SANDUSKY, Ohio — On a recent cloudy afternoon, three young women huddled around a table at a park on the shores of Lake Erie.
The topic was Cedar Point. Days after our investigation into sexual assault allegations at the park, the women wanted to talk about their time in Cedar Point’s human resources department.
11 Investigates found that during a five-year period, starting with 2017, 27 people filed reports for sexual assault inside of Cedar Point employee housing. To date, only one man, Donelle Fowlkes, has been convicted of charges. He is in prison for three years after pleading guilty to sexual battery. Another man is awaiting trial next week for a sexual imposition case dating back to 2018.
“I wish Cedar Point could have seen this coming, because we sure did,” Colin said.
Colin is not her real name. Colin, Samantha, and Gabby did not want us to use their real names, fearing that some people in the community might lash out at them for speaking poorly of the Sandusky park.
All three women worked in other areas of the park and were transferred to human resources in 2021. In their HR roles, they were part of a team of 6-10 associates who were given hiring authority for just about all of the more than 6,000 employees employed each season.
Last season was a particularly difficult year for human resources at Cedar Point. The pandemic drove many potential employees out of the work force and the park bumped up the pay from $15 to $20 an hour.
'Our jaws dropped'
According to all three women, expectations from management changed dramatically between early in the year and May. In late spring, Cedar Point announced that the park would be closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in June because there was not adequate staffing.
There were no more 30-minute interviews blocked out on planners.
“If they picked up the phone, you were supposed to hire them,” Gabby said. “It didn’t matter if they gave a crap interview or not.”
The goal, by late spring, was for each woman to hire 25 associates a day. They recounted stories of applicants giving interviews while in the shower, a homeless man who wouldn’t quit cursing, others who were talking to multiple people while interviewing.
“There were many times we would turn people down in the early months. Maybe they weren’t the quality we were looking for,” Samantha said. “As time went on, we weren’t getting the hires needed. We had to cut the days operating for month of June. So because of that, the VP of HR came in and had a talk. We went from having values and it went downhill. It turned into that we needed to hire 100 people a week.”
The vice president of human resources at that time was Joanne Mueller. She served in that role since 2017. During the beginning of our investigation, her name continually popped up while talking to people about our story. In a call to the human resources department last week, a representative confirmed that Mueller was no longer with the company. We tried two different phone numbers and went to a home where she was listed as living, but a woman who answered the door said Mueller had moved in December. We have not been able to reach her to ask about the women's allegations.
The HR associates said that, at some point in late spring, Mueller changed a policy on background checks. Previously, the policy was that a new hire could not start until a background check had been returned. According to the women, Mueller adjusted that to allow a hire to begin – sometimes in the same day – before the background check was returned. The VP, or an upper level manager, would ask them about their record.
“We would take these candidates behind the counter, and they would just ask them if they had any convictions or open cases or anything like that,” Samantha said. “And I mean, of course, most of the time, these people are going to be like, ‘I have nothing.’ They are not going to say, ‘Yeah, I have an assault charge on me.’”
But sometimes they did have a record.
“Unfortunately, we were informed that there was an individual who told the VP that they didn't have anything on the background check. They were completely clear. They got to work in the park and there was about eight convictions, including for kidnapping,” she said. “Our jaws dropped in the human resources center.”
The women said the man was fired by managers.
Problems in employee housing
According to Gabby, hiring was not the only issue that representatives had to handle. They were not responsible for investigating sexual assault allegations. Those complaints were turned over to upper management, but Gabby said associates would complain to them about conditions and events in the housing units.
“It was very common for associates to come into the recruiting center to quit because of the housing conditions - whether that was the alcohol, the drugs, being assaulted sexually. It was very violent atmosphere most of the time,” she said.
In fact, she said she experienced the atmosphere prior to working in HR.
“I used to live in housing. It was a traumatic and horrifying experience,” she said, explaining that there were often associates out in front of the dorms, drinking and harassing female associates. “After working a 14-hour shift, I came back and there was just a random guy lying in my roommate’s bed and it was an all-girl dorm.”
More alarming to her was what she experienced while trying to take a shower.
“There were always guys in the girls’ bathrooms, sitting around drinking. It was very uncomfortable. I reported it to the RA and nothing was ever done.”
We continue to stay in touch with Cedar Point, providing them with allegations from people who reach out to us and asking for park officials to meet with us. In an email, we told them of our interview with the HR recruiters and the fact that they believed that hiring policies were creating a dangerous situation for associates and guests.
In response, Cedar Point provided the following statement Wednesday morning: “Cedar Point conducts background checks on new hire associates. It has been our longstanding practice and it continues to be a vital tool in our hiring process. If there are issues uncovered in the background check that could jeopardize the health and safety of our associates or guests, we take appropriate action up to and including termination of the associate.”
Officials have still not agreed to meet with us.
During the course of our investigation, we discovered that 2021 had 10 sexual assault reports filed, and seven of those involved allegations of rape. By comparison, there were only three reports filed in 2019 and six in 2018.
There is no evidence that the relaxed hiring policies resulted in allegations of sexual misconduct by hires in 2021. But the women said they expressed concerns to management about the quality of people they were being forced to hire.
“We did warn them - constantly - about the repercussions of allowing whoever, whenever to come into the park. We knew what was going to happen,” Samantha said.
“We were like, we’re going to get all these people in here who could be a danger issue. When we expressed that concern, they were like, that’s not yours to worry about.”
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