The perfect victim: Exploitation and threat of deportation

A retail custodian sexually assaulted by her boss fights back despite her immigration status

Four days later, Gonzalez wrote another memo, this one saying that a mall security guard had seen two housekeepers kissing, and their descriptions "only matched" Zuniga and another man who worked the same shift. But later, when the security guard was called in to testify, he remembered — and said he had told Gonzalez — people who looked nearly the opposite: A tall woman about 5 feet 8 inches (Zuniga is 4 feet 11 inches), and a man with shiny black hair. The man Gonzalez identified in his memo, though, had white hair.

By the end of the year, Zuniga was looking for a new job. While at an employment fair, she met an advocate, and told her what she had experienced. In January 2008, that advocate called Ridgedale Center to report Zuniga's story.

The mall contacted SMS, and later that month, Zuniga's advocate talked to the company's regional manager. He said he would tell Gonzalez to start an investigation. The advocate replied, according to court records, that Gonzalez was "part of the problem."

SMS assigned the complaint to an entry-level human resources employee, who then referred to the company's only manager in Minnesota: Gonzalez himself.

The company told Zuniga's advocate that the company would speak with Zuniga only "after" it conducted its investigation of her allegations. The day after that statement, though, the HR employee talked with Gonzalez about the investigation, and not long after, Gonzalez began sending SMS documents about Zuniga, such as her personnel file and his memos on her.

In February, with the help of Lisa Stratton and a team of student attorneys, Zuniga sent the company an official complaint. In March, she filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that enforces employment discrimination laws.

SMS still did not talk to anyone other than Gonzalez, or send anyone else from its company to Ridgedale Center to investigate. After it received Zuniga's EEOC charge, the company asked Gonzalez to get statements from current employees about Zuniga.

Gonzalez did, conducting interviews with the employees himself, then personally translating their remarks from Spanish to English before sending the statements to SMS.

The Minnetonka Police Departmenthad begun an investigation of its own. By April, Zuniga had decided to report to them — even though doing so put her at risk for deportation.

Her lawyers told her that there might be an option for her: a special visa for victims of crimes, known as a U visa. Only 10,000 were available across the country every year, and it wasn't guaranteed — law enforcement had to certify the visa application — but it could be the solution.

"You put yourself in the hands of the police, you fill out a package of paperwork, and then you just hope and pray," says Jill Gaulding, one of Zuniga's lawyers.

Investigators took statements from Zuniga, Karla Perez, and Gonzalez himself. The first time he spoke with police, he denied the allegations flat-out, responding with a curt "no" to Zuniga's version of events, as well as questions about whether they had ever had consensual sex, or even kissed.

"Have you ever come on to her?" the investigator asked.

"No, no," Gonzalez replied.

Two weeks later, Gonzalez talked to police again. This time, he conceded that Zuniga had once kissed him.

"After that, one thing led to another," Gonzalez continued, and said Zuniga had masturbated him.

Over the next two years, Gonzalez would change his story three more times: In January 2009, when an EEOC investigator talked to him, he repeated that there was "nothing personal, day-to-day work-related issues only." But when the investigator reminded him that lying to a federal investigator was a crime, he admitted that once they had kissed, nothing more.

When he later testified for the lawsuit, he stuck to his first version: that they had never had any physical relationship at all.

Back in Minnetonka, the police took 11 carpet samples from Gonzalez's offices, where most of the alleged attacks occurred. All the samples came back from the lab negative for semen or blood.

Zuniga's lawyers later learned that back in December 2007 — several months after the last alleged assault, but nearly six months before investigators took the samples — Gonzalez had changed the carpet in his office.

Still, the investigators referred the case to the Hennepin County attorney for prosecution of criminal sexual conduct.

But there was little his office could do, explains Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman.

"We don't have witnesses, we don't have physical evidence, no sperm, no DNA, no blood, no anything," says Freeman, "To get to 'beyond a reasonable doubt,' which I say is 99 percent, we've got to have a lot more evidence here."

The problem, Freeman says, is that both Zuniga and Perez alerted police months after the attacks had allegedly occurred.

"Now there are a million reasons not to come forward, I understand that," Freeman says. "It's such an intimate crime that there's often a delay in reporting it. But if you delay even 24 hours, it's much harder to find the man's semen on the woman anywhere, and the perpetrator may well have returned to the scene to try to clean it up."

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