By MICHAEL R. SISAK and MICHAEL BALSAMO
A former employee at a federal women’s prison in California pleaded guilty Thursday to charges he sexually abused at least two inmates, the first conviction in a wave of arrests at a lockup known to prisoners and workers as “the rape club.”
Ross Klinger, 36, is one of four employees, including the warden and chaplain, who’ve been arrested in in the past seven months for sexually abusing inmates at the federal correctional institution in Dublin, California. Several other Dublin workers remain under investigation.
Klinger, a former Dublin prison recycling technician, pleaded guilty in federal court in Oakland to three counts of sexual abuse of a ward. He faces up to 15 years in prison, though in other cases the sentences have ranged from three months to two years. Klinger remains free pending sentencing. A status conference is scheduled for May 11.
Klinger signed a plea agreement in connection with his guilty plea, but the document was not published to the public docket. A court official said it was sealed. Because the agreement is not public, it is not clear whether it includes a clause requiring him to cooperate with authorities. In a court filing last month, prosecutors said some of their evidence pertained to both Klinger and Warden Ray J. Garcia’s cases.
Klinger’s lawyer, John Paul Reichmuth, declined comment.
An Associated Press investigation published this week found a permissive and toxic culture at the prison, enabling years of sexual misconduct by predatory employees and cover-ups that have largely kept the abuse out of the public eye.
FCI Dublin, about 21 miles (34 kilometers) east of Oakland, was opened in 1974. It was converted in 2012 to one of six women-only facilities in the federal prison system.
Klinger was arrested last June and accused of sexually abusing at least two inmates between March and September 2020, including inside a warehouse and in a shipping container on prison grounds while another inmate acted as a lookout.
Klinger told the women he wanted to marry them and father their children, even proposing to one of them with a diamond ring after she was discharged to a halfway house, prosecutors said.
Another prisoner aware of the abuse reported Klinger to the Bureau of Prisons in June 2020, according to the FBI. Klinger was still allowed to transfer to a federal jail in San Diego months later.
After the transfer, prosecutors said, Klinger kept contacting one of the victims through an email address he created with a phony name, sometimes sending lewd messages referencing sexual acts. He messaged the other woman on Snapchat, saying he loved her and was “willing to do anything” for her.
Interviewed by investigators in April 2021, Klinger denied any wrongdoing, but said that because of the allegations his life was over and that he was concerned about going to prison and being labeled as a sex offender. He was arrested two months later.
“Sexual misconduct of a ward, you can’t come back from that,” Klinger told investigators in the interview, according to court documents. He was placed on administrative leave at that time.
Another Dublin prison employee, chaplain James Theodore Highhouse, is scheduled to plead guilty Feb. 23 to charges he put his penis on an inmate’s genitals, mouth and hand and masturbated in front of her in 2018 and 2019. Highhouse, 49, is also accused of lying to investigators when questioned about the abuse.
The now-retired warden, Garcia, was arrested in September on charges he molested an inmate and made her and another inmate strip naked as he did rounds. Pictures he took of the women were found on his government-issued cell phone, prosecutors said.
John Russell Bellhouse, a prison safety administrator, is scheduled to be arraigned this month on charges he sexually abused an inmate he called his “girlfriend” from February to December 2020.
The federal prison system has been plagued by myriad crises in recent years, including sexual abuse and other widespread criminal activity among employees, critically low staffing levels that have hampered responses to emergencies, the rapid spread of COVID-19, a failed response to the pandemic and dozens of escapes.