Last September, the Rio Rico Fire District hired Al Flores, a 21-year veteran of the department, as its new chief. A little more than three months later, he was put on leave during an emergency board meeting. On March 15, he was fired.
RRFD leadership has been mostly silent about the reason for Flores’ termination – which he appealed and later renegotiated as a retirement – saying only that a firefighter had filed a complaint against him and an investigation by an outside lawyer found he violated an unspecified district policy.
Now, documents obtained by the NI show that on Jan. 3, two days before the RRFD governing board put Flores on leave, a lawyer called the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office and alleged that the chief raped her client, a female RRFD firefighter.
A criminal investigation ensued and ultimately, no charges were filed against Flores, who denied the rape allegations but admitted to having a consensual affair with the firefighter. Both Flores and his accuser were married at the time of the alleged incidents.
The female RRFD firefighter told Sheriff’s Office detectives that Flores raped her four times, according to investigative reports obtained through a public records request. During an interview on Jan. 5, she said he kissed her when she was promoted to captain around July 1, 2016. She said the first rape occurred shortly after the kiss, and the last one occurred after Thanksgiving 2017. She did not give dates for the other two alleged assaults, but said they occurred at Stations No. 1 and 3.
During a follow-up interview about a month later, she told the detectives that the alleged rapes occurred between January 2017 and some time after Thanksgiving of that year. According to her updated timeline, the last two rapes occurred after Flores was appointed chief on Sept. 26, 2017.
Flores said the woman kissed him in February and June 2016 at locations away from the fire station, according to investigative reports that describe documents submitted to detectives by his lawyer. Flores said he had consensual sex with the firefighter four times, and the locations and situations of the incidents he described are similar to the woman’s narrative. However, while both provided similar dates of the last two encounters, Flores said the first two occurred in late 2016.
He also said that in December 2017, the woman sexually touched him in a RRFD office. According to Flores’ timeline, that incident, as well as the last time they had consensual sex, occurred while he was chief.
Flores also described the woman flirting with him in person and via phone messages. A detective with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department computer forensic unit reportedly discovered a thread of text messages between him and his accuser that appeared to depict consensual flirting.
In her interviews with detectives, the woman said she repeatedly asked Flores to stop flirting with her in person and through text messages. She said she deleted text messages from Flores at his request, but still had some messages after he continued to contact her. The investigative reports do not say if detectives turned her phone over to the forensic unit.
Flores’ accuser, whom the NI is not identifying because she alleges to be the victim of a sexual assault, was also initially put on paid leave, as is typical during internal investigations, said Elizabeth Tate, the woman’s lawyer.
Tate said the firefighter was eventually fired in May, and RRFD Chief Adam Amezaga, Flores’ successor, confirmed that she had been terminated. Tate said her client was fired for not reporting the allegations earlier; Amezaga said she was fired because she broke district policy.
Tate said the firefighter doesn’t plan to appeal the firing.
“It would be very unhealthy for her to go back in that environment,” she said. “There’s a culture of sexual harassment there at the fire district, and I think what happens is there’s a blame-the-victim mentality.”
Tate said her client is planning to sue Flores and RRFD, and said that a former male firefighter also plans to sue another employee and the district for sexual harassment. Amezaga said the district completed an investigation after a former male firefighter made a complaint, but found no wrongdoing by any employee.
Once the Sheriff’s Office completed its investigation into the allegations against Flores, the County Attorney’s Office decided not to file any criminal charges.
“After reviewing the evidence, we have concluded there are no criminal charges that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Liliana Ortega, deputy county attorney.
Flores’ lawyer, Matthew Davidson, offered a more assertive interpretation of the decision.
“There were no charges because there was absolutely, 100 percent, no criminal conduct. Period,” he said.
Davidson said the police investigation made it “readily apparent” that there were no facts to support the accusations against his client.
“In this current culture, people can make allegations which are not true and are false, and unfortunately, those accusations, you know, can initiate things,” he said. “At the end of the day, there was no criminal conduct, period, and Al made his own decision on dealing with employment by resigning, getting everything he was entitled to and moving forward.”
Davidson declined to discuss the reason why Flores was initially fired, or say if his client acknowledged that it was wrong to have had an affair with the firefighter.
District policy, quoted in the investigative reports, prohibits sexual harassment. It also discourages romantic relations between supervisors and non-supervisory employees, and co-workers who work together on a regular basis.
Tate, the firefighter’s lawyer, said she also wasn’t surprised by the decision not to press charges against Flores. But for different reasons.
In Arizona, she said, “I really feel there’s like an overboard effort to protect the alleged defendants as opposed to letting the charges be filed and then letting the evidence shake out in court.”
Tate said she also suspects that the male detectives who conducted the investigation were biased.
“A lot of these officers are male and it’s difficult to get them to press charges against other males that they may feel sympathetic to,” she said.
According to the investigative reports, prior to entering the interview at the Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 5, the female firefighter said she was “scared to be in here.” She said she knew the two male detectives who interviewed her, and knew that they knew Flores. She had initially reported the allegations in Phoenix, she said, and was scared to make the report in Santa Cruz County.
The County Attorney’s Office employs several women lawyers in addition to Ortega, including prosecutors Vanessa Cartwright and Kimberly Hunley, who have brought charges in difficult cases, such as those that relied on the word of child victims. But Tate said the sheriff’s detectives gave a lot of weight to Flores’ statements, and that the “skewed” investigation by the male investigators may explain why female prosecutors didn’t press charges.
Following RRFD’s own investigation into the complaint against Flores, district firefighters went through a sexual harassment training, Amezaga said.
“There’s been conversations with each shift on behaviors, attitudes, knowing your audience,” he said. “We want the employees to get along, we want the employees to have the freedom that they can be friends, but they all have to be respectful.”
Amezaga said in addition to going over what are appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, the training taught firefighters how to report harassment.
Employees are encouraged to speak to someone who is bothering them, he said, and if their behavior doesn’t change, to report it to higher-ups.
Amezaga said he doesn’t want people to be afraid to report allegations, but at the same time, “we don’t want to create also the environment where everybody’s accusing everybody of everything.”
It’s difficult to find that balance, he said.
“Right now, the environment at Rio Rico is everybody’s really cautious because of everything that happened,” he said.