Retired Mesa police sergeant accused of child-sex crimes

Attorneys made opening statements Tuesday morning in the trial of a retired Mesa police sergeant who is pleading not guilty to allegations of molesting two young girls and to exchanging child pornography with a man previously arrested in a Homeland Security investigation.

Russell Millsaps, known by his middle name, Dean, was charged with 28 counts of sex crimes against children, including child molestation, sexual conduct with a minor and sexual exploitation of a minor.

Prosecuting attorney Erin Pedicone cited manipulation at the forefront of the case. She said Millsaps, 69, manipulated his victims, church members and authorities with his position in the community to keep his perverse actions from being exposed.

When defense attorney Daniela De La Torre took to the podium, she reminded the 15 jurors and alternates to put aside “inflammatory allegations” and focus on the facts of the investigation to provide a fair trial. She also addressed Millsaps’ history with the Mesa police and cast doubt on the accuracy of a new witness.

Pedicone said detectives found suggestive photos of children on Millsaps’ phone. The prosecution also included a January 2015 report from a 30-year-old man who said Millsaps molested him when he was 12 to 14 years old. According to Pedicone, the man said the abuse occurred when Millsaps volunteered to drive him to collect tithes from members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

De La Torre called into question the lengthy forensic interviews with the three children involved. She said the 4-year-old victim, interviewed last, was the only victim who disclosed being molested. De La Torre said this prompted a second interview for the 7-year-old victim, where she then said Millsaps molested her.

De La Torre said the “intelligent” children were “100 percent committed to their stories,” explaining that often when younger children repeat stories enough, they begin to believe what they’re saying.

The victims’ recount of their abuse was not the only disclosure over which De La Torre expressed concern.

She said the 30-year-old man who said Millsaps molested him made the claim in counseling after being released from prison on a sex-related charge, and that his account was riddled with inaccuracies.

Mesa police arrested Millsaps in March 2013 after detectives served a search warrant in the 900 block of East Fairfield Street, Mesa police spokesman Sgt. Tony Landato said at the time.

“We have the same revulsion as anyone with a crime against a child. It only compounds it’’ when the suspect is a former officer, Landato said at the time of the arrest.

He said Millsaps was a longtime patrol sergeant who had retired from the Mesa Police Department in 1995 after working for more than 25 years as an officer.

At the trial, De La Torre said toward the end of Millsaps’ career he found himself at odds with “higher-ups” — the same “enemies” who she said showed up on his doorstep years later.