The director of Hilltop House, a community corrections center for adult offenders, has been accused of at least a half dozen incidents of sexually inappropriate behavior during the last 20 years while working at the center, including a sexual relationship with an employee that ended in an out-of-court settlement.
Despite his history, John Schmier has kept his $104,000-a-year job with minimal repercussions from the board of directors, which is currently made up of two former police captains; a prosecutor; a parole officer; two probation officers; a banker; an accountant; and Jeffrey Wilson, chief judge of Colorado’s 6th Judicial District.
Wilson, who served as president of the board of directors when the sexual harassment claim was made, declined to comment for this story, referring questions to Dale Smith, the current board president and retired Durango Police Department captain.
As a result of the sexual harassment complaint, Schmier was suspended for two weeks in 2010, but otherwise, he has maintained his leadership role overseeing a budget of about $1.5 million, about 22 employees and hundreds of criminal offenders serving sentences.
House of rulesHilltop is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides transitional housing to parolees and criminal offenders who are required to work and earn income while living in the community. The house is on Avenida del Sol, just west of downtown Durango.
By its nature, Hilltop is a house of rules. Clients must maintain jobs, abstain from drugs and alcohol, and report to the facility as required. Employees are expected to comply with a strict code of conduct, which prohibits fraternizing with clients and sexually harassing co-workers.
Schmier’s conduct dating back to 1999 is recounted in transcripts made from interviews conducted in 2010 by Michael Goldman, Hilltop’s lawyer, who investigated a sexual harassment complaint. Goldman interviewed eight employees and former employees. Transcripts of those interviews were provided anonymously to the The Durango Herald. Smith acknowledged existence of the transcripts. “Somebody had to steal it, because the only people who have it are the attorney and the organization,” Smith said.
Schmier, 50, began working at Hilltop in 1995. Over the years, he served as a correctional technician, program coordinator and program director. He was promoted in August 2002 to executive director. He is a native of Bayfield and attended Bayfield High School.
Among the allegations of inappropriate behavior:
In about 1999, before becoming director, Schmier had a romantic relationship with a woman who was required to report to Hilltop on a random basis for urine analysis. Such relationships are against Hilltop’s rules, but Schmier said he was given permission to pursue the relationship by then-director Tom Berry, who died in June 2006. The Bureau of Prisons looked into the matter, but nothing came of the inquiry.About the same time, Schmier made frequent inappropriate comments to a co-worker, telling her to stop staring at his butt, even though she wasn’t. “She clearly did not enjoy or see this as a joking relationship,” said James Sloan, a former assistant director, while speaking with Goldman in 2010. The woman’s husband eventually wrote a letter to Hilltop complaining of the behavior, he told Goldman. (Sloan left Hilltop in August 2017.)In another case involving the same woman, Schmier used a mayonnaise packet to simulate ejaculation, according to Sloan’s statements to the Hilltop attorney.In about 2000, Schmier dated another woman who eventually joined Hilltop as an employee. The woman eventually left the organization, and in confidence, the woman told Sloan she felt sexually harassed. In an interview this week with the Herald, Sloan said the director at the time was also made aware of the complaint, and soon after, Hilltop staff members underwent sexual harassment training. The Durango woman declined to comment for this story.In about 2003, Schmier allegedly made an unwelcome comment to an administrative assistant when they crossed paths in a copying room, saying something to the effect of, “Come on in. I’m like a doorknob – everybody gets a turn,” Sloan told Goldman in 2010.In 2009, Schmier, as director, pursued a romantic relationship with an employee, Marti Gregerson, that lasted about six months. Gregerson eventually broke it off, but Schmier continued to pursue her even after she made it clear to him that she was no longer interested, according to a legal summary of her complaint. In an interview this week with the Herald, Sloan said he stands by the statements he made in 2010. In fact, he recounted one more incident that occurred in 2012, after the sexual harassment investigation. Schmier apparently observed two supervisors discussing which female job applicant to hire, and Schmier remarked, “Hire the one with the biggest (expletive),” referring to a woman’s breasts. Sloan said he notified Judge Wilson of the remark.
Former and current employees, some who declined to be identified, confirmed some of Schmier’s behaviors.
“He was always popping off smart-ass sexual comments,” said Lisa Elliott, who worked at Hilltop House from 2007 to 2011. “We were all smart-asses up there, don’t get me wrong. ... We kind of had a dark sense of humor, but we didn’t have a sexual pop-off sense of humor like he did.”
Smith said if employees have a complaint, they can take it directly to the board.
“There’s not going to be retaliation because they come forward and place an allegation,” he said.
Sloan said he does not mind discussing Schmier’s behavior, because it’s “the ethical thing to do.”
“I’m a big believer in the old saying that sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Sloan said.
When the Herald called Schmier on July 3, he acknowledged having a romantic relationship with Gregerson, but he declined to comment further, saying the board of directors at the time of the investigation instructed him not to discuss the matter publicly. When asked about other past incidents and lewd comments and whether they amounted to inappropriate behavior, especially in the era of the #MeToo movement, he said, “They were not appropriate then, for sure.”
Schmier declined to discuss past allegations of inappropriate behavior without having Smith, the current board president, present for the interview. But after speaking with Smith, Schmier declined to give an interview.
A confession of loveIt is unclear how much board members knew about Schmier’s alleged conduct before the sexual-harassment complaint, but one thing is certain: As a result of the 2010 internal investigation, board members became aware of previous allegations.
Goldman prepared a 14-page review of his investigation and presented it to the board of directors in 2010. Transcripts from Goldman’s interviews, about 250 pages, were also shared with board members. The interviews were conducted with eight individuals, including Gregerson, who made the sexual harassment complaint, Schmier and six former or current employees.
Gregerson declined to talk to the Herald about her sexual harassment claim from 2010, citing a non-disclosure agreement. But she did not need to discuss the allegations; they are well-documented in Goldman’s transcripts.
However, Gregerson was willing to discuss the situation in retrospect, saying Schmier ruined what could have been a promising career for her in community corrections, but she has, for the most part, moved past that time in her life.
She is disappointed Schmier continues to hold a position of power over employees and criminal offenders who are serving court-ordered sentences.
“Somebody needs to do something about it, because he’s in charge of not only female employees, but vulnerable incarcerated women,” Gregerson said. “For it to be let go this long, is awful.”
Her attorney at the time, Lynne Sholler of Durango, also declined to discuss the case, saying she is prohibited from doing so. Sholler did discuss sexual harassment cases in general. See related story.
People interviewed during Hilltop’s internal investigation characterized Schmier as a capable leader of Hilltop House but one who is compromised by questionable relationships, unwelcome sexual comments and emotional instability.
‘I didn’t want to lose my job’In his interview with Goldman in 2010, Schmier acknowledged having a sexual relationship with Gregerson that began in October 2009 and lasted four to six months.
According to their interviews, Schmier and Gregerson attended a one-week training in St. Louis presented by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Near the end of the training, Gregerson said Schmier confessed his love for her.
Schmier went in for a first kiss.
“He told me then that he wanted a relationship with me, and stuff like that,” she said.
After returning to Durango, Schmier continued to pursue the relationship, but Gregerson had reservations.
“I knew that he shouldn’t have done that, I guess,” she told Goldman.
Gregerson had worked at Hilltop for about five years at the time. She had recently separated from her husband, and wasn’t sure about starting a new relationship, especially with her boss. She was more interested in devoting time to her children. But after a while, Gregerson warmed up to Schmier and decided to give the relationship a try.
Schmier spent time at Gregerson’s house, including with her family during holidays. She kept their relationship mostly a secret, letting only a couple of close friends and co-workers know what was happening.
“He had told me that no one can ever find out about this. Nobody,” she said during her interview with Goldman. “He told me that several times early on. ... We’ll both get fired. We’ll never work in this field again.”
He warned her the relationship would be in violation of a Department of Corrections policy. Hilltop has contracts with the state agency.
After a few months, Gregerson told Schmier she wanted to end their relationship. He was too demanding of her time, and he seemed emotionally unstable, she said. She tried to back away, but Schmier was “very, very, very emotional and called me all the time, text(ed) me all the time, (came) over to my house,” according to her interview transcripts. “You know, he was very, very persistent, I guess. So I was kind of worried. I really didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to lose my job.”
Schmier became upset one day because Gregerson’s family was at her house when he wanted to spend time with her. He sat on a couch by himself for about five minutes before jumping up and saying loudly, “I didn’t come over here to watch TV by myself.”
After the outburst, everybody left, “because everybody was completely freaked out by it,” she said.
He later returned to the house, went inside and wouldn’t leave.
It was one of several similar incidents, she said.
‘Why can’t you just love me’Gregerson began her employment at Hilltop making $11.59 an hour as an entry-level employee before becoming an employment liaison, helping to facilitate employment for clients. She was eventually promoted to substance-abuse monitoring officer, scheduling the urine analysis call-in program. At the time she quit, she was making $14.31 an hour, money she needed to support her kids.
After trying to end the relationship, Gregerson said Schmier continually asked her why they couldn’t be together and what it would take for her to love him. Gregerson said it became difficult to do her job.
One day, Schmier called Gregerson into his office and shut the door.
“We were in there most of the morning to where by the time I got out of there I was very frustrated,” she told Goldman. “I couldn’t do my work. I couldn’t – I had people – you know, I have a very busy job, like very busy. And he was crying and crying and crying. And I walked – I went out of his office, went to my office. He was in his office crying. People were trying to come up and talk to him, you know, co-workers and things like that because they have stuff that they need taken care of also.”
Schmier would use moments when no one else was around to inquire about their failed relationship: “Why can’t you just be in a relationship with me?” he would say, according to Gregerson. “Why can’t you just love me?”
“... I feel like it took a toll on my work, my performance, by him bothering me and keeping me from doing things, and my – some days just not being able to go in and face it,” Gregerson said in 2010.
Several co-workers said they noticed a sharp decline in Gregerson’s job performance in the months after the breakup.
“Her performance took a nosedive,” Sloan said in an interview with the Herald.
Doors with windowsKeeping the failed romance a secret became increasingly difficult. Schmier would call Gregerson into his office for hours at a time, and in some cases, both would exit in tears. Some employees noticed flirtations.
“The eye contact, the giggling, spending time in their offices ... and things like that; overall, you could just tell something,” said Lisa Elliot, a co-worker at the time.
Someone eventually delivered an anonymous letter to a Hilltop official saying Schmier was possibly having a relationship with Gregerson. The letter also accused him of giving preferential treatment to two other employees.
The complaint was forwarded to Schmier, who showed it to Gregerson before he emailed it to the board of directors.
The board apparently declined to investigate the anonymous complaint.
“The board said unless somebody wanted to come forward and actually sign a complaint that they weren’t gonna look into it,” Schmier told Goldman.
Smith said he does not remember specifics of the letter, but he stands by the board’s decision to treat anonymous letters with a degree of skepticism.
“I question anonymous letters, and if somebody’s got an issue, they need to bring it forth, and I think that’s eventually what happened,” he said.
Instead of investigating, the board ordered windows to be installed in all office doors. The easiest way to achieve that was to replace all the doors.
One employee remarked that Schmier would no longer be able to have sex in his office because of the window.
Schmier denied ever having sex in his office.
“I may do some stupid things, but I would never do that,” he told Goldman at the time.
A complaint of sexual harassmentOn Nov. 5, 2010, Gregerson, upset by an unrelated issue, vented her frustrations to Sloan, the assistant director, before quitting on the spot.
Accompanied by Sloan, she walked into Schmier’s office and resigned. Schmier cried. She was unsure how to react. Schmier kept her in his office, asking why she was leaving, she said.
“I told him that I wasn’t going to talk to him about it. I was leaving. Done. I was leaving. That was it. I finally had to just walk out on that conversation also. I went in my office, got my purse, and left.”
Schmier called her three times, but she didn’t answer.
Sloan, as assistant director, wrote 15 to 20 pages of notes after speaking with Gregerson and another employee. He delivered his notes to the board of directors about two weeks after Gregerson quit.
Gregerson hired an attorney, and less than a month after her last day, her attorney filed a sexual harassment claim against Schmier and Hilltop House.
After completing his internal investigation, Goldman recommended the board retain Schmier, saying it was a consensual relationship. The breakup may have been disruptive to Hilltop and contributed to Gregerson’s resignation, he said, but two employees who Gregerson had previously confided in said she never mentioned harassment as being the reason for her departure. They believed Gregerson played the victim to obtain money, and that would aid in Hilltop’s defense.
Through her attorney, Gregerson demanded $10,000 to drop her claims. She received significantly less as part of a settlement. Smith said he cannot remember how much was paid to settle the case, if anything. Gregerson said she could not comment.
In addition to a two-week suspension, Schmier was told to complete “remedial management training,” Smith told the Herald. He also had to pay costs associated with the internal investigation.
Board members have since monitored his job performance and they have not identified any other concerns, Smith said. Some employees have raised concerns with Schmier on occasion, but those complaints are largely unfounded, Smith said.
“(They) have tried to, at least in my opinion, hang him out to dry a couple of times,” he said.
Smith stands by Schmier.
“He’s done an outstanding job in the directorship, he learned from his mistake in 2010 and it hasn’t repeated itself,” Smith said. “So I think that speaks a lot about him. If you can salvage a good employee, then I think an organization should do that.”
But Schmier is currently under investigation, this time on suspicion of making inappropriate comments to a Hilltop client. The Durango Police Department reviewed the complaint but did not find anything criminal, so it is being reviewed by the Department of Criminal Justice, which contracts with Hilltop House to oversee people on parole, Smith said.
“There’s another set of eyes looking at it right now, and we’ll see what (happens) from there,” Smith said.
Smith declined to discuss the nature of the current complaint. An open letter posted to Hilltop’s Facebook page says the organization had one allegation of sexual harassment between July 1, 2017, and June 30, 2018, involving staff on client. It is the only incident of sexual assault or sexual harassment reported under the Prison Rape Elimination Act since at least July 2014.
Possible punishmentsDuring his 2010 investigation, Goldman asked several of his interview subjects what they thought should happen to Schmier.
Gregerson fumbled for an answer. She expressed frustration that Schmier “seems untouchable.”
“I don’t believe that he should be in that position, to be able to take those powers that he believes that he has, I guess, and use them,” she said.
Goldman also asked Schmier what should happen regarding possible punishments.
Schmier said he loves his job, and he’s good at it. He expressed hope for keeping his job.
“I understand that my job is on the line. I understand. I’m not stupid,” Schmier said. “And I fall back to something that the judge (Wilson) had said in the meeting that we had up at his chambers. He said, ‘I want you to understand we’re not looking at taking your job. We want to correct the behavior by modification or whatever.’ And that’s really the only solace I’ve had in this whole thing is that he’s a man of his word.
“Now saying that, I also know that at the time they didn’t have any idea all this was going on. And I’m not stupid. I can learn from my lessons. I know it was wrong. I knew it was wrong when I did it. And I just don’t believe I crossed any lines as far as sexual harassment or anything like that. I really believe that with all my heart.
“... The responsibility, I guess, falls on me. I was wrong. And it’s easy to say now that I’ll do whatever I can to save my job or anything like that. Because I wasn’t thinking about it. I wasn’t thinking about anything. I was thinking about myself and I just ... .”
He didn’t finish his sentence; the interview ended.
A chilling effect on employeesSmith said he will not tolerate inappropriate conduct from the director at Hilltop. At the same time, board members must separate “innuendos and rumors or allegations” from factual complaints backed up with evidence, he said.
He downplayed or could not remember some of the alleged incidents and sexually charged comments disclosed in the transcripts provided to board members as part of the 2010 internal investigation. When some alleged inappropriate conduct occurred, Schmier was not yet a director, Smith said.
“Definitely, when he became a director, it was clear his conduct has to be that of a leader and to set the example,” Smith said. “And I think he’s lived up to that for the most part.”
Smith said he hasn’t reviewed Goldman’s transcripts for many years, and he didn’t recall certain comments that Schmier allegedly made, such as “Stop looking at my butt,” or “I’m like a doorknob – everybody gets a turn.”
Some of the alleged comments of a sexual nature are “definitely inappropriate,” Smith said “but again, something that happened 10 years ago, 15 years ago – people change and grow more into a professional position.”
Schmier marked his 20th anniversary at Hilltop with a Facebook post on Jan. 15, 2015.
“It hasn’t all been a basket or roses for sure and I have made some major mistakes (learned from them too),” he wrote. “I couldn’t have done it without the guidance and patients of several members of the Board of Directors and all the staff that I work with on a daily basis.”
Maura Demko, executive director of Sexual Assault Services Organization (SASO) in Durango, said she cannot comment about specific cases, people or agencies, but she could speak about sexual harassment in general.
Sexual harassment can be as simple as three inappropriate words that were spoken, a physical touch or demanding sexual favors, she said.
Different people can perceive sexual harassment differently, she said.
“What may not feel like a big deal to one person can really be triggering and upsetting to another, especially if they have trauma history,” Demko said.
A prevailing attitude in the workplace used to be, “Well, you just have to deal with it,” she said. But more recently, especially in the #MeToo era, victims have been given more latitude to demand a safe work environment, she said.
Sexual harassment can be one instance or a pattern of comments and behaviors, she said. If it is one instance, companies should try to correct the behavior immediately.
“When there are repeated instances and it becomes a pattern, that is really concerning, and hopefully there was engagement the first time it showed up,” Demko said. “... But there’s education in a pattern of behavior, too, because there’s something else that is going on at a deeper-root level.”
Elliott, the former employee, said she quit in response to the way the Hilltop board handled the sexual harassment complaint against Schmier.
“I couldn’t work with John knowing what he did, how it was handled, and he didn’t even get a slap on the wrist,” she said. “... It was very hard to work there during this, because the board did nothing. ... It was kind of like slamming into a brick wall. ... I expected something to happen for what he did.
“I don’t feel in their position they should have just ignored something like this. ... It took all of two weeks for them to learn about it, figure it out and sweep it under the rug.”
Sloan said the board’s failure to act had a chilling effect on employees.
“The board sent a message, all right,” he said, “but the message they sent was intended for people who might file reports about inappropriate behavior: Don’t talk.”