Holding back tears, former Fresno police officer Jesse Joe Ruelas told a jury Friday in his misdemeanor child abuse trial that that he wasn’t proud of yelling profanities at his teenage daughter and slapping her face, but he said it was the only way to stop her from cursing, badgering and blaming him for the family’s breakup.
“Yes, I’m human,” he testified in Fresno County Superior Court. “I was angry and I was upset because she was disrespecting me.”
On the second day of his trial, Ruelas, 45, gave his account of what led him to hit his daughter while he drove a pickup on the freeway toward his home in Clovis in May 2015. His account differed from what his 15-year-old daughter said in court Thursday.
Afterward, Fresno attorney Roger Wilson rested his case in defense of Ruelas. The jury will begin deliberations after closing arguments when the trial resumes Tuesday.
Yes, I’m human. I was angry and I was upset because she was disrespecting me.
Jesse Joe Ruelas
Ruelas, 45, faces two misdemeanor counts of corporal injury to a child. If convicted, he faces up to a year in jail and/or a fine. He also will lose any chance of getting his job back with the Fresno Police Department.
The incident happened May 21, 2015 on the one-year anniversary of Ruelas’ separation from his estranged wife, Marisela Ruelas.
Wilson has told the jury that Ruelas is innocent because he was just trying to discipline his mouthy daughter, who was identified in court only as Randi. Wilson also contends that Marisela Ruelas is using her daughter to get an upper hand in ongoing divorce and child custody proceedings.
But prosecutor Nicole Galstan has argued that Ruelas hit his daughter not to punish her, but out of “anger and rage” to instill fear in her and her two younger brothers.
Ruelas, a 19-year police veteran, had a spotless record with the Police Department before his daughter accused him of striking her. He lost his job once the District Attorney’s Office filed misdemeanor charges against him.
On Friday, jurors heard Ruelas’ recorded police interview in which he said he was in the middle of a nasty divorce. In the recording, he accuses his estranged wife of turning his daughter against him: “I’m not trying to put down my daughter. She is my daughter and I love her very much. But she hates me.”
He also tells the detectives that Randi is out to get him: “I’m walking on eggshells in my own home.”
On Thursday, Randi testified that she and her father got into a heated argument after she reminded him that it was the one-year anniversary of his separation from her mother. She told the jury that her father hit her four times in the right temple of her head with the heel of his right palm as he drove on the freeway. The blows caused her to get dizzy and tired and gave her headaches, she said.
In a recorded police interview, Jesse Joe Ruelas accuses his estranged wife of turning his daughter against him.
On Friday, Ruelas said he only slapped his daughter twice in the right cheek with two of his fingers. After he slapped her, Ruelas testified that his daughter didn’t cry or complain about having headaches.
Both sides agree that Randi was seated behind her father in his pickup when she was struck.
Demonstrating for the jury, Ruelas flung his right hand back as he sat at the witness stand. Because he is a large, hefty man, Ruelas told the jury it was physically impossible for him to strike his daughter with the heel of his palm while he was driving. “I’m not that flexible,” he said.
But he said his second slap to Randi’s face did cause him to swerve his pickup slightly on the freeway.
Ruelas nearly cried when he told the jury that seeing his daughter testify against him was the first time he had seen her since slapping her. He also said he hasn’t spoken to her since the incident.
He testified he loves his daughter, but he said his emotions got away from him when she started to badger and curse him. Ruelas said his daughter repeatedly cursed him and called him names for not returning to her mother.
Both sides agree that Randi had no visible injuries. At issue in the trial is whether Randi suffered a bump. Randi testified she felt a bump on her right temple.
Fresno police detective Lisa Ramos testified Thursday that she felt a small bump behind Randi’s right ear when she examined the girl a day after the incident. But Fresno police detective Douglas Cox testified Friday that he also examined the girl and found no bump behind her right ear.
According to Ruelas, his two sons were with him when he picked up Randi from her grandmother’s home sometime around 8:30 p.m. While waiting for her to come to his extended cab pickup, Ruelas said he talked on his cellphone to his police supervisor. While on the phone, his daughter showed up and asked him if he knew whether it was the one-year anniversary of the family’s breakup. He recalled telling her, “I’m on the phone right now. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Once he hung up, Ruelas said his daughter started to blame him for the family’s breakup. Randi testified Thursday that her father never explained why he left her mother. But Ruelas told the jury that he had discussed it with Randi many times. He recalled telling his daughter that “it was between her mother and me. I didn’t want the children to be involved.”
All you care about is your job anyways.
Randi, 15, reportedly told her father
This infuriated Randi, Ruelas said. He said his daughter cursed him and demanded answers. “She was screaming at me as I was driving,” he told the jury. He testified that he yelled and cursed back at her and told her to be quiet.
Ruelas said his daughter’s words “really hurt him” when she told him that she wished he had died when Ruelas killed a man in the line of duty.
In July 2014, police Chief Jerry Dyer said at a news conference that Ruelas nearly saved a woman’s life when he burst into a southwest Fresno home and fatally shot Michael Reams, who court records say had a long, violent history of domestic violence. When Ruelas killed Reams, he didn’t know Reams already had killed his victim, Cindy Raygoza, by stabbing her nearly two dozen times, Dyer said.
Because Randi kept cursing and calling him names, Ruelas testified he got so mad he hit the middle console between the two front seats. He then decided to punish his daughter by taking her cellphone. He said she threw the cellphone at him after he asked for it three times.
Because Randi wouldn’t shut up, Ruelas recalled telling her: “You don’t talk to me that way. I’m your father.”
But that didn’t stop her. She continued to curse and yell at him and call him names, Ruelas testified. That’s when he flung his right hand back in order to hit his daughter. He said the first slap didn’t stop her from cursing him. The second slap did.
“It was discipline,” he told the jury. “I wanted her to stop right then and there.”
Later that night, Ruelas said, he gave his daughter her cellphone back. The next morning, he took her and her brothers to their grandmother’s house.
He recalled Randi giving him a parting shot: “All you care about is your job anyways.”