Imagine being secretly recorded during a private moment by someone you work with. It’s a sickening thought that lingers in Vien Hoang’s mind after someone placed a hidden camera in the ladies room at Fremont-based Elma Electronics. Now, more than two years after she and a colleague reported the incident to police, they’ve learned the officer closed the investigation the same day of their report, after failing to interview a single person other than the two women recorded that day and the human resources director.
“It’s very stressful when I come to work because I’m so scared,” Hoang said. The quality inspector has worked at Elma for 13 years, and said she used the restroom often to change clothes after workouts. “I feel violated.”
Hoang said a colleague discovered the camera, disguised as a small hook, mounted on a paper towel dispenser. When the women viewed what was on the memory card, they saw embarrassing video showing them using the restroom. Hoang said she recalled seeing the hook in the bathroom months before, but never realized it was a camera.
“I have no idea how many times I was recorded,” Hoang said.
The women immediately called their human resources director, who reported the incident to Fremont Police.
According to the report, responding officer Paul Richards “packaged, sealed and submitted the camera and memory card to Fremont PD Property Unit as evidence.”
Fremont police said the evidence was never finger-printed because the device had already been removed and handled by employees.
But why didn’t Officer Richards conduct any interviews that might have helped him identify a suspect?
Fremont sergeant and public information officer Ricardo Cortes, speaking on behalf of the department, said it was because the human resources director told the responding officer about 100 people had “access” to that bathroom.
“We have to make sure we don’t make this into some kind of witch hunt,” Cortes said.
But Hoang says only 15 people work on her floor who would use that restroom. Anyone else using it during business hours would be unusual.
Cortes said he doesn’t know why the responding officer didn’t speak to any other employees. He defended the officer’s actions, “I think he did satisfy the basic requirements of this investigation,” but added he would review the incident with the department to discuss best practices and investigative techniques, “We always learn, and we always try to do better.”
“The message the victim gets is ‘I was violated and nobody cares,’” said Karen Guidotti, chief deputy district attorney for San Mateo county.
She has a different take on the value of interviewing people at the scene of a crime.
“It’s amazing what people know if they’re asked the right questions. A lot of people may not know they have information until they’re questioned by a trained questioner,” Guidotti said.
She said prosecutors depend on police to do a thorough investigation so they can bring charges. Last year her office filed 11 cases involving peeping toms, up from just one in 2015. They involved cameras hidden in trash cans in restaurant bathrooms, clothing baskets in a store dressing room, even people recording housemates in a shared bathroom.
“The legislature has made these misdemeanors unfortunately. They’re typically punishable by only 6 months in jail but if a person has priors they can serve up to a year in jail,” Guidotti said.
Across the Bay Area, San Francisco, Santa Clara, and Alameda counties prosecuted a total of 29 peeping Tom cases in 2016.
In an email, Elma Electronics human resources director Valerie Bennett said the company was unable to determine who placed the camera. Bennett said the company “advised employees” and continues to “closely monitor all restrooms for any suspicious activity.”
But Hoang says, as far as she knows, no memos ever went out and no meetings were held to inform employees what happened.
“I’m feeling nobody help me at all, even police, even my company. I want to speak out and let everybody know to be careful,” Hoang said.
One piece of advice from investigators: always be aware of your surroundings and if you see a camera recording you, don’t touch it, or you’ll taint the evidence. Instead, call police. And don’t hesitate to ask about their investigation.