Speaking little English and lacking immigration papers, they were the perfect prey. But when they found out they weren’t alone, one by one the women told police their stories of being sexually degraded by, of all people, their children’s pediatrician.
They spoke to Chamblee detectives through translators, accusing Dr. José A. Rios of grabbing them from behind and groping them during appointments, squeezing their breasts as they breast fed their babies and hounding them after hours with lewd phone calls, police records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show. One woman said he thrust his crotch into her buttocks with her child in the room; another said he called her an illegal alien and threatened her family if she told anyone that he had touched her.
Such stories were enough for officers to slap handcuffs on Rios and for state medical regulators to take his white coat while charges are pending. So far, 33 women have come forward with accounts of abuse as far back as 15 years.
Moms say children victimized
The misdemeanor charges, though, don’t reflect all the allegations against the former Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta pediatrician, the AJC’s review of the case found. Some moms say the doctor didn’t just grope and harass them, but also abused their sons and daughters by excessively touching their genitals, under the guise of exams.
Those claims haven’t received serious attention from police since the doctor’s arrest more than a year ago. Accounts of him groping children are included in four civil lawsuits, raising questions about whether law enforcement authorities have fully scrutinized what took place inside an office overseen by one of the largest pediatric heathcare systems in the country.
“Every time we used to go to Rios,” Blanca Rios-Lopez told the AJC of taking her son to the clinic, “he would always cry and say, ‘No, no, no, I don’t want to go.’ Even now taking him to his new doctor, he said to me ‘Mom, I just don’t want them to touch me because they’re going to do the same thing Dr. Rios did.’”
Chamblee police Capt. Ernesto Ford said the department isn’t taking Rios’ case lightly and would never ignore child abuse. Investigators didn’t go down that path, he said, because none of the women overtly accused Rios of molesting their children in their interviews.
“They’re more than welcome to bring their kids up here. We’ll debrief them and try to determine what happened,” the captain said. “But it sure would have been nice if they’d said it up front.”
But some women did tell the department how Rios touched their children, the AJC found.
Records show Rios-Lopez, who isn’t suing the doctor, mentioned excessive genital exams and that she quit taking her children to him because of how he treated them. Maria Becerra-Cedillo told police that the doctor had her 2-year-old daughter spread her legs and looked inside her vagina, Ford confirmed. Another woman gave police a written statement accusing the doctor of groping her son’s testicles.
More accounts are on record in DeKalb County State Court. Of the 12 people suing Rios for civil damages, six are unnamed children alleging inappropriate genital exams.
Doctors hard to convict
Ford and his detectives have read the lawsuits but say they don’t believe there’s enough evidence to obtain a warrant, much less a conviction. The case points to an advantage doctors have when accused of sexual misconduct during exams — laypersons, including law enforcement personnel and jurors, often yield to their medical expertise.
“This is a pediatrician doing a medical exam on a child,” Capt. Ford said. “To prove that it was anything other than him doing his job is virtually impossible, short of him doing something that’s way out of line. Once again, no one ever made that outcry.”
Dr. Rios’ case was among thousands reviewed by the AJC this year in a nationwide investigation of physicians and sex abuse, which found a pattern of doctors targeting those who are voiceless or vulnerable: immigrants, the poor, children, the elderly, sexual abuse survivors, drug addicts, the mentally impaired, and even patients under sedation.
The investigation also found that doctors frequently receive light treatment when abuse is discovered or reported — such as being allowed by state medical boards to return to practice after therapy, receiving probated sentences from justice systems, or not being prosecuted at all. Nationwide, the AJC found that of the 2,400 doctors publicly disciplined for sexual misconduct against patients since 1999, half still have active medical licenses.
Rios, who is free on a $22,500 bond, declined to speak to the AJC for this story, and his attorneys did not return messages. In his filed responses to the lawsuits, Rios denied groping women and said any touching of his patients “would have been standard procedure in a routine health maintenance physical examination” and was done “with the express consent of the child’s parent.”
Lawsuit says child traumatized
One lawsuit says that Rios touched two brothers’ genitals every time they had their annual exams, and their mother thought it was normal until she took one of them to another doctor who didn’t touch him there at all. Another mom says the doctor would touch her son’s testicles and pull his foreskin during physicals, and once opened her 1-year-old daughter’s vagina with two fingers and touched her clitoris.
One complaint alleges that when a 13-year-old boy went to the clinic for vaccinations, the doctor had him take off his clothes, then bent him over a table and groped him. “(The child) was traumatized by the experience and does not want to talk about it or visit the doctor again,” the lawsuit said.
The boy’s mother had given police a similar account six months before filing her lawsuit. She told a detective in November 2015 that she had been abused by Rios, saying nothing about her son’s alleged experience. A month later she came to the station and handed in a written statement about her son, Ford said.
Efforts to interview the six parents suing Rios were unsuccessful, and their attorneys declined to speak to the AJC by phone or email.
Early this year Rios signed an agreement with the Georgia Composite Medical Board not to practice medicine until his criminal case is resolved. Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta declined to answer questions for this story about whether it ever received complaints about him, citing “confidentiality obligations.” A spokeswoman said he is no longer employed by Children’s, but would not say whether he was fired or resigned.
Police charged the doctor with four sexual battery charges of groping his patients’ mothers and one pandering charge of paying a woman $200 to have sex with him. That woman told police he had groped and propositioned her during her children’s appointments, and she agreed to the tryst at a hotel because she needed the money, according to a police report.
“I do believe that his victims are strictly female adult women,” Capt. Ford said. “He doesn’t strike me, and I don’t think we’ve uncovered anything, that indicates that he has a propensity for molesting children.”
In November 2015, Rios-Lopez told an investigator that the doctor had once touched her breast while she had a child in her lap, and later as she was leaving the office, pulled her toward him and tried to forcibly kiss her face. She added an observation: During appointments, the doctor always examined her children’s private parts, which she thought was strange, an investigator’s notes show.
Rios-Lopez said that during the four years she took her children to Rios, up until they were about 6- and 8-years-old, she estimates he examined their genitals about three to five times per year.
“I thought, but why does he have to check his penis when I’ve brought him in because of a pain in his bones? Or for a fever?” Rios-Lopez told the AJC.
She said she quit taking her children to Rios about five years ago.
Clock is ticking on accusations
The AJC does not typically identify alleged victims of sexual abuse without their permission. Rios-Lopez wanted to speak out by name, as did Becerra-Cedillo, who told police that in 2008, the pediatrician grabbed her around the waist and pushed his crotch into her buttocks. She said it happened with her then-2-year-old daughter sitting on the exam table in the room, according to a record of her interview.
Becerra-Cedillo told the AJC that Rios would open her daughter’s vagina, without wearing gloves, each time he saw her — about five times over the course of two years.
“I feel like they’re ignoring what we’ve been saying to them,” Becerra-Cedillo, who also isn’t suing, said of law enforcement. “Like they’re only taking one part and the other part they’re covering up.”
Investigator Loc Tran, who interviewed both women, said he couldn’t make a fair assessment of the exams since he isn’t a doctor, and neither could the mothers. Neither woman complained to the clinic’s managers, he said.
The DeKalb County Solicitor-General’s Office, which prosecutes misdemeanors, has Rios’ case and still hasn’t filed a formal accusation to launch the criminal court process. Solicitor-General Sherry Boston, who will become District Attorney next year, said she can’t comment on a pending case other than to say “it is a complex matter, involving multiple investigative layers and several alleged victims.”
The clock is ticking on the two-year statute of limitations. Most of the women’s accounts of being groped, including both Rios-Lopez’ and Becerra-Cedillo’s, are too old to be prosecuted.
“We will proceed with the investigation in a diligent and expeditious fashion,” Boston said in a written statement, “to determine what, if any, charges are appropriate based upon our findings.”
While sexual battery is a misdemeanor, a second conviction would be a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Ford said he’s hoping Boston will split up the charges, convicting on a single misdemeanor then elevating the remaining counts to felonies.
“I think anybody that looks at it, simply by the sheer number of victims, would quickly realize that this guy needs to be treated as a felon, not as a misdemeanant,” the captain said.
A sexual offense against a child would also be a felony. Former DeKalb DA J. Tom Morgan, now a private attorney who is not involved in Rios’ case, said Boston’s office would have sent the case to the DA’s office by now if alleged child molestation were part of it.
“As a former prosecutor in child sex crimes, I think that would be very hard,” Morgan said. “It’s going to be hard to show that a doctor, when he’s examining a child and touching their genitalia, was doing it for any other reason than for medical purposes.”
Radio show prompted women to speak
Brenda Bueno, host of the Spanish-language internet radio show “En Hora Buena” on Oxigeno Radio, said she’s been in contact recently with four of the six mothers suing Rios. It was Bueno who emboldened the first women to come forward by alluding to the pediatrician during a broadcast. More women came forward after Rios’ arrest, when he tried to bolt out a back door of the clinic in the Plaza Fiesta shopping center off Buford Highway.
While many of the women feared being deported if they blew the whistle, in fact coming forward has opened avenues for green cards and naturalization. Immigration attorney Thad Servi said he’s working with 18 victims who have asked for law enforcement certification so they can apply for U nonimmigrant status as violent crime victims. Chamblee police have certified four.
But Bueno said the slow-moving cogs of the justice system are wearing some of the women down, and she’s worried they could agree to some paltry civil settlement just to have the ordeal be over. Bueno said they told her they’ve been instructed by their legal team to discuss the case with no one, not even each other.
“I am concerned,” she said, “that it’s just going to be brushed under the rug, he’s not going to be punished, and all these women, their courage is going to be for nothing.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Multimeida Journalist Erica Hernandez contributed to this article.