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Originally published September 27, 2012 at 1:43 PM | Page modified January 18, 2013 at 10:58 AM

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Corrected version

3 King County sheriff's detectives allege rampant sexual harassment

In claims seeking up to $9 million, the detectives describe crude remarks and a "toxic" working environment tied to three sergeants

Seattle Times staff reporter

Belinda Ferguson's damages claim

Marylisa Priebe-Olson's damages claim

Janette Luitgaarden's damages claim

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Three veteran detectives in the King County sheriff's Special Assault Unit have filed up to $9 million in claims against the county, alleging they were victims of rampant acts of sexual harassment and verbal abuse under three sergeants over many years.

Among those named in the claims is Dave Jutilla, who is the chief deputy, second in command of the Sheriff's Office.

The detectives, Marylisa Priebe-Olson, Janette Luitgaarden and Belinda Ferguson, allege they were subjected to a host of acts, ranging from crude remarks about breasts and buttocks to "yelling, screaming and spitting."

King County Sheriff Steve Strachan said Thursday that he would take "appropriate action" as the matter moves forward.

"As sheriff, it is my clear expectation that we have a respectful workplace, free of discrimination or harassment," he said. "And on this particular claim, I cannot comment on possible potential litigation."

Strachan is running for election this year after being appointed in April to replace outgoing Sheriff Sue Rahr, who hired Strachan as her chief deputy in early 2011.

All three claims, possibly a prelude to a lawsuit, were filed with the county on Aug. 21 after the women went to a prominent Tacoma law firm, Connelly Law Offices.

Julie Kays, an attorney with the firm, said the claims had "100 percent nothing to do with the election" and were filed after the detectives decided they had to take action to protect other women in the Sheriff's Office.

"These are tough women. They stare down sex offenders every day. They deal with some of the most difficult and challenging cases in the county," said Kays, a former King County deputy prosecutor who handled sexual-assault cases for 11 years.

But her clients, Kays said, "couldn't take it anymore, the constant barrage of sexual comments and sexualizing the workplace."

Kays said all three have continued to do their jobs but have been forced to devote "180 percent" of their energies to their jobs because of "garbage in the workplace."

"What kind of message does that send to sexual-assault victims in the county," she said, "when you've got a dirty little secret going on in the Sexual Assault Unit?"

The Sheriff's Office, Kays said, tolerated what appears to be a "good old boy's network."

She said the women, as part of their claims, have asked the county to preserve evidence, including emails.

The claims, which each seek between $1.5 million and $3 million, allege that Jutilla, while a sergeant, and two current sergeants, Tony Provenzo and Paul Mahlum, were responsible for allowing or tolerating sexual and gender harassment in the Special Assault Unit at the Regional Justice Center in Kent.

The three women suffered "tremendous emotional distress," as well as physical and emotional pain, from years of working in a "toxic, degrading and humiliating environment," according to the claims.

Ferguson was the target of harassment for 8 ½ years while working for Provenzo and Mahlum, according to her claim.

She alleges Provenzo yelled, screamed and spit on her; discussed the size of her breasts; directed other detectives to walk by to look at her breasts; and singled her out for criticism in front of peers.

She also was threatened with retaliation if she spoke out against Provenzo, including threats to demote her, send her back to patrol duties or assign her to a different precinct, according to her claim.

Luitgaarden's claim alleges that for more than a decade she suffered from harassment while working for Jutilla, Provenzo and Mahlum.

Under Jutilla, Luitgaarden was singled out for unfair treatment, verbal abuse and retaliation for purported acts of insubordination, according to the claim.

While working for Provenzo and Mahlum, she endured verbal abuse, including yelling and screaming directed at her in front of peers and openly discussing and comparing the size of her buttocks in front of colleagues, her claim alleges.

Her telephone calls were referred to as a "call from my wife," degrading her status as a veteran detective, according to the claim. It was Provenzo who used that phrase, according to Kays, the attorney for the women.

Luitgaarden was threatened with retaliation if she spoke out against Provenzo, including the possibility of being returned to patrol or assigned to a different precinct, her claim alleges.

Jutilla worked as a sergeant in the Special Assault Unit until about nine years ago, Kays said. He moved up the ranks in the Sheriff's Office, and Strachan named him chief deputy in April.

Provenzo was recently transferred out of the unit, Kays said. A source in the Sheriff's Office confirmed the move. Provenzo could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Mahlum still works in the unit.

Priebe-Olson alleges she was the victim of nine years of harassment that occurred under the supervision of Provenzo and Mahlum, including repeated acts of verbal abuse and yelling and screaming in front of peers.

In addition, she witnessed Provenzo discussing Luitgaarden's buttocks and Ferguson's breasts and his other harassing behavior toward them, according to her claim.

After telling Provenzo his conduct was "inappropriate," Priebe-Olson received threats of retaliation, her claim alleges.

Four men working under Provenzo and Mahlum were not targets of the abuse and harassment, the claims say.

The county has 60 days from the time the claims were filed to reach a settlement with the detectives or a lawsuit will be immediately filed after the deadline, Kays said.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

A story published Sept. 27, 2012, was corrected on January 18, 2013. A previous version of this story incorrectly described the King County Sheriff's Special Assault Unit.

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