Lawsuit alleges culture of sexual harassment, abuse, and cover-up in Madison County Sheriff’s Office

MADISON COUNTY, Ala. - A lawsuit from a former Madison County Sheriff’s Deputy alleges a culture of sexual harassment, abuse, and cover-up within the law enforcement agency.

The lawsuit, filed last Friday, details Shelby Holt’s claim that she was routinely sexually harassed during her time at the sheriff’s office and fired when she reported it.

The lawsuit names members of the sheriff’s office and county government, including the members of the Madison County Commission. Commission members are named because of their role in the handling of the allegations.

Holt says she worked as a patrol deputy from early 2013 until being fired on September 30, 2016, just six weeks after she filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Warning: The descriptions in this article will be explicit, in order to communicate the seriousness and severity of the accusations.

“What I want to do to you”

A primary focus of the complaint centers around the alleged actions of Sergeant Stacy Rutherford, who the lawsuit describes as Holt’s direct supervisor.

The lawsuit alleges a myriad of inappropriate comments made to Holt, including:

  • Telling Holt he had hacked into her computer to “see what was going on with her”
  • Sending Holt a picture of his penis
  • Telling Holt a desk would be perfect for “what I want to do to you”
  • Telling Holt “my tongue is hard and fast and I can get you off with my tongue within thirty seconds or less.”
  • Telling Holt “If that does not work, then I can put Alka Seltzer on your [omitted by WHNT News 19], but I have to be careful because it can mess a female up.”
  • Telling Holt that since he was her supervisor, he could give her permission to leave early to go to his apartment
  • Telling Holt he knew of places around the county where they could have intercourse
  • Telling Holt “many times” that he could not keep himself from getting an erection when she was around

The lawsuit says the frequency of his comments created a sexually hostile work environment. The complaint says Holt never had any kind of sexual relationship with Rutherford.

The Firing

The lawsuit says Holt first complained to a supervisor in late July of 2016 and quickly had a series of conversations about her complaint, including:

  • July 24 - Meeting with a supervisor
  • July 30 - Meeting with another supervisor
  • August 7 - Meeting with another supervisor
  • August 10 - Written complaint filed
  • August 11 - Meeting with top county, department officials

The suit claims the August 11 meeting was with Jeremie Howell, the county personnel director, and then-Chief Deputy David Jernigan, who is now the chief of the Madison Police Department.

The lawsuit says, “Jernigan made it clear to Holt that he was at the meeting on behalf of Sheriff Dorning, was doing what Sheriff Dorning asked him to do, and was following Sheriff Dorning’s instructions.”

They placed Holt on administrative leave four days later.

She was fired on September 30th.

Department Culture

While Holt’s lawsuit hones in on harassment she says she endured from Rutherford before she was ultimately fired, the lawsuit alleges inappropriate actions from many members of the sheriff’s office. For example, the lawsuit says Jonathan Sheldon, an IT staffer, went into her patrol car, took her cell phone, retrieved nude pictures of her from it, and sent them to other members of the department.

The lawsuit says Sheldon did this to other women as well, including a dispatcher.

Sheldon continued to work for the Madison County Sheriff’s office. He was later arrested, accused of having child pornography on his office computer.

The lawsuit also claims investigator Roland Campos, who was recently charged with sexually abusing a child, had previously been implicated in the sexual abuse of a young girl. The lawsuit says, “The earlier matter was swept under the rug by the Sheriff’s Dept.”

When Campos was arrested for sexual abuse of a minor, his mugshot did not appear on the jail website nor did the sheriff’s office notify the public. The mugshot was put on the public site after WHNT News 19 broke the story of his arrest. The delay was blamed on a technical problem.

Holt also alleges in her claim that she learned that then-Chief Deputy Jernigan also made inappropriate comments about female employees, claiming, “Jernigan told others in regard to Holt, ‘Man what I would do to that,’ Jernigan told [another female employee] that he wish (sic) she had not told him that [a third female employee] was changing clothes so he could have walked in on her.”

The complaint summarizes, “There are numerous other incidents of male employees of the Sheriff’s Dept. in the course of their exercise of authority over female employees of the Sheriff’s Dept. exploiting those female employees, providing job security, providing revised personnel evaluations, and taking care of pay mistakes in exchange for sexual favors and attention. None of those male employees of the Sheriff’s Dept. have been fired. In fact, several of those male employees have been promoted.”

Response

Madison County Commission Chair Dale Strong, who is named in the suit, tells WHNT News 19, “While it is our custom not to discuss pending litigation. Any time allegations of this nature are made there is cause for concern. I trust that the Sheriff of Madison County would not tolerate this type of accused conduct and will thoroughly investigate any and all charges.”

Madison Mayor Paul Finley addressed the lawsuit’s claims regarding Jernigan, who was recently hired as the city's police chief. Jernigan was out of the country this week, his assistant told WHNT News 19.

“From our background check, we got nothing but positive feedback from every aspect of his career,” Finley said. “We’ll start with him – sit down and talk with him when he gets back.”

We have also reached out the Madison County Sheriff’s Office, , Madison County Attorney Jeff Rich, and Madison County Commissioner Bob Harrison, who is named in the suit.

We have not heard back.

Mike Weathers, the attorney who filed the suit on behalf of Shelby Holt, says he has other clients with more claims.

He says expect more lawsuits regarding the sheriff’s office and its culture of sexual harassment and cover-ups.