Sex assault case prompts new safeguards for senior riders

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PAW PAW, Mich. (WOOD) — A grandmother who police say was sexually assaulted by a volunteer driver for a West Michigan senior organization is demanding the agency do more to protect riders.

“Can more education or instruction be given to clients?’ The 65-year-old woman asked the board for Senior Services of Van Buren County.

“Like maybe a monthly newsletter about safety precautions? If I would have had something like that laying on my table or on my refrigerator, I might have known what red flags to look for,” she added.

Juan Manuel Lopez, a 61-year-old volunteer driver from Decatur, remains in the Van Buren County Jail in lieu of a $500,000 cash bond.

Juan Lopez
A mug shot of Juan Lopez.

Lopez’s defense attorney, Gary Stewart of Paw Paw, told 24 Hour News 8 that his client “categorically and vehemently denies the allegations.”

According to the police report, Lopez admitted that — once inside his rider’s apartment — he did “give her a hug and a kiss on the cheek, but that was all the further contact he had with her prior to leaving.”

The Van Buren County prosecutor charged Lopez with third-degree criminal sexual conduct, which involves sexual penetration.

The alleged attack happened April 3 when Lopez dropped off the woman at her apartment after driving her to a doctor’s appointment.

POLICE: SHE SAID, ‘NO, I DON’T WANT TO’

“She advised she walked into the doorway inside of her apartment and put her keys down,” wrote Officer Timothy McMeekan of the Paw Paw Police Department.

The woman told police she thought she was alone and was surprised to turn around and find Lopez standing just inside her apartment.

“She advised that he put his arms around her and that he was a strong and she was unable to get away from him at that point…. She kept telling him, ‘no, I don’t want to,’” the officer stated in the police report.

The report noted that Lopez had driven for Senior Services for about a year and had one prior complaint from a female client who said Lopez had asked her out.

“(The complaining rider) said that Juan Lopez…. began telling her… that while he lives with his wife, he does not sleep in the same room with wife and does not get along with her,” wrote McMeekan.
“She said that Lopez asked her about going out on a date and if she wanted to and she told him, ‘no’.”

ALLEGED VICTIM WANTS MORE SAFETY PRECAUTIONS

Wednesday evening, more than two months after the alleged assault, the woman police say endured it read a prepared statement during the board’s monthly meeting at the Van Buren Intermediate School District’s Conference Center in Lawrence.

She urged the agency to better educate riders about safety regulations.

“It would have been easier to call in and let senior services know that he wasn’t following the rules without feeling like I was causing problems or losing my ride,” she said.

The police report states Lopez broke several regulations even before the alleged sex assault, but the woman said she failed to recognize those red flags because Senior Services does not stress safety with riders.

Among the red flags: Lopez showed up at her door three days before the appointment, claiming he just wanted to confirm where she lived. McMeekan noted in his report that Lopez’s early visit did not follow protocol.

Additionally, drivers are required to wait in their vehicle, not go up to a rider’s door.

Lopez also drove a different vehicle to pick up the woman than the one he registered with the agency.

“I’d also like to know how Juan got away with driving an unauthorized vehicle that didn’t even open from my passenger side,” the woman told the board. “Because my side of vehicle could not be opened from the inside, he could have taken me anywhere without me being able to get out.”

The alleged victim told board members repeatedly that she just wants to prompt change to protect other seniors.

“What happens from here? Where does it go from here?” She questioned, breaking the silence that followed her speech.

SENIOR SERVICES: CHANGES ALREADY IN THE WORKS

That’s when the agency’s executive director spoke up about changes already happening.

“I can say to you that we have four pages of changes that have been in the process of being done,” said Executive Director Diane Rigozzi. “We haven’t let the ball drop.. We are in the process of a lot of changes, (and) a lot of what you’ve suggested is going into these policies.”

Immediately following the alleged sex assault, the agency said it began trying to match female riders with female drivers and vice versa.

It has also begun checking driver’s automobiles for safety and will soon start providing riders with the make, model and color of the vehicle picking them up.

Additionally, drivers will start wearing identification badges.

Senior Services is also considering keeping riders’ phone numbers private, since the alleged victim said Lopez called her five times after the incident.

The agency already runs criminal background checks on every volunteer. Lopez’s recent record came back clean, though 24 Hour News 8 found a drunken driving case from 1998, and out-of-state burglary, theft and forgery cases from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

“We take everything that’s happened to you very seriously, and we have put procedures in place,” said Rogozzi.

But to the alleged victim, the agency is not acting fast enough to protect its senior riders.

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