Education

Judge dismisses suit that blamed UC Davis for administrator suicide after boozy 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 of Lisa De Los Santos

More than two years after a UC Davis administrator killed himself in the wake of an alcohol-fueled university retreat, a federal lawsuit filed by his widow has been dismissed by a judge in Sacramento.

U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley signed an order Tuesday dismissing the lawsuit, which had exposed tawdry details of the two-day retreat by university officials in Monterey in 2015, an incident that led to an internal investigation and the demotion of two school employees.

UC Davis had steadfastly denied wrongdoing in the suicide by retired Air Force Col. Christopher De Los Santos, who shot himself to death Oct. 11, 2015, the same day he was notified by the university that he was being suspended because of sexual harassment allegations.

The university had asked the court to dismiss the case, and De Los Santos' widow, Lisa, did not file documents opposing the motion.

"Our sympathies continue to be with the De Los Santos family in this incredibly difficult time," said Kimberly Hale, UC Davis spokeswoman. "The university is committed to maintaining a workplace — on campus and off — that is free from harassing conduct. The university is equally committed to monitoring the proper use of available resources. The filing of this lawsuit was an unfortunate development in an already tragic situation. The judge’s dismissal of the case was the appropriate course."

The order brings to an end a case that exposed shocking details of the Monterey retreat by a small group of workers from UC Davis' agriculture college who were supposed to be taking part in the trip to bond as colleagues and tour a lettuce-growing operation in Salinas.

Instead, court filings and internal documents released to The Sacramento Bee by the university described a binge-drinking "booze cruise" that began for some workers on the drive down to Monterey and continued into the early morning hours after they arrived.

The event involved 17 employees from the school's "Phoenix Cluster," part of the Department of Entomology and Nematology in the agriculture college.

De Los Santos was hired to run the cluster three months before the retreat, accepting the $105,000-a-year job and moving to Davis after retiring from a 23-year Air Force career.

The lawsuit and internal documents say workers made the three-hour drive to Monterey on Oct. 7, 2015, and checked into the Intercontinental Hotel on Cannery Row, where they took rooms that ranged from $354 to $414 a night.

Some staffers held a happy hour before going out for drinks and dinner at the nearby Bubba Gump restaurant. After dinner, they went to a bar, then returned to the hotel for more drinks.

There, De Los Santos drank "several alcoholic shots," sat on a bed with a female colleague and then suggested to one staffer that they should take a bath together, documents say.

Eventually, De Los Santos ended up naked by himself in the bathtub, three employees later told university investigators. He later left the room and the group went out the next day for the lettuce-field tour.

Upon their return to campus, two employees filed complaints with the university against De Los Santos, and he was notified by email on Oct. 11, 2015 — a Sunday — that he was being suspended for two weeks for a "possible violation" of UC Davis' sexual harassment and sexual violence policies.

De Los Santos was being driven to church by his wife with their two children when he read the email and had her turn around and drive home, according to the lawsuit.

De Los Santos did not explain to his wife what the email said and left the home, drove to a Big 5 sporting goods store and purchased a box of bullets. He later drove to Rio Linda and parked near a field, where he killed himself with a pistol, authorities determined.

De Los Santos' widow filed suit against the university and its former chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi, in October 2017, blaming UC Davis for driving her husband to suicide and allegedly discriminating against him because he was a veteran.

The university strongly disputed the claims, saying in court filings that it sympathized with De Los Santos' family but that "neither legally nor morally is anyone to blame for Mr. De Los Santos' decision to die."

"The proposition that an employer would be liable for causing the suicide of an employee for making a diligent, good faith effort to respond and investigate a sexual harassment complaint defies logic," university lawyers argued.

Proceedings in the suit never progressed as the attorney for the family, Annabelle Robertson, sought to withdraw from the case. Robertson, who lives in South Carolina, said in court filings that she had tried to get De Los Santos' widow to agree to hiring a California-based co-counsel but that she resisted.

Robertson eventually turned her attention to politics in South Carolina, where she sought the Democratic nomination to run against Republican Congressman Joe Wilson. She lost her primary race to an opponent Tuesday, the same day the case was dismissed.

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