VISTA — A former employee of the Vista Fire Department has filed a lawsuit alleging that she was sexually harassed by a current battalion fire chief and faced retaliation for reporting her concerns.
In a complaint filed in August in Vista Superior Court, Karina Wakefield, who worked in the department as a fire inspector from fall 2021 to fall 2022, detailed what she said were inappropriate conversations and physical contact initiated by Battalion Chief Samuel Craig over several months in 2022.
Wakefield said Craig made her extremely uncomfortable by texting her constantly, kissing her on the head in his office and in front of others, and occasionally sharing explicit information about his sex life.
The lawsuit also names the city of Vista and Deputy Fire Chief Craig Usher, who Wakefield said failed to support her when she filed an HR complaint about Samuel Craig’s behavior and contributed to a hostile work environment.
“People in general shouldn’t have to go through what Ms. Wakefield went through, especially working at a public entity like this. This should be a safe place for employees,” said Nicole Gilanians, Wakefield’s attorney.
While the city did investigate Wakfield’s complaint in fall 2022, officials ultimately claimed there was not enough evidence to indicate that Craig had sexually harassed Wakefield. A findings report from November 2022 said that the two appeared to have a “mutual on-and-off duty friendship” that resembled a father-daughter relationship.
However, the city did find that some of Craig’s behavior qualified as “unbecoming and unprofessional conduct” in violation of the Vista Fire Code, as it could be perceived as favoritism. In a March 2023 letter to Wakefield, the city said remedial actions were taken but declined to share further details.
“Please be advised that the city is taking further corrective measures to address the investigation findings,” the letter said.
The lawsuit alleges that the city did not handle the complaint properly, causing Wakefield’s work relationships to become irreparably damaged and forcing her to constructively terminate in November of 2022.
“Her complaint should have been taken seriously, and I think there should have been more protection in place to prevent this from happening in the first place… All of this makes it very important for her to be heard,” Gilanians said.
An attorney for Craig said the battalion chief denied all accusations of wrongdoing in the suit. A representative for the city of Vista declined to comment.
Wakefield participated in various interviews with investigator Betty Kelepecz, whose workplace investigation firm, Norman A. Traub and Associates, was assigned to the sexual harassment complaint.
Wakefield claimed in these interviews that Craig’s interactions with her started in early 2022, following his promotion to battalion chief, when they were both working out of the Vista Civic Center. She claimed that some of his coworkers called him “Creepy Craig.”
Wakefield said in March 2022 that Craig overheard her talking with other coworkers about her wedding dress fitting and invited himself and his wife to come along.
At the appointment, according to Wakefield, Craig surprised her by covering the approximately $500 alteration, which she didn’t want him to do, but he insisted. She said this was also the first time he tightly hugged and kissed her on the head.
Wakefield said in the lawsuit that Craig repeated this behavior multiple times over the months, and specifically that he would call her into his office and kiss her forehead while muttering the words “I really need this.”
“This behavior happened repeatedly and left Wakefield feeling vulnerable, violated and in a state of prolonged despair,” the complaint read.
In city investigation interviews, Craig said he has no recollection of ever kissing Wakefield but said kissing people on the head is something he does with other people in his life. He admitted they had hugged multiple times, including sometimes in his office.
He said he felt that the two had a mutual friendship and did not think it made Wakefield uncomfortable.
Wakefield said that after the wedding dress fitting, Craig began coming by her cubicle to talk to her daily, text her, and call her on the way home. Because the two took the same route home from work, Wakefield felt obligated to answer the calls in case he could see her, she said in city interviews.
According to Wakefield, Craig also began asking her to go to lunch, which she said she didn’t feel comfortable saying no to.
At one of these lunches, Wakefield said, Craig told her about the intimate details of his marriage, including about his sex life, which she found “gross,” she told the city’s investigator.
Screenshots of text messages between the two, included in the city’s investigation documents, indicate that the two were in frequent contact and often spent time together on and off the clock. Wakefield was also close with Craig’s wife, and she and her husband had gone to the Craigs’ home for dinner at least once.
She also invited Craig and his wife to her wedding, which she later said she felt obligated to do after he had covered her alteration cost.
Because Craig was her superior — albeit not her direct supervisor — Wakefield said she didn’t feel comfortable asking him to stop much of the conduct and worried what would happen if she rebuffed him.
“I was afraid of him snapping on me,” Wakefield said in an interview with the city’s investigator. “’Cause if he’s kissing me on the head and talking to me about his sex life, what happens if he were to get angry with me. Like, would he do anything? I don’t know. I was really scared.”
Craig’s attention to Wakefield did not go unnoticed by other fire personnel. Usher, a deputy fire chief and Wakefield’s direct supervisor at the time, told the city’s investigator he thought Craig hung around Wakefield’s cubicle “longer than necessary,” but didn’t think anything was wrong at the time.
Deputy Chief Bret Davidson, in a separate interview, said he pulled Craig aside at one point to tell him to stay out of fire prevention’s business, referencing the department that Wakefield worked in, but that he figured Craig and Wakefield had a mutual friendship.
After these interactions, Craig told Wakefield that other personnel were just jealous of their relationship, Wakefield said. Craig later told the city’s investigator that he regretted these words.
Wakefield said she grew concerned about how others in her workplace perceived her relationship with Craig and how it might affect her professional career.
Two coworkers also approached her about Craig’s behavior around June 2022.
One coworker said he thought it inappropriate for Craig to be hugging her at work, and another said she noticed Wakefield appeared uncomfortable around Craig and asked whether she was okay, according to interviews with the city’s investigator.
Kelepecz, the investigator into the complaint, said the fact that other employees found Craig’s behavior “unbecoming” did ultimately pose an issue.
“Craig had a duty to ensure the work environment was as free as possible from rumor, innuendo, or other perceptions in order to foster colleagial [sic] relationships among all and ensure the success of a new employee. Instead, Craig’s behavior fueled the fires of claims of potential and future favoritism and as such, operated to affect the work environment of all in Fire Administration and ultimately, the Department,” the investigation report said.
After further discussions with other coworkers, they encouraged her to make a sexual harassment report, which she did in late July.
Around that time, Wakefield told Craig she wanted to “restructure” their friendship to make it more professional. Shortly afterward, she learned he had sent flirtatious messages to one of her friends who did not work at the department and told him she needed space.
Wakefield said in the lawsuit and investigation that she attempted to set boundaries with Craig but that they “fell on deaf ears.”
However, Craig told the city’s investigator that after Wakefield told him she needed space, he apologized and stopped communicating with her. Texts provided in the city’s investigation indicate that he ceased texting Wakefield after that.
“I never pursued the friendship or attempted to force her into speaking after that,” Craig said in a city investigation interview. “It’s obvious at this point that at one point Karina decided she wanted to no longer be friends and that’s okay.”
Claims of retaliation
After Wakefield filed her sexual harassment complaint in July 2022, Craig was moved to another station to prevent them from having to interact during the investigation.
In her lawsuit, Wakefield said that in August 2022, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression as a result of the alleged harassment as well as the stress of the investigation. This sometimes manifested in the form of vomiting and having panic attacks at work, she said, and she ended up taking time off work.
Wakefield also said she felt isolated, as she could not talk with her coworkers about the situation during the investigation.
This came to a head, she said, in October during a meeting with Usher when he gave feedback about her work performance and to talk about her schedule, as she had requested accommodations due to her PTSD diagnosis.
Wakefield said she mentioned feeling isolated from her coworkers, and Usher responded that other people also felt isolated, seemingly referring to Craig and the ongoing sexual harassment investigation.
In an email the next day, Wakefield told Usher that this statement was inappropriate and made her uncomfortable. She also reported the interaction to the city’s HR department, alleging that Usher retaliated against her. In an investigation report, HR Director Dolores Gascon said Usher admitted he wished he could take back what he said and appeared to have said it out of frustration.
Gascon did not conclude that this qualified as retaliation. However, she recommended that Usher be “assigned additional training on sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation, primarily so he has a better understanding of what retaliation can look like,” as well as communication training.
Usher did not respond to a request for comment from The Coast News.
The first court hearing related to Wakefield’s lawsuit is scheduled for February.