Image via Pixabay.
Image via Pixabay.

A jogger was attacked by an ex-infantryman in a Laguna Niguel park with the intent of sexually assaulting her, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday. However, the defendant’s attorney said he was newly homeless and bent on stealing the woman’s iPod to pawn.

Sean Luke Salaber, 23, is charged with false imprisonment and assault with intent to commit a sex offense, both felonies, and misdemeanor counts of brandishing a replica gun and touching an intimate part of another person.

Salaber is accused of attacking the woman about 6:40 p.m. last Sept. 24 as she was out for her regular evening run in Aliso and Wood Canyons Regional Park in unincorporated county land near Laguna Niguel.

The jogger made eye contact with Salaber, who was standing along the trail near bushes, according to Deputy District Attorney Heidi Garrel.

“To be polite, she waved at him as she would anyone,” the prosecutor said.

About a half-hour later, when she was finishing up her run near where she first saw Salaber, she made eye contact with him again, Garrel said.

“The defendant was still standing there in the same place,” the prosecutor said.

The jogger grew frightened and picked up her pace, but Salaber caught up and tackled her from behind, Garrel said.

“She began to scream for help,” the prosecutor said. “He held what she thought was a real gun at her head.”

As the defendant held the air gun to her head, “he told her to shut up” and tried to cover her mouth with his hand, Garrel alleged.

“Hoping this was just a robbery, she tried to give him the only thing she had on her, her iPod,” Garrel said. But he wouldn’t take it, and, instead, “squeezed her breasts and cupped them,” she alleged.

The victim’s cries for help drew a bystander, who gave the woman an opportunity to get away and spooked Salaber into running up a hill, Garrel said.

As he ran, he ditched the gun, which was later recovered with his DNA on it, Garrel said. Orange County sheriff’s deputies arrested Salaber in the neighborhood within an hour, the prosecutor said.

“His intent was to sexually assault her,” Garrel told the jury.

Salaber’s attorney, Sara Ross, countered that her client had just lost all of his money and robbed the victim out of desperation.

“This is a case of a soldier who lost his way,” Ross said. “On September 24th, 2015, Sean Salaber did attack (the victim). He scared her half to death, but he wasn’t attacking her for sexual purposes.”

Salaber joined the U.S. Army when he was 17 and grew accustomed to having everything provided for him, such as food and shelter, Ross said. When he got out of the military in five years, he had trouble adapting, she said.

Salaber enlisted in the National Guard and signed up for a “human intelligence unit,” but there is a long vetting process and then most applicants are put on a waiting list, Ross said.

He wasn’t earning enough through the National Guard to live on, so he got a part-time job at a Wienerschnitzel restaurant, Ross said. That wasn’t enough to pay the bills either, so he started working at Primerica, a life insurance company, but the compensation was based solely on commissions and “for months he didn’t earn a dime,” though he was working 50 to 60 hours a week, Ross said.

Salaber sublet his apartment to a foreign exchange student, but when his landlord found out, he evicted Salaber — the day before the attack, Ross said.

Now homeless, Salaber turned to a “platonic” friend at work for shelter and she let him sleep over, the defense attorney said.

“Sean was down to his last $600” and couldn’t turn to his family for help because they were also strapped for cash, Ross said. “So what does he do? Something monumentally stupid.”

Salaber went to a gaming casino and plunked down all of his money on a hand of blackjack and lost it all, she said.

He drove around, trying to calm down after that, and eventually found himself in the wilderness park looking for a jogger to “jump” so he could pawn an iPod for cash, Ross said.

When he attacked the victim, “she’s screaming bloody murder and he freaks out and she freaks out. Your decision is whether he had the intent … to sexually batter her,” Ross told the jurors.

–City News Service 

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