Nearly 100 sex abuse survivors at Dublin prison likely will never get full justice

Cristina had just gotten out of the shower at the women's prison in Dublin, when John Bellhouse, a former safety manager, reached under her towel and felt inside her. 

Afterward, he licked his fingers and told her she tasted good. He grabbed her breasts through her cell window. He told her he wanted to spread her legs on his desk and "eat me like a taco salad," she testified. 

Reluctantly, with a slightly hostile tone in her voice, Cristina told a federal jury about her experiences last week during Bellhouse's criminal trial in U.S. District Court in Oakland. 

"I felt violated," she said. "I told him to stop." 

A jury found Bellhouse guilty of five counts of sex abuse. But Cristina wasn't listed as a formal victim of his, despite her gripping testimony. 

That's because the U.S. Attorney's Office charged Bellhouse with sexually abusing two women, but Cristina wasn't one of them. Cristina's roommate was also compelled to testify to corroborate her account. 

"I thought her testimony was so powerful," said attorney Jeff Bornstein, who represents sex abuse survivors at FCI Dublin. "And then I thought, ‘How is this not part of this case?’"

Cristina is one of at least 99 women in this type of no-charging situation.

Federal prosecutors have acknowledged at least 16 victims in court filings as victims – like Cristina  –  despite not formally charging any of the six FCI Dublin officers with crimes against them.

In addition, KTVU is aware of at least 83 other women who have filed administrative claims against the Bureau of Prisons alleging staff abuse at FCI Dublin, but whose allegations have never been codified in legal charging documents. 

Lawyers representing the women note that the U.S. Attorney's Office is known mostly for overcharging cases mostly to pressure people to take plea deals. And this "undercharging," the attorneys point out, only seems to be occurring with these sex abuse cases at FCI Dublin. These civil attorneys say they are aware that as soon as a correctional officer accepts a plea deal, prosecutors will close the case right there – even if more women come forward. 

There can be emotional repercussions to not being legally documented as a survivor of sexual abuse. 

"I feel like the government is telling me they don't believe me," said Aimee Chavira of San Diego, who said she was assaulted by at least five officers at FCI Dublin. "You're telling me it didn't happen…It's a devastating feeling." 

But there are practical repercussions, too. The women say if they are not acknowledged as an official victim, it makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to win early release, obtain immigration and mental healthcare benefits, and get adequate civil payouts. 


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.

Women called to testify, despite not being part of the charges 

As for why? The answer might never be publicly known.

Abraham Simmons, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorneys Office of Northern California, said the office had no comment on any of the questions posed to federal prosecutors Mollie Priedeman and Andrew Paulson.

When asked specifically, how do they respond to the women who say prosecutors don't seem to care about them and are doing the bare minimum?  

Simmons emailed: "The public record will not and cannot reflect all aspects of the government’s investigation nor the efforts of the attorneys, law enforcement, and victim witness professionals in the handling of any matter.  We have no comment under these circumstances in response to your question."

There are some logistical and real reasons why prosecutors don't charge for certain crimes. 

The biggest hurdle: Can prosecutors actually prove the women's claims? In Chavira's case, federal investigators hinted they didn't think they could win in court when she told them about one officer. 

Another hurdle: When did the allegations surface? Sometimes it may be late in the game. 

"By the time they [the prosecutors] get the corroboration," Bornstein said, "they may have been pretty far down the road and they don't want to do anything that could have delayed the trial."

In Bornstein's opinion, the prosecutors must balance considering whether to add additional charges for each woman who comes forward vs. taking a case to trial that is readily provable. 

Judge weighs in

It's not just the survivors and their advocates who have noticed what's going on. 

U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzales Rogers chastised the prosecutors for trying to seek the maximum sentence for former FCI Dublin Warden Ray J. Garcia without including charges for some victims who provided testimony.

Specifically, the prosecutors included the testimonies of five women who alleged they were Garcia's victims in their pre-sentencing report. Yet they chose to only charge the case based on accusations related to three women.

Rogers told the prosecutors that some of the stories of the five women "were even worse" than the women for which they charged. And the judge questioned why the prosecutors didn't file a superseding indictment if they were so intent on making sure Garcia would be sent to prison for a longer time.

Priedeman and Paulson did not specifically answer the judge's question. 

Garcia was convicted in December 2022 of eight counts of sex abuse and lying to the FBI and started serving a nearly six-year sentence in May. 

(From L to R) Yvonne Palmore, Aimee Chavira, Linda Chaney and Marie Washington all said they were sexually abused at FCI Dublin. But no charges were filed against any correctional officers.

Consequences for not getting justice

There is real fallout – financial and emotional – for not including these women's allegations as part of the official charging document, the women and their advocates say.

San Diego attorney Jessica Pride represents about a dozen women sexually assaulted at FCI Dublin, including Cristina, who testified against Bellhouse. 

She said someone like Cristina who plans to sue the Bureau of Prisons will inevitably get less money in the end.

"When the government looks at how to value these cases, they look to see if a victim testified and if the case was charged," Pride said. "If there was a conviction, it means the conduct happened. And they will value that and get a bigger piece of justice. It's not fair for the women who testified just as a witness. They will get less and both suffered the same harm." 

Then there are women who feel their experiences don't count and it pains them. 

Yvonne Palmore of Hayward was never officially part of former FCI Warden Ray Garcia's trial, despite her telling superiors that correctional officers beat her up and Garcia was taking photos of her naked body as she woke up. 

Garcia was convicted in December 2022 of eight counts of sex abuse and lying to the FBI; Palmore was not listed as one of his victims.  

To feel heard, Palmore came to Garcia's opening statements to share her story outside the courtroom. 

"This is a nightmare," she said on the first day of Garcia's trial. "This has impacted my life in ways that you could never imagine."

And then there are women who fall someone in between; the government has acknowledged their abuse in some type of legal document, even though the officer wasn't charged criminally in their case.

Take what happened to Aimee Chavira of San Diego. 

Last month, the FBI arrested Darrell "Dirty Dick" Smith on 12 counts of sexual abuse involving three women. KTVU has interviewed four women who all said they were abused by Smith, and yet they are not listed as official victims in the charging documents. 

Chavira said she is one of them. 

She said that Smith, former correctional officer Nicholas Ramos – who died by suicide in August 2022 while he was under investigation – and three other correctional officers, abused her, once by conducting a strip search of her body to check for drugs, where they also made her penetrate herself. 

She told federal investigators last summer that Smith locked her in her cell and made her undress in front of him if she wanted to leave. 

Chavira documented these allegations in a legal filing called a "compassionate release" motion, which the U.S. Attorney's Office did not oppose, essentially accepting her experiences as true. 

As a result, Chavira was released from FCI Dublin three years early last month.

On the one hand, Chavira is extremely grateful the government acknowledged her situation and that she is no longer in prison. 

But she is extremely frustrated that Smith, Ramos and the others won't be charged criminally for what she said they did to her.

During her interview last summer with federal investigators, Chavira did say that the agents indicated they might not be able to prove her claims to a jury. In terms of Ramos, prosecutors said they wouldn't be charging him because he is dead. 

So, she is now left feeling that the correctional officers won, and what Smith repeatedly told her was true: No one would ever believe her. 

"He told me that to my face," she recounted in an interview. "And he was right. That's what's happening. So, you can imagine the mixed emotions….No one is acknowledging me. I feel angry. I feel mad." 

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