Prominent Orange County water polo coach convicted of sexually abusing 9 teenage players – Daily News

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A prominent water polo coach in Orange County was convicted of nearly two-dozen felonies on Wednesday, Nov. 16, following a five-week trial when a dozen women accused him of sexually assaulting them during one-one-sessions in public practices while they were teenagers.

An Orange County Superior Court jury deliberated for a little less than three days before finding Bahram Hojreh guilty of 22 felony counts related to nine victims who were 14 to 17 years old at the time, with the jury also determining that Hojreh took advantage of his position of trust.

Hojreh showed no obvious reaction to the verdicts, which the jury reached late Tuesday and were read Wednesday morning in a Santa Ana courtroom. In the audience was a group of 15 victims and parents as well as a dozen of Hojreh’s family members and supporters.

The former coach, who had remained free during the trial, was taken into custody by bailiffs after the verdicts. As Hojreh was handcuffed, an elderly relative began screaming uncontrollably. It took bailiffs and family members several minutes to get her out of the courtroom as she continued to wail.

The felonies included sexual battery, sexual penetration and lewd acts on a minor carried out on girls. The jurors also found Hojreh guilty of a misdemeanor count of simple assault against a tenth woman, but acquitted him of a lewd-acts charge tied to the same victim.

Two other women testified against Hojreh during his trial and accused him of sexually assaulting them, but their allegations were not part of the official charges in the case.

The conviction marks a steep downfall for Hojreh, a 46-year-old Irvine resident and well-known club and high school coach who, by his own estimates, trained more than 100 All Americans, developed more than 40 members who made the national team and led at least 10 teams to national championships.

Hojreh — who ran the International Water Polo Club in Los Alamitos and was teaching at Kennedy High School shortly before his arrest — had already been banned for life from participating in events affiliated with USA Water Polo, the sport’s national governing body.

Over the course of a month, a dozen women took the stand in a Santa Ana courtroom to say that Hojreh abused them with underwater touching of their breasts and twisting of their nipples, the touching of their genitals above and below their swimsuits and digital penetration. The women said that the sexual abuse occurred during one-on-one training sessions during practices primarily held at the Olympic-size pool at the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos.

Hojreh denied the criminal charges and described his former athletes as being part of a “conspiracy” against him, with his defense attorney directly accusing the women of lying and fabricating the allegations. Hojreh’s attorney repeatedly asked the women whether the prospect of a civil lawsuit and large monetary payout led them to point the finger at their former coach, and questioned how such abuse could have occurred in public practices near other players, coaches, lifeguards and parents.

Testimony in Hojreh’s trial spotlighted the dark side of the water polo scene in Orange County, which has long served as a hotbed for talent in the sport. Along with the allegations again Hojreh, the trial included many references to Josh Owens, a former Kennedy High School water polo coach, and Coleman Pickell, a former University High School coach, who were both convicted in recent years of having sex with students.

And some teammates of the accusers who played for Hojreh’s team were themselves accused of improperly grabbing opposing players underneath their swimsuits during Junior Olympic qualifying matches in the summer of 2017.

Deputy District Attorney Raquel Cooper said Hojreh took advantage of the trust and respect that was placed in him not only by his players but also their parents.

“Every single one of them wanted to play in the Junior Olympics, to play in college, maybe to play in the Olympics one day,” the prosecutor said. “And he was the one who told them he could get them there. He knew his players inherently trusted him. He knew these teenage kids knew he was the key to get them into college. And he took advantage of that.”

During often-emotional testimony, the women described the man many still referred to as “Coach Bahram” who convinced them that the sexual contact was meant to “toughen them up” for the type of play he allegedly claimed they could expect from opposing players at higher levels of the sport.

The accusers began to confide in each other in late 2017, and reached out to adults and law enforcement in early 2018, with most later testifying that they wanted to make sure younger players wouldn’t be subjected to the same conduct.

“He tricked these girls into believing his abuse had a legitimate purpose in water polo, and they continued to endure it for months and years,” the prosecutor told jurors.

In a call between one player and Hojreh recorded by police, the girl accused Hojreh nearly a dozen times of inserting his fingers into her vagina, and the coach did not deny the allegations during the conversation. During his testimony, Hojreh said he believed the girl was in a fragile mental state and that he was afraid to confront her directly.

Hojreh’s attorney, John Barnett, questioned why the girls hadn’t discussed the alleged abuse earlier even if they believed it was an uncomfortable part of their training.

Some of Hojreh’s accusers knew players who had been sexually abused by Owens, the former Kennedy High School assistant water polo coach, and who had received a nearly $8 million settlement from the Anaheim Union High School District, Barnett noted during the trial. The defense attorney argued that seeing Owens arrested and fired demonstrated to the girls exactly what power they had to deal with an abuser.

“They had a sure way to get rid of the beast,” Barnett argued. “They could stop the beast from assaulting them in the pool the next day.

Hojreh was ordered to return to court for sentencing on Jan. 12.

Along with the criminal charges, the allegations surrounding Hojreh led to several civil lawsuits. USA Water Polo has already agreed to a nearly $14 million settlement with the women, while other civil lawsuits allege that he sexually abused players while coaching at Kennedy High School and University High School.

The sexual abuse allegations also led former Olympic medalists and athlete-safety advocates to speak out and call on congressional leaders to overhaul USA Water Polo. The organization has previously denied wrong-doing, saying the multi-million settlement with Hojreh’s accusers was driven by its insurance carrier.

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