In his upscale, fourth-floor Orange County apartment located minutes from John Wayne Airport, South Coast Plaza and UC Irvine, Johnny L. Sears Jr. placed what appeared to be a rudimentary motion detector on his bedroom wall before the summer of 2014. But the device was actually a military-grade, infrared camera, one of five in his unit. According to Sears, a lawyer told him if he posted a warning sign that his bedroom was subject to around-the-clock video surveillance, he wouldn’t violate privacy laws even after filming sex dates without additional notification.
By now, you know a twist is coming. Born in 1977, the brown-haired, blue-eyed Sears isn’t lonesome. While he likes to work out his 5-foot, 10-inch, 170-pound frame, he’s also been a devotee of partying at restaurants, bars and social events where he met plenty of adoring ladies. For example, eight years ago, an Asian woman dated him, then ended the affair after he allegedly stalked and abused her, according to police records.
Those accusations went nowhere with prosecutors, but Sears’ latest mess has captured extensive law-enforcement attention. In August 2017, Superior Court Judge John D. Conley sentenced him to 365 days in jail after he pleaded guilty to making criminal threats against a girlfriend, Jane Doe, and secretly recording her in his bedroom. Conley ordered Sears, who was free from custody on $100,000 bond, to surrender seven weeks later for his punishment.
But the onetime Defense Department contractor with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and a specialization in designing computer software absconded. Investigators believe Sears initially fled to Mexico City and later wondered whether he’d moved to Europe. Now, he’s wanted by the FBI and the Orange County district attorney’s office (OCDA), as well as Conley, who rescinded the jail-time order and imposed a prison sentence on him in absentia.
Though I had not followed Sears’ case at the state level, last November, I broke the news that the FBI had initiated pursuit. The article was brief without delving into the salacious circumstances of his relationship with Doe, stating, “Sears made a boneheaded, life-altering mistake by placing a hidden video device in his Irvine bedroom that recorded him committing sex crimes against a girlfriend, if law-enforcement officers are right.”
Then, something fascinating happened. The fugitive reached out to me via the internet from wherever he is on the globe to angrily assert he’d been railroaded. He insisted there was much more to his story. According to Sears, Deputy District Attorney Mark Geller “maliciously prosecuted” him. He disputed the validity of the plea, claiming he’d been pressured into a making a “false confession” to two charges in a pretrial exchange for the government dropping three counts, including the most serious: sexual assault.
Courthouse-corruption complaints are normal, but Sears’ mention of Geller piqued my interest. During the county’s nationally infamous jailhouse-informant scandal, this prosecutor had been outed as cocky, callous and sloppy. He’d also allied himself with Santa Ana cops known to cheat and commit perjury. Could there be merit to the fugitive’s claim this case against him is questionable?
Doe and Sears, who is 15 years older, met in mid-August 2014 and became infatuated with each other. During the month-long relationship, they had sex almost on a daily basis in every room in his home. The couple went to brunch at Fashion Island’s Fig & Olive in Newport Beach on Sept. 7, 2014, got drunk and had consensual intercourse twice. A week later—while Sears was in New York City and they were in the midst of a heated argument, in part over her fidelity—Doe told the Irvine Police Department she feared for her life because he’d threatened to bomb her. She also portrayed herself as a sex crimes victim, asserting there had been a third intimate encounter on the day of the brunch. He’d called her “a whore” while digitally penetrating her vagina for “a minute or two” over her screaming and kicking objections, Doe claimed.
When Sears landed at John Wayne Airport, Irvine police detective Victoria Hurtado arrested him and conducted a search of his home, confiscating the surveillance footage. That evidence showed the defendant slapped her once and was occasionally foul-mouthed pertaining to Doe’s ex-boyfriend sending her text messages. It also proved the couple’s passionate lovemaking and tenderness. In one scene, though, he is seen roughly pulling her hair during intercourse and apologizing. However, weeks of footage contained no hint of the described sexual assault, a fact that didn’t stop the OCDA from pushing the charge for 35 months before winning the plea deal.
Other evidence raises questions. Days after the alleged assault but before tempers mutually flared during his trip and he posted nude photos of her on Facebook in retaliation, she’d been lovey-dovey. “I want to be with you,” Doe stated. “I’m really struggling without you next to me,” “I love you,” “If I can’t talk to you, I’ll die” and, next to a picture of her new purchase, “Isn’t this watch fucking dope[?]”
At an August 2015 preliminary hearing, both Raffi J. Manuelian, Sears’ defense attorney, and Deputy DA Heidi Garrel pressed Doe on why she’d waited a week after her boyfriend flew to New York to file the police report and sent so many affectionate text messages.
She explained, “I was in denial and I was afraid.”
It didn’t help Doe’s cause that she erased thousands of records from her phone after Irvine PD requested access and, before giving detectives the device, she sent a message to a man, not Sears, alerting him not to send more pictures of his junk.
After authorities realized Doe fabricated her story, they continued the case to avoid a civil, wrongful-prosecution lawsuit, Sears told me. But it’s unclear if he’ll escape his plight. We do know there’s presently a prison cell leased in his name for three years.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.