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County Agrees to Pay $30,000 to Settle Sexual-Harassment Claim Against Former Undersheriff

In a closed-door discussion Tuesday, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors agreed to pay $30,000 in a settlement with a former search and rescue volunteer who filed a sexual harassment claim against a former undersheriff.

Valerie Walston
Valerie Walston, a former public information officer for the sheriff's Search & Rescue Team. (Photo from Search & Rescue Team's Facebook page)

The claim was filed last November by Valerie Walston, a former public information officer for the sheriff's Search & Rescue Team who alleged that former Undersheriff Jim Peterson sexually harassed her for about a year.

The claim, which made national news, detailed Walston's account, alleging that she gave into Peterson's advances in hopes it would help her get a job with the department.

Walston's attorney, Garry Tetalman, did not return a request for comment on Tuesday.

Walston became a spokeswoman for the Search and Rescue Team in January 2012 and said she was forced into a texting and then physical sexual relationship with Peterson out of fear that she would lose her SAR position and ruin her career chances inside the department.

Peterson resigned from the department abruptly last October, citing personal reasons but did not elaborate.

Walston's claim states she was terminated from all SAR duties — which are volunteer and unpaid — on Oct. 22, 2013.

The claim presented a timeline that began when Peterson allegedly “sought her out” at the 2012 Isla Vista Halloween operations, and told her she had done well in her application for the Sheriff’s Department's PIO opening.

Walston had applied for the position, but Peterson allegedly told Walston that she didn't get the job at a SAR dinner in Buellton last November, as well as telling her she looked beautiful, the claim states.

After the dinner, a series of emails began between the two, with Walston believing Peterson would be a good ally to have in her corner, the claim states.

Eventually, the pair traded 11,500 text messages, all of which were obtained by the Sheriff’s Department during the investigation.

The claim stated that Walston, who had a boyfriend at the time, protested to Peterson's advances but that he was “relentless" with texts and terms of endearment, wanting to refer to each other as characters from 50 Shades of Grey.

Peterson kept sending sexually graphic and explicit texts and photographs, the claim alleges. 

The claim says Walston was convinced that her refusal to engage in a sexual relationship was the reason she wasn’t hired as PIO and that the pair began meeting in parking lots, where Peterson would sometimes bring alcohol.

They kissed, groped and fondled each other, often in the backs of cars, the claim states.

The stress made her pull away from family and personal relationships, including that with her boyfriend, according to the claim. She also began to fear she would be stalked after learning that Peterson had looked up her address.

Walston forwarded several of the nude photos from Peterson to Sgt. Sandra Brown, who supervises the Coroner’s Office and is running against Bill Brown for sheriff in this year's election. Walston told her supervisor about the situation and was removed on Oct. 22 from her duties.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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