When an investigation found sexual harassment allegations against Storey County Sheriff Gerald Antinoro were credible, Melanie Keener thought she would be able to continue her job as the sheriff’s chief deputy.
But that wasn’t the case.
Keener — who had spent 15 years in the sheriff’s department and made the initial complaint of sexual harassment against Antinoro — subsequently lost her job.
“The county, they took away my office badge, my identification, my keys to everything,” Keener said in an interview with The Nevada Independent. “I was stripped of my identity and everything that I had been a part of for 15 years.”
Storey County Administrator Austin Osborne said in a deposition relating to Keener’s lawsuit that Keener’s claim was not the first sexual harassment, wrongful termination or accusation of discrimination lobbed at Antinoro since the sheriff took office in 2010.
Osborne could not recall exactly how many complaints — including sexual harassment allegations — were filed against Antinoro, but he said there were “numerous...more than 10.”
Questions over Antinoro’s tenure atop the sheriff’s office and his personal conduct have abounded since Keener, 41, filed her lawsuit against him and the county in July 2017. It’s also pushed the internal political drama of Storey County, located approximately 30 miles southeast of Reno and with a population just over 4,000, into the public eye — especially given her support from a group of powerful Northern Nevada business owners who unsuccessfully sought to recall Antinoro from office last year.
But recent events, prompted by a lawsuit filed by Keener against the county, have unveiled a fuller picture of Antinoro’s alleged misbehavior while in office, and could pressure some top state politicians to renounce his support.
Keener, in her first public interview, said she turned to the court system after feeling as if she had no other options, and acknowledged that doing so would likely end her career in law enforcement.
“That is a hard pill to swallow,” said Keener. “I've been in law enforcement for over 18 years. At 23 years old, you're still kind of, you have a bit of a child in you. To have my entire life gear towards this and to think that I may not be able to continue pursuing my path is hard to take.”
A fateful car ride
The county’s investigation into Keener’s allegations centered around a trip to a law enforcement conference in Ely taken by Antinoro and Keener in late July 2015. On the last night of the conference, Antinoro texted her messages that investigators found to be laced with sexual innuendos — including a reference to “the blowing thing” with a winking emoji. Antinoro later told attorneys during a deposition that text was in reference to Keener “blowing” $80 to $100 while gambling.
On their drive back to her home in Fallon the next day, Keener said Antinoro, her boss, discussed the intimate details of his sex life for the better part of a nearly five-hour car ride.
“He just kept going and going and going. Almost like a narrative,” Keener said.
Keener said in her deposition that Antinoro said he paid his ex-wife to have sex with other men while he watched, and described frequenting the Green Door, a swingers’ club in Las Vegas with his ex-girlfriend.
Antinoro said in a deposition that he watched his ex-girlfriend as other men fondled her at strip clubs and may have said something similar to Keener, but that he only brought it up because they were friends.
“Well, I believe that in my car driving down the road talking to whom I thought was my friend on personal matters on a conversation that she instigated, knowing the things that she had shared with me for the previous 10 years, no, I didn't look at it as a workplace situation,” Antinoro said in the deposition.
In an interview, Keener said that she thought a clear separation and boundaries existed between personal friends and the people she worked with.
“There is a difference between work friends and personal friends,” said Keener. “I kept those very separate. In fact, it was a benefit for me and I appreciated that I lived an hour away from where I worked because it was much easier to have that separation. The work friends and the personal friends were entirely different.”
After the trip to Ely, Keener said the sheriff would routinely come into her office and place his feet on her desk, even though she asked him numerous times to stop. In one incident, Keener said she became fed up and stuck chewing gum on the soles of Antinoro’s boots.
According to the deposition, Antinoro then removed the gum by scraping his boots off the side of Keener’s desk, picked up the gum and threw it at Keener’s head, hoping it would land in her hair — which he said was a “goofing off in the office that always happened.”
“He had these snap-on sunglasses that were worn over his regular eyeglasses. He would put those on and then slink down in the chair and I found it so disrespectful towards me because I took it as he didn't have any interest in what I was trying to speak to him about,” Keener said in an interview.
Investigation and a job change
Keener reported the gum-throwing alongside her sexual harassment complaint to Osborne, the county administrator who is also the human resources director, six weeks before she filed an official complaint with him on Feb. 16, 2016.
In a Mar. 22 deposition, Osbourne said he emailed Antinoro to tell him a complaint was filed and that he was not allowed to retaliate against the person.
“I informed him that a sexual harassment claim had been brought forth,” Osborne said. “He knew, one way or another, that it was Melanie, or at least at the very beginning of the conversation was—seemed to be unsure—but figured it out very quickly. And then I said I have put the person on leave until I figure out what to do, and his response was somewhat similar to ‘You have to be shitting me. This is f-ing ridiculous.’”
Keener was removed from her position as deputy sheriff on Feb. 19, 2016. Osborne said in the deposition that he relieved Keener of her badge, sheriff’s identification, keys to the sheriff’s office, jail and vehicles at Antinoro’s request.
A lateral position was later created for Keener at the courthouse, which she still holds today. Her office is situated in the county museum, which she says she has to vacate if it is needed for a private meeting. Keener said her job now is a combination of a security guard and bailiff. She is no longer involved in detective work and spends her work hours inspecting fire extinguishers and defibrillators.
“I was going to the county allowing them to handle the situation and handle the complaint,” said Keener. “I decided to go to the court system, or through the court system civilly, when the county told me there was nothing they could do.”
Yomba Tribal Police Chief Stewart Handte, who has worked with both Keener and Antinoro, said in an interview that law enforcement administrators might see a woman who files a sexual harassment report as a troublemaker.
“Her career is in shambles. It will never recover,” Handte said. “She can never go anywhere else because she has that stigma on her. Not the good people, but the people who are willing to disregard a viable candidate for law enforcement positions. I’ve worked with Melanie Keener. She has had her life ruined by this criminal with a badge, and I will keep referring to him as a criminal with a badge. If he wants to sue me, come get me. He is a disgusting example of a law enforcement officer and he has no business in the profession whatsoever, let alone being the sheriff of the county.”
In late 2016, the developers of the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center (TRIC), Don Roger Norman, and his business partner, Storey County Commissioner and brothel owner Lance Gilman, spearheaded a special election to recall a day after the November 2016 election.
Supporters of the recall said Antinoro’s tenure as sheriff was costly to the county. The county settled two wrongful termination lawsuits and Keener’s sexual harassment investigation alone cost the county more than $6,000 in 2016.
The sheriff survived the recall election, with 883 voters supporting him and 601 voting to remove him from office.
Antinoro said in a statement that the recall was “a continuing attempt by specific interests to control the operations of the Sheriff’s Office.”
“Starting with the last election in 2014, said interests have made countless allegations, filed lawsuits, proffered false statements, twisted information, and used the media and county commission meetings as platforms of attack. This is just one more in a long list; all the while being very short on factual information or evidence. In short, they are creating their own narrative – say something long enough and loud enough and people will begin to believe it even in the absence of proof,” Antinoro said.
That “said interest” Antinoro is referring to is Gilman.
Tensions have long simmered between the sheriff and Storey County’s very influential — and wealthy — Gilman. As a county commissioner, opponents have claimed Gilman is in a unique position to make decisions on behalf of the county as well as benefit from them.
Storey County struggled to pay its bills until Gilman purchased the brothel and developed the industrial complex. It infused money into the former Comstock Lode mining county, enticing tech companies such as Google, Zulily.com, Switch and Tesla to take advantage of generous tax incentives and lax local regulation to build massive industrial complexes. Nearly all industrial permits for businesses are pre-approved, ensuring most businesses never have to appear in front of county commissioners to obtain permission to build.
Sam Toll, editor of TheStoreyTeller.online, a blog that has documented the saga between the sheriff and Gilman, says the friction started once Antinoro stopped “rubber stamping” work cards for brothel employees.
The inspection and approval of permits for Gilman’s Mustang Ranch brothel fall within the jurisdiction of the sheriff’s office. In 2009, the county decided that all sex workers must have a personal interview with the sheriff before a work permit is issued.
“That started a little rift between them and that rift grew into a chasm when a guy named Tom Gonzales sued Lance Gilman for a breach of contract for a loan that Gilman took out with Gonzales,” Toll said in an interview.
The lawsuit prompted an investigation by the sheriff’s office who found a discrepancy. Storey County ordinance required all principals with a financial interest in brothels to have a license. Antinoro allegedly found that Gilman was in violation of brothel regulations because Gonzales was never listed on brothel applications and revoked Gilman’s license for a short period.
“At that point,” said Toll, “Lance (Gilman) had this burning, flaming torch or sword that he wanted to impale Mr. Antinoro upon.”
Toll was sued by Gilman for defamation for statements pertaining to the commissioner’s business dealings and residency. Toll said he doesn’t believe one of Nevada’s wealthiest men lives and entertains his grandchildren in a double-wide trailer behind the brothel.
The feud has also drawn Keener’s issues with the sheriff into the middle of it. She’s being represented in her suit against the sheriff by Gus W. Flangas, the same lawyer listed as Gilman’s attorney in the defamation lawsuit against Toll.
In a statement to The Nevada Independent, a spokesperson for Keener said Flangas is working on the lawsuit on a contingency basis, meaning Keener does not pay any legal bills upfront and has not accrued legal fees. If the lawsuit is successful, Flangas will be able to take a percentage of the monetary damages as his fee.
On April 9, a judge dismissed seven of the eight complaints against Toll.
“It’s mystifying to me,” Antinoro said when asked why Gilman was opposed to him in an interview with The Nevada Independent.
Antinoro added that he couldn’t say much due to ongoing litigation.
But he said he does inspect and enforce brothel regulations that were not being implemented under the previous sheriff.
TRIC project manager and spokesperson, Kris Thompson, said in a previous interview that companies are leery about investing in a county where the sheriff has been accused of ethical violations.
“With that kind of global reach that our park has, people are watching us, and watching us closely,” Thompson said.
Antinoro, who changed his surname from Cook around 2002, had a mixed record in law enforcement before becoming sheriff. In 2006, he was asked to leave the Nevada Transportation Authority—an agency that administers and enforces passenger transportation laws, including taxi enforcement—in Las Vegas after serving a little over a year as the chief of enforcement.
In a February 2018 deposition of Keener’s sexual harassment lawsuit, Antinoro was asked if his Las Vegas position was terminated because he misplaced cocaine obtained as evidence in a drug bust. Antinoro said it involved others in his department but not him.
Antinoro was also asked if he had any knowledge that Las Vegas Metro Police was “irate” because he crossed into the department’s drug investigation or that then Gov. Kenny Guinn wanted him removed from his position. Antinoro said he was not aware of Metro’s or the governor’s concerns.
In the same deposition, Antinoro said the allegations of misconduct made against him was an example of “dirty politics.”
“When you start looking at all of the people involved and all the allegations and when they're made and what they're made (of), it's pretty self-explanatory,” he said. “It's dirty politics.”
A lawyer for Antinoro said they will ask the judge to dismiss Keener’s suit.
Antinoro is facing re-election this year and is up against two other candidates: Bruce Clark and Mike Cullen. Thompson said that TRIC isn’t endorsing either of the sheriff’s opponents.
Keener is seeking monetary judgment in excess of $45,000 and attorney’s fees.
Correction: The article was updated to reflect the recall effort started the day after the November 2016 election and not after Antinoro's re-election.