MARTINEZ -- The trial of a Pacheco man charged with sexually abusing his niece began Monday, with the prosecutor calling it "a straightforward case," the defense attorney claiming he will prove the one-time incident was the result of the defendant's history of unwanted behavior while sleeping, and the 11-year-old victim taking the witness stand.

Ralph Dell, 35, is charged with sexual penetration of a child 10 years old or younger, and lewd and lascivious acts that occurred April 11, 2012, when the victim, then 9 years old, was having a spring break sleepover with Dell's daughter.

The two girls, described as "best friends" by prosecutor Chad Mahalich, had played, eaten pizza for dinner and were lying on blankets in a common room watching TV late that night when Dell, Mahalich said, rubbed his daughter's back to help her fall asleep.

"Then he asks if (Jane Doe) would like her back rubbed," Mahalich told the jury. "She says no, but he rubs her back anyway."

When the girl flipped from her stomach to her back, the prosecutor said, Dell slipped his hand inside her underwear.

"What happened to Jane Doe is not in dispute," defense attorney Ernest Castillo said. "What this case is about is intent."

Dell, Castillo told the jury, was asleep when the touching occurred. When he woke up, he told the victim, "That was inappropriate," and left the room.

"He woke up to the most gut-wrenching moment of his life," Castillo said. "He was startled and confused, didn't understand what happened or how it happened. He began to freak out."


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Jane Doe corroborated both Mahalich's and Castillo's version of the incident, saying she began to "tear up" when the inappropriate touching began. The girl said Dell then asked her, "Does that hurt?" During cross-examination, she said that a few moments later, "he looked surprised at what he had done."

Castillo told the jury he plans to call a medical expert who will explain the neurological science behind unwanted behavior while asleep. He said he also will call the defendant's brother, with whom Dell shared a room when the two were boys, and Dell's ex-wife, whom he anticipates might be a hostile witness, to testify that she sometimes awoke to find Dell engaged in sexual behavior with her while he was asleep.

Nearly two dozen people looked on from the gallery. The trial resumes Tuesday.

Contact Gary Peterson at 925-952-5053. Follow him at Twitter.com/garyscribe.