When Brandy Mooney and Megan Gault were court-ordered to a Sarasota residential addiction treatment facility, they expected to get the counseling and help they needed to return to the workforce once their prison time was served.
Thinking they were safe, both women say they were sexually assaulted by a man who was supposed to be preparing their meals.
Two women filed a five-count lawsuit against First Step of Sarasota and employee Julio Guerrero last week, holding both accountable for reported sexual assaults that occurred while they were in the court-ordered program contracted by the Florida Department of Corrections.
The assaults alleged in the lawsuit occurred in November 2015 and February 2016, according to the complaint, and there is no record that they were thoroughly investigated.
First Step received numerous reports from other women claiming they had been sexually assaulted or abused by Guerrero by October 2015, prior to either woman’s arrival at the treatment facility, the complaint alleges, yet it failed to do anything to prevent the assaults or abuse.
The women didn’t immediately report their assaults for fear of retaliation or retribution. But they were later inspired and felt empowered to do so by the #MeToo movement.
“Recovery gave me a voice and I wanted to use that voice for myself, not just for me but for the women who didn’t have one,” Mooney said last week.
There is no record of criminal charges pending against Guerrero or that the assaults were investigated beyond initial statements taken from the victims. The women said those statement were provided to the Department of Corrections. The assaults were also reported to the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office on June 7, 2016, but according to an incident report, “No further action taken at this time.”
According to victims and letters they wrote that were submitted to deputies, Guerrero was fired by First Step.
First Step declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
In November 2015, about two months after being placed at First Step, Mooney was in the kitchen assisting Guerrero with food preparation when he asked her to get tomatoes from the cooler, according to the woman’s account.
Guerrero followed her, she said, closed the door behind him, walked up to her and licked her face and neck. She was overpowered and he began to assault her until he heard someone walk near the cooler, Mooney said.
Mooney kept it to herself until one day in February 2016 when Gault, her roommate, came running into their room crying and told her how Guerrero had sexually assaulted her.
Gault, who had been at First Step for about four months, had been in the kitchen when Guerrero cornered her, forcibly kissed her, grabbed her and then assaulted her before she could get away, she said.
The Department of Corrections would only confirm that they received two reports of sexual assault at First Step of Sarasota in May 2016 that were referred to law enforcement for investigation, but have cited confidentiality of the sexual assault victims as the reason it cannot release more information, according to spokesman Patrick Manderfield.
The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office is still looking into the allegations, according to spokeswoman Kaitlyn Perez, but confirmed that the Department of Corrections was the primary investigating agency.