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By William Breathes
When Coors Brewing Company worker Homer James was summoned to a meeting with his supervisors in April 1996, he thought it was because he'd been called "nigger" by a co-worker. Instead, to his surprise, the topic was sexual harassment. Coors had been sued over the issue in 1994 and -- like many major corporations -- had held sensitization sessions and issued a steady stream of admonitory memos ever since.
James was asked if he had ever "touched anyone at work." He searched his memory. Several years earlier, he had stepped on a woman's foot, he said, then placed his hand on her shoulder in apology. Oh, and there was the incident with his friend Alexa Lee Carter. He'd touched Carter's breast some time ago -- by accident, he said -- and she'd been angry. But they'd settled the issue and been able to resume their friendship.
What about Yvonne Mannon?
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He was puzzled. He and Mannon had done some friendly joshing. He may have occasionally put his arm around her shoulder. But Mannon was a pretty raunchy lady. He'd once asked if he could ride one of her horses sometime, and she'd responded that he'd have to ride her first. She made jokes about his sexual equipment. "She's got one of the nastiest mouths in the whole brewery," he told the interrogator.
Over the next couple of weeks, the interviews and questions continued. "Did you ever try to grope [Yvonne]...in her genital area?" James was asked. He said no.
On May 14, James was fired. Mannon had accused him of sexually harassing her 400 or 500 times. She said she was afraid of him -- that he grabbed her almost every time he saw her, whether or not anyone else was present, called her "sugarbaby," bumped her from behind. She said he'd once almost raped her, fumbling inside her top, pulling her pants down to her steel-toed boots.
In the early months of 1996, the conditioning department, where Mannon worked, was in an uproar. A woman who had recently begun working there had set up a meeting with supervisor Tara Scherschligt to discuss various matters, sexual harassment primary among them; this woman had already told Scherschligt that Mannon was sometimes called a "bitch" and that one of her co-workers made cracks about a pervasive smell of tuna fish when Mannon was around. But there were other issues, too, involving other co-workers: theft, excessive drinking, time-card fraud. Worried about what Scherschligt would be told, workers in the department turned on one another. Mannon said later that her longtime work partner, Ralph Montanez, threatened to shoot her if she said too much, and that two other men, Rich Paris and Mike Sponsel, locked her up one afternoon and threatened to kill both her and her daughter if she told on them.
In all, Coors fired eight workers, including Paris and Sponsel. Four were fired for sexual harassment, four for other kinds of misconduct.
Mannon left work in a panic. The next day she called to say she was unable to return. Later she brought up accusations of sexual harassment. Coors granted Mannon paid sick leave and began an investigation.
On April 4 the company received a letter addressed to the security department: "Mr. investigator: Nice try asswipe. You and your cop bud are deadmen...Kids are funner to kill. Or Tara."
Panic ensued. Several employees, including Mannon, were housed in a hotel over Easter weekend. Coors installed a security system in Mannon's home and paid for several months of guard services for her. The company said it spent around $600,000 in all to protect her and investigate her allegations.
Mannon was interviewed several times. It was only on April 23, after three or four sessions and in front of Jefferson County detectives, that she mentioned Homer James. She said she'd reported his attacks on her several times and to several supervisors. According to her, Ralph Montanez (who was himself being investigated at the time for theft and time-card fraud) had witnessed them. Alexa Lee Carter, too, had been a witness. Carter had stumbled on the near-rape, Mannon said, and told James to get his hands off Mannon. Carter had also threatened to tell his wife.
But despite its cost, the investigation was hardly thorough. Co-workers who James had said would exonerate him were not questioned. Nor were most of the supervisors Mannon claimed to have alerted (later they would say they knew nothing of any sexual-assault claims). The one supervisor who was approached by investigators said Mannon had indeed come to him with a couple of concerns, but none of them were about James. Rico Gallegos, a co-worker, commented that the investigator who questioned him was "more interested in changing my attitude than telling the truth." Gallegos had tried to give this man information about Mannon -- who, Gallegos swore in an affidavit, often went out to breakfast on company time, spoke volubly and graphically about her preferences in anal and oral sex and had once grabbed a male co-worker's crotch -- but the investigator "cut the questioning short, stood up and said I was free to leave."
Montanez corroborated Mannon's charges but admitted under questioning that he himself had never seen James put his hands on her.