He hunted midweek in the evening for college-age females, driving meticulously planned routes around Cal State Fullerton and near his home in La Habra.
He sought out women wearing yoga pants or exercise tights who were walking alone and usually distracted on their cell phones or listening to music on earphones.
For nearly five months beginning in August 2014, the slim 21-year-old, who worked in a warehouse and lived with his girlfriend and their young daughter, approached his victims on foot from behind, slapped or grabbed their buttocks, and then fled back to his car and drove off into the night.
The suspect in the misdemeanor sexual battery case came to be known as the “Serial Butt Grabber.”
The investigation, which stretched over more than four months and included special undercover operations and assists from the Irvine and La Habra police departments, highlights the close relationship between the Fullerton PD and the University Police at Cal State Fullerton, an agency whose 27 cops, just like their municipal brethren, are fully sworn peace officers.
“The ‘serial butt grabber’ case was a very unusual one that impacted and victimized community members from both the City of Fullerton and the Cal State Fullerton campus,” said Corp. Paul McLain, a detective with the Cal State Fullerton Police Department.
Corp. Carin Wright, the detective in the Fullerton PD’s Family Crimes unit who was assigned as lead investigator on the case, said the probe involved a total of about 15 officers from both agencies, with cops from the FPD’s narcotics and direct enforcement teams pitching in to help capture their guy.
Wright believes if the suspect hadn’t been caught, he may have moved on to more serious sex crimes.
“It was like a human hunting ground, and he was the predator just waiting for the right victim,” said Wright, who has a total of 20 years of law enforcement experience. She transferred to the FPD in 2012 from the Department of Justice Bureau of Investigations and Intelligence – Major Crimes Team Department and has worked at other police agencies.
“And that was probably the part of what the turn-on for him was: the thrill of the chase,” Wright said. “It was a sexual turn-on for him to be this blur in the night and to slap or grab (the victims) on the buttocks.”
Added Wright: “But that’s going to get old after a while, and he likely would want to up the ante, the excitement level.”
Thanks to diligent work conducted by Wright and her team of more than a dozen FPD and CSUF cops, the suspect never got the chance to do so.
Wright, whose father’s 40 years of experience in law enforcement inspired her to become a cop, has a motto when it comes to police work.
“The further you dig,” she says, “you’re going to find something, whether it’s related to the incident you’re investigating or not.
“There’s always something to be found. It boils down to how much effort you want to put into it.”
A lot of effort went into catching the serial butt grabber, who victimized 16 women.
The Fullerton PD launched its investigation in October, after four to five victims had reported they had been slapped or grabbed on their buttocks.
Wright requested extra patrols in the areas around CSUF where the crimes occurred, but the beefed-up enforcement turned up nothing.
She and her team then started examining what days and times the suspect struck — midweek, between 5 and 9 p.m. They looked up sex offenders living in the area, but none matched the description provided by victims:
Thin build, white or Hispanic in his 20s, spiky hair, usually wearing a dark shirt or jacket.
Wright and her colleagues then brought in a sketch artist from the La Habra PD, Wendy Guandique. Victims tended to hone in on one of her two sketches.
Police had a description of the perp, likely times when he would strike and roughly in what areas, but they needed more.
A break in the case came when a victim was able to provide cops with a vehicle description. The serial butt grabber had followed her all the way up to her front door and grabbed her buttocks. She then chased him all the way back to his car.
Another victim who lived in CSUF housing and who had been assaulted outside her front door watched him flee and was able to see what car he got into — giving cops a solid idea what the suspect was driving around in.
After hours of scouring video surveillance footage from university housing security cameras, police found the car they believe belonged to the suspect.
Wright and her team then tapped the expertise of a crime analyst from the Irvine PD, Lorie Velarde, to get a better idea of their suspect and his likely behavior, and relied on the “predictive policing” expertise of FPD crime analyst Tamara Otley to have a better chance of catching him.
In a joint operation with CSUF police, Wright and her FPD colleagues then set up a special undercover operation. Surveillance and saturated patrols over a couple of weeks turned up a likely suspect, and it was game on.
Police watched their suspect for several days and saw him stalk dozens of potential victims in Fullerton, Placentia and La Habra.
On Feb. 24, just after 7 p.m., detectives observed the suspect driving a vehicle slowly in the area of Nutwood and Placentia Avenues. The suspect was seen watching a lone female walking eastbound along Nutwood Avenue approaching Placentia Avenue.
He quickly parked and exited his vehicle. He then ran up behind the victim and slapped her buttocks. He ran from the area on foot and was immediately detained and arrested.
A handful of victims came forward following the arrest of Jose Alfredo Gradilla-Cuevas.
On July 27, Gradilla-Cuevas pleaded guilty to 16 counts of misdemeanor sexual battery. He was sentenced to 365 days in jail, four years of formal probation, child abuser’s treatment program and restitution.
He will not, as Wright was hoping, be required to register as a sex offender.
McLain, of the CSUF PD, said the partnership with the FPD, which included his colleagues Det. Autumn Hollyfield and Cpl. Jose Rosales, allowed all leads to be investigated and “greatly assisted in quickly identifying and apprehending the suspect.”
Wright noted that CSUF detectives helped with undercover surveillance and said the agency was critical in helping with victim contact information. And she said the Orange County District Attorney’s Office was proactive in its prosecution of Gradilla-Cuevas.
“This is one of those cases where you had to be patient and diligent and be aware of the similarities as well as the difference of each individual case,” Wright said.
Added the veteran cop: “I love police work. You’re outdoors, you’re interacting with the public, you’re solving other people’s problems, and you’re trying to improve the quality of life of people.”