A single mother worried she'd be thrown back in jail, leaving her child without a parent. A second mother didn't want to spend another of her child's birthdays behind bars. A young woman wanted to be allowed time to attend church with her parents. And a fourth was in fear because she lived alone.
These women, who have accused a Riverside County sheriff's deputy of preying on them sexually while they were on the county's house arrest program, told investigators they felt forced to send explicit photos and videos to avoid another arrest or to get more lenient terms of release.
The new details emerged this week in a court hearing for the deputy, 32-year-old Christian Phillip Heidecker, who is now charged with 11 felony counts including extortion, bribery and dissuading witnesses. He has pleaded not guilty.
Judge Dwight Moore ruled Thursday that those counts should go to trial, but said prosecutors had not presented enough evidence for seven other charges to move forward: four counts of forcible sexual penetration and three counts of engaging in a sexual act with an incarcerated person.
"The judge made the right ruling," said Molly Tucker, Heidecker's defense attorney. "The case was completely overcharged and it's a classic example of the Riverside DA's office overcharging a case. My client never met with any of these individuals and it was simply communication via text."
Heidecker had been a deputy with the Riverside County Sheriff's Department since 2018, working in the department's electronic monitoring program based in Banning. He was arrested on Sept. 15 and has since resigned.
‘You and I have a lot to lose’
Investigators presented in court dozens of text messages Heidecker sent that show him demanding sexual photos and videos from the women, graphically describing what he wanted to see and do to them in response. He also sent to the women pictures of himself in a sheriff's department uniform, some of him partially clothed and a video of him masturbating. Investigators said that misconduct exclusively occurred by text, and that they do not believe Heidecker ever met up with the women outside of the Banning station.
Investigator Ryan Deanne testified to text messages exchanged between Heidecker and one victim indicating they were in the process of coordinating a sexual meetup in the coming week, when Deanne seized Heidecker's phone during the criminal investigation.
The text messages outline a scheme in which, sheriff's investigators say, Heidecker used both his work and personal phones to indulge his sexual fetishes for feet and dominance, and oscillate between demands for women to comply with the county's program and desires to kindle personal sexual relationships with them.
Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Jess Walsh questioned three investigators with the sheriff's department about the text messages which lay the foundation of the case against him. The court hearing took place Wednesday and Thursday at the Banning Justice Center, about a mile from the jail office where the deputy's misconduct is said to have centered. The texts show him extorting sexual messages from the women over a matter of months earlier this year, and indicate the department opened a criminal investigation of him in early September after a county vendor notified the department of his alleged misconduct.
The sheriff's department investigators testified about how Heidecker pursued four women who were enrolled in the Riverside Alternative Sentencing Program, a unit in the sheriff's department that manages the house arrest of people in the county. (He has not been charged with any crimes involving a fifth woman, who made similar allegations in a civil filing.) It is The Desert Sun's policy to not identify people who say they are victims of a sexual assault.
The testimony also revealed that a woman who worked for Sentinel Offender Services, the private company that contracts with the county for electronic monitoring equipment, is said to have reported his advances on her and the evidence of the other exchanges on the phone the company issued to Heidecker.
As Heidecker is only charged with misconduct related to four incarcerated women, it does not appear his advances on the Sentinel employee amounted to a crime.
The text messages seized by the department show Heidecker met the women through the electronic monitoring program. Investigators testified that his communication with the women was almost immediately "flirtatious," asking that typically standard photos of an electronic monitor fixed to an ankle include an exposed foot.
From there, investigators testified, text messages show he established "ground rules" with them.
"He gave her instructions to delete messages, because if not, he could send one of his buddies to her house to delete the messages," testified sheriff's department Investigator Roberto Navarrete regarding one accuser.
Heidecker texted the same woman that she could have additional charges filed against her, but if she complied she would be protected.
"I will always stick up for you and make sure you're not in trouble. You should stick up for me too," Navarrete said Heidecker communicated, adding later the deputy threatened: "You and I have a lot to lose."
‘You still owe me for Sunday’
Heidecker sometimes sent dozens of such messages over a course of a day, and at other times would stop after his demands were spurned to only respond days later with "you forgot again" or "do I get anything?"
He would text women after visits to the gym and before showers, bluntly explaining he wanted to be sexually aroused by them. If they ignored him or hesitated, the texts showed, he would assert the rules he had laid out for them.
"You cannot say anything to anyone, since you sent me stuff as well you can be in trouble too, you need to not be so nonchalant and respond to me when I ask," Sheriff's Investigator Katherine Bermudez read from a series of texts during the hearing.
When the woman responded that she understood his demands, he texted: "Good girl, lol."
Heidecker balanced his insistent advances with the promise of favorable treatment, more free time and protection from more exposure to the criminal justice system.
"I can try to get you extra hours and stuff, but you gotta play by the rules," Bermudez said he texted.
Heidecker also pursued a woman who was assigned to another case manager, according to Deanne, saying: "I know Deputy Arrellano is your case manager but you can also communicate with me (...) I don’t do this for most, don’t screw me over."
The text exchanges show a range of responses from women ignoring him, to eventually providing explicit material in exchange for extended hours on a certain evening or permitted free time to go on a trip with family. Heidecker at times delivered on the exchange, and at other times further extorted more sexual material even after it was given.
Bermudez testified that Heidecker told a woman, "Once you send me those, I’ll give you until 6 p.m. tonight," adding later both "You gotta work for it" and "You still owe me for Sunday."
‘You're not going to burn me are you?’
The Riverside Alternative Sentencing Program manages the house arrest of both people who are awaiting trial, and those who are serving sentences after being convicted. Sgt. Michael Veatch said the program helps moderate the inmate population and is often preferred by people over physical detention in a jail.
Veatch testified to the various ways a participant can be pulled from the program and again jailed, including if they break laws or decline to respond to "reasonable requests" made by phone from their case managers.
The text message evidence presented by the investigators showed Heidecker used his work phone to request sexually explicit materials going back to at least June of this year, and often pushed the women to continue the conversations on his personal phone.
When the women were later questioned about the exchanges, the investigators testified, they all said they felt they didn't have a choice but to provide the material because of the power Heidecker had over their incarceration.
"She said she felt stuck, because Mr. Heidecker had the ability to put her back in jail," Navarette testified about his interview of one woman.
Deanne described how one woman began coordinating a meeting with Heidecker for sex, in which they discussed a date and details about what would happen. The woman was a mother of two young children, Deanne said, and had recently been placed on the program after five months incarcerated during which she missed a child's birthday.
"Her priority was to stay out of jail and stay on the progam," Deanne testified about his interview with her. "She was willing to do whatever it took."
Bermudez testified that another woman had labored to qualify for the RASP program, and was desperate to not be readmitted to jail. That fear, Bermudez testified, was central to Heidecker's scheme.
"I wanted to talk to you before anything happens," Bermudez said Heidecker texted one woman who didn't respond as quickly as he wanted. "You’re not trying to burn me are you? I have kids and I don’t want to destroy my career."
During another string of sexually explicit texts, Heidecker sent a threat, Bermudez testified, demanding that she provide the material or "Otherwise lockdown for five days."
Bermudez said the woman aknowledged during an emotional investigative interview that she had a criminal record and "was vulnerable (...) She was in fear that he could manipulate the system and she would be sent back to jail."
The county’s liability
The Riverside County District Attorney's Office filed charges on Sept. 20, in a complaint that identified by initials four separate victims. Last week, two groups of civil attorneys have filed preliminary complaints against Heidecker and his former employer regarding the investigation of his alleged crimes.
Attorneys Denise Gastelum and Christian Contreras represent four women, and Neil Gehlawat represents one, who say they were abused by Heidecker over the last year. The attorneys separately filed similar claims with Riverside County, alleging the county's attorneys and sheriff's department representatives compelled the five women to sign liability release agreements while being questioned during the criminal investigation in exchange for paltry sums and without the opportunity to consult their own lawyers.
The Desert Sun reported last week that three women had come forward claiming the sheriff's department had called them to a station in Banning under the false pretense of having their electronic monitors inspected. In fact, they said, the department questioned them about their communication with Heidecker, his alleged crimes and then compelled them to sign agreements to release the county from civil liability in connection with his misconduct.
Both sets of attorneys have claimed the agreements amount to a hush money scheme, saying their clients were denied the opportunity to consult with a lawyer before signing and felt compelled to do so because they technically remained in the custody of the sheriff's department. Riverside County administrators responded that the agreements were legal and not compelled.
"To characterize any pre-litigation settlements as an effort to buy silence is a clear mischaracterization," said county spokesperson Brooke Federico last week.
This week's hearing provided the first public reporting of an investigative timeline, one that tightly aligns with what is known of the county's effort to manage its civil liabilty.
The case's lead investigator, Deanne, testified to seizing Heidecker's phone and first questioning him about the criminal case at his home on Sept. 1. Other investigators testified to questioning victims that month, and as late as Sept. 14, with all saying the women were fearful and emotional about the consequences of what had happened.
"She was nervous, emotional and at times she began to cry," Bermudez testified of one such interview.
The Desert Sun obtained five redacted contracts appearing to clear the county, the sheriff's department and Heidecker of civil liability for his misconduct. The agreements were signed between Sept. 13 and Sept. 14, the day before Heidecker was arrested — indicating the county's attempt to control civil liability was happening in tandem with the criminal investigation. The agreements note payments ranging from $1,000 to $7,500, and state his alleged misconduct occurred between October 2022 and September 2023.
The civil agreements increase the number of alleged victims to five and establish Heidecker's misconduct could have begun eight months before what was previously reported. The criminal complaint accuses him of forced sexual acts starting as early as June of this year, while the settlements note October of last year.
Christopher Damien covers public safety and the criminal justice system. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @chris_a_damien.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: California sheriff's deputy allegedly used threats to get explicit video