Meet the Chief of the Family Protection Division

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from September 15 through October 15, we are highlighting stories from DA employees and what inspired them to pursue a career in public service. Meet the Chief of the DA’s Family Protection Division Melissa Diaz, who has been with the DA’s Office since 2000.

Melissa is a native Angelino – born and raised in Los Angeles. After law school, she worked at the San Diego City Attorney’s Office for several years and then began working at the District Attorney in 2000 where she started in the Family Protection Division.

She is currently the Chief of the Family Protection Division, where she leads the group tasked with prosecuting domestic violence, child physical and sexual abuse, elder abuse, animal abuse, child abduction and internet crimes against children.  She works with our law enforcement and community partners on the investigation, prosecution, and prevention of these crimes.  She also helps work on systems-based issues, meaning how we can best serve our crime victims and witnesses from the moment they report to the conclusion of their case.

During her spare time, Melissa likes to cook, read, and listen to music.  She spends time with her family is also involved in her community.  She works on the High School Mock Trial coordinating committee because she is deeply interested in civics and civics education.  She has also devoted significant time to non-profit groups dedicated to serving children and families.  She was a founding board member of a non-profit foster family agency and she served on the board of The Chicano Federation of San Diego, serving as vice-chair and chair.

What inspired you to choose a career in law enforcement/at the DA’s Office?

“I have always been compelled to public service and service to the community which I attribute my family’s values growing up. I’ve also been interested in protecting our community and those most vulnerable within in our community – children, sexual assault victims, victims of intimate partner violence and communities affected by gang violence.”

What is your favorite part of the job?

“It is an honor to help crime victims navigate the court system and navigate them toward needed support services.”

What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you? Why is it important?

On both sides of my family, we have a proud, rich and deep connection to history, civil rights and the Chicano movement in Los Angeles.  My family took care to share stories, art, culture and history with me and I feel fortunate.  For me, Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity to talk about Latinx art, culture and history, to appreciate our expansive history in the United States, to consider how our culture has shaped this country even before its inception, and to debate what it means to be Latinx and how we want to define ourselves.”

San Diego’s Homeless Court Continues to be a Model for the Nation

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said today that San Diego County’s Homeless Court Program continues to be a model for the nation as out of state officials come to observe the monthly court sessions to learn and possibly implement a similar program in their region.

During the September Homeless Court Program graduation, the District Attorney, Public Defender, and Superior Court Judges from Multnomah County in Portland, Oregon, observed the unique court hearing that took place at the Center for Employment Opportunities where more than 50 previously unhoused individuals had their non-violent misdemeanor cases and fines dismissed and cleared.

“The Homeless Court Program graduation is a time to acknowledge the hard work that individuals experiencing homelessness undertook to accept and engage in services including treatment, education and job training to become productive members of society,” said DA Stephan. “Homeless Court partners consider all the hours of treatment, community service, training, and education they have gone through to get their lives back on track. If they’re being held back by infractions, traffic tickets, and minor offenses that took place because of their homeless circumstances, the court deems those fines and fees satisfied to remove hurdles so that they can obtain a driver’s license, get a job, find housing, and continue a positive momentum through life.”

[WATCH a video of the September Homeless Court Program, HERE]

The Homeless Court Program graduation in September was the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic that the program was near the maximum of 60 participants per month.  There were over 50 participants, more than 200 separate cases and about $140,000 in fines and fees dismissed. Individuals often have multiple cases, such as one person who had over 50 cases of mostly trolley ticket violations.

“Homeless Court is not just a court session, it is a restart, a new beginning, for graduates to move forward in their life,” said Matthew Wechter, Public Defender Homeless Court Team and Court Liaison. “Instead of fines, fees, or jail time, Homeless Court dismisses cases and satisfies fines as a recognition of the hundreds of hours that these graduates have spent to address the root issues that brought them to the justice system in the first place. Our credo is: ‘You take a step; we take a step.’ Removing legal barriers of low-level cases, warrants, and fines is key to success when a person has taken those steps. The court is merely getting out of their way. San Diego continues to be an American Bar Association model jurisdiction to the nation – exemplifying the best practices and providing technical assistance to new programs across the country.”

The first Homeless Court Program in the nation began in San Diego in 1988 and it’s a collaboration between the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender, the San Diego City Attorney, the Superior Court, and local service providers like the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), that refer individuals to the program.

“CEO is thankful to be part of this opportunity offering services to individuals across the community,” said Cambria O’Neill, Supportive Service Specialist for the Center for Employment Opportunities. “On average, 100 participants are submitted each year from CEO and Homeless Court Program continues to grow through support of CEO and other providers who are willing to be changemakers. More Homeless Court locations continue to pop up and more providers become approved to the network. We are one step closer to bringing people out of poverty and into a self-sufficient mindset.”

Angelica Sanchez was one of the participants who graduated from the Homeless Court Program in September, and she currently has a temporary job at the Center for Employment Opportunities. She is optimistic about her future now that the fines and fees she owed from trolley tickets will no longer be a barrier for her to get back on track.

“My goal is to get my driver’s license, to keep a clean driving record, to be able to travel and get a full-time job and also help provide for my mom, my siblings and my nieces and nephews,” Sanchez said.

To participate in the program, individuals need to be referred by one of the more than 100 approved Homeless Court Providers or have made progress on their own through a different program. Only misdemeanor cases that are non-violent in nature can be dismissed. For more information about the Homeless Court Program in San Diego, click here.


Meet Deputy DA Hector Jimenez

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, which is observed from September 15 through October 15, we are highlighting stories from DA employees and what inspired them to pursue a career in public service. Meet Deputy District Attorney Hector Jimenez, who has been with the DA’s Office since 1995.

Hector was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and came to the U.S. when he was 13 years old. Before joining the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, he worked in the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office and before that he represented minors in dependency court.

Hector started at the DA’s Office in the Juvenile Branch, and he is currently assigned to the Public Integrity Unit, in Special Operations, where he investigates and prosecutes conduct of elected officials or matters involving public funds.  He also helps with hate crimes and has taken on a few cases from his tenure in the Economic Crimes Division.

During his spare time, Hector coaches high school mock trials, he is involved with the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association, and he enjoys triathlons and spending time with his family.

What inspired you to choose a career in law enforcement/at the DA’s Office?

“When I was in high school, I was inspired by prosecutors during a Law Day event at the courthouse in Santa Ana, CA. They told us their mission was to help people. From that day, I have aspired to be a diligent and caring prosecutor.”

What is your favorite part of the job?

“I love the people I work with and our mission to serve the people of this state. The successes are very gratifying, and I can’t think of a better group of people to experience the lows with.”

What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you? Why is it important?

“As an immigrant, it is an interesting concept because I came from a place where the contributions of minorities were not appreciated.  I am proud to belong to a community that recognizes the contributions of its diverse population.  One of the interesting things about the Hispanic community is that we come in all shapes and colors, we are very diverse, and we contribute to all industries.”

Prison Sentence for Defendant Who Pushed Man into Freight Train

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that defendant Ryan Rukstelis, 27, was sentenced this week to 15 years-to-life in prison for a random attack that killed an elderly man at the Old Town Transit Station. Superior Court Judge Rachel Cano handed down the sentence on Thursday.

The victim, 68-year-old Martin Andara, was on his way to work at a Ralph’s supermarket in Pacific Beach at about 6:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day in 2022. After exiting the trolley and walking toward a connecting bus at the station, Rukstelis is seen on surveillance video walking ahead of Andara then slowing and stopping to wait until he is even with the victim. Rukstelis suddenly attacked Andara for no reason, punching him and pushing him directly into a freight train that was moving past them. Andara suffered severe head trauma causing almost immediate death.

“This random, chilling attack took the life of a man who was loved by his family, friends and colleagues,” said DA Stephan. “It is a tragic case that was solved by excellent police work and brought to justice by the Elder Abuse Unit in our office.” 

Police analyzed surveillance footage at various train stations throughout the county and determined that Rukstelis was at a trolley station in Mission Valley hours before the attack earlier that morning. Surveillance footage captured him attempting to remove a broken front panel of a vending machine. Fingerprints were lifted from the inside of the vending machine panel, matching those of Rukstelis. Investigators arrested Rukstelis three days after the attack.

Rukstelis pleaded guilty to second-degree murder on June 30. Deputy District Attorney Scott Pirrello prosecuted this case.  

No Cost Haircuts for Families in Need at One Safe Place

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said today that the no cost haircut service at One Safe Place: The North County Family Justice Center continues to be a success and is just one of many resources at the center available to victims of violence and abuse. Haircuts are provided at One Safe Place by volunteer hairdressers from local salons in the county.

“The idea behind providing this service is to empower and lift up those who are emerging from abusive or violent situations,” DA Stephan said. “Something as seemingly small as a haircut can help build confidence and self-esteem when taking on new independence in their lives, going to a job interview or just wanting a change to signify their past is not defining their future. We are grateful to the volunteers who provide this wonderful service and precious time to help those in need.”

[WATCH a video about the No Cost Haircuts at One Safe Place, HERE]

The small salon is attached to the Dress to Thrive Boutique, a space within One Safe Place where non-profit partners provide no cost emergency clothing in all sizes for families escaping abuse and for those in need.

“Many folks who come through our doors are coming on their most broken day or escaping abuse or violence in the home. They’ve been told what they can and can’t do, including what their hair should and should not look like,” said Tracy Prior, Chief Deputy DA and Chief Operating Officer of One Safe Place. “This is a place where they can choose for themselves an item of clothing to wear, or how they want to wear their hair or to simply gain confidence to take on a new independence in their lives.”

Since the opening of One Safe Place in July 2022, there have been more than 90 no cost haircuts given to guests thanks to several volunteer hairdressers who provide the service once a week. Debbie Duran from Top of the Line Cuts in Vista is one of them because she wanted to give back to One Safe Place.

“They helped me with my daughter, so now I feel like I need to help these kids and make them smile and come out with a haircut,” Duran said. “After I leave here doing everybody’s hair, I feel good, because I see these kids or their parents walking out with a smile. I can relate to where they’re coming from because I can tell them that my kids experienced trauma but were helped, and it makes them feel better knowing that they can go forward in life.”

Amy, who recently moved from out of state after a family tragedy, came to One Safe Place in search of services to help her and her three children get back on their feet. This haircut service was just one of the many resources that they received.

“It’s a confidence booster, it makes you feel good about yourself, you look clean-cut and you’re ready to take on the school year,” Amy said about the haircuts her three teenage children got at One Safe Place. “From the moment that we walked in and found out about all the services available and the support that is provided to moms and children, I literally told the person who I met with at first that I had felt so alone up until that moment.”

The volunteer hairdressers who make this service possible at One Safe Place include:
Maria Templeton, who owns Elements Salon in San Marcos, Amanda Roush with Lash Beauty Bar in Wildomar, Debbie Duran from Top of the Line Cuts in Vista, and Chanelle Simpson with Utopia Style Lounge in Encinitas.

One Safe Place, located in San Marcos, provides free support services to anyone who has experienced family violence, child abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, hate crimes, elder abuse, human trafficking, violent loss, or other crimes. Child and adult victims of abuse and their families can walk through the doors and receive acute crisis-care, forensic medical exams, advocacy, counseling and therapy, legal services such as restraining orders, connections to a safe shelter and housing, long term mentoring, workforce readiness, clothing, and educational opportunities all under one roof.

Fatal DUIs Spike Amid COVID-19

DUI Driver Sentenced to Prison for Fatal Crash

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that defendant Maricela Diaz, 24, was sentenced to six years in prison for gross vehicular manslaughter in connection with a 2022 crash that killed El Cajon resident Roberto Mendez Sanchez, 49.

Diaz, who was 23 at the time of the crash, had a measurable blood-alcohol content of about 0.24% after the crash, which is three times the legal limit for driving. Although Diaz was sentenced to six years, prosecutors argued for the maximum sentence under the law, which is 10 years in prison.

“It is heartbreaking that yet another precious life is lost to a completely preventable crime,” DA Summer Stephan said. “The power to end these senseless losses of life is in every driver’s hands. If you plan on drinking, have a designated driver, take a cab, or use a rideshare service. Simply do not get behind the wheel while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and know that if you do, you will be held accountable.”

On June 6, Diaz pleaded guilty to gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and DUI with injury.

Deputy District Attorney Laura Evans prosecuted this case.

DA Announces $925K Consumer Settlement

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced today that the diet supplement company, American Behavioral Research Institute, LLC, (“ABRI”), maker of Relaxium, agreed to a Court ordered judgment that includes injunctive relief and civil penalties and costs of $925,000.  The judgment was entered today in the Santa Cruz Superior Court and arose from alleged violations the California Automatic Renewal Law (ARL) and False Advertising Law (FAL). The Automatic Renewal Law is designed to prevent companies from automatically renewing subscriptions without the consumer’s knowledge. The False Advertising Law is designed to prevent companies from making unsupported claims about their products.

“We are committed to protecting customers by ensuring they aren’t deceived by automatically renewing charges that are not properly disclosed,” DA Stephan said. “Consumers are bilked out of millions of dollars when companies violate our automatic renewal laws, but working with our law enforcement partners across California, we are holding such companies accountable.”

The District Attorney Offices of San Diego County, Santa Clara County, Santa Cruz County, Los Angels County, Santa Barbara County and the City Attorney of Santa Monica filed the civil action as part of the California Automatic Renewal Task Force (CART). An investigation by CART found that the company did not properly disclose to its customers that their subscriptions would be automatically renewed after a trial period. Under California law, online businesses must clearly and conspicuously disclose all automatic renewal charges, terms of sale and obtain affirmative consent to those recurring charges from the consumer.

The lawsuit filed in Santa Cruz County Superior Court by the joint taskforce of prosecutors, reached a stipulated resolution against the out of state company that imposes an injunction and assesses civil penalties and costs. It also orders restitution specifically to California consumers through a class action case already arranged.

ABRI cooperated in this resolution and, without admitting liability, agreed to change its misleading advertising disclosures in its advertisements, product packaging and website.

The California Auto Renewal Task Force (CART) primarily investigates businesses for violations of the California Automatic Renewal Law and federal statutes regulating automatic renewal contracts. However, when appropriate, it investigates other law violations in conjunction with ARL violations. Deputy District Attorney Stephen Spinella with the DA’s Consumer Protection Unit assisted in the case for the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office.

DA Strongly Opposes Senate Bill 94

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan today strongly criticized Senate Bill 94, proposed legislation that would allow a person convicted of murder or multiple murders with a special circumstance to petition a court for resentencing, if the killer has served at least 25 years of their life sentence and the offense was committed before June 5, 1990. The bill would permit some of the most violent and dangerous California murderers to elude the punishment of life without the possibility of parole for which they were originally sentenced. These violent killers would be eligible to be resentenced for their murders simply due to the passage of time.

“SB 94 would be an unwarranted gift of lenity to some of the ‘worst of the worst’ of California’s murderers currently incarcerated in prisons across the state, including San Diego defendants convicted of murder and attempted rape,” said DA Stephan, who sent a formal letter of opposition to the Chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee. “For some of these killers, this law would reduce their sentence and move them from California’s prison system into our communities, unfairly re-traumatizing victims and their families. How is justice served when people who mercilessly torture and murder human beings and are duly convicted and sentenced in a court of law, and then get their sentence undone without any consideration of the irreplaceable loss and pain to their victims?”

In her letter, DA Stephan outlined several aspects to the bill that led to her opposition:

  • SB 94 includes no requirement that the killer show any remorse or rehabilitation.
  • SB 94 will re-traumatize victims and their families.
  • SB 94 fails to fully consider the appeals and other post-conviction relief available to convicted killers.
  • SB 94 tips the scale by forcing judges to lean towards resentencing in each case by requiring “great weight” be given to certain factors rather than allowing an objective decision.
  • SB 94 will unduly burden the court system by requiring judges to reconsider sentencing of decades-old cases.

The bill is making its way through the legislature and will be heard next in the Appropriations Committee tomorrow, September 1.

“The bill severely limits a sentencing judge’s discretion to deny the petition for resentencing,” DA Stephan said. “SB 94 stacks the deck in favor of violent murderers over victims and community safety by mandating that judges afford great weight to mitigating evidence offered by the convicted murderer. SB 94 is written so that the scales of justice are tipped in favor of the defendant.”

Mitigating evidence that benefits the defendant would be given greater weight than the aggravating evidence that negatively impacts the defendant’s petition for release. Specifically, SB 94 mandates that the resentencing court afford great weight to evidence that the convicted murderer suffered intimate partner violence, sexual violence or human trafficking; experienced childhood trauma, suffered military-related trauma connected to the offense, suffered cognitive impairment, intellectual disability or mental illness, or was a youth at the time of the offense.

The law does not allow great weight to be given to aggravating factors such as the calculated and cruel nature of the murder, the fact that two or more people were killed, that the victim left behind orphaned children, or that the murders were sadistic in their nature.

Killers convicted in San Diego County who would be eligible to petition for resentencing under SB 94 include:

David Alan Weeding – On May 20, 1988, Weeding knocked on the door of Vickie P.’s apartment, claiming to be sent by management to check for leaks. Weeding grabbed the victim’s arm and began to attack her. She was wrestled to the ground and the defendant held a knife to her throat, cutting off her clothes. As this was occurring, Vickie’s husband entered the apartment.  Weeding grabbed the knife from the floor and charged at him. Vickie ran outside for help while her husband struggled with Weeding. Weeding stabbed the victim in the back and chest several times, killing him. Weeding was convicted by a jury of murder with special circumstances, attempted rape and first-degree burglary. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Weeding committed this heinous murder after being released from prison early while serving a sentence for prior sexual assaults.

Arthur Chris Burbridge – On September 21, 1978, Claire L.’s body was found in a hotel room.  Her ankles were tied together with nylon stockings and there was blue bandana around her neck along with another nylon stocking. She had been choked to death. Claire’s checkbook was on the bed and in the signature line, the killer wrote, “God gives, God taketh away.” Six days later, Shirley B.’s body was found on the side of the road. A piece of plastic clothesline was tied around her neck. The cause of death was also asphyxiation. Shirley’s body had drag marks on her back indicating that she had been dragged headfirst to the side of the road where her body was covered with a blanket.

Read the DA’s letter sent in opposition to SB94 here.

‘Cafecito con la Comunidad’ Offers Resources in Spanish

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said today that monthly “Cafecito con la Comunidad” (Coffee with the Community) events are providing the Spanish-speaking community in North County easier access to vital resources, such as services for domestic violence survivors, education on preventing human trafficking, elder abuse, financial scams, and much more.

The Spanish only events are held every second Friday of the month at One Safe Place: The North County Family Justice Center in San Marcos. The topics at the gatherings are focused on public safety and are organized by District Attorney Community Partnership Prosecutor Monique Myers, Dra. Beatriz Villarreal from Mano a Mano Foundation, and One Safe Place Executive Director Claudia Grasso.


The latest Cafecito con la Comunidad had over 50 attendees, including women, men and children, who feel more comfortable obtaining information in Spanish. Some attendees are trying to get out of an abusive relationship. In fact, one domestic violence survivor with her young child left her abuser after attending one of the Cafecitos and is currently receiving services at One Safe Place.

During another Cafecitos where a domestic violence survivor shared her story about seeing her little boy mimic the violent behavior of her abusive husband, another of the attendees was inspired to seek help and resources from One Safe Place.

“I’m so honored to connect with our Hispanic community in this unique and comfortable manner to better serve victims, survivors and community members at One Safe Place: The North County Family Justice Center,” said DA Stephan. “The interest in the Cafecito con la Comunidad events is a great example of empowering the community by providing information, education, and services. Seeing the larger crowds every meeting means there’s a feeling of trust and comfort which helps build safer families and safer neighborhoods.”

A recent Memorandum of Understanding signed between the DA’s Office and the Mexican Consulate now includes the Consulate’s participation in these free informative events every month. The Cafecitos con la Comunidad are completely in Spanish and they take place the second Friday of every month at 10 a.m., at One Safe Place: The North County Family Justice Center, which is located at 1050 Los Vallecitos Blvd., San Marcos, CA 92069. The next Cafecito con la Comunidad will be on September 8, at 10 a.m. and the topic is on “Drugs and Mental Health: What is their relationship? Myths and Resources.” There is no need to register in advance. You can see a flyer with the list of the upcoming meetings and topics, here: CAFECITO CON LA COMUNIDAD – FLYER.

DA Provides New Resource to Help Prevent School Violence

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan announced a new resource to help teachers spot red flags that could potentially lead to school violence, including school shootings. In partnership with the San Diego County Office of Education, the FBI and the San Diego Law Enforcement Coordination Center, the District Attorney’s Office produced a web and print-ready brochure that offers tips on what school employees should look for and what to do if they are concerned a student may be a danger to themselves or others.

“Preventing school shootings and keeping our kids and schools safe, often depends on teachers, staff, students and the community reporting concerning behavior to law enforcement,” DA Stephan said. “In San Diego County, we have a protocol that allows us to promptly respond to threats and neutralize them. This new brochure will provide school staff a quick guide on what to look for and how to report it.”

Tips in the brochure, called School Threats: A Resource for Teachers and Staff include how to observe, document and notify when a student may be emulating the behavior of previous school shooters. The resource offers information about what type of written material and social media posts are common among individuals who engage in mass violence.

“Ensuring the safety and well-being of students and staff members while on a school campus is integral to student success,” said San Diego County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Paul Gothold. “We are thankful to DA Stephan and the FBI for their continued collaboration on supports and interventions that reduce the threat of violence at our schools.”

Since 2018, the District Attorney’s Office has been working to stop those who might carry out threats before they can act, through the School Threats Protocol, which encompasses all 42 school districts in the County. The protocol guides how schools, law enforcement and prosecutors respond to school threats, using evidenced-based guidelines for investigation and resolution of the threat.

The most important revelation from our work in this area is the importance the public plays in warning law enforcement of threats that are made to do harm, no matter how insignificant they may seem.

Last year, the District Attorney’s Office reviewed 48 reports of school threats and filed criminal charges in 10 of those cases. So far this year, there have been 33 cases submitted for review with eight cases being charged. Even when the evidence does not support filing criminal charges, a variety of mental health and other supportive systems are engaged to enhance safety.

“FBI San Diego is committed to supporting our communities in the effort to prevent targeted violence in schools,” said Stacey Moy, Special Agent-in-Charge. “This reporting tool is an important part of our community effort to foster an educational environment wherein school faculty and staff recognize behaviors that are objectively concerning, understand how and where to report them, and feel confident that their reports will be taken seriously and followed up on. FBI is pleased to participate in this effort.”

When the District Attorney’s Office receives a school threats case for review, multiple factors are evaluated to confirm the credibility of a threat once the suspect has been identified, including:

  • Investigate their background, including whether the person made prior threats
  • Look at open-source intelligence such as social media posts
  • Check to see if they have registered guns, have made recent ammunition purchases, or have access to guns
  • Check on whether there has been contact with terrorist organizations
  • Determine whether they have had psychiatric holds or other mental health red flags
  • Research whether the person has had a recent traumatic event or grievance with a particular school or person associated with a school

“The San Diego Law Enforcement Coordination Center supports and prioritizes the whole community approach with our local enforcement, District Attorney investigators, the FBI and the Educational sector to prevent any school threat,” said Leslie Gardner, Director of the San Diego Law Enforcement Coordination Center. “We are committed to this ongoing effort and the School Safety Brochure is a valuable resource and guide for teachers and staff members to identify suspicious behavior and know how to report such information.”

Students can also interrupt school violence by reporting anonymously at