'Coming Forward Has Broke Me': #MeToo Movement Comes To Rural Nevada

Feb 27, 2019
Originally published on February 27, 2019 3:25 pm

In a small county in rural northern Nevada, Melanie Keener was once the second-most powerful person in law enforcement. She was Storey County's chief deputy, overseeing detentions, investigations and the patrol division.

That ended in 2016 when she reported her boss, Sheriff Gerald Antinoro, for sexual harassment.

"Coming forward has broke me," Keener said.

Reporting her boss, she said, has ruined her nearly 20-year law enforcement career. She was removed from her position and relegated to an isolated desk in the Storey County Courthouse in Virginia City.

Meanwhile, the man she accused, Antinoro, remains the top law enforcement official in Storey County. He's still sheriff even after an internal investigation of her complaint found that Antinoro had violated the county's sexual harassment policy.

Accusations against Antinoro aren't limited to Keener's suit. In fact, the county administrator said in court proceedings that there have been "numerous" complaints against the sheriff. Court documents, a police report, interviews and state ethics commission hearings detail multiple other allegations. They range from harassment to using racial slurs and misusing government resources. There also are more serious allegations, including rape.

The allegations have prompted Antinoro's critics in this rural county, with a population of about 4,000, to ask what it takes to unseat a man accused of so much misconduct, especially toward women.

Storey County Sheriff Gerald Antinoro, here in Virginia City, Nev., is being sued for sexual harassment by his former chief deputy, Melanie Keener.
Maggie Starbard for NPR

Antinoro, known as Jerry, has never been prosecuted for a crime. He denies all the allegations that have been made against him, saying they're part of an organized witch hunt by people who don't like having a law-enforcing sheriff in town. In fact, he won his third term to office last year and beat a recall effort by his opponents.

"The people of Storey County haven't bought into their nonsense," Antinoro said in an interview at his office in Virginia City. "And they keep returning me to office because obviously somebody thinks I'm doing a good job and that I'm a decent guy."

The law enforcement convention

Keener's lawsuit details what allegedly happened between her and Antinoro. She claims her troubles began on a business trip to Ely, Nev., for a law enforcement convention in 2015. Keener and Antinoro drove the roughly five-hour drive together.

On the last night, after a little gambling and light drinking, she and Antinoro walked back to their separate rooms. She said she told him about "blowing" $80 gambling.

In her room, while she was washing her face and changing for bed, she heard the ding of a text message. It was from Antinoro.

"And about that blowing thing...LOL," it said, followed by a smiley-face emoji.

She deflected what she read as clear sexual innuendo. She texted back that she'd probably lost $100 altogether. She said she was trying to steer the conversation back to a place where she felt comfortable without upsetting her boss.

She got another text: "I'm bored stiff over here. LOL." Then another asking her to grab another drink. Keener told him she was going to bed.

The next day, the car ride home was equally uncomfortable when he started talking.

Overlooking a snow-covered Virginia City. The majority of residents are retirees, and tourists head here for the preserved charm of an Old West town.
Maggie Starbard for NPR

"There was just this long narrative of his sexual life and to the point where I didn't know what to say," Keener said. "This is my boss. I was terrified that I would lose my job. So I didn't say anything. And then the treatment just got worse."

She said she was silent as Antinoro detailed his visits to swinger clubs, his penchant for watching his girlfriend at the time have sex with other men in public. She wrote it all down in a statement for the county's internal investigation, which was included in court proceedings.

"I don't know — maybe I didn't respond the way he thought I would," she said.

Her cool reaction to Antinoro's sexual banter, she alleged, led to months of growing hostile behavior. Antinoro would throw his feet up on her desk repeatedly when she was speaking. Once, fed up, she claims she put her gum on his shoe in protest. He scraped it off and threw it at her head.

About eight months later, she said, she was supposed to go on another business trip with her boss. She said she was worried about going out of town with him again. While Antinoro was away, she found the courage to report him.

"I felt like it was a burden," Keener said. "And they didn't know what to do with me, so they just stuck me in the county manager's office and they were just like, 'OK, you stay here. You report to work here.'"

Antinoro stayed in his position as sheriff while the county investigated. And Keener? Human resources took her badge, her gun, her IDs and relegated her to a hidden corner of the brick courthouse in Virginia City. She's still there, even after the investigation found that Antinoro had violated the county's policy against sexual harassment.

Nothing this man does, nothing he has done ever catches up to him. You know, they call him Teflon because it doesn't matter what he does wrong. He gets away with it. - Melanie Keener, former chief deputy

"I am really trying to get past it," she said. "It's hard when you know that your law enforcement career is over and the person who ended your career is walking around like a little hero everywhere he goes."

And it feels like there is nothing she and other women can do, she said.

"Nothing this man does, nothing he has done ever catches up to him," Keener said. "You know, they call him Teflon because it doesn't matter what he does wrong. He gets away with it."

Keener sits at her desk in the back corner of the Storey County Museum in Virginia City. After filing a sexual harassment complaint against Antinoro, Keener was removed from her position as the sheriff's chief deputy.
Maggie Starbard for NPR

Storey County's development

Storey County isn't well known outside Nevada. It's about 22 miles southeast of Reno and some 44 miles northeast of Lake Tahoe, near the California-Nevada border. The county seat, Virginia City, is a former silver and gold mining town that was the setting of the TV Western Bonanza. Many of its storefronts still look like they're right out of the late 1800s.

The few hundred locals in Virginia City frequent the Bucket of Blood Saloon, built in 1876. It's just down the street from the sheriff's office, past the Virginia City Outlaws theater and across from Grandma's Fudge Factory. The majority of residents are older retirees, and tourists head here for the preserved charm of the Old West.

But there has been a push in recent years to lure high-tech businesses to the area. That infusion of new money is bringing new scrutiny to local government and the people who run it.

The county seat, Virginia City, was once a silver and gold mining town. It looks like something out of the late 1800s.
Maggie Starbard for NPR

It's particularly concerning because the controversy around the sheriff is playing out in the shadow of the national #MeToo movement. In this rural area, though, women have few recourses against elected county officials, said Marlene Lockard of the nonpartisan Nevada Women's Lobby.

"In this day and age, the message this sends to women is alarming, and I do think that women in that community are afraid to come forward," Lockard said.

The Nevada Women's Lobby is pushing for legislation to allow a "provision of impeachment or removal" for an elected county official who has been found to have violated sexual harassment policies multiple times.

"[Storey County] really is the last vestiges. It's a tired old saw where the good old boys reign," Lockard said. "I think this legislation and the efforts of many different resources in Nevada will send them a message: Just because you're a lone county in rural Nevada doesn't mean the women there should be treated any differently."

Virginia City is a small town, which means pretty much everyone knows about the sheriff's troubles — and about his feud with Lance Gilman.

Lance Gilman is a county commissioner and the owner of the famous Mustang Ranch brothel, an important source of revenue for the county.
Maggie Starbard for NPR

Gilman is also a well-known and powerful man around town. He's a county commissioner and the owner of the famous Mustang Ranch brothel, an important source of revenue for the county. Gilman said it pays hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes and fees each year.

Along with his business partner, Roger Norman, Gilman is responsible for bringing more than 100 companies to the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center. They include tech giants like Tesla and Google. He said the businesses have taken the county from one of the poorest in Nevada to potentially the wealthiest.

Gilman wants Antinoro removed from office, saying it's not good for business to have a man accused of sexual assault and harassment in charge of law enforcement. Gilman and his business partner spearheaded an unsuccessful recall effort against the sheriff that ended in 2017. He's also suing Antinoro for defamation.

Antinoro said Gilman is out to get him because Gilman doesn't like the way he enforces the law at the brothel — something Gilman insists is not true. Meanwhile, Gilman said the businesses he has brought to town are concerned.

"It's had a worry impact on the businesses. Obviously they're here. Obviously we're successful," Gilman said. "They are all, unfortunately, aware of what we have going on."

Allegations of rape

The most serious accusation against Antinoro is rape.

In a 2014 Sparks, Nev., police report, a woman said that Antinoro, then a deputy in the sheriff's office, raped her in 2006 at the direction of another sheriff's office employee.

The woman, afraid of being identified, reported the alleged rape to police under a pseudonym. She didn't know Antinoro, she said, but did know the other man.

"They both were in full uniform with guns," their accuser said in an interview with NPR.

She spoke on the condition of anonymity, still afraid of the men. She said it took her about eight years to gather the courage to report the alleged rape to police, she said.

"I knew it was gonna be very hard for people to believe that these two had done that," she said. After all, they were in law enforcement. "I was scared."

She's still afraid. She recounted the alleged assault in an interview on the condition that she'd never be identified.

She told police she was asleep at home when she heard the crackle of a police radio.

"I was not awake when it first started happening, and when I became fully awake and realized what was going on, I was rigid with fear," she said.

She said she was forced to perform oral sex on Antinoro at the direction of the other man. Then Antinoro raped her as the other man watched, pleasuring himself. NPR is not naming that man because his accuser is afraid that identifying him will identify her.

"Then they both got up, got dressed and left," she said. "My family doesn't know about it. My friends don't know about it. I'm embarrassed. I know I shouldn't be, because I was the victim. But I am embarrassed that somebody had that kind of control over me."

Too ashamed to initially confide in friends or family, she turned to alcohol. She said that because of the drinking, she lost her job and custody of her daughter.

"I was trying to block it out. Just trying to get all the memories to go away," she said. "Beating myself up because I shouldn't have let it happen."

Finally she told a friend. In 2014, she reported it to the Sparks police near Storey County, about eight years after the alleged assault. But police couldn't pursue the case. The statute of limitations had run out.

She's sober now, she has a steady job and she has spent a lot of time in therapy. But she's still afraid.

Many accusations against Antinoro are documented in hundreds of pages of depositions in the two lawsuits against the sheriff, a police report alleging rape and interviews with alleged victims and their lawyers. And yet he has never been prosecuted.
Maggie Starbard for NPR

"I don't live in that county. But I drive through that county to get to my home, and every time I see a Storey County car, I freeze," she said. "I feel my blood pressure rising, my pulse racing. I feel sweaty. Because I think, 'What if it's one of them?' "

Antinoro denies he raped the woman. He said in a deposition that it was consensual and didn't involve anyone else.

Another alleged assault is also detailed in Keener's sexual harassment lawsuit. This one involved a woman who said she was romantically involved with Antinoro. She has never reported her alleged rape to police — she and her lawyer said she's too afraid to speak about what allegedly happened. She did not speak with NPR, and NPR is not identifying her because she is the alleged victim of a sexual assault.

In her deposition, she testified that she met Antinoro at her job. In 2015, he heard her birthday was coming up, and he asked her to go skydiving.

"It's always been on my bucket list," she said she told him.

A portrait of Antinoro hangs on the wall of the Storey County Courthouse in Virginia City. Despite many allegations, he has won three elections and beat a recall effort by his opponents.
Maggie Starbard for NPR

She'd been divorced for a few years, and he seemed nice. So she said yes.

"The more things we did, I, I just felt comfortable with him," she testified in her deposition. "I thought he was an OK guy, you know?"

She agreed to go with him to Lodi, Calif., for a romantic weekend. He asked her to wear a dress he liked. They swam at the hotel pool, had dinner and cocktails, then went for a swim again. That's when things turned.

She testified that she looked up from the pool and saw Antinoro speaking to three men she didn't recognize. She asked who they were — friends of his? He said no, they were there to have sex with her. She said she was shocked and that she didn't want to do it. She threatened to call the police if he didn't make them leave.

She said she went to the room; Antinoro followed her. She went to the bathroom. Then the door opened. One of the men from the pool was there. He pulled her out of the bathroom.

"And then they just, they threw me up against one of the other guys," she testified. "I started screaming and screaming, and the other guy that was there put some duct tape on my mouth and threw me on the bed. It was all over after that."

She testified that the three strangers raped her. Antinoro was there at the beginning, she said, but she was so distraught as she tried to fight the men off that she's not sure if he stayed. The next morning, she said, Antinoro acted like nothing had happened.

"He set me up to get raped," she said in her testimony.

Afraid, she pretended everything was fine until she got home and away from Antinoro. She has never pressed charges, also out of fear. On the day she was deposed, she was still afraid.

"I'm scared to death of him," she said in her testimony. She went on: "Now that I've given this testimony, well, what's he going to do? ... That's why I didn't want to do this."

Her statement was referred to police in Lodi, Calif., by the Nevada attorney general. The police opened a case in 2018, then closed it. To protect the identity of any possible victims of sexual assault, they would not discuss the case.

"A complete and utter fabrication"

Antinoro has never been prosecuted for or charged with these alleged sexual assaults. He denies the allegations.

He spoke at length to NPR from his office about the accusations. He called every assault accusation a fabrication. He attributed the sexual harassment findings and the reports of racist language in the Keener complaint as people being politically correct.

He also denies the more serious accusations.

The alleged rape in Sparks, Nev.?

"It was false then and it's false now, no truth to it whatsoever," he said.

The orchestrated gang rape in Lodi, Calif.?

"That is a complete and utter fabrication. Plain and simple," he said.

He does acknowledge he has called white people the N-word, but he doesn't see that as racist.

The conversation about his sex life with Keener, his former chief deputy, during their car ride home from the conference?

He said if it bothered her she should've said something.

As far as the text messages to Keener?

"There was no sexual innuendo. Never had any interest in her in that manner," he said. "And, you know, it makes me not want to talk to anybody because you can take anything and turn it into sexual connotation."

Antinoro's opponents say they are determined to remove him from office.
Maggie Starbard for NPR

So why would so many people make up these stories?

"It's a concerted effort by a small group of people to try and remove me from office," Antinoro said. Because "I enforce the rules, I follow the law and I don't give people breaks."

Before landing in Storey County, he bounced around different law enforcement agencies in Utah and then in Nevada. He was known as Gerald Cook until about 17 years ago, when he changed his name. He said he wanted to retake his family's Italian name.

He was "invited to leave his position" as chief enforcement officer at the Nevada Transportation Authority in 2006, he said in court proceedings, though it's unclear why. Later that year, he joined the Storey County Sheriff's Office as a deputy. In 2010, he was elected to his first term as sheriff.

He sits at his desk. On the bookshelf nearby is a framed picture of him and President Trump. He said he related to Trump because he was accused of so many "false" things driven, he said, by political vendettas.

"That's why," he said, he wrote the president a letter of support.

"Knowing what I've gone through," he said. He related.

He got a signed response back.

"Dear Sheriff Antinoro, thank you for your kind letter of support," it reads. "I appreciate your service to our nation as Sheriff of the Storey County Police Department."

Antinoro framed it and put it on the shelf next to the picture in his office.

Ethics commission investigation

Antinoro's opponents, though, are determined to remove him from that office; chief among them is Gilman.

"We've tried every avenue to say, 'Look at this,' " Gilman said in an interview at the industrial center that houses the more than 100 businesses he helped bring to the county.

The sheriff's opponents asked the Nevada attorney general's office to review all the allegations.

A statement from the attorney general's office said investigators "spent hundreds of hours conducting a thorough investigation of allegations related to Storey County Sheriff Antinoro, including coordinating with the FBI." But it said it "found no criminal conduct within our office's jurisdiction to prosecute."

The statement pointed out that matters like sexual harassment fall under the Nevada Equal Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

It closed the investigation last year.

"This isn't about politics," Keener says. "This is about an individual that is the highest law enforcement authority in Storey County."
Maggie Starbard for NPR

Now Gilman is pinning his hopes on the Nevada Commission on Ethics. If a county official is found to have "willfully violated" the ethics of his office three times, the commission must file a removal complaint with the courts, said Yvonne Nevarez-Goodson, the commission's executive director.

Antinoro has been found to have willfully violated the ethics of his office twice. He is appealing one of those decisions and plans to appeal the other.

Meanwhile, women like Keener say they worry that she and his other alleged victims will be dismissed as political pawns.

"This isn't about politics. This is about an individual that is the highest law enforcement authority in Storey County," she said. "To see it as politics, that takes away from those that have been victimized by him."

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