By Kate Martin, originally published by Carolina Public Press. Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.
Van Duncan, former sheriff of Buncombe County, said Monday that he never told a woman to resign or transfer after she revealed she had been harassed and assaulted on the job.
A former county jail employee filed a lawsuit last week that alleges a pattern of sexual harassment and assault from her boss, former Capt. Charles “Josh” Wilhelm, over several years. The lawsuit said she notified several higher-ups, who did nothing to stop his predatory behavior.
She is suing the county, the jail, Duncan, Wilhelm and several others for the abuse she endured and which she said nobody tried to stop. Wilhelm pleaded guilty to three charges of assault on a female, for which he served 30 days in a Madison County jail last year.
Duncan could not be reached last week when the story was being reported but contacted Carolina Public Press over the weekend.
He denies some of the specific allegations in the lawsuit in relation to him.
“I never told her that it would be better if she resigned,” he said. “That never happened. That never came out of my mouth.”
Duncan said the woman’s report to human resources was the first he’d heard about Wilhelm’s behavior toward her or anyone else. The department had just promoted Wilhelm to captain, Duncan said.
Asked about Duncan’s response later Monday, the woman’s attorney, Ellis Boyle, said the sheriff was four or more levels above her in the chain of command.
“We think that he knew or should have known about Wilhelm generally from all of the other sources of Wilhelm’s actions, and he should have known about what Wilhelm did to her from complaints she made to her supervisors, who should have told him,” Boyle wrote.
“It would be very surprising if he didn’t have any idea about the things going on at the jail he was responsible for.”
Duncan said he was shocked by her allegations and read the text messages, and even during that meeting he recalls, “Wilhelm had reached out to contact her.”
“She asked me at the time, she said, ‘Do you believe me?’ and I said, ‘I absolutely believe you,’” Duncan said during a 20-minute phone interview with CPP Monday. “I said, ‘I understand and I’m very sorry.’”
Duncan told the woman that he intended to have a short conversation with Wilhelm, after which he planned to suspend him, which he did.
He said the person from the county’s human resources department wanted to do an internal investigation, and he said no.
“I said, ‘I’m going to call the (State Bureau of Investigation),’” he said. Duncan explained to her that civilians do not have subpoena power, but the SBI can compel the release of text messages and other information.
Duncan said he placed Wilhelm on paid leave, which records bear out. Duncan also said he called the SBI that day, on Jan. 9, 2018, to request an investigation into Wilhelm’s conduct and followed up with a letter.
He fired Wilhelm several days later, on Jan. 22, 2018, for violating general conduct standards, county records show.
In subsequent meetings, Duncan and the county human resources department tried to figure out what the woman wanted, he said.
“I in no way encouraged her to resign,” Duncan said. “It didn’t feel like she needed to resign for something that she wasn’t responsible for, for what was going on.”
He said he does remember discussing a job transfer within the county to another department.
Duncan said the human resources worker and the victim “both conveyed to me that she was not comfortable coming back in there, that she was worried” about returning to her previous job. “And that’s understandable. I probably did say, ‘Well, we can look at transferring you if you’re not comfortable going back.’”
Boyle, her attorney, said the lawsuit reflects his client’s recollection of events.
“To be fair, this situation was probably not as big a deal to him as it was for her,” Boyle said. “He was her ultimate boss. She says she remembers him saying this to her. Her recollection is solid. If there is a dispute, a jury will decide who is believable.”