Tainted Trials, Part Two: 49er Gold-Digging Attorneys and Cops

As she sat on the curb watching the police search her former San Jose home, her five-month pregnant belly pressed down on her bladder, she asked an officer if she could go inside to use the restroom. The police officer told her no. Effectively detained, she watched as police brought out sheets from the bed she and her fiancé once shared. A police officer explained the sheets were potential evidence. Another woman had accused the father of her unborn child of rape.

To protect the privacy of Jane Doe, and her family, we will not be republishing her name.

Jane Doe’s nightmare began when police arrested former NFL player and San Francisco 49er Ray McDonald for domestic violence during his birthday party in August 2014. At the time, Doe was engaged to be married to McDonald and had just learned she was pregnant with his child.

“She did not want to press charges, she just didn’t know what to do and felt overwhelmed. They had been trying to make things work with their relationship over the last couple of months. Jane Doe does understand he wants her to leave, but she doesn’t know what to do or where to go,” according to San Jose police reports from that August 2014 incident.

A situation many victims of domestic violence experience.

The Ray McDonald case made national news, including as part of an exhaustive report on domestic violence in the NFL by Mary Pilon at Bleacher Report Magazine. However, newly acquired records have shed new light on the circumstances and outcome of the Ray McDonald and other domestic violence accusations.

New Records Suggest Collusion and Conflicts of Interest

Following McDonald’s 2014 arrest, McDonald and his criminal defense attorney Josh Bentley, reportedly suggested Eric Geffon be retained to represent Jane Doe, as 49er fans and managers ramped up threats, labeling her a gold digger.

Shortly after Doe consulted with Eric Geffon he billed her $2,600 as the Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office declined to press charges. Deputy prosecutor Cindy Hendrickson issued an office memo, noting the district attorney could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime occurred during the August 2014 domestic violence incident involving McDonald’s pregnant fiancee.

The Santa Clara County District Attorney took both the 2014 rape case and a second domestic violence case to a criminal grand jury, where McDonald was indicted. Shortly thereafter the rape victim hired celebrity attorney Gloria Allred and entered a confidential civil settlement with McDonald.

McDonald sued the victim for defamation. But “McDonald failed to produce any admissible evidence that the woman had spoken to anyone other than law enforcement officials about her accusations, and statements to police are considered protected speech, Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge William Elfving said,” reported KCRA 3 Sacramento.

After the civil settlement, the district attorney dropped the rape charge against the former San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle after prosecutors said the woman who made the allegation refused to testify, according to the Associated Press.

“Despite my best efforts to convince the victim to testify, she refused,” prosecutor Chris Lamiero said, reported Tracey Kaplan of the Mercury News. “Regretfully, McDonald will not face a jury for what he did that night. We are disappointed that he will not be held responsible.”

Three months after he was retained to represent Doe, in December 2014, Eric Geffon was appointed to be a superior court judge. He along with Mercury News reporter Tracey Kaplan and SCC deputy DA Cindy Hendrickson regularly attended the clandestine Santa Clara Bench-Bar-Media-Police, “BBMP”, committee meetings, suggesting media coverage was closely linked to the favorable treatment McDonald and possibly other 49ers received in the Santa Clara County family and criminal courts.

49ers and Moonlighting Cops


Former SJPD Chief Eddie Garcia (top left), Former SJPD Chief Larry Esquivel (bottom left) were BBMP members while SJPD Sgt. Sean Pritchard (right) and other officers were working as security for the 49ers until 2014. (Image by Robert J Hansen)

The night of Mcdonald’s first arrest, his fiancée dialed 911. McDonald called San Jose police Sgt. Sean Pritchard, who also worked as security for the 49ers.

The relationship between the 49ers and the SJPD was heavily criticized by the media. Only a couple of months later, the San Jose Police Department barred officers from working for the San Francisco 49ers, according to the San Jose Mercury.

“Due to the complexities of the investigation, both criminally and administratively, we feel that it is in our best interest to suspend all San Francisco 49er secondary employment-related assignments until further notice,” Police Chief Larry Esquivel said per the Mercury.

An investigation revealed that Pritchard, while on duty and in uniform, responded to McDonald’s house on two occasions during the party and responded a third time just after the incident at that time and was still in uniform when he did.

Steven Clark, a former Santa Clara County prosecutor and now a criminal defense attorney, told Mercury News reporter Robert Salonga why he thought San Jose police officers working for the 49ers was a problem.

Former Santa Clara County deputy district attorney and BBMP member Steven Clark. (Courtesy Steven Clark)

“I think they realize that the arrangement with the 49ers raises questions about what are the allegiances of its officers,” Clark said. “Instead of just singling out this one officer, I think they want to examine the overall protocols in these kinds of situations.”

He added it’s understandable that the department is concerned about whether officers are working for the team or the community at large.

“You never want a question like that to be raised … certainly not something that a DA’s office wants to deal with in a case,” Clark said.

For years, the conduct of McDonald got media attention because he was an NFL player. The discovery of the Santa Clara Bench-Bar-Media-Police committee reveals an undeniably close relationship between many of the people in control of this case throughout the courts, police and media.

Mercury News reporters Tracey Kaplan and Robert Solonga were the primary writers of the McDonald series.

Like Kaplan, Salonga and Clark are also BBMP members and so are former chiefs of San Jose Police,  Larry Esquivel and Eddie Garcia.

Former Santa Cruz Sentinel sports reporter, Tim Kawakami, said on Twitter that the 49ers and the San Jose Police Department wanted to influence something he wrote on McDonald.

Kawakami criticized the relationship between the 49ers and SJPD which he said made it very difficult to proceed with a felony charge.

“I said the investigation was in some way immediately blurred and possibly compromised by the SJPD ties to the 49ers,” Kawakami wrote. “ … mostly because so many things about this case never could and never will be completely in focus.”

Kawakami has not responded to requests to comment.

Cashing in on the Super Bowl

Super Bowl “L” in Santa Clara’s Levi Stadium saw military-grade equipment brought in by the Department of Homeland Security. (Photo by Stephen James)

In 2014 the 49ers moved from San Francisco to Santa Clara to the new state-of-the-art  $1.3 billion Levi Stadium after the team’s owner Jed York, and the Santa Clara 49ers Booster club spent years lobbying for the new stadium. A stadium that would ultimately bring in millions of dollars to the region. A winning bid for the Super Bowl would mean even more money for Santa Clara County and local businesses.

According to Chron.com, the NFL says the Super Bowl impacts a host city’s economy by $300-400 million. In reality, the economic impact has been historically found to be less than 25 percent of the NFL’s estimate, according to a study by Williams College.

Studies by the NFL show that the Super Bowl influences the city’s future business more than any other event or convention in the United States.

BBMP discussions about this business conducted “off record” with judges, lawyers and police officers and favored reporters excluded the public from learning not only about future business opportunities but vulnerabilities in public safety experienced in the region as it hosted the 50th Super Bowl in Santa Clara’s new Levi Stadium.

Human trafficking and other Super Bowl-related issues were topics of an invitation-only BBMP meeting in March 2016, held in the back room of the Three Flames restaurant in San Jose.

BBMP records showing the Super Bowl was a topic of discussion.

Playing Ball After Arrest

The 49ers have had the second most arrests in the NFL within the last ten years. Nine have been arrested or indicted with assault, domestic violence or sexual battery, according to USA Today.

Defensive end Charles Omenihu was arrested just last month for misdemeanor domestic violence.

Other 49ers who have been charged with violent crimes include Bruce Miller who in 2018 was charged with spousal battery. He denied the charges but pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor in the case, for which he was sentenced to a 16-week anti-domestic violence course.

Linebacker Rueben Foster had felony domestic violence charges dropped that same year.

In 2013, senior prosecutor Karny Sinunu-Towery told USA Today her office would not pursue assault charges against San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks because of insufficient evidence in the case.

Sinunu-Towery also claimed an arrest warrant had been erroneously filed against Brooks after he had reportedly hit a teammate in the head with a bottle and then punched him in the face in an early morning argument that June.

Then in August 2015, prosecutors filed a misdemeanor sexual battery charge in another case against Brooks over an encounter with an intoxicated woman.

Brooks later agreed to a plea deal reducing the sexual battery charges to simple battery.

Amidst public outcry over the repeated failure of the DA’s office to hold 49er players accountable, prosecutor Sinunu Towery retired from the DA’s office.

She is also a long-standing BBMP member and volunteers for the Northern California Innocence Project operating out of Santa Clara University. Sinunu Towery’s husband, Jim Towery has attended the BBMP since 1989 and in 2015 he became BBMP chairperson as a superior court judge and was ruling on McDonald’s custody case.

Members of the secretive, invitation-only Bench-Bar-Media-Police (BBMP) committee included Judge Eric Geffon (top left), SJMN Robert Salonga (bottom left), SJMN Tracey Kaplan (top right) and Judge Cindy Hendrickson (bottom right) played a role in former 49er Ray McDonald (center) avoid criminal indictments and public scrutiny in 2015-2016. (Image by Robert J Hansen)

Hotline Hang Up

Santa Clara County offers few resources for victims of domestic violence. The county’s 2-1-1 number often leaves callers on the phone for hours and provides few answers.

In May 2015, a second domestic violence incident occurred between McDonald, his former fiancée and the couple’s new baby. Santa Clara police arrested Mcdonald.

This time, Doe reached out to the YWCA for help requesting protection from the family court as a criminal restraining order was set to expire. The YWCA referred Doe to Bay Area Legal where attorney Nicole Ford provided her pro bono legal services in connection with the restraining order request.

After McDonald was arrested for a second domestic violence-related incident in May 2015, Doe filed a request for domestic violence restraining order. Before the order was reviewed by a judge and filed, it was leaked to the CBS television station KPIX, according to Ford, and McDonald’s attorney, Elise Mitchell.

Transcripts discussing the leak of Doe’s restraining order request from the court to KPIX.

Doe was not interviewed by the district attorney before she was called to testify about the May 2015 incident before a criminal grand jury. For that testimony, Doe had some support from victim advocate Kathleen Krenek of Next Door Solutions. However, Doe’s attorney, Nicole Ford, went on vacation.

When Ford returned, she learned the grand jury did not indict McDonald for domestic violence. Ford advised Doe that her domestic violence case was hopeless and encouraged Doe to dismiss the case she had brought in family court. Then, according to Doe, in her absence and without her written consent, Ford purported to enter into a settlement with McDonald.

“I was not present in court … Ford purported to enter into a ‘global settlement’ of the case,” Doe said.

That order gave McDonald unsupervised visits three times a week for two hours.

Left without sufficient representation, Doe felt pressured to sign stipulations giving McDonald more time with their child and to accept $2500 a month in child support, which Ford told her was all she could get.

Doe fired Ford as the San Jose Mercury falsely reported Doe had “flipped” on the domestic violence allegations.

Salonga’s tweet said that the DA would not charge McDonald with domestic violence after his “girlfriend flipped” on September 3, 2016. (@robertsalongna)

Mercury reporter Robert Salonga tweeted that the “girlfriend flipped” while omitting the situation Doe was going through within the family and criminal courts in September 2016 where Doe never “flipped on her claim.”

That following December, the video that the grand jury saw of the May 2015 incident was released showing the harm Doe had suffered at the hands of the former NFL player.

“Please get away from me Ray,” she says repeatedly while holding the couple’s new baby.

Doe never received any support from the media nor the DA office’s victims services unit until the video was leaked in 2016. She had little support from local charities or the county’s district attorney’s office that had taken over victim services from Silicon Valley Faces in 2015.

She noted she received, “ … basically nothing, except the hot mess with the (Nicole) Ford referral.”

Doe, who was underrepresented, relied on Medi-Cal and food donations from farmers, family and friends while working as a hairdresser earning $12 per hour.

McDonald spent over $300,000 on his custody and criminal lawyers. The custody case was before family court judge Judge James Towery, who chaired BBMP meetings from 2014-2022, records show.

Media Spin on Celebrity Domestic Violence Cases

In 2016, NBC Bay Area, whose reporters also regularly attended BBMP meetings, published a report on survivors of domestic violence after another 49er was arrested for domestic violence.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen and Ruth Patrick Darlene, founder of WomenSV. The photo published on DA Jeff Rosen’s political campaign page has since been deleted.

Doe was featured alongside Ruth Patrick-Darlene, founder of Los Altos-based Women of Silicon Valley, WomenSV, a group that purports to help domestic violence victims from Silicon Valley.

Patrick-Darlene claims to have helped over 1,000 women over the past 11 years. She told NBC Bay Area that she’s concerned women who were involved in earlier cases, such as the McDonald matter, could fall between the cracks.

Forty-three women have come forward claiming that WomenSV doesn’t help women as it represents. But rather, they say, the charity works as a referral service for divorce attorneys including  Nicole Ford, Sean Onderick and Hector Moreno. Lawyers connected to Jane Doe’s family law cases.

Doe was never invited to WomenSV after her story brought the charity widespread media attention and donor support for victims of domestic violence.

“People see bruises, and that’s what they see,” Doe told NBC Bay Area. “They don’t see the aftermath of those bruises. Once the bruises heal, you still have a scar. That’s with you forever.”

Stephen James contributed to this report.

Note: This story has been updated to reflect attorney Nicole Ford was on vacation when her client testified before the grand jury. The initial report noted Ms. Ford had been out of the country.

This is a rolling investigation into the BBMP and its members who sought to influence local media to provide favorable coverage of judges and law enforcement officials, insulating them from scrutiny, scandal and accountability.

Judge Geffon, Karen Sinunu-Towery, deputy DA Hendrickson, former deputy DA Steven Clark, SJPD Chiefs Garcia and Esquivel, San Jose Mercury reporters Kaplan and Salonga, NBC Bay Area reporter Robert Handa and family court judges James Towery and Lori Pegg are all members of the BBMP committee and attended its invitation-only dinners.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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