Lawsuit claims Homeland Security officer sexually assaulted woman at Anchorage Museum in 2017

The sign outside the federal courthouse in Anchorage along 7th Avenue with the museum in the background
A lawsuit filed in federal court in Anchorage accuses a Department of Homeland Security law enforcement of sexually assaulting a security guard at the Anchorage Museum (left) in 2017. (Julia O’Malley/Alaska Public Media)

A woman says in a recently filed lawsuit that a federal law enforcement officer sexually assaulted her while she was at work as a security guard at the Anchorage Museum in 2017.

There are so far no criminal charges tied to the incident.

The allegations are detailed in a suit filed in federal court Aug. 26, nearly three years after the woman says Chris Heitstuman, who is described in the suit as a Department of Homeland Security employee, sexually assaulted her on two occasions in her office at the museum where she was head of security. The woman is suing Heitstuman and the Department of Homeland Security seeking damages of at least $1.2 million.

As a policy, Alaska Public Media does not name victims of sexual assault.

The woman made reports to both Anchorage police and the FBI, but neither agency filed criminal charges against Heitstuman. She also went before a judge to get a restraining order, describing two sexual assaults in her office at the museum, followed by harassment and intimidation.

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“You won’t tell your story more than once,” she said Heitstuman told her, in the 2017 application for the protective order.

Heitstuman denied the allegations in 2017, calling them “slanderous,” and said all of his interactions with the woman had been consensual.

The woman’s lawsuit claims the Department of Homeland Security had received earlier complaints that Heitstuman had acted in a sexually inappropriate manner toward other members of the public.

“Because the Department of Homeland Security failed to address these complaints and discipline and/or terminate Mr. Heitstuman, (the plaintiff) was subjected to repeated assaults, stalking, and harassment,” the lawsuit says.

According to the lawsuit, the incident began with a police call to the museum on Sept. 12, 2017.

The lawsuit says Heitstuman responded to the call, for an intoxicated person, but that Anchorage police dealt with the person. The 2017 account described in the protective order differs from the lawsuit: It describes the police and Heitstuman responding to a phoned-in bomb threat.

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According to the lawsuit, Heitstuman told the woman he needed to see security camera footage of the incident, and he told her he wanted to watch the video at the museum. She took him to her office, and that’s where the lawsuit says Heitstuman grabbed the woman and thrust himself against her.

“(She) told him to stop, and tried to push him off of her,” the lawsuit says.

After the attack, the lawsuit says he threatened her, “pointing to his uniform and stating that no one would believe her because of his position in law enforcement.” It says Heitstuman contacted the woman several times over the following days, “demanding that she engage with him in a sexually explicit manner. She felt threatened and attempted to appease him.”

According to the suit, a more forceful assault, described as a rape, occurred on or around Sept. 19, 2017, again in the museum office, as Heitstuman had returned on the pretext of following up on the earlier investigation. The protective order filings say Heitstuman forcefully bent her over, pushed himself against her backside and grabbed her crotch and breasts “very hard.”

“I asked Mr. Heitstuman to stop multiple times,” the woman wrote in her petition for the protective order.

Both the lawsuit and the protective order filings claim that after the second alleged assault, Heitstuman and the woman stepped out of her office and crossed paths with Museum Director Julie Decker. In the protective order filings, the woman says Heitstuman told Decker he had come back because he needed to know more about the museum’s surveillance camera system.

According to the filing, she was walking Heitstuman out of the museum when he said, “Did you like how I handled that? I’m good at getting out of any tight situation, trust me.”

The woman wrote that she was afraid of Heitstuman, not only because he was bigger than her, but also because he carried a gun and held a position of authority.

It’s not clear from the lawsuit what the woman had done to “appease” Heitstuman. The protective order filings from 2017 describe daily demands in text messages that she “talk dirty” to him and that she complied, because, she said in the filings, she was scared of what he might do to her or her family.

The lawsuit describes the harassment continuing through that October. According to the protective order filings, Heitstuman demanded in November that she send him a video of herself naked.

“I knew at this point that he would not stop,” she wrote. “As Mr. Heitstuman stated … he works for the government and Homeland Security, I thought he had access to my personal information and I was terrified. This was the point I knew I needed help and needed to contact the authorities for help.”

The Anchorage Police Department and the FBI confirmed receiving reports about the incidents in 2017 but neither would comment further.

An FBI spokeswoman said the agency is aware of a report from 2017, but she referred all questions to the U.S. Attorney’s Office Civil Division, which is evaluating whether it will be representing either Heitstuman or the Department of Homeland Security, or both, in the pending lawsuit.

The woman’s attorney, Meredith Matthews, declined to comment. Heitstuman did not have an attorney listed in the civil case as of Thursday.

Heitstuman denied the allegations in the 2017 protective order hearing.

“All my contacts with (her) were consensual in nature, and at no time had (she) asked me to stop contacting her,” Heitstuman told a judge. “There was never any threats, veiled or otherwise, directly made to (her). Had (she) ever advised me of anything, ‘Hey, don’t talk to me, don’t look at me,’ those wishes would’ve been respected.”

Heitstuman told the judge the protective order would impede his ability to do his job and affected his family.

“Never been accused of anything like this,” he told the judge. “It’s completely impacting every facet of my life, work and personal.”

A woman in the courtroom can be heard crying in an audio recording of the hearing.

The judge denied Heitstuman’s request and, later, extended the initial protective order for eight months.

The judge ordered several conditions in the extended protective order, including that he not contact the woman or her family members, often a routine condition in such cases.

But the judge also ordered some more specific conditions under a stipulation signed by attorneys on both sides saying Heitstuman was not to carry a firearm unless required for his work in law enforcement, that he would stay away from the entire city block upon which the Anchorage Museum sits, as well as the surrounding streets, and that he would avoid using an entrance to the federal building in which he worked that opened onto a street shared with the museum.

Heitstuman’s attorney in the 2017 case did not ask for a hearing to contest the conditions.

Calls and emails to the Department of Homeland Security’s Public Affairs Office this week resulted in a request for more information about the lawsuit but no comment on specific questions.

Responding to a request for comment, the Anchorage Museum said in a written statement that the woman had been a security guard contracted from NANA Management Services.

“We take seriously any claim of sexual assault in our community and believe it’s important to elevate the voices of victims. We also respect any victim’s wishes to choose whether and when to take public or legal action,” the museum’s written statement says. “As soon as we became aware of the alleged incident, we took immediate steps to initiate investigations with APD and the FBI, to help protect her privacy rights, and to connect her with legal representation. We will continue to assist any way we can in any investigation.”

Anchorage police spokesman M.J. Thim said police generally do not release additional information about sexual assault investigations unless an arrest has been made and charges filed, and “no arrests have been made or charges filed at this time.”