The Disgraced Attorney
Michael Avenatti’s rise to national attention began in 2018 when he filed a lawsuit against then-President Donald Trump on behalf of adult film actress Stormy Daniels. At the time, Avenatti had an office in Newport Beach.
His career took a dramatic turn however, and he is now serving a 14-year sentence in federal prison. Avenatti was convicted of stealing $12 million from four clients, which led to his eviction from his law office. He also faced criminal indictments in New York and California, and was convicted of trying to extort Nike and embezzling $300,000 from Daniels for her tell-all book about Trump.
Avenatti was set to be released in 2026, but his sentence in the California case will be served after the current one, which means he won’t be released until 2040. This decision was made by senior U.S. District Judge James V. Selna, who presided over Avenatti’s client theft case from the beginning. After a mistrial was declared—financial data discovered on his law firm’s servers hadn’t been given to Avenatti in time for his defense—he pleaded guilty to five charges instead of pursuing a second trial. The remaining 31 charges were dropped after his sentencing. The Orange County prosecution proved to be the most detrimental to Avenatti’s once-burgeoning career.
—by Meghann Cuniff
The Accused Couple
When Grant Robicheaux, a handsome Newport Beach orthopedic surgeon, appeared on a Bravo dating show wearing his hospital scrubs, a woman told him during dinner, “I want to know what’s wrong with you, because you seem, like, too perfect.” Afterward, she told viewers, “I think there might be some dark skeletons in that closet.”
Four years after “Online Dating Rituals of the American Male” aired in 2014, then-Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas filed charges against Robicheaux and his girlfriend, Cerissa Riley, describing them as sexual predators. Rackauckas alleged that the pair, parlaying their good looks and Robicheaux’s cachet as a doctor, lured vulnerable women back to Robicheaux’s Newport Beach apartment where the pair drugged and sexually assaulted the women.
Since then, the case has been embroiled in controversy. In 2020, shortly after Todd Spitzer unseated Rackauckas, he sought to dismiss the charges, contending the evidence against the pair was insufficient. Rackauckas, Spitzer claimed, hyped the case to bolster his reelection campaign.
In 2020, Spitzer’s motion was denied by Orange County Superior Court Judge Gregory Jones. Jones expressed concern that the case had been distorted by politics and ordered it removed from the district attorney’s office and transferred to the California attorney general’s office. The next year, another Orange County judge approved a request by the attorney general to narrow the focus of the case and pursue charges related to two of the original seven women the couple was accused of sexually assaulting.
“There were so many plot twists to this case; it was nuts,” says Justine Harman, who hosted and wrote the popular 10-part podcast “O.C. Swingers.” “It seemed like a story about a rape case, but then it shifted to possible corruption and malfeasance in the D.A.’s office. It was a lot for me to get my arms around.”
A newly amended complaint, filed earlier this year, includes two counts of “assault with intent to commit a sex offense” and two counts of “administering a stupefying drug to assist in commission of a felony.” Other charges include possessing a controlled substance and two counts against Robicheaux for possessing an assault weapon. Robicheaux and Riley have each been out on $1 million bail since their arraignment. Their preliminary hearing is scheduled for June 5.
In a trailer for the 2021 podcast, Harman asked: “Were Grant Robicheaux and Cerissa Riley the ‘Bonnie and Clyde of drugging girls,’ as one victim told detectives, or were they sexually liberated swingers framed by a conviction-hungry prosecutor?” Harman says that is still the question, and it will have to be answered in court.
—by Miles Corwin
The Road-Rage Tragedy
Joe Garcia was looking forward to a relaxing respite from his duties as a Seal Beach Police Department patrol sergeant. On his day off, he racked his mountain bike on the back of his SUV and was on his way to the trails of Santiago Oaks Regional Park when he spotted a woman huddled over a child on the shoulder of the 55 Freeway. Garcia pulled over and discovered that 6-year-old Aiden Leos had been shot in the back. His distressed mother, Joanna Cloonan, had wrapped him in a blanket and was cradling him.
Garcia unwrapped the blanket and performed CPR, whispering, “You can do it, papas,” using the nickname he has for his two young sons. But after less than a minute, he realized the child was dead.
“I’ve been through a lot of tragic things in my job,” Garcia says, “but this was the most difficult.”
The incident stemmed from a road-rage shooting. Cloonan was driving her son to kindergarten on the freeway in Orange when another driver, Wynne Lee, cut her off and flashed the peace sign. After a few miles, Cloonan exited the 55 and flipped off the other car. Wynne’s passenger, Marcus Anthony Eriz, reacted angrily, rolled down the window, grabbed his Glock handgun, and shot at Cloonan’s car, according to court documents.
The couple was arrested about two weeks later. Eriz, 26, faces one felony count each of murder and shooting into an occupied vehicle, and a felony enhancement of the discharge of a firearm causing great bodily injury and death. Lee, 24, faces a felony count of being an accessory after the fact and a misdemeanor count of having a concealed firearm in a vehicle. A jury trial is tentatively set for Eriz and Lee later this month, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
Garcia was so distraught from the incident he immediately sought counseling. “My youngest son really reminds me of Aiden,” Garcia says. “When I scoop him up and carry him to bed, I kind of have flashbacks to when I picked Aiden up and carried him to the ambulance.”
About two weeks after Aiden’s death, Garcia responded to an incident and met a firefighter who had been on the scene of the shooting. The firefighter thanked him and shook his hand. Aiden’s mother was a friend and had been staying with him since the shooting. Garcia had been wondering how Cloonan was doing, and the firefighter gave him his address. “I went to the house, and when I saw her there was a lot of crying and hugging. I wanted to let her know that I’d tried, and I felt bad that I couldn’t have done more. She told me she was grateful I was there.”
Garcia and Cloonan talk on the phone every few weeks, he says, and on a few occasions they have visited Aiden’s gravesite together.
“The way we’ve stayed in touch, the way we talk about what happened, has been really helpful. For both of us.”
—by Miles Corwin
The Man Killed in Mexico
Orange County public defender Elliot Blair and his wife, Kim Williams, spent an evening in Rosarito Beach dining and dancing in January, celebrating their one-year anniversary. Later that night after Williams went to bed, Blair was found dead in an open-air hallway, three floors below their hotel room.
Months later, the circumstances are still in dispute and his colleagues continue to reflect on how Blair’s death was a tremendous loss to the public defender’s office.
“He was amazing, so compassionate and caring,” says public defender Annie Rodriguez. “You’d hear him on the phone for hours with his clients, making sure they understood everything that was going on and answering all their questions. In the courtroom, the judge and the D.A. often wondered where the heck Elliot was because he’d be in the hallway or a holding cell talking to a client, making sure he gave them the best representation available.”
Mexican authorities say Blair’s death was the result of an accidental fall from the third-floor hotel balcony of the Las Rocas Resort and Spa. The family claims he was the victim of a homicide. The investigation remains open.
In her first public interview, Williams told “Good Morning America” that during a traffic stop after dinner, Rosarito police claimed the couple rolled through a stop sign and extorted them for money. Blair, who was fluent in Spanish, remonstrated, identified himself as an attorney, and showed them his work badge. They didn’t have the amount of money the police wanted, but handed over $160, all the cash they had. The couple returned to the hotel and danced at the bar before returning to their rooms. Blair took a shower and Williams went to bed. A security guard later woke her and said Blair was dead.
Mexican police, at various times, gave Williams conflicting theories. “Accident, suicide, gunshot wound,” she said. “It was a roller coaster. Everything under the sun—except what I think happened: Someone did this to him.”
The family consulted a biomechanics and injury expert, Rami Hashish, who said on the show: “There are fractures to the back of the skull. Nothing really points to the fact that it was necessarily an accident.” The family also hired an independent pathologist and are awaiting the final results of his report.
Rodriguez says Blair’s colleagues are frustrated by the lack of resolution and continue to grieve his death. “One of the assignments that meant a lot to Elliot was in juvenile court. Working with kids was really meaningful to him. In these kinds of cases, you’re often the most consistent person in their lives. Elliot knows how to talk to the kids and how to engage them. They really loved him.”
—by Miles Corwin
The Church Shooting
Many Orange County residents were mystified when David Wenwei Chou, who was charged with fatally shooting one person and injuring five others at a Taiwanese Presbyterian church in Laguna Woods, was also charged with hate crime enhancements. Chou was born and raised in Taiwan, served in the country’s military, and held a Taiwanese passport—all of his victims were also Taiwanese. How could this be classified as a hate crime?
Notes written in Mandarin found in Chou’s car indicated that he was disturbed about the political tensions between China and Taiwan and demonstrated a “hatred of the Taiwanese people,” according to Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, who described the shootings as a “politically motivated hate incident.” Chou did not believe, the notes indicated, that Taiwan should be independent from China.
“This is a very sensitive and complex issue,” says Yong Chen, a history professor at UC Irvine. “Identity in Taiwan has multiple layers.”
Chou is what people in Taiwan refer to as “born-outside people”—the descendants of those from the mainland who fled to Taiwan in 1949 after the Communist takeover of China. Initially, they were the “government elite,” Chen says, adding that eventually the “born-here people” assumed more control and power in Taiwan, and the “born-outside people” felt a “sense of loss and believed they were treated unfairly.”
In May of 2022, Chou burst into a lunch banquet after the morning service at the Geneva Presbyterian Church and opened fire. Local physician John Cheng charged Chou and was fatally shot. Five others were wounded, but law enforcement authorities said Cheng might have saved many lives by disrupting the attack. When Chou’s gun jammed, former pastor Billy Chang picked up a chair and threw it at Chou. He tackled him and, along with several church members, grabbed Chou’s two 9-millimeter handguns, held him down, and tied him up.
Chou, who apparently chose the church at random, is being held without bail and no trial date has been set.
—by Miles Corwin
The Shunned Law Professor
When John Eastman spoke at the “Save America March” in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, and encouraged the crowd to take action because he said the outcome of the presidential election was riddled with fraud, Lisa Leitz was outraged. Leitz, a professor of peace studies at Chapman University, was a colleague of Eastman’s, who was a professor at the law school at the time.
“To know that your university was associated with an attempt to overthrow democracy was shocking. It was more than just embarrassment—a lot of the Chapman professors were traumatized,” Leitz says.
Eastman claimed at the rally that then-Vice President Mike Pence should delay the count of electoral votes, that voting machines had fraudulently manipulated the election results, and that dead people had voted. “The country is so politically divided, so for an academic and a lawyer to use this platform to spread lies is shocking,” Leitz says.
Leitz was the co-author of a letter to the Los Angeles Times signed by 169 professors and three members of Chapman’s Board of Trustees urging the university to “disqualify (Eastman) from the privilege of teaching law to Chapman students and strip him of the honor of an endowed chair.” Eastman resigned before the faculty senate could take any action.
Eastman now faces legal peril connected to the criminal investigation into election interference in Fulton County, Georgia. One of his attorneys has said Eastman is probably a target of the inquiry but added that his client had committed no crime. The FBI has seized Eastman’s cellphone, and the Jan. 6 committee has asked the Justice Department to investigate him on criminal charges, including obstructing a congressional proceeding.
In addition, the State Bar of California filed 11 disciplinary charges against Eastman, stemming from allegations that he developed strategies to overturn the 2020 election. The charges could lead to disbarment. In a Substack post, Eastman wrote: “…apparently under intense political pressure to take action against me, (the bar’s complaint) is filled with distortions, half-truths, and outright falsehoods. We will respond to each charge in due course.”
Leitz says she and other professors have spent many years attempting to enhance Chapman’s reputation and get recognition for faculty and students. “This whole thing with Eastman has felt like a huge step backwards. We just felt like our school was a laughingstock.”
—by Miles Corwin