Pediatrician found not guilty of groping patients’ immigrant moms

Dr. José Rios speaks with one of his defense attorneys, Laila Kelly, during his sexual battery trial on Thursday. On Friday, a DeKalb County jury aquitted him of both counts. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

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Dr. José Rios speaks with one of his defense attorneys, Laila Kelly, during his sexual battery trial on Thursday. On Friday, a DeKalb County jury aquitted him of both counts. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

One after another, nine women took the witness stand this week to accuse Dr. José A. Rios of groping them and making lewd propositions.

But in the end, jurors didn’t buy it.

After less than an hour of deliberating Friday, a DeKalb County jury found Rios, a pediatrician who treated the women’s children, not guilty of two counts of sexual battery, the only charges remaining from an indictment that once accused him of 14 misdemeanor crimes.

The jury foreman said the defense’s counter-arguments resonated in a big way. The victims are undocumented immigrants, and they may have concocted the stories just to get U visas, allowing them as crime victims to stay in the U.S., defense attorney Peter Zeliff told jurors.

None of the women complained to the clinic’s Spanish-speaking staff or to authorities, not until late 2015, when internet radio host Brenda Bueno talked about the allegations on air and routed victims to an immigration law firm that advertised on her show. Several of them continued taking their children to Rios even after the alleged abuse occurred.

Zeliff also argued that the DeKalb County Solicitor-General’s Office only tried the case because of political pressure brought on by the #MeToo movement.

“We had reasonable doubt,” foreman Tony Littles told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution afterward. “We had some issues with some of the accusers not coming forward initially.”

Rios waited more than two and a half years for trial. In that time, what police initially considered a clear-cut case of sexual abuse slowly unraveled.

The popular doctor catered to the area’s immigrant population in a neighborhood clinic located in the Plaza Fiesta shopping center and operated by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, one of the largest pediatric healthcare systems in the country. When Chamblee detectives went to arrest him there, he tried in vain to bolt out a side door to his car, officers said.

In the following weeks, at least 33 women, most of them undocumented immigrants, came forward with stories of being sexually humiliated in view of their children. They told police that he grabbed their breasts, thrust his crotch into them from behind, hounded them after hours by phone, and threatened them with deportation if they reported him.

One mom testified at trial that she didn’t report him because she had no proof, and that Rios told her “that he was a doctor, and that he was going to have more credibility than someone who didn’t have papers.” Speaking through a translator, she said that he told her “that he also had all the information about us” — which she took as a threat that her family would be reported to immigration authorities.

For many of the women, authorities believe, cultural taboos kept them quiet. Asked to describe what happened at the clinic, the mom smiled nervously and raised her eyebrows. "Do I have to explain everything?" she asked prosecutor Debbie-Ann Rickman.

“I’ll give you a moment to take a deep breath,” Rickman said.

The woman explained how, while her children were out of the room getting eye and ear tests, Rios slipped a hand under her shirt and touched a breast. She said he told her “that he wanted to have sex. That he liked my breasts.”

Hers and other accounts were too old to pursue, prosecutors said. Some parents also alleged in police reports and in civil lawsuits that Rios touched their children inappropriately, but police couldn't discern if the touching was part of a medical exam or not, so nothing came of those accounts.

When the Solicitor-General’s Office filed its formal accusation, Rios faced 14 misdemeanor charges involving five women. Earlier this year, prosecutors and State Court Judge Mike Jacobs dropped all but four charges involving two women over problems obtaining corroborating documents from Children’s Healthcare.

Rios rejected a plea deal calling for 60 days in jail and two years on probation. Then on Thursday, Jacobs dismissed two disorderly conduct charges, agreeing with defense attorneys that the groping described by witnesses didn't support the alleged crime of acting in a "violent or tumultuous manner" that caused the women to fear for their "life, limb or health."

“It’s the state’s position that any sexual assault is violent,” Rickman argued, to no avail.

By the time the jury retired Friday, Rios faced just two sexual battery charges — a maximum of two years in jail and $2,000 in fines. One of the women he was charged with abusing said that, after he propositioned her, she agreed to a tryst in a hotel room for a payment of $200. She said she needed the money to buy school uniforms. And later, she said, he continued to put his hands on her during medical appointments.

“Does that give him the right to have his way with her whenever he wants?” Rickman asked the jury during closing arguments. “She’s the perfect example of how he preys on vulnerable women.”

After his acquittal, Rios declined to comment through his attorney.

Solicitor-General Donna Coleman-Stribling said she continued to pursue the case because its her responsibility to hold offenders accountable for their actions.

“We respect the decision of the jury in this case,” Coleman-Stribling said in a written statement. “We understand it was a difficult case for all parties involved.”

Her office's aggressiveness in the case was a rarity in the realm of physicians accused of sexual abuse. Rios' case was among thousands examined by the AJC as part of its national investigation of physician sexual misconduct published in 2016, which found police and prosecutors often don't pursue such allegations, instead punting to state medical boards to treat them as licensure issues.

The AJC also found it wasn’t unusual for hospitals and health care organizations to brush off accusations sex abuse or handle such cases in secret.

Friday, the defense called five patients’ parents and three current and former clinic employees, all of whom said Rios never acted inappropriately and that they knew of no complaints.

In rebuttal, prosecutors called former and current clinic employees of their own to the stand, who testified clinic managers were aware of complaints of Rios making patients’ mothers uncomfortable, but did nothing.

Former registration coordinator Krista Hutcherson, who worked at the check-out desk, described an incident where a mother emerged from an exam room crying. “She said, ‘I never want to see him again,’” she testified. Hutcherson said she notified the clinic’s practice manager at the time, Monica Brahmbhatt.

But, she said, there was no follow up. “No, she said there wouldn’t be,” Hutcherson testified. Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys pressed her to elaborate.

Elizabeth Mezzullo, an assistant nurse manager, also testified about a mother who emerged crying from an exam room. “She was very upset because Dr. Rios had touched her face and told her how beautiful she was, in front of the kids,” Mezzullo said.

It wasn’t clear in court if the two women were describing the same incident. But when Zeliff asked Mezzullo if that was the only complaint she knew of, she said, “This is one of them.”

Asked for comment Friday, a spokeswoman for Children’s Healthcare said Brahmbhatt is out of town and couldn’t respond. The healthcare provider would say only in a written statement that “clinic leadership has consistently said that they received no complaints from parents about José Rios.”

One mother testified that after Rios, with her daughter on an exam table, approached her from behind and thrust his crotch into her backside, she asked the clinic to switch her to a female doctor. She said shame, fear of her husband and her immigration status kept her from reporting Rios.

She got into a heated exchange with Zeliff when he asked her about Bueno, the radio host, and the meeting she organized at an immigration law firm.

“Brenda Bueno is a woman that helps the women,” she said. “If it was your wife, would you believe your wife or the doctor?”

Zeliff used her angry words to his advantage in his closing argument.

“Her true colors came out,” he said. “Why is she so sensitive about that subject?”

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