Beaufort News

Lawsuit: Former Port Royal police officer sexually assaulted woman at gunpoint

A woman who said she was sexually assaulted at gunpoint by a Port Royal police officer in his car in 2015 is suing the town and police department for negligence.

The woman, identified as Jane Doe 1 in the lawsuit filed Aug. 14 in Beaufort County, said in the suit the officer lured her to a secluded area of town in November 2015 before assaulting her while armed with a service pistol.

After the case was turned over to S.C. Law Enforcement Division investigators, an agent described the case as a “he said-she said” matter and dissuaded the woman from pursuing charges, the lawsuit said.

The officer was later fired after an internal investigation. He had previously been dismissed from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, Colleton County Sheriff’s Office and Yemassee Police Department, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit, filed by the McDougall Law Firm and Port Royal attorney Jared Newman, says the town and police were negligent in not better vetting the officer’s background, by not properly supervising the officer and for hiring the officer when they should have known his “propensity for violence and propensity for truthfulness.”

Attorneys wrote that the woman has suffered mentally and emotionally and are asking for damages decided by a jury.

Port Royal town manager Van Willis said Thursday the case had been handed over to state investigators at the time, per protocol, and deferred other questions to Mary Bass Lohr, the attorney defending the town in the suit.

In a response by Lohr filed on Sept. 28, the town and police denied the allegations of sexual assault and negligence. Lohr’s response also said the town is immune from liability under the S.C. Tort Claims Act, which says the government isn’t liable for “employee conduct outside the scope of his official duties.”

In the lawsuit, the woman said she first met the officer when he responded to police calls where she worked. He then made “unwarranted” follow-up contacts, including talking to the woman about his marital problems and making romantic advances under the guise of his duty as an officer, the lawsuit says.

The woman tried to “tactfully rebuff” the unwanted contact, the complaint says.

The officer later lured the woman to a secluded area after insisting he needed to talk to her about an investigation, according to the lawsuit. The woman reported an assault to Port Royal police, who referred the case to state investigators.

The officer isn’t named in the lawsuit. The timeline and circumstances match the case of George Rioux, a Port Royal officer who was fired in December 2015 after allegations he had made unwanted sexual advances that “intimidated” and “frightened” a woman he had driven to a wooded area in his patrol car, according to town documents provided to the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy and reported by The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet at the time.

SLED investigated Rioux’s case and gave the file to 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, SLED spokesman Thom Berry said. No charges were filed and the case was closed on March 24, 2016, Berry said.

Prosecutors determined there wasn’t sufficient evidence to support a criminal charge in the case, Solicitor’s Office spokesman Jeff Kidd said Thursday.

A phone message left for Lohr was not immediately returned Thursday afternoon.

Port Royal Police Chief Alan Beach is out of the office until next week, a department representative said, and an email and phone message for him weren’t returned as of Thursday afternoon.

Rioux spent a year at the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office, two months with the Yemassee Police Department and about seven years with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, ending in July 2013, according to academy records as reported by the newspapers.

Rioux was also accused of misconduct that month and resigned from the Sheriff’s Office after an internal investigation found he had signed an affidavit for another officer without their knowledge, the records showed.

Willis told The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet after Rioux was fired that Beach and the interview board were comfortable with Rioux’s hire in November 2014 and that he had been a notable investigator during his time with the department.

“I don’t think one incident with one department would be a pattern with this particular officer,” Willis told the newspapers in January 2016. “The hardest part of this job, and to be quite honest, any job, is dealing with personnel. The human factor is tricky.”

“What looks good on paper doesn’t always translate to a good employee.”

Stephen Fastenau: 843-706-8182, @IPBG_Stephen