CLAYTON — Witnesses took the stand Wednesday during the discrimination trial involving a gay St. Louis County police officer and painted a picture of a department with a homophobic culture and history of retaliation against those who challenged it or command staff decisions.
The second day of the trial in Sgt. Keith Wildhaber’s employment discrimination lawsuit against the department was dominated by plaintiff’s witnesses. They told the court that police brass called Wildhaber “fruity” and deemed homosexuality “an abomination.” At one point, the county police chief himself acknowledged that Wildhaber’s suit likely prevented his promotion.
UPDATES from the third day of the trial.
Not all of the witnesses agreed that the county police department had a homophobic culture. But most described it that way:
Donna Woodland, the widow of a former county police officer and the girlfriend of a current officer, said she has attended numerous police functions. During one event in April 2015, she recalled that Wildhaber won a puppy at an auction. Capt. Guy Means, standing near her, then said about Wildhaber, “You know about him, right? He’s fruity.”
Woodland answered, “So?” and Means then told her that Wildhaber would never get a promotion because he was “way too out there with his gayness and he needed to tone it down if he wanted a white shirt.”
Mary Beth Ruby testified that she was an executive assistant to Deputy Chief Kenneth Gregory and overheard him tell another commander that the Bible says homosexuality is “an abomination.”
“I was shocked that I was hearing something like that in the workplace in this day and age,” Ruby said on the stand on Wednesday.
Ruby, who is gay, then recalled how she put down her fiancée’s name and phone number as an emergency contact on a form for work; the form asked her to state the nature of her relationship. “After that, everything seemed to change,” she said.
She described how she was then given the workload of the three clerks who reported to her, was stripped of her supervisory role and was subjected to “harassment, humiliation and embarrassment almost daily.”
Assistant County Counselor Mike Hughes asked Ruby if she ever reported the mistreatment to the Bureau of Professional Standards. She shrugged and guffawed with exasperation, noting that Gregory reported directly to police Chief Jon Belmar and the chief was the only one who could “remedy the situation.”
“I would have faced more retaliation and worse treatment than I was receiving,” Ruby said. “That was something I wasn’t willing to do.”
Sgt. Jenifer Williams testified that she once challenged the selection of an inexperienced officer to her unit, which runs the youth sports program called the Police Athletic League. Soon thereafter, Capt. Juan Cox transferred her out of the unit. She said she got what’s known as a “geography lesson” — the same words Wildhaber used to describe his transfer from the Affton to Jennings precincts.
The police union filed a grievance. An arbitrator ruled she should be returned to her previous position.
When she told Lt. Col. Troy Doyle that she was concerned about the officer’s transfer, he told her “Jen, you know how this place is.”
Capt. Chris Stocker, who retired after 32 years on the force in 2016, said Wildhaber was one of his best sergeants in the Affton precinct.
Stocker said that he never heard any county police officers engage in any derogatory remarks about a person’s sexual orientation, that he had no reason to believe Belmar disliked Wildhaber and that he respected the chief.
But he also said that Wildhaber doesn’t lie or deceive.
At the end of the day, Wildhaber’s attorneys read from a November 2018 deposition of the police chief.
At one point in that deposition, Wildhaber attorney Russ Riggan asked Belmar if he had ever used any slang terms to refer to homosexuals.
“I’m sure I have, but I can’t recall,” Belmar said.
Riggan also asked Belmar if he was familiar with a special investigative team that busts people for having sex in parks, and if he had heard it referred to as “Snag a Fag.” Belmar said he had.
“Is it upsetting to you,” Riggan continued, “that Keith Wildhaber has filed charges of discrimination, or filed this lawsuit?”
Riggan: “Has Keith Wildhaber’s charges of discrimination or his lawsuit had any impact on his efforts to get promoted to a lieutenant’s position?”
Belmar: “I believe they now have.”
Wildhaber’s attorneys, after reading that last excerpt from the deposition on Wednesday, then rested their case.
County attorneys are expected to call witnesses on Thursday.