Allegations of sexual harassment against a former Dunwoody Police Department lieutenant — including claims he demanded sexual favors for work benefits — are what triggered an ongoing internal investigation, according to complaints filed with the city by two former officers and a civilian employee who are demanding settlements of $500,000 each.

Former Lt. Fidel Espinoza resigned about five days after the first complaints were filed on April 29. Police Chief Billy Grogan previously said DPD is investigating an “internal matter” he would not specify related to Espinoza’s resignation. Grogan said last week that the investigation is continuing with “no firm timeline of completion,” but that its documents will become a public record 10 days after it is done.

City spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher confirmed that Grogan’s investigation is based on the April 29 complaint filing. “It is presently believed that the investigation will be completed and the chief’s investigative report issued within the next few weeks,” she said.

“The city’s position regarding the legal claims presented in the April 29 notice will depend largely on the findings and conclusions of the chief’s investigative report; therefore, the city’s response to Ms. Austin’s demands is expected to await receipt and consideration of the report,” Boettcher said, adding that the city’s response to the other complaint is likely to be made at or around the same time.

Espinoza previously did not respond to a voicemail and texts made to a number listed as his and confirmed by a neighbor, and as of this week, that number was disconnected. Social media accounts he previously used in his DPD role appear to have been deleted or deactivated. Espinoza’s whereabouts are unclear, as Grogan says he does not know where Espinoza went after resigning, and Laura Austin, the attorney representing the former officers, says she is unable to locate him and believes he may have left the state.

Two separate complaints were sent to the city by Austin on behalf of former DPD Officers Roger Halstead and Austin Handle, as well as transport officer Brian Bolden, who is a currently employed civilian staff member. The complaints allege that Espinoza engaged in sexual harassment, and also, along with other higher-ranking officers, in retaliation, libel, slander, infliction of emotional distress and the creation of a hostile work environment over a period of years.

The complaints and one of the former officers say that some of the allegedly sexually harassing language that Espinoza is accused of using was transmitted in text messages and emails that have been preserved.

“The severity and frequency of the continuous sexual overtones by Officer Espinoza as indicated from his texts, emails and the sworn testimony is horrendous,” said Handle’s complaint, referring to actions other officers experienced.

One of the complaining former officers told the Reporter that DPD has a “cult-like” atmosphere where certain officers are favored and others are picked on.

Underlying the alleged sexual harassment, he claimed, was that some of the higher-ranking officers are gay and favored each other in workplace decisions, while Espinoza allegedly made sexual demands on some straight officers. The former officer said he is straight and emphasized his complaints are not based on homophobia.

The complaints also involve allegations of unfair or incorrect write-ups of policy infractions. The former officer said that part of the complaint is that DPD continues to employ officers who, he said, faced criminal charges or internal investigations while serving in either DPD or other departments, ranging from DUI to possession of firearms missing from a police evidence room to an incident where one child shot another with a police-issued handgun.

The complaints, filed in April and June, are “ante litem notices,” which are required under Georgia law to provide notice and seek a settlement prior to filing a lawsuit against a city government.

“I would tell you that they have not responded to me. I am drafting the suit for one [client],” Austin said in an email. Boettcher said Austin is aware of the city’s pending investigation and response.

Austin said in some of the cases, complaints have been or will be filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal laws against workplace discrimination.

Austin said that she is attempting to get documents related to the complaints from the city through the Open Records Act process and was cited fees of $6.5 million. After consulting the state Attorney General’s Office and narrowing the search, those have come down to about $30,000, she said.

Boettcher said the fee estimate was due to the “exceptionally broad and imprecise wording of her requests,” which could have included 100,000 emails and unlimited body camera and other video footage involving 11 different people. She said the city will continue to work with Austin on narrowing the scope of the search “despite there being no such requirement in the Open Records Act…”

There may be other complainants as well. One of the former officers said another attorney, Mande Moyer, is representing a fourth former officer in a similar complaint. Moyer did not respond to a phone call and email. The City Clerk’s office said that the city possesses documents from her “that were provided at the request of the chief of police in connection with an ongoing workplace investigation” and claimed they are exempt from public disclosure under the Open Records Act.

Espinoza was popular with city officials and some members of the public, who knew him for his one-time role as DPD’s media spokesperson. In 2010, the DeKalb Bar Association named him “Officer the Year” for creating a “Christmas for Kids” gift program and dinner. As a lieutenant, he headed the Administrative Services division, where he oversaw officers and employees in several departments, including records, community outreach, media relations and property and evidence.

Espinoza’s DPD personnel records show no complaints more serious than a need to improve time-management skills, and several compliments as well. As of May 11, the date his resignation went into effect, he was listed as “in good standing” after a “voluntary resignation” from DPD on his profile with the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, which certifies police officers.

The complaints

The complaints from the former officers and the civilian employee have varying details and cover varying time periods, as Bolden was hired in 2013, Halstead in 2015 and Handle in 2018. But they share common allegations involving claims they were unfairly criticized by commanders soon after hiring and then allegedly subjected to sexual harassment by Espinoza.

Halstead received DPD’s 2018 Medal for Meritorious Service for saving a child’s life. He claimed he was forced out of DPD in 2019. He claims that, shortly after being hired, he was pressured to impose on suspects “harsher charges that didn’t fit the crime” and was criticized and unfairly written up in general due to “jealousy” from a commanding officer.

After that, Halstead’s complaint claims, he “began to suffer sexual taunting and harassment by Lt. Fidel Espinoza… [who] began texting Halstead asking for pictures of his penis.” Halstead also claims the harassment included requests for sexual favors in return for favorable job performance reports and for “extra jobs,” a term for paid off-duty assignments that are a way police officers supplement their incomes.

Halstead’s complaint says he complained to human resources, then was frequently written up for alleged job infractions. He claims DPD gave him a bad job review when he was seeking employment at another department.

Bolden’s complaint claims that shortly after hiring, he faced “bullying” from Espinoza, who allegedly preferred someone else for the job. Bolden’s complaint claims that Espinoza began to “sexually harass” Bolden, including claims of the offer of extra jobs for sexual favors. The complaint claims Bolden was falsely accused of stealing candy bars that were misplaced.

Handle’s complaint claims that shortly after hiring, he was subjected to write-ups from Espinoza and Maj. Oliver Fladrich, DPD’s patrol commander. Handle claims that Espinoza used “sexual overtones and requests for sexual favors for favorable work documentation and extra work detail.” Handle’s claim is based on racial discrimination, with the former officer saying he did not experience the sexual harassment directly but was aware of it and was subjected to other harassment that “fit his pattern that [sexual harassment] would be next.”

According to Boettcher, the city spokesperson, “Mr. Handle was terminated following an Internal Affairs investigation.”

Correction and update: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Bolden as a former police officer rather than a current civilian transport officer. This story has been updated with comment from the city of Dunwoody and with more details of Handle’s complaint.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.