A woman is suing Bedford County in federal court for more than $30 million, claiming the Department of Fire & Rescue and its chief, Jack Jones, were complacent in allowing her to be sexually assaulted by a lieutenant in February 2018.
The woman, who filed the suit as Jane Doe since she was 17 years old when the assault occurred, is seeking an additional $10 million in a separate but related lawsuit in Bedford Circuit Court.
She was one of two 17-year-old victims of Larry Scott Hawkins, who was sentenced to three years in prison in May after pleading no contest to two charges in a plea agreement.
The woman was volunteering with the Huddleston Live Saving & First Aid Crew with goals of becoming a career EMT, according to the federal suit. To get her EMT certification, she had to go through ride-along training and Hawkins was the employee administering it.
The suit claims Hawkins sexually assaulted the plaintiff Feb. 10, 2018, at the department’s office in Bedford. The two met in the fall of 2017 and messaged one another online for months, which included sexual conversations, according to information from his criminal case. Hawkins sent her pictures of his genitalia.
In his criminal case, Hawkins insisted he was being “misled” about her age and wasn’t grooming minors for sexual abuse.
According to the federal suit, Hawkins told her that if she ended “her relationship with him or report[ed] his abuse and assault of her,” she would be shunned, shamed and prevented from becoming an EMT.
The woman’s suit in Bedford Circuit Court is against Hawkins, while the one filed in Lynchburg at the U.S. District Court is against Jones and the county for having a “de facto policy of deliberate indifference to the rights of volunteers.”
Jones and Bedford County filed responses to the federal lawsuit through the same attorney Tuesday, asking for the case to be dismissed.
Hawkins was convicted in 1986 of felony abduction, felony use of a firearm in a felony, misdemeanor brandishing a firearm and misdemeanor assault and battery in Roanoke. The suit claims Jones was provided with a report on Hawkins’ criminal history but never read it.
Virginia EMS regulations, under the umbrella of the Virginia Department of Health, state certification for people who have been convicted of certain crimes should be “denied in all cases,” including kidnapping, which is synonymous with abduction under Virginia law.
“Because the state certified Hawkins, the Chief, reasonably then, would not have been aware of any serious criminal convictions that would have made Hawkins unfit for duty,” Jones’ response to the lawsuit reads.
Responses from Bedford County and Jones state he “did not know of Hawkins’ criminal convictions at the time Hawkins was hired.” Rather, he received a memo from a county HR employee stating only that the background check on Hawkins had been completed and didn’t read the resulting report.
The responses cite county personnel policy, which states “[i]f a background check is returned flagged, it will be reviewed by the Human Resources Manager and the Assistant County Administrator or County Administrator if necessary. It will then be decided if the candidate is still eligible for the position.”
The plaintiff’s complaint also states the department’s written policies prohibit sexual misconduct only against county employees, not volunteers.
The county has no authority to adopt policies for the Huddleston volunteer department, since it’s technically a separate EMS agency from the county, the response states. It also states anyone can report threats or “potentially dangerous situations” from county employees to higher-ups and “all threats will be investigated,” under county policy.
The lawsuit makes frequent reference to an internal investigation report conducted by the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office in response to a sexual assault report on Hawkins.
In a series of motions filed late Wednesday, attorney Jennifer Royer, who’s representing both Bedford County and Jones, asked for a protective order to be issued for the report, to ensure the report is not released during the course of the civil case, and for all references to it in the lawsuit to be removed.
“This report is confidential: subject to the Attorney-Client privilege; and the attorney work-product immunity,” it states, according to Royer’s motion.
She stated the plaintiff “obtained a copy of the report through an undisclosed source that did not have authorization to release” it.
The suit quotes the report as saying “certain practices, failure to follow policies, and failure to supervise/failure to train are present within the Bedford County Fire and Rescue and need to be addressed. However, the organizational changes will need to take place beyond just Commands [sic] Staff initiative within the agency. The change needed must start at the policy-making level within the County Board of Supervisors if we are to truly initiate change and prevent the missteps of the past.”
It also states the department and the county’s volunteer agencies are at risk of legal claims, according to the complaint file by Gary Bowman, who is representing the plaintiff.
Further, the report found the department has “a male dominated culture in which females feel pressure to prove themselves before they are accepted,” which in turn set the stage for male employees to “sexually assault and harass females with impunity,” Bowman wrote in the suit.
He brings up two “examples” of where he states activity went unpunished by Jones, the first in 2009 and the second in 2015. In the first, a high-ranking employee used a county-issued cellphone to send a picture of his genitalia to a woman working for the department. In another, a woman working for the department reported an instance where a male coworker climbed into a department bunk bed with her to “snuggle,” but no disciplinary action was taken despite Jones being aware of what happened, the complaint states.
Another “example” Bowman uses in the lawsuit is the nickname of a department bunkroom as “The Love Shack” or “The Shagging Shack,” referencing that employees would have sex with women in it.
Reached Wednesday, Bowman said those “examples” came from the internal investigations report.
“I didn’t allege anything about Bedford’s policy that wasn’t in the report,” he said.
The lawsuit doesn’t contend that any sexual misconduct occurred in that bunkroom, the county’s response states. Neither do the two anecdotes from past events prove “authorization of or deliberate indifference to sexual assault …” from Jones, the department or the county.
“Notably missing from the plaintiff’s recitation of facts is any fact to substantiate — with the exception of her own isolated allegations of sexual assault by Hawkins — that any career staff committed any act of unwelcome or unwanted sexual contact with anyone else,” the county’s response states.
Royer and Jones declined to provide comment on the lawsuit. Bedford County Attorney Patrick Skelley did not respond to a request for comment.
For the claims against Jones, Royer said in a response that he’s entitled to qualified immunity, which shields government officials from liability in the reasonable course of their duties. She also brings out Jones “is not the policymaking authority for the County,” and stated there’s nothing to suggest “Hawkins’ misconduct was the natural and probable cause of the Chief’s inaction.”
There’s nothing in the lawsuit to indicate Jones should’ve known “Hawkins would sexually assault a minor volunteer as [the plaintiff] alleges,” his response states.
A federal judge has not yet ruled on Royer’s motions.
Reach Rachel Mahoney at (434) 385-5554.