The text messages between the 9-year-old girl and the man old enough to be her grandfather were, at minimum, unnerving.
“I have always been good special friends and you feel safe with me so I will protect you and get you something. They could maybe make you a star if you are willing to take some risks,” Dr. Bruce Hensel, then 72, wrote to a young child he had promised to cast in a movie.
Hensel — who had long served as NBC’s chief on-air medical correspondent in New York and Los Angeles — repeatedly texted the child from March to August of 2019, at some points asking her for photos that were “sexy and private,” according to records submitted to the California Medical Board earlier this year.
Eventually, Hensel told the girl to take pictures “in underwear or less” to secure her place in the movie, according to the medical board records. That same night, the 9-year-old took several nude photographs for the NBC star, according to those records.
Hensel was arrested in November 2019 on suspicion of communicating with a minor for a sexual purpose and faces up to 18 months in prison if convicted. In the years since, Hensel has sought a plea deal that would allow him to avoid registering as a sex offender, according to three people with knowledge of the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
And he’s picked up an unlikely ally in that bid: former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley, who over the last year has emerged as one of the leading voices in the movement to recall current Dist. Atty. George Gascón.
The recall movement, which now seems to have a chance to collect enough signatures to force Gascón into a recall election, has largely been animated by the idea that the district attorney’s policies are harmful to crime victims. Cooley’s decision to work with a defendant accused of a sex crime involving a child has angered many prosecutors and recall supporters, who say his actions are hypocritical.
“Here he is fighting for this recall, fighting for victims … and then he does this? We have issues with that,” one recall backer said.
Cooley confirmed he was hired by Hensel’s defense team to consult on a district attorney’s office policy he previously authored about the “collateral consequences” of sentencing decisions, which if 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 awaiting trial. His license to practice medicine was suspended when the charges were filed.
Cooley also took part in a meeting with prosecutors to discuss a plea that would see Hensel avoid registering as a sex offender, according to three people with direct knowledge of the situation. The people spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from Cooley or because they were not authorized to discuss the case with the media.
Cooley was hired only to consult on the policy he wrote. It instructs 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 took part in happened in August 2021, long after Cooley became involved in the recall process, according to two of the sources. Prosecutors ultimately rejected the proposed plea, those sources said.
Both the lead prosecutor on the case and a spokesman 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 his decision to work with Hensel. Though Cooley has engaged in consulting work for defendants prosecuted by the district attorney’s office in recent years, normally those defendants have been accused of 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,” said Cooley, adding that the “case has been made” to remove Gascón from office.
Cooley declined to elaborate on his role in the Hensel case, citing attorney-client privilege. He later e-mailed a Times reporter requesting the identity of the sources quoted in this story.
Jamarah Hayner, who is managing Gascón’s anti-recall campaign, said Cooley’s decision to aid someone accused of a sex crime involving a child called into question his claims to be a crusader for crime victims.
“Mr. Cooley’s opinion on who deserves punishment and who deserves protection seems to oscillate conveniently based on political opportunity and what one can only assume are staggering consultant fees,” she said.
Cooley is one of several current and former prosecutors rumored to be considering a run to replace Gascón if the latest recall attempt qualifies for the ballot. As of June 15, the recall campaign said it had collected approximately 567,000 signatures, the minimum it needs to submit to the L.A. County Registrar by July 6 to trigger a recall election.
The campaign probably needs to collect more than 700,000 signatures to actually qualify, as a percentage of signatures will probably be disqualified during the county’s verification process.
“The recall has never argued against someone’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 he wanted to have a “secret conversation 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 “accusation” 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 pictures were “not enough.”
“Has to be sexy … OK?” Hensel wrote, according to the medical board’s records.
At some points, the girl didn’t write back for weeks at a time as Hensel continued to ask her for pictures. One day in July 2019, Hensel allegedly sent the girl 20 messages in a four-hour span without receiving a reply, records show.
Finally, in August 2019, the girl agreed to send Hensel naked photos. He reminded her the exchange needed to be “private” and suggested they erase some of their conversation history, according to the medical board’s 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 both Hensel’s and the girl’s phones confirmed his client never actually received any naked pictures.
In a court filing opposing the medical board’s decision to suspend Hensel’s license in 2020, Levine said Hensel knew the victim because her mother had discussed financing a movie he was co-producing.
“Only when the financial negotiations fell through did the defendant’s inappropriate texting begin,” Levine wrote. “But to characterize that as exploiting [the victim] for over a year for the purpose of sex is simply inaccurate.”
In the filing, Levine also sought to downplay the danger posed by Hensel’s actions.
“If the defendant indeed wanted 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 a question about whether he knew of the full extent of the text messages before getting involved with the case.
Hensel’s trial was scheduled to begin in late May but has been delayed until August, said Greg Risling, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office.
In response to questions from The Times, an NBC spokeswoman referred to Hensel as a “former employee.” She declined to say if Hensel was fired or resigned, or when the doctor’s employment at NBC ended.