Women Recount Claims of Sexual Harassment by Florida Veterans Charity Leader
HOLIDAY — A Pasco County nonprofit created to help veterans deal with trauma has been rocked by accusations that its founder sexually harassed and abused women who worked there.
The accusations against Brian James Anderson, 39, a highly decorated former Green Beret, came to light after a separate incident in October, when a massage therapist filed a police report against him. Anderson was charged March 11 by the state attorney with misdemeanor battery in that case. He has pleaded not guilty.
Now, three other women say that while they worked at Veterans Alternative in its early years, Anderson made unwanted physical contact and sexual advances. Anderson co-founded the nonprofit in 2014.
Anderson would not agree to an interview, but his attorney, Christopher Blaine, called the allegations “unfounded, stale, and opportunistic” and said his client “denies all of those allegations categorically.”
The case has roiled the small nonprofit, which provides therapy services to area veterans. Anderson has been placed on administrative leave, for a second time, related to the allegations.
Caitlein Jammo, attorney for Veterans Alternative, said the organization has taken the accusations seriously and is committed to the safety of staff, participants and volunteers.
“We strive to promote and continue a workplace culture where employees feel safe and valued and can be who they are.”
Anderson’s accusers shared their stories with the Tampa Bay Times, saying they didn’t want what they experienced to happen to anyone else.
A report to New Port Richey police
Massage therapist Mariah King’s encounter with Anderson is detailed in her statement to the New Port Richey police.
She said Anderson booked a massage with her in October 2020 at Luminary Yoga and Wellness. She had given him a business card at a networking event several weeks earlier. King said she didn’t see any warning signs in Anderson’s behavior as she started the massage, but as she was finishing the session, Anderson grabbed and squeezed her upper thigh and her arm.
“At this point, I’m alarmed,” King said in the statement she wrote for the police. “This is not the proper behavior for a client to exhibit, but I just had a short amount of time left, so I quickly finished.”
Alone in the business with Anderson, the two moved to the front counter after the massage. King told investigators that Anderson twice stood close to her and invaded her personal space. He commented that she was “something special.” Then he put his arm around her waist, according to her statement. She said she managed to move away both times.
Anderson paid his bill and left, but King was so upset by the incident that she called the Luminary owners to tell them what had happened.
One of those owners, Cathy Schaibly, said she immediately called Anderson, who she knew because his wife was a friend. “I read him the riot act,” she said. “I screamed at the man and told him he was not allowed to come back.”
Schaibly said his response to her was: “It’s all lies. It never happened.”
Then, Schaibly texted Anderson’s wife, Amy. In texts Schaibly provided to the Times and that King provided to police, Amy Anderson wrote: “You may need to press charges. He may need to face consequences.”
Amy Anderson texted that her husband frequently looked for massage therapy in places he could get “happy endings,” a euphemism for sexual encounters, even though he received free massage sessions from federal veterans services.
“I’m telling you this is the real Brian,” according to the text message from Amy Anderson.
A dynamic figure
Those who have worked with him describe Brian Anderson as a dynamic figure who can passionately detail the deep scars left by combat and how they can cripple those re-entering civilian life.
During his 14 years of military service, including 33 months in combat zones and work as a military journalist, Anderson earned three Bronze Stars, including one with valor.
“I never saw someone who could walk into a room, tell their story and people would just throw money at him,” said Janel Norton, a yoga instructor who co-founded Veterans Alternative with Anderson in 2014.
Norton had met Anderson in 2012, when he attended her yoga class. They hit it off, having both served in the military as journalists. The two collaborated on a program combining yoga and alternative therapies to help veterans with trauma, then worked to find it a home and funding.
Housed in what used to be an American Legion hall in Holiday, Veterans Alternative has helped hundreds. Its most recent tax information indicates that it serves about 150 combat veterans and their families.
Anderson’s encounter with King at the massage studio bothered Schaibly so much, she contacted Norton. Schaibly was aware that Norton had left the nonprofit in 2017 over issues she had with Anderson. Schaibly wanted to know more.
Norton told the Tampa Bay Times that she had seen Anderson’s volatile side, at times erupting in front of clients who came to the center to deal with emotional trauma.
“It went from a place of healing for veterans to a place that was not good for me anymore,” said Norton, who from January 1999 until October 2008 was a Times photojournalist.
At Schaibly’s request, Norton gave her the names of three former Veterans Alternative employees who felt that Anderson had made unwelcome advances toward them. Schaibly reached out to the women to see if they would share what had happened. Each agreed.
Schaibly said she asked the women to put their experiences with Anderson in writing. With their permission, those statements were shared with the Times, and each agreed to multiple interviews about their experiences.
“I asked them to write statements after we spoke with an attorney, because we were so confused and terrified as to what to do,” Schaibly said. “We didn’t know if this was going to be something we needed legal counsel for.”
In November, two of the women, Sarah Thomas and Jeannine Laurence, spoke to a Pasco County Sheriff’s detective.
A Pasco Sheriff’s spokeswoman confirmed to the Times that Thomas and Laurence spoke with Det. Ray Williamson, but their allegations were outside the statute of limitations.
A trip to North Carolina
For Thomas, recounting her experiences with Anderson was an opportunity to share details that she said have changed her forever.
“He’s altered my perception of people and has changed my life, making it difficult to make new friends and date since I cannot just get into a vehicle and go somewhere with anyone anymore without the fear that I’m going to get in a situation where I could possibly be assaulted again,” she wrote in the statement she gave Schaibly.
Thomas served in the Coast Guard for 10 years in California, Hawaii and Virginia. She was a victim of sexual assault during her military service. She joined the nonprofit after hearing it needed a personal trainer.
She said she had her first bad experience with Anderson in June 2015, in the early days of running a morning fitness boot camp.
She was putting up equipment that day when Anderson, reclining on a sofa, called her over.
Thomas said he grabbed her, trying to pull her down on top of him and urging her to take a nap with him. She told him no. She said no again when he made other advances.
Thomas said the situation grew worse the next month, when Anderson invited her and other veterans to accompany him on a work trip to North Carolina. But when Anderson came to pick her up, she was told the others had canceled.
She had just suffered a concussion after a bad fall while working out. Thomas said she was experiencing dizziness, nausea and headaches and told Anderson she couldn’t drive. She said she didn’t want to go on the trip, but he persuaded her.
In North Carolina, they stayed at the home of Anderson’s friend. On their first morning there, Thomas said Anderson knocked on the door to her room. She let him in while she was doing her hair. She said Anderson got onto the bed and called her over.
When she reluctantly came closer, he grabbed her by the wrist, pulling her down. Anderson talked to her about her appearance and began to reach under her shirt, saying he wanted to see her breasts.
“I couldn’t believe my boss was doing this to me. He knew I had PTSD from a sexual assault in the military,” Thomas said. “Why would he put me in this kind of position?”
She repeatedly told him that she wasn’t interested and reminded him that he had a girlfriend back in Florida. As he persisted, she worried about how he might react.
“I was scared as I’ve seen him get angry and display a violent outburst at Veterans Alternative on more than one occasion,” she said in her written statement. “Because of this I was afraid to be too direct or aggressive back. He wouldn’t stop and he wouldn’t let go of me.”
When he grabbed her breast, she shoved him and was able to get away. Thomas didn’t know what to do, being far from home with no way to get back, so she kept her distance from him and tried to follow up with the work tasks ahead.
When it came time to leave the following day, Thomas said Anderson drove part of the way but began to complain that he had paid for the trip, and he had to do all of the driving and was tired. They pulled into a gas station, and she agreed to drive but a blinding rain had begun, so Anderson told her to wait for it to let up before getting on the road.
Thomas said that was when Anderson asked her to touch his crotch, according to her statement. She repeatedly refused, but he pulled her hand toward him again and again. Then, she said, he exposed himself and forced her to touch him. She pulled away and immediately put the truck into gear and started driving as Anderson became enraged and yelled at her.
“I figured he wouldn’t mess with me while I was driving his truck, since he was fond of it, and it was still fairly new. Luckily, he didn’t,” she said.
Thomas said she didn’t go to the police at the time because she was embarrassed. She left Veterans Alternative shortly after the incident.
Blaine, Anderson’s attorney, confirmed a trip to North Carolina but denied that Anderson acted inappropriately. He also said that Thomas was let go because there was no interest in the morning fitness program.
A social work intern from USF
In the fall of 2015, several months after Thomas had traveled with Anderson to North Carolina, Christina Brenia interned at Veterans Alternative. She was a social work student at the University of South Florida.
Like Thomas, she wrote a statement about what happened to her over the months she worked at Veterans Alternative. Alone with Anderson when she needed him to sign documents affirming that she had completed her internship, Anderson began stroking her hair, Brenia said. As he leaned in to kiss her, she said she stopped him, saying she recently had been in a relationship but her partner had died. Brenia immediately confided in a friend about his actions.
Brenia kept volunteering at Veterans Alternative, then started a contract job there. She said Anderson continued to make advances and inappropriate comments.
On one occasion, when she and Anderson were working on a video, Brenia said he joked that “if we went inside and had sex, he’d be able to film the video.” He also suggested that he might be willing to have the charity buy her a camera, so that they could start a pornography site and film the two of them having sex.
Brenia said she ended her contract abruptly after the incident over the video but volunteered for a few months longer because she felt guilty about quitting so suddenly. She severed ties for good when she “realized how bad my situation of the past year had been.”
She told the Times she never went to the police to report what had happened because “I was afraid of retaliation from him.”
Brenia has since dropped her plan to become a social worker. Her experience with Anderson was a part of that decision, she said.
“He is very good at finding people in vulnerable states. He plays a very precise game where he gets you in this position where he can emotionally have control,” she said. “I would definitely consider him to be an abusive person.”
Through Blaine, his attorney, Anderson said that none of the inappropriate behaviors Brenia claimed ever happened. He called the allegation about buying the camera to film them having sex for a pornographic website “nonsensical and patently false.”
A decision to enter a relationship
Jeannine Laurence volunteered at Veterans Alternative just as it was preparing to open in May 2015. She had been working with Norton at her yoga studio and was in the process of separating from her husband. She had a background in human resources and was interested in helping veterans, so Norton invited her to help at the nonprofit.
She was there at the same time as Thomas and Brenia, but her experience with Anderson took a different turn, as she described in her written statement and in several interviews with the Times.
“Starting on the day of the opening, Brian Anderson came on to me very strongly,” Laurence said, noting that at first, his attention felt flattering.
Over the next few months, Laurence took on various paid jobs, including becoming Anderson’s aide.
Around the same time, she said she began a sexual relationship with Anderson but kept it secret since he was her boss. As time went on, she said she felt manipulated, because she needed a paying job.
“When I look back, I think he targeted me because of my circumstances and vulnerability,” Laurence said.
Laurence said she began to hear stories about Anderson’s sexual advances toward other women at the organization. She saw how uncomfortable Brenia appeared around Anderson, but Brenia never shared details. Norton told her Thomas said Anderson had exposed himself to her on the North Carolina trip.
Both Laurence and Norton confronted Anderson about the situation. They told him it couldn’t happen again and didn’t want him to force Thomas out, but he asked Laurence to keep track of whether Thomas was doing her job or not. Thomas left not long after.
Laurence said she felt trapped since she couldn’t afford to leave, even after an incident with Anderson when she told him several times she didn’t want to have sex. She said he wouldn’t take no for an answer and continued to persist.
Laurence said it wasn’t that she fought with him physically. “In all honesty,” she said, “I don’t remember the exact details. I said I don’t want to (have sex). I didn’t scream or yell or fight like that. I just shut down. It was a blur.”
Afterwards, Anderson went into the bathroom and Laurence gathered up her clothes and ran out of the house, driving to a nearby drug store where she sat in the parking lot and cried. Then she called a friend and told her what had happened.
The next day, she confronted Anderson, though she doesn’t remember what he said. Laurence said she remained with him after the incident. “I feel like there were so many things that I tolerated. I was in a relationship.”
In mid-2016, Laurence said she couldn’t handle the stress any longer; she told Anderson she couldn’t continue their relationship. She would finish work on a state grant but would then leave.
Laurence said that Anderson went immediately to Norton about the relationship, and she was let go the following day.
Norton confirmed that and said that it was more than a year after that when she finally asked Laurence what had really happened between her and Anderson.
In the years since she left Veterans Alternative, Laurence said she believed that Anderson’s tale of being traumatized by his time in the military was both his sales pitch and his excuse.
“He used his behavior to his advantage in a way that we would feel sorry for him,” Laurence said, “and we excused behavior that should not have been excused.”
Laurence said she told the detective that she felt pressured to have sex with Brian. The detective told her it would be considered assault if there was penetration. But he told her that if that happened, it was past the statute of limitations. When he told her that, Laurence said, “I was probably a little relieved.”
Anderson said through his attorney that he was in a sexual relationship with Laurence before she started at Veterans Alternative. Laurence said that was not true.
Her accusation about unwanted sex was “wildly false, inflammatory, and hurtful,” Blaine said.
The nonprofit works to maintain focus
Veterans Alternative first placed Anderson on leave after King contacted police, according to Pat Fried, the organization’s chief operating officer. After several months, when nothing had come of the complaint, Fried said the organization’s board of directors allowed Anderson to return. But when the board learned the battery charge had been filed, Anderson was again placed on leave.
Jammo, the nonprofit’s attorney, said the organization is carrying on with its mission.
The group is seeking $300,000 in funding from the Florida Legislature. That request made it into this year’s Legislative budget, pending veto decisions.
Fried said Veterans Alternative had no independent knowledge of what the other women had claimed about Anderson, but the organization has taken a close look at its policies and believes it is on the right course. She said Anderson will “just have to take care of whatever he needs to” in relation to the criminal case.
“We are doing everything to protect and make sure that the organization goes on from here,” Fried said. “We do tremendous work.”
Amy Anderson told the Times she doesn’t remember sending text messages to Schaibly, but she does remember that conversation. She said it had nothing to do with the accusations King made against her husband, and she expects that the charge over what she calls “this one indiscretion” will be dropped.
As for the allegations made by the other women, she calls them “a witch-hunt.”
She said that she and her husband have worked hard on various issues that he deals with every day from his time in the service. She said the former employee who had a sexual relationship with Anderson while he was dating her made accusations because she felt “scorned” and thought her relationship with Anderson was more than it was.
Amy Anderson also had an explanation for his behavior.
“Sex,” she said, “was perhaps what he used at that time to work through his issues.”
This article is written by Barbara Behrendt from Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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