A judge decided Thursday to give back Spokane mining millionaire Neal Degerstrom’s photographs of naked women.
Degerstrom just can’t look at them.
The pictures, described in a Thursday court hearing, show women in various poses at Degerstrom’s Valley office building basement. They’re on pool tables and animal skins, wearing feathered masks and brandishing drinks. They’re sprawled across the laps of Degerstrom’s colleagues.
Degerstrom said he’s snapped photographs of nude women for more than 20 years. It’s a hobby and it’s legal, he said.
Still, he kept it quiet, promising his models he wouldn’t sell the photographs to pornographic magazines. He sent his film to be developed in Texas and locked up the photographs in an office vault.
Some of the women who posed said they stripped for the silver-haired man behind the camera because he paid them well - $100 for less than an hour’s work.
One employee who learned about the photo-shoots didn’t approve. Matthew Failing, a 35-year-old safety engineer, claims he was fired last fall after raising sex discrimination and harassment complaints at the company.
He sued Degerstrom last month for wrongful termination, saying the president of the $50-million-a-year mining business fired him for doing his job. Failing said it was his job to look into employee discrimination complaints as they arose.
He said Degerstrom and top executives at N.A. Degerstrom Inc. harassed women workers by encouraging them to pose nude in the basement or serve as topless barmaids on fishing trips. Women who did got special favors, Failing said.
In court Thursday, Degerstrom’s attorney fought to get back a stack of photographs that Failing said were anonymously mailed to him after he was fired.
Anticipating a lawsuit, Degerstrom admitted burning at least six large plastic garbage bags filled with other photographs of naked women.
“I did it to protect the models I had,” said Degerstrom, 70. “I promised them privacy.”
Because Degerstrom has already destroyed evidence, Failing’s attorney, Greg Staeheli, said the pictures his client received in the mail should not be given back to the mining executive.
They have been sealed in a box in the court’s custody since July 7. They include snapshots of Failing’s ex-wife, a company payroll clerk.
Failing said Degerstrom often taunted him about “borrowing his wife” - a statement Failing said he didn’t understand until complaints from other women arose.
Superior Court Judge Richard Schroeder ordered the photographs returned to Degerstrom, but only on the condition they be sealed and locked up by the businessman’s attorney.
If Staeheli wants to use the photographs when the trial begins in March, he’ll have to go through proper discovery procedures, Schroeder ruled.
“The title to this property is with Mr. Degerstrom,” the judge said. “His attorney is to safeguard it and keep it under lock and key.”
Schroeder declined both sides’ requests that he look at the photographs so he could determine their relevance to the case.
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Schroeder said. “The court will pass.”