A former Dunwoody Police lieutenant indeed sent improper, sexually explicit messages to fellow officers and employees, but did not harass or coerce them, according to an investigative report issued by Chief Billy Grogan July 2.

Grogan’s 146-page report is a response to complaints filed in April by former Officer Roger Halstead and current civilian transport officer Brian Bolden. Their wide-ranging allegations of harassment center on former Lt. Fidel Espinoza, who resigned as a result of the accusations. Another complaint, from former Officer Austin Handle, has not yet received a city response.

Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan.

“Although it is clear that Espinoza texted/Snapchatted explicit messages, images, texts and videos with several employees and former employees, including Halstead, there is no evidence that Espinoza’s conduct in this regard included any coercion, threats, or promises of preferential treatment in exchange for participation in the conduct,” Grogan wrote in the report’s conclusion. “Furthermore, in Halstead’s case, it is quite apparent that he was a voluntary and willing participant in the same conduct, even after leaving Dunwoody PD.”

Grogan wrote that he identified 52 distinct allegations in Halstead and Bolden’s complaint filing. Grogan ruled that only three of those allegations were “sustained with misconduct,” meaning that they were proven to have happened and that they violated Dunwoody Police Department policy or standards. Two of those allegations involved Espinoza sending inappropriate sexual messages. The other allegation was that Espinoza behaved untruthfully and without courtesy when accusing Bolden of stealing misplaced candy bars.

Former Dunwoody Police Lt. Fidel Espinoza.

Key allegations Grogan ruled as specifically “unfounded” — meaning untrue — were that Espinoza engaged in a pattern of sexually harassing behavior; that he withheld favorable assignments or treatment for not engaging in sexual discussions; and that Halstead termination was retaliation for making harassment complaints.

The report includes dozens of screenshots of sexually explicit text messages between Espinoza and an officer, including graphic language and photographs of his penis that appear to have been censored prior to publication. Other photos sent by Espinoza show his crotch covered with clothing, including in what appeared to be his police uniform. The messages included repeated demands to see photos of a “turtle” — his slang for “penis” — and explicit references to masturbation and other sexual activity.

In the screenshotted messages, Espinoza frequently mingled talk of off-duty jobs and sexual activity. “Let me tell you something. I need to see you or at least talk or text you every day or else,” one of the messages reads. He complained to the same recipient in another message, “…the only reason that you’re nice to me is because you want my extra jobs.”

A text message from former Dunwoody Police Lt. Fidel Espinoza to a patrol officer, as shown in Grogan’s report.

“Do me a favor your first text message to me should start out with at least hello or how are you so that I know that you’re remotely interested and [sic] how I’m doing as opposed to filling your pockets with money,” reads another text to the same officer, which he soon followed with what appears to be a photo of his penis. In a follow-up message, he said, “Delete that [expletive] before the wifey breaks into your phone again. Lol.”

The messages also include some sexual jokes. “We keep this up and one of us is gonna get hard and it’s gonna get weird. I’m gonna join the #metoo movement,” Espinoza wrote in one. In another, he sent a photograph of a drawer containing a handgun and condoms with the phrase, “I wonder which will expire first. The Trojans or the ammo?”

A text message sent by Espinoza joked about condoms and ammo.

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. The screenshotted messages in Grogan’s report contrast with that image, including one where he jokingly tells an officer’s wife that “…I don’t have kids in fact I really hate them.”

The report says that Espinoza resigned shortly after meeting with Grogan in May about the recently filed complaints, but remained available for investigative interviews. A phone number listed as his and confirmed by a neighbor is now disconnected.

The complaints by Bolden, Halstead and Handle, 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. All three complainants are seeking settlement payments of $500,000 each. Laura Austin, an attorney who represents all three complainants, says she is preparing to file a lawsuit on behalf of one of the clients.

Following the release of Grogan’s report, DPD and city spokesperson Jennifer Boettcher said there will not be further comment due to the situation being a personnel issue and involving “potential litigation.”

To view the complete report, which contains sexually explicit language and images, click here.

The complaints

Halstead’s complaint claims 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.”

The chief’s report and other allegations

Grogan’s report addresses only the complaints from Bolden and Halstead, which were filed about six weeks earlier than Handle’s. The report rules almost every allegation in their complaints as unfounded or unproven.

Of the 52 allegations Grogan addresses, 30 were ruled as unfounded; one as exonerated; three as sustained with misconduct; three as sustained; and 12 as “not sustained.” The report notes that “sustained” can mean “something did happen, but wasn’t necessarily a policy violation or inappropriate.”

In Halstead’s case, Grogan ruled that Espinoza indeed demanded and sent sexually explicit messages and images. But Halstead also sent such messages in return, Grogan said, and Espinoza claimed that Halstead started it, which Grogan said could not be determined.

“Espinoza admitted to me that he had exchanged sexually explicit photographs, videos and comments with Halstead through text messaging and Snapchat,” Grogan wrote in the report. “He insisted, however, that both parties were willing participants in this exchange and there was never any coercion, harassment, sexual harassment or quid pro quo involved. He said that he and Halstead had developed a friendship and that this was part of that friendship. Espinoza stated the text messages, Snapchats, and pics were just part of them joking around with each other.”

In Bolden’s case, Grogan’s ruling of “sustained with misconduct” about the candy bar case came following a new reinvestigation that he ordered.

Bolden did not make a harassment complaint at the time, Grogan said, and Halstead made a limited complaint with the city’s human resources officer that did not mention sexual harassment and did not follow up with DPD as recommended.

Grogan sustained two of Halstead’s allegations: that he was written up for having a malfunctioning firearm whose problem was not his fault, and that the incident caused him to be kicked off the North Metro SWAT Team. However, Grogan said, those actions were reasonable.

Grogan also sustained Bolden’s allegation that certain employees who should not have known about a surgery he underwent joked with him about it.

Grogan’s report includes interviews with several other witnesses, which raised some other allegations that were not part of any formal complaint.

In those interviews, Officer Bryan Castellanos reported that Espinoza sent him sexually explicit photos and texts; took an explict photo of Castellanos while he was using a urinal; may have touched or grabbed Castellanos’ buttocks; and sent Castellanos’ wife a sexually explicit Facebook message. Castellanos never told Espinoza to stop such practices and did not connect them to any coercion about favorable treatment, the report says.

Another issue raised in the Castellanos interview, Grogan reported, was that about eight years ago, Espinoza took an 18- or 19-year-old participant in DPD’s Dunwoody Police Explorer program — a kind of pre-training academy for youths interested in becoming police officers — on a fishing trip to Florida. That Explorer is now a DPD officer, the report said. The fishing trip was a “violation of program guidelines” and an act of “poor judgement” by Espinoza, but “no issues were found” otherwise, the report said.

“The participant had no concerns, nor did his family who, by this time, were friends with Espinoza and his family,” Grogan wrote in the report. Grogan said the officer reported no issues with Espinoza at work, including that there were no sexually explicit messages. The fishing trip issue “is being exploited without regard for its effect on this officer,” Grogan said.

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John Ruch

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