A top commander with the Orange County Sheriff's Department, who was fired Wednesday after an internal investigation into sexual harassment, also is the subject of a criminal probe, sources said Thursday.
Two veteran detectives have been assigned to investigate Dennis LaDucer, 52, their former boss and a 31-year department veteran, according to department sources. The topic of the criminal probe was unclear Thursday.
In firing LaDucer, Sheriff Brad Gates said an internal investigation has determined that the assistant sheriff "clearly violated our department rules." That investigation was prompted by sexual harassment lawsuits filed by three female employees who allege that they were relentlessly badgered, groped and propositioned by LaDucer.
LaDucer could not be reached for comment Thursday. His attorney, Bruce Praet, said he had no knowledge of a criminal investigation.
Gates declined Thursday to confirm or deny that a new investigation is underway. Citing the lawsuits, Gates declined to comment on the specific findings that prompted LaDucer's firing. The sheriff did acknowledge that LaDucer's dismissal validates at least some of the claims brought by the women.
"There's no question that my decision certainly underscores that something improper was occurring in this agency, something that would not be tolerated by me," Gates said.
The sheriff praised the three female employees, including one of the department's highest-ranking women, for fulfilling their "difficult obligation" and performing "a service to the department."
Gates is named in the suits, which contend that he condoned a hostile, abusive environment toward women by ignoring LaDucer's excesses and, in one instance, making sexist comments himself.
Gates has denied that he acted improperly and has said he never saw LaDucer harass any employee.
The lawsuits claim that LaDucer made veiled career threats, fondled and kissed the women against their will and made humiliating sexual comments in the office.
It was not clear Thursday if the two detectives assigned to investigate LaDucer are looking exclusively at the allegations raised in those lawsuits.
Attorney Pat Thistle, who represents the three women suing LaDucer, said he expects that the criminal investigation would extend beyond incidents involving Lt. Wendy Costello, office employee Mary Ann Hoyt and Deputy Florence "Jeanie" Henson.
"I believe there is more to this story than has been told in the complaints filed so far," Thistle said.
The firing this week of LaDucer stunned attorneys on both sides of the case, and Praet said LaDucer had no warning that he was losing his job. A captain in the department called the veteran lawman at home and asked if he could drop off some papers, never hinting that the documents were termination papers, Praet said.
The attorney said his client was "just devastated" by the news and the manner in which it was delivered. Praet said LaDucer may consider suing the agency for violating his privacy rights by publicizing the firing in a news release.
Speaking carefully, Gates expressed remorse Thursday over the abrupt ousting of LaDucer, a trusted confidant and friend for decades.
"We've lost a family member," he said, adding later that he would have liked to call LaDucer personally but did not because of the lawsuits.