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Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office 25-year veteran fired for sexual harassment claims
Civil Service Board affirmed termination; appeal likely
Richard Holcomb
Richard Holcomb. - photo by For the Forsyth County News

A 25-year veteran of the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office recently lost an appeal of his Jan. 31 firing that stemmed from sexual harassment complaints.

On May 11, the Forsyth County Civil Service Board upheld the sheriff’s office’s decision to terminate Richard Holcomb, who held the rank of lieutenant at the time of his termination.

Evidence presented to the board found Holcomb “violated the sheriff’s office policy concerning workplace harassment and duty to read/understand/comply with orders … as well as the remaining violations consisting of violation of law, conduct unbecoming – on/off duty conduct and professional image,” according to a letter to Holcomb dated May 11.

His firing came after a nearly month-long investigation by the sheriff’s office’s Internal Affairs unit, which stemmed primarily from a November 2016 incident involving a female deputy and secondarily from a summer 2016 incident with a different female deputy.

Mike Garrison, the investigator who oversaw the case, told the Forsyth County News Internal Affairs was not notified of the incidents until January due to then-Sheriff Duane Piper determining in November there was not enough evidence to support the claim. Sheriff Ron Freeman took office in January.

“Prior administrations  had not taken affirmative action”

According to the civil service board's letter, on Nov. 11, Holcomb, who was working an off-duty job, asked an on-duty female deputy to meet near a business in south Forsyth.

The letter describes testimony from the deputy claiming while they gossiped about another female deputy while they were each in their own vehicle, Holcomb asked if she were interested in having casual sex.

The deputy said she downplayed the question by laughing it off and making a joke.

Holcomb later used the agency’s internal messaging system to say he hoped she was not offended by the conversation but to let him know if she ever became interested.

The deputy told the board she relayed the incident to her husband but told him she didn’t want to report it “based on her concern that prior administrations within the sheriff’s office had not taken affirmative action in enforcing the workplace harassment policy.”

Ultimately, however, she told her supervisor, Sgt. Gary Clark, according to Garrison.

“Once [the complainant] told her sergeant, it went up the chain and at that point in time, it went all the way up to Sheriff Piper,” he said. “Piper looked at it and told the captain who presented it to him that he felt it was kind of rumors and hearsay and he was not going to open up an investigation unless he had proof or other information.”

Garrison said he thinks it should have reached Internal Affairs at the time.

“A serious allegation like this should be investigated no matter whether you felt there should be [more] information,” he said. “When someone makes an allegation like this, it has to be investigated, period, and let the investigation determine whether or not there’s enough facts.”

“This shows a pattern”

During the course of the investigation, which began Jan. 3 when Holcomb was placed on paid administrative leave, the female deputy who Holcomb and the complainant were gossiping about in November told investigators she, too, had a similar encounter with him last summer – Holcomb told her she needed to find a friend to have casual sex with to get rid of stress, and she played it off by making a joke.

She did not report the incident because she said she was afraid of repercussions from her employer.

The FCN obtained Holcomb’s personnel file, which shows Capt. Mark Hoffman recommended his termination in a Jan. 26 letter to Chief Deputy Grady Sanford. Hoffman said the investigation found several other deputies who said Holcomb made them uncomfortable.

“The investigation uncovered two separate deputies that received unwanted attention,” Hoffman’s letter said. “This shows a pattern by Lt. Holcomb … This behavior cannot be tolerated with someone entrusted in a leadership role within the agency.”

In the past two years, Holcomb received three disciplinary action recommendations (DAR), two of which included suspensions and one that merited written counseling, according to his personnel file.

The first DAR, dated Jan. 26, 2015, involved Holcomb failing “to take supervisory action when a fellow [deputy] left a firearm unattended and unsecured in a bathroom on [Sept. 22, 2014].”

The second, for which Holcomb was suspended for eight hours, referenced a June 5, 2015 incident where he “failed to use decision-making and supervisor skills in completing an injury packet in a timely manner.”

Less than three weeks later, he was suspended for a second time due to “several incidents of where supervision has failed.”

That suspension lasted one 12-hour shift.

Prior to the three 2015 DARs, Holcomb received two others — a 24-hour suspension in February 1995 for an at-fault motor vehicle accident and a written warning in November 1998 for insubordination and disrespect.

In June 2001, under then-Sheriff Ted Paxton, Internal Affairs investigated Holcomb due to a female deputy’s sexual harassment claim.

While the allegations were not substantiated, Holcomb was transferred to a different shift, where he reported directly to Piper, who was a sergeant at the time. Piper served as sheriff from 2012-2016.

Garrison, who began working for the sheriff’s office in 2009, told the FCN while he did not know the details of the 2001 investigation, the finding of “not sustained” is a determination Internal Affairs tries to avoid.

“Not sustained means that ‘well, there’s really no evidence that says the deputy did it or he didn’t do it.’ That doesn’t do the complainant any good or the deputy or the agency. We continue to investigate until we determine is this sustained, is it exonerated and/or unfounded.”

“An excellent employee”

Despite the five DARs he received throughout his nearly 26 years employed by the sheriff’s office, Holcomb consistently received high scores on quarterly and annual reviews, reflected in the six promotions he received in his tenure at the sheriff’s office.

Hired on March 7, 1991 as a jailer, he received two promotions within a year, earning him the title of deputy sheriff.

In September 1998, he was promoted to corporal, the next-highest ranking, and in April 2002, he was again promoted to investigator, under then-Chief of Detectives Freeman, who was elected sheriff in 2016.

A November 2003 quarterly review written by Holcomb’s then-supervisor, Sgt. T.C. Murdock, which was later signed by Freeman, said Holcomb should “continue in [the] direction he’s going” and that he “is an excellent employee.”

In May 2004, Holcomb was promoted to sergeant, a title he kept until January 2008 when he was promoted to lieutenant, his most current rank.

Freeman, who worked with Holcomb in the early 2000s, said he was limited in what he could say about the termination.

“We hold ourselves, speaking for myself and my command staff, as well as all of our employees, to a strict code of behavior, ethics and morality,” he said. “If any of us violate that, we’re responsible for our own actions and in this case, it led to [Holcomb’s] termination.”

When reached for comment, Holcomb refused an interview request. Instead, his lawyer, E. Logan Butler of Patterson, Moore and Butler, said, “Due to substantial errors in the investigation and consideration of this case, Mr. Holcomb intends to appeal the decision.”

County Attorney Ken Jarrard said should Holcomb file an official appeal, the case will be turned over to the courts.

“The Forsyth County Superior Court would [receive] the appeal, which would occur within 30 days of the [May 11] decision,” he said. “It is a very statutorily driven process, and we have certainly had [appeals] happen before.”