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Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy files $50m suit over topless photos

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A Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy has filed a $50 million lawsuit against the department, claiming a male detective took topless photos of her for use in an online pedophile investigation, but the photos no longer can be accounted for and she has no way of knowing how the photos were used or who viewed them.

Deputy Krystal G. Rice filed state Supreme Court action Monday at the county clerk’s office against the Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff John P. Burns, Lt. Michael S. Peterson and Detective Steven C. Cote, claiming she was “exploited” by Mr. Cote when she allegedly was taken to a secluded location in 2006 and photographed “in little or no clothing” without another female officer present.

“It’s just outrageous, the way these photos were taken, and that there’s no departmental policy about how these type of photos should be taken,” Ms. Rice’s attorney, Charu Narang, Sackets Harbor, said Tuesday. “Clearly, she was just taken advantage of the whole time.”

The suit claims that Mr. Cote told her there was an official need for the photos as part of an investigation into online pedophiles. Ms. Rice claims Mr. Cote told her that another female deputy had posed for photos previously, but more were needed. She claims she was shown photos of the other deputy in cut-off shorts and a halter top, leading her to believe she would be similarly attired while posing as a 15-year-old girl.

Wearing a skirt and tank top, she accompanied Mr. Cote to the Black River Bay fishing access area in the town of Hounsfield, in a location not visible from the road. Ms. Rice claims she was asked to pose in “various sexually provocative” positions and then was asked to remove her top and “cover herself with her hands only.” She then allegedly was asked to pose “over the engine compartment of the car while topless,” which she did.

According to the complaint, Ms. Rice had been employed by the department for only a few months and, although uncomfortable with posing topless and believing she never agreed to do so, deferred to the more experienced detective because she thought he knew what types of pictures he needed for his investigation. The photo session lasted 30 to 45 minutes, at which time the pair returned to the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building, where Ms. Rice reviewed the photos and went home.

She claims that the action was approved by Lt. Peterson and that a contract was drawn up that set conditions of how the photos would be used and stored. She maintains the contract, which also allegedly no longer can be found, said that only one copy of the photos would be kept on a floppy disk and that the disk would be secured by Mr. Cote, with no one else having access. Ms. Rice claims that she was to approve any picture used in an investigation and that she could have the sole copy of the photos back “at any time she asked.”

“She was ensured that the pictures would never be disseminated and were her property, and she could always get them back,” Ms. Narang said.

However, Ms. Rice maintains that when she began asking for the disk in February 2009, the department was unable to produce it or the contract. In March 2009, she claims, Lt. Peterson told her that Mr. Cote “destroyed the disk so you have nothing to worry about.” She claims she has never been able to ascertain how or when the disk was destroyed and is concerned that copies still exist.

Ms. Rice claims that she asked Lt. Peterson again in January about the disks, at which time she allegedly was told that no topless photos should have been taken of her by anyone in the department, let alone a male detective, and that any photos that were shot should have been taken in the department’s offices with a female present.

Sheriff Burns referred questions about the suit to the county attorney’s office. County Attorney David J. Paulsen declined to comment on the allegations because the matter is still under investigation.

According to court documents, a letter of reprimand was placed in Mr. Cote’s personnel file after Ms. Rice made complaints to Sheriff Burns and Lt. Peterson about his alleged conduct. In addition to the photo session, it is claimed in the suit that Mr. Cote “engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment and defamation” against Ms. Rice, including alleged statements made to the mother of Ms. Rice’s former boyfriend “regarding her virtue” that caused the relationship to end.

The suit also claims that Ms. Rice has been subjected to ridicule from other members of the department for the claims she has made against Mr. Cote.

She is claiming, among other things, intentional infliction of emotional distress because she is unable to determine who may have viewed the photos or whether they still exist, and a breach of duty by the department’s administrators for, among other things, not informing her that topless photos should not be taken of her or that other photos should not be taken away from the office.

Ms. Narang said the suit was filed nearly six years after the photo session took place because Ms. Rice believes Mr. Cote is planning to retire soon and, were he to leave the department, any opportunity to recover the photos, should they still exist, would be lost.

In 2008, Ms. Rice was honored for her bravery during a Law and Order Night banquet. Sheriff Burns named her as his selection for her actions on the afternoon of Aug. 8, 2007, after a Syracuse woman fired gunshots at her boyfriend on Plaza Drive, then locked herself in her car. The woman shot herself in the head, and her car, left in gear, began moving.

Deputy Rice climbed onto the car, yanked off the sunroof, placed the car in park and unlocked the doors. She and Deputy Edmond J. Coseo performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation, keeping the woman alive until medical assistance arrived. The woman later died in a Syracuse hospital.

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