How sexual misconduct scandal at Evanston city beaches emerged

In text messages to a manager, a former lifeguard described being assaulted by him while unconscious. More than 50 female current or former beach workers came forward last year with accusations of sexual abuse and harassment.

SHARE How sexual misconduct scandal at Evanston city beaches emerged
Lawyers from the firm Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter found that young, female lifeguards and other beach works in Evanston faced “pervasive” sexual misconduct at the hands of managers and that city officials badly mishandled their complaints.

Lighthouse Beach in Evanston. A former Evanston beach office employee is speaking up after helping to start a petition signed by more than 50 female current and former beach workers last year, in which they accused their superiors of pervasive sexual harassment, abuse and assault.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Soon after quitting her summer job as a lifeguard at Evanston’s public beaches, a teenage girl privately confronted one of her former managers about the “many f----- up things that happened” at work.

In an exchange of text messages in June 2020, the girl, then 17, told her much older manager “that the major concern with age for y’all is that you could get in trouble and not the fact that you’re taking advantage of kids.”

She also texted the manager that “sometimes it’s just kind of shady and other times it’s full on grooming kids. That’s not okay. like i genuinely hope you understand why that’s not okay because that s--- f---- people up for a long time.”

The former lifeguard said she faced a trauma of her own during her time with the city that included the manager having sex with her while she was unconscious.

The manager replied that he had not been aware that the girl felt she was violated but told her, “You were too young for me.” The manager later told the teenage girl he was “sorry for everything” and wanted to make up for it by helping change the sexist work environment on Evanston’s lakefront, according to text messages obtained by WBEZ.

By that point, the girl was among more than 50 female current and former beach workers who had signed a petition accusing their superiors of pervasive sexual harassment, abuse and assault.

Officials in the north suburb kept the petition out of public view for a year — until WBEZ reported last July on the graphic, widespread accusations. Since then, the mayor and Evanston city council members have issued a public apology to beach workers. The city has run up legal bills of more than $100,000 for its ongoing investigation into the matter.

Now, the female lifeguard who sent the text messages to her manager and another former beach worker who helped organize the petition drive have told WBEZ that they spoke up initially because they believed city officials mishandled earlier accusations, lodged in 2019 against another male supervisor at Evanston’s lakefront.

City records show Evanston parks and human resources officials fielded a complaint against that manager, who was in his 20s. Officials gave the manager a written warning, even though beach workers said the manager had met outside work with an underage girl and made advances toward other young female employees, according to public records and interviews.

Anna Fredrick — who worked for the city at a beach office and was one of four young female employees who organized the petition drive — told WBEZ she rejected that manager’s repeated advances and spoke with a high-ranking parks officials about that manager in 2019.

Fredrick and other women who worked for the city of Evanston at the beaches said they were surprised and dismayed to see the manager back at work at the lakefront at the start of the summer of 2020.

The Dempster Beach offices for Evanston beaches employees.

The Dempster Beach offices for Evanston beaches employees.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Fredrick said the dispute over how the city failed to discipline the manager prompted the petition drive.

“That was the tipping point,” she said. “The entire reason that this started was because of the complaints against [the manager] that resulted in ultimately nothing.”

Fredrick said she and other female Evanston beach employees realized, “This is ridiculous, and it can’t keep happening.”

In July 2020, Fredrick and the three other female employees drafted a statement demanding an official apology for “the blatant sexism, sexual harassment, assault, racism, and discrimination that occurs at the lakefront.” They also accused the city of “consistently placing underaged employees in oppressive, uncomfortable and dangerous situations and in close proximity with sexual predators.”

They left space for participants in the petition drive to share anonymous personal recollections. Within days, dozens of current and former lifeguards expanded the online petition to 11 single-spaced pages of disturbing anecdotes and demands for change.

“The response that we got was so, so overwhelming,” Fredrick said. “We would just kind of refresh the document every now and then, and there would be more and more stories.

“They were intense,” said Fredrick, who’s now a college senior. “The things that were being described were — some of them were worse than anything we had even imagined. And just the volume of them, just the sheer number of different stories, different incidents, was just so overwhelming.”

‘I don’t think it should be normal’

One of the most serious accusations came from the former lifeguard who engaged in the text exchange with her former manager in June 2020, a few weeks before the beach workers presented the petition to city officials.

Now 20, the woman provided copies of the text messages on the condition that she not be identified in this story because she was a victim of sexual violence.

The woman said she wrote the anonymous entry to the petition that began with her saying she had a “sexual relationship” with a superior who was in his 20s when she was a 17-year-old rookie lifeguard.

“Parts of it were consensual, but there were also instances where the supervisor took advantage of situations when I was highly intoxicated and unable to consent,” she wrote in the petition.

She also wrote that she signed the petition and shared her experiences because “sexual harassment and sexism are typical, almost expected behavior” among managers at Evanston’s public beaches, and officials needed to do something about it.

She wrote that she had not filed any complaints against the man she said assaulted her or against other co-workers she said acted inappropriately with her because she did not want to get anyone in “legal trouble.” She also said she “didn’t think that people would take me seriously” because the manager was highly regarded at work.

In interviews, the woman said she quit her lifeguard job shortly after starting in the summer of 2020. Seeing her attacker and the other manager who harassed teenage girls, she said, “I had a PTSD episode. I realized I can’t do this.”

The manager then sent her a text message asking why she left. She initially replied, “It’s not a good environment for me and it makes me uncomfortable.”

She also asked the manager why the other superior — the young man who was the subject of a 2019 investigation — had been allowed to return to work for the new beach season.

Her former manager replied, “The city concluded their investigation and said he was cleared to work. I’m not happy but I’m not supposed to talk about the investigation … I need this job to pay rent.”

He said precautions were being taken so that the other manager would not act inappropriately again.

“We make it so there’s always someone with him when he’s interacting with staff and have been letting people know if you see [something] say something,” the manager wrote.

But the teenage girl texted back that the workplace problems at Evanston’s lakefront were far more extensive than any one manager.

She wrote that “last summer was f----- up and the summer before that was also f----- up. I don’t think it should be normal for supervisors or managers to get away with f------ or hitting on or even making sexual comments about underage girls. it’s sexual harassment. im not trying to play victim here, i know that i initiated parts of what happened too. but im also not going to lie and say that i was okay with everything that happened both from you and from other supervisors.”

Evanston’s South Boulevard Beach.

Evanston’s South Boulevard Beach.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

‘Just so wrong’

The teenage former lifeguard also texted the manager about what she said was her own experience, while intoxicated, of being assaulted by him.

“There are so many f----- up things that happened that i don’t wanna think about but damn dude the culture of harassment isn’t even mentioning the fact that you f----- me while i was basically unconscious,” she texted him on June 16, 2020. “i don’t want an apology. i just hope you know that this and everything else is just so wrong.”

The manager replied, “I guess I thought the age gap didn’t matter since you were about to start college …I didn’t know you felt that way about me and I thought of it as just something that had ended but you’re right you were too young for me and I know my own drinking is not an excuse but for what it’s worth I’m sober now.”

Later that day, he texted her, writing: “I shouldn’t have sent you all that cuz like f--- me.”

The former lifeguard told him she wanted to be left alone. The manager promised, “I won’t text you again …This will be the last you hear from me.”

But later that summer, on Aug. 2, the manager contacted her, saying he was “working with the people who put together the petition” and presented it to city officials the previous month.

He told her he and other male lifeguards “want to change things but it would be hypocritical of me to try and change the culture without acknowledging my past behavior so I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything. I wish I could take it all back and I’ll do anything I can to make up for what I’ve done. I no longer care about protecting myself or my reputation….if I get fired it’ll be making it a better place since this is my last summer.”

Yet the man returned to work for Evanston at the beaches the following summer and resigned only after WBEZ reported on the accusations of widespread harassment and sexual violence. He did not return messages seeking comment.

The former lifeguard said what happened to her was part of a culture that has persisted for decades at Evanston’s beaches.

She cited a 2019 operations manual for the Evanston Lifeguard Service. The section on “Beach Hierarchy” states, “The chain of command is very important.” It instructs all lifeguards to direct questions to their managers at the beach where they work, and not to higher-level officials.

Nearly two years after she quit, the woman said she feared older managers would continue to mistreat girls and young women who work at the lakefront.

In addition to harassment and sexual violence, she said, the training sessions for Evanston lifeguards were rife with hazing.

“It’s a power thing,” she said of the managers at the beaches. “They rise through the ranks, and every summer a new batch of fresh girls come in.

“I want it not to be a thing that happens any more.”

‘You need to be mindful’

The former lifeguard and Fredrick, the petition co-organizer, said their frustrations boiled over after the 2019 investigation into another manager resulted in no disciplinary action.

Documents show the city manager’s office received an anonymous complaint about the male manager in August 2019 from an unidentified “Evanston summer beach employee” who said the superior “interacted with a couple young female beach employees and made them feel uncomfortable due to comments he had made and the attention he paid them.”

The city manager at that time, Wally Bobkiewicz, sent the complaint to the parks department, which investigated, according to city records, with six staff members interviewed by Ray Doerner, who was then Evanston’s recreation services manager.

In his notes, Doerner wrote that two employees said the beach manager made them “feel uncomfortable.” The names of the employees were deleted from the copies of the documents released in response to a public records request.

One of the two employees who felt uncomfortable said the beach manager “spent a lot of time talking to her” when she was a 16-year-old gate attendant, according to the records. Another employee said he invited her to his house “multiple times throughout the summer to hang out” and had also “made a comment about her clothes, specifically her shorts, that made her feel uncomfortable.”

And a third girl “confirmed that they did hang out outside of work, but nothing inappropriate happened,” records show. Fredrick and other former lifeguards said that girl was underage.

Doerner concluded that he would meet with the subject of the investigation “to review the city’s harassment policy and to discuss appropriate workplace interactions,” records show.

The parks department head, Lawrence Hemingway, asked Jennifer Lin, the city’s top human resources official, “if any additional action is needed.”

Lin wrote back, “I’m fine with this.”

Doerner met with the subject of the internal probe and documented their conversation in an email to the young man on Sept. 16, 2019. The manager told Doerner he knew there were rumors that he “hooked up” with a girl who worked at the beach, but he denied that, records show.

He was given a warning, and no disciplinary action was recorded in his personnel file.

Doerner later wrote to the young man, “You need to be mindful of how your request to spend time with staff outside of work could be perceived by that staff and others who work with them … Future behavior that violates our Workplace Harassment Policy could jeopardize your ability to work for the city in future seasons or could lead to disciplinary action, up to termination, if it were to occur. Thank you for coming to meet with me and I appreciate your honesty throughout this process.”

Fredrick and other former lifeguards told WBEZ they asked about the outcome of the investigation of the manager the following year because he returned to work for the 2020 beach season. They said Doerner told them to let him know if the subject of the investigation ever engaged in any inappropriate behavior.

The manager could not be reached for comment.

Bobkiewicz and Lin declined to comment. Doerner did not respond to messages. City records show Doerner resigned in September.

After the accusations made by female beach employees became public, Ray Doerner resigned his post as Evanston’s city recreation services manager in September, and Jennifer Lin, the city’s top human resources official, and City Manager Erika Storlie also have left in recent months. 

After the accusations made by female beach employees became public, Ray Doerner resigned his post as Evanston’s city recreation services manager in September, and Jennifer Lin, the city’s top human resources official, and City Manager Erika Storlie also have left in recent months.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

City Hall fallout

Doerner was far from the only official to quit since the accusations by the female beach employees became public. Lin and City Manager Erika Storlie also have left in recent months.

Storlie put Lin on paid administrative leave days after the first WBEZ story about the petition. In an email to city council members, Storlie said she disciplined Lin “based on the conclusion that the Petition was not shared with me or anyone else in the City Manager’s Office or the Law Department.”

But an email obtained by WBEZ shows another female former beach worker had written to then-Evanston Mayor Steve Hagerty and the city manager’s office on Aug. 10, 2020, asking about the petition.

“I am concerned at your lack of action surrounding the current petition that is in circulation,” the woman wrote. “The sheer number of women who will endure a life of mental health trauma because of their time working as a city employee is an abomination and an embarrassment.”

Two days later, Storlie replied to the woman, writing that officials were “very concerned about the information that was recently shared with us regarding conduct at the lakefront” and were investigating.

“I am unaware of the petition you are referring to,” Storlie wrote, “but I can assure you that we are taking this extremely seriously.”

Hagerty wrote to Storlie and Lin that day, saying he wanted “confirmation that any issues were addressed.”

Hagerty did not seek re-election last year. In a recent interview, he said he was cooperating fully with the law firm investigating the matter.

“I turned over a timeline of everything I had, including that email,” he said. “No one ever gave me a petition. I’ve never seen the petition.”

Asked why he had not sought the petition after it was mentioned in the email to him, Hagerty said, “You know how many emails we get that have a petition in it here in Evanston?”

The former mayor defended Storlie, saying he believes lower-ranking officials who got the petition had not shared it with her.

“I do not think that it was a lapse in judgment on the city manager’s part,” Hagerty said. “I think the question is, ‘Should they have elevated it [to Storlie’s attention], and why didn’t they?”

Lin left the city payroll Sept.10. She got 22 weeks’ pay and promised not to publicly disparage the city under a severance agreement signed by Storlie.

Storlie, who did not return messages, left the following month with 20 weeks’ pay under a severance agreement that included a promise to cooperate with the outside investigation into the beach workers’ abuse allegations. She recently was hired as village administrator for East Dundee.

Six-figure legal tab for taxpayers

Evanston officials hired the Salvatore Prescott Porter & Porter law firm to conduct the probe. Its founding partner is Julie Porter, a former federal prosecutor who also was Illinois’ legislative inspector general.

Through the end of 2021, the firm billed the city for a total of $103,083.50, at a rate of $295 an hour.

Evanston officials have declined to comment on the investigation until it is completed. A spokeswoman for the city said officials expect a report from the lawyers “in the near future.” The lawyer leading the probe declined to comment.

Fredrick said she spoke with investigators for three hours several months ago and that she appreciates these efforts and accepted the city’s apology but, “at that point, it was like, OK, yeah, too little too late. Honestly, it shouldn’t have taken that much.”

She said she and others held several frustrating meetings with city officials after presenting the petition.

“I did not think it was a lot to ask for to protect the teenage girls who are working at this beach,” Fredrick said. “I think it’s pretty basic. Everybody would agree that everybody has the right to go to work without being sexually harassed. You know, I never expected it to get this big, but, honestly, I’m glad that it has.”

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Dan Mihalopoulos reports for WBEZ.

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