Attorneys for a man arrested in an internet sex sting last October have claimed that the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office discriminated against gay men by making underage male decoys older than female ones and placing male decoys exclusively on gay dating apps.
Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux vehemently denies the allegations and stated that each person arrested was aware they were contacting a minor.
David Safrazian, a 25-year-old student, was arrested after driving to a Visalia hotel to allegedly meet an undercover deputy posing as a 17-year-old male on Grindr, a dating app popular with gay and bisexual men. He’s charged with meeting a minor for lewd purposes and contacting a minor for a sexual offense.
His attorneys claim that the operation was designed to lure more homosexual men than heterosexual men by placing male decoys, aged 15 and 17, on Grindr, and 14-year-old female decoys on Facebook.
Safrazian’s legal representation, the Clovis-based Schweitzer & Davidian law firm, has been backed up by San Carlos-based Bruce Nickerson. He has a reputation across the state for defending men caught in indecent exposure and lewd conduct sting operations, earning him the nickname of the “toilet lawyer” according to a 2017 Los Angeles Times article.
“I’m the one who has invented this defense of discriminatory prosecution,” Nickerson told the Voice. “For 40 years, I have been a crusading attorney for gay rights; particularly gays who have been entrapped by adult cops pretending to be [adult] decoys.”
He told the Voice he has handled eight to ten “To Catch a Predator”-style sting cases, and that he is currently also defending a man caught in an online sting in Sutter County.
Safrazian’s attorneys are seeking a large amount of documents from the sheriff’s office that they say could prove it operated in a homophobic manner and show he, and other men seeking men, were “deliberately and purposefully singled out for prosecution on the basis of sexual orientation,” according to a recent filing.
His attorneys’ claims, if accepted by a judge, could help his own case and the cases of at least four other men caught in the sting, including Chris Harrell, the former Tulare Historical Museum director and former Tulare City Council candidate. His attorneys have filed a motion for joinder that could allow him to benefit from the effort, if a judge approves.
Nickerson and Schweitzer both welcomed the possibility of other men caught in the sting joining in on their effort.
Mike Boudreaux, the Tulare County Sheriff, denied any allegations of homophobia in a statement to the Voice. Deputies in this operation took the law, not sexual orientation, into account when they undertook the operation.
He stated that the sheriff’s office had great respect for and friendships with Tulare County’s LGBTQ community, and that the allegations of homophobia offended and saddened him.
“All 13 suspects arrested as a result of the operation in question, including Mr. Safrazian, were all made aware they were propositioning a juvenile. Mr. Safrazian propositioned what he believed was a 17-year-old boy, which is a crime.
“The facts of this case are simple. This was an adult sexual predator that was arrested and booked for attempting to have a sexual relationship with a child. The facts speak for themselves.
“Public safety and the protection of our children is of the highest priority to the men and women of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office. And we will continue to do everything we can to make certain that our most vulnerable populations are protected,” Boudreaux said. His full statement is available at the end of this article.
The Tulare County District Attorney’s office blasted the attorneys’ efforts as “irresponsibly smearing an entire law enforcement agency” in a response, calling the filing a “fishing expedition” that did not have any evidence to back its claims. If the effort succeeds and they are able to prove a bias, the effort could allow for the case’s dismissal.
The district attorney’s office declined to comment for this article, stating they were unable to comment on the facts of pending cases or potential arguments.
Safrazian’s legal team is confident that their challenge will succeed.
“I’m confident that we’re on solid legal footing, and solid factual footing. The appearance of discrimination is open and apparent. They do it without concealing it. They just refuse to acknowledge the animus, the motivation behind it,” Eric Schweitzer, an attorney for Safrazian, stated.
“The stings that I have handled, the girls have been 13 or 14 and the boys have been 13 or 14. It clearly shows there is discrimination targeting gays in Visalia,” Nickerson said.
In an October press release, the sheriff’s office stated that it placed male decoys aged 15 and 17 on Grindr, and a 14-year-old female decoy on Facebook. In a prior sting operation, a 14-year-old female Facebook profile and 15-year-old male Grindr profile was used, according to a declaration by Laura Jackson, a Tulare County Deputy District Attorney.
Safrazian’s legal team points to the age differences as proof of a bias, stating that men seeking men were targeted with decoys that were closer to 18.
“As far as the suspects were concerned, they aren’t concerned with men who are interested in 17 year old ladies. Even though – you want to take a look at the national news, that seems to be fairly prevalent all over the country. You don’t find public gays getting caught with underage people – but you’ll sure as hell find a lot of politicians getting caught with underage girls — 16, 17 years old,” Nickerson said.
However, at least two men arrested in the “Operation Safe Teen” sting — Usiel Rebolledo, 41, and Fernando Campos, 43 — were charged with messaging a 14-year-old male decoy, according to a Voice analysis of incident reports filed in the “Operation Safe Teen” cases.
Another — Fernando Jiron-Magana, 45 — was charged with contacting a 15-year-old decoy, and five additional men — Safrazian and Harrell included — were charged with contacting a 17-year-old decoy. One of those men — Kyle Adams, 27 — has already been sentenced after pleading guilty.
At least five “Operation Safe Teen” cases involved men who messaged the male decoys, and at least six involved men who messaged female decoys, according to Jackson’s declaration.
“Statistically – they have hauled in, 50% of the arrestees were of the gay persuasion. Is 50% of Tulare County gay? I don’t get that feeling from Tulare County when I’m down there. I get the feeling there is a vibrant gay community in Tulare County, but it’s small,” Schweitzer said. “Certainly not 50%, certainly not 40%, not even 10%. So why the disproportionate number of gays being rounded up in this operation?”
A hearing on Safrazian’s motion is scheduled before Judge Brett Alldredge on June 25 in Department 4 of the Tulare County Superior Court. Click here to view the filings referenced in the report.
Sheriff’s full statement
“I am offended and deeply saddened that anyone would make allegations that the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office would target members of the LGBTQ community.
I, along with the women and men of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office, have great respect, as well as friendships, within our LGBTQ community. Our focus is on those people who prey upon the innocence of our children.
The methods/tactics employed by the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office to conduct operations and investigations aimed at capturing sexual predators in our county are a matter of public safety. Therefore, the public is not privy to that information.
However, the facts are, the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office targets those individuals who are going after children and teenagers in our county, regardless of a suspect’s sexual orientation. That information is irrelevant to our Detectives who are conducting these investigations.
All 13 suspects arrested as a result of the operation in question, including Mr. Safrazian, were all made aware they were propositioning a juvenile. Mr. Safrazian propositioned what he believed was a 17-year-old boy, which is a crime.
The facts of this case are simple. This was an adult sexual predator that was arrested and booked for attempting to have a sexual relationship with a child. The facts speak for themselves.
Public safety and the protection of our children is of the highest priority to the men and women of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office. And we will continue to do everything we can to make certain that our most vulnerable populations are protected.”