Thursday, February 22 , 2018, 9:18 am | Fair 43º


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Sexual-Harassment Claim Sheds Light on Undersheriff’s Abrupt Departure

Jim Peterson left Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department's No. 2 job after allegations by ex-Search & Rescue Team member Valerie Walston

A sexual-harassment claim filed earlier this month provides a possible explanation for Santa Barbara County Undersheriff Jim Peterson's abrupt resignation from the Sheriff's Department in October.

Valerie Walston
Valerie Walston was relieved of her duties last month as a volunteer with the Santa Barbara County sheriff's Search & Rescue Team and spokeswoman for the organization. (Photo from Search & Rescue Team's Facebook page)

The claim filed by Valerie Walston, a former public information officer for the sheriff's Search & Rescue Team, alleges that Peterson sexually harassed her for about a year. According to the Nov. 15 claim, she says she gave in to his advances in hopes it would help her get a job with the department.

Walston, a three-year Search & Rescue Team volunteer who became a spokeswoman for the squad in January 2012, says 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.

According to the claim, Walston viewed the Sheriff’s Department's public information officer position as her dream job, and Peterson repeatedly promised he could help her if she gave in to his sexual advances.

Peterson announced his retirement in mid-October, citing personal reasons but declining to elaborate. He had worked for the department since graduating from UC Santa Barbara in 1983. In 2011, Sheriff Bill Brown promoted him to be his second-in-command.

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

Brown released a statement on the matter, but added that his department cannot comment on specifics because of the potential pending litigation.

“The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office holds all of its members to the highest professional standards,” he said. “As soon as allegations of sexual harassment were brought to my attention, I initiated an internal affairs investigation that was led by a respected, independent investigator from outside our organization.

"The narrative attached to the plaintiff’s tort claim is an incomplete representation of what transpired when compared to the results of our investigation. Due to the threat of a lawsuit, I am unable to comment on any specifics at this time, but if the matter proceeds to litigation, the rest of the story will be told.”

Walston's attorney, Garry Tetalman, said he and his client are declining all interviews and comments at this time.

Peterson did not return Noozhawk's calls seeking comment.

According to the claim, Peterson and Walston met at various events last year.

The claim alleges that Peterson “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, including the mock TV interview.

Walston had applied for the position after sheriff's spokesman Drew Sugars took a job in Burbank. According to the claim, it was Peterson who told her — at a SAR dinner in Buellton last November — that she didn’t get the position.

He also told her she looked beautiful, the claim states.

After giving a speech at the dinner, Walston immediately broke down in tears and walked out of the event. Embarrassed, she apologized to Peterson in an email the next day, according to the claim.

That started a series of emails back and forth that seemed like friendly banter, the claim states, and Walston says she believed Peterson would be a good ally to have in her corner.

The claim alleges that he then asked for her cell phone number so he could send a photo of the San Francisco 49ers, since he knew she was a fan.

Peterson began opening up to Walston, sharing his intent to retire in 2015 and explore a possible campaign for county supervisor, the claim states. It says the reason became clear when he started to flirt.

According to the claim, the pair traded 11,500 text messages, all of which were obtained by the Sheriff’s Department during the investigation that began in August.

Peterson is married and Walston had a boyfriend at the time, and the claim says she told him she couldn’t engage in a relationship.

He was “relentless" with texts and terms of endearment, wanting to refer to each other as characters from 50 Shades of Gray, the claim alleges.

“Ms. Walston became so uncomfortable and fearful that if she did not engage in this banter with Mr. Peterson he would become angry with her, which is the last thing she wanted,” the claim states. “She wanted to be judged on her merits and accomplishments, and did not want the fact that she refused to engage in what she felt was silly childish flirting to adversely affect her career.”

After she told Peterson she “could let the guard down a little,” he became “extremely sexually explicit,” according to the claim.

Walston believed it would hurt her chances at becoming PIO if she said something to offend Peterson, and when she applied again, texted him, “Just don’t hold it against me if I apply with the SO again. (Hell, maybe it’ll help haha.).”

“It will definitely help,” the claim says he replied.

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

He allegedly asked for pictures back, like one “with her blue eyes twinkling,” the claim says, adding that she complied, thinking it was harmless since he had been drinking at the time.

In the claim document, Tetalman said he and Walston believe that Peterson had other affairs within the Sheriff’s Department and was not reprimanded, a contention that will be investigated more if the case goes to court.

According to the claim, other Sheriff’s Department employees began to notice Peterson’s affections for Walston, and one, Sgt. Gregg Weitzman, “warned Ms. Walston to not trust Mr. Peterson and informed her that the entire department was well aware of his extramarital affairs that have taken place over the years."

She was “disgusted and fearful” that she would be blackmailed into having a relationship if she expected to keep her job, and “realized she would never be promoted if Mr. Peterson did not support it,” according to the claim.

“Given the fact that all he was doing was sending her sexually graphic text messages and had not physically assaulted her, she felt it better just to let him continue to sexually harass her this way rather than risk losing her job by reporting him,” the claim states.

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 she met Peterson in the parking lot of FedEx Kinko’s on Hope Avenue in Santa Barbara to talk about the issue last December.

Walston believed she was the most qualified, since she had PIO and law enforcement agency experience through her SAR volunteer work, and had been doing a good job — for free — for two years, the claim states.

Peterson, who allegedly arrived in his official vehicle and then got into hers, told Walston there were numerous qualified applicants, and that Brown hadn’t included her in his top five candidates to interview, according to the claim.

She was upset and Peterson said he would help her with her career, then asked to take a picture with her, to which she agreed, the claim states.

She was again worried that her career would be ruined unless she gave in to whatever Peterson wanted, the claim alleges.

Later that month, they met in the parking lot of the Santa Ynez apartments in Isla Vista since Peterson thought it best they weren’t seen together, according to the claim. He allegedly brought wine.

“He then stated to Ms. Walston that he would get her the SBSO PIO position, but warned her that she would ‘just have to impress me!’" the claim alleges. "His tone was obviously and extremely sexual in nature. Ms. Walston then knew that if she ever was to have any chance at advancement in her department, she would have to do whatever Mr. Peterson wanted, which included giving into his sexual advances."

The two went to see West Side Story together in Los Angeles and had more meet-ups in parking lots, including one on New Year’s Eve during which he allegedly brought champagne and orange juice to make mimosas.

The claim alleges that Peterson started to hug her and pushed himself on her, but left since he was “short on time,” asking to meet up again later. Walston refused and again reminded him that he was married and she had a boyfriend.

At future meet-ups, she believed she had no choice but to comply, the claim alleges.

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.

The claim says Peterson told her he had looked up her home address in Sheriff’s Department personnel files, but said, “Don’t worry, I won’t stalk you.”

She was “horrified” at learning this, since he could show up at her home at any time, the claim alleges.

According to the claim, they met up for three months, including once at Fess Parker's DoubleTree Resort where Peterson had obtained a suite during a state undersheriff's conference in April.

In July, Walston had dinner with sheriff's Sgt. Sandra Brown, who supervises the Coroner’s Office and is running against Brown for sheriff in next year's election. Sandra Brown, who is not related to Bill Brown, is also a Search & Rescue Team volunteer.

According to the claim, Walston learned that Peterson had told Kelly Hoover, the Sheriff’s Department's new public information officer, that Walston didn’t like her.

Walston believed she had a professional and great personal relationship with Hoover and needed to do “damage control,” the claim states.

She forwarded several of the nude photos from Peterson to Sandra Brown, who told her it was her obligation to report the sexual harassment, according to the claim.

On July 29, Walston told Lt. Craig Bonner, her supervisor, and also informed Peterson about the pending investigation.

“Peterson immediately responded, ‘Well, I’m fucked,’” the claim alleges.

There were investigative interviews in August and September, and the Sheriff's Department downloaded all the text messages between the pair from Walston's phone. 

When Sgt. John McCammon got the phone, with Walston's permission, he allegedly downloaded all of her texts, not just the messages to and from Peterson, the claim alleges.

As a result, the Sheriff’s Department “became interested” in messages between Walston and a male SAR member, who also was interviewed.

In September, according to the claim, Lt. Brad McVay told Walston to just manage the SAR social media page with content previously approved by the organization's board of directors.

By Oct. 22, Walston and the other SAR member were both relieved of all duties, the claim states.

“Finally, as a result of everything that has happened, she has also been blackballed in the community and lost everything that she had held so dear to her,” the claim says.

Her attorney alleges that Walston's termination was due to her having been forced to engage in a sexual relationship, and the claim is for “well in excess of $10,000.”

The claim’s description of damages includes sexual harassment, discrimination on the basis of sex, retaliation, failure to investigate employee claims of sexual harassment/discrimination, assault and battery, defamation, blackballing, emotional distress and civil rights violations.

The defamation claim is related to an alleged job offer with the Montecito Fire Protection District.

Montecito Chief Chip Hickman offered Walston a community relations job in July but ceased communications in September, which she and her attorney believe could be due to the Sheriff’s Department investigation.

The claim names Hickman and several Sheriff’s Department employees as people causing the damages, including Bill Brown, Peterson, McVay, Sandra Brown, Bonner, McCammon, and SAR member Nelson Trichler.

Once a claim is filed with the county clerk, it is delivered to the county's Risk Management Division and then to the County Counsel's Office. If it is denied by the Board of Supervisors, the individual who filed the claim can proceed to a lawsuit.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli 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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