LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Time has not healed the wounds for former Topgolf employee Ciara Williams.
"I struggled with this--getting through this--every single day," Ciara said through tears. "There were days where I just... I wanted to give up."
Her former kitchen manager, Silvino Hinojosa, pleaded guilty in August to felony attempted sexual assault of Ciara and another former subordinate at Topgolf Las Vegas.
"It started with brushing alongside me to actually touching me, leading up to the assault that happened."
Assault in the restaurant's walk-in freezer.
"It just felt like I froze in that moment."
With support from a co-worker, as detailed in a lawsuit she later filed, Ciara reported the assault to Human Resources.
"I did a written report for them and asked them if I needed to go to the hospital for a rape exam or if I needed to contact the police and they told me I didn't need to do that--that they would take care of all of that for me."
She took a leave of absence but says nothing changed when she returned.
"Was he still your boss?" asked 13 Chief Investigator Darcy Spears.
"Yes," Ciara said. "He was. He was actually a few months later promoted to a sous chef so it made him my direct boss that I would turn to for anything in the kitchen. It made me feel like I was nothing. It made me feel like I just didn't matter."
It made her feel like she had broken.
"They thought of me as just another minority that would be too afraid to speak up or to try and do anything about it."
Ciara and three other former Topgolf Las Vegas employees filed two separate federal lawsuits, both calling Hinojosa "A serial sexual predator..." who "leveraged his power over female and/or low-level employees that he supervised to systematically harass, abuse, and assault them."
And that "Topgolf accepted, enabled and covered up Hinojosa's predatory conduct."
"It was part of the accepted culture in the kitchen and the organization because the things that he did, he did openly," said Attorney James Lee, who represents Ciara and the other plaintiffs.
Despite numerous written complaints, the lawsuits say Hinojosa wasn't fired until employees went over Topgolf's head to MGM, the company's landlord.
Ciara believes, "They would rather silence than try to fix the problems within."
She hopes to empower other victims by publicly sharing the devastating details of her assault at Topgolf.
She found out she and her Las Vegas co-workers are not alone.
"It shockingly mirrors the experience of workers in Georgia, in Illinois, in Tennessee, in North Carolina..." said JoEllen Chernow of Survivors Know, who worked on this report, titled Stopgolf, that the non-profit organization released in December.
It's based on pleadings from 12 legal cases against Topgolf--including two in 2021 alone--as well as surveys, polls, and interviews with 72 workers from 28 Topgolf locations in 15 states "about their experiences of sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination," Chernow explains.
The reports key findings:
- 63% of women reported being sexually harassed and/or assaulted while working at Topgolf
- 100% of Black, Indigenous, and/or Latinx/Hispanic women under 50 years of age reported being sexually harassed
- 50% of women of color under 50 years of age report being sexually assaulted
Samantha Velasquez-Knowles is one of them and was featured in the report.
"My dream was to be a chef since I was a little kid," explained Samantha.
She worked at Topgolf Las Vegas at the same time as Ciara Williams and tells a similar tale about a different kitchen manager.
"I was getting all my stuff from the walk-in and my back was turned to the door and I felt someone grab my butt and kiss me on my neck from behind me, and when I turned around it was my kitchen manager. I was completely shocked and terrified, and I was thinking in my head if I tell, what's going to happen?"
According to the report, someone else saw what happened and reported it to Human Resources.
So did Samantha.
"They said they were going to do an investigation. I told her (the Human Resources manager) everything that happened. And the only option she gave me was to work downstairs, which was to be demoted."
Soon thereafter, Samantha was fired, which she believes is retaliation for coming forward against a superior.
"I just felt like I was not respected. I was dehumanized. They didn't see me as an equal."
According to the Stopgolf report, "Of the survey respondents who were sexually assaulted, 86% reported it; 100% of those workers say they were retaliated against as a result."
"I think Topgolf has a really great opportunity to change," said Chernow. "They have over 20,000 employees, they are growing, they have venues all around the country, and they have an opportunity to really be on the front lines of changing how the restaurant industry operates by placing workers first and changing the culture. But as it is, I don't think that's going to happen without significant pressure."
Survivors Know hopes its report generates pressure from customers and investors.
"What response have you received from Topgolf since you published your report?"Spears asked.
"Nothing," said Chernow.
13 Investigates reached out to Topgolf for comment.
For now, we can show you what they told the court before settling the lawsuits.
It shines a light on a little-known Nevada law.
"Topgolf and all defendants that are faced with sexual harassment cases in Nevada want to say--and have been successful in some cases saying--this is a worker's compensation injury," explains Attorney James Lee.
Prior to the settlements, Topgolf tried to get both lawsuits thrown out in part by claiming it wasn't a matter for the courts, but for workers comp.
In court documents, Topgolf said Ciara and the other victims "... Would not have been allegedly sexually assaulted but for their employment with Topgolf LV, and they faced a much greater risk of assault than the general public because of that employment."
"It's not a workplace injury! If it is considered that or could be defined as that, we should not tolerate it as a society!" exclaimed Lee.
And he is looking to Nevada lawmakers to change that.
"What we're asking the legislature to do is change the law to simply say worker's compensation does not apply to sexual harassment. Period. Sexual harassment is not an accident and it's not the type of injury that worker's comp is designed to compensate for."
Changing the law would align Nevada with California, Oregon, Washington, and a number of other states.
While that plays out, Ciara, Samantha and Survivors Know will continue to speak out.
"Even when your voice quivers, you need to just continue to believe in your truth and speak your truth," said Ciara. "It may feel like we're not being heard, but there's someone out there listening."
Survivors Know is asking Topgolf to work with them and the growing number of current and former employees who have signed petitions and want to create change.