John Cádiz Klemack
A maintenance employee at a North Hollywood Sears was accused of using up to 60 motion-detector cameras to record women and children in bathrooms and fitting rooms, and then posting those images online. Shoppers claim management should have known one of its workers was secretly recording people in bathrooms and dressing rooms, and have filed a civil suit against the company. John Cádiz Klemack reports from North Hollywood for the NBC4 News at 6 p.m. on Dec. 20, 2012.
A former Sears maintenance worker spied on women and children for years by secretly filming in women’s restrooms and fitting rooms at a North Hollywood branch and managers turned a “blind eye” to his “outwardly suspicious and highly questionable behavior,” a lawsuit by 25 women and a child alleges.
Alejandro Gamiz, 28, allegedly bought tools and supplies to facilitate his peeping activities, yet no one at Sears noticed him bring these supplies onto the premises or use them, the lawsuit said.
Gamiz allegedly frequently pretended to be conducting maintenance work in the women’s restrooms, women’s fitting rooms, air ducts, and crawl spaces at the North Hollywood store, even when no maintenance was required, according to the lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Dec. 12.
Gamiz allegedly took “extended absences” that went unnoticed by Sears staff, court records said.
“Each day he came to work, Gamiz would enter the women’s fitting room, sometimes empty-handed, and spend a substantial amount of time in there, which was recorded by Sears’ own video recording system …" the lawsuit said. “Despite Gamiz’s outwardly suspicious and questionable behavior, and the numerous, glaring 'red flags' his behavior created, Sears never questioned Gamiz's conduct.”
Sears spokesman Howard Riefs said the company denies the allegations.
“With all due respect to the associates and customers who may have been impacted by this incident, we believe that this lawsuit is without merit and we will vigorously defend the company in this matter,” Riefs said in an emailed statement. “No member of management or leadership in the company had any prior knowledge of the former employee’s conduct until it was discovered in our store. At that point, we immediately launched an investigation and turned the matter over to the police.”
A victim said she was traumatized after learning what Gamiz had done.
"It's one of my worst nightmares," said Bonite Koonce. "How do you not know your own people, that are working in your store, are doing something like that? It's a horrible thing to wake up one morning and find out someone's done something like that."
Gamiz was terminated from his job shortly after Sears said they learned of the incident in April. He was convicted after pleading no contest to four misdemeanor counts of illegally using a video recording device in a changing room or bathroom, according to the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office.
He was sentenced to serve one year in jail and three years probation. He was also ordered to participate in a live-in psychiatric rehabilitation program after his expected release from jail in May.
Gamiz is also prohibited from owning or possessing a computer or cameras and may not access the Internet.
A restitution hearing held Dec. 3 to determine how much Gamiz will be ordered to pay the victims was postponed so attorneys could compile victims’ therapy expenses. One of the victims said her therapy bills were as high as $10,000, said Diego Edber, the deputy city attorney who prosecuted the case.
During an emotional court hearing, four victims took the stand, trembling and crying, Edber said. One of the victims, who was in her 20s, said she was scared to go into public because she doesn't know who has seen her likeness on the Internet in various states of undress, Edber said.
Another victim, also in her 20s, told the court she couldn't venture far from home out of fear of having to use a public restroom.
Sears management discovered peep holes and hidden cameras at the North Hollywood store on April 11, the civil court complaint alleges. Sears loss prevention employees discovered at least one camera during an unrelated visit to the fitting room, the civil complaint alleges.
After the discovery of the equipment, Los Angeles police detectives launched an investigation and arrested Gamiz on April 12, according to police and court records.
The peep holes were visible to anyone entering the fitting rooms and restrooms and the damage caused by the work was estimated at $5,000, court records said.
Even though Sears notified employees of the arrest the next day, the lawsuit alleges that Sears management knew of the incident two weeks earlier when they distributed arbitration agreements to employees to sign.
The civil lawsuit, which had no dollar amount attached, accuses Sears of breaching its duty by failing to adequately screen Gamiz’s background. The company should have known that Gamiz had a history of, or a propensity for, voyeurism and would pose an undue risk to the public, the lawsuit said.
Over a three-year period beginning in 2009, investigators believe that Gamiz may have filmed more than 1,000 women and girls in changing rooms and bathrooms using a sophisticated array of cameras linked to laptop computers, the City Attorney’s Office said.
The cameras were triggered by motion sensors and filmed activity during store hours.
Gamiz downloaded video during his after-hours shift, prosecutors said. Security from the store eventually discovered the cameras that were traced back to Gamiz, the City Attorney’s Office said.
This is the second lawsuit filed in the case. Twenty Sears employees and 25 patrons, including minors, filed a civil lawsuit against Sears in September, alleging negligence.