Crime

Trial begins for Merced County supe accused of inappropriate touching

Merced County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza appears in court to face a battery charge on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2019.
Merced County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza appears in court to face a battery charge on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2019. tmiller@mercedsunstar.com

The woman who accused Merced County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza of unwanted touching told a jury Wednesday she felt violated by the person she once thought of as a mentor.

Charged with battery, Espinoza’s trial began in Merced County Superior Court before Judge Steven K. Slocum.

A jury of eight men and four women heard Espinoza’s accuser describe an uncomfortable meeting with the elected official on April 27.

The Sun-Star’s policy is to not identify victims of alleged sexual assault or harassment.

The accuser said Espinoza came to her Merced office at her request. She wanted to discuss potential funding that advocates had identified for a health care program, she testified.

As soon as Espinoza arrived, he began to make advances at her, she testified, sometimes holding back tears while on the stand.

He attempted to kiss her, she said. Once they sat in front of a computer, he pulled a chair beside her with his legs straddling her side.

“What are you doing? I don’t play like this,” she said, recounting what she said to Espinoza. “I’m a mother. I’m a wife. I’ve been married 24 years.”

“This is a person I looked up to,” she said. “This is a person that at one time was like a mentor.”

After he put his arm around her, clutching her waist, she stood up and walked away from him, she testified.

The elected official was abusing his power, Natalia Enero, the deputy district attorney prosecuting the case, said during opening statements Wednesday.

“This case is about a man of power taking advantage of a woman asking for help,” she told the jury. “The defendant, Mr. Espinoza, kept touching her after she said ‘no.’ “

The 50-year-old married father and the woman had known each other for more than a decade. She said the encounter was the first time anything like that happened.

The two had worked together on projects over the years, according to testimony, but the woman was never an employee or volunteer for Espinoza.

In a phone call the woman made that was recorded by police without Espinoza’s knowledge, the supervisor told the woman he felt “led on” for years.

Espinoza’s defense attorney, John Garcia, said the woman’s account of the events are convoluted and vague. He also noted the supervisor holds no power over her.

“Mr. Espinoza is not her supervisor, is not her boss, is not her co-worker,” Garcia told the jury. “He doesn’t maintain a position of authority over her.”

Garcia also told the jury he intends to put Espinoza, who maintains his innocence, on the stand.

Espinoza won his seat on the Merced County Board of Supervisors in 2016. Before that, he had been mayor of Livingston since 2010.

The trial continues on Thursday.

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