Sunday, April 22, 2018
Public safety

Tampa Fire Rescue personnel chief retires amid sexual harassment investigation

TAMPA — A Tampa Fire Rescue personnel chief retired with full benefits this month amid a sexual harassment investigation, and the woman who made the allegations is now facing a backlash on social media.

The fire department opened a formal investigation of David Solorzano, 55, when sworn firefighter Hannah Gray, now also retired with an on-the-job disability, told a lieutenant about the chief's actions. The lieutenant then filed a complaint.

Gray told investigators Solorzano made inappropriate comments, hugged her, gave her back rubs and tried to kiss her in an elevator. The first incident she remembers occurred about two months after she was hired.

"In your first year, you're told you can be terminated for any reason and be careful," Gray, 33, told the Tampa Bay Times. "I told him, no, I wasn't comfortable. But I wanted to keep my job and definitely didn't want to start off with a sexual harassment case."

Solorzano, who retired March 19 after 25 years with the department, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He told investigators he had no inappropriate contact with Gray.

"My nature is a flirt," Solorzano told investigators. "I talk. I goof. To try to make people comfortable."

Gray, a paramedic with the fire department for five years, said the unwelcome attention escalated after the first year. She described incidents of Solorzano blowing her kisses, putting his hands around her waist and repeatedly kissing her on the cheek. Often, she said, he would wait until they were out of view of others before he acted.

Gray said she told Solorzano multiple times that she was uncomfortable, but "he never acknowledges anything. He doesn't apologize. He laughs and walks away."

Fire Rescue officials interviewed at least a dozen witnesses in their investigation, including fellow firefighters and Solorzano.

Solorzano told them he is a friendly guy who hugs everybody. He said he never tried to kiss Gray in the elevator and never touched her inappropriately.

"I gave her a kiss when she got engaged," he said. " 'Oh, you got married, congratulations!' I gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek, type-deal. But never inappropriate kissing and never inappropriate touching."

Two other female firefighters were called as witnesses and described Solorzano as a "touchy-feely kind of guy" who would give back rubs and hugs.

"I would say it's a more known thing that he's a little creepy," Kirstin Tambucho said. "I would never say that he's crossed the line with me ever. But he just gives that vibe."

Solorzano told investigators Gray never told him she was uncomfortable with his actions.

Solorzano retired while the investigation was still pending. In addition to his pension, he will be paid for unused sick and vacation days. Department officials said the value of his exit package won't be calculated until the next pay period.

Tampa Fire Rescue Chief Tom Forward told the Times the allegations "were totally out character" for Solorzano. Forward said he had never seen or heard of Solorzano acting inappropriately.

"I think some of (the female firefighters), for the most part didn't see him as a threat," Forward said. "They just saw it as an uncomfortable position that he would put them in and they just avoided being in an area alone with him. … The fact of the matter is that when a person is put in as situation like that, they shouldn't be."

News quickly spread on social media about Solorzano's retirement. When another female firefighter defended him on Facebook and blamed Gray, others jumped in. It quickly turned ugly.

"(She) has been leaving a path of destruction everywhere she's been," one wrote. "An absolutely worthless individual."

Curse words and demeaning terms were used in several posts. Others said they had "nothing but wonderful experiences" with the fire department and were "proud to be a TFR female."

They did not respond or declined to be interviewed when asked to comment.

Gray said she is worried the backlash will prevent other women who have experienced harassment and discrimination on the job from coming forward. She said the comments are evidence of a "deeply entrenched" boys-club culture that bred fear of retaliation for anyone who aren't part of the inner circle.

"You're just left out there knowing your career is in a stalemate and you're not going to go anywhere," Gray said. "If you're not in that club, they'll start messing with you. It's almost like a hazing thing, but not in a friendly, funny way."

Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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