins' firm also represents a female jail guard who recently filed a claim against the county linked to scheduling based on gender. Christianson's office has faced a series of five legal challenges brought by current or former female employees.
Questioning of Lydia Lopez is expected to continue today in Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Hurl Johnson's courtroom in Department 23 at the City Tower building, 801 10th St., Modesto.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2390.