3 sheriff’s detectives sue county, claiming sex harassment
The suit was filed Thursday after the detectives were unable to resolve earlier claims in which they each sought up to $3 million in damages.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Newly elected King County Sheriff John Urquhart said Thursday that “if heads need to roll, then they will roll” as a result of a detailed sexual-harassment lawsuit alleging years of abuse of three female detectives in the department’s Special Assault Unit (SAU).
Urquhart said he transferred one of two sergeants accused in the case two weeks ago after receiving additional information from the attorney representing the three veteran female detectives who filed the suit Thursday in Pierce County Superior Court.
The sheriff said that he’s expanding a previous investigation into the allegations to determine “who knew what and when” after newly revealed sworn declarations by others in the unit indicated the command staff had been repeatedly told about the offensive behavior. He said the investigation will include Patty Eakes, a Seattle attorney and former King County sex-crimes prosecutor, who investigated the initial allegations.
Eakes was not immediately available for comment.
The lawsuit was accompanied by the sworn declarations of six current and former King County sheriff’s employees — including five detectives who had passed through the SAU over the years.
They describe a difficult work environment where the two unit sergeants — Anthony Provenzo and Paul Mahlum — routinely made lewd personal comments to and about the female detectives and treated them more harshly than their male counterparts.
The lawsuit identifies the female detectives as Marylisa Priebe-Olsen, Janette Luitgaarden and Belinda Ferguson.
The women each sought $3 million in claims filed against the county in August. When the county declined to settle, the women sued.
The 19-page suit, which seeks unspecified damages, alleges a litany of boorish behavior, inappropriate remarks and belittling behavior toward the three women detectives, some of which Urquhart said the county was unaware of.
It alleges that Provenzo routinely boasted about his sexual prowess and the size of his penis, and at one point strapped a fake phallus to his ankle in the office so it protruded from the bottom of his trousers.
It alleges that the sergeants would routinely ridicule the female detectives over the sizes of their breasts and buttocks. He referred to one female detective as “Malibu Barbie” or “Vegas Barbie.”
Sometimes, the complaint says, visitors to the SAU were sent by the sergeants to look at one of the female detective’s breasts while she sat at her desk.
The lawsuit also alleges the sergeants mocked the statements of sexual-assault victims — sometimes asking the female detective to read salacious parts over slowly “so I can close my eyes.”
The lawsuit alleges Provenzo brought photographs of bikini-clad teenage girls into the SAU and made “sexual comments” about them.
Provenzo also allegedly told one of the female detectives “not to fully investigate rape or sexual-assault cases that occurred on the Muckleshoot Indian reservation, because rape happens on the reservations ‘all the time,’ ” the lawsuit alleges.
In his declaration, Detective Mike Gordon described Priebe-Olsen, Luitgaarden and Ferguson as “hardworking” detectives dedicated to “bringing justice for sexual-assault victims.”
But Provenzo “created a divisive and almost intolerable working environment for female detectives on the unit,” targeting them for unfair criticism that was not directed at male detectives who made the same mistakes, Gordon wrote, noting that he had reported the conduct in 2011 as part of a grievance filed by Luitgaarden.
Gordon said he also witnessed Provenzo make derogatory and offensive remarks about victims, including a 4-month-old baby who was severely injured by her father. Provenzo made a “completely insensitive” comment about the victim, Gordon wrote.
“I was so upset, and shocked by this callous remark that I left the building,” he wrote.
“It is the height of irony — or better stated, hypocrisy — that the very detective unit charged with rooting out and pursuing sexual offenders would be home to rampant sexual harassment,” wrote the plaintiffs’ attorney, Julie Kays.
Provenzo was transferred to Metro transit police late last year following an internal investigation. Urquhart said he transferred Mahlum to patrol a few weeks ago after learning of some of the new allegations.
In the original claims filed in August, Dave Jutilla, who was the chief deputy in the Sheriff’s Office and a past sergeant in the Sexual Assault Unit, also was named as tolerating sexual and gender harassment. He was not included in the lawsuit.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org