Four months after a Rio Rico Fire District employee was granted an injunction against harassment by the fire chief, Justice of the Peace Emilio Velasquez is deciding whether to keep the order in place, or accept the chief’s request to throw it out.
A female RRFD employee sought the injunction against Chief Adam Amezaga last spring, listing six incidences during the course of a year in which she felt harassed by him sexually or otherwise, as well as two times other people warned her about him and one incident in February in which Amezaga allegedly approached her from behind and grabbed her arm.
She filed a complaint with police following the alleged arm-grabbing, but the County Attorney’s Office did not pursue criminal charges. However, Judge Pro-Tem Denneen Peterson granted the injunction against harassment on April 26, requiring Amezaga to stay at least 20 feet away from his accuser.
Amezaga contested the injunction in court on Monday, alleging that most of the accusations were untrue and saying the requirement that he keep his distance from the woman created “awkwardness” at their workplace.
“At my work, I need to be able to do my job,” Amezaga told Velasquez after he took the stand, adding that it was difficult to obey the order while the two still work together and his duties involve overseeing the different departments at the district.
But the woman’s lawyer, Roberto Montiel, insisted that the alleged victim is simply seeking protection from her “bully.”
During her testimony on Monday, the woman said she asked for the injunction against harassment because “it’s physical now. He doesn’t know his boundaries,” and that scared her.
In addition to the arm-grabbing, the incidents listed in her petition for an injunction include an allegation that Amezaga once asked her “why I was single and further stated he would date me.” Another time, she wrote, he “forcefully hugged me and moaned.”
Amezaga denied giving the woman a “romantic hug,” but acknowledged in court that he frequently gave her “bro hugs” when greeting her. He said she was the only woman that he “bro-hugged” at the district because he thought it was consensual.
The woman also wrote that Amezaga allegedly invited her to download and participate in the Live Me social media app, which he was live-streaming at the time. She wrote that she “could hear a female asking how her (breasts) look. Another female voice came on and started talking about dildos.”
She reportedly identified a colleague who was a witness to that incident. However, that RRFD employee testified to the judge on Monday that he had “no recollection of anything like that ever happening.” He also testified that he is “close friends” with Amezaga.
Montiel tried to introduce evidence showing that Live Me is widely known as a pornography site, but Velasquez ruled against it after defense attorney Louis Fidel argued that it wasn’t relevant to the actual allegations.
In her petition for the order of protection, the alleged victim also reported that another RRFD colleague had warned her that “if you’re good-looking, chief hugs women to feel their breast(s).”
The firefighter who reportedly gave her the warning denied it in court. But later, after a moment of hesitation and a few glances at Amezaga, he admitted that it would be difficult to testify against his boss.
Fidel dismissed the implication that the firefighter was obligated to testify, arguing that Amezaga doesn’t have the power to directly fire an employee, as there are procedures and a governing board that also play a role in those decisions.
While Fidel insisted that the allegations weren’t supported by real evidence and the injunction prevented Amezaga from fulfilling his job, Montiel asserted that the alleged victim only pursued legal protection because she felt there weren’t policies or measures in place at RRFD to ensure her safety in the workplace.
RRFD governing board chair Mike Vohland said there have always been policies that protect employees, but added that the board didn’t feel there had been any harassment in this case.
“The board completely, 100 percent, supports the fire chief. The board feels that this was pushed to a level that we feel was very unfortunate,” Vohland told the NI on Tuesday.
The criminal complaint the woman filed with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office in March alleged that Amezaga “grabbed her arm and pulled her down the hallway to speak to her about a budget.” The Sheriff’s Office investigated the complaint, Sgt. Santiago Gonzales previously told the NI, but county prosecutors did not file charges.
The RRFD governing board also conducted an independent investigation, and at a meeting in May, voted unanimously to submit a written reprimand in Amezaga’s personnel file, as well as require him to complete special management training.
However, the written reprimand was later downgraded to a verbal admonition.
“It was brought to our attention that under the Rio Rico Fire Department disciplinary policy, he was due a verbal reprimand before a written reprimand, so we followed our board policy,” Vohland said on Tuesday.
He added that the training requirement was still in place, but was unable to confirm if Amezaga was already taking part in it.
“It’s not necessarily for the reprimand, although it did somewhat tie into it,” Vohland said of the training, adding: “It’s very difficult to go from the suppression side of the fire services to the management side, so we’re giving him extensive management training so that he understands where the boundaries are.”
Chris Cruz, president of the union that represents RRFD firefighters, was present at the court hearing on Monday. Speaking afterward, he said the union has been supporting the alleged victim throughout the case. But he declined to say how the firefighters would like the governing board to address the situation.
As for Vohland, the board chair, he said: “The board feels that it would be best for everybody to be able to put this to rest. The chief’s learned his lesson.”
Amezaga, who has been with the district for more than 25 years, took over as interim RRFD chief in early 2018 after former chief Al Flores was put on leave, then fired and then allowed to resign after he was accused of sexually assaulting a female firefighter. Flores, who said he had a consensual relationship with his accuser, was never criminally charged. His accuser was fired and later filed a federal lawsuit against RRFD that is currently pending.
The woman who accused Flores also alleged that Amezaga sexually harassed her 10 years prior. Amezaga told detectives investigating the Flores case that when he was a captain, he was demoted for six months after he saw the firefighter crying and gave her a hug.