Breaking her Silence
Former dispatcher Louise Charlene Taylor says Sheriff A.C. Gilless demanded sexual favors from her for a full decade. In an exclusive interview, she talks about her nightmare at 201 Poplar.
by Phil Campbell
he says she has nightmares every night. Sometimes she doesnt sleep at all, pacing the floors of her modest Bartlett home as if they were a treadmill on medium speed. Shes gone back to smoking, especially when she talks about it. She has high blood pressure. Her stomach is easily upset. Her anxiety is so great that sometimes she finds herself clawing at her face, as if, by tearing away the skin on her cheeks, she could remove 10 years of
regret. She cries for no apparent reason. On weekends and weeknights she rarely leaves the house, not seeing any particular reason to even get out of bed. The images of angels, flowers, and fruit that decorate the interior of her softly lit house are supposed to bring her some sense of solitude and tranquility, but they are little comfort against the specters of her subconscious. Her little poodle, Taco, seems to be absorbing and channeling all her negative energy; he never stops running, barking, and pawing at the air while she sits nervously on the couch.
And those nightmares.
She wont elaborate on them, but describes them as dark and twisted. This former dispatcher for the Shelby County Sheriffs Department now draws a special medical disability pension. Her psychiatrist diagnosed her as having severe depression. County-paid therapists, in a separate evaluation, had to concur. She doesnt work now; shell be collecting her tax-exempt pension for another 13 years, when, at the age of 65, she is officially retired from the department.
Sitting in her home, Louise Charlene Taylor tries to talk about it but cant. She cant even say Sheriff A.C. Gilless name, referring to him alternately as the sheriff, the second-highest man in the county, and the man on top of the department. She will talk incessantly about how she was denied a promotion last year. The emotional scars, however, have more to do with what happened to her behind closed doors while she was alone with Gilless.
The 52-year-old Taylor claims that she was an unwilling participant in the sheriffs demands for sexual favors. She says the situation lasted a full 10 years.
About a year ago, she broke down completely, finally succumbing to the emotional trauma. Breaking her side of the out-of-court confidential settlement agreement with the county and the sheriff, and arguing, through her lawyer, that the county had already broken that settlement agreement, Taylor has decided to tell her story for the first time to someone other than her lawyer, her family, and her psychiatrist.
Breaking the Silence Clause
Having won reelection last August, Gilless waited two months before he agreed to pay $77,862 out of his own pocket approximately 80 percent of his annual salary to prevent Taylors claims from becoming a federal sexual-harassment and discrimination lawsuit. An additional $50,000 was paid directly by the county.
The $50,000 that Shelby County Mayor Jim Routs administration contributed to the Taylor settlement was the maximum it could contribute without approval from the county commission. That would have made the case public and undoubtedly an embarrassment for all involved.
Taylor has been bound by the terms of the settlement agreement since it was signed on October 20, 1998. Gilless, too, committed to the contract, as did the county, as represented by assistant county attorney Brian L. Kuhn.
A reporter from The Memphis Flyer visited Taylor at her home the week after the Flyer broke the story of this negotiated deal in early December. Taylor wouldnt comment. How I wanted to say something then, she says now. She bristled at being referred to as another Monica on the radio talk shows, but there was nothing that she could do.
Instead of speaking out, however, Taylor clipped articles from local papers to find out what was being said about her. As the stories piled up, she and her attorney became convinced that the county was violating its side of the confidentiality clause.
Taylors attorney, Kathleen Caldwell, works on North Second Street, not far from 201 Poplar Avenue, where the Shelby County Sheriffs Department is headquartered. She explains the legal decision to break the settlement agreement completely and make Taylors story public. I have tried mightily to abide by the confidentiality provision, and I thought it was in everybodys best interest, Caldwell says. Everything was essentially disclosed, not by us, but by the county.
None of the terms of the agreement were supposed to be disclosed, but apparently the agreement was turned over to [the media]. As were revelations about Taylors psychological condition, and comments about her during a county pension board meeting.
The fact that shed been at Lakeside, the fact that shed been treated for various problems thats her business, Caldwell says. She didnt need that amount of pain. And here we are.
By signing the settlement agreement, the county had put itself into an impossible dilemma. While it had agreed to not communicate, discuss, or otherwise make reference, express or implied, whether directly or indirectly, about any aspect of the Taylor case, it still had to comply with the Tennessee Open Records Act if someone asked specifically for the countys files. When the media came knocking, County Attorney Donnie Wilson tried to balance this conflict by opening all available files and notes on the case without verbally discussing it.
Taylor and Caldwell, however, believe that the spirit of the agreement has been broken. As a result, Taylor made the unsolicited decision to talk to the Flyer.
No one else could have hurt Gilless more during last years election than Louise Charlene Taylor. She could have been coldly calculating, timing her news bombshell just a few weeks before the balloting, turning Melvin Burgess lackluster opposition campaign into a better-than-the-philanderer vote, perhaps converting his 9-percent loss into a victory. Not only that, but the 22-year veteran dispatcher has enough insider knowledge of the Sheriffs Department that she could have made her news appearances into something more than a personal story; she could have given a blisteringly negative critique of the department, which might have further helped doom her boss at the polls.
But she didnt. Reporters from WREG-TV Channel 3 and WPTY-TV Channel 24 actually had the story first. They called her when she was in the middle of negotiations with Gilless and county attorneys. She declined to comment, effectively killing their stories. The coverage that came after the settlement was signed ended as quickly as it had begun, and the media had given up pursuing the matter by mid-January.
Ask her again and again why she chooses to talk now, and shell give the same answer. I thought it would be better for me to go on and settle [the legal claim] and to begin my life over, Taylor says. I cant do that. And this is why Ive talked to my psychiatrist, and this is why Ive agreed to talk with you. He thinks that, maybe, if Im given a chance to say my piece, that might make me feel better and help me move forward.
Even now, Taylor isnt really talking. Theres a place in her mind where she wont or cant go right now. This much she does say: Taylor claims that she was forced to have a sexual relationship with A.C. Gilless, a hush-hush office affair that went on at the sheriffs whim and pleasure for 10 years. It all took place behind closed office doors on the 9th floor of 201 Poplar. The relationship occurred on a sporadic basis. Sometimes it was once a week, sometimes it was once a month. Sometimes there would be a long break before she would be called, once again, out of the dispatchers area to a closed office for more sexual favors. Gilless, a married man who lives in Arkansas, never completely stopped asking for her. According to EEOC guidelines, an incident of sexual harassment has to have taken place within the past year in order for the victim to ask for standing to sue. Apparently, Taylor could cite such an incident, because thats what she did in May, when an attorney from Caldwells office escorted her to the EEOC branch in Midtown.
The subject is sexual harassment, but, as the details pour out in a disjointed, fragmentary, elusive fashion, it becomes obvious that the topic is really about sex itself. With Oprah and Springer and Internet porn and frank talk about safe intercourse and Lewinsky and Clinton and blow jobs and oral sex being used straight-faced by all the networks and The New York Times, its easy to forget that this stuff used to be mentioned only in the context of a dirty joke, a locker-room snicker, or a vaguely obscene note passed between classmates in high school.
Now everybody wants to know everything, and they want to talk about it, too. And a news story just doesnt seem complete if it doesnt have all of the sordid details.
Taylor resists that pressure. Despite four marathon interview sessions, the former dispatcher wouldnt provide the kind of material needed to fill more than a few paragraphs in the Starr report.
She is 5-feet tall, a dark-haired, petite figure who has filled out a little with age. Stress and insomnia have added dark circles under her fading blue eyes.
She keeps her poise as best as she can. Born and raised in Alexandria, Louisiana, Taylor considers herself a traditional Southern lady. She applies a tasteful amount of makeup even when shes only lounging around the house in sweat pants and a casual blouse. She doesnt think women should be police officers because they are not physically or mentally as tough as men. She prefers shopping at a small country store that does not accept credit cards. She is unabashedly proud that her daughter, an interior designer, has abandoned an interest in contemporary design styles in favor of more conservative ones. She will not invite you to call her Louise or Charlene if you are younger than she is.
What happened behind those closed office doors?
I was made to do things I didnt want to do. And I was afraid of retaliation in not doing them. Point blank. Period.
Sexual things, she says slowly, falteringly, of a sexual nature. Ive known that if you dont play, you pay. One way or the other. And, with that in the back of my head, seeing how retaliatory they were I was afraid. So, even they were against my better judgments and my feelings. There was no gratification on my part. And I dont like to talk about it.
The superficial details come out, haphazardly and abruptly. It was very sporadic, she says at one point. I might be asked to go into the office I never met anybody outside that office. It was not something that I was seeing someone and meeting them for drinks and having dinner. That was not done. It all took place on the job. Even though I was asked out of town and stuff like that, I never went. I declined. I would say my boy had a horse rodeo or something like that. I had no intention of doing that.
But, at another point, she blurts, It was very sporadic. It was just at his convenience. His will. And it was not sexually satisfying or gratifying for me. So it was definitely not a two-way thing. Its just that I was scared not to. I was scared that if I didnt play, I would pay.
A rational person might question all of this. A woman claims 10 years of sexual harassment, the first two while she was married and when Gilless was chief deputy under Sheriff Jack Owens. The intimidation factor must have been tremendous, her will to protest extraordinarily weak.
But even if it meant losing her job, why didnt she just say no?
Its very difficult to refuse to go to your boss office, Caldwell says. She did say no, and she also avoided him. He [Gilless] would come around one corner, and she would go around another.
She said no, please no, she used all of the words that one should have to use. She always made excuses why she couldnt meet him elsewhere, why she couldnt meet him at his house in Arkansas. She was and is a legitimate person aggrieved by what happened to her at work, Caldwell adds.
Taylor paints the Sheriffs Department as a loving family, until you cross one of the male relatives. Then it becomes a menacing place. Its a brotherhood, where the senior brothers get what they want, whenever they want it. To say no to the man who heads such an organization is a big mistake.
Taylor was a part of that family for many years. Like a good employee, she volunteered during each incumbent sheriffs election, from Roy Nixon in 1974 to Gilless in 1994.
Taylor says she felt like she was making a sacrifice for her job and her second husband, Travis Taylor, a sergeant in the department. He loved what he did. How could I go home, if I loved him, and tell him this, and him being able to go to work the next day? So I shoved it.
Even after her divorce in 1990, she didnt believe she could do anything. There were also bills to pay, a son to feed, a middle-class lifestyle to maintain. I didnt want to pay any consequences, she says. I couldnt afford to. Eleven years after it all began, however, she asserts that shes paying heavy psychological consequences. She spends her days at home, unable to work, babysitting her granddaughter, watching the Home Shopping Network, and sleeping erratically. Im sorry now that I didnt [fight back] years ago. Thats one of my regrets, not standing up for myself years ago.
Had Taylor taken her claims to court, she actually would have filed not one but two lawsuits against the Sheriffs Department. The first would have been against Gilless, the department, and the county, and it would have been related to her sexual-harassment claims. The second lawsuit would have been against the department and the county for job discrimination.
An employee of the departments communications division since 1976, Taylors professional problems with the department began in 1990, two years after she claims Gilless began sexually harassing her.
The department sent her to a special school in Nashville. There, through the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), she was trained to be the departments Terminal Agency Coordinator (TAC). The TAC is responsible for acting as a liaison between the Sheriffs Department, TBI, and the FBI. Both TBI and the FBI maintain databases that archive closed crime cases as well as track active criminal cases.
For her position, Taylor was responsible for teaching others in her division how to input data into the FBIs nationwide database, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). She was also responsible for making sure that the people she taught werent inputting mistakes into the databases. Every two years, Taylor had to be recertified as the Terminal Agency Coordinator.
When she left the department last year, Taylor was making $38,000, and her title was dispatcher. The individual who performs similar duties for the Memphis Police Department holds the title of communications manager and currently gets paid $54,000 a year, according to the city human resources office.
Lt. Richard True, the Memphis Police Departments commander of communications, says TAC duties are just part-time. His communications manager has other supervisory responsibilities.
Taylor believes TAC duties are, in fact, a full-time job, If theyre going to do it the way it needs to be done, she says. But her jobs werent just related to TAC work. Actually, for a while I was doing three jobs, Taylor says. I was dispatching, I was instructing, and I was doing the Terminal Agency Coordinators duties, which is a lot of paperwork.
When Taylor started receiving specialized TAC training in 1990, she says that then-Chief Deputy A. Ray Mills promised her a promotion and a raise. Taylor wrote a proposal for the creation of a special unit in the communications division to handle TBI and FBI database entries, with herself as the supervisor. At first, this idea was well-received, she says. A corner of the communications room was even dedicated for the purpose of NCIC data entry, and Taylor says she was made the de facto supervisor over a couple of data-entry assistants.
But Taylor says she was then strung along for years by her superiors. Mills eventually was forced out of the department amid a federal indictment in the well-publicized jobs-for-sale scam. Deputy Chief Richard Almond eventually took over as Taylors supervisor, second only to Gilless. Taylors immediate supervisor was Sgt. Brian Douglas.
Every time I asked about this [promotion and raise], I was told just to hang in there, and, trustingly, I did. At one point she even bought a brand-new 1996 Chrysler Sebring in anticipation of the additional income. I have to blame myself on that, she admits. That was kind of like putting the cart before the horse.
Things came to a head early last year. Douglas told her that the department was taking her NCIC desk away from her. When pushed, she got an even greater shock. Deputy Chief Almond told Taylor that the county budget division had told the department that she could get her title change, but only if she accepted a significant pay cut.
I was told that the county had sent over an offer of $10,000 less than what I made, she says. I was already making about $11,000 less than what the city person [with the same position] was, even where I was. And they wanted to cut it by $10,000.
Despite her sexual relationship with Gilless at this time, Taylor insists that she never asked the sheriff for any special favors. The only time I got to talk to the sheriff was by going through the chain of command, she says. In this instance, when her salary was on the line, Taylor says she couldnt get an audience with Gilless.
I went in the following week, and [Deputy Chief Almond] said I could not talk to the sheriff. But then, Taylor says, Almond offered her the chance for something greater. Douglas was vacating the position as communications commander. She could apply for that post.
He said, Well, dont you think the communications commander will have to know a little bit about everything? And I said yes. And he said, Dont you? And I said yes. He said, Well, you can apply for [the position].
Well, in March, I had to attend a conference in Gatlinburg to keep my certification as the terminal agency coordinator and instructor. When I got back, they had promoted Libby Marti as the communications coordinator.
I never had a chance to apply for it, she says. They made their decision when I was out of town.
Early in 1998, Taylors job was not only going nowhere, but it appeared to be taking a downward turn. When Taylor talks about repressing her feelings, she says she shoved them.
One way or another, it all had to come to the surface.
Taylor says she finally broke down when she saw herself outside of herself. Nothing seemed too unusual on that particular February morning in 1998. She had woken up around 5:30 a.m. She had driven her Chrysler Sebring from her home almost to the Tipton County line near Austin Peay Highway to drop her 17-year-old son off at a tutors house. Then Taylor turned around and headed toward downtown Memphis, to 201 Poplar, the Criminal Justice Building.
As she usually did, she prayed out loud while she drove, asking Jesus Christ for His divine help and blessings. By the time she got to the departments headquarters, Taylors short-term memory blanked out. The long commute was crowded out by the deep-seated depression that psychiatrists would later say made her a strong candidate for medication.
As usual, a long line snaked outside of the building, people with traffic tickets to contest, court hearings to attend, and relatives to bail out of jail. In her dispatchers uniform, Taylor walked past that line without thinking, gliding into an elevator and up to the 9th floor.
She got to her desk, but before she could sit down, she stopped. She says her seat was already occupied. Not five feet from where she was standing sat Louise Charlene Taylor, in her white uniform brass name tag, badge, and epaulets. Her black hair was neat and combed back. Her body double was solid in shape and form and busy completing NCIC paperwork. Moreover, she says, her body double was oblivious to her presence, moving through documents with the professional efficiency that Taylor admires in herself.
The funny thing was, no one else in the office seemed to notice that Taylor was staring at what appeared to be herself in the middle of the office. The dispatchers only conclusion was that she was going insane.
What she experienced, in psychiatric terms, is called depersonalization. Its similar to deja vu, but, if it recurs persistently, it can be far more damaging to ones psyche. My psychiatrist told me that it could progress to the point where I went outside myself and not come back, she says.
Later that day, Taylor called a county-paid therapist for help. The therapist referred her to a psychiatrist, especially after Taylor told her that she feared not only for her job, but for her life.
Shortly after that, Taylor contacted a lawyer. She then filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, articulating for the first time the reasons for her mental and emotional problems.
In mid-June, Taylor checked into Charter Lakeside Hospital for two weeks. And her life at the department started coming to an end even as Sheriff A.C. Gilless and his deputy chiefs attempted damage control. While her career was ending, Gilless problems had only begun.
Taylor says she found herself face-to-face with the sheriff about a week after she filed her EEOC complaint. Paneled on two sides by large windows and located in the center of the 9th floor of the Criminal Justice Building, the break room for employees has a fishbowl quality to it. One morning, Taylor says, she was in that break room with other communications employees having a meeting about standard operating procedures when Gilless walked in.
A smoke break was called. Gilless, a heavy smoker, joined Taylor on the elevator. There were other people on the elevator, so the sheriff and the dispatcher descended to the first floor in silence.
Once outside, Taylor says Gilless asked her to call the EEOC and tell them that her concerns would be handled internally. I had no idea what to say, she says. I felt intimidated.
Instead, she sidestepped the issue. I told him that it was just something that I would have to talk to my attorney about.
A few days later, Taylor says she was confronted by Deputy Chief Virginia Skinner. Taylor was at the departments training academy, which is near the Shelby County Correctional Facility in East Memphis. She was giving instructions on the NCIC database to a small class. Skinner, the highest-ranking woman in the department, caught up with Taylor in the hallway after the class.
She told me that I did not need to pursue this because of the sheriffs [re-election] race, Taylor asserts.
I felt humiliated, Taylor says. She came to me as a friend. This hurt me because Ive always been loyal [to the department]. To stand up for myself was being disloyal.
Taylor filed a follow-up complaint with the EEOC in June, claiming that Gilless and his chiefs were trying to intimidate her.
Taylor checked into Charter Lakeside and was prescribed Prozac and BuSpar, anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications.
Back at the office, Skinner was making all the employees in the communications division sign a paper agreeing that they would not contact Taylor with job-related questions. Skinner has said that she did that so Taylor would not be bothered with petty problems at the department.
But Taylor says the no-contact document was an effort to isolate her. They took my friends away from me, she says. They took away the power and the authority that I had. But the supervisors on the floor of dispatch didnt know anything about NCIC liabilities. They would still have to call me.
Despite the pressure, Taylor wouldnt back down. Gilless and the county now found themselves facing possible litigation, which could only create a lot of negative publicity for the sheriff during his reelection bid. Taylor and Caldwell, however, say they did not want to sling dirt.
We tried really hard not to politicize her claim, Caldwell says, and not to politically impact wrongfully an election. We did not see Charlene as a political ploy by anyone opposing Gilless. This is not what she was doing at all.
Early in the summer, lawyers for Taylor and those representing Gilless and the county agreed to attempt a settlement by mediation. Taylor went to the first mediation session at attorney Allen Blairs office on Front Street, accompanied by her lawyer and her therapist. Gilless went with his legal adviser, Don Strother; his number-two man, Chief Deputy Don Wright; and attorney Hite McLean, who represented Gilless, the Sheriffs Department, and Shelby County. Blair served as the mediator.
According to those involved, the mediation took place with Gilless and his representatives in one room and Taylor, Caldwell, and the therapist in another. Blair moved back and forth, relating messages, offers, and counteroffers, taking the edge off any insulting or sarcastic comments that might have been exchanged.
The session took place on August 5th, the day before Gilless election. The two sides were far apart: Gilless and the county initially offered Taylor $10,000. Taylor and Caldwell wanted $6 million.
The session lasted 12 hours and got nowhere. Taylor says she didnt think the sheriff or his cohorts thought she was serious.
A second mediation session about two weeks later lasted 8 to 10 hours, Taylor says. She and her attorney whittled their demands down to $350,000. The countys best offer that day was to acknowledge that the Memphis Police Departments communications managers were making more than Taylor. She would receive a commensurate raise. Gilless made no personal offer of compensation.
At one point, Taylor found herself facing Strother and Gilless during a break. They had all headed downstairs. Gilless and Taylor lit up cigarettes on the sidewalk along Front Street. According to the rules of mediation, they werent supposed to talk to each other, but, according to Taylor, they did. She says the sheriff again implored Taylor to drop the issue and return to the fold. He said that we didnt need to do this, that this would only hurt me and my children, Taylor says.
She was still getting adjusted to the medications, which were making her drowsy and disoriented. The days negotiations were costing her heavily in emotional strain. Her therapist wasnt by her side.
Still, she says, she looked Gilless in the eye and assured him that she and her children would survive. I knew exactly what I had to lose, and my children werent going to be the only ones embarrassed.
I didnt want to hurt him, she says. But I wanted a justification for me.
They went back into mediation. Again, however, it didnt appear as if they were getting anywhere. Her therapist wouldnt support Taylors returning to work, so the countys offer was a dead issue. I finally got fed up and told them that I was going home, she says. And she left.
After that, Taylor stayed out of the negotiations as Caldwell dealt with the attorneys. Once or twice a week for approximately three or four weeks, Taylor would receive an update at her Bartlett home. As time dragged on, it became increasingly difficult not to settle and be done with it. I was falling apart, Taylor says. My attorney advised me that it would be three years before we even got it to trial [if we sued]. After the appeal, it could be up to six years [before it could end]. In the end, Taylor took the special disability pension, and the $127,862 settlement. Of that money, Caldwell received $41,666.
Taylor now wrestles with how she will be portrayed. She repeatedly wonders aloud how this story will make her appear, as well as how the other media in town will react once her story becomes public. I want the public to realize that I was a victim for many years. I dont want the public to see me as a harlot or a kept woman, she says, as if she were talking to a biographer instead of a reporter. Her hands shake a little as she reaches for another cigarette.
I told my children that we might get a lot of mud thrown at us. My daughter said, Thats okay, momma, because mud washes off.
After her settlement, Taylor bought a brand-new car. She had traded in her Sebring for a Chrysler 300M. She paid in cash. The new car, though, is just a minor salve for all that Taylor says she has endured over the years. Last March, eight years after her divorce from Travis Taylor, she finally told him the story. I had to do that to protect my husband [all those years], she says. And that was going against my nature. Thats why I didnt like me.
Taylor hopes that, by telling her story publicly, she will help other women who have been victims of sexual harassment. You would not believe the women who have called me, she says. They have called going down the L. Taylors in the telephone book asking if I was the one who filed sexual-harassment charges against the Sheriffs Department. The public! Because they have been under the same circumstances. Most of these women worked locally in the private sector. A couple were employees of Gilless department.
Taylor says she misses her fellow employees at the Sheriffs Department, but, in the end, she thinks its better that shes not there anymore. There are too many people associated with that place she never wants to see again.
Getting Gilless Side
The Memphis Flyer informed Shelby County Sheriff A.C. Gilless of this story through Don Strother, the departments legal advisor. A reporter met with Strother a week before this issue went to press. A portion of Taylors audiotaped interview was played for him to show that she was speaking to the newsweekly on the record. Strother said that he would have to meet with the sheriff and other attorneys involved in the case before deciding how the department would respond.
Two days later, the Flyer called Strother. He said no one would respond to Taylors claims unless the department had copies of her audiotaped interviews. The Flyer declined to provide those, but did agree to provide written questions to Strother.
The Flyer asked Gilless 14 questions. It also asked eight questions of Deputy Chief Richard Almond, and three questions of Deputy Chief Virginia Skinner.
Monday afternoon, less than 24 hours before this issue went to press, the Flyer received a written response from Strother. On advice of legal counsel, Gilless, Almond, and Skinner declined to comment. To do so would be a violation of the confidentiality clause contained in the settlement agreement and a violation of the provisions for confidentiality as to all matters discussed during mediation, the response states. Appropriate legal action may be taken if it is established that any party has violated the terms of this agreement. P.C.
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