Embattled Calif. sheriff faces domestic violence charges
Allegedly grabbed and bruised wife's arm on New Year's Eve
By Terry Collins
SAN FRANCISCO — Months after moving to the United States, Latin American telenovela star Eliana Lopez blogged about her hopes and aspirations for her new, simpler life as a wife and mother, far from the bright lights of TV and movies.
The Venezuelan actress was excited about living in San Francisco — "a beautiful and avant-garde city where millions of interesting people make things happen every day" — raising her son with then-Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, and teaching bilingual mother-and-baby dance classes.
"To try to be conscious of my life whenever possible, of what scares me, of what I love and what moves me," Lopez wrote in 2010. "To try to ask questions of myself and what surrounds me, to question myself and not wake up one day and see my son as a stranger, thinking that life passed me by ... That is my goal."
Today, Lopez is back in the spotlight. This time as an alleged victim of domestic violence as her husband, Mirkarimi — now the embattled San Francisco sheriff — faces trial this week on misdemeanor criminal charges that he grabbed and bruised her arm in front of their toddler son on New Year's Eve.
Lopez has become a symbol, willing or not, for anti-domestic violence advocates and the central figure in a case that has already separated her family and threatens her husband's political career. A video purportedly showing her discussing what happened has emerged as key evidence.
On Feb. 27, Judge Garrett Wong ruled the video could be used as evidence as Mirkarimi's attorneys sought a mistrial. Then Lopez's lawyers argued two days later that the video be inadmissible to no avail, after prosecutors released photo images from the video showing an emotional Lopez with a noticeable bruise on her arm.
Lopez's lawyers appealed, and on Friday a judge put on hold using the video until he could rule on its admissibility.
Lopez probably did not want this type of celebrity and Mirkarimi can't afford anything less than an acquittal, said Rory Little, a professor at the University of California Hastings School of Law in San Francisco.
"It's an unfortunate cycle for some victims in that they may regret calling attention to their partner's apparent brief loss of control," said Little, a former federal prosecutor. "But then again, we don't know what happened. That's what makes these domestic violence cases difficult to prosecute because there are usually no witnesses, except for the victim and the defendant."
Both Lopez and Mirkarimi have repeatedly denied the allegations. She went on Venezuelan radio in January declaring that prosecutors are out to get her husband.
She also stood by Mirkarimi as he was sworn in as sheriff, just days before he was booked at his own jail. And she later tearfully told a judge that that she is not some "poor little immigrant," adding, "I'm not afraid of my husband at all."
While the judge found Lopez to be strong and "quite charming," he said there was still a "volatile situation" at play. The sheriff is under a court order to stay away from Lopez, although he recently has been allowed to see his son.
Lopez is dejected that the case is proceeding, said Paula Canny, one of her lawyers.
"She feels disrespected by the government," Canny said. "She has repeatedly advised them that there was no act of domestic violence, it was an argument. As a family, they're a wreck. This isn't supposed to happen in America."
Asked whether her client would take the witness stand, Canny initially said they were "keeping all options open." Later, though, she expressed doubts.
"(The prosecution) are trying to squeeze her to testify," Canny said. "The irony of it is, they won't grant her immunity ... I want a blanket grant of immunity that would cover anything and everything in federal court and in immigration proceedings. She's not testifying (otherwise)."
But Bay Area defense attorney Michael Cardoza said he thinks Lopez could be compelled to testify as the alleged victim. "I highly doubt that she will be allowed to keep quiet," he said.
Lopez, 36, has appeared in numerous TV shows and films in Latin America. She is perhaps best known as Oriana Ponce De Leon, a villain-turned-heroine on the Venezuelan telenovela, "Amor a Palos."
She's scheduled to star later this year as Venezuelan Independence War heroine Luisa Caceres de Arismendi in the feature film, "The Colonel's Wife."
Lopez met Mirkarimi in 2008 at an environmental conference in Brazil. They married after she gave birth to their son, Theo, in 2009.
The couple kept mostly out of the public eye until Mirkarimi, 50, with his term ending as a supervisor, announced his run for sheriff last spring. Mirkarimi, a former investigator in the District Attorney's Office, won handily in November.
During an argument at their home less than two months later, Mirkarimi grabbed Lopez and bruised her right arm, authorities say.
The next day, Lopez turned to a neighbor, Ivory Madison, who later contacted police. They eventually confiscated video Madison had taken, along with text messages and emails between the two women. Prosecutors say Lopez recounted Mirkarimi's actions on the video.
"I'm going to use this just in case he wants to take Theo away from me," Lopez said on the video, according to court documents. "Because he did, he said that, that he's very powerful, and he can, he can do it."
The video shows Lopez pointing to a bruise on her right bicep where she says Mirkarimi grabbed her, a police affidavit says.
Mirkarimi's defense attorneys argue that Lopez's statements should be inadmissible because they were intended to help her gain custody of their son if the marriage failed. "The videotape itself was the product of a reflective and deliberate decision to create evidence for purposes of a custody proceeding," wrote Mirkarimi attorney Lidia Stiglich, calling it hearsay.
Mirkarimi pleaded not guilty to charges of domestic violence battery, child endangerment and dissuading a witness. He could face up to a year in jail, if convicted.
After he was sworn in as sheriff, Mirkarimi called the alleged incident "a private matter, a family matter." And that inflamed anti-domestic violence advocates who commissioned a billboard near the Hall of Justice that reads, "Domestic violence is NEVER a private matter."
"If that's his last word, then that's 30 to 40 years of our work down the drain and all of the gains we've desperately worked so hard for to get victims to speak up," said Kathy Black, executive director of La Casa de las Madres, the nonprofit behind the billboard.
Black said advocates raised more than expected to put up five more billboards — in Spanish.
Associated Press writer Garance Burke contributed to this report.
Copyright 2012 Associated Press