News - July 8, 2009

Jury: Atherton public works supervisor not guilty of assault

by Andrea Gemmet

A jury on July 2 returned verdicts of "not guilty" on misdemeanor counts of assault and battery against Atherton public works supervisor Troy Henderson.

Mr. Henderson, a 33-year employee of the town, was accused of lunging at and grabbing Atherton police officer Pilar Ortiz-Buckley in an incident caught on the police station's surveillance video.

Mr. Henderson's attorney, Jaime Harley, said her client suffered a lot during the trial. "I was relieved and happy, and so was he," she told The Almanac about Mr. Henderson's reaction to the not-guilty verdict. "He cried a lot today."

Mr. Henderson is planning to retire soon, she said.

"His reputation was riding on it more than anything else, and I think his career probably hinged on an acquittal," Ms. Harley said. "He thought he would lose his job if he was convicted."

Prosecutor Sharon Lee of the San Mateo County District Attorney's Offfice described Ms. Ortiz-Buckley as the unwitting victim of a man who engaged in habitual sexual harassment of his female coworkers in closing arguments July 1.

Ms. Harley had a very different take on the assault and battery charges against her client: Ms. Ortiz-Buckley set up Mr. Henderson with an eye towards cashing in later.

"We're disappointed. We felt he did commit these offenses and we wish the jury saw it the way we did," Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe told The Almanac.

The pattern of alleged sexual harassment described by Ms. Ortiz-Buckley and two other female town employees may have been acceptable 30 or 40 years ago, but not anymore, Mr. Wagstaffe said.

"I hope the defendant did not get the message, 'What I've been doing is OK.' It is unacceptable in today's world," Mr. Wagstaffe said. "Women should not be subject to lewd language, improper touching and improper behavior — but that's not what he was on trial for."

Jury deliberations began the afternoon of July 1 in San Mateo County Superior Court in Redwood City. The verdict was returned around 11 a.m. the following morning.

The assault and battery charges stem from a June 3, 2008, incident, when then-Officer Ortiz-Buckley was sitting in the police station staff room and Mr. Henderson lunged at her and grabbed her, according to Mr. Wagstaffe. Ms. Ortiz-Buckley has since retired as an officer,

Ms. Ortiz-Buckley was lambasted as a lying opportunist who is interested only in money by defense attorney Harley in her closing argument.

Ms. Harley speculated that Ms. Ortiz-Buckley lured Mr. Henderson into the staff room with the express purpose of creating a video that she could later use in an attempt to wring money out of the town. There is no audio, so there's no telling what was being said, Ms. Harley said. "She could have been saying, 'Come here, big boy,'" Ms. Harley said.

Because Mr. Henderson had previous complaints about sexual harassment made against him, she knew that he would be a vulnerable target, Ms. Harley said

"Everything is about money, every lie she told," Ms. Harley told the jury. "She's thinking about the big payday at the end."

Mr. Henderson, 58, is old, in ill-health and confused by the strange incident, his attorney said.

"I hope you gave your eyes a good rub, because you just had sand thrown in them," said Deputy District Attorney Lee. "This defense is trying to re-victimize this victim at every opportunity.

Ms. Lee said Mr. Henderson lied repeatedly on the witness stand, and stared intently at his attorney as he tried to come up with the right responses when he was being cross-examined. She pointed out that Mr. Henderson testified that he was "shocked" by Ms. Ortiz-Buckley's behavior and wanted to forget it, and he also testified that he couldn't really remember the incident.

Ms. Lee also questioned how Ms. Ortiz-Buckley could have possibly manipulated Mr. Henderson as the defense alleged.

"Where are the puppet strings that made him lunge into her and grab her?" Ms. Lee asked the jury rhetorically.

"To say she's doing this as a diabolical plan to get big money? That is absurd," she said.

Ms. Lee also brought up the 16 sexual-harassment complaints filed against Mr. Henderson by Atherton town staff members.

Atherton Sgt. Kristin Nichols and former town employee Lois English testified June 30 to numerous alleged incidents of sexual harassment by Mr. Henderson.

Ms. English said she filed many complaints about the almost daily pattern of sexual comments from Mr. Henderson during the 16 years she worked for the town.

"His demeanor suggested he meant it (the comments) as sexual," she testified. "He would stick out his tongue and flick it in a sexual way."

She said Mr. Henderson once came up behind her and put his hands down her shirt, into the top of her bra. The behavior stopped only after she cut him off and refused to talk to him, she said.

Sgt. Nichols testified she was standing in front of the police station in 2002 when Mr. Henderson pulled up. "He said he wanted to shake me up and show me how to feel good. He told me he'd be keeping his eye on me," Sgt. Nichols testified Tuesday. She filed a formal complaint about the incident.

Now-retired officer Ortiz-Buckley testified Monday that she "was standing up to a bully" when she shoved Mr. Henderson away during the videotaped incident. She didn't immediately report it or ask for help because she didn't want to appear weak, she said.

She testified that she had always ignored sexual comments Mr. Henderson directed at her because she considered him a friend, but on that day, his demeanor and posture were different. She said she was shocked by the incident, and that Mr. Henderson threatened her after she warned him not to take her on.

Mr. Henderson testified on Tuesday that he didn't even remember the incident until he was later questioned about it and shown the surveillance camera footage. He never touched her and only stepped close to her, not because he was threatening her but because her voice had dropped and he couldn't hear her, he said.

Mr. Henderson testified that he never made any sexual comments toward Ms. Ortiz-Buckley, and wasn't seeking a relationship with her. "That's disrespectful to say to anyone," he said. He said he might talk about sex with his male co-workers but not the female ones. "I would never do anything to hurt Ms. Ortiz or disrespect her," he testified.

Ms. Ortiz-Buckley's ex-husband John Buckley was called to the stand as a character witness. He said Ms. Ortiz-Buckley had lied on many occasions, and he claimed that she frequently worked her side job of conducting background checks while on-duty as a police officer. He conceded that the divorce was not amicable and that there had been a custody dispute over their young son.

His testimony was countered by former Atherton police chief Bob Brennan, who was asked his opinion of Ms. Ortiz-Buckley's honesty. "I have the opinion that she is an honest and truthful person," he testified. Sgt. Nichols also testified to Ms. Ortiz-Buckley's honesty.

Mr. Henderson and the town of Atherton are named in a civil lawsuit Ms. Ortiz-Buckley filed this spring, alleging ongoing sexual harassment by Mr. Henderson. In her April 22 complaint, Ms. Ortiz-Buckley said that once she reported the incident, she faced retaliation and disability discrimination related to an injury she suffered in the incident, as well as a prior back injury she suffered during a 2007 training exercise.


Posted by ryan, a resident of Atherton: Lloyden Park
on Jul 9, 2009 at 7:42 am

Henderson has been cleared.

A jury of his peers decided that he is innocent. There are others in Town who are not so innocent and who will soon be held to account for their actions.

Posted by amused, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jul 9, 2009 at 8:14 am

Oh Ryan, Nobody is ever held accountable for anything in this very troubled and disfunctional town. Never have been, never will be!

Posted by Problem, a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jul 10, 2009 at 10:38 am

Here's the problem with police allegations. Whereas residents may have real knowledge of certain issues, such as the one Double Standard posted, obtaining proof equivalent to absolute certitude is difficult if not impossible now in California since police unions have effectively bullied the legislature into creating an environment in which police records are completely confidential. The cities of Berkeley and San Francisco were forced to stop holding public hearings on police complaints.

I am as supportive of police as the next guy, but this troubles me, particularly in a very small town such as Atherton. The backlash that could come about through proper reporting and public outrage has always provided a very effective check and balance against the abuse of discretion of government officials. Now, a police officer can do something truly wrong, and as long as the public doesn't already know (e.g., or I should say "i.e.", the public presence of a video tape such as Oakland BART or Clark Yee) the police chief can sweep it under the rug and no one can find out about it or question the decision.

That's an incredible amount of power when you think about it. The President of the United States has nothing even close to that ability to operate with impunity.

Based on all of this, the Almanac should realize a somewhat different approach might be appropriate for police situations. I would hope they would agree that the police stating you can't publish any allegation that cannot be proven, but we also aren't going to let you prove it, just doesn't fly.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.