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New filing in Wilmington crime lab lawsuit alleges culture of gender bias at WPD

The Wilmington Crime Lab, located in the police headquarters but now operated by the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office.

The new allegations include a range of issues, from poorly handled HR complaints to disparaging comments about women working in forensics to significant pay discrepancies, including a plaintiff paid $30,000 less than the market rate to avoid ‘emasculating’ high-ranking male officers in the department.

The latest filing in a lawsuit filed by the former director of Wilmington’s troubled (and now defunct) crime lab accuses top brass, including the current chief of police, of harboring “long-simmering gender-based malice” against her than embodied a toxic “negative attitude toward women” in and beyond the Wilmington Police Department.

These allegations follow on the heels of an initial complaint filed in May, which claimed that top officials were told about street heroin missing from the Wilmington crime lab, but kept quiet about it as part of a deliberate effort to downplay the issue and reduce the number of criminal cases that would have to be dismissed or reviewed.

That complaint alleged that, following the firing of crime lab chemist William Peltzer, then lab director Bethany Pridgen MacGillivray, who goes by Bethany Pridgen, was called to testify — and answered candidly about missing drugs and other concerns about Peltzer. Pridgen claimed that following that testimony, top officials with the Wilmington Police Department, District Attorney’s Office, and U.S. Attorney’s Office castigated her, fearing that her testimony would endanger hundreds of criminal cases — compared to the limited number they hoped to see dismissed.

According to Pridgen’s lawsuit, those officials then turned against her, leading to her effective termination when the crime lab was transferred from the Wilmington Police Department to the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office. While Pridgen’s direct reports were hired by NHCSO, she was not — despite public comments to the contrary from Sheriff Ed McMahon.

As with the original complaint, Pridgen alleges that the reason for transferring the crime lab to NHCSO was to ‘get rid of her.’ The latest complaint further disputes the “official reason” for the transfer – “a lack of funding and staffing” – noting that the city had approved a lease on a “specialized forensic testing machine.”

Related: Lawsuit claims authorities downplayed Wilmington crime lab issues, kept quiet about missing drugs

In fact, the city approved the five-year lease of the Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer in December 2018, just four months before the transfer was publicly announced — implying, at least for Pridgen’s case, that the city had not planned on surrendering the lab. Pridgen also claims she met with then-Deputy Chief Alex Sotelo to discuss “laboratory expansion plans under a multi-year strategic plan.”

The original complaint was against McMahon. The amended complaint, filed earlier this month, broadens the scope of the lawsuit to include the City of Wilmington, District Attorney Ben David, WPD Chief Donny Williams, and Assistant Cheif David Oyler — detailing the methods and motivations for their alleged involvement in removing Pridgen from the lab.

New allegations of gender bias at WPD

Many of the new allegations revolve around Pridgen’s claim that officials discriminated against her on the basis of sex.

Pridgen alleges that she was paid $30,000 less than the market rate “according to a pay study by the State” because officials at the city knew “it would result in [her] getting paid more than senior male Captains” at WPD. According to Pridgen’s complaint, then-Chief Ralph Evangelous told her repeatedly over the years that “he could not pay her in accordance with the market study because it would upset the male Captains,” meaning high-ranking officers in the department, including then-Assistant Chief Donny Williams and David Oyler, another top officer who oversaw the transfer of the crime lab from WPD to NHCSO.

According to Pridgen, Evangelous didn’t want to “emasculate” these top male employees. She also claimed that both Williams and Oyler had “well-known grudges” against her — and that Oyler made “baseless threats of possible felony charges” against her in 2017 “because she [was] a woman who held a civilian leadership role as lab director.”

Other incidents in the WPD, according to the complaint, spoke more broadly to the culture at WPD. Pridgen claims that one of her female employees filed an HR complaint, only to have it quashed by now-retired Assistant Chief Jim Varrone, who allegedly said the offender was “not good looking” and “had to know he did not have a chance” as a rationale for not substantiating the complaint. On another occasion, Pridgen claims Varone sidelined her from a personnel action meeting because he didn’t want to upset the male employee by having a woman there while he faced potential disciplinary action.

Other comments, according to Pridgen, came from the top. She alleges that then-Chief Evangelous told her and her female colleagues to change their behavior around men and “things would be easier.” Pridgen also says Evangelous said he didn’t like to demote or fire male employees because they had “families to support.”

Pridgen alleges that the “negative attitude towards women” extended beyond WPD, giving examples including an investigator at the DA’s office telling her women should not work in CSI. Pridgen claimed both she and another female candidate applied to the crime lab, now under NHCSO’s management, and both were passed over for less qualified male candidates.

As potential violations of both the North Carolina constitution and federal law, these allegations would likely be used against the defense of ‘sovereign immunity’ traditionally mounted by state and local government agencies. Sovereign immunity protects the state, and to a more limited extent local government, from lawsuits except when they consent to being sued (which, for obvious reasons, is rare). However,the courts have ruled this immunity is not a defense against claims that a person’s rights under the North Carolina or United Stations constitutions have been violated.

Allegations against Ben David

Pridgen does not accuse District Attorney Ben David of the type of gender-based grudge held by Oyler or Williams — but she does claim he had a major role in her effective termination from the crime lab, claiming that “David and members of his office, as well as others acting in concert with them purposely induced and encouraged the City to terminate [Pridgen] and make her the scapegoat with the clear goal of discrediting her testimony and rehabilitating or sanitizing the work of [Peltzer].”

David, she alleges, acted not due to a grudge but to “protect the prosecution of the drug cases handled” by Peltzer. To that end, she claims David worked to turn Sheriff McMahon against her.

But, Pridgen alleges that David did not leave it there.

Pridgen now works as an expert witness in forensic toxicology, and alleges that the District Attorney’s office has filed motions to disqualify her based on “false and misleading allegations.”

These allegedly include prosecutors' arguments that her title of “Forensic Scientist” means she cannot testify about forensic toxicology, even though the experts on that topic at the state lab have the same title as Pridgen — as does the prosecution’s opposing witness. The prosecution has also attempted to disparage her expertise, Pridgen claims, despite her extensive training, current employment in the relevant field, and her 11 years of experience testifying for David’s office as a forensic chemist.

Pridgen also alleges that David joined an effort to remove Pridgen from the North Carolina Forensic Science Advisory Board — a position David recommended Pridgen to back in 2012.

A complicated case

As is generally the policy for all government entities, all of the defendants declined to comment on pending litigation. There have not, as of August 2, 2022, been any motions filed in response to the amended complaint. District Attorney David did confirm that his office will be represented by the North Carolina Attorney General in the suit, but declined to comment on the substance of the lawsuit. The Wilmington Police Department also declined requests for comments citing ongoing or pending litigation, which is typical of governmental agencies.

It's typical for defendants in these types of cases to file motions to dismiss and the City of Wilmington along with other public officials could possibly claim 'sovereign immunity.'

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.