Pair wins $1M in voyeurism suit against Bellingham lifeguard

The man admitted to videotaping female coworkers while they used a staff changing area.

  • Denver Pratt The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.)
  • Thursday, August 16, 2018 9:59am
  • Northwest

By Denver Pratt / The Bellingham Herald

A woman and her husband were awarded $1 million in damages Tuesday in Whatcom County Superior Court after they sued a former longtime city of Bellingham employee and Special Olympics coach who admitted to videotaping the woman and her female coworkers in 2015 while they used a staff changing area at the Arne Hanna Aquatic Center.

The woman said the video voyeurism has caused her mental anguish, altered her and her husband’s marriage and lifestyle, and diminished her long-standing love for swimming due to the emotional pain and anxiety she feels when changing into a swimsuit.

“It was a shock. I wasn’t sure how to feel. I had a lot of emotions going through my head, super angry, I felt guilty for a weird reason, just very confused because that seemed like a big shock, and unlike him. I felt like I was sexually assaulted but it felt like I didn’t have physical evidence to say I was, it was very confusing,” the woman said. “I try not to think about how he reacted to what he saw. It’s not easy to get the images out of your head, it’s just mental torture.”

The Bellingham Herald does not typically identify victims of sexual assault or harassment.

Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis awarded $750,000 to the woman and $250,000 to her husband, saying she thought the couple’s attorney, Steve Chance, was on the low end when asking for a monetary award. Chance had asked for no less than $450,000 for the woman and no less than $150,000 for her husband.

The couple’s “case is a bit unique in that they didn’t suffer physical injuries like in a car crash, but I would suggest to you that it does not diminish the harm they’ve been caused here. (The woman) has been stripped of her dignity, her confidence, her innocence, her privacy and her peace of mind. She will always be a victim of the defendant’s perverse sexual deviancy,” Chance said to the judge. “What you decide today as fair compensation for them, you’ll be speaking for the conscious of the community.”

The woman and her husband sued the city of Bellingham and David Alan Frick in April 2017, after she learned she was one of the women who was recorded. The lawsuit alleged that beginning in mid-2015, Frick, 55, of Lynden began recording the woman and other aquatic center employees while they used the bathroom and staff locker room to change, according to court records.

The lawsuit stated Frick’s alleged actions violated the woman’s privacy, created a hostile work environment, constitute sexual harassment and caused intentional and negligent emotional distress, ultimately causing her to be unable to perform her job duties for some time.

Frick did not show up for the bench trial Tuesday. He also hasn’t participated in any of the case proceedings, except for filing two handwritten notes asserting his Fifth Amendment rights to not self-incriminate, according to court records. Frick faces another civil lawsuit and is awaiting trial for criminal charges.

A violation of privacy

The woman told the court Tuesday that on one occasion she put her makeup bag in the locker Frick commonly used before heading out to the pool to work as a lifeguard. When she came back in, her things were on top of the locker and it was locked with Frick’s things inside. She said she thought it was weird, but that he was just protective of his stuff.

The woman said she later realized that some of Frick’s actions, which seemed normal at the time, were deliberately taken so he could allegedly position the camera and film his female coworkers.

She said she felt objectified during the investigation when she was asked to lift her shirt to reveal her tattoo, or if she often wore a Fitbit and a ring, so she could be identified as one of the women in the videos.

The woman said she speaks to a counselor and has learned coping skills, but said she sometimes feels like she’s being watched, avoids unnecessary social interactions, acts cautiously in private places, and had difficulty changing into a swimsuit or shorts because she feels exposed. She said she’s had panic attacks and that it’s distressing to have her day interrupted with intrusive thoughts.

“I feel like I’m tainted and like I’m the only one who feels this way. I’m detached and estranged, and I’m ashamed to have these thoughts and I’m embarrassed on how this has affected me. It’s hard to talk about. It feels like a physical assault on my privacy and dignity,” the woman said. “I feel like my privacy has been violated as a woman.”

Her husband, whose hobby is photography and videography, said he’s become hyper-vigilant of where his cameras are pointed due to the stress it causes his wife. He said they also took down old camera decorations throughout their house.

“She’s a different person because of it. It’s affected everything with us,” he said.

Montoya-Lewis told the woman she was extraordinarily brave for sharing her story in court and told her that no one has a right to tell her how long it may take to recover. Montoya-Lewis said the responsibility lies with Frick, and the woman shouldn’t feel guilty because she went to work.

“You described this as being a very confusing experience, that you experienced it as being a sexual assault but it was confusing because he didn’t physically touch you. I don’t think it matters particularly whether he physically touched you or used a video camera,” Montoya-Lewis said. “Either way, it’s a violation of your privacy, of your choice and of your right to your own bodily autonomy, and there are few things as central to who we are as humans than that.”

Montoya-Lewis said she was moved by the husband’s expressions while listening to his wife testify, and said she understood the events had changed their marriage. She said she hopes the woman can return to her life someday and wished them both healing.

“Your description of being able to manage the triggers but not be able to necessarily predict when they happen sort of sounds like you walk around the world not really knowing when a jack-in-the-box is going to jump out at you, and that is not a comfortable way to be in the world. That’s terrifying,” Montoya-Lewis said. “You are a survivor of sexual assault, don’t let anybody tell you different.”

The court dismissed the woman’s claims against the city on March 9, saying the city can’t be held liable for the intentional criminal actions of its employee because the criminal acts were not for the employer’s benefit and were outside the scope of employment. Chance, the couple’s attorney, said he intends to appeal the court’s decision.

Other court cases

Five other women filed a civil lawsuit July 11 against the city and Frick seeking damages. The city filed a response saying Frick admitted to recording the women, but denied he was acting within the scope of his employment or that the city could be held liable for his actions, according to court records. The last thing filed in the case is Frick’s handwritten note from Aug. 2 saying he denies all claims and asserts his Fifth Amendment rights, records show.

Frick began working for the aquatic center part-time in 1996 and became a full-time employee in 2007. He had worked as an aquatic instructor and lead lifeguard, according to court records. He resigned shortly after his arrest in August 2016.

In July 2016, Bellingham police received a tip about child pornography being uploaded to a website. After determining the IP address associated with the uploaded photo, detectives found the user had posted in various chat rooms associated with child pornography and incest, according to court records.

The IP address was tracked to Frick’s address in Lynden, the records state. In early August, detectives served a search warrant on Frick’s address and seized several electronic devices belonging to him that held hundreds of photos and videos of minors engaged in sexually explicit acts, records show.

At the time of the search warrant, Frick agreed to a police interview and admitted to possessing child pornography for a number of years, and stated he believed he had a problem, court records state. During the interview, Frick also admitted that over the past year he had set up his cellphone in the staff locker room at the Arne Hanna Aquatic Center with the intention of filming his coworkers while they were changing, according to court records.

Frick was arrested and charged with one count of possession of depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct, one count of first-degree dealing in depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct and four counts of voyeurism.

Frick is currently out of jail on $20,000 bail. His jury trial is tentatively scheduled for 9 a.m. on Aug. 27.

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