A man who broke into the homes of three Berkeley women and sexually assaulted them in 2008 was convicted Monday as part of a plea deal and sentenced to 24 years in state prison.

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Johnny Dunbar, who was 16 at the time of the assaults, raped two of the women. He used a knife to coerce his first victim and a gun to confront his second one, according to police. Dunbar also used a knife to try to force a third woman to orally copulate him but was “scared off” before he could succeed, police said after his arrest.

Police found fingerprints and collected DNA from the sex crimes, which took place in the same North Berkeley neighborhood over just one month in the summer of 2008. But the evidence didn’t match anyone in the system. The trail went cold and Dunbar evaded detection for nearly a decade.

That changed in March 2016 when Berkeley police pulled him over on a minor traffic violation. Police collected his fingerprints as part of that case and ultimately found their man: Subsequent forensic analysis matched Dunbar’s prints to those found on a windowsill after the first rape, on June 21, 2008.

Detectives then collected Dunbar’s DNA. It matched all three sexual assaults.

Johnny Dunbar. Credit: ACSO

BPD arrested Dunbar on July 6, 2016, at his Delaware Street home not far from the North Berkeley BART station. During the arrest, police also found thousands of dollars in cash and evidence of drug dealing, according to court papers.

Two days later, the Alameda County district attorney’s office charged Dunbar with two counts of forcible rape, one count of forcible oral copulation and one count of attempted oral copulation. Dunbar, who was then 24 years old, was charged as an adult.

Since that time, the case has moved through the court system at a glacial pace. Initially, Dunbar’s defense attorney, Ernesto Castillo, attempted to get his client’s case moved to juvenile court. He was unsuccessful.

On Monday, at long last, the case was scheduled for a 9 a.m. preliminary hearing, which is a sort of mini-trial where the prosecution puts forward the evidence it believes will allow a judge to order a defendant to stand trial.

This type of hearing, called a “px” for short, generally happens within a year or so of arrest. But it can take longer if a case is complex or the charges are particularly serious.

The px is often the first time evidence in a criminal case becomes public. Key witnesses testify and experts take the stand.

The burden of proof for a preliminary hearing is much lower than at trial, however. The prosecution doesn’t put on its whole case and the defense often presents no evidence. The judge must determine only that a reasonable person could believe that the defendant may have committed the crime.

On Monday, Dunbar’s scheduled preliminary hearing didn’t happen at the appointed time, however.

Instead, after taking some time in the courtroom to finalize a deal they had been working on, Castillo and prosecutor Melissa Demetral told Judge Andrew Steckler that Dunbar would change his not-guilty plea in the case in exchange for an agreed-upon sentence. They announced the deal just after 10:30 a.m.

As part of the agreement, Dunbar entered no-contest pleas and was convicted of the June 21, 2008, forcible rape of the first woman he assaulted, along with the July 8, 2008, forcible rape, as well as the forcible oral copulation, of the second woman.

For each of those three counts, he will be sentenced to eight years in prison, to be served consecutively, for a total of 24 years.

Dunbar also entered a no-contest plea and was convicted of attempted forcible oral copulation in connection with the third woman’s assault, on July 21, 2008. That carries a four-year sentence to be served concurrently, meaning it will not add additional prison time.

During the hearing, in response to explanations and questions from Judge Steckler, Dunbar said he understood the terms of the agreement and waived his right to a jury trial.

Steckler confirmed that Dunbar, who is now 30 years old, understood that the convictions would count as four strikes against him and that, when he is released, he will have to register as a sex offender.

Dunbar, who wore the red, short-sleeved shirt of his jail scrubs along with matching red-and-white-striped pants, spoke quietly and answered only “yes” or “no” to the judge’s questions.

Berkeleyside was the only attendee at the hearing.

Dunbar is scheduled to return to Steckler’s courtroom, at the René C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland, for his formal sentencing July 14.

Berkeley Police Sgt. Sean Ross, who ran the sex crimes unit at the time of the stranger rape series in 2008, said the attacks “gripped the entire community with fear.”

“Dunbar’s crime spree of sexual assaults and burglaries in the summer of 2008 forever altered the lives of three women,” Ross said. “This plea deal brings the closure the survivors and the community needed.”

Featured photo credit: Pete Rosos

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...