OAKLAND, Calif. - Although he was expected to testify in federal court in Oakland on Friday, former FCI Dublin prison safety manager John Bellhouse decided against taking the stand and his lawyers chose not to put on a defense case.
In addition, one of his former co-workers, ex-correctional officer Ross Klinger, who already pleaded guilty to sex crimes with incarcerated women, also was not called to testify, although prosecutors indicated he would in prior court documents.
No reasons were given for any of these decisions.
Instead, both the U.S. attorneys and the defense lawyers launched right into closing arguments, capping four days of trial before U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers and the jury who began deliberating late Friday afternoon. Their verdict must be unanimous.
The two sides reiterated their points of view. Bellhouse is formally charged with five counts of sex abuse as they relate to two women, Ana and Genesis, from 2019 to 2021.
There is no consensual sex in prison between an officer and someone in their custody.
Prosecutors Mollie Priedeman and Andrew Paulson contend Bellhouse used his position of power to flirt with women, grab their breasts, digitally penetrate one of them after she took a shower and had another woman perform oral sex on him.
He manipulated the women, Paulson argued in closing arguments, not only by abusing his authority but by plying them with treats, like bagels, Starbucks, earrings and yarn.
Bellhouse also knew that no one would believe the women, as it would be his word over theirs.
"He traded contraband for sex and silence," Paulson said. "You saw how terrified they were of getting in trouble. But here in this courtroom, their voices could be silenced no more."
Not only did the women testify to these sexual relations, but on Thursday, an FBI agent showed photos of Bellhouse's truck, which authorities searched in 2021. Inside, agents found love notes sent by Ana and other women to Bellhouse.
One of the women testified she loved Bellhouse. Another woman testified she only wrote the notes so he would buy her earrings and put money in her commissary. One woman testified that Bellhouse asked her rhetorically, who else would love someone like him?
Bellhouse declined to speak to KTVU outside court this week, and instead took out his cell phone to film a KTVU photographer and reporter seeking his comment on the trial.
He also remained silent inside the courtroom, mostly looking downward or straight ahead, his shoulders rounded, sitting between his lawyers, Shaffy Moeel of Oakland and Kathryn Ross of Berkeley.
Instead of him testifying himself – which he had planned to do as of Thursday afternoon, his lawyers told the jury that there is no evidence that Bellhouse, whom they called an "awkward loner," had sex with any women in custody.
In opening arguments, the defense said the women should not be believed because they are convicted felons who made up "false accusations" and were "highly incentivized" in seeking money from civil payouts and immunity from being deported.
In closing arguments, Moeel softened this strategy a bit.
She said someone who is a criminal isn't a "throwaway," but she reminded the jury that they must give the appropriate amount of weight to the testimony of someone who has previously broken the law and has "credibility issues."
Moeel also countered that Bellhouse didn't trade sex for favors and treats – he brought in those types of items for everyone and not for quid pro quo. She did concede, though, that Bellhouse was lax with prison rules about bringing in "contraband," which is against policy but not criminal by itself.
Similarly, Bellhouse kept the love notes – written by the women to him – because he cared about the women in his custody, Moeel said. These notes were strewn in his truck along with a lot of other stuff, Moeel said, inferring that he is someone who doesn't throw anything away and wasn't saving them in particular.
Moeel pointed out that the women appeared desperate for Bellhouse's love and attention, not the other way around. Other notes show the women were angry he wasn't bringing them cigarettes and other things they asked for.
These notes show the "brazen conduct" of the women, Moeel said, and not Bellhouse's conduct. "He made the mistake of thinking they were his friends."
As for actually having sexual relations, Moeel said the prosecutors didn't elicit enough detailed testimony or provide specific enough evidence to prove these serious allegations beyond a reasonable doubt.
As one example, Ana testified she performed oral sex on Bellhouse and described how he ejaculated. But Moeel pointed out that prosecutors did not provide any physical proof of this happening.
Six FCI Dublin correctional officers have been charged with sex abuse crimes as of May 2023.
Bellhouse is one of six correctional officers at FCI Dublin to have been charged with having sex with incarcerated women. Sofar, four have been convicted.
The most high-profile of those officers was former Warden Ray J. Garcia, the only other guard to head to trial.
Garcia testified at length during his trial – denying any wrongdoing.
Garcia started serving his nearly six-year sentence earlier this month.
Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez