Cambria man sentenced to year in SLO County Jail for sexually assaulting female friend

Defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu, right, questions a witness during the preliminary hearing for Herbert George Connor, 72, center, of Cambria, who faced felony charges of assault with intent to commit rape, sexual battery and corporal injury.
Defense attorney Ilan Funke-Bilu, right, questions a witness during the preliminary hearing for Herbert George Connor, 72, center, of Cambria, who faced felony charges of assault with intent to commit rape, sexual battery and corporal injury.

A 73-year-old Cambria man was sentenced Wednesday to almost a year in San Luis Obispo County Jail for sexually assaulting a female friend in her home after she made it clear she didn’t want a physical relationship.

After denying his motion for a new trial and attempts at reducing or tossing out some of his charges, Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy handed Herbert George Connor a 364-day sentence in San Luis Obispo County Jail.

Connor had faced up to seven years in state prison, though the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office — notably represented in the case by elected District Attorney Dan Dow — asked for just two years in prison.

Given the chance Wednesday, the victim — whom The Tribune is not identifying — addressed the court, thanking Dow and the District Attorney’s Office “for believing in me.”

In a prepared statement, she told Duffy that an injury suffered in the incident will stay with her and that her “trust and views in relationships will never be the same.”

“There’s not an aspect of my life that hasn’t been affected by the crimes of Herbert Connor,” the woman said. “Shame and guilt are present, and I know if I don’t stand up for myself, I’ll live with this the rest of my life.”

Connor, who throughout proceedings has sat quietly in the courtroom with his wife and family members seated in support behind him, told Duffy that he wanted to apologize to the victim.

“I never, ever wanted to hurt her in any way,” he said.

As part of his sentence, Connor must complete three years of supervised probation, attend sex offender counseling and maintain sex offender registration for the rest of his life. He’s also prohibited from having any contact with the victim, to whom he will have to pay a yet-to-be-determined amount of restitution.

He’s scheduled to turn himself in to San Luis Obispo County Jail on June 1.

Contested verdicts

During the trial, the 67-year-old victim testified that she and Connor had an on-again, off-again friendship in April 2017 that at least once had been consensually sexual. According to her testimony, after helping her bring in groceries, Connor threw himself upon her and groped her, forcing her onto her bed before she fell and moderately injured her shoulder in a door jam.

“I thought that he was going to rape me,” she testified.

In a subsequently recorded phone call, jurors heard Connor apologizing for his unspecified behavior and promising to leave the woman alone forever.

Connor was originally charged with two felony counts of sexual battery by restraint, as well as a felony count of assault with intent to commit rape.

But after a nearly three-week trial and about a day of deliberations in January, the verdicts returned by the jury of eight women and four men left uncertainty about Connor’s fate.

Though they found him not guilty of the felony assault with intent to commit rape charge, they instead found him guilty of a lesser included offense of misdemeanor assault. While finding Connor guilty of one of the sexual battery by restraint counts, on the other, jurors found him guilty of a lesser included offense of misdemeanor sexual battery.

While Dow said in a news release that he was pleased with the outcome, Connor’s attorney, Ilan Funke-Bilu, argued in motions filed earlier this month that the misdemeanor charges should be dismissed because the crimes had occurred more than a year before the DA’s Office filed charges against Connor. Misdemeanors have a one-year statute of limitations.

After hearing arguments from both attorneys, Duffy denied Funke-Bilu’s motions, saying she was focused on the circumstances of the offense.

“I recognize that these two individuals had a lengthy history of what one characterized as a platonic relationship and the other characterized as a sexual relationship,” Duffy said. “In her testimony, she described in the incident that she said no to Mr. Connor, as she described, about 30 to 50 times.”

Connor also testified during trial, Duffy recalled, that in the roughly 15 times the two previously had sex, the woman resisted about half the time.

“It does appear, based on all of the testimony presented at trial, that the assault (that Funke-Bilu described) as only lasting a minute-and-a-half, was for (the victim) a very lengthy minute-and-a-half,” Duffy said.

Acknowledging that immediately sending Connor to serve his jail term would offer “some closure” to the victim, Duffy cited some 40 letters received in support of Connor and concerns from his medical doctor about his health in allowing him to remain out of custody another few months.

An unusual case

The case against Connor has been unusual for SLO County.

It survived an attempt to have the state step in when the defense discovered that Dow personally took over the case after a threat of bad publicity by the woman’s civil attorney weeks before Dow would ask voters to elect him to a second term in June.

At least one deputy prosecutor previously assigned to the case indicated to the court he intended to dismiss the charges before Dow stepped in.

The trial suffered a two-day setback after the entire panel of prospective jurors was dismissed by Duffy after Dow made improper statements about his burden of proof during jury selection.

About halfway through, the case came close to a mistrial after it was discovered evidence that possibly showed DNA from someone other than Connor on the alleged victim’s breast was never handed over to the defense. Though Duffy ultimately allowed the evidence to be presented to the jury, she ruled that the evidence misplacement was not intentional.

It is also rare in San Luis Obispo County that an elected District Attorney actually tries a case in a courtroom; the last example was a 1996 capital murder case.

Dow has brushed off assertions that his participation the Connor case was uncommon, telling The Tribune that the victim in the case deserved justice and that he — a former deputy assigned to sex assault cases — wanted to get back into the courtroom.

One of Dow’s counterparts may have felt the same way recently. This month, Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp began personally prosecuting a domestic violence attempted murder trial of a Clovis man accused of shooting his then-girlfriend as she tried to flee their home.

In an interview with The Fresno Bee, Smittcamp also downplayed her involvement in that case, saying she had been prosecuting domestic violence cases for 20 years.

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the charges Connor was convicted of.

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