Trial starts for water polo coach accused of assaulting 13 teens

A well-known water polo coach molested 13 teenage girls he coached for about five years in Los Alamitos and La Palma, a prosecutor told jurors Monday as the defendant's attorney said the allegations are false and suggested it was for money in a lawsuit.

Bahram Hojreh, 46, is facing 24 felony counts including lewd or lascivious acts with a minor under 14, lewd acts on a child 14 or 15, sexual penetration by a foreign object of a minor, sexual battery by fraud for 10 alleged victims. Three more accusers whose allegations did not lead to charges are expected to testify in the trial.

"You're going to hear abuse in this case of touching of breasts, twisting of nipples... pulling out pubic hairs, sexual penetration... and asking minor children to touch him while wearing a Speedo near his groin and other private areas," Deputy District Attorney Raquel Cooper said.

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Hojreh coached the teens on the International Water Polo team at the Joint Forces Training Base pool in Los Alamitos, "where most of the abuse occurred," and at Kennedy High School in La Palma, Cooper said.

"It took place during one-on-one instruction in 2012 through the summer of 2017 and beginning of 2018," Cooper said.

Hojreh started coaching at Kennedy in the summer of 2017, she said.

In the late fall of 2017 one of the accusers "became suspicious" whether others were experiencing the same alleged abuse, so she donned goggles and watched Hojreh coaching another teen underwater, Cooper said.

The teen confronted her teammate after practice and, "She told her he's doing it to me too," Cooper alleged.

The other teen, however, was reluctant to talk about it and report the alleged abuse, Cooper said.

Later that year in the winter, the original accuser told another classmate, but they didn't know what to do, Cooper said.

Their fellow classmate reached out to a family friend, who was a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputy, who advised him to tell his classmates they should talk to their parents, Cooper said.

Several of the teens on the team got together to discuss the situation at an In-N-Out restaurant, Cooper said. Afterward, the group discussed how to go forward on a Snapchat message, she added.

"I don't think talking to him in person or writing a letter is gonna help," one of the teens wrote in the message, Cooper said.

One accuser said she did not want to graduate high school without having done anything about the issue, Cooper said.

The teens all agreed to tell their parents about the alleged abuse, Cooper said.

Some of the other players were reluctant to come forward and did so in 2019, Cooper said.

USA Water Polo settled lawsuits regarding Hojreh for $13.85 million last year.

Prosecutors will have Dr. Blake Carmichael testify as an expert on "child sex abuse accommodation syndrome," which explains why some victims delay reporting sex assaults. The expert will also testify about the "power dynamics" between the abuser and abused.

"The power dynamics between abuser and abused in this case is significant," Cooper said.

"They believed the defendant was the one person who could help them compete," Cooper said. "They had the aspirations to go on to Junior Olympics, to go to college and maybe even the Olympics... They were told college was a call away."

The teens "believed they needed to endure abuse of defendant to succeed in water polo," Cooper said.

Hojreh's attorney, John Barnett, said his client is a "famed water polo coach," who has coached the sport for 27 years in a career that included 10 national championships.

Hojreh was also a "staunch defender" of his team when some of its members were accused of "nipple twisting" and some of the other inappropriate touching, Barnett said.

Barnett cast doubt on the allegations as he noted the practices were well attended by other coaches, lifeguards and parents.

The accusers "are going to describe more than 400 sexual assaults," Barnett said.

"Predators do this in secret so the accused won't talk, they'll keep silent," Barnett said.

But the alleged abuse occurred at the Olympic-sized pool, where "a lot of mandatory reporters" are present, Barnett said.

"There's military personnel... this is a base, a secure area," Barnett said.

Some of the parents would even swim laps in the pool, Barnett said.

"So, by the way, while all this is happening the parents are doing laps in the pool," Barnett said. "Three of the parents are law enforcement officers."

He added, "Nobody said anything for five years, six years, eight years."

Barnett said the teens weren't confused about what to do, because, "They'd all been through it three times before."

He noted the conviction of Joshua Christopher Owens, a former part- time water polo and swim coach at Kennedy High School, who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting three teenage girls. Owens admitted assaults between September 2014 through June 2016.

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"They knew if there was a predator in the pool they knew how to get rid of him permanently," Barnett said.

Hojreh called a team meeting after Owens was arrested and encouraged them to report any abuse, Barnett said.

Barnett added the students were also aware of the arrest of another water polo coach at University High School in Irvine in October 2016.

"They're not enduring this because it didn't happen," Barnett said of the allegations against Hojreh.

"There's a power differential, but it's flipped," Hojreh said. "They knew it when Owens got arrested and fired."

Barnett said several accusers came up with various excuses to explain how they could not provide any text messages among themselves.

"The dog ate the homework," he said. "These girls played as a team, they lost their phones as a team, and they got paid $14 million as a team... What they accused him of is false."