A former female Willits Police officer, Natalie Higley, has filed a civil lawsuit against the Willits Police Department, the City of Willits, and former Lieutenant Derek Hendry who was fired in April 2022 claiming she was the victim of sexual harassment and hostility at the hands of Hendry.
The suit claims that after reporting her experience to her superior officer, Willits Police Chief Fabian Lizaraga, she was asked to turn over her badge and gun–essentially stripping her of police powers.
This marks the third public accusation aimed at Derek Hendry for his alleged inappropriate workplace conduct. The alleged conduct was often of a sexual nature.
According to the civil complaint, Higley was recruited by then-Lieutenant Hendry and officially enrolled in the Police Academy on July 6, 2020. Shortly after, Hendry’s alleged harassment began in the form of inappropriate comments.
Documents allege Hendry told Higley that “women wanted him” and that he had to “keep the bitches off of him.” He also is accused of calling Higley fat, giving her the nickname of “McHigley”, which he did not aim toward male recruits.
Just over a year later, Higley completed her six-month field training program when Lieutenant Hendry suggested the pair celebrate by getting a drink. When Highley asked if others would be joining, Hendry said he wanted to celebrate with his female subordinate only.
On or around July 19, 2021, Lieutenant Hendry is said to have picked Higley up from her mother’s home and when she got in his vehicle found Hendry holding a bottle of alcohol. Hendry instructed Higley to drink and she felt pressured because Hendry “was her boss” and had a pattern of calling Higley a “pussy” whenever “she refused to engage in conduct that Hendry suggested.”
Soon after picking Higley up, Hendry reportedly told her that “people could never know that they were out together.”
Hendry allegedly drove Higley twenty minutes away from her mother’s home down an isolated road while they exchanged the bottle of alcohol. They came to a stop on a “deserted road, where no home or building were in sight.”
In the middle of nowhere, court documents state that Hendry asked Higley in a sexually suggestive manner, “So, what are we doing out here Higley?” She told him they were there to have a drink which prompted Hendry to begin speaking in a sexual manner about “how women want him.”
After approximately ten minutes of attempting to tempt Higley into sexual acts, Hendry reportedly began to drive her back while asking her a series of sexually loaded questions. Hendry supposedly asked Higley if she shaved her genitals, what kind of sex toys she used, and whether she ever had sex with a woman. Higley, “in fear for her physical and job safety, reportedly attempted to “laugh off Hendry’s questions.”
Hendry allegedly asked Higley point-blank, “Would you fuck me?” Higley refused to answer. Her refusal prompted Hendry to say over and over again, “You would totally fuck me, wouldn’t you.”
Later that month, a doctor biopsied a mole on Higley’s shoulder. After informing Hendry of the medical procedure, he reportedly “dug his thumb into the area where she just had her biopsy.” She told Hendry that he had hurt her to which he responded that “it was fine and not to be a pussy.”
Three weeks later, Higley was diagnosed with skin cancer and her physician ordered her placed on “light duty status”. Hendry reportedly made fun of Higley telling her that skin cancer was “no big deal” and “only pussies go on light duty.”
In September 2021, Higley underwent surgery for her skin cancer. Once again her physician ordered her on light duty which included no heavy lifting, no wearing tactical vests, no contact with civilians, and limited driving. Hendry’s harassment allegedly began immediately upon her return–he allegedly called Higley a “pussy” for going on light duty.
In or around September or October 2021, Hendry reportedly told Higley that they would be at a training at the same time and “Don’t try to fuck me where we’re down there.” This made Higley “uncomfortable and nervous.” She was “afraid that Hendry would attempt to do something to her while they were at the training.”
Between July 2020 and October 2021, Hendry engaged in random acts of harassment. Hen Highley would walk by Hendry’s office, he would randomly and without provocation shout, “Shut the fuck up, Higley!” He would often block doorways with his body when Higley attempted to enter. Hendry reportedly made a habit of sticking his fingers in Higley’s food.
Finally, on October 5, 2021, Higley reported Hendry’s actions to Willits Police Chief Fabian Lizaraga. The following day, Higley’s physician placed her on medical leave due to stress.
Chief Lizaraga informed Higley on October 7, 2021, that Hendry was placed on administrative leave.
On the day Higley reported to Chief Lizaraga her experiences with Hendry, she allegedly received numerous phone calls and texts from Hendry. Higley believes the calls were Hendry attempting to dissuade her from reporting his behavior to the Chief. She also received multiple phone calls from “no caller ID” numbers after complaining. These phone calls resulted in Higley fearing for her physical safety.
Court documents allege Higley faced retaliation for engaging in “protected activity when she complained to defendants and outside agencies” and reported what she was experiencing to a “government agency.”
The alleged retaliation came from her police chief Fabian Lizaraga asking her to turn over her badge, gun, police identification, phone, and radio. Her photo was also removed from the wall at the police department. These actions “effectively stripped” Higley of her police powers.
Matthew S. McNicholas of Los Angeles’s McNicholas & McNicholas law firm is representing Higley in her suit against the Willits Police Department. He told us his firm has represented over seventy police and firefighters in the state of California who have faced hostile work conditions in their respective departments. His clients have been awarded over $100 million for their treatment.
McNicholas described Higley’s experience at Willits Police Department as one of the most egregious examples of harassment and discrimination aimed at a female officer he has ever taken to court. He told us, “I believe the evidence will show that for some time Hendry was protected despite evidence of his poor treatment of women.”
As to the layers of protection Hendry was afforded while employed by the City of Willits, McNicholas could not say “how the dominos fell within the City of Willits”, but reminded us that when dealing with California’s smaller municipalities, the City Manager holds the responsibility for all staffing decisions.
Derek Hendry spent over a decade serving in local law enforcement. From 2010-2018, he served as a deputy in the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Matt Kendall told us back in December 2022 he had not been an employee of MCSO for “several years” and was not aware of “any allegations of this nature” while he was at the agency. He rose up the ranks at the Willits Police Department becoming a lieutenant. In April 2022, just four months after Higley was allegedly stripped of her badge and gun, he was fired.
Trent James, a former deputy with MCSO and officer with WPD, has used his YouTube channel “Confessions of an Ex-Cop” to address alleged corruption in those agencies. He has multiple videos focused on Hendry’s predatory behaviors.
Higley is not the only woman to come forward accusing Hendry of hostile treatment and sexual misconduct.
Alexis Blaylock, a former chief of the Willits Police whose term lasted just over one month, sued the City of Willits for her experience facing a hostile work environment, harassment, sexism, and racism.
The suit specifically names Hendry as a subordinate who was openly resistant to Blaylock telling her that “he had a problem with a female chief and that he and other officers were not accustomed to reporting to a woman.”
After working for the agency for just over a month, Blaylock was allegedly told by Willits City Manager Stephanie Garrabrant-Sierra to stay home for the rest of the week and return with “a fresh perspective.” After the break, Blaylock was told she would be meeting every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday with the City Manager, and Hendry to assess how “Blaylock was doing.” The letter stated that “it was clearly implied that Hendry, Chief Blaylock’s white male subordinate, would be instrumental in evaluating Chief Blaylock’s performance.”
41-year-old Lorna Allen is the other woman who has made public her alleged experience with Hendry. Between 2015-2020, while suffering from addiction and poverty, she claimed Hendry used physical violence, threats of incarceration, and his powers as a police officer to coerce her into multiple sexual encounters, including once in a police vehicle.
When we interviewed Allen in December 2022, Allen remembered Hendry threatening to plant an ounce of heroin on her and book her on drug charges if she did not comply with his demands for sex. She recalled engaging in sex acts in the back of Hendry’s patrol vehicle while he wore his uniform. She said Hendry would routinely tell her, “Bitch, you’re mine. You’re done when I say you’re done.”
We reached out to Willits Police Chief Fabian Lizaraga about the civil suit but at the time of publication have yet to hear back. Also, we left a message with Natalie Higley who also has yet to respond.
The civil suit is scheduled to move to its first case management conference on December 1, 2023 with Mendocino County Superior Court Judge Jeanine Nadel presiding.