The text messages between the 9-year-old girl and the man old enough to be her grandfather were, to say the least, unsettling.
“I have always been special good friends and you feel safe with me, so I will protect you and bring you something. They might be able to make you a star if you are willing to take risks”, wrote Dr. Bruce Hensel, then 72, to a young child he had promised to play in a movie.
Hensel – who has long served as NBC’s chief medical correspondent in New York and Los Angeles – repeatedly texted the child from March to August 2019, at times asking for “sexy and private” photos , according to records submitted to the California Medical Board earlier this year.
Eventually, Hensel told the girl to take pictures “in her underwear or less” to secure her spot in the film, according to medical board records. That same night, the 9-year-old took several nude photos for the NBC star, according to those records.
Hensel was arrested in November 2019 on suspicion of communicating with a minor for sexual purposes and faces up to 18 months in prison if convicted. In the years that followed, Hensel sought a plea deal that would allow him to avoid registering as a sex offender, according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity.
And he picked an unlikely ally in that offer: the former Los Angeles County Dist. Atti. Steve Cooley, who over the past year has established himself as one of the leading voices of the movement to recall the current Dist. Atti. George Gascon.
The recall move, which now seems to have a chance of collect enough signatures to force Gascón to a recall election, was largely driven by the idea that the district attorney’s policies are harmful to victims of crime. Cooley’s decision to work with a defendant accused of a child sex crime has angered many prosecutors and recall supporters, who say his actions are hypocritical.
“Here he fights for this recall, fights for the victims… and then he does this? We have problems with that, ”said a supporter of the recall.
Cooley confirmed that he was hired by Hensel’s defense team to consult on a district attorney’s office policy he had previously authored on the “collateral consequences” of sentencing decisions, which, if they applied in Hensel’s case, would have affected whether the doctor had to register as a sex offender.
Hensel was arrested after the girl’s stepfather discovered some of their text messages and alerted police in 2019, according to court records. He remains out of custody pending trial. His license to practice medicine was suspended when the charges were laid.
Cooley also attended a meeting with prosecutors to discuss a plea bargain that would bar Hensel from registering as a sex offender, according to three people with direct knowledge of the situation. The people spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from Cooley or because they were not authorized to discuss the case with the media.
Cooley was hired solely to consult on the policy he drafted. He asks prosecutors to consider a wide range of impacts a sentence could have on a defendant. In Hensel’s case, registering as a sex offender would bar him from practicing medicine or teaching for the rest of his life, according to his attorney, Leonard Levine.
The meeting Cooley attended took place in August 2021, long after Cooley was involved in the recall process, according to two of the sources. Prosecutors ultimately rejected the proposed plea, those sources said.
The lead prosecutor handling the case and a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office declined to comment on Cooley’s involvement or the proposed plea terms.
Cooley said there was nothing hypocritical about her decision to work with Hensel. Although Cooley has engaged in counseling work for defendants prosecuted by the district attorney’s office in recent years, those defendants have normally been charged with public corruption or financial crimes.
“It’s not hypocritical, and nothing is inconsistent. Advocating for justice in a certain factual situation is what defense attorneys do,” Cooley said, adding that the “case has been made” to remove Gascón from office.
Cooley declined to elaborate on his role in the Hensel case, citing solicitor-client privilege. Later, he emailed a Times reporter asking for the identities of the sources cited in that story.
Jamarah Hayner, who manages Gascón’s anti-recall campaign, said Cooley’s decision to help someone charged with a child sex crime calls into question his claims to be a crusader for victims of crime. .
“Mr. Cooley’s opinion of who deserves to be punished and who deserves to be protected seems to fluctuate conveniently depending on political opportunity and what one can only assume is staggering consulting fees” , she said.
Cooley is one of several current and former prosecutors who are rumored to be considering running to replace Gascón if the latest recall attempt qualifies for the ballot. As of June 15, the recall campaign said it has collected about 567,000 signatures, the minimum it must submit to the LA County Registrar by July 6 to trigger a recall election.
The campaign likely needs to collect more than 700,000 signatures to be truly eligible, as a percentage of signatures will likely be disqualified during the county verification process.
“The recall has never argued against anyone’s constitutional right to a defense,” said Tim Lineberger, a spokesman for the recall campaign, in response to questions about Cooley’s actions.
The exchanges between Hensel and the victim began in 2019, when the doctor told the 9-year-old that he wanted to have a “secret talk about acting” and promised to make her a ” star,” according to partial transcripts of their conversations made public in March, when the California Medical Board filed a document called an “indictment” against Hensel.
Over the next few months, the girl sent Hensel several photos of herself fully clothed or competing in martial arts contests. But Hensel pushed for more, writing in May 2019 that the footage was “not good enough.”
“That must be sexy… okay?” Hensel wrote, according to medical board records.
At times, the girl didn’t respond for weeks as Hensel kept asking her for pictures. One day in July 2019, Hensel allegedly sent the girl 20 messages in four hours without receiving a response, records show.
Finally, in August 2019, the girl agreed to send nude photos to Hensel. He reminded her that the exchange should be “private” and suggested they erase some of their chat history, according to medical board records.
Eventually, the girl sent “several nude photos”, according to the medical board. That same night, the girl’s stepfather discovered the text message thread and Hensel immediately asked the girl to “delete all messages.”
Levine, the defense attorney, said a forensic analysis of Hensel and the daughter’s phones confirmed that his client had never received nude photos.
In a court filing opposing the medical board’s decision to suspend Hensel’s license in 2020, Levine said Hensel knew the victim because his mother discussed financing a film he was co-producing.
“It wasn’t until the financial negotiations failed that the defendant’s inappropriate texting began,” Levine wrote. “But calling it exploitation [the victim] for more than a year for sexual purposes is simply incorrect.
In the filing, Levine also sought to downplay the danger posed by Hensel’s actions.
“If the defendant did indeed want a physical relationship with [the victim] he could have easily arranged for acting lessons at any time, or for her to be in the movie,” Levine wrote.
Cooley did not respond to questions about whether he knew the full extent of texting before he got involved in the case.
Hensel’s trial was scheduled to begin in late May but was postponed until August, said Greg Risling, spokesman for the district attorney’s office.
In response to questions from The Times, an NBC spokeswoman called Hensel a “former employee.” She declined to say whether Hensel was fired or quit, or when the doctor’s employment with NBC ended.
Los Angeles Times