Select Page

Chapter 4: Samson

Before she was depicted as a modern day Lolita in the press, Cerissa Riley (née Gilligan) was a devout Christian evangelist married to her high school sweetheart.

“She’s not a sex weirdo. She’s not a drug addict. She partied like a normal person probably would.”

Episode Transcript


Justine Harman: A listener’s note: The following series includes descriptions of violence, sexual assault, and grooming. It is not recommended for young audiences.

Justine Harman: Last week we learned all about Grant Robicheaux’s rise from good ol’ boy to Big Man on Campus. I’m sure you’re wondering, how exactly does a school teacher named Cerissa Riley fit into the picture?

Allow me to turn the clock back about ten years.

From Justine Harman and Audiochuck, this is O.C. Swingers, chapter four: “Samson”.

Chad and Cerissa Riley: Hey, guys! CHAD: Welcome to your official wedding invitation to— Our wedding!

Chad Riley: I’m Chad

Cerissa Riley: And I’m Cerissa!

Chad Riley: And believe it or not, after five-and-a-half long, long, long, long, long, but wonderful years, we are finally getting married!

Justine Harman: Back in 2011, while Grant was finishing up his residency at UC-Irvine, Cerissa Gilligan was engaged to an entirely different man: her longtime boyfriend and high school friend Chad Riley. Chad has bright blue eyes, blonde hair, which he wore buzzed short back then, and a huggable physique. He loves watching Friends and going to theme parks and busting a move. He’s basically a human Labradoodle.

What you just listened to was a small snippet from Cerissa and Chad’s nearly-ten minute wedding invitation, which was sent to friends and family in DVD format. In the video, the couple dances in the streets, cruises in a convertible, rides the teacups at Disneyland, and recreates the “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird” moment from The Notebook.

Noah: You’re a bird

Ally: Yeah. Now say I’m a bird

Noah: If you’re a bird, I’m a bird

Justine Harman: Yeah. The whole thing is completely, totally, almost unbelievably earnest.

Cerissa, who was 24, had just graduated from Chapman University with a degree in dance and had dreams of one day becoming a teacher. In the meantime, she was working as an administrative assistant at a charter bus company called TCS and teaching dance classes to middle and high school students on the side. And, in what free time she had, she and Chad were active members of the Calvary Chapel of East Anaheim’s Young Adult Ministry program.

CCEA is just one of the nearly 2,000 churches inspired by the influential pastor Chuck Smith. When Smith died in 2013, the Los Angeles Times described him as “a biblical literalist who believed staunchly in hell, Armageddon, and the sinfulness of homosexuality. But from the pulpit, and in person,” the obituary continued, he had “a disarming warmth.” In the same piece, Donald E. Miller, a professor of religion at USC, describes Smith as “theologically conservative, but simultaneously culturally avant-garde.”

The Calvary origin story is hotly contested. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, during a period of religious awakening often referred to as the Jesus movement or the rise of the “Jesus Freak,” a Calvary follower named Lonnie Frisbee introduced Smith to a demographic previously ignored by Christianity.

All of a sudden, drug addicts, inmates, and lost souls began showing up for Sunday mass, asking for salvation.

Lonnie Frisbee: God is blowing everyone’s mind, because he’s saving the hippies, and no one thought the hippies could be saved.

Justine Harman: That’s Lonnie, in a clip from the 2005 documentary called Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher. The film contends that Frisbee helped grow the church…and then was promptly scrubbed from its history.

Video Clip: Lonnie was not wise enough to understand that people constantly wanted to use him for his anointing…and throw him away as a human being.

Justine Harman: Frisbee—who openly used drugs and had sex with men—died as the result of AIDS in 1993. At his funeral, Smith likened him to “Samson,” the doomed biblical figure who succumbed to his own temptations.

These days, the Calvary Chapel of East Anaheim’s ethos could still be described as “theologically conservative” yet “culturally avant garde.” It’s one of those congregations with a slick Instagram presence, stylish merch, and handsome guys in trendy button-ups singing catchy songs—

Video Clip: “From the rising sun to the setting same, I will praise your name”

Justine Harman:—but back in 2011, when Cerissa and Chad were heavily involved, it was still a pretty lo-fi operation. I found a video called “Don’t Waste Your Life,” in which a young, scrawny pastor named Tony stands in front of a carpeted stage and calls on his congregation.

Tony: All right. Let’s share with one another here. What did you want to be when you were little? And are you doing that? Why or why not? Cory, what did you want to be?

Justine Harman: A congregant named Cory says he used to dream of becoming a mailman.

Rachel says she wanted a job at Disneyland. Lorenzo had his designs on the Blue Power Ranger.

Tony: And I notice you wear blue by the way! [Laughter] You do! Like, tonight, you’re wearing blue.

Justine Harman: Then Tony then calls on Cerissa—

Tony: Cerissa?

 Justine Harman: —who says she always wanted to be a teacher. Tony is pleased with the answer.

Tony: And you are…going for teaching…somewhere in there. So right on. 

Justine Harman: He says, “And you are…going for teaching…somewhere in there. So right on.” The exercise continues.

Tony: Anybody else, you’re doing what you wanted to do or you’re moving toward what you wanted to do when you were little?

Justine Harman: Finally, around the 30-minute mark, Tony gets to his point: Don’t get distracted from your true purpose. It’s a fool’s errand to be seduced by things like money, parties, and popularity unless you use them in service of God. At the end of the day, you just can’t take that stuff with you.

Tony: Can I say that, if, at our funeral, all that is spoken of us is a description of how much money we had, what clothes we wore, how extravagantly we eat every day, if that’s all that’s said, and then there’s just silence in the room, that’s it. If that’s what happens in the room, can I say we wasted our life?

Justine Harman: On Saturday, July 16, 2011—surrounded by members of the church—Chad and Cerissa exchanged vows at The Casino San Clemente, an event hall where Judy Garland reportedly once performed. The bride wore a ruched, strapless gown and something-blue heels and clutched a bouquet of colorful flowers. Chad and his groomsmen matched in tidy heather gray vests and fastened burlap boutonnières to their lapels. There was a dessert table decorated like a vintage carnival and piled high with cookies, pies, and cupcakes. In pictures from that day, Chad and Cerissa look like the wholesome, happy couple used to move empty picture frames off the shelf.

But the fairytale didn’t last. Chad was gay—and had been all along. In 2013, against Cerissa’s fierce protestations, the couple separated.

Justine Harman: When the charges against a handsome doctor and his pretty girlfriend broke in September 2018, the media wanted to know more. Newport Surgeon breaks bad, sure. But former evangelist divorcée dance teacher turns sexual deviant? Now that’s a story.

At the arraignment, back in October 2018, Cerissa’s sister Taelor addressed the press:

Taelor: She has been nothing but a wonderful sister, wife, niece daughter to our whole entire family.

She’s a loving and kind person. She’s a Christian. She loves God.

Justine Harman: Cerissa stayed quiet. During early proceedings, she looked miserable; her kohl-lined eyes welling with tears, her pretty mouth turned almost comically downward. In the press she was portrayed as a femme fatale, a beard, a vixen, a temptress. Outside of court, she was icy, resolute, unreadable.

Vikki Vargas: The best we could do is photograph them probably arm’s length, shout a few questions. They never responded, never responded. And that was about as close of an interaction I could ever get from them.

Justine Harman: Vikki Vargas is the Orange County Bureau Chief for NBC4 News, NBCLA. She has been covering cases like this one for 37 years, and is one of the most celebrated veteran TV news reporters in the area. She estimates that she’s done about a dozen stories on Robicheaux and Riley, and always felt like she was chasing after a ghost.

Vikki Vargas: You have this incredibly beautiful couple who look like they could own the world and are needing for nothing. And now the backdrop of how they lived their lifestyle, I think is what got everyone’s attention. If this were a couple of people who didn’t look like this, who didn’t act like this, who didn’t come from Newport Beach, it’s a terrible thing. But because they are, and because he was this bachelor with his persona, I think that’s what people perceive to make it newsworthy.

We did a very good job of trying to get some background and truly those who might defend them to talk to us. We were told Cerissa Riley was some substitute teacher, could never find out where. Found an address for her in Brea, knocked on doors, had curtains drawn, nobody answers, so I thought we probably have the right address. And really could not narrow down what she did for a living, whether she lived with him or not. If these were roommates, which the neighbors claimed they were of hers. So, there were a lot of disconnects in the beginning as we were trying to do our own background on this.

It was difficult to get a true sense of who they were before this happened.

Justine Harman: Isn’t that weird?

Vikki Vargas: Perhaps, but some people are pretty smart and don’t want to be out on social media and other public places.

Justine Harman: Though I’ve spoken to several people with intimate knowledge of the relationship between Grant and Cerissa, few were willing to go on the record with me for fear of repercussions. One person told me that “a lot of people don’t want to say anything because they’ve been around something, they’ve seen something, they partook in something.” Some responded to questions and then sent legal language, clearly provided by lawyers. Others would only speak to me in exchange for anonymity. Grant and Cerissa’s digital presence appear to have been impressively scrubbed from the internet. At the time of recording this very episode, both the civil and criminal cases against Grant and Cerissa have yet to be resolved.

So here is what I was able to find out after months of deep research, the help of private investigators, public and sealed documents, and more than a few unanswered DMs: Cerissa Laura Gilligan was born March 9, 1987 to Laura Lea Irwin, who goes by Laurie. Laurie was 23 years old when she had Cerissa.

Cerissa’s dad is a guy named Jeff Vargas, who was once the drummer in a new-wave rock band called The Chums. The Chums were actually kind of a deal for a minute. In 1985, The Los Angeles Times wrote about the group, which went from beloved jam band to finding some rotation on Orange County radio stations.

Jeff has stayed in the picture, but was never a real love interest for Laurie. “They were best friends who hooked up,” someone close to the family said. “Her dad’s very much in her life. He’s a great guy. And he loves Cerissa a lot. So she has no daddy issues or anything.”

On February 6, 1993, Laurie married a guy named Michael Irwin while pregnant with their daughter, Taelor. The following year the couple welcomed another child, a son they named Tanner. Cerissa and her half siblings share the same wide-set eyes and chestnut hair. A friend told me: “Her family is a good, white, normal family. Christian.”

But that union didn’t last either. After a decade of marriage, Michael and Laurie separated when Cerissa was 16. A year later, when Cerissa was a junior in high school, Michael filed for divorce and requested custody of their two children, saying that he had “grave concerns about the children’s welfare and safety.”

At the time, Laurie was living with her boyfriend Scott—and things had been rocky. In a petition for a restraining order filed September 21, 2004, Laurie accused Scott of pushing her over a box and a large suitcase and causing injuries to her neck, back, wrists, right breast, and ribs. She said he’d stolen her ATM card on multiple occasions and was talking about procuring an AK47. “I am afraid of Scott,” Laurie wrote. “He is involved in the use of methamphetamine and is drinking more and more alcohol. His behavior has become very hostile and unpredictable. I do not feel safe, and I want protection for me and my children.” After mediation, Michael and Laurie settled on joint custody. With Scott, Laurie had her fourth child, a son named Jake. One friend remarked, “Kind of crazy for a Christian family, huh?”

Justine Harman: Despite the turbulence at home, Cerissa continued to work hard in school. “She likes to do things right,” this same friend said. She was involved in student government, drama, and on the cheerleading squad. After graduation, she attended Chapman, a private university located about 4 minutes from her childhood home. According to the friend, “She was a great student. She was a great dance teacher. She was a great dancer. She was a good bible student. She would get it done.”

She also deftly toggled between the religious and the secular worlds. For her twenty-first birthday, Cerissa’s parents teamed up to take her to Vegas. In matching pink T-shirts, she and two friends from high school drove to Sin City with “Vegas or Bust” written on the back windshield. OK, so it wasn’t exactly Girls Gone Wild. They wore boas, danced on bars, played the slots, and drank Irish car bombs. Scott—the boyfriend against whom her mom Laurie had taken out a restraining order against years prior—even came along for the fun.

Through it all, her commitment to God—and the Calvary Chapel—was resolute. Together the group threw elaborate theme parties and went on trips to the county fair and a place called Bass Lake, where they participated in a group baptism. Packing lists for these trips often included things like quarters for showers, spending money…and “modest” swimwear. When you click through what seems like hundreds of Facebook photos of Chad and Cerissa and their friends diligently practicing choreography and religious scenes, praying with their heads dramatically bowed, or taking group naps on a hostel bed, you can feel the giddy buzz that comes from sleep deprivation, prolonged intimacy, and a singular shared goal.

Chad and Cerissa had also become involved with Hook Outreach, a performance ministry that lured in onlookers with a spectacle before switching the messaging to Christ. The group’s biblical motto came from Romans 5:8. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” In 2019, Chad’s mom told The Daily Beast that “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.” A former member of the ministry, who did not wish to be named, sent me a link to one of the pieces the group liked to perform called “Everything.”

Justine Harman: In the skit, a young woman in a T-shirt and leggings goes through the motions of life while a Jesus-like figure nurtures her and provides food. Then, from stage right, a figure dressed in all black enters the scene. He grabs the woman’s hand and dances with her. Jesus looks territorial, pissed. Then other suitors enter the scene, flinging cash at the woman, which she crouches to collect. Another comes around with an invisible bottle. She tilts her head back and drinks. Then two women zhuzh her hair and measure her waist. The woman makes herself vomit. Two more figures arrive and show her how to cut herself, so she slashes her arms. One by one, each figure appears and then deserts her. The woman puts a gun to her head, but right before she pulls the trigger, she throws it aside and lunges across the stage toward Jesus as the dark forces literally rip off her shirt. At the very last moment, Jesus throws himself over her like a cape and vanquishes the others. The woman stands up. He brushes her off. And they hug and leave the stage in each others’ arms.

Cerissa and Chad traveled to Budapest to perform this skit three times. In a 2010 story that appeared in Calvary Chapel magazine, Cerissa is pictured performing in a crowded town square. She is playing the role of the lost, young woman and dressed casually in a blue zip-up sweatshirt over a yellow T-shirt and kneeling in front of her friend Andrew, who is wearing a sign that reads “Kudarc,” or failure in Hungarian, around his neck. Cerissa’s hands are clasped and her mouth is stretched into a grimace. “She was super passionate about redemption,” a church friend told me.

When Chad came out in 2013, just two years after their fairytale wedding, the news sent shockwaves through the ministry. The couple had waited so long to get married—and had committed to “staying pure” until they did. “She was in a relationship with someone who didn’t know how to love her as a woman,” a friend told me. Rumors began to circulate. Church leaders offered counseling, and Cerissa “prayed for a miracle,” a friend said. But after the arrest in 2018, Chad told the New York Post, “She fought hard to win me back. I told her, ‘I cannot be your husband anymore.'”

Justine Harman: After Chad left, friends say Cerissa became disenfranchised with the church. “She was so wounded,” one friend said. “She was disappointed in God.”

So when she matched with a cute doctor over Tinder, her friends were happy for her. They bit their tongues as Cerissa’s Facebook feed morphed from goofy youth ministry group shots to bikini-clad boat rides and dusty, neon-lit festival selfies. “She just disappeared in that world for about a year and a half or so,” one said. “When Cerissa met him, they went off in his family and his life and his house.” She quickly became a regular plus-one at work dinners, events, and lavish weddings, where Grant—and his expansive network of friends—were often front and center.

Video clip: The legacy of our friendship is, really, our friends. Through Chris we met Aaron, then we met “little Grant” [laughter]. And so on and so on. And now we’re just one, big, happy, dysfunctional family.

Justine Harman: If Cerissa felt out of her depth trying to keep up with her new boyfriend and his group of doctor friends, she wasn’t copping to it. “Obviously it was a little scary,” a friend told me. He was a party boy, which was different for her. He was a little rougher around the edges with that. That was a little red flag that I received in the beginning. It wasn’t a red flag or that he was bad, just that she was fearful a little. And then I never heard anything ever again.”

But it didn’t always feel like she had succumbed to temptation—not in the overt way it was depicted in the skits she’d performed, anyway. Grant loved her physically, something she’d never had from a male companion, and he pushed her to follow through on her childhood dream of becoming a teacher. “I know Grant has expectations,” the same friend told me. “I remember he said, ‘You can’t move in with me until you get to this degree. Or you have your own career.’ And she was working very much toward that.”

As recently as 2017, Cerissa was taking classes at Cal-State University, Fullerton, toward her goal of becoming a high school dance teacher:

Cerissa Riley: My name is Cerissa Riley, and I am pursuing a teaching credential in physical education. I have very little experience in teaching Els. A couple of years ago, I substituted for the Fullerton School District, which is a kindergarten through eighth grade district.

Justine Harman: In 2014 and 2015, Cerissa had found limited part-time work as a substitute teacher in the Fullerton School District, where her aunt Robin is a Special Education director. In 2014, she made $1,577 teaching and in 2015, only $199. More than anything, she was interested in sharing her love for dance with young people. “I have been teaching dance to adolescents for seven years now, and I absolutely love this age group,” she wrote for a class presentation in 2017. “This is the age where they—not their parents—choose to try dance, start dance, or stay in dance. I also love the adolescent age group because they are still moldable, discovering who they are, and what they like.”

Video clip: “I’m not cocky, I just love myself, bitch—”

Justine Harman: When she danced, Cerissa became a different person. In a video posted to The Vixen Show’s official YouTube channel in 2017, Cerissa is practicing choreography to the Christina Aguilera song “Vanity.” Wearing black yoga pants and a sports bra, she combs her hands through her long, dark hair, shimmies her shoulders, and smiles widely into the camera.

Kia Sisowath: In rehearsals, she was always full-out. We would always notice that when we did our Broadway show. I noticed that because she was next to me in the song we did, “All That Jazz.”

Justine Harman: This is Kia Sisowath. He created The Vixen Show, an ensemble group that regularly performs at a gay restaurant and nightclub in Santa Ana called Velvet Lounge, and was introduced to Cerissa by her ex-husband, Chad.

Kia Sisowath: Chad and I have a dance group called the Vixens and Foxes. We do big old cabaret-style shows. This is how I met Cerissa.

I mean, I’d been doing it for years when Chad was in it. A few years later, he had asked me if I’d be okay with bringing, at that time, his ex to join the group to perform. I was like, “Oh!”

Chad’s like, “She’s a singer. She’s a dancer. She’s just like me.” I’m like, “Are you okay with bringing in your ex?”, because how I met Chad, Chad is gay, but Chad was married to Cerissa before.

I went in with trusting Chad and having her join. I loved her voice. I loved how she commanded the stage.

Justine Harman: Cerissa was a triple threat: She could dance. She could sing. And though she wasn’t exactly alpha in her day-to-day life—”She didn’t feel like she had to be big,” Kia told me—she had major stage presence. There was something else that Kia noticed: Even though, in exchange for weeks of rehearsals, performers only receive a stipend and pooled cash tips—

Kia Sisowath: Rather than kind of waving a dollar kind of thing for our performers, because we don’t have time to grab money, we had a fun game, like shower your performers with cash. So the audience would roll up dollar bills into little balls and kind of just throw it onstage whenever they felt like it, and then we also had a stage manager that kind of just collected them all and then gave it to the performer for that show.

Justine Harman: –Cerissa took the job seriously.

Kia Sisowath: During rehearsals, we don’t necessarily ever really go 100% full- out until we have to record it. We film it to review later on when we’re at home, but when we’re just learning it, running it over and over and over for several hours, we’re trying to save our energy and whatnot. Cerissa was not the case. She was always going full-out. I took that as someone who was in it to make sure that she was great, but also, the work ethic was incredible. You know?

Justine Harman: The last show Cerissa performed with the Vixens and Foxes was a Lady Gaga tribute show on June 21, 2017.

Video clip: “There’s only three men that I will serve for my whole life. It’s my Daddy and Nebraska and Jesus Christ.”

Justine Harman: Kia sent me the show link. Around the 42:00 mark, Cerissa takes the stage in what looks like jean shorts and a blazer. She doesn’t have any choreography or props. It’s just her and the mic and a Lady Gaga song about a sexy bartender in Nebraska. She nails it.

Cerissa Riley, [Singing]: Been a long time, since you came around. Been a long time, but I’m back in town. This time I’m not leaving without you.

Host: “Give it up for our hometown girl. That was Cerissa, everybody.”

Justine Harman: Cerissa may not have been as outwardly outgoing as some of the other women in Grant’s social group—”She was weird,” a former doctor colleague told me. “She didn’t really talk much. And she kept to herself”—but her ability as a performer gave her an edge. “She knows she’s attractive,” a friend told me. “Mentally, for a little naïve thing, you jump into this world where everyone’s hot and you go, ‘My god! I must be hot too!” And, in a competitive social environment largely dictated by men with money, keeping people interested is half the battle.

According to prosecutors, Cerissa used her feminine wiles to her advantage—she would flirt with girls, dance with them, and make them drinks, sometimes spiked with the date rape drug. One friend I spoke to said Grant would often go home with a woman and leave Cerissa at a bar to “play the field on the outside, then try to bring more girls for him.” In his first press conference, former DA Tony Rackauckas, implicated Cerissa as a skillful recruiter:

Tony Rackauckas: Women who have encountered these two might’ve felt a false sense of security due to the fact that both defendants are clean-cut and good-looking. We tend to trust doctors who’ve taken oath to do no harm. The second defendant being a female is key. A woman purporting to be his girlfriend clearly played a significant role in disarming the victims and making them feel comfortable and safe.

Justine Harman: This portrait didn’t sit right with Cerissa’s friends and loved ones. “She’s not a sex weirdo. She’s not a drug addict. She partied like a normal person probably would,” a friend told me before conceding, “I mean, being in the Christian world your whole life, and then maybe getting into the party life, or the Newport Beach-Grant life, I don’t know if that excited her or changed her for a little bit.”

Either way, on December 28, 2017, her old life was officially behind her. Cerissa and Chad got their divorce paperwork in order. In documents filed with the Orange County Superior Court— the same court currently tasked with the criminal case against her—Cerissa asked to be awarded from their marriage $500 worth of kitchenware, a queen-size bed, a leased Mazda CX5, and $18,612.62 held in a Schools First Federal Credit Union checking account.

Just the day before, Deputy DA Michael Carroll had reviewed an affidavit in support of searching Grant and Cerissa’s Newport home. The report now included testimony from a third victim, a woman who said she blacked out after Cerissa served her single a drink and woke up to find a naked Robicheaux spooning her.

This woman told investigators. “The girl is the worst one. She drugged me for him. She drugs women. They have done this to other people, and he is going to do it a lot more.”

Next time, on O.C. Swingers—

Video clip: The Orange County District Attorney says videos found on Robicheaux’s phone suggest the couple could have assaulted several more women together.

Video clip:—Did you see this case of a thousand victims, a good-looking doctor, a good-looking girlfriend, as being a potential publicity vehicle for you?

Video clip:—I certainly expected it to get a lot of publicity, yes.

Peter Hardin: There’s a deep, I would say beyond grudge, I think there’s a hatred between those two men, and it wasn’t enough to beat Tony. I think Todd wanted to bury him.