When the three finally met in a room inside a Texas courthouse in June during a break in a child sexual abuse trial, the Anaheim cop and the two sisters hugged.
They also cried.
Their journey, after all, had spanned more than seven years and investigations in three states.
It had been a long, agonizing road involving countless cross-country phone calls and much effort on the part of the cop and his partner to win the sisters’ trust and keep that trust — even as the case, for years, gathered dust in a Fort Worth police station.
There wouldn’t have been a case had it not been for the work of the two Anaheim police officers — as well as the willingness of the sisters, now in their 30s and with their own families, to publicly revisit horrors inflicted on them beginning in the mid-’90s, when they were 11 and 13.
But some cases, say Anaheim PD Lt. Rich LaRochelle and Officer Kacey Costa, stick with you.
Some cases you never shake.
Some cases become promises to victims you never break.
“Don’t screw us on this,” LaRochelle recalled one of the sisters telling him at one point. “You’re asking us to take a big step by coming forward with all this stuff.”
On Oct. 13, in a ruling that made headlines in Texas and Virginia but not in Orange County, a one-time pastor of a megachurch in Richmond, Va., was sentenced to 40 years in prison for continual sexual abuse of one of the sisters (the charges against the other sister still are pending).
Outside of the Anaheim PD and others in law enforcement, not many people knew that LaRochelle and Costa, both with two decades of law enforcement experience, built the case against the pastor that ultimately led to his conviction.
Geronimo Aguilar, now 45, denied having sex with the girl or her sister, although he admitted, according to testimony during the two-week trial, to several extramarital affairs.
Aguilar is the son of Phil Aguilar, founder of the controversial Set Free Church in Anaheim.
The two sisters grew up with Geronimo Aguilar in communal homes owned by the Set Free Church. They followed him, with relatives, to Fort Worth in the late 1990s when Aguilar became music minister at New Beginnings International Church.
Aguilar and his family eventually moved to Virginia, where he founded the Richmond Outreach Center in 2001. Aguilar built ROC into a megachurch and was hailed as a devoted man of faith as he raised three daughters with a wife he married when she was 17.
His flock called him “Pastor G.”
Geronimo Aguilar first came on the radar of the Anaheim PD in December 2007, when an informant told LaRochelle that Aguilar had sexually abused the sisters in the mid-’90s.
Intrigued, and familiar with the Aguilar family because of their Set Free Church empire, LaRochelle started looking into the accusations.
He faced two big challenges:
Track down the sisters, and then convince them to open up about the sexual abuse that allegedly had happened more than a decade earlier.
Costa, who at the time was a sex crimes detective, told LaRochelle there would be no statute of limitations issues if the abuse had been significant enough. In such cases, a person can be charged within 10 years after a victim first comes forward with an allegation.
Getting the sisters to talk, however, wouldn’t be easy.
LaRochelle, at the time an investigator in the APD’s criminal intelligence unit, first tracked down the younger sister and talked to her by phone. She was living at a women’s shelter in California.
The older sister was living on the East Coast.
“We had to basically find them, go to them and then get them to come forward,” said LaRochelle, now a lieutenant with the APD.
“They were really reluctant at first,” LaRochelle added. “They were like, ‘We’ve kind of moved on and don’t want to be victimized again.’ And they were scared. They were afraid of who (Aguilar) knew. He was very successful back in Richmond, he had a lot of money, and he had ties to a lot of people.”
In a phone interview, the older sister told Behind the Badge OC she was, at first, very hesitant to cooperate with the Anaheim PD.
“I kind of wanted to go on living my life,” recalled Nancy Mohr, now 32. (Mohr and her sister, Lani Vallejo, 30, have allowed the media to use their names and photos as victims of childhood sexual abuse.)
“Plus,” Mohr said, “it would be our word against his (Geronimo Aguilar’s). And so much time had gone by.”
Complicating things more for the sisters was the fact that their mother, a drug addict who had been aware of the sexual abuse but never told the police, might face criminal charges should the sisters come forward with the accusations.
“I knew she was more than likely to get in trouble if we came forward,” Mohr said. “We obviously had a lot of issues with her and our father, who wasn’t in the picture much when we were growing up, but she still was our mother.”
The sisters describe their father as being physically present but emotionally detached.
LaRochelle and Costa eventually won the trust of the two girls, and by early 2008 had built a case against Geronimo Aguilar.
“Their initial attitude was, ‘We’re going to be the ones ridiculed, we’re going to be the ones who are going to be pulled through the mud as to why it took so long for us to come forward,’” LaRochelle recalled.
He added: “I had to do a lot to calm them, saying, ‘If he’s victimized you, you need to come forward. Because what if he’s victimizing people on the East Coast?’”
Said Costa: “That ended up being a draw for them: Was the abuse continuing? I think they were concerned there may be more victims.”
The details of what Geronimo Aguilar was accused of doing to the sisters were horrific.
Beginning in October 1996, Aguilar allegedly had sex with Nancy, the older sister, on a near-daily basis for two years, starting when she was 13. He had sex with her in communal homes, in motels, in the church van — even in public restrooms, Mohr told police.
Aguilar molested Lani less frequently but sexually abused her for a year, from ages 11 to 12, in homes and while she cleaned the church.
After detailed interviews with the sisters, LaRochelle and Costa concluded that none of the significant sexual contact occurred in Orange County.
So they had no choice but to hand the case over to cops in Fort Worth, Texas, where LaRochelle and Costa determined the crimes occurred.
“We gave them this case on a silver platter,” said Costa. “There was nothing more we could do. I felt we had done right by these girls.”
Then began the long, agonizing wait – and frustration on the sisters’ part that after placing their trust in LaRochelle and Costa, nothing had happened.
And maybe never would.
LaRochelle would contact Fort Worth police several times over the years, beginning in 2008, to check on the status of the case, only to be told they would get to it.
The veteran APD officer figures the officers in Texas didn’t make the case a high priority because the alleged abuse happened so long ago, and the victims no longer were in harm’s way. Having the case originate from an out-of-state agency probably didn’t help either, LaRochelle said.
Soon after the APD handed the case over to Texas, LaRochelle transferred to homicide and Costa went back to patrol.
The two cops soon had their hands full with an ever-changing pile of new cases.
But over the years, they never forgot about the two sisters and their accusations against Pastor G.
As the years passed, however, the sisters began losing faith in the APD.
It would take an investigative TV reporter in Virginia to kick-start the case in Texas.
Nothing else was working, so LaRochelle suggested that the informant go to the media in Richmond with the explosive accusations against Geronimo Aguilar.
Kerri O’Brien, a reporter for WRIC 8News in Richmond, was all over the story (and has been through Aguilar’s sentencing).
After digging around, O’Brien called police in Fort Worth in 2012 to ask why they had been sitting on the Geronimo Aguilar case for several years.
Soon, a detective new to the Aguilar case reopened it (LaRochelle believes the case had been officially closed) and an investigator with the Tarrant County District Attorney began his probe.
And when O’Brien’s reports of the accusations against Aguilar were aired, other alleged victims came forward with tales of being sexually abused as minors.
At least three Richmond Outreach Center church members went on the air with stories about affairs and allegations that Aguilar was molesting a 16-year-old at the church. Aguilar’s brother, Chill, went on the air saying his brother admitted to him he had molested the 16-year-old. At the time, O’Brien said, the girl was too afraid to come forward.
In April 2014, a Tarrant County Grand Jury indicted Geronimo Aguilar for molesting the two sisters from Anaheim.
During the trial in June, the two sisters testified about the abuse.
So did the 16-year-old girl from Virginia, who finally mustered the courage to put another face on the abuse.
“It was the nail in the coffin,” O’Brien said of her testimony.
Aguilar was convicted of two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child, three counts of sexual assault of a child under 17 and two counts of indecency with a child.
And last month, he was sent to prison for 40 years.
Costa, 43, and LaRochelle, 42, used to work vice together.
They have an easy rapport and a bond with Nancy Mohr and Lani Vallejo they believe will last a lifetime.
“We promised these girls we were going to see this case through to the end, and we did,” LaRochelle said.
Costa said it’s common for victims of sexual abuse sometimes to be reluctant to come forward — especially when accusations may affect family members.
“It all depends on the victims,” Costa said. “It depends on empowerment, and whether they want to come forward and seek vindication or whether they just want to move on and kind of black it out.”
In May, the sisters’ mother, Nancy Akiyama, 57, was arrested and remains in a Fort Worth jail awaiting possible charges for not reporting the sexual abuse, according to Mohr.
As for the sisters’ father?
“When he did address the issue (of us being molested),” Vallejo said, “he only validated our feelings of shame as he blamed us for the loss of ‘the ministry’ and the promise of being part of Geronimo’s future endeavors.”
Costa was not able to attend the trial in Texas, but LaRochelle testified. He laid into the Forth Worth PD for being so slow to look into the case.
LaRochelle and Costa were not able to attend Aguilar’s sentencing. They wish they had been able to go, but they had too much on their plates.
The sisters now live around the corner from each other in a city on the East Coast they declined to name.
“I love Rich,” said Mohr, who is married with three children, ages 10, 11 and 16. “He was so awesome throughout all of this.”
Vallejo has two children, ages 11 and 14.
Mohr said she and her sister are happy with Aguilar’s sentencing. She said had it not been for the two Anaheim cops, he still would be roaming free, soiling the lives of other girls.
“I thank him (LaRochelle) so much for standing up for me and my sister,” Mohr said. “To me, that makes him a hero.
“He and others in law enforcement just kept telling me, ‘You’re doing the right thing’ even when my sister and me weren’t sure we were. There couldn’t have been better people to walk through something as devastating as this.”
Said Vallejo: “I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the work that (LaRochelle and Costa) put into our case. If it were not for them, Geronimo would be free to go on abusing, not just young girls but laying whole families to ruin, as he did to our family and to so many others.
“If it were not for their support and hard work, we would have never come forward.”
Mohr offered these words to other victims of sexual abuse:
“You are a victim,” she said. “The problem is, the abuser tries to convince you you’re not a victim. They try to normalize it for you, and it’s just not true.”
LaRochelle said he’ll never forget the words the two sisters told him that day in Texas in June – now-grown women who, as youngsters, were moved from home to home with parents too zonked out on drugs to care for them, only to be repeatedly violated by a sexual predator.
His eyes welled up a bit when he repeated the words.
So did Costa’s.
You’re the father we never had.