Spokane mining magnate Neal Degerstrom, arms across his chest, demanded in court Thursday the return of remnants of his “personal collection.”
This isn’t a tug of war over priceless art or heirloom jewels. The 70-year-old Degerstrom wants his photographs of nude women returned.
He wants them in order to destroy them. He torched the rest, he admits, “to protect the privacy of the women.”
There are a lot of women to protect.
By his own account, Degerstrom, president of a $50-million-a-year mining business, has snapped pictures of nude women for more than 20 years.
They posed on animal skins. He photographed them at night in the basement of his Valley office building. It was his million-dollar obsession.
The women say they stripped for the silver-haired man behind the camera - often many times - because the money was good. For some, it paid the rent.
Each left with a vow of silence and a crisp $100 bill. Not bad, they thought, for less than an hour’s work.
Despite the parade of hundreds of models visiting his studio, Degerstrom managed to keep his unusual but legal hobby under wraps, locking the evidence in a private vault.
But that ended last month when a former employee sued him for wrongful termination.
Matthew Failing, a 35-year-old safety engineer, claims he was fired last October after raising sex discrimination and harassment complaints.
Failing accuses Degerstrom and top executives at N.A. Degerstrom Inc. of harassing women workers by encouraging them to pose nude in the basement or serve as topless barmaids on company excursions. Women who did so were granted special favors, Failing claims.
Lawyers for the company deny the allegations, calling them “unfounded and unsubstantiated.”
All except one, that is.
Degerstrom admits taking pictures of naked women - both employees and non-employees - in the basement. They would come in groups, two or three times a week. He promised never to sell the pictures to pornographic magazines.
“I enjoy it as a hobby,” he says in a deposition taken Feb. 16.
He was so prolific that Spokane County sheriff’s detectives have received calls over the years from people concerned about the photo sessions, asking if they were legitimate.
Worried about the possibility of minors getting involved, detectives once staked out the parking lot and observed women entering the building at night.
Degerstrom, however, never has been arrested or charged with a crime.
In his deposition, Degerstrom says he recently destroyed his stockpile of photographs and videotapes by taking them to a slash pile, where they were set on fire.
He did it, he says, because the lawsuit was coming.
But he didn’t destroy everything.
Failing’s attorney, Greg Staeheli, claims he has some of Degerstrom’s photographs, which he says depict nude female employees and non-employees.
While Degerstrom refuses to comment, his lawyers were in Spokane County Superior Court on Thursday demanding that the photos be returned.
Staeheli has refused, arguing the pictures “clearly show the sexual exploitation of women, including Degerstrom’s employees.”
After meeting with lawyers for an hour in chambers, Judge James Murphy ordered Staeheli to hand over the pictures, which will be sealed under court order pending a final ruling.
Since the lawsuit was filed June 8, three of Degerstrom’s former models have come forward to tell The Spokesman-Review about their experiences.
Fearing retaliation by Degerstrom and embarrassment for their families, they spoke on condition of anonymity.
The women’s accounts were corroborated through interviews with friends and husbands. Two models also detailed their experiences in affidavits.
They say fellow models represent a cross section of Spokane, ranging from department store employees, hairdressers and frustrated fashion models to college students and bored housewives.
One woman says she posed nude 20 times for Degerstrom, sometimes twice a week, ending last summer.
The young mother says she was living on welfare and needed the extra under-the-table income. Besides, he promised never to sell the pictures.
Relying on word of mouth, Degerstrom didn’t have to recruit women personally.
Loyal regulars of the basement photo sessions earned cash by acting as sponsors, bringing in new models.
Some women say they were recruited by friends and roommates, while others were tapped more or less randomly in bars and restaurants.
They arrived on prearranged weeknights, gathering at the back door of the glass-and-brick N.A. Degerstrom building on North Sullivan Road.
Wearing a dress shirt and slacks, Degerstrom would let them in, locking the door behind him, they say.
Downstairs, Degerstrom, who usually was alone, asked newcomers for their names and birth dates, checking to see if they were 18 or older, the women say.
The women would lounge around in lingerie, helping themselves to vodka and whiskey.
He would walk around the room, they say, choosing one woman at a time for private photo sessions in an adjoining room, sometimes using a bearskin rug and other props.
Former models say Degerstrom wanted women to pose nude, but he attempted to build their trust initially by taking pictures of them in lingerie.
After a couple of lingerie shoots, though, Degerstrom would send word through an intermediary that they wouldn’t be invited back if they didn’t disrobe, former models say.
“It was his ‘three-strikes-and-you’re out’ rule,” one woman says.
In his deposition, Degerstrom, who is married and has three daughters, says he has photographed nude women since 1974, arranging at least two to three sessions a week.
If the average turnout was 10 models per session, as some of the models say, the businessman shelled out between $2,000 and $3,000 a week. By conservative estimates, he paid more than $1 million over 21 years.
N.A. Degerstrom is a 90-year-old privately held company with mining operations throughout the West.
The 350-employee company is prominent, landing big contracts for open-pit gold mines and construction projects. Degerstrom, president and owner, generally shuns the spotlight, however.
In 1991, he was honored by the Inland Empire chapter of Associated General Contractors for his “skill, integrity and responsibility.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo