Last month, the police chief of Richmond and her husband, an Oakland police sergeant, drove to Vallejo to confront the mother of a man they had come to believe was sex-trafficking a young woman on the streets of Oakland.
But this visit was not work-related. The 18-year-old woman, who months earlier had been on track to start college in the fall, is a relative of the couple. She has resisted their attempts at intervention, not only denying that she is being trafficked but filing for a restraining order against them, saying they once held her against her will.
In many ways, the situation mirrors others in which family members go to almost any length to attempt to persuade a relative to leave prostitution.
But this case, which has prompted criminal investigations involving at least five law enforcement agencies, is unique in that it involves a couple with power and deep connections in Bay Area law enforcement. And it raises questions about whether they crossed lines in responding to a personal emergency and used their connections to get the trafficking case prioritized over others.
Vallejo police are investigating whether Bisa French, the Richmond chief who made history last year as the first woman to lead the city force and California's only Black female police chief, and her husband, Oakland police Sgt. Lee French, made criminal threats against the trafficking suspect's mother during the Sept. 22 visit, according to a lawyer for the Frenches.
Both Bisa and Lee French are on leave from their jobs and declined interview requests through their attorney. The Chronicle's efforts to reach the young woman and the trafficking suspect's mother have been unsuccessful. The investigation was first reported by the East Bay Times.
The Frenches' attorney, Michael Rains, said the couple may have told the mother something to the effect of "If I find your son, I'm going to kick his butt," but he insisted they did not break any laws. "I've not heard of any allegations out there," Rains said, "that they're trying to use their badge or law enforcement status in any way."
But law enforcement is now at the center of the case. The trafficking suspect, 34-year-old Oho McNair of Richmond — also known as Joe Goldman — was arrested Oct. 11 by Oakland police. The next day, the Alameda County District Attorney's Office charged him with felony pimping and pandering in connection with the Frenches' relative.
As of Friday, McNair was being held at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin in lieu of $100,000 bail. He has pleaded not guilty.
Meanwhile, the Frenches' family member is continuing to fight the couple's attempts to intervene in her life. The Chronicle is not naming the young woman because she is an alleged victim of sex trafficking, though she denies she is a victim.
In a handwritten request for a restraining order against the Frenches, filed at the Contra Costa County Superior Court in Richmond, the teenager alleges that they confronted her on Sept. 21, the day before their trip to Vallejo, after she went to their home.
The teenager said the Frenches physically restrained her from leaving and threatened to kill McNair — whom she refers to as her "partner" — and lock her up if she didn't leave him. The Frenches deny the accusations.
According to court records, the case traces back to when the young woman met McNair at a Safeway store where they both worked. She began working there in November 2020, when she was 17.
McNair had a history of sex trafficking. According to records in Alameda County Superior Court, he was convicted of human trafficking in 2014 and sentenced to 288 days in jail, with credit for time he had already served after his arrest the year before.
During a preliminary hearing in the earlier case, a 20-year-old woman who testified against McNair said she had met him on the online dating site Tinder. Though she ultimately gave him money she made from having sex with clients, while he protected her as she worked on "the Track" in Oakland, the woman said she thought of McNair as her boyfriend and would confide in him about her mental health and other problems.
"It was, in a way, like we were dating," she said. "He was kind of like my best friend as well."
Oakland police Officer Marcos Campos, who wrote a probable cause statement for McNair's recent arrest, said witnesses had observed "potential inappropriate behavior" between McNair and the teenager before they quit Safeway at the same time.
The teen left her home a few days after her 18th birthday in June and did not tell her family where she was going. She had planned to attend St. Mary's College in Moraga this fall. Campos suggested that Lee French was the "reporting party" in the trafficking case, but did not detail exactly what initiated the investigation.
Campos wrote, however, that on Sept. 19 he obtained the teenager's credit card history and found numerous charges for rooms at Oakland hotels known for prostitution activity.
Searching through past police reports, Campos discovered that the young woman had been arrested Aug. 18 for loitering on East 15th Street, in an area known for prostitution, while wearing "tight and revealing clothing." Officers had detained her on suspicion of engaging in prostitution before releasing her. She has not been charged with any crime.
"Based on my training and experience, (the teen) was actively being sex trafficked along the E. 15th St. corridor," Campos wrote.
On Sept. 21, the teen went to the Frenches' residence in Richmond, where she told Lee French to "stop preventing her from being an active sex worker," Campos wrote. Sometime after that, an Oakland police officer and an FBI agent were dispatched to the scene.
An Oakland Police Department spokesperson said Friday that Sgt. French has been "shielded from any information pertaining to the investigation" of his relative.
An FBI spokesperson said he could not "confirm or deny the existence of any investigation." The FBI commonly gets involved in local trafficking cases.
The teen told the officers that day that she knew McNair as Pro and that he taught her to "move" and "make money," Campos wrote. She told the investigators that he instructed her to read books on self-empowerment and how to make money. While she performed street-level prostitution, Campos wrote, McNair kept the profits and provided protection.
He said the teen told police that while working for McNair, "she did not have to make an exact amount before returning home. She felt fortunate and happy because other prostitutes do not have this same privilege." She also reportedly said that "McNair made her into a stronger person and brought her up to her full potential."
In her seven-page handwritten request for a restraining order, the teen described a chaotic scene when the Frenches met with her at their home. She said that after arriving at the home, she asked Lee and Bisa French "not to bother" her and to let her make her own decisions.
As she stood up to leave, she said, the Frenches "rushed over" to her and told her she wasn't going to leave the house.
"Together they pinned me down in the chair as I screamed at the top of my lungs for them to stop," the teen wrote. Bisa French then threatened to kill McNair and his mother, a threat that Lee French echoed, according to the teen's written request.
After several more physical altercations and attempts to leave by the teen, she said she decided to "comply and play smart," and agreed to spend the night at a friend's house — though she described sneaking out and sleeping in McNair's car that night.
The next day, McNair received a call from his mother saying that the Frenches had driven to her Vallejo home and threatened to kill McNair if the teen did not return to the Frenches' residence, according to the teen's statement. She said she agreed to go, and that the Frenches then drove her to the federal building in Oakland, where FBI officers got her to agree to go to a safe house in Arizona.
She wrote the letter seeking a restraining order on Oct. 1 from the safe house, and it was filed in court six days later. But a temporary restraining order, which is often granted immediately, was denied.
A judge, referring to the relationship between the teen and the Frenches, wrote, "Based on the information provided it appears that the (teen) is not in immediate danger of abuse and the alleged facts, while serious, appear to involve complex issues that require a hearing. The narrative strongly implies that the (teen) may be suspected to be a victim of crime by someone other than the (Frenches)."
On Oct. 6, the day before the teen's written statement was filed, she went missing from the safe house, Campos wrote. Officers found her at McNair's side when they arrested him in Richmond on Oct. 11th.
While denying the allegations in the restraining order application, Rains said the Frenches believe McNair crafted the request. The judge set a hearing for Oct. 25.
Rains said that when the couple went to McNair's mother's house on Sept. 22, they were invited inside and had a conversation. "It was an emotional thing," Rains said. "There were no terrorist or criminal threats made.
"Even a couple of cops never realized the power these guys can exert over a girl," he said. He said of McNair: "He's completely taken over her mind and will."
It was early October when Vallejo police detectives reached out to the Frenches and said the allegations could qualify as criminal threats, Rains said. He said the Frenches will cooperate with the investigation and grant an interview to detectives soon.
Vallejo Police Chief Shawny Williams said in a statement last week that his department is investigating members of the Richmond and Oakland police departments.
"As the Chief of Police, when an incident occurs in Vallejo which involves police officers employed by another department, it is my responsibility to contact the employing department to inform them of accusations involving one of their members, so the employing agency can launch an internal affairs investigation," Williams said.
He added, "All communications with the Richmond and Oakland Police Departments were conducted in accordance with standard operating procedures."
On Oct. 8, Richmond City Manager Laura Snideman emailed council members to alert them that Bisa French was taking personal leave to "address a distressing family situation" and that Louie Tirona would serve as acting chief.
French joined the city force as a 22-year-old single mother in 1998 and later worked graveyard shifts while studying criminal justice management at San Francisco State University. She became the first Black woman to head the Richmond Police Department in July 2020.
"It is a very sad tragedy for the French family, and they deserve our compassion, our prayers and our support as they work through this to, hopefully, a positive outcome," Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said.
According to Rains, when McNair was arraigned Thursday in Alameda County Superior Court, the teenager — his alleged victim — was there to support him.
San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Andres Picon contributed to this report.
Matthias Gafni, Susie Neilson and Michael Cabanatuan are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: [email protected] , [email protected] , [email protected] Twitter: @mgafni , @susieneilson , @ctuan
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