BISBEE — The top echelons of the Bisbee Fire Department have been rocked by explosive allegations of sexual harassment, the complaints by one female firefighter prompting an outside investigation that has revealed a pattern of systemic abuse by a top commander and a culture in which the fire chief was aware of the issues but did nothing to stop them.
One of the most jarring revelations in the investigation — completed by an outside human resources consultant — includes a key instance when the fire chief required the female firefighter to sit down with him, the person she accused of the harassment and two other commanders. She was ordered to confront her abuser directly in front of the others in the room. It was then agreed that everyone would “move on.”
Following that meeting, the firefighter, who was fairly new at the fire department, was told to sign a three-line note stating she would not take her complaint further.
When she asked for a copy of what she had signed and received no response from Fire Chief George Castillo, the woman, whose name was redacted from the query because she is a victim of sexual harassment, filed a complaint with Bisbee Human Resources Director Joelle Landers, the investigation shows.
The investigation portrays a firehouse where female firefighters were treated differently than males, and where Capt. Raul Villasenor — the subject of the harassment investigation — openly talked about his sexual exploits in front of his underlings. The investigation states that Villasenor was sometimes joined in the braggadocio by Castillo.
Talk of Villasenor and his sexual escapades became so prolific around Bisbee that at one point, a Bisbee city council member — who is not identified in the investigation — met privately with City Manager Stephen Pauken. The council member told Pauken that the car of another female firefighter was seen parked at Villasenor’s house. The council member said the female firefighter was “bragging to other fire departments that she was banging the boss,” the investigation shows.
While the focus of the investigation was Villasenor, Castillo also was implicated by lead investigator Lori Lindseth, who wrote that the fire chief failed to act even after Villasenor’s pattern of behavior had been broached with Castillo prior to the victim’s complaint.
Lindseth lambasted Castillo for his actions during the meeting at which the victim was persuaded to sign the letter stating she would not take the issue further.
“The balance of power in that meeting was significantly off, creating an intimidating environment for any employee ..., “ Lindseth wrote in her summary. “Furthering Castillo’s inadequate handling of the matter was authorizing the drafting of a letter for (the woman) to sign stating that the matter was resolved and would not be pursued further.”
Both men have left the agency amid the fallout from the investigation, which began in early July and was completed on Sept. 7. Castillo retired on Sept. 18 and Villasenor resigned on Sept. 9, Pauken said.
While the inquiry was ongoing, Castillo and Villasenor were placed on paid administrative leave, the investigation shows.
Villasenor returned a call to the Herald/Review earlier this week and denied the allegations. In an email Thursday, he said he had not been given the opportunity to tell his side of the story.
“This matter I feel has put me in a false light,” Villasenor said in his email. “I also feel that I was not given the opportunity to be heard nor given a chance to prove or even be asked and able to respond to many things in the report.
“I was only called by the investigator one time and wasn’t asked about many questions. When I met with the city I also tried to prove that the accusations were false but wasn’t given the opportunity.”
Villasenor said he was “targeted by certain individuals” who wanted him gone from the fire department.
“I’m very hurt, sad, and frustrated about everything that happened because I loved to do what I did,” he said. “This is my hometown and I care about everyone and always wanted to do the best I can for them in their time in need and protect my city. These statements about me are not true or accurate and I feel I was put in a false light and not treated fairly.”
Castillo could not be reached for comment. A cell number for him went unanswered or rang busy Wednesday and Thursday.
The issues addressed in the sexual harassment investigation started in November 2020 when the female firefighter began working with Bisbee Fire. The woman and Villasenor had known each other outside the department and had even socialized as friends on a few occasions, the investigation shows.
When she started working as a firefighter, she claims Villasenor told her he cared about her. He began sending her text messages expressing his feelings for her. She told Villasenor that she had a boyfriend she was loyal to, but she said he kept insisting that if she gave him a chance and they had sex, she would “fall in love” with him, the investigation shows.
When she rejected his advances, she claims Villasenor then began criticizing her work performance and telling other supervisors that she was lazy. At one point the woman was placed on a shift with Villasenor the commander. Because firefighters must sleep at the firehouse during their shifts, there were instances when the victim and Villasenor were at the firehouse in the evening.
The woman claims Villasenor invited her to his room a handful of times so they could watch a movie and “cuddle,” the investigation shows. The woman, in fear of losing her job, did enter Villasenor’s room one evening and laid down next to him, the investigation shows. He put his arms around her and she told him she was uncomfortable.
“(The victim) did not know how to tell him no, believing that if (the victim) did not join him he would make life hell,” the investigation states.
The female firefighter asked to be transferred to another shift under a different captain, the investigation shows. Villasenor demanded to know why and told her that no one would take care of her like he would.
According to the investigation, the female firefighter then went through a two-month stretch when rumors began circulating throughout the department that her performance as a firefighter was waning. She asked for training opportunities and claims her requests were either denied or delayed, the investigation shows.
At the end of May, she was called in to a meeting with a supervisor she considered a mentor and they discussed her performance on the job, the investigation shows. She relayed what was happening with Villasenor.
A few days later, on June 1, the female firefighter spoke to Castillo about the situation and she said Castillo told her was was “sorry she felt that way” and he would see what could be done about putting her on a different shift, the investigation shows.
On June 3, Castillo, Villasenor and two other captains met with the female firefighter. It was at that session she was told to air her concerns with Villasenor directly and in front of the others, the investigation shows.
She was later told to sign the following statement: “To whom it may concern, I (the victim) acknowledge that I have brought up concerns to my command staff so that they are informed of said concerns. I informed them that I would not like to pursue further actions of these concerns.”
A few days later, she asked Castillo for a copy of the note she had signed. He did not respond, and on June 30 she filed a complaint against Villasenor with Landers.
In a statement written by Landers included in the investigation, the human resources director said Castillo came into her office on July 7 and told her that he and Villasenor had agreed to “squash” the situation regarding the female firefighter’s claims of sexual harassment. Landers wrote that Castillo also told her that there were rumors flying around that Villasenor had harassed a female at Copper Queen Community Hospital, as well, and that the chief had been trying to hide it.
In her summary, outside investigator Lindseth said Villasenor “engaged in sexually-harassing conduct which interfered with the work performance of the victim and created an intimidating and offensive work environment.”
Lindseth also wrote that Villasenor’s conduct “points to a pattern of harassing behavior in the workplace ... “
She suggested “corrective disciplinary actions for both Villasenor and Castillo.” Lindseth also recommended intense training for employees and supervisors concerning prohibited conduct, etc.
In an email Thursday, City Manager Pauken told the Herald/Review that suggestions by the outside investigator regarding training at the fire department will be implemented for all city employees.
Bisbee Fire Marshall Jimmy Richardson has been appointed interim fire chief, Pauken said.