Deputy Files $50 Million Suit Against Sheriff, Others
Jefferson County sheriff's deputy Krystal Rice has filed a $50 million lawsuit against Sheriff John Burns, Lieutenant Michael Peterson and Detective Steven Cote for 'defamation' and 'intentional infliction of emotional distress.'
The lawsuit was filed publicly at the county clerk's office Monday, though it appears work on the suit has been underway since February.
Rice alleges that Cote took photographs of her in a variety of suggestive poses - including a topless shot - because, he told her, he was investigating online pedophiles.
She says Peterson authorized the photo shoot, but put conditions on it, conditions the sheriff's department allegedly did not live up to.
As a result, Rice charges, she has no idea who has seen the photos.
"It's unfortunate and we're dealing with it," said Burns, when contacted by 7 News Tuesday.
Cote could not be reached at the sheriff's office Tuesday. Nor could Peterson.
"We're still investigating the notice of claim," said David Paulsen, Jefferson County Attorney.
How It Started
According to Rice's lawsuit, she was still in training in the sheriff's department in July 2006, when Cote made a request.
Cote said he was investigating sexual ppredators on the internet and was pretending to be a 15 year old girl, but needed pictures "to send to predators if they requested them."
Cote showed Rice pictures of another female deputy, another trainee, as it turned out, that he had taken.
As Rice describes the pictures, the other trainee "was wearing cutoff jean shorts and halter/tank style top." The other trainee "was facing away from the camera with her legs apart and bent over slightly at the hips." Rice thought she'd be photographed roughly the same way.
Rice talked it over with her then-husband, and agreed to the shoot.
Central to Rice's lawsuit is a claim that there was a 'contract' that dictated how the photos would be kept and used.
According to the lawsuit, Rice was told the photos would be transferred to a floppy disc, that Cote would have the only copy and that he would keep it under lock and key in his desk.
She was told that before the photos were used, Cote would get authorization from her.
She was also told "if she ever requested that the disc be returned to her, that she would receive it without any ramifications or problems."
And Rice claims a copy of the agreement was supposed to go in her personnel file.
The Photo Shoot
Cote and Rice were alone when the pictures were taken, the lawsuit charges. He drove her to Black River Bay Fishing Access Site in the Town of Hounsfield - Rice wasn't exactly sure where she was, but didn't see anyone else and described the site as 'secluded.'
Cote had her pose in a variety of provocative ways, the suit charges, including lifting her skirt to expose her thigh, showing her underwear and posing topless, though covered by her hands.
Rice "did not feel comfortable with this manner of posing, and felt that this type of photo was not what she agreed to when she signed the Contract."
"However, due to the fact that (Rice) was a recruit and Defendant Cote was an experienced officer, she agreed, because she believed Defendant Cote was an experienced officer and knew the types of pictures he "needed" to catch a pedophile."
After the shoot, they drove back to the sheriff's office. They didn't talk.
Using the photos
It's not clear when, but according to the lawsuit, Cote eventually asked Rice for permission to use one of the photos.
When she got to his his office, the pictures were already up on his computer screen. Cote's office was shared with four other detectives, and was used by other employees going through the sheriff's office, the lawsuit charges.
Nonetheless, she signed a paper, authorizing the use of the photo.
"(Rice) did not hear anything more about the picture...and how it was used and whether its use resulted in an arrest."
After that, it got personal. Rice claims Cote harassed her with text messages until 2009, sending her the messages as her marriage was breaking up, and at the same time spreading stories about the break-up.
From the lawsuit: "(Rice) left the text messages unreported until March 2009, at which time (Rice) received a phone call from a man with whom she was having a relationship and he informed her that Detective Cote had told his mother that (Rice) was "a whore, she's slept with half the department and if your son has had any sort of sexual contact with her you need to tell him that he needs to have him tested.""
Burns and Peterson investigated, told Rice a letter of reprimand would be put in Cote's file, but Rice wanted more - she wanted the disc with the photos back. She started asking in February, 2009.
A few weeks later, Peterson told Rice Cote had destroyed the disc "so you have nothing to worry about."
'A good old boys club'
Rice charges that in 2010, she got some unsolicited advice from another female in the department, Detective Judy Goodman.
The conversation came out of a dispute between Rice and another detective, unrelated to her problems with Cote.
As Rice tells it in the lawsuit, she asked Goodman how she would feel if Cote sexually harassed her and Goodman replied "he stands over my desk all the time and tries to look down my shirt. I just lean back so he can't."
"Goodman further stated to (Rice) that "it is a good old boys club and nothing is going to change. If you want to stay here for 25 years, you're going to need thicker skin."
Rice made one more try at getting the disc, in January of this year. When she did, she charges "...Peterson informed (Rice)...that no topless photos should have been taken by anyone, let alone (Cote)."
Then Peterson told her the 'contract' could not be found and - once again - that Cote destroyed the disc.
However, another detective told Rice that Cote had the pictures on his work laptop and that he, Cote, "could not erase those pictures."
Peterson read Rice a statement from Cote at the end of January, stating that he had destroyed the disc. As for the computer, Peterson said it was being wiped clean of the pictures.
Rice said she wanted a copy of the Cote statement, was told she could have it, but when she went back to get the document "Peterson informed her she would not be receiving a copy of the affidavit at the recommendation of the County Attorney's office."
A key part of her lawsuit turns on the photos being on Cote's work laptop. Rice charges that by putting the pictures on the laptop, they were on a computer "that was accessible to everyone" in the sheriff's office.
Rice "feels dirty, exposed and extremely embarrassed by these events and incidents."
Rice also claims she got physically ill because of what happened, and that even now she is "daily and continually subjected to overt and covert acts of hostility by her coworkers, due to her refusal to abide Defendant Cote's behavior towards her."
The entire lawsuit has been posted at Newzjunky and can be viewed here.
- reported for 7 News by Diane Rutherford & Brian Ashley, online version written by Scott Atkinson
Monday, August 31, 2015, Watertown, NY
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