BISMARCK—A series of girls and young women cautiously took the stand Monday against a former federal cop accused of recording them as they tried on clothes.
“That’s me,” a 20-year-old woman told the jury when presented a picture of herself changing in a Target dressing room. “No I do not (know him),” she said.
The woman identified as H.G. in the criminal complaint is one of 21 young women, ages 12 to 33, allegedly peeped on by the former deputy U.S. marshal. Several of them, along with state and federal detectives, testified on the first day of the three-day jury trial for 29-year-old Michael Rivera.
Accompanied by parents and boyfriends, they entered the courtroom as Rivera sat still, his right hand clenched in a fist over his mouth. Questioned by Burleigh County Assistant State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer, most said they had never met Rivera nor noticed a cell phone camera lurking under their dressing room door. They did not find out they had been recorded until detectives called. Authorities allege Rivera had been recording these homemade videos for a year before he was arrested.
The peeping investigation began with one 15-year-old girl, who noticed a camera propped below her dressing room door as she tried on a bathing suit at Target in June 2016, the same day as H.G. was there. She told store managers, who told Bismarck Police, who launched an investigation.
As a fellow law enforcement officer, Rivera was quickly identified as a suspect.
Randy Helderop, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, who jointly investigated the case, testified about the investigation that followed the first report.
Helderop said it began when police got a search warrant for Rivera’s apartment. There they found a laptop with videos of women in changing rooms. He and Bismarck Police Det. Brandon Rask used location and time information stored with digital recordings to track down the retail stores where they were recorded. Most pointed to Kirkwood Mall.
Using that data as a jumping off point, Helderop and Rask walked through the mall looking for dressing rooms that matched. A white and black curtain at one store was an early clue as were the red walls at Target. From there, they talked to store managers and reviewed transaction data and surveillance videos to find the girls and women from the videos. One woman was apparently so upset she cried.
This broad investigation led to 20 charges stacked upon the first one from June and revealed photos taken in retail store aisles and in a hotel elevator.
Rivera was interviewed by police when he was arrested June 19 on a single charge of attempting to record the 15-year-old at Target. Police picked him up as he was disembarking an airplane back to Bismarck from Chicago.
At first, Rivera denied knowing what the police were talking about and asked if he’d been misidentified, Helderop said. Later, he allegedly admitted to following women around Target and trying to snap a picture or get a “quick little peek” as they went in and out of the dressing rooms. Asked about their ages, Rivera apparently said he “doesn’t card.”
When questioned about the 15-year-old girl who first reported him, Rivera denied it was possible.
“His response to that is that you couldn’t fit a cell phone or a camera or a hand under that fitting room door,” Helderop testified. “That’s not something a normal person would even think about.”
Rivera is being represented by Lloyd Suhr, a local defense attorney and former prosecutor. Suhr suggested in court that in Rivera’s defense, he would challenge whether some of the charges fit the facts at hand.
Rivera is charged with creation of sexually expressive images, surreptitious intrusion, attempt to promote a sexual performance by a minor, attempt to create or possess sexually expressive images and promoting a sexual performance by a minor.
“As you hear the evidence, you will be disappointed, disgusted and offended,” Suhr told the jury. But he asked them to consider whether Rivera had actually captured anyone in a sexual performance.
“You will not hear any one of the witnesses describe what they were doing as sexual conduct,” Suhr said. “It’s what you will not hear that brings us here.”
In court Tuesday, Lawyer is expected to bring several more girls and women to the stand along with Rask, of the Bismarck Police Department, to show the videos to the jury. Suhr said he was not sure yet whether he would stage witnesses, that would depend on the state’s case.
South Central District Judge Tom Schneider is presiding over the case.
Rivera pleaded guilty in federal court on Friday to downloading child porn. He has not yet been sentenced in that case.