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How a Teenage Sex Worker Helped the East Bay Express Bust the Oakland Police

Cops can delete their social media accounts, but the message history lives on.

 

The Oakland Police Department, once the star of its own comeback story, is reeling. After police chief Sean Whent’s “voluntary” departure on Friday, interim chief Ben Fairow was swiftly canned today amid a sex trafficking scandal that reaches to the top of the OPD as well as to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and the Richmond Police Department. The East Bay Express blew open the scandal with a big feature, by East Bay Express staff writer Darwin BondGraham and independent journalist Ali Winston, with a litany of evidence showing officers preying upon a sex worker who was, until recently, a minor.

Per the Express’s report, at least fourteen Oakland police officers took advantage of a teenager who goes by the name Celeste Guap—three of them when she was underage. They knew Guap was a sex worker, she told the Express, and the three who committed statutory rape run afoul of human trafficking laws, by the state's definition. But wait, there’s more! Guap’s relationship with officers was apparently open enough that OPD higher-ups (and even Chief Whent’s wife) knew about it months before Robert Warshaw, the independent police monitor who oversees the department’s reforms on behalf of the federal government.

So how did BondGraham and Winston get the story? Aside from their years of collaboration and their own city sources, Winston credits Guap’s good record keeping. Texts and private Instagram messages Guap saved show officers soliciting sex, fielding nude photos, and leaking information about prostitution stings to her. One officer, whom she nicknamed Superman, warned Guap to stay off certain blocks one March night to keep her out of an undercover operation. "Thank u daddy I appreciate it [I don't] wanna go to jail lol," she wrote back.

“Her cooperation was critical,” Winston says. “Her conscious decision to keep the messages and share them allowed us to make some of the statements we made in the story.” Instead of a he-said, she-said between a sex worker and a police department, it’s all right there in the message history. (Including this Facebook message retired captain Ricardo Orozco sent to Guap: "I would love ur taco!”)

So why did Guap talk? Though she initially sought protection from the police—“it's like one less officer that's gonna arrest me,” she said—she stopped feeling as friendly toward the officers. In an interview with KPIX last week, Guap said, “Thinking back at it, I do see myself as being a victim, because I do feel I was taken advantage of.”

Having built their report over months (Winston won’t say exactly how long) and tracing the extent of the scandal bit by bit, Winston and BondGraham did get one piece practically handed to them. They didn’t have the identity of the aforementioned “Superman,” only his phone number. Their attempts to interview Superman had caught the attention of the department’s public information officer, Johnna Watson. After a brief phone call, Superman never responded again, but “about an hour before our deadline, [Watson] emailed, ‘Look, can you not contact Officer Burton? Please allow us to assist you,’” Winston says. “I write her back and say, ‘Officer Burton or Officer Bunton?’ She was like, ‘Bunton, sorry.’” Which is how they confirmed the identity of Superman: Brian J. Bunton. “Whether she realizes it or not, Officer Watson did us a solid.”

The scandal also touches Alameda and Richmond, where, respectively, three officers and four sheriff’s deputies were involved with Guap. But one thing’s for sure: The reckoning’s coming in Oakland. “At this point, you have a degree of instability that’s far greater than when there were three police chiefs within a couple of days,” Winston says, referring to the drama that led up to Whent’s appointment in 2013.  

The question of whether the blowback will also hit Mayor Libby Schaaf remains open. Schaaf is, as the Express points out, walking an odd line: expressing her anger at the scandal, yet maintaining ad nauseam that Whent resigned “for personal reasons.” “I think the question now is,” says Winston, “what does she know and when did she know it?”

 

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