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Woman says she was assaulted in workplace

An image from a security camera at Safeway shows a person of interest in an assault case. The victim said the man in red grabbed her in the back room. - Photo courtesy of Oak Harbor Police
An image from a security camera at Safeway shows a person of interest in an assault case. The victim said the man in red grabbed her in the back room.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Oak Harbor Police

She still shakes uncontrollably when talking about it.

A 51-year-old North Whidbey woman said it was absolutely terrifying when a customer assaulted her while she was working in the back room of the Oak Harbor Safeway March 30.

What made it worse, she said, is how she was treated afterward by her employer and police.

She said she feels re-victimized.

“Nobody has done anything,” she repeatedly said during an interview with the Whidbey News-Times Thursday.

Part of the problem might be a breakdown in communication, said Police Chief Ed Green, adding police were investigating the case from day one.

In fact, he said Friday morning, police may have a suspect identified.

“Law-and-justice investigations can frustrate folks,” he said. “I understand that. They don’t always move as fast as people think they should.”

 

THE LONGTIME resident asked that her name not be published in the newspaper because she fears her assailant might try to harm her. But she said she decided to tell her story because she wants the public’s help in identifying the man

“I want to go back to work,” she said, “but I can’t. I won’t feel safe until they find him.”

The woman explained that she was in the back room of the grocery store when a tall man wearing a red shirt entered through the doors. He said he needed to use the restroom, so she walked him down the “tunnel” to the bathrooms.

She walked away and went back to work.

Suddenly, she said, the man grabbed her from behind in what she characterized as a “chokehold.”

The man told her to kiss him. She said “no” and tried to pulled away. The man squeezed her harder and tried to kiss her. He squeezed tight enough, she said, to painfully press a plastic tag into the back of her neck.

He asked, “Don’t you want to kiss me?” She said “no.”

Then as suddenly as he attacked, she said the man was gone.

 

THE WOMAN explained that store employees are trained not to “make a scene” but to tell a manager if a customer does something inappropriate. She searched the store until she found two assistant managers.

She told them what happened.

The male manager, she said, told her “he didn’t want anyone that drunk shopping in his store,” according to the woman.

“They laughed it off,” she said. “They didn’t do anything.”

The woman said she was in shock and near the end of her shift, so she went back to work and then home. When she returned to work the next day, she was overcome with fear.

She said she again talked to one of the assistant managers, who apologized after realizing the seriousness of the incident.

They called the police.

 

THE WOMAN said an officer responded, took her statement and retrieved store surveillance video which shows the suspect.

The video shows the man in the store with an unknown woman, going in the back room and then coming out again. He continued shopping with the woman.

The victim said the officer told her he would refer the case to a detective, who would contact her.

The woman said she waited, but heard nothing. She finally called Detective Sgt. Teri Gardner.

She claims Gardner told her she got the report from the officer, but that it didn’t indicate the woman wanted to press charges.

Gardner said she gave it back to the officer to handle.

 

THE ALLEGED victim said she called the officer; she claims he was rude, saying that it should have been obvious to Gardner that she wanted to press charges.

During an interview this week, Gardner said the department sent still images of the suspect from the surveillance tape to all law enforcement offices on the island, including Naval Criminal Investigative Services. No one was able to identify the man.

Gardner said she didn’t assign the case to a detective because they are busy with felony-level crimes. She said the Safeway assault appeared to be a misdemeanor fourth-degree assault, based on the police report.

Gardner said the report she received didn’t say anything about a “chokehold” or “stranglehold.” She didn’t know if the victim, who was extremely upset and has trouble talking about the incident, neglected to tell the entire story or if the officer neglected to write it down.

 

THE NEWS-TIMES inquired with police about the incident in April, but never received any information.

The newspaper again inquired about the case this past Thursday. Within hours, the police department put up images of the suspect on the department’s Facebook page with a short narrative asking the public for help in identifying the man. Images were also sent to the News-Times.

Green said he couldn’t explain why the images weren’t released earlier. He said he’ll look into whether the officer was rude to the victim.

 

IN ADDITION to a slow response from law enforcement, the woman said she isn’t happy with the way Safeway managers responded to the incident.

She said she became so upset after the incident that she could no longer go near Safeway without shaking uncontrollably and crying. She contacted state Labor and Industries, but reportedly Safeway hadn’t done the necessary “incident report.”

A manager told her they didn’t view the assault as an “incident,” she said.

The woman said she asked managers to display images of the suspect in a break room so employees would know what happened and whom to watch for.

They allegedly refused.

An assistant manager at the Safeway manager said she was unable to comment on the incident.

 

SINCE THE assault, the employee said she is a nervous wreck, sees a counselor and is on anti-anxiety medication.

She said she never realized she was so fragile.

“This is not who I am,” she said. “I just want my life back.”

The woman said the incident is especially upsetting because it appears similar to an assault Jan. 2 at a nearby tanning salon. In that case, a man armed with a handgun entered the business after hours and he severely beat and attempted to rape a female employee.

The woman from the tanning salon said she spoke to a detective later that day. He told her the Safeway suspect clearly didn’t match the description of her attacker, so he didn’t want to upset her by asking her to look at it.

The tanning salon worker said the police did an amazing job investigating her case, treating her with respect and keeping her constantly apprised of the investigation.

No suspect in that case has been identified.

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