When Undersheriff Jim Peterson suddenly retired last month from the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office, after more than 30 years as a respected lawman and two-and-half years as Sheriff Bill Brown’s second-in-command, there was little fanfare and even less explanation. The official statement from his department was that he left for “personal reasons.” He gave Brown his notice on October 14, notified staff via email on the 15th, and was gone by the 16th.
However, a claim filed with the County Clerk’s Office the afternoon of Friday, November 15 — the first step in the process toward a civil lawsuit — may explain Peterson’s quick and unceremonious departure. Valerie Walston, a former spokesperson for the all-volunteer Santa Barbara Search and Rescue Team, is alleging that Peterson made aggressive and unwanted sexual advances toward her (which she relented to out of a reported fear of losing her job), that he promised to get her promoted if she slept with him, that she was actually demoted then relieved of all Search and Rescue duties when their relationship ended badly, and that the Sheriff’s Office failed to properly investigate the ongoing harassment.
The allegations are laid out in a shockingly explicit 17-page document drafted by Walston’s attorney, Garry Tetalman, who declined to discuss the matter when contacted, instead requesting without explanation that The Santa Barbara Independent delay the article for “a couple of weeks.” The claim is for “well in excess of $10,000,” according to its cover sheet. (Any amount less than $10,000 would be handled by small claims court.) Though the document is available to the public, The Independent has decided not to disseminate it because of its overly graphic and lurid nature.
During an initial conversation with Walston on Monday, she avoided questions about the circumstances surrounding Peterson’s retirement and expressed surprise at the suggestion he had engaged in inappropriate conduct with a member of the department. She also claimed she was still the Search and Rescue team’s Marketing Officer. Walston has not returned multiple calls and emails for comment since then. Those with knowledge of the affair, but who are not authorized to speak to the media about it, say Walston was actually the aggressor in the relationship, that she pursued Peterson so he would promote her.
County Counsel Dennis Marshall said his office is currently looking into the case but can’t talk about pending litigation. “Stay tuned,” he said, noting such complaints are inherently one-sided. Peterson’s attorney, Chris Kroes, said he was unable to comment at this time.
And Sheriff Bill Brown issued this statement to The Independent on Friday: “The Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office holds all of its members to the highest professional standards. As soon as allegations of sexual harassment were brought to my attention I initiated an internal affairs investigation that was led by a respected, independent investigator from outside our organization. The narrative attached to the plaintiff’s tort claim is an incomplete representation of what transpired when compared to the results of our investigation. Due to the threat of a lawsuit, I am unable to comment on any specifics at this time, but if the matter proceeds to litigation, the rest of the story will be told.”
11,500 Shades of Grey
After a background check and five months of training in 2010, Walston — a self-described “city girl” — became a certified member of the Search and Rescue team (SAR), and was eventually named its chief spokesperson. Before that (according to her online résumé), she had worked as a freelance publicist and social media consultant, a press secretary for Senate Candidate Bill Jones, a communication manager for the University of California, and briefly as a freelance producer for Fox News and a deputy press secretary for the Republican National Committee.
She attacked her new SAR job with an enthusiasm — wearing her uniform and gear to official functions and peppering the community with media releases and Facebook posts — that both impressed and annoyed her colleagues. (She even authored a piece for this newspaper as part of this search and rescue cover story in August 2011.) So it was of little surprise when, in October 2012, Walston put in an application to become the Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer (PIO), “which was her dream job,” according to the complaint. “For Ms. Walston, everything took a turn for the the worse once she met the then Undersheriff Jim Peterson,” it reads.
That introduction took place on October 31, 2012, during the Isla Vista Foot Patrol’s Halloween operations. Peterson told Walston he knew she had applied for the Sheriff’s PIO job and that he thought she did “very well” during her mock TV interview. They would talk several more times that night. Three weeks later at the annual SAR dinner in Buellton, Peterson told Walston she “looked beautiful,” but later explained she didn’t get the PIO job. Walston said she broke down in tears and walked out of the event.
The next day, Walston emailed Peterson to apologize for crying. This started a flurry of emails back and forth that began professionally enough but then reportedly descended into subtle flirting and outright sexual advances. “I hate it when my mind begins to wander…” Peterson wrote, among other innuendos. “Sounds to me that there are 32 lucky guys out there,” in reference to the 32 male SAR volunteers. Peterson then asked for Walston’s personal cell phone number so he could text her a photo of the San Francisco 49ers. (They had discovered they were both fans of the Bay Area football team.) Thinking it was somewhat strange, Walston nevertheless decided to oblige because “she believed that if she was friendly with Mr. Peterson, he would be a good ally to have in her corner.”
Over the course of the next 10-12 months, Peterson and Walston exchanged over 11,500 text messages, the claim alleges. Attorney Garry Tetalman stated all of the messages have been obtained by the Sheriff’s Office, and that his office has copies, as well. In an early correspondence, Peterson reportedly told Walston that he intended to run for the County Board of Supervisors, and that he planned on retiring from the Sheriff’s Office in the spring of 2015. Soon thereafter he asked her “to speak French to him.”
In the complaint, Walston says she told Peterson their exchanges were inappropriate, that she was in a committed relationship, and that he was a married man and her supervisor. Peterson responded that she should use a “safe word” if he started to cross the line. They decided the safe word would be “Bill Brown.” Peterson also reportedly wanted them to refer to each other as “Christian” and “Anastasia” (the two main characters from the novel Fifty Shades of Grey) and asked Walston to to keep their texting a secret.
After more back-and-forth throughout November 2012, Walston — reportedly fearful that if she did not engage in the banter that Peterson would “become angry with her” and do something to hurt her career — “made the decision to humor him” and texted that she “could let her guard down a little.” At this point, the claim alleges, the messages from Peterson became “extremely sexually explicit.”
The day after Thanksgiving, Walston informed Peterson that she was going to apply for the PIO position again. “Just don’t hold it against me if I apply with the [Sheriff’s Office] again,” she wrote. “(Hell, maybe it’ll help haha.)” The claim states Walston was referring to what she thought was an innocent friendship. Peterson responded: “It will definitely help.” Walston answered back: “Then I’ll have to be even nicer!” Again, the claim states, “Ms. Walston was referring to maintaining a platonic friendship with Mr. Peterson. She had no intention of engaging in a sexual relationship with him.” A few days later, Peterson asked Walston if she would like to go on a walk with him. Walston suggested they go to dinner instead.
Later that week, Peterson reportedly texted Walston pictures of himself “in different states of arousal” and asked that she send him photos back. “Ms. Walston complied, not wanting to upset him given the fact that he was clearly drunk,” the claim states, repeatedly asserting that Walston only went along with Peterson’s requests for fear of professional retaliation if she didn’t. “She clearly knew that she had lost complete control over the situation and had to do whatever Mr. Peterson said or risk losing the one job that she loved and any potential for career advancement,” it says. Walston reportedly reminded Peterson over and over that she had a boyfriend (another Sheriff’s Office employee) and that Peterson had his family to worry about (including a son who works in the County Jail as a Sheriff’s Custody Deputy).
At one point, Peterson texted, “My wife and I have an arrangement and understanding. Hahahaha.” He also said he had a vasectomy and that he was “pretty sure” he did not have any children he did not know about. Walston asked Peterson if “she was the first girl at the SBSO he liked,” the complaint reads, “and he responded in the negative indicating that he had done this in the past.” Attorney Tetalman states in a footnote after this entry: “We are aware that Mr. Peterson has had affairs within the SBSO in the past and yet was not reprimanded for this behavior. Should this matter go to litigation, we will be investigating this further.” Tetalman further alleges that, “[O]ther Sheriff’s Office employees began to notice that Mr. Peterson had a thing for Ms. Walston.” They reportedly advised her that Peterson was not to be trusted and that she should keep her distance from him.
In early December, Peterson asked Walston to delete their text messages, later suggesting they meet at the FedEx Kinko’s parking lot on Hope Avenue to discuss the PIO position. “Ms. Walston felt that this was weird but decided to go along with it,” the filing states. There, Walston asked why Kelly Hoover had been hired as the PIO over her, and wondered aloud if her and Peterson’s relationship had hurt her chances. He told her it hadn’t, and that he could indeed help her with her career. They took a picture together and parted ways.
Two weeks passed before Peterson and Walston rendezvoused again, this time in the parking lot of the Santa Ynez Apartments in Isla Vista. They talked more about the PIO position and drank wine together. The next day, Peterson reportedly ordered Walston to delete their text messages, which she didn’t. Shortly thereafter, they went to go see a production of West Side Story in Los Angeles, met again in the Kinko’s parking lot to drink mimosas, and arranged to see each other in the Costco parking lot in Goleta.
Hot then Cold
By the end of January, the complaint asserts, the pair were meeting regularly in other out-of-the-way locations where they would “kiss, grope, and fondle each other.” The claim goes into great detail on these encounters, describing Walston as an unwilling and powerless victim. Walston’s attorney said she started seeing a psychiatrist around this time who prescribed anti-anxiety medication, that she had broken up with her boyfriend, and was starting to pull away from friends and family. “She loved her job so much and really wanted to advance her career with the SBSO,” he wrote, “but realized that the only way that this was going to safely happen had nothing to do with her merits, but rather if she complied with what Mr. Peterson demanded from her.”
More of these “dates” occurred over the next few months, mainly in the back of their cars. On April 26, during the California Undersheriff’s Conference at the Fess Parker Doubletree hotel, Walston met Peterson at his suite. Then on July 28, 2013, at a dinner with Sgt. Sandra Brown and another SAR member, Walston was told Peterson had lied to her about the PIO position (about what exactly is unclear), and later that evening, Walston forwarded Sgt. Brown several of the nude photographs Peterson had sent her. Sgt. Brown, who is running against Sheriff Bill Brown in next November’s election, informed Walston she was contractually obligated to report Peterson’s actions to her supervisor. She did so, and an investigation was launched into the affair.
Walston told Peterson about the pending inquiry, to which Peterson reportedly responded, “Well, I’m fucked.” Between August 2 and September 23, Walston was interviewed a number of times by Sheriff’s officials who also downloaded the texts from her phone, including exchanges with SAR member Stephen Allcott. Walston’s attorney says her communications with Allcott were outside the scope of the permission Walston had given.
In early September, the decision was made to eliminate the Search and Rescue PIO position, and that all of the group’s communications would go through current Sheriff PIO Kelly Hoover. Walston was made SAR’s Marketing Officer at that time and told any information she distributed needed to be approved first. On October 22, both Walston and Allcott — a 27-year veteran of the team — were relieved of all of their SAR duties.
“Ms. Walston’s ‘termination’ on October 22, 2013, was clearly pretextual due to the fact that she was forced to engage in a sexual relationship with Mr. Peterson,” the claim’s narrative concludes. “Finally, as a result of everything that has happened, she has also been blackballed in the community and lost everything that she had held so dear to her.”