Prosecutors say a California dance instructor was one half of a serial date-rape team who would make targets feel “comfortable and safe” and then help her doctor boyfriend drug and sexually assault them.
But the allegations against Cerissa Riley, 31, lodged this week in Orange County bewildered two people who have known her for years. They said the portrait authorities painted of Riley as a predator clashed with their memory of the choreographer–an Evangelical Christian who went abroad to “spread the word of God,” performing street-corner skits to attract potential converts.
After Riley and Dr. Grant Robicheaux, an orthopedic surgeon who starred briefly on The Online Dating Rituals of the American Male, were charged with attacking two women, others came forward with similar allegations. The district attorney says photos from the surgeon’s phone indicate there could be “many” more unidentified victims.
“This is not Cerissa,” Sheryl Woodruff, Riley’s former mother-in-law said. “This is not the girl I know and have known since she and my son went to high school together.”
Woodruff first met Riley in the late 2000s, when she and her son, Chad, were in school together at Villa Park High School in Orange County. The two were high school sweethearts and got married not long after graduation. “The wedding was gorgeous,” Woodruff’s daughter, who did not want her name used, told the Daily Beast. “It took us a year of planning.”
The daughter, who had known Riley since they were in elementary school, described her as a top student always involved in extracurricular activities. She was a member of the Associated Students’ Board at their high school–an important job, the daughter said, because she was entrusted with overseeing a part of the school’s budget.
Before her arrest, Riley worked three different jobs–sales agent by day, dance instructor by night, and substitute teacher when she could pick up a shift.
Both Cerissa and Chad came from deeply religious Christian families, according to Woodruff. The couple got involved in the congregation of Calvary Chapel Anaheim, a nondenominational church in Orange County, and often did outreach and missionary work in the local community. In the early 2010s, Riley, who had a “creative streak,” joined Hook, a missionary performance group that put on short, religious skits. “H-O-O-K,” Woodruff explained, “it meant to ‘hook’ people–to hook people on these little skits.”
In their free time, the group would head out to Huntington Beach or Los Angeles, Riley’s former in-laws said, and start performing on the street.
“Then, people would stop them on the street and ask, ‘What are you doing?’ and they would get to talk to them about the word of God,” Woodruff told the Daily Beast. “The idea was to have something odd happening, so people who were down and out, like homeless people, would stop and they would have a chance to evangelize.”
Usually Hook’s performances were local, but in the early 2010s Riley and her ex-husband made several missionary trips abroad to Budapest, Hungary.
“They went to help the homeless, to give back to the community,” Riley’s ex-sister-in-law said. “The poverty level is really bad out there. [Riley] was literally sleeping in the street. They slept in these tents; they were camping; they would all sleep in those rooms with bunk beds–hostels. And, they would go for months at a time.” In 2014, Riley’s husband left her, leaving her “broken,” her ex-sister-in-law said, adding, “She had to learn how to live without someone she’s known for years.”
Four years later, the divorce has still not been finalized, but the split is “amicable,” and Riley remains very much a part of her family, Woodruff said. The two saw each other just six months ago, when the young woman was acting in a play.
“She sings beautifully,” Woodruff said. “She was a beautiful girl.”
Prosecutors said she and Robicheaux–an orthopedic surgeon once named “Orange County’s Most Eligible Bachelor,” who used the alias “InGoodHands” on a Bravo series about online dating–used their “good looks” to lure women back to their home.'
The criminal charges against the pair stem from two alleged incidents in 2016. In April of that year, a woman identified in court papers only as Jane Doe 1, reported to Newport Beach Police that Riley and Robicheaux met her at a bar, invited her to a party, took her back to their apartment and forced her to participate in sexual acts when she was intoxicated beyond the ability to consent.
Six months later, police got a similar complaint after a woman who met the couple woke up in their apartment, and started to scream, prompting a neighbor who heard her cries to call 911, according to prosecutors.
In January, police obtained a search warrant for the couple’s residence and found “large quantities” of illegal narcotics, including date-rape drugs, ecstasy, and cocaine, along with unregistered firearms, high quantity magazines, and some assault weapons, prosecutors said.
They also seized Robicheaux’s phone and uncovered more than 1,000 videos of sexual encounters with women, some of whom may have been too intoxicated to consent.
“We believe there may be many unidentified victims out there,” Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said this week.
Authorities said the couple may have attempted to assault women at several festivals and camp sites along the west coast, including the Burning Man Festival, Dirtybird Campout Festival, Splash House Festival, and various tourist landmarks around Page, Arizona.
And they said Riley played an important role.
“The second defendant, being a female, is key,” Rackaukas said. “A woman purporting to be his girlfriend clearly played a significant role in disarming the victims, making them feel comfortable and safe.”
In a joint statement, the couple’s lawyers denied the charges.
“All allegations of non-consensual sex are unequivocally denied by Grant Robicheaux and his girlfriend Cerissa Riley,” the attorneys said. “They have been aware of these accusations for a number of months, and each of them will formally deny the truth of these allegations at their first opportunity in court.”
Both Riley and Robicheaux were freed on $100,000 bail, and return to court on Oct. 25 for an arraignment. If convicted on all counts, Riley faces up to 30 years in state prison; Robicheaux could see up to 40.
Even if that happens, it won’t change how Woodruff feels about her.
“I texted her the other day,” Woodruff said. “I told her, ‘You’ll always be my daughter-in-law. No matter what.’”