Suicide, investigation and a lawsuit follow booze-fueled UC Davis ag school retreat

Col. Christopher De Los Santos is buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery on Feb. 17, 2016.
Col. Christopher De Los Santos is buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery on Feb. 17, 2016. Courtesy Lisa De Los Santos

It was supposed to be a two-day retreat to Monterey, a chance for a small group of employees in UC Davis’ agriculture college to bond and tour a lettuce-growing operation in nearby Salinas.

Instead, the event turned into an alcohol-fueled bender that one participant later likened to a “booze cruise” at the Intercontinental Hotel on Cannery Row, a hotel so expensive that some staffers were asked to share beds in their rooms with co-workers.

One manager was accused of stripping naked and asking underlings to join him in a bathtub. Two others admitted they began drinking vodka and cranberry juice on the morning car ride down to Monterey while singing along to the movie “Footloose.”

Since the October 2015 event ended, documents obtained from UC Davis show that two staffers were demoted and the school conducted an internal investigation. A federal lawsuit against the university and then-Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi has been filed.

And the chief administrative officer of the department, a newly hired Air Force colonel with a wife and two young children, drove to an empty field in Rio Linda, put a pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

The tale of how Col. Christopher De Los Santos came to kill himself on Oct. 11, 2015, has largely remained untold until now, with the filing of a lawsuit in federal court in Sacramento this month and UC Davis’ subsequent agreement to release internal documents about the matter to The Sacramento Bee. The internal documents largely confirm details contained in the lawsuit, but redact the names of the participants.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of De Los Santos’ widow and children, blames the university for driving him to suicide. It claims he was notified by email on a Sunday morning – as he drove to church with his family – that he was being suspended after co-workers accused him of sexual harassment. The suit claims UC Davis discriminated against De Los Santos because he was a veteran, alleging that he was suspended and told to stay away from campus because officials were concerned he would “show up with a gun.”

UC Davis issued a statement expressing sympathy for the De Los Santos family but adding that it did nothing wrong in handling the sexual harassment claims that were filed against him in the wake of the retreat.

“In his brief employment, Col. De Los Santos was a valued and promising new member of the university community,” the university said. “For all employees, when the university learns that certain types of misconduct may have occurred, it takes appropriate interim steps while an investigation occurs. The university’s actions were entirely appropriate under the circumstances, and this lawsuit is an unfortunate development in an already tragic situation.”

The retreat involved 17 staff members from the “Phoenix Cluster,” an arm of the Department of Entomology and Nematology that advises students and provides support for departments in the agriculture college.

De Los Santos had been chief of the unit for three months, accepting the $105,000-a-year job and moving to Davis from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage after nearly 23 years in the Air Force.

The Phoenix Cluster had arranged such retreats in the past, according to the university’s internal investigation, which was released to The Bee with the names of employees blacked out. But, one participant told an investigator, “this one was much different,” adding that “the mentality of this retreat was that of a ‘Booze Cruise.’”

Drinking, and more drinking

From the start of the three-hour drive to Monterey, some staff members began drinking in a car and continued to do so into the early morning hours after arriving, the school’s investigation found. The lawsuit said De Los Santos drove down separately with two other staffers and went to his hotel room to work.

Over the course of that evening, the school investigation found, staffers held happy hour in a hotel room, went out for dinner and drinks at the Bubba Gump restaurant, went dancing at a bar and returned to the hotel, where they drank some more.

The lawsuit identifies two longtime Phoenix Cluster administrators, Sandra Vice and Suzette Garcia, as the ones who began drinking in the back seat of a car on the drive down while another staffer, Toni Goodin, drove and a fourth employee sat in the front passenger seat.

None of the three are named as defendants in the lawsuit and none responded to written and telephone requests for comment from The Bee. Goodin and Garcia still have offices at UC Davis; Vice retired from the university on June 29, according to university officials.

According to participants in the event who were interviewed by a university investigator, the group arrived at the hotel in the early afternoon. By 3 p.m., one of the participants was observed in the lobby of the hotel, stumbling with slurred speech. A happy hour in a hotel room followed at 5 p.m.

After the event ended, De Los Santos and another male staffer returned to the staffer’s hotel room to discuss work for about half an hour, the lawsuit says.

At about 7 p.m., Vice, Garcia and De Los Santos walked to Bubba Gump and met the rest of the staff. “Witnesses reported that Mrs. Vice and Mrs. Garcia both consumed alcohol with their meals,” the lawsuit says. “Mrs. Vice instructed a Phoenix Cluster staff member to pay for a large beer for Col. De Los Santos, using a UC Davis credit card.

“The staffer complied.”

Staffers returned to the hotel after dinner at about 9:30 p.m., with some later saying they saw De Los Santos and Vice holding hands as they walked, the lawsuit says. The group later went out drinking and dancing some more.

After midnight, some of them gathered in a hotel room being shared by Goodin, Garcia and Vice, the lawsuit says.

The drinking continued while De Los Santos and Vice “were on the bed together, their legs stretched out and their backs against the headboard,” with De Los Santos draping his arm around Vice, the suit says.

“The party chatter centered around work, with Col. De Los Santos encouraging everyone about the coming year,” the lawsuit says. It added that as the night progressed, Garcia poured “several alcoholic shots” that De Los Santos drank.

Naked in the bathtub?

“It was then that it got weird,” one female employee told a UC Davis investigator, according to the university’s report.

That staffer said she and two others decided “it was time for everyone to go,” and two of the women went into the hotel room’s bathroom “to wash up, hoping that they’d leave when they saw them getting ready for bed.”

Instead, according to the report, De Los Santos came in and suggested that “maybe we should take a bath...”

“The next thing I know is that he is standing there in the bathroom naked and he went into the tub,” one staffer said, according to the UC Davis report.

“We went back into the room and told the others he’d just gotten into the bathtub naked,” the staffer said.

Eventually, staffers told the investigator, De Los Santos left. He is not identified in the report by name, but the document makes it clear that the chief administrative officer – De Los Santos’ title at the time – was accused of such behavior.

Three of the 16 participants interviewed by the investigator said De Los Santos disrobed and got into the tub. A fourth said he did not see anything of the sort.

“I believe that I would have been aware of any behavior out of the norm,” that staffer told the university investigator. “I can’t imagine not noticing those things.”

The next morning, the group headed out for the tour of a Dole lettuce-growing operation in Salinas, the lawsuit says.

“In the parking lot, before leaving, Mrs. Vice approached a co-worker and asked to speak to him,” the lawsuit says.

According to the suit, she said, “You’re going to hear things about me and Chris. People saw us holding hands last night. But I want you to know that nothing happened. Nothing! I promise.”

The group returned to Davis that evening. De Los Santos had outpatient knee surgery that Friday, then came home and exchanged emails with university staffers.

At some point that same day, two employees filed a complaint against De Los Santos over his alleged behavior, the UC Davis report says.

De Los Santos was on his way to church Sunday when he received an email from Associate Dean Julie Fritz-Rubert telling him he was being placed on administrative leave for two weeks due to a “possible violation” of the school’s sexual harassment and sexual violence policy, the lawsuit says, adding that he was not informed of what the allegations were or when they supposedly took place.

“De Los Santos opened the email on his iPad at approximately 8:25 a.m., while riding in the front passenger seat of the family car with Lisa and their two children... as they all drove to church,” the lawsuit says. “Upon reading the email, Col. De Los Santos told Lisa to turn the car around and go home, where he exited the vehicle and walked inside the house.

“That was the last time that Lisa (or the children) ever saw Col. De Los Santos again.”

A box of bullets

Lisa De Los Santos was driving back to church when her husband called and read her the email “and told her he did not know what the allegations were about, who had made them, or anything else about the alleged wrongdoing,” the suit says.

Then, he drove to a Big 5 Sporting Goods store and bought a box of bullets.

Annabelle Robertson, the De Los Santos family attorney, said the colonel had never worked outside the military and likely did not know that the complaint he faced would be handled confidentially or what his rights were.

“There’s no question in my mind, in the minds of our veterans’ suicide expert, that Col. De Los Santos assumed that these allegations would be the subject of dramatic coverage, that he would potentially be arrested and tried in a court of law, and potentially recalled by the military to be tried under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and that is precisely the reason that lawmakers have protected veterans from discrimination in employment,” she said. “The risk for suicide is, sadly, extremely well known and widely publicized, and was at the time.”

Robertson also said there is no proof of any misconduct by De Los Santos and noted that the university’s own report quotes an eyewitness who “remembered no wrongdoing.”

Lisa De Los Santos called Davis police at 2:15 a.m. on Oct. 12, 2015, and filed a missing persons report for her husband, the suit says. Police issued a “be on the lookout” alert that day with his photo. It suggested that his last known location was near Marysville. His body was found in his car parked next to a field in the 7300 block of 16th Street in Rio Linda. The lawsuit says the coroner determined De Los Santos killed himself by placing a gun in his mouth.

UC Davis announced his death on Oct. 16, 2015, saying in a release that he “died unexpectedly” and praising him for “making some profound changes in how the department was managed.”

“Chris radiated integrity, decency and respect,” said James R. Carey, a distinguished professor of entomology, according to the press release.

Five days later, the university commissioned its own investigation, which was completed Nov. 9, 2015. It found that De Los Santos’ alleged behavior “likely occurred.”

“Based on the witness statements, it is evident that the consumption of alcohol contributed to an unfortunate set of events,” the investigation concluded, adding that “there is no dispute” two UC Davis employees were drinking in the back seat of a car while traveling on university business. The investigator also found that three managers attending the retreat “exhibited a lack of professional business judgment” and that some attendees were shocked at the expense of the trip and lack of planned programs to make it worthwhile.

The report found that one room with two king beds was priced at $414, while a room with two double beds was $354. The total expense for the two-day retreat was $6,639.81, which came out of grant funding rather than state or federal funds, the report said.

“This should never have been held at the Intercontinental Hotel,” one said, according to the report’s findings. “It was much too expensive, it was just not right to spend that type of money on lodging for a university function.

“I wouldn’t spend that type of money on myself.”

Grave 1,912

In her lawsuit against UC Davis, De Los Santos’ widow claims the university specifically discriminated against her husband because he was a veteran, a violation of federal law. As evidence, the lawsuit claims that Fritz-Rubert and another associate dean, Mary Delany, wanted De Los Santos notified of the suspension via email while he was away from campus.

Other sexual harassment cases have been handled differently, with the accused not placed on leave pending investigation, the suit says. But Fritz-Rubert and Delany “told the dean that they did not want Col. De Los Santos to come in to work because he ‘might show up with a gun’ and/or ‘need to be escorted off campus by security’ due to his military background,” the lawsuit says.

Neither Delany nor Fritz-Rubert responded to a request for comment. Then-UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, who was named as a defendant because she had the “final authority” over sexual misconduct cases, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Katehi was chancellor during the period the lawsuit covers. She stepped down in August 2016 during a Sacramento Bee investigation into her positions on outside corporate boards and the school’s spending to improve her image on the internet. She still teaches at UC Davis.

Lisa De Los Santos and her children left the Davis area, according to public records. She issued a statement to The Bee through her attorney.

“Everyone who knew Chris was shocked by his death,” she said. “It was deeply traumatic for me and the children. We had no warning, no chance to say goodbye, no explanation.

“I was then blindsided all over again, in the weeks after his death, when a UCD staff member contacted me and told me that UCD had violated all sorts of policies and procedures, and that there was more – much more – to the story. She said that I had a right to know the truth. After that, other staff members came forward and started sharing what they knew, things that they had seen and heard at the retreat, and afterwards.”

The lawsuit seeks damages for De Los Santos’ lost income, as well as for physical, mental and emotional problems they have faced since his suicide.

Four months after his death, on Feb. 17, 2016, De Los Santos was buried in grave 1,912 in section 57 of Arlington National Cemetery.

Read the UC Davis investigation

The school redacted the names of participants in the report released to The Bee.

Sam Stanton: 916-321-1091, @StantonSam

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