Posted at: 06/23/2014 10:44 PM
Updated at: 06/23/2014 10:45 PM
By: Ryan Luby, KOB Eyewitness News 4
A Valencia County reserve deputy faced kidnapping and rape charges, but his case was dismissed. Now, the family of his alleged 14-year-old victim wants Valencia County taxpayers to pay in civil court.
According to a lawsuit against the Valencia County Sheriff's Department and Board of Commissioners, which was kicked up to federal court on Monday, Austin Wood groomed the teenager to become a victim by fostering trust in her and her family.
The girl's mother had sought assistance from the department after she felt threatened by her ex-husband, according to court records. The department chose Wood to respond to the family's repeated emergency calls for assistance.
"She thought of him as her savior," attorney Hope Eckert said of the mother. "She even thanked the Sheriff's Department for … sending the reserve officer to help her and her family stay safe. And little did she know what this guy's plans really were."
Eckert is one of two attorneys handling the case for the family.
Eckert said Wood became close with the family over several months in 2011. But one day, in June, she said he violated the family's trust.
According to court records, Wood picked up the girl and brought her to his home to allegedly to clean it so she could earn spending money. He showed the girl around the house and pointed to the rooms that needed to be cleaned.
Once in his bedroom, the records show Wood removed his reserve deputy uniform from a wardrobe, including his firearm and mace, and placed it on the dresser in front of the girl. Shortly thereafter Wood raped the girl.
The records then explain that Wood removed the bed coverings and put them in his washing machine. Wood then dressed himself in his uniform. The girl then dressed herself and walked home. While en route, Wood picked up the girl and, in silence, drove her home. He hasn't spoken with the family since.
According to Eckert, the girl broke down and told her mother of the alleged rape in May 2012.
"The sad part is it's not the first story and unfortunately probably won't be the last one," Eckert said. "And that's why we have to do lawsuits like this is to bring attention, to bring awareness, to get the government officials to realize that there's a cost to be paid for not paying attention to who you're hiring and what they're doing, and we hope to accomplish that with this lawsuit."
Eckert criticized the Valencia County Sheriff's Department polices on selecting reserve deputies. For instance, in the court records, she and her co-counsel explained that all reserve deputy applicants must undergo a check of criminal and driving records. In Wood's case, the attorneys said Wood had been involved in several crimes, "including, but not limited to, providing minors with alcohol and illegal drug possession, a fact that was known to at least one regular Valencia County Sheriff's Deputy."
The Valencia County Sheriff's Department cannot comment on pending litigation. But a source within the department said Wood no longer works there. The source also said the department temporarily had suspended the reserve deputy program until it had adopted stricter protocol in the selection process.
Eckert said it's unclear how much a judge could award in punitive damages. Regardless, she said no amount of money could compensate the family for the pain they endured. She said the girl now suffers from depression, anxiety, severe sleep disorder and post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of the alleged rape.
"We want to believe in the police force. We want to be able to call them when we need help. And we want to know that the person who comes to our house is going to be caring, and is going to be professional, and is going to protect us and not harm us," Eckert said.
Wood's criminal case was dismissed after the prosecution filed a "nolle prosequi" letter with the court in late 2012, which means prosecutors did not wish to proceed further. Despite that, the case could be reopened at a later date.