A Wide Net

Political consultant and North Salinas High School coach John Fickas in court for a pretrial hearing before Monterey County Superior Court Judge Pamela Butler raised his bail to $1.5 million.

North Salinas High School provided coach and political consultant John Fickas with any number of things. There was a part-time job working with the girls' field hockey team and the track-and-field and football teams. There was a large group of students hungry to earn community service hours by doing grunt work for Fickas on various local campaigns he ran. There was a job for his wife, Brandee, a much-beloved mathematics teacher at the school.

But in those hungry students, prosecutors allege, North Salinas High provided Fickas with something else: a victim pool.

Prosecutors laid out their case against Fickas during a preliminary hearing Sept. 6 in Monterey County Superior Court. He's been charged with 14 counts that span six years starting in 2009, most of which follow the same theme: that Fickas used his position at the school to groom victims, that he plied them with alcohol and drugged them without their knowledge before raping or sodomizing them.

In one instance, in which Fickas is charged with contacting a minor for sexual purposes, it's alleged that Fickas hired a prostitute for a 16-year-old boy who he coached on the football team—when the teenager went into a Kern Street motel room with the prostitute, Fickas reportedly waited outside with his son, a child then in middle school.

At North High, he found teenagers with sometimes troubled family lives who gravitated to him because he treated them kindly, bought them things, listened to their woes and gave them alcohol even when they were far too young to legally drink. 

On the witness stand this morning, Salinas Police Det. Gabriel Gonzales said one of the victims, referred to as Jane Doe 1 in court, was with Fickas in November 2015 at an election night event. Fickas was running for a seat on the Salinas Union High School District board, and there was a party at Hacienda Mexican Grill that included former Salinas City Councilmembers Jose Castañeda and Sergio Sanchez and famed boxer Jose Celaya. After the group left Hacienda, they went to Banker's Casino and continued drinking, then several of the group went to Sanchez's house.

It was there, Gonzales testified, that the victim drank a glass of wine and began feeling ill. Fickas escorted her to a bathroom and performed a sex act on her while she was unconscious. The detective testified she woke up at one point on the floor of the bathroom, with her head banging off the edge of the bathtub. She asked him to stop, but fell unconscious again. The alleged incident ended when Sanchez's wife, Lupe, who sits on the board of the Monterey County Office of Education, heard the activity in the bathroom and told her husband to ask them to leave. She didn't call the police that night on the belief that what she heard was consensual activity.

Reached for comment, Sanchez says that he and his wife cooperated fully with authorities and will continue to do so.

In a second instance, involving a victim known in court as Jane Doe 2, Fickas hired the girl—a student in his wife's algebra class—to work on the Measure K campaign, a sales tax measure championed by then-Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue. Her work entailed making phone calls and precinct walking, according to Monterey County Sheriff's Office Det. Sgt. Bryan Hoskins. 

In November 2009, Fickas called her to come assist on a campaign, picking her up at her rural home and driving her to his residence. Hoskins said the girl, who was 15 at the time of the incident, told investigators he prepared her a drink of a clear soda and tequila and that when she drank a small amount, she began to feel tired and dizzy.

She woke up about seven hours later with Fickas lying next to her on the couch; the zipper on his pants was undone and her pants and underpants were pulled down below her hips.

"She immediately began freaking out and telling the defendant to take her home," Hoskins testified. "She said he told her to calm down, and that nothing had happened and that he would get her home." 

The detective said that on the ride back, the girl clung to the door "in case she had to jump out and run for her life."

The next day, she was in pain and had bloody discharge coming from her rectum, as well as vaginal soreness. She went to a school nurse and told her that she believed she had been drugged. The nurse called a school resource officer, and the girl was taken to Natividad Medical Center for treatment.

Out of fear, she didn't mention Fickas' involvement, Hoskins testified.

"He knew a lot about her from her time working for him. She was not a legal U.S. resident and neither was her mother and she was fearful of getting her family involved," he said. "And she was fearful no one would believe her...she felt it was the safest way for her not to be harmed any further."

She sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder in 2018, and her counselor convinced her to report the attack, Hoskins said.

In the case of another alleged victim, known in court as Jane Doe 8, Fickas was the girl's track coach and she worked with him earning community service hours. Later, he paid her to work on campaigns.

According to Hoskins, she told him Fickas became a father figure to her, calling her mija—Spanish for daughter—and making her feel special. During a morning of campaign work in Monterey in the summer of 2010, Fickas dropped other students off to distribute pamphlets, then drove with the then-15-year-old girl to buy alcohol and mixers before taking her to a motel. She told investigators that she believed they were just going to drink in private, but that Fickas performed a sex act on her against her objections. She tried pushing him off of her, but he outweighed her by about 300 pounds.

"She said she felt defeated and just kind of let things happen," Hoskins said. "She told him several times she didn't want to do this and they shouldn't do this." After the first incident, there were several other encounters while she was under the age of 18.

"She had just resigned herself. 'He would just get me drunk and do whatever he wanted to me,'" Hoskins said the girl told him. "She was fearful of him…she described what he did to her as grooming, she said he was smart and calculated about the way he obtained information."

The girl also said Fickas knew a lot of gang members through his work at the school. 

She said that he would take her to political events as a 15-year-old, and that the alcohol flowed to her, even in the presence of multiple law enforcement officials and politicians, Hoskins said.

"He had made himself this larger-than-life figure in the local political scene," Hoskins said, adding the girl never reported Fickas' alleged behavior because "she was concerned about her mom's immigration status and she was concerned they lived in the middle of nowhere on rural property and he could do something to her family."

Fickas later bought the girl her high school prom dress and a necklace, and told her he loved her.

"She said Mr. Fickas told her multiple times not to tell anyone, that if she did he would get into trouble and that it would be bad for them," Hoskins testified. After she turned 18, he told her, "I'm glad you're 18, we don't have to worry anymore."

On cross examination, defense attorney Miguel Hernandez asked Hoskins when his client allegedly began telling the girl he loved her and calling her mija. Hoskins responded: "To the best of my recollection, after he began sexually assaulting her."

Judge Pamela Butler ordered Fickas, who is in custody on $1.5-million bail, to stand trial on all charges. He will return to court for a pretrial hearing on Sept. 20.

Agents from the FBI’s Oakland field office have also taken an interest in Fickas, questioning two people on the Central Coast about Fickas’ political work and the money that flows in and out of local politics. Salinas police confirmed that the FBI reached out to them to inquire about the rape case, then told them they weren’t interested in the sex assault charges but would be coming to town to interview potential witnesses.  

“We’re doing our own independent investigation and they’re doing their own independent investigation,” Salinas Police Sgt. Danny Warner says. “They wanted to know what we were investigating and what we had, but as you can imagine, they’re very tight-lipped about their interest.”

According to one of the people the FBI interviewed who spoke to the Weekly on the condition that their name not be made public, the agents’ questions focused entirely on money – how cash was used in local elections and how Fickas moved money around. A second person interviewed by the FBI tells the Weekly the agents asked them not to speak about their interview.

“It was all about the cash,” says the first source, whom the FBI interviewed on July 17. “They had no interest in the (rape) stuff. They kept mentioning he’s been observed walking around with stacks of cash.”

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