On a late-spring evening last year, Krystofer Lee, then 30 years old, was walking back to her friend’s house near Seventh Avenue in south Phoenix.
Recalling the June 1, 2019, incident, Lee, a Black woman and the single mother of two small boys, told Phoenix New Times she was trying to unwind after getting through a draining day at her job at a local Popeyes and took a quick detour to a convenience store to buy some cigarettes.
“Just taking a walk,” she said. “Had a stressful day.”
That was just before her definition of stress changed forever.
That same night, according to Lee, she would be violent sexually assaulted by a Phoenix police officer.
That officer, Sean Pena, faces charges for sexually assaulting Lee and two other women while on duty. The other two assaults were in August 2018 and August 2019, according to the charging documents. Pena was originally charged by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in June 2020 on suspicion of assaulting Lee and another woman, but a Maricopa County grand jury indictment was handed down for the three alleged crimes in August 2020, after the third victim came forward.
Now, Lee is suing both Pena and the city of Phoenix over the incident, alleging that the Phoenix Police Department knew about Pena’s first victim but failed to investigate the allegations thoroughly. According to the filing, Pena wasn’t placed on administrative leave until November 2019, after Lee reported what turned out to be the second two alleged assaults by Pena.
The city of Phoenix “knew of Defendant Pena’s deplorable conduct and history of sexual misconduct … 11 months prior to Defendant Pena having sexually assaulted Plaintiff,” Lee’s lawsuit states, which was filed on November 30. “Despite this knowledge, Defendant Pena was not only retained by the City of Phoenix, he patrolled the streets of Phoenix alone in a one-man unit.”
“These are women who were hunted down for no legal reason by a sexual predator and put through a physical and emotional gauntlet,” said Reverend Jarrett Maupin, a local community activist who worked with Lee to help her come forward. “If they [the department] had treated the first rape like any other allegation, Krystofer and this other woman wouldn’t have been raped.”
In response to requests for comment on the lawsuit and the charges, Sergeant Mercedes Fortune, a spokesperson for the Phoenix Police Department, wrote in an email that the law enforcement agency “takes all allegations of misconduct against employees seriously.”
“The Department promptly investigated every sexual assault allegation received against Sean Pena. Pena was placed on administrative assignment prior to being terminated,” Fortune wrote. “In addition to his termination, there are criminal charges against Pena related to all three reported incidents.”
Jess Lorona, the attorney listed in the court docket as defending Pena, did not respond to New Times’ request for comment.
After Lee left the store near 23rd Avenue and West Vineyard Road, she related, she was surprised by the sudden approach of three police cars. Five officers got out of the cars and stopped her, claiming that they were responding to a welfare check. They also demanded to search her purse.
“They said that I was disturbing the peace and I asked them ‘How? When I was walking?'” she said. “He said some neighbors called.”
The altercation quickly “went in the other direction,” as Lee told it. An officer told her she “had a warrant,” handcuffed her, and put her in the back of one of the squad cars. Then the driver of the car, Sean Pena, got behind the wheel and asked her to locate the house of a drug dealer. Lee had no idea who Pena was talking about.
“He asked me to find some drug dealer. I can’t remember what he said his name was,” she said. “I don’t know who it was.”
Scared, confused, and anxious to get out of the situation, Lee directed Pena to a random house close by. No one was home. The other police officers who had first stopped Lee were nowhere to be seen.
“I was looking for the other cops,” Lee said. “I was looking around and it was just him.”
Lee asked if Pena could take her home. He said yes, and they drove off. But Pena didn’t take her home.
He drove to a nearby vacant lot at 11th Avenue and West Lynne Lane. There, he un-handcuffed Lee, forced her into the passenger seat in the front of the car, and started playing a porn video on his phone.
“He was watching a porn. He was pulling his pants down,” Lee said. “He was putting my head down. He had his hand on his gun. I didn’t want to move. I was scared … I was crying.”
Pena groped Lee’s breasts and tried to put his hands down her pants, she said.
“He was telling me to suck his dick, telling me that I was beautiful, that he wanted it like in the pornos, that he wanted it nasty ‘like how Black girls do it in porn,'” Lee said. “Just some weird stuff you don’t expect a cop to be saying.”
He started masturbating and forced Lee to give him a hand job. Afterwards, he told her to come back to the same location the next night and that he would “find and kill” her if she didn’t. She bolted from the scene.
“I thought I wasn’t going to make it,” she said. “I was thinking about a lot of things – thinking about my kids. I thought he was going to kill me afterwards.”
Lee ran to her friend’s house in a “hysterical” state and told her what happened.
“She was just banging on my door,” said her friend, Iesha Stanciel. “She was like ‘oh my gosh, oh my gosh.’ She was hyperventilating. She was like ‘No one is going to believe me’.”
“She [Iesha] told me, ‘I want to call the police,'” Lee said. “I told her ‘No, we’re not calling the police. The police just did this’.”
Not the Only One
Lee took her kids to stay with her father at his house in Buckeye, too scared to be in Phoenix after the assault.
Eventually, she returned to her job. But there was lasting psychological damage: She now sees a counselor and takes regular medication to help her sleep and keep her nightmares under control.
“Every time I see a cop car I get nervous, I get shaky, I kind of flip out a little bit,” Lee said.
She didn’t tell her children about the assault at first. Her 10-year-old son wants to be a police officer, and she didn’t want to undermine his dream. The prospect of going public with the assault and her kids hearing about it regularly through the media didn’t sound appealing either.
It wasn’t until Lee met Maupin at the Arizona State Fair in October 2019 that she first thought about reporting the incident, she said. Maupin, a community activist who has taken on the Phoenix Police Department before, was doing a voter registration drive at the fair, and Stanciel and Lee approached him.
Maupin recommended that Lee report the assault to Phoenix police. The next month, she called the department and met with with detectives in person. According to Lee’s lawsuit, Pena was placed on administrative leave in November 2019. He was eventually fired months later, in July 2020, after the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office first levied charges against him in June.
Fortune did not respond to New Times’ questions about why Pena had only been placed on administrative leave after Lee contacted the department about her assault.
The first assault allegedly committed by Pena bears a resemblance to Lee’s account. During the 2018 incident, Pena arrested a woman in a local park for having an outstanding warrant out of Yavapai County, according to court documents. Pena allegedly forced her to perform oral sex and raped her while she was handcuffed in the back of his patrol car. At the time, Pena “adamantly” denied the allegations.
Maupin said that he’s spoken with the third victim allegedly assaulted by Pena in August 2019. He said the circumstances of her assault are similar to the situations described by Lee and the other woman.
“The third victim was known to me through the community,” he said. “As I understand it he was on duty for all of them. He used that as part of his method of intimidation.”
Cops ‘Seldom Report Each Other’
The allegations against Pena also raise questions about how frequently police officers commit sexual misconduct and sexual assault while on duty. Another woman is suing the City of Phoenix after she was allegedly groped by an on-duty Phoenix cop in 2015 during a traffic stop; that same officer reportedly had a record of misconduct. Between 2006 and 2015, six members of the Phoenix Police Department were convicted of sex-related crimes, according to a database maintained by criminal justice researchers at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
Research suggests that cases of police committing sexual misconduct are more common than people may believe. Between 2005 and 2012, 669 cases of “police sexual violence” occurred across the United States, according to a study published earlier this year by the university. The perpetrator was a patrol officer in 87 percent of the cases, and in 81 percent of the cases, the offense was committed while on duty. Female drivers and sex workers are among the most common victims of police sexual abuse. The study’s authors found that the “most common context of police sexual violence” involved cases of police officers assaulting women during traffic stops.
Most of the time, the 2020 study found, the crimes were discovered by citizen complaints — and not “police initiated internal-affairs investigations” — in 94 percent of the cases.
“Sexual abuse of citizens and what officers would claim as consensual sex on duty — it’s fairly common at police departments and sheriff’s offices across the country,” Phil Stinson, a Bowling Green State University criminal justice professor and co-author of the study, told New Times. “Police chiefs frame this in the context of bad apples. I would maintain that the whole orchard is rotten.”
Penny Harrington, former chief of the Portland Police Bureau and founder of the National Center for Women and Policing, said that sexual harassment within law enforcement is a rampant issue. She add that the misconduct is usually committed by a small number of officers who repeat their behavior unless swiftly disciplined.
“There’s a lot of sexual harassment in law enforcement. Officer against officer or officer against the public, pull you over you for a traffic violation and then talk about how beautiful your breasts are or want to follow you home,” she said. “If the department doesn’t take swift and effective action against them, then they get the message it’s ok, oh boys will be boys, and because officers will seldom report each other, it can be going on right in front of your face.”
For Lee, coming forward about her assault and filing the lawsuit against the city of Phoenix and Pena is about protecting other women.
When asked what motivated her to pursue legal action, Lee said, “Going to counseling and thinking about other people out there that it could happen to. But it took me awhile.”
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