A criminal trial began Tuesday for a former decorated Fresno police officer accused of hitting his 14-year-old daughter after she allegedly cursed him, blamed him for the breakup of the family and wished he was dead.
Jesse Joe Ruelas, 45, faces two misdemeanor counts of corporal injury to a child. If convicted, he faces up to a year in jail and/or a fine. He also will lose any chance of getting his job back.
According to Fresno attorney Roger Wilson, who is defending Ruelas, the trial in Fresno County Superior Court will probe a parent’s right to discipline a mouthy child.
Police contend Ruelas hit his 14-year-old daughter at least three times on her head with the heel of his right palm in May 2015. Ruelas denies the charges and has pleaded not guilty.
Ruelas, a 19-year police veteran, had a spotless record with the department before his daughter accused him of striking her, said Wilson, who blamed the daughter’s mother of conspiring with her daughter to get Ruelas in trouble so the mother can have an upper hand in the ongoing divorce proceedings.
On Tuesday, Wilson told trial Judge Arlan Harrell that Ruelas used “reasonable punishment” when he struck his daughter for misbehaving. (The court has asked to keep the girl’s name confidential.)
But prosecutor Nicole Galstan told the judge Ruelas didn’t hit his daughter to punish her but struck her out of “anger and rage.”
The Fresno Police Department fired Ruelas after he was charged with the crime. The District Attorney’s Office has made no offers to settle the case, Galstan told the judge.
A product of Sanger schools, Ruelas, known as “JJ,” spent five years in the U.S. Marine Corps, doing combat duty in Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the early 1990s. He was honorably discharged in 1994. Two years later, he joined the Fresno Police Department.
Over the years, Ruelas received several commendations as an anti-gang detective, Wilson said. In 2004, Ruelas was instrumental in putting together a court injunction against the Fresno Parkside Bulldogs, a notorious street gang responsible for murders, rapes, robberies and drug sales. The injunction prohibited the gang’s members from associating with each other; being near guns, drugs or alcohol; and intimidating people.
In July 2014, police Chief Jerry Dyer said at a news conference that Ruelas nearly saved a woman’s life when he burst into a southwest Fresno home and shot and killed Michael Reams, who court records say had a long, violent history of domestic violence.
When Ruelas killed Reams, he didn’t know Reams already had killed his victim, Cindy Raygoza, by stabbing her nearly two dozen times, Dyer said.
Ruelas and his estranged wife, Marisela Ruelas, were married in 2008 and have a daughter and two younger boys. Court records say the couple filed for divorce in May 2014 and separated.
Citing a two-year pattern of verbal and physical abuse, Jesse Joe Ruelas in November 2014 obtained a restraining order against his estranged wife, court records say. During a court hearing, Marisela Ruelas was deemed untruthful, Wilson told the judge Tuesday. “Not only was she violent toward Ruelas, she also would hit herself in the face in order to deflect blame onto Ruelas,” Wilson said in court papers.
In her interview with police, Ruelas’ daughter admitted “that her mother repeatedly asked her children to spy on their father and report his movements to her.”
In court Tuesday, Galstan revealed the daughter also secretly recorded her father in February 2015, three months before he hit her. In the recording, Ruelas yells at his children and uses profanity. “Why are you guys so goddamn selfish?” Ruelas screams. “It’s always ‘I want, I want, I want.'”
“You don’t know when to stop,” he screams. “I’m tired of it.”
Marisela Ruelas could not be reached to comment. Court records say she was charged with violating the restraining order in August 2014 and in January 2015. Prosecutors dismissed the two misdemeanor cases in September last year.
A Fresno police report says Jesse Joe Ruelas got in trouble May 21, 2015, after he picked up his three children from his mother-in-law’s home. On the drive to his home, Ruelas’ daughter began arguing with her father over the family’s separation. She yelled at her father, cursed him and wished he was dead, Wilson said, noting that the incident happened on the one-year anniversary of Ruelas’ separation with his ex-wife.
“This angered Jesse,” the police report says. “He began to yell and slam his fist into the middle console. While he did this, he yelled that it was their mother’s fault they split, not his.”
When Ruelas asked his daughter to stop, she refused, the report says. While driving, Ruelas attempted to swat his daughter to make her stop arguing with him.
The report says the girl was in the back seat of a extended cab pickup and sitting behind her father. The report accuses Ruelas of adjusting his seat so he could strike her. When the daughter complained, Ruelas told her “he could hit her wherever he wanted with whatever he wanted as hard as he wanted as long as he was disciplining her,” the report says.
The girl contends her father hit her with the palm of his hand behind her right ear. The police report says a medical official examined the girl and determined she had “post-concussion syndrome” with headaches “that come and go,” along with dizziness and fatigue. But Galstan told the judge Tuesday no medical official or witness will testify the girl suffered a concussion.
The police report also says an officer saw no visible injuries on the girl’s head. But Galstan said there could be evidence of a bump behind the girl’s right ear.
After she was struck, the victim told her mother and her grandmother, Lucy Pacheco, the report says.
Outside court Tuesday, Jesse Joe Ruelas said he hopes the trial will vindicate him.
“I served my country and my community,” Ruelas said. “I loved being a Fresno police officer. That’s all I ever wanted to do.”
Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts
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