Woman files sex discrimination lawsuit

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- A Mountain Grove woman has filed a federal sex discrimination lawsuit against Wright County and its sheriff, claiming the sheriff doesn't allow women in the county's mounted patrol.

Sheriff Terry Gates said it's not that he doesn't want women in his patrol, just two women in particular he said have been labeled "troublemakers."

"They were telling me what I was gonna do," Gates said. "They were gonna get a commission, they were gonna ride a horse in the parade or they were gonna sue me."

One of the two women, Julie Neill, filed suit Friday in U.S. District Court in Springfield.

Neill, 30, was a commissioned member of the mounted patrol from 1993 until Gates took office. Neill said she and other women who were members of the patrol under the former sheriff have been kept off Gates' patrol simply because they are women.

Some other women on the patrol dispute the claim of discrimination and said Gates treats men and women equally.

Wright County Prosecutor Larry Tyrell, who also serves as the county's attorney, said he could not comment because the county had not been served the lawsuit.

Ceremonial appearances

Members of the patrol are commissioned as auxiliary officers by the sheriff. They mostly make ceremonial appearances at rodeos or parades and help with parking at major events.

They also can be used in land searches for missing children or for finding bodies.

Patrol members aren't law enforcement officers and don't have any authority in the county. They are not required to carry weapons, but some do, as private citizens.

Honorary commissions

"The commissions are given by the sheriff and it's basically an honorary thing for people that support his administration," said Gates' attorney, Scott Stinson.

"There are about six women on there now. There's always been women on the patrol."

All of the members of the patrol had to be recommissioned when Gates took office in Wright County on Jan. 1, 2001. Gates was not required to keep anyone commissioned by the former sheriff and did not retain Neill.

"I have two girls," Neill said. "I want them to know and to feel pretty secure in the future that no matter what they strive for they will be treated as anybody else -- men and women, black and white -- they will be treated the same."

Neill, who joined the patrol when she was 21, disputes in her lawsuit Stinson's claim that there have always been women on the patrol. The lawsuit claims Gates told Neill he didn't want any women on the patrol and she says there weren't any until the summer of 2001.

According to the lawsuit, Gates' wife, Millie Gates, told Neill, "They decided not to let women in at this time to avoid conflict in the public eye and that it wouldn't look good for a married man-law officer to be working with a woman."

Neill and another former patrol member, Patsy Climer, filed complaints with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. Last summer, Neill received a right-to-sue-letter.

Billie Kelley, the former secretary and treasurer of the mounted patrol, said she's never known Gates to discriminate.

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