The Risky Business of Reporting Sexual Assault

On July 5, 2020, Arica Waters, a 27-year-old Black female cop in Put-In-Bay Village, attended a pool party hosted by Jeremy Berman, a White detective with the Put-In Bay police department. Waters claims she was sexually assaulted by Berman that night after the party, and again the next morning. She would soon find out that her claim could cost her eighteen months in prison.

I first read Arica Waters’ story last fall in a New Yorker article by Rachel Aviv titled “The Victim Who Became the Accused”. I have re-read it and thought about its implications many times over the past six months. Hers is a story of extreme victim-blaming fueled by race, power, and entitlement. And it is a story that raises serious questions about how we protect the rights of the accused without silencing the accusers.  

Put-In-Bay is a small village located on South Bass Island in Ottawa County, Ohio. Its population is less than 300, nearly all White. In the summer it is a popular tourist destination. A place where men come for bachelor parties and drive around in golf carts caring inflatable, naked women. Hundreds of thousands of tourists arrive each summer by ferry or plane to drink at the island’s 52 bars.

On July 5th Waters had only worked with the Put-In-Bay police department for five weeks. She was the only Black officer in the department, hired without benefits as a seasonal employee. Her life, up to that point, had been challenging. As a child she was taken away from her biological mother, adopted and brought up by a single mother. She was bullied in school and, as a child, was sexually assaulted by several men she met online. A counselor later accompanied her to report those assaults to the police, but charges were never brought. She chose law enforcement as a profession because she wanted to help troubled kids. She attended Notre Dame College where she majored in criminal justice, then graduated from the Cleveland Heights Police academy in 2019.

Jeremy Berman’s life was very different. He co-owned a successful prosthetics business in Findlay, Ohio where he lived during the week with his wife and son. He and his family spent weekends at their vacation home on Put-In-Bay, a luxurious setup located at the end of a private road overlooking Lake Eirie. He worked weekends with the Put-In-Bay police department, patrolling the island in his own golf cart that he had equipped with a siren and detailed with the department logo. It was an odd arrangement for which it is said he was paid one dollar a year. He was well-connected with everyone on the island including the mayor. It is clear from texts that Waters sent from the pool party that she was impressed with his power, connections, and obvious wealth.

At the pool party, Berman wowed Waters by enlisting a friend to take her on an aerial tour of the island in his helicopter. Then, he took her to a neighbors’ hot tub where she had several mixed drinks and took off her bikini top. “Berman drinks,” as they were known by friends, were so strong that one guest at the pool party said he threw several of his in the bushes. At dusk, the party began moving to a local bar. Waters rode with Berman in his golf cart, but instead of going to the bar, he stopped at a friend’s empty apartment where they quickly had sex. Then he went home to his family, and she went to the bar alone. According to the captain of the police department who was at the bar when she arrived, she was so drunk she could barely talk.

Later that night Waters texted several friends saying she had just had sex with the “richest person on this island.”

The next morning Berman texted Waters asking for a “round two.” She said no. She said she didn’t feel well and needed to sleep, but he persisted then arrived at her bunkhouse, picked her up, took her back to the friend’s apartment where they again had sex. Twenty minutes later he dropped her off at her home. At this point Waters felt taken advantage of. She called a friend and said she felt exploited, like she had been groomed. As she processed what had happened, she texted friends. She said she felt Berman held her job in his hands. In one of the texts, she described her encounter with Berman as “sexual assault due to job title.”

The decision to report was not immediate or easy. She blamed herself for having too much to drink. She had reported assaults before and not been believed. She texted one friend who encouraged her to report saying: “I will live with it…. I am not going through that process again. Who would believe me?”

Roofie Island

Another friend, an emergency medic on the island, told her Put-In-Bay had a history of sexual assaults that the police department had not adequately investigated. A 2014 article in the Cleveland Scene titled “Roofie Island: A Summer of Reported Druggings and Rapes” reports that between May and July of 2014 there were  at least a dozen documented incidences of people being dosed with date-rape drugs at Put-In-Bay bars, and no arrests. And three reported rapes of heavily drugged or intoxicated women, with only one arrest which came about when the police caught the man in the act after several eyewitness saw him tackle the woman to the ground.

That information was the tipping point for Waters. Although she recognized, in the eyes of law enforcement, she was not a “good victim”, she felt a responsibility to speak up. She called Amy Gloor, a female sergeant with the Ottawa County sheriff’s office who often handled sexual assault reports. She said to Gloor, “I really don’t know what to do, but it’s also like, I need to do something…something happened, you know, and I don’t remember all of it.” She did not use the word rape, but said she felt “completely taken advantage of.” Gloor took her to get a rape exam, then had her sign a form giving Ottawa County permission to search her cell phone records. Berman refused to talk to Gloor but put himself on administrative leave and hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on Waters.

Another accusation

A year later, in June of 2021, Sharon Tovar, a forty-seven-year-old home-health aid, called the Sherrif’s department in Hancock County, about eighty miles southwest of Put-In-Bay. She reported she had been the victim of a sex crime.

The alleged assault happened in Findlay, Ohio thirteen years earlier. Tovar was at a networking event for people in the assisted-living industry at a bar called the Landing Pad. She had had one or two drinks, then a man who she assumed was the bar tender, handed her one more. She was suddenly more drunk than she had ever been in her life. The man took her from the bar to his office where he had a large bed in a finished basement, had sex with her, then returned her to the bar. She remembers him telling her: “I want to hurry and get you back before anyone notices you missing.” A few months later, she took her father to get his foot fitted for a prosthetic limb and she recognized the prosthetist as the man from the bar – Jeremy Berman.

At the time, Tovar was raising four young children on her own. She felt she didn’t have time to dwell on something she only half remembered. As her children got older Tovar, who was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, became active on Facebook groups for former Jehovah’s Witnesses who were struggling with depression and experiences of childhood sexual abuse. She advocated for bills to extend the statute of limitations for reporting sexual assaults. She finally decided to take the advice she had given so many other women. She filed a complaint against Jeremy Berman. She reported the assault to a Hancock County detective.

And another accusation

As Hancock County investigated Tovar’s complaint, they uncovered a similar accusation filed in 2008. The woman, who reported being raped, said she had been drinking but thought she might also have been drugged. She met Berman at a Put-In-Bay bar. They began talking and he offered her a job, then invited her to his condominium on the mainland where he gave her a drink. The next thing she remembers is waking up in a hot tub, a friend of Berman’s was having sex with her, and Berman was fondling her. She said she began to cry really hard. “I would never do this” she said.

She had a rape exam and asked for a urine analysis to find out if she had been drugged, but it is not clear whether the analysis was ever done. Several days after she went to the police, she decided she did not want to pursue the matter further. The analyst wrote in his notes that when he asked Sherriff Levorchick what he should do with her urine sample: “He told me not to proceed with the analysis of evidence since she doesn’t want to prosecute.”

The survivor becomes the accused

It is unclear how far Gloor went in investigating Waters’ complaint. She did review the text messages on her phone and discovered some sexually explicit nude photos. Rather than maintain professional confidentiality with these photos she showed them around the department, at one point saying to the sheriff of Ottawa County: “You’ve got to see this. This is disgusting.”

In October 2020, three months after Waters filed her complaint, Sergeant Gloor called her back for a second meeting and grilled her about her text messages and her claim of intoxication. Two days later Waters was indicted by Dave Yost, the attorney general of Ohio for “making false alarms” which means she reported an offence despite “knowing that such an offence did not occur.” She was suspended from the police department and booked into the Ottawa County jail. She was released the same day on bond under conditions that she not leave the state, go to a bar, stay out past 10 p.m., or have any contact with the “victim.” Next to the word victim was the name Jeremy Berman. Waters now faced up to eighteen months in prison.

The investigation takes a turn

In Hancock County, Sargeant Jason Seem talked to Berman regarding Tovar’s accusation. Berman said he did have a bedroom in his office basement, and he had once co-owned the Landing Pad, but he denied ever spiking a drink and said he didn’t know who Sharon Tovar was. He went on to tell Seem that he hoped he was looking into the ramifications of making false accusations which, he reminded him, “is a serious felony accusation.”

Tovar didn’t hear anything from the Hancock County police department for months. She began searching online to see what had become of Berman. She found an article in the Sandusky Register that said Berman had been named “detective of the year” in Put-In-Bay. The article also mentioned the roofie rapes. She was stunned to find he was a prosthetist during the week and a detective on roofie island on weekends. She called the editor of the paper, Matt Westerhold, for more information.

Tovar did not intend to tell Westerhold what Berman had done to her, but during the conversation her story came out. Westerhold had long felt there was something strange about Berman’s relationship with the Put-In-Bay police department. He wanted to read Tovar’s complaint, so he called the sheriff of Ottawa County thinking the incident had happened there. The sheriff, thinking Westerhold was asking about Waters, said her complaint wasn’t credible and she had been charged with filing a false report. Westerhold called Tover and told her what was happening in Ottawa County. Now both Westerhold and Tovar knew at least one other woman claimed to have been raped by Berman.

In the meantime, the Hancock police department wrapped up their investigation, determined Tovar’s complaint was without merit and closed the case. Berman’s private investigator, Robert Slattery, emailed Sargeant Seem and accused Tovar and Waters of conspiring. He called them “professional victims who use and abuse people and strain the justice system with their false complaints.” Seem took this accusation seriously and had Tovar’s phone records subpoenaed but they revealed no communication between the two women.

A campaign of intimidation

Slattery continued his campaign of intimidation. After the phone records did not support his conspiracy theory, he turned on Waters’ attorney, Sarah Anjum. He accused Anjum of coordinating Waters’ and Tovar’s reports against Berman. Anjum was shocked that he would implicate her in this fabricated conspiracy and worried he would use her own history against Waters.

Anjum had taken on Waters’ case pro-bono because she knew what it was like to be accused of filing a false report. In 2017 Anjum was groped by a prominent defense attorney. She reported the assault but said she did not want to press charges. Instead, she wanted to create an internal record in case the behavior escalated, or another woman came forward. The defense attorney pushed back asking that “there be consequences for what she’s doing to me and my family.” She was called in for an interview with investigators. In the end no charges were filed against her, but she was shaken by the threat. She said she knew he was more powerful, and that reporting was risky, but even after calculating the risks she didn’t expect to be put in the category of criminal. To avoid contact with the defense attorney, Anjum stopped working cases in her own county, which cost her almost a year of income.

Now her own experience could be used to discredit her defense of Waters. She struggled with deciding what was best for Waters but, in the end, having walked this path, she felt she had to go forward with her.

The verdict

Waters was tried in December 2021. Tovar, who never met Waters, attended the trial to show her support. Waters waived her right to a jury trial. Her fate was decided by Judge Janet Burnside. After hearing days of contradictory evidence, Burnside deliberated for thirty minutes, then delivered a verdict of not guilty. She acquitted Waters saying it appeared Berman had been “grooming” her and going on to say Berman’s account of events had a “built in bias …. Mr. Berman can only tell one story, because the other story makes him a person who could be charged with a serious first-degree felony.” In the end, Mr. Berman has never been charged with a first-degree felony.

Recognize the warning signs of offender behavior.

Endnotes

Thank you to Rachel Aviv for her investigative reporting that brought this important story to light. It first appeared in the September 12, 2022 issue of The New Yorker with the title “Impaired Judgement.” It is available online under the title “The Victim Who Became the Accused.” All information in this post is a compilation of her work.

In July 2022 Arica Waters filed a civil suit against Sheriff Stephen Levorchick and Sargeant Amy Gloor for disseminating intimate photos of her after she reported a sexual assault. According to an article in Review Times, she accused them of “violating her trust” and “humiliating” her by sharing and mocking the photos. In October 2022 the suit was dismissed without prejudice, which means Waters can refile the complaint at a later date.

Jeremy Berman still co-owns a successful prosthetic business in Findlay Ohio. His orthopedic center recently celebrated 40 years of serving the community.  He is no longer with the Put-In-Bay police department but claims to have found a different department in Ohio to hold his commission and remains an active police officer.

Sharon Tovar is still trying to get her case reopened.

Coming up

In my next post, I will consider the implications of survivors becoming the accused. How often does it happen? Why does it happen? And what does it mean for survivors seeking justice? 

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