Hair pulling, groping, verbal attacks: Female convention center employees detail trauma caused by male supervisors

‘They treat us like cattle’: One employee was committed after attempting to file complaint against supervisor with the mayor

SAN ANTONIO – Multiple female maintenance employees assigned to the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center have detailed a pattern of abusive and sometimes sexually inappropriate behavior directed at them by male supervisors at the city-run facility.

A nearly year-long investigation by the KSAT 12 Defenders found women who work at the massive complex subjected to treatment at the hands of men they report to.

That includes one woman having her hair pulled. Another was temporarily committed to a psychiatric unit earlier this year after attempting to file a complaint at city hall about her treatment in the workplace.

In interviews conducted over the past several months, the women all claimed that management at the building has done little to address their concerns. They claimed their reports were interpreted as ‘he-said-she-said’ situations.

Disciplinary action taken against the men responsible occurred only after the female employees went to human resources instead of managers above them in their chain of command, each woman said.

‘It makes me feel like they don’t care.’

“I’m a worker. I’ve been there for you for all these years and you’re letting me down,” said employee Maria Villegas.

In August, while Villegas walked alongside co-workers near a convention center loading dock, surveillance camera footage showed her supervisor, Juan Cortez, grab the back of her hair and then yank it.

“I didn’t think something of the nature would happen like that, but it happened in seconds,” said Villegas.

A domestic abuse survivor, Villegas said the assault opened up previous emotional wounds.

“I was back in that same state in my mind. I was there again. I had buried it inside of me to proceed in life as a normal person,” said Villegas.

Surveillance footage shows supervisor Juan Cortez pull the hair of Maria Villegas near a convention center loading dock in August. (KSAT)

Villegas was diagnosed with neck strain and at one point was instructed by her doctor not to lift anything at work over 20 pounds.

Villegas said despite also taking part in six counseling sessions after the incident, she is now overcome with a feeling of dread before starting every shift.

Her supervisor Cortez was ultimately given a five-day suspension, a city spokesperson confirmed last year. In the email, the spokesperson also noted Cortez’s 19-year work history and no previous discipline record.

Additionally, Cortez was moved to another area of the convention center to prevent any further interaction with Villegas, the spokesperson said.

“It makes me feel like they don’t care,” said Villegas.

Explicit messages sent by another supervisor

It’s been far from her only negative interaction with a male convention center supervisor.

Just this month, convention center Building Maintenance Officer Gilbert Martinez resigned a day after HR received a complaint about him.

Villegas shared with the Defenders copies of sexually charged messages sent by Martinez to her on Facebook late last year. She said she filed the formal complaint with HR late last month after learning that Martinez had sent similar messages to a female contractor who recently worked at the convention center.

Villegas also said Martinez previously groped her at work on two occasions, “grabbing all over” in one incident before she ran out of his office.

In one Facebook message, Martinez wrote in Spanish that she “left me all hard.”

In a follow-up message, he asked Villegas in Spanish why she couldn’t show him her “tamale,” slang for vagina.

In a third message, written in English, Martinez said he wanted her to kiss his (hot dog emoji).

Facebook messages sent to Villegas from now-former Building Maintenance Officer Gilbert Martinez. (KSAT)

Asked to comment on his work conduct when reached via telephone this month, Martinez repeatedly told the Defenders “I’m good, sir,” before hanging up.

City officials, to date, have not released specific information about why Martinez resigned.

A second female maintenance employee, who asked that she not be named, described an incident early in her tenure in which a male supervisor followed her into a room without cameras at the convention center and asked if she wanted to play a game.

She recalled him telling her to undo a button on her blouse each time he said a phrase out loud.

After she filed a complaint, she claims city officials determined there was not enough hard evidence to find him at fault for rule-breaking. She said the supervisor eventually stepped down.

“And I realized, ‘oh my God. They put me in the psych ward.”

A third female maintenance employee, who agreed to be interviewed on camera as long as KSAT concealed her identity, spent days at a psychiatric unit in late April after attempting to file a complaint with the mayor at city hall about her treatment at work.

She said she went to city hall only after three separate complaints she made against her crew leader to convention center management this spring went nowhere.

“I was so stressed, emotionally stressed, I threw up in my car,” said the woman, describing the aftermath of one of the incidents in April.

City officials have declined to discuss an April 28 incident at city hall in which a female convention center employee was later temporarily committed to a psychiatric unit. (KSAT)

Handwritten notes about the incidents, provided to the Defenders following an open records request, describe the incidents in detail.

One eyewitness wrote that the woman at one point was crying and wanted a co-worker to keep the crew leader away from her because he was “making her feel uncomfortable.”

The crew leader is accused of belittling the female employee multiple times, and in one incident “he raised his voice firm and and said ‘I told you to only do trash, trash, trash, trash,’” an eyewitness wrote.

“I put my hands together like praying. ‘Please, please, please don’t put me with him, please. It just fell upon deaf ears,’” said the woman, describing a complaint she made to Facilities Manager Bernard Brown after one of the run-ins.

After her work environment did not improve, she said she went to city hall April 28 to file a complaint with the mayor’s office.

She said a woman at city hall told her to follow her chain of command to make a formal complaint.

“I said ‘ma’am, the chain of command is the problem.’ Nowhere to go. Nowhere to turn. No one to talk to,” said the woman, who broke down crying and was led to a meeting room.

She said employees from multiple city departments, including Metropolitan Health, entered the room.

Concerned that she might harm herself, based on statements she made, she said some of the employees took her to Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital.

“And I realized, ‘oh my God. They put me in the psych ward,” she said.

Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital in the Medical Center. (KSAT)

Medical paperwork viewed by the Defenders shows the woman was admitted to Methodist as an emergency detention just before 1 p.m.

She described the next several days as a “traumatic” experience.

A city spokeswoman said she could not discuss the April 28 incident due to privacy concerns.

‘They treat us like cattle’

The female employee has not gone back to work since the incident and said that even if she is cleared by a mental health professional to return, she is afraid to do so.

A physician last week diagnosed the woman with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, citing the specific April 28 incident, according to city of San Antonio extended sick leave documents obtained by the Defenders.

As far as the accused supervisor, he began working in a maintenance crew leader position with the city’s Building & Equipment Services Department this week, a city official confirmed.

The crew leader did not respond to a request for comment left at his listed home address.

“They talk a lot about core values, teamwork, integrity, innovation, professionalism. They can’t even practice what they preach. A bunch of lies. It just looks good on paper. They treat us like cattle, like we have no rights because we’re maintenance workers,” the female employee said.

“He told me, ‘I could see her underwear because she had her legs open.’”

The same female employee filed a formal complaint against a previous crew leader, Robert Crespo, after she said he repeatedly made lewd comments about women as well as making sexual noises while around other employees.

“He told me, ‘I could see her underwear because she had her legs open.’ Women would pass and then he would start moaning and groaning,” said the female employee, recalling Crespo’s behavior around women attending events at the convention center.

The female maintenance employee said she eventually recorded Crespo and filed a formal complaint.

Crespo’s personnel file shows he was placed on administrative leave with pay in September, and resigned a day later.

The 60-page file includes no description of why he was placed on leave or why he quickly left his position with the city.

After a call to Crespo’s last known phone number this month was sent to voicemail, the Defenders texted that they were trying to reach him.

After the person responded “what about,” the Defenders sent a screenshot of the paperwork placing Crespo on leave.

The person then texted back that it was the wrong number.

None of the male supervisors mentioned in this story have been criminally charged in connection with the accusations of female maintenance employees who worked for them.

City officials declined to make either Brown or Patricia Muzquiz Cantor, Executive Director of Convention and Sports Facilities, available for an interview.

In a written statement, Cantor told the Defenders:

“The City of San Antonio strives to provide a respectful and professional work environment free of any form of harassment and inappropriate behavior. Any complaints of such behavior are taken seriously and promptly investigated under the City’s Administrative Directive on anti-harassment 4.67. Substantiated claims are addressed with appropriate discipline, which may include counseling, suspension and up to termination. Supervisors in our Department have reaffirmed their understanding of the obligation under AD 4.67. Any employee who experiences or witnesses harassment or inappropriate behavior should report it immediately to their supervisor or to Human Resources.”

Read more Defenders investigations:

About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy award-winning photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.