A Case of Coors

The brewery may have gone too far in trying to prevent sexual harassment.

A woman who had been quoted by Coors investigators as saying James had once touched her breast later clarified that this was untrue. She had been speaking of someone else entirely.

Alexa Lee Carter, who according to Mannon had witnessed the attempted rape, said she had seen nothing.

In accordance with company policy, James was allowed to contest his firing in front of an appeals board. The board met in June, and supervisor Scherschligt gave members an overview of the situation. She said she had been approached in March by employees concerned about "harassment, theft, time-card frauds, threats on their lives." James asked her quietly to clarify that he was not under suspicion of theft, fraud or threatening anyone's life, but she refused to do so. She went on to say that the names of some witnesses would be withheld because they were under police protection, that one of the victims "has gone to management, HR and Women at Coors [a women's-rights organization at Coors], and the situation was never resolved," and that the "main" victim was "afraid for her life." In fact, Mannon was waiting nearby, ready to come forward if she was needed.

Jagged little Pilsner: After he was fired from Coors, Homer James sued his employer and the woman who accused him of harassment.
Anthony Camera
Jagged little Pilsner: After he was fired from Coors, Homer James sued his employer and the woman who accused him of harassment.

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Previous Westword articles

"Delivering the Message"
September 23, 1999
The women at UPS bleed as brown as the men, and they have the scars to prove it.

"The Other Coors Spokesman"
September 2, 1999
International Mr. Leather wants to tell the world: It's a new day for gays and Coors.

"Special Handling"
May 29, 1997
Itís a guy thing: Two UPS men claim sexual harassment by another man.

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The case against James was presented with the help of several broken-up and unattributed quotes, some supposedly from eyewitnesses to James's assaults. The board asked about other instances of harassment and was told that the investigators "feel that at least one other woman has been subjected to this type of behavior by Homer."

The appeals board upheld James's termination.

In addition, the company pressed the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department into pursuing a criminal investigation, and James was eventually charged with six counts of third-degree sexual assault. Thirteen months later, in June 1997, the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office dismissed the charges.

Over his 24 years with Coors, James had received good evaluations and had worked his way up to a salary of $59,000 a year. At 57, he was three years away from a comfortable -- and, most of his co-workers would say, well-earned -- retirement. (Forty-two of them signed a letter of support for him.)

He filed suit against the company in May 1997, alleging, among other things, race and gender discrimination, breach of contract and defamation. The suit also named Tara Scherschligt and Yvonne Mannon.

In November of that same year, despite the investigation, paid sick leave, disability leave, workers' compensation and security system Coors had provided for her, Mannon also filed suit against the company for sexual harassment, presenting the press with a series of lurid accusations.

She told a Denver Post reporter that male co-workers had attempted to drown her in a beer tank, threatened to suffocate her in a granary bin and promised "a shotgun blast to the back of your head" if she reported their actions. For the most part, the media described the two lawsuits as proof of just how difficult things had become for employers. The Rocky Mountain News lamented that the sequence of lawsuits "illustrates the minefield employers sometimes face in their stepped-up efforts against sexual harassment. Some suggest it could become a classic example of everything that can go wrong, no matter how carefully an employer treats an employee's complaint."

Coors settled with Mannon in 1998 for over $200,000.

Last month, Homer James had his say in court. The jury listened to Ralph Montanez, Mike Sponsel, Alexa Lee Carter, Tara Scherschligt, James himself and numerous other witnesses. The woman whose heel James had remembered stepping on when he was first interviewed said he had massaged her neck and made her uncomfortable. He interpreted the incident differently. He said that after treading on her foot, he had smacked her three times on the back -- a gesture that, in the black community, removes the bad luck inherent in the misstep. Another woman claimed that when she'd offered James a birthday kiss, he had kissed her back in an inappropriate way. He denied it.

According to Kara Birkedahl, one of James's lawyers, however, there were also many people eager to speak up for him. "The outpouring of support for Homer was overwhelming. I've never had so many people want to talk to me and set the record straight."

One of the most damning pieces of evidence against Mannon was provided by Mike Sponsel, the man she had accused of locking her up and threatening both her and her daughter's lives on her last afternoon at Coors. He had called Mannon at home twice soon after that incident and taped their conversation. Instead of sounding scared, she begins by saying, "I've been waiting for you guys to page me...I've been going crazy...I didn't know what to do, Michael." She calls him "hon" several times. The two of them discuss the situation at work. They criticize Susan Rood, the co-worker who originally went to Tara Scherschligt with complaints about their department: "Well, I just feel that if I don't talk to Susan, I'm in trouble; if I do talk to Susan, I'm in trouble," says Mannon. "I do not like going to work anymore."

It's clear from the conversation that something unpleasant occurred between them and that Sponsel is trying to find out what Mannon intends to say about it. But most of the conversation focuses on their fear about what's happening at work and their mutual anger with Rood for stirring things up.

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