Dublin prison guard charged with sex crimes an 'awkward loner;' women's allegations under attack

An attorney representing a former FCI Dublin correctional officer charged with sex crimes told a jury Tuesday that her client – an "awkward loner " – did not have illegal relations with incarcerated women, whom she described as convicted felons looking for quick payouts and help with their deportation problems.

The opening statements in U.S. District Court in Oakland were the first time the public was made privy to how John Russell Bellhouse, 39, of Pleasanton will be defending himself against five counts of sexual abuse while he was a correctional officer of the safety crew at the Federal Correctional Institute at Dublin from 2018 to 2021. 

Critics in the courtroom called this legal strategy "despicable." 

Defense attorney Kathryn Ross of Berkeley told the jury that Bellhouse, who used to be a safety manager at the all-women's prison, was an "easy target for false accusations" by the incarcerated women he is accused of groping, fondling and receiving oral sex from.

Ross conceded that Bellhouse "crossed the line" at times while working at the prison by "oversharing his vulnerabilities" with the women, sometimes bringing them bagels and Starbucks. He befriended the women, Ross said, because he was an "outcast at work" with no friends. 

But she stressed that he never had sex with them, and the women were motivated to make up stories about Bellhouse to reduce their sentences, receive U-visas that could help them stay in the United States and file civil lawsuits, which could end in million-dollar settlements.

"Mr. Bellhouse is a people pleaser…and a pushover," Ross said. "He is not a predator." 

As she spoke, Bellhouse sat quietly, shoulders rounded in a black suit, at the defense table, saying nothing, eyes cast downward. There are no cameras allowed in the federal courthouse and Bellhouse escaped comment after court. 


Dozens of Dublin prison sex survivors face deportation

Nearly three dozen women at FCI Dublin have either been deported or are facing possible deportation, even though their attorneys say that as sexual assault survivors or witnesses they are eligible for U-visas.

Ross also described FCI Dublin, where a total of six correctional officers have been charged with sex crimes – the most of any prison in the country – as a "den of gossip," where women have "a lot of time to talk" and plot tales. 

Specifically, Ross said that two of the women initially denied to the FBI and federal prosecutors in early conversations that Bellhouse did anything to them. It was only later, Ross alleged, when one of them got a lawyer who advised her on asking for a special visa to stave off deportation that she changed her story. 

Over the course of two years, KTVU has spoken or communicated with about 50 women who are currently and formerly incarcerated at FCI Dublin. 

The majority described being wary of telling authorities about their alleged sexual abuse. 

Often, the women said their allegations went ignored, or got them into further trouble, where correctional officers would throw them in solitary confinement or take good behavior time away from them if they blew the whistle on the guards. 

They explained they often kept their mouths shut when questioned by the FBI about sexual abuse allegations, especially if they were still behind bars, because of the retaliation they would surely face. 

On Tuesday, Ana, one of the woman who testified that Bellhouse kissed her, hugged her and whom she performed oral sex on, spoke to just that.

She said that she didn't originally tell the investigators about Bellhouse in March 2021 because she was still incarcerated and he still worked there.

"I was a little bit scared," she said in Spanish. 

She added that she thought she would get in trouble for writing Bellhouse love notes and receiving gold earrings from him as she was so close to getting released that she didn't want to ruin it by speaking out against an officer.

Under cross-examination, Ana acknowledged: "I probably shouldn't have lied." 

Meanwhile, Jessica Pride, a civil attorney who is representing another woman who is testifying at Bellhouse's trial, took issue with the depiction that her client, or any of the women she's representing, are gold-digging liars.

She said that attorneys have to put high price tags on civil lawsuits, like $10 million, because they can't change the dollar amount mid-way through the suit, which is why they routinely aim high in the beginning. 

"The defense is trying to sidestep his client’s bad actions by claiming the victims are money hungry," Pride said outside court. "This is a normal defense tactic trying to silence a woman who decides to stand up for herself. We need to shift the focus back to his client who is on trial for already having victimized multiple women." 

Pride also said that her clients have all described Bellhouse as "mean and arrogant," and not the people-pleaser his attorneys described to the jury. 


California prison sex assault survivor released 3 years early because of abuse

A California woman who said she was harassed and groped by multiple officers at FCI Dublin – and then was retaliated against for speaking up about it – was released from custody three years early, successfully arguing that no one should have to withstand sexual abuse as part of their prison sentence.

As for the deportation issue, this has been the center of controversy between the U.S. Attorney's Office and lawyers from Centro Legal de la Raza of Oakland, who are also representing many sex assault survivors, some of whom are non-citizens who are facing deportation despite the abuse they suffered and the help they have provided the government. 

In fact, a small group of protesters stood outside the Oakland federal courthouse ahead of Bellhouse's trial, demanding the government do more to stop the deportation of sex abuse survivors. 

"Many of them most are non-citizens of the United States," said activist Diana Block. "They are being subject to deportation proceedings and we think they should be granted sanctuary." 

Ana, one of Bellhouse's alleged victims, was granted a U-visa by the federal government during the course of its FCI Dublin investigation. 

She must now go through the formal deportation court proceedings to determine whether she will be allowed to legally stay in the United States. 

"Survivors have a right to pursue relief from deportation and reparations based on the horrors they endured at the hands of FCI Dublin officials," said Susan Beaty, a Centro Legal attorney representing several FCI Dublin sexual assault survivors. "The defense’s attempt to undermine survivors, who bravely came forward at great personal risk, is both predictable and despicable."

Protesters demand that sex assault survivors at FCI Dublin receive help with their deportation hearings. May 30, 2023

Of the six FCI Dublin officers charged with sex crimes, Bellhouse is the second to go to trial. 

Former prison cook Enrique Chavez and prison chaplain James Highhouse pleaded guilty and have been sentenced to nearly two years and seven years, respectively.

Correctional officer Ross Klinger pleaded guilty but has yet to be sentenced; he will be testifying against Bellhouse this week or next. 

Darrell "Dirty Dick" Smith was charged with 12 counts of sex crimes earlier this month and has not yet entered a plea. 

Former Warden Ray Garcia went to trial, and was convicted and sentenced to nearly six years in prison. He started serving his sentence this month. 

During Garcia's trial in December 2022, his attorney, James Reilly, decided to verbally attack the women as convicted felons after they testified they were sexually abused, photographed naked and psychologically manipulated by the warden.

But that defense strategy didn't work.

Simeon Meyer, the jury foreman in that case, told KTVU that he and his peers felt Reilly "did a really poor job."

Meyer said the women were completely believable, even though Garcia's defense painted them as liars and criminals.

Meyer said he and the other jurors did not like how Reilly "treated the [women] with impunity." 

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@fox.com or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez