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Behind $3M settlement, the story of a police intern’s dreams shattered by sexual assault

This Oct. 12, 2015 file photo shows Diana Guerrero in Las Cruces, N.M. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

For Diana Guerrero, the $3 million that she is slated to receive from the city of Las Cruces, N.M., holds the heavy cost of a piercing trauma.

She was 17 years old, an aspiring law enforcement officer interning at the Las Cruces Police Department in New Mexico.

He was 35, a veteran detective with a troubled history.

In 2011, Guerrero accompanied Michael Garcia to a crime scene. But instead of driving her back to the police department afterwards, he took her to a secluded neighborhood that was still under construction.

It was there inside his patrol car that Garcia, an officer of 15 years assigned to the child abuse and sex crimes investigations unit, reached inside Guerrero’s panties and fondled her. Then he unzipped his own pants and forced the high school student to touch his genitals, according to court records cited by the Associated Press.

The sexual assault changed everything for Guerrero, shattering the vision of the bright future she’d envisioned for herself.

“I could not comprehend,” Guerrero told ABC-7. “Why me? What did I do so wrong? I did everything right. I had good grades, I was a good kid, all I wanted to do was help people…All of a sudden it happened to me.”

While the Washington Post does not generally identify victims of sexual assault, in this case Guerrero has voluntarily gone public.

She had wanted to study criminal justice, but now she wasn’t sure. And she certainly wasn’t sure that she still wanted to become a police officer.

“It never occurred to me that a person who had earned a badge would do this to me or anybody else,” Guerrero, now 21, told the AP. “I lost my faith in everything, everyone, even in myself.”

Wracked by depression and flashbacks of the event, Guerrero told no one what happened — not until 2013, when she ran into a female detective from the department.

Why had Guerrero stopped interning, the police officer asked.

The truth, suppressed for years by shame and fear, spilled out.

“I just blurted it out and once I blurted it out, I felt like I was going to throw up,” Guerrero recounted to ABC-7. “I could not catch my breath; I could not realize what I just said. I didn’t want to go through with it.”

An investigation was set into motion by the Las Cruces police, focused on one of its own officers. The FBI also pursued the case, which resulted in a nine-year prison sentence for violating Guerrero’s civil rights by sexually assaulting her. Garcia pleaded guilty to the charge. As part of a plea agreement, he also admitted that encounter was not consensual.

But according to Guerrero and other detectives, Garcia’s behavior was enabled by the same people tasked with keeping the city safe. Guerrero sued the city of Las Cruces for allowing a culture of sexism and harassment to fester within its police department, the AP reported, creating the conditions that allowed Garcia to assault Guerrero despite his history of misconduct.

A $3 million settlement agreement has now been reached, Las Cruces attorneys and Guerrero confirmed to the AP on Wednesday.

“I am most happy and satisfied that this lawsuit brought to light a cesspool of sexual violence and harassment that exists in police departments across this country,” Guerrero said. “I’m living proof that you can speak out against sexual violence and win justice.”

The complaint alleged that women in the police department were regular targets of lewd remarks. According to KOB Eyewitness News, the suit claimed that detectives revealed in interviews with Guerrero’s attorney, Shannon Kennedy, that female secretaries were referred to as “whores.”

One female officer, whose call number is 704, was allegedly given the nickname “7-0-whore.”

Another who had the initials “V.D.” was allegedly referred to as “venereal disease.” And one considered “unshapely” was allegedly called “Spongebob.”

The suit further said male detectives grabbed their penises in front of female employees, requesting them to touch them.

“There is a continuum of sexual assault that starts with sexual harassment by degrading women, by dehumanizing women, by calling them whores, b—s or c—s,” Kennedy told KOB. “That kind of daily degrading of women results in sexual harassment and sexual assault.”

Before the assault, male officers had called her mother a “MILF,” Kennedy said.

The Las Cruces police and city attorney have not commented on the allegations.

During a taped confession, Garcia conceded that his status had empowered him.

“The badge gets you the p—sy and the p—sy gets your badge, you know?” he said, according to KOB.

The AP reported in 2014 that the police department had received two (unrelated) complaints against Garcia while he was supervising Guerrero as an intern. Since he was sentenced for the assault against Guerrero, he has also admitted to molesting a young family member, for which he will serve an additional 11 years.

Garcia’s attorney, Seven Almanza, told the judge of that trial that Garcia had been sexually molested by his own stepfather when he was 10 years old, resulting in psychological trauma that led him to commit the same act against another relative.

According to a yearlong AP investigation, 1,000 officers have lost their badges in a six-year period because of rape, sodomy and other sexual assault.

The Las Cruces police department has since trained its employees on hostile work environments and updated its student intern program (called “Excel”), Police Chief Jaime Montoya told KOB in January.

In a letter addressed to Garcia that Guerrero read during his sentencing, she expressed the depth of betrayal she felt from having been violated by a police officer — a job she once aspired to, which she once likened to that of a “superhero.”

“I trusted the number one person who I never imagined would harm me, a detective from our Las Cruces Police Department, and look what happened,” Guerrero said to Garcia in court. “Now you’re one less monster off the street. I learned a lot from speaking up.”

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