MARTINEZ — In January 2019, a youth coach named Alejandro Sanchez was arrested, a short distance from a park on the Pleasant Hill/Martinez border where authorities said he’d arranged to meet a 14-year-old girl. The meeting was the culmination of roughly two weeks of chats with the girl, whom he knew as Emily, after he direct-messaged her on a dating app.
Emily, it turns out, wasn’t a 14-year-old girl, but a much older man named Darryl Holcombe, a veteran undercover District Attorney inspector who specializes in child sex crimes. Using the Emily persona, Holcombe acted out the part of an inexperienced high school freshman living in Pleasant Hill and interested in soccer, the same sport that Sanchez taught to kids through his job at the time in Moraga.
Through his attorney, Sanchez has admitted to showing up to the park, where he and Emily had arranged to meet. He doesn’t contest county prosecutors’ assertion that he chatted with Emily on a dating app, conversations that contained explicit sexual references and discussions about “how far” they would go when they met up.
But what Sanchez contends — the reason he has refused to accept a plea deal and taken his case to trial — is that he knew all along the person he was talking to wasn’t really a teen girl. At the start of Sanchez’s trial Wednesday, his attorney told jurors that Sanchez thought from the beginning he was being set up by someone because of “soccer politics” and that he “played along” in order to get to the bottom of the situation.
“So (Sanchez), like a curious cat, went to go see who was texting him and pretending like they had some kinda interest in him,” Sanchez’s attorney, Nabiel Ahmed, told jurors during his opening statement Wednesday. “He just played along, trying to see where this was all going.”
The prosecution has a much different take on the situation. In her opening statement, deputy district attorney Jessica Murad read aloud portions of what Sanchez had sent to Emily, after reaching out to her on the dating app Skout. He told her to “wear your sexiest bra and panties” and that he wanted to “make sure you remember this forever,” Murad told the jury, pointing to screen shots of the chats displayed on a projector screen.
At the beginning of the conversation, Sanchez told Emily he was 28 and asked if she was OK with the age difference.
“I’m cool with that,” Emily replied. “Are you cool with me being 14?”
“I’m cool with that,” Sanchez replied.
After showing up to Hidden Lakes Park and being arrested a short distance away, Sanchez was charged with three felonies: contacting a minor for a sexual offenses, arranging to meet a minor for lewd purposes, and attempted lewd act upon a child. The jury is expected to begin deliberating on the charges as early as the end of the week.
At the time of his arrest, Sanchez was a youth coach employed by the Lamorinda Soccer Club. At the same time he was chatting with her, he was searching for her name on local high school teams, prosecutors say. He was also searching for “teen” pornography on the website Pornhub, though no child pornography nor chats with other purported girls were discovered on his phone.
During his time as a “renowned” coach, Sanchez became acquainted with the rough and tumble world of “soccer politics” that included coaches trying to set each other up through similar stings, Ahmed told jurors, adding that Sanchez believed such a scenario was playing out with the Emily account.
In reality, it was Holcombe who “groomed” Sanchez during their conversations, Ahmed said. He said Holcombe had reached out to Sanchez months earlier when they briefly chatted on Skout, chats that Holcombe testified he has no record of because Sanchez discontinued the conversation when learning Emily was a high schooler. Sanchez reached out to Emily again around Christmas 2018, Holcombe testified.
“(Sanchez) is going to tell you how you date people on these apps,” Ahmed said. “Sometimes you’re talking to robots, sometimes you’re talking to the people you’re talking to, and sometimes you’re being catfished,” he said, referring to the online practice of tricking potential dating partners into believing they’re talking to someone else. “He’s going to tell you, ‘I played along.’ He was playing detective.”
Holcombe testified for much Wednesday, describing his chats with Sanchez and the ultimate result. After Sanchez was arrested and police confiscated his phone, Holcombe discovered Sanchez had searched for tips on sexual intercourse with virgins, he testified.
But once again, Ahmed had an explanation; during cross-examination he showed Holcombe chats between Sanchez and a young woman he was chatting with around the same time, who said she’d never had sex before.
“It is possible you might have missed some very important information before we even arrived at this trial, is that correct?” Ahmed asked, referencing the chats with the woman.
“No,” Holcombe replied.