Nevada Sheriff Continues Getting Elected Despite Allegations Of Sexual Assault
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Storey County in northern Nevada has made a name for itself as home to a major industrial park. It's drawn the likes of Tesla and Google. Recently, though, the county, home to about 4,000, has gained notoriety for a different reason. Its top law enforcement official, the sheriff, faces a growing list of serious allegations against him, including rape. His accusers are asking what it will take to unseat him.
From Nevada, NPR's Leila Fadel has our story. And a caution to listeners - her reporting includes details of sexual assault.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: On most days, Melanie Keener is hidden away in a cubicle in the backroom museum of the Virginia City courthouse. It's a far cry from the job she held as the sheriff's chief deputy. That's what happens, she says, when you cross her former boss, Sheriff Gerald Antinoro. She's suing him for sexual harassment.
According to her lawsuit, on the last night of a law enforcement convention in Ely, Nev., in 2015, she and her boss went to their rooms. Later...
MELANIE KEENER: He sent me some very inappropriate text messages.
FADEL: She says the texts appeared to be referring to oral sex. Then, on the about five-hour ride home with her boss...
KEENER: There was just a - this long narrative of his sexual life and to the point where I didn't know what to say. This is my boss, and I was terrified that I would lose my job.
FADEL: Over the next eight months, she says, the sheriff grew more hostile toward her. While he was away at a convention she said she couldn't go to, she found the courage to report him to the county. It opened an investigation, but she says it felt like she was being punished.
KEENER: You know I didn't come forward because I was afraid of losing my job. And then I finally came forward, and it was just - it was like the county had no idea what to do.
FADEL: While the sheriff kept his position, HR took her badge, her keys, her gun and reassigned her. She went from being the second-most-powerful person in the sheriff's office to inspecting fire extinguishers and making security maps in a hidden corner of the courthouse - this, even after an internal investigation found that the sheriff violated the sexual harassment policy.
KEENER: You know they call him Teflon because it doesn't matter what he does wrong, he gets away with it.
FADEL: Police reports, court proceedings, ethics commission hearings, interviews with lawyers and Antinoro's accusers show a whole range of allegations against him from rape, misusing government resources, to using racial slurs.
LAURIE: Sheriff's office. This is Laurie (ph).
FADEL: Antinoro was first elected to the sheriff's office in Virginia City, a former gold-mining town, in 2010. He denies the allegations.
GERALD ANTINORO: The people of county haven't bought into their nonsense, and they keep returning me to office because obviously somebody thinks I'm doing a good job and that I'm a decent guy.
FADEL: That's Antinoro. He says every accusation is political because, he says, some people don't like him enforcing the law. Before his arrival in Storey County as a deputy in 2006, he bounced between different law enforcement jobs in Utah and Nevada.
2006 was the same year he allegedly sexually assaulted a woman with another sheriff's office employee, according to a police report filed by the alleged victim.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I was home sleeping, and I was awakened by the sound of a police radio.
FADEL: The woman met with me at a cafe near Storey County. She asked that we not use her name because she's afraid and ashamed of what happened. She says another sheriff's office employee she knew brought Antinoro to her home. She later told police Antinoro raped her at the direction of the other man.
To cope, she started drinking. Because of the drinking, she says she lost her job and custody of her daughter.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Just trying to get all the memories to go away - you know, beating myself up because I shouldn't have let it happen.
FADEL: She's sober now, but it took years for her to get her life together. And in 2014, she says she gathered the courage to report the alleged assault to the police in Sparks, Nev. Even then, she did it under a pseudonym. But the statute of limitations had run out. Every day, she drives through Storey County to get to work.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And every time I see a Storey County car, I freeze. I feel my blood pressure rising, my pulse racing. I feel sweaty because I think, what if it's one of them?
FADEL: Through the Melanie Keener lawsuit, another assault allegation surfaced against Sheriff Antinoro. A woman testified a romantic getaway with the sheriff turned into a gang rape in Lodi, Calif., in 2015. In her deposition, the alleged victim says that Antinoro invited three strangers to the hotel to rape her. She says she never reported the assault because she's, quote, "scared to death."
The Nevada attorney general's office spokesperson says her statements were referred to police in Lodi, Calif. A Lodi police spokesperson says they opened an investigation in 2018. They since closed it but won't discuss why to protect the privacy of any potential victim.
I asked Sheriff Antinoro about the accusations, and he dismisses each one. He points out he's never been prosecuted. The rape in Sparks, Nev...
ANTINORO: It was false then. It's false now. No truth to it whatsoever.
FADEL: The orchestrated gang rape...
ANTINORO: That is a complete and utter fabrication.
FADEL: The conversation about a sex life with his former chief deputy, Melanie Keener, in the car. He says if it bothered her, she should have said something. As far as the text messages...
ANTINORO: There was no sexual innuendo - never had any interest in her in that manner. It makes me not want to talk to anybody because you can take anything and turn it into sexual connotation.
FADEL: Everything is either a fabrication or, in the case of things like harassment and racism, people being overly politically correct. He acknowledges he's called white people the N-word but he doesn't see that as racist. So why would so many people make up stories?
ANTINORO: It's a concerted effort by a small group of people to try and remove me from office, plain and simple.
FADEL: And what would be the reason behind removing you from office?
ANTINORO: I enforce the rules. I follow the law. I don't give people breaks.
LANCE GILMAN: Great story to tell - not true.
FADEL: That's Lance Gilman, a real estate developer and one of the people responsible for bringing Tesla and other tech giants to Storey County. He's also the local brothel owner of the Mustang Ranch and a county commissioner. Everyone in town knows about the feud between the local sheriff and the local brothel owner.
The sheriff says Gilman is conspiring against him because he doesn't rubberstamp permits at the brothel. Gilman says that's a lie. He's suing for defamation. Gilman helped lead a failed recall effort in 2017.
GILMAN: We've used every avenue we know of to say look at this.
FADEL: Melanie Keener's lawyer wrote to the Nevada attorney general's office demanding an investigation into all the allegations against the sheriff. A statement from the attorney general's office said after hundreds of hours of investigating, the office found, quote, "no criminal conduct within its office's jurisdiction." That lawyer also represents Gilman.
So Gilman says now he's pinning his hopes on the state's ethics commission. It looks at things like the misuse of government resources and must seek Antinoro's removal from office through the courts if he's found to have willfully violated the ethics of his office three times.
Meanwhile, the woman suing Antinoro for sexual harassment, Melanie Keener, says this isn't about politics. It's about keeping the highest law enforcement authority in Storey County accountable.
KEENER: To see it, you know, as politics, I just think that that takes away from those that have been victimized by him.
FADEL: Sheriff Antinoro was elected for the third time last year.
Leila Fadel, NPR News, Virginia City.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHAD LAWSON TRIO'S "FAIR SKY IN WICHITA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.