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Philadelphia police inspector charged with sexually assaulting three female officers

Carl Holmes, a longtime Philadelphia police chief inspector, is facing criminal charges for allegedly sexually assaulting three female police officers.

Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector Carl Holmes
Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector Carl HolmesRead morePhiladelphia Police Department

Carl Holmes, a controversial longtime Philadelphia police chief inspector, was arrested Thursday and charged with sexually assaulting three female police officers.

An investigating grand jury recommended that District Attorney Larry Krasner bring charges against Holmes, alleging that he used his positions of authority in the Police Department — first in the police academy, later as a high-ranking official — to present himself as a mentor to young female cops.

Holmes allegedly took advantage of the women’s trust, kissing them, fondling their breasts, and digitally penetrating their vaginas against their will, according to the grand jury’s presentment.

As a chief inspector — a position second-highest after the deputy commissioner— Holmes was largely protected from any meaningful investigation, while the female officers faced retaliation in the form of Internal Affairs investigations, the grand jury contended.

Holmes, 54, surrendered to police Thursday morning, and was expected to be arraigned later in the day. He could not be reached for comment.

He was suspended for 30 days with the intent to dismiss. John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, said the union would not represent Holmes.

The arrest of Holmes is a potential watershed moment for a department that critics and female officers have long argued tolerates pervasive sexual harassment.

In August, Police Commissioner Richard Ross resigned after an officer accused him of retaliating against her after she ended an affair with him; the claim emerged as part of a broader lawsuit about workplace sexual harassment.

Earlier in the year, Ross defended his decision to appoint Inspector Anthony Washington to a post that gave him oversight of the Special Victims Unit, even though Washington had been accused of sexually harassing multiple female cops earlier in his career.

Holmes, a lawyer since 2003, has twice been publicly accused of sexually assaulting female cops who worked for him during his 29-year career, but he nonetheless continued to receive promotions. The years-old allegations involving Holmes and those two officers had been detailed extensively by The Inquirer and the Daily News, and in court documents, but had not led to criminal charges until Thursday.

In both instances, the women — former Officers Christa Hayburn and Michele Vandegrift — claimed that Holmes digitally penetrated them against their will. A lawsuit that Vandegrift filed against the city over her alleged assault was settled in 2017 for $1.25 million. The women’s earlier public accounts are more extensively detailed in the 26-page presentment, but their names were redacted in the version obtained by The Inquirer.

“As I’ve said before, the facts of the case are extremely troubling from start to end. I appreciate that the DA revisited the matter," Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement. “It is extremely important to ensure the women who put their life on the line for Philadelphians feel safe and respected in their workplace.”

Krasner said the grand-jury presentment “paints a pretty clear picture of an environment in which powerful men in the Police Department are able to function with impunity, and the efforts of women to bring complaints to Internal Affairs were essentially futile.” He said his office would not shy away from taking up cases that his office believes might have been “mishandled” in the past.

‘Prepare for a fight’

The presentment paints a haunting picture of Holmes as a predator who was adept at pouncing on women when they were vulnerable, and using his rank and physical stature to intimidate them.

In the summer of 2004, a young female officer arranged to meet the 6-foot-6 Holmes at an office he had inside the police academy in Northeast Philadelphia. She’d met him a year earlier, when she was training to join the force.

The woman had been repeatedly harassed by her boss, and turned to Holmes for help. Instead, he told her that he was friends with the man and that they’d taken promotional tests together, according to the presentment.

Holmes warned the woman to “prepare for a fight” if she tried to file an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint about her boss.

Moments later, Holmes allegedly lifted the woman off the ground, planted her on his desk and began groping her. She pleaded with him to let her go, swearing that she wouldn’t say anything. Holmes told her that “no one would believe some little b— like her anyway” and that he “could make her disappear,” the presentment shows.

The woman told the grand jury that Holmes wrapped her in a bear hug and pushed his finger into her vagina, according to the presentment.

The woman fled to the parking lot outside the academy and called her mother.

“The phone rang, I picked up the phone. All I heard was crying and screaming and crying and screaming,” the mother told the grand jury.

That September, the woman filed an EEO complaint against her boss — and then was arrested.

Internal Affairs had started investigating her, based on an anonymous tip that she associated with drug dealers, she learned. Investigators found “abandoned drugs” in the trash can in front of her house, so she was taken into custody, drug-tested, and removed from active duty.

The woman told the grand jury that the investigation lasted for nearly three years and ended with the allegations against her unfounded. She left the police force in 2009.

‘This cannot happen’

Hayburn’s allegations were first reported by the Daily News in 2012 as part of a series on police commanders who rose through the ranks despite a litany of documented sexual harassment complaints. Holmes was promoted after the story was published.

The complaint she filed against Holmes in 2008 with Internal Affairs outlined a sexual assault that she said had happened two years earlier.

Hayburn claimed that Holmes, then an inspector, had followed her into a bathroom at the Philly Empire Lounge in North Philadelphia during a farewell party that had been staged for him before he left to attend an FBI training program for three months. He made it clear that he wanted to see her before she left for the night.

Later, Holmes led Hayburn to his city-issued Dodge Durango, she contended. According to the presentment, she pleaded with him to let her leave, telling him that she had to get home to her husband, and reminding Holmes that she’d recently met his wife and newborn daughter.

“This cannot happen,” Hayburn told him. “Nothing can happen.”

Holmes allegedly began fondling her breasts and forced her to touch his penis, Hayburn told the Daily News, and then shoved his hand into her pants, penetrating her vagina. Holmes ejaculated during the encounter.

» READ MORE: Once-secret records show how the police arbitration system overturned the firings or discipline of more than 100 questionable Philadelphia cops.

Immediately afterward, Hayburn told her husband and another person about the assault. The presentment shows that she told the grand jury she initially hesitated to report the incident because she feared “how it would affect my career, and also being known as a rat.... You just don’t tell on cops at all, even if they’re wrong.”

Internal Affairs investigators discovered semen stains when they searched Holmes’ Durango, but he allegedly claimed it was left over from sexual encounters that he’d had with another woman. He denied assaulting Hayburn.

She previously told the Daily News that the District Attorney’s Office reviewed the case, but an official told her that she “didn’t say ‘no’ enough.'”

Hayburn’s complaint was not sustained by Internal Affairs, but then-Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey demoted Holmes to the rank of captain for having sex in a police vehicle. The discipline, though, was short-lived.

The FOP filed a grievance on Holmes’ behalf, and took the case to arbitration. Under a 2010 settlement agreement with the city, Holmes’ demotion was reduced to a 30-day suspension, and he was returned to the rank of inspector. (A recent Inquirer investigation found that the union has been successful at getting police discipline reduced or overturned about 70% of the time during the last decade.)

Hayburn told the grand jury that she wanted to attend Holmes’ arbitration hearing and testify. But, she said, the Law Department later settled with Holmes and the FOP — without her testimony.

‘He’s the top guy’

In 2013, Holmes was quietly named chief safety officer of the Philadelphia School District, a position that essentially made him the district’s top cop, responsible for coordinating resources between city and school police, and overseeing the safety of students. Neither the Police Department nor the School District announced the appointment.

When some parents expressed concern about Holmes’ past, Ramsey said: "Listen, he had an issue, and I dealt with it. He worked his way back. It had nothing to do with juveniles at all, so one should have no bearing on the other."

Three years later, Vandegrift filed her lawsuit. She recalled being regularly subjected to lewd comments by her male coworkers and superiors, and claimed that she faced retaliation when she objected. Her more disturbing allegations concerned Holmes.

Vandegrift told the grand jury Holmes had once worked with her father, who was also a Philly police officer. By the time she joined the force in 2004, she’d come to admire Holmes. “He was like an uncle type,” she testified. “Friendly person.”

A year or so later, Holmes allegedly began calling Vandegrift and subjecting her to aggressive, sexualized comments. She was unsure of how to respond. “This guy is not only a boss,” she told the grand jury, “he’s the boss of my captain, my lieutenant, my sergeant, my corporal. He’s the top guy.”

In late 2006 or early 2007, Holmes called her into his office while she worked an overnight shift, and began a conversation that he quickly turned sexual. He walked over to her, allegedly stuck his hands down her pants, and penetrated her.

Afterward, Vandegrift said, Holmes put his finger in his mouth and said, “You taste so good,” according to the presentment.

Years later, Vandegrift heard other officers laughing and joking about Hayburn’s allegations against Holmes. She filed a complaint with Internal Affairs about Holmes and a “locker-room-like culture” within the department. Soon after, Vandegrift learned that she was being investigated by Internal Affairs.

When the city settled Vandegrift’s lawsuit for $1.25 million in 2017, a spokesperson for Kenney said that the mayor found the case “extremely troubling" but did not call for Holmes to step down.

Holmes, whose salary is $143,869, was the subject of four lawsuits earlier in his career, mostly for physical abuse. Three of the cases were settled for $109,500.

In the early 1990s, Holmes was suspended for 20 days and transferred for the “use of offensive language,” arbitration records show. But the FOP filed a grievance in that case, too, and in 1994 the suspension was reduced to five days through arbitration. The transfer remained in place.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart, who has called for city government to centralize the way it investigates complaints of sexual misconduct, said Thursday that Holmes’ arrest “shows how broken the city’s processes are for handling this type of thing.”

“The city paid over $1 million to settle the case of sexual assault against [Holmes], yet he stayed on the force," Rhynhart said. "There is something incredibly wrong with that.”

Kenney noted that the Police Department in recent years has instituted mandatory sexual harassment training for all officers. He said the department has a “comprehensive policy” on harassment and discrimination, and avenues for reporting and redress.

“We believe these efforts will help ensure that women in the department don’t ever again experience this sort of abhorrent conduct, and will make the workplace a safer environment for all,” Kenney said.

Outside Police Headquarters on Thursday, acting Commissioner Christine M. Coulter, the first female head of the department, said she had been unaware of the grand jury investigation of Holmes until she was notified by Krasner on Wednesday night. She said she had not received a copy of the presentment, but called the allegations “sickening."

“Most of our folks do want to do a great job for our public,” Coulter said. “It’s frightening that each time we take steps forward, and we think that we are moving ahead and getting together with our public, one of these instances comes forward."