A jury will decide if a Bellingham bistro owner sexually assaulted five women, over a year after widespread posts on social media accused Jamison Rogayan of using drugs and alcohol to rape women in his downtown apartment.
The trial began Tuesday for Rogayan, 32, the former front-of-house manager and co-owner of Cosmos Bistro, where he was the face of the new eclectic Americana restaurant on the bottom floor of the Herald Building.
His business partner, Cinnamon Berg, banned him from Cosmos at a staff meeting in late summer 2015, when stories emerged on reddit.com and Facebook accusing Rogayan of raping women who were too intoxicated to consent to sex.
As rumors swirled on social media that year, a self-appointed advocate for the women, Cordelia Fiterre, created a secret Facebook group where the women compared hazy memories: offers of cocaine, marijuana or alcohol in Rogayan’s apartment on Chestnut Street; waking up in the morning feeling violated – or in the act of being sexually violated, according to alleged victims’ reports in the court record.
A total of 10 women have told police detectives they were raped, sexually abused or held captive by Rogayan in the decade before his arrest. Some of the women knew Rogayan from work or the bars downtown. One woman still wasn’t sure it was him – “I was so gone that I don’t even remember leaving the bars” – until she described him to the others on the secret Facebook page.
The earliest incident dates back to 2006, from a woman who claims Rogayan groped her after she did a line of cocaine in his apartment, according to police reports. She left, and didn’t make a report until other stories surfaced. By then the statute of limitations had passed in her case, and three others, so charges can’t be filed. One of the 10 women did not want to press charges, according to court records.
Rogayan was booked into jail Sept. 25, 2015, where he has remained, unable to post $500,000 bond. He is accused of four counts of second-degree rape, one count of indecent liberties, and one count of unlawful imprisonment.
Seven women, five men, and three alternates were picked for the jury Tuesday. The trial is scheduled to last up to three weeks.
“This case is about a man, the defendant, who took what he wanted,” the deputy prosecutor, Evan Jones, said in his opening statement Tuesday afternoon.
Jones introduced the names of five accusers who are expected to testify at trial. As a general policy, The Bellingham Herald does not name alleged victims of sex crimes. Here we are identifying them by initials, however, for the sake of clarity.
▪ R., 33, reported she was sexually assaulted in March 2011.
On the witness stand Tuesday, she spoke in a calm voice, at times brushing away tears with a tissue. She first met Rogayan at a house party in fall 2010, when he followed her into a bathroom, she said.
At the time that seemed harmless to her, and months later she invited him to a costume party at her friend’s home. She changed clothes at Rogayan’s apartment and left things behind.
A prosecutor showed the jury a picture of R. and Rogayan wearing their last-minute costumes, two Futurama characters, on the night of the party. They split a bottle of wine, and at the party Rogayan drank from a fifth of whiskey and a stiff cocktail he offered to R., according to her testimony.
Rogayan got kicked out of the party. She testified they argued on a tense walk back to his apartment and, as things got blurrier for her, he blocked the apartment door and grabbed her arms. She said he put his hands down her pants. In her report to police she said a struggle and sexual assault went on for hours.
“I, several times, in plain English said, ‘No, I don’t want to,’ but he didn’t listen,” she testified.
Her bruises were photographed that week when she went to police, reluctantly. She was certain she had been violated, she said, but unsure if it would be considered a rape. (As it’s charged, it is rape, under state law.) But she felt unsure about pursuing the case at all, according to police reports summarized by the defense. No charges were filed until other reports came to light in 2015.
Other key witnesses, who are expected to be called in the coming week are:
▪ L.H., 28, who met Rogayan for the first time on a night in fall 2013. He bought drinks for her, and they went to his apartment to use cocaine. She reported she pretended to pass out and escaped when Rogayan left to use the bathroom; he claims she left amicably after he ran out of coke, according to a defense brief.
▪ E., 42, who drank beer and took the rave drug MDMA, known as Molly, or in pill form, Ecstasy, before going downtown in February 2014.
She bumped into Rogayan at Cap Hansen’s, and recognized him from downtown bars. Twice she blacked out, and in the morning when she came to, he was sexually touching her, according to the charges. She told her ex-boyfriend and two co-workers that she was raped, but didn’t go to police for over a year.
▪ L.G., 27, who met up with Rogayan for a drink at Cap Hansen’s in late fall 2014. After a couple of gin and tonics, she recalled almost nothing of the night, except for waking up to find the defendant sexually touching her, according to charging papers.
▪ K., 24, who was drinking alone at Cap Hansen’s in April 2015. She knew Rogayan from bars, and he talked with her as she smoked a cigarette outside. She recalled drunkenly walking to Cosmos with him, standing on top of a building, and little else. The next thing she recalls is waking up to Rogayan having sexual contact with her, according to her statements.
On Tuesday morning Rogayan entered the courtroom in a black suit, with a new haircut, clean-shaven, without the long, bushy black beard he had grown 1½ years ago.
“Mr. Rogayan denies sexually assaulting anyone,” his defense attorney, Alexander Ransom, wrote in a trial brief filed this week.
The defense declined to make an opening statement Tuesday, but can still do so after the state presents its case. During jury selection, Ransom asked the jury pool how they define rape, and dropped hints about possible defenses he had outlined in his brief.
“If everyone is just so intoxicated that we can’t remember what the heck is going on and what is happening – is that rape?” Ransom asked. “If sexual contact or intercourse happens, is that rape?”
“Rape is when two people have sex and one of them does not wish to participate in the activity,” said Juror No. 9, “whether they’re sober, or drunk, or later on, the person says I did not wish to participate in that.” (He was picked for the jury.)
“I disagree with that,” chimed in Juror No. 7. (She was later excused.)
“Is there a difference between regret and rape?” Ransom asked. “Show of hands, who thinks there’s not a difference?”