Content warning: this story includes descriptions of sexual violence, and includes incidents involving minors.
Former Philadelphia Police Department officer Patrick Heron will face more than 200 sex crime charges, many involving minors, in a Court of Common Pleas trial.
Attorneys from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office on Monday succeeded in their motion to consolidate three separate arrests from 2022 and 2023. Heron retired from the department in 2019 after working from 1995 to 2008 and then 2010-2019, according to PPD.
The 2022 charges include stalking, child pornography, and unlawful sexual contact with minors. Some incidents allegedly involved friends of Heron’s teenage daughter, said Lyandra Retacco, a supervisor with the DA’s special investigations unit.
Charges from 2023 pertain to crimes Heron allegedly committed while on duty. Video footage from Heron’s personal files, discovered through a search warrant the D.A.’s office obtained, show a man whom plaintiffs identify as Heron filming women in various states of undress in the back of a police vehicle. Some of the women appear to be unconscious. In one video, the man encourages a woman to use intravenous drugs before laying her down and touching her. Most of the footage dates to 2016.
“I want to be clear, there is a truly relentless amount of documented evidence about the way defendant Heron decided to be a police officer and then continued that into his private life,” Retacco said during the hearing. Her team has not yet reviewed all of the footage from the search warrant.
Heron appeared in court Monday, but neither he nor his attorney offered comments.
The Philadelphia Police Department called the charges against Heron “beyond disturbing” in a June statement. They asked anyone with further information to come forward.
Plaintiffs have identified 48 victims, nearly all listed as “Jane Does” who remain unidentified. Retacco said there are patterns of Heron soliciting young women who were runaways and had little family support.
“When a person chooses their victims so they are vulnerable, then it can be difficult for them to make reports, it can be difficult for them to come forward, and that is something that is very common in sexual assault cases,” she said.
Unhoused women are especially vulnerable to sexual assault due to substance use issues, childhood trauma and a need to exchange sex to survive, according to experts. Although recent data is limited, a 2006 review found that 92% of homeless mothers endured sexual assault at some point, and 13% had been raped in the last year.
“Women get raped out here every single day,” stated Sarah Laurel, executive director of Kensington-based Savage Sisters nonprofit.
Laurel’s organization provides food and medical and hygiene essentials for people living with drug addiction, including sex workers. She pointed out that Heron was known in the area as an aggressor.
“It’s called street tax,” Laurel said of interactions between officers and vulnerable women. “You’re either going to do what they want or you’re going to go to jail.”
PPD said in a statement that it will “investigate any allegations of sexual misconduct involving an officer “and victims are encouraged to contact PPD or any other law enforcement agency, to initiate an investigation.
Most women living on the streets are abused by someone known to them, according to Heather LaRocca, executive director of the New Day to Stop Trafficking program, which has a drop-in center in Kensington.
“There is a percentage of perpetrators who are people in power,” LaRocca said. “We’ve seen it. And we’ve seen it go peer to peer, maybe a partner they have that they’re staying with on the street and then there’s exploitation involved in that.”
Both LaRocca and Laurel highlighted the “police-assisted diversion program,” which encourages officers to direct people charged with certain offenses, such as prostitution, toward social services rather than into the criminal justice system.
LaRocca’s program gets referrals from PPD through this diversion initiative.
“It really is the future and the focus of this collaborative,” she said. “It’s looking at how when police are seeing someone who’s struggling or someone who needs support, how can they refer in a warm handoff to a social service provider?”
A trial date for Heron remains to be set.
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