The entrance to the Buncombe County Courthouse in Asheville. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

A former Buncombe County jail deputy was so rattled by the sexual abuse and harassment she faced at work that she vomited in the shower every morning before work, her lawsuit filed earlier this week said.

She showed up to work at the Buncombe County Detention Center to do her job and support her family, all the while trying to avoid the notice of her boss, Capt. Charles “Josh” Wilhelm, her complaint said. 

She tried to have a female colleague sit in her office when she expected Wilhelm to be nearby.

But her precautions, her attempts to defuse or ignore his behavior didn’t work, the lawsuit said — the unsolicited photos, his requests for her nudes and his lewd comments toward her continued unabated.

He called her to his office multiple times under the pretense of a work-related issue and then tried to grope her — sometimes he succeeded, the lawsuit said.

The plaintiff’s tearful appeals for help to a superior who could stop the harassment went unanswered, the complaint said. Her entreaties to other co-workers who could help her fell on deaf ears or were met with sexist comments, the lawsuit said. Had any one of them done anything about Wilhelm’s behavior, the lawsuit said, he would not have felt entitled to continue an escalating campaign of sexual harassment and assault against multiple women.

Named in her lawsuit, in addition to Wilhelm, are several former Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office employees: former Sheriff Jack Van Duncan, former Chief Scott Allen, former Sgt. Calvin Elliott and former Lt. Larry Woods. The lawsuit also names Buncombe County and the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office.

The incidents described in the lawsuit occurred before current Sheriff Quentin Miller took the oath of office on Dec. 3, 2018. All of the employees named in the lawsuit either were fired, retired or resigned before Miller took office.

Because of what the lawsuit calls “negligence” to ensure that employees could work in an environment free from sexual harassment and assault, the former employee is suing for damages in excess of $175,000, with punitive damages in an amount to be determined by a jury.

Carolina Public Press was unsuccessful in repeated attempts to contact the defendants. The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office confirmed employment details for those named in the lawsuit but otherwise declined to comment, citing pending litigation.

In a related criminal probe last year, Wilhelm pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor charges of assault on a female relating to his conduct toward two women.

The lawsuit seeks $175,000 for several negligent actions that the plaintiff said allowed Wilhelm to continue more than a decade of unwanted advances, harassment, multiple assaults and other actions forbidden by office policy against the plaintiff, including him sending her unsolicited pictures of his genitals. The lawsuit also seeks punitive damages in an amount to be determined by a jury.

Lawsuit alleges sexual harassment, assault

The lawsuit said Wilhelm boasted that other women he supervised at the jail sent him sexually suggestive pictures at work and that nobody would find out, and he sent pictures of his exposed genitals to several of his subordinates.

In November 2016, the lawsuit said, Wilhelm was promoted to run the jail and was in charge of reviewing policies.

“Ironically, Sheriff Duncan put Capt. Wilhelm in charge of ensuring that none of the employees at the jail suffered sexual abuse. (The plaintiff) worked directly for him as the administrative sergeant,” the lawsuit said.

Wilhelm continued to harass his colleague through 2017, the lawsuit said. At one point, he told the woman that she needed to choose between her personal life and her professional life. 

“He asked (the plaintiff) to send him pictures and sent her pictures of him in his underwear with an obvious erection,” the lawsuit said. “She did not ask for any of this and never reciprocated or appreciated it.”

As 2017 continued, so did the abuse, the lawsuit said. Wilhelm at times called her to his office for work-related tasks. In one of a series of similar attacks, he put his hand on her knee and fondled her breast, the lawsuit said. 

She “pushed his hand away, but he kept grabbing her and said, ‘Just let me feel, I want to feel.’” Before she left Wilhelm’s office, he told her: “’I know you like it, I know you want it.’” the lawsuit said. “She neither enjoyed nor wanted her boss to sexually assault her in his office, then or ever.”

Immediately after she left his office, he texted a request for a nude picture, the lawsuit said.

On another occasion, the lawsuit details an incident where he grabbed her hand and pressed it against the crotch of his pants while grabbing her breast with his other hand. In another instance, he put his hand down her shirt and into her bra to grope her naked breast, and ground his crotch against her, the lawsuit said.

“On every single occasion that Capt. Wilhelm attacked (the plaintiff) physically in his office, she was terrified of him,” the lawsuit said. “She never agreed to any of these attacks or willingly participated in what transpired.”

The plaintiff was not the only woman whom Wilhelm harassed, the lawsuit said. In one instance, an employee told then-Capt. Woods what Wilhelm was doing to her. The lawsuit was not specific about what he allegedly did but said Woods had the power to stop Wilhelm and did nothing.

In May 2017, the lawsuit said, the plaintiff asked her boss for time off to attend doctor appointments for two of her children. Wilhelm told her she could leave early if she did “a few things.” 

“Capt. Wilhelm grabbed her hand and forced her to touch him over his clothes on his groin,” the lawsuit said. “Capt. Wilhelm then rubbed (the plaintiff’s) chest and tried to force her to crawl under his desk and perform oral sex on him.”

She refused and “was able to escape Capt. Wilhelm’s office,” the lawsuit said. Her actions “visibly angered Capt. Wilhelm.”

She returned later that day to confront him over the attack but realized he had left the office. Instead, the lawsuit said she talked to then-Chief Allen and said Wilhelm should stop mistreating her. 

“She became emotional when discussing Capt. Wilhelm,” the lawsuit said. “After (the plaintiff) tearfully asked for his help, Chief Allen brushed off her concerns,” the lawsuit said. He did make one suggestion:

“If you make Wilhelm some dinner, it will make everything better,” Allen said, according to the lawsuit. “While he offered no help to (the plaintiff), apparently Chief Allen told Capt. Wilhelm that she had raised an alarm about this behavior. Capt. Wilhelm was angry at (her) for reporting him and retaliated against her.”

The lawsuit also said Allen and Wilhelm had “a close personal and professional relationship.”

Then in October 2017, Wilhelm called her to his office over the message system, the lawsuit said. When she arrived, he asked if he could touch her, the lawsuit said.

“I don’t want you to,” she said.

“So you aren’t saying no,” he said, according to the lawsuit, before fondling her breast. He then exposed himself to her and forced her to touch him.

“She froze from the trauma,” the lawsuit said. “Her brain would not work, so she just sat there and tried to look out the window and focus on something else and try to mentally escape the sexual assault that unfolded in her boss’s office.

“When he ejaculated, she tried to leave his office, but he blocked the door. He said: ‘Don’t leave yet,’” the lawsuit said. “Despite her terror, she managed to push him away, open the door, and escape from his office.”

In November 2017, she took leave for mental health reasons.

The following month, Duncan promoted Wilhelm to captain, the lawsuit said.

Going outside the agency

On Jan. 9, 2018, the woman approached the county human resources director “about the abuse and sexual assault she suffered at Capt. Wilhelm’s hands,” the lawsuit said.

“Only then, after someone outside of the sheriff’s chain of command became aware of the abusive, criminal activity Capt. Wilhelm had taken against the women who worked for him at the BCSO, did Sheriff Duncan and his senior management finally start to take action to investigate how he abused all of these victims,” the lawsuit said.

That same day Sheriff Duncan put Wilhelm on paid leave, county employment records show.

Also on the same day, according to the lawsuit, “one or more higher-ranking officials within the BCSO” told others not to talk with anyone from the county human resources department or help with the criminal investigation into Wilhelm’s actions.

Once the county human resources department and the State Bureau of Investigations started looking into the plaintiff’s claims, the lawsuit said, then-Sheriff Duncan told her, “It would be a good idea for you to resign or transfer.”

“She had enjoyed working in her career at the jail, but she had to leave it,” her complaint said.

The woman left the department in March 2018, her attorney told CPP.

The SBI started looking into Wilhelm’s conduct, and the sheriff fired Wilhelm on Jan. 22, 2018, for violating the office’s general conduct standards, county records show.

In late 2019, Wilhelm pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of assault on a female for harassing and assaulting women who worked with him after initially being charged with six counts of sexual battery. Wilhelm served a 30-day sentence in the Madison County Jail.

Through her attorney Ellis Boyle, the plaintiff said an assistant district attorney spoke with both victims before Wilhelm pleaded to the smaller number of charges. Unlike sexual battery, the charges to which he pleaded did not require his placement on the sex offender registry.

She was not pleased with the sentence. “I was upset because it felt like he was getting away with his crimes with just a slap on the wrist,” she said in the lawsuit. “From what I understand, he was even allowed to choose which jail he would serve his sentence.”

Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.