SANDUSKY, Ohio — On the evening of May 10, 2019, Hope Pelch-Reynolds allowed herself to relax.
Her teenaged daughter, Kacie, had safely made the more than four-hour trip from her Michigan home to Cedar Point, where she was planning to work for the summer.
That night, Hope posted the following to Facebook: “Kacie made it to Cedar Point. Now I can relax and not sit & worry about her on the road. When the kids travel out of state, this mama is on pins & needles till they get where they need to be.”
Two nights later, Kacie was sexually assaulted in an apartment for Cedar Point employees. It was Mother’s Day.
“I called my mom,” Kacie said, sobbing. “She shouldn’t get this call on Mother’s Day. I’m her only daughter.”
27 sexual assault reports
Over the past several months, 11 Investigates has looked into numerous sexual assault allegations at the Cedar Point employee-housing units. Sister stations WKYC in Cleveland and WBNS in Columbus have partnered with us in the investigation. Since 2017, the Sandusky Police Department has taken 27 sexual assault reports stemming from incidents at Cedar Park housing. In those reports, 32 men are listed as suspects. Only two men have been charged with sexual offenses.
“I don't know how many hundreds of employees live in the employee housing. I don't know how many they have who are part-time living there or full-time living there. I know there's a larger population that takes over those housing areas during the season, so there's a lot of people and a small place. But that is a larger number (of assaults),” Sandusky Police Chief Jared Oliver said. “I would like to see a smaller number than that.”
However, to this point, we can’t confirm the real number of possible assaults because the reports made to Sandusky police likely represent only a portion of the total number of cases.
Sandusky police take a report if an alleged victim comes to them or if they are called by Cedar Point police for assistance. During the season, 911 calls from the park and housing units are supposed to be dispatched to the Cedar Point Police Department rather than the Sandusky Police Department.
What happens when only Cedar Point police respond is a closely held secret.
Fight for records
On March 23, 11 Investigates submitted a public records request to Cedar Point Police Chief Ron Gilson for all sexual misconduct reports for the past five years. He acknowledged receipt of the request and said it would be turned over to the park’s legal counsel to determine if Ohio’s public records laws apply to the park. If their counsel agreed, we were told the reports would be turned over within 30 days.
On March 30, 11 Investigates responded that the Ohio Supreme Court has already ruled in State ex rel. Schiffbauer v. Banaszak that private police forces, with sworn officers, are a public office and subject to public records law.
In addition, police incident reports are to be quickly turned over to a requester. In contrast to Cedar Point, Sandusky police turned over their department's incident reports within two days of our request.
After receiving no additional response from Chief Gilson, WTOL instructed its attorney to file a demand letter, giving Cedar Point police until April 22 to produce the records. There still has been no response.
We also sent a detailed email to Cedar Point, explaining that we were looking into numerous sexual assault allegations and that multiple victims told us their stories. We requested to interview executives and also Chief Gilson. Our request was denied, with a spokesman saying that “we do not have interview availability at this time.”
We then sent another email, explaining that we believe it is important for them to respond to some of the victims and to address the 27 sexual assault allegations.
Minutes after a Cedar Point police office asked us to quit filming on one of the park's properties, Cedar Point provided a statement that said, "Cedar Point takes these matters very seriously. All reports of associate misconduct are immediately responded to, reviewed, and if appropriate, escalated to local law enforcement for further investigation."
There was no mention of providing the initial incident reports from its officers.
Women tell similar stories
For many young employees of Cedar Point, employment at one of America’s largest amusement parks is a chance to discover independence and create memories.
Multiple people described the dorms as an almost nonstop party, without the stress of schoolwork that comes with living in university dorms.
For Kacie Wilson, the summer of 2019 was going to be different.
“I wanted to leave my parents’ house, just for the summer, and see what it was like,” Kacie said.
She was 19 years old. Cedar Point made sense. She could work all summer, stay in cheap employee housing, save some money, and make some memories.
But other than a roommate she corresponded with on social media, she knew no one at the park. At one point, she was locked out of her apartment without her shoes and a young man in a nearby apartment offered to help.
“He asked if I wanted to get on his back,” Kacie said. “He made sure I was OK during the whole time.”
His name was Donelle Fowlkes, a fellow Cedar Point employee. Fowlkes later asked her to come over and hang out.
“At that point, my trust was like….I could trust so easily,” she said.
Later that night, after eating and watching TV, she fell asleep in his apartment.
“I woke up to him inside of me. I pushed him away, and I got up and just left,” Kacie said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Other women told us similar stories of being sexually assaulted inside employee housing by co-workers.
“My sweater shawl thing was on the floor with my shirt. I didn’t know where my pants were, and I woke up and there was a condom stuck to my leg,” Raven Jones told us.
“L," whom we agreed not to name because she is afraid, said she was the designated driver for a group of friends during a night out. She said she was then attacked by one of the men in the group early in the morning.
“I had my door unlocked to go back and forth to the bathroom to get ready for bed, like taking out my contacts,” she said. “He walked in – unannounced - and he grabbed me and threw me on the bed.”
She said he assaulted her for at least an hour
The suspect in her case, a seasonal worker from overseas, fled the country and was not able to be interviewed.
Raven’s case remains open, and Kacie’s attacker, Donelle Fowlkes, pleaded guilty to sexual battery and is serving three years in prison.
“I was relieved for a little bit (when he went to prison), but it still makes me wonder: What’s going to happen when he gets out,” Kacie said. “I’m the reason he’s in prison.”
She was assaulted the day before her first day of working at the park. She said her manager texted that Monday to see why she wasn’t at work. Otherwise, she said, she has never heard from a Cedar Point official. In Raven’s case, she said Cedar Point allowed her to take unpaid leave but required her to continue paying rent.
'Partying, doing drugs, having sex'
For decades, employee dorms and apartments at Cedar Point have had a reputation of being nonstop parties, with employees having little oversight.
After Kacie called her mom, her family immediately went to pick her up. Hope said she was stunned by what she saw: “It was like someone opened the doors to the zoo and let the animals out. People were jumping off balconies. People were running through the halls, drinking.”
Raven told us of seeing drug deals and employees “partying, doing drugs, having sex.”
Her husband, Dylon, whom she met at Cedar Point, said, “there’s a lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol.” He added it wasn’t unusual to see an ambulance pull up and take someone away.
Records 11 Investigates requested from the Sandusky Fire Department showed that EMS crews responded to nine overdose calls in the housing units in 2019 and two last year. In 2020, the park was only briefly open because of COVID-19.
While in town to interview the Sandusky Police chief, a WTOL photographer was outside the station to take video. An unidentified officer stopped him and inquired why we were in town. When told that we were working on a story about the sexual assaults in the housing units, the officer responded, “There are a lot of those.”
Kacie wasn’t surprised after being told the number of reports 11 Investigates had uncovered.
“When I was in the hospital (for a sexual assault test), the nurse said, ‘Ohhh, you’re the first one of the year.’ And I’m like, ‘Are you saying it happens all the time?’”
“In doing research, I’m thinking it’s not as big of a place as Disney World, but it’s an amusement park. The workers should be good because they have to be good around kids – and adults. So I figured it’s not that bad. I guess I was wrong.”
Are you a sexual assault survivor who needs help? We have links here to resources in Ohio, Michigan and across the country.
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