Subscribe

Windsor Councilwoman Esther Lemus accuses Mayor Dominic Foppoli of sexual assault

Resources for survivors of sexual assault

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you can contact:

Family Justice Center of Sonoma County: 707-565-8255

Verity: 707-545-7273

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673 or online.rainn.org

Editor’s Note: This story contains detailed allegations of sexual assault that may be disturbing to readers.

Windsor Mayor Dominic Foppoli and fellow council member Esther Lemus accused each other of sexual misconduct during alcohol-infused encounters, leveling a series of stunning allegations late Saturday that widened the scope of a scandal engulfing Sonoma County’s fourth-largest city.

Lemus, a Sonoma County prosecutor, became the sixth woman to accuse Foppoli of sexual assault. She believes Foppoli slipped her drugs to facilitate sex without her consent, leading to sexual assaults in February and August 2020.

She said one occurred after Foppoli and another man drove her home following a community crab feed; the second took place at his winery and involved a friend of Foppoli. It was recorded on a tasting room video camera and held over Lemus’ head to prevent her from disclosing the earlier incident, she said.

Reading last week’s accounts of his other accusers resonated profoundly, and Lemus went to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office on Thursday to tell her story.

“I’m speaking up because I know there are more victims out there,” Lemus said, “and it takes courage to come forward, and we’re done with this. We’re done with this.”

The allegations were made during a hastily arranged interview with The Press Democrat hours after Foppoli issued a statement of his own saying Lemus, who is married and has two young daughters, had coerced him into a “sexual situation” at a government conference, then threatened his political career if he exposed her.

Lemus acknowledges huge gaps in her knowledge or memory of what happened to her on the two nights in question. She believes “date-rape drugs” were slipped into her drinks on evenings with Foppoli when the alcohol flowed freely, causing her to become disoriented, violently ill and, eventually, blackout.

Lemus, 48, said she believes she was raped, sodomized and left nude on a downstairs couch at her home while her husband slept upstairs after Foppoli and another man drove her home, where she vomited and lost consciousness. The next day, Lemus said, Foppoli’s girlfriend said the mayor had told her he “tucked me into bed” the night before.

She said she had a similar experience several months later at Foppoli’s winery in Healdsburg, Christopher Creek Winery, when she again became confused, ill and lost her memory. She said she remembers Foppoli at one point introducing her to a man who led her through the dark to the winery’s tasting room, where the two engaged in a sexual act that the mayor “made sure” she knew he knew about the next day.

Early Sunday morning, Foppoli aggressively denounced Lemus’s accusations, calling them “outrageous fabulist tales.”

“Mrs. Lemus has led the charge in asking for my resignation and it wasn’t until I defended myself and told the truth regarding these manufactured and baseless accusations against me that she showed the degree in which she, at the very least, is complicit in the witch hunt by these continuing attempts at assassinating my character.”

Foppoli asked for Lemus’s resignation as Deputy District Attorney and Windsor council member “so she can in no way continue influence matters as I work to clear myself against these false accusations.”

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has opened an investigation into the events described by Lemus, she said. Sheriff Mark Essick, who launched an investigation Thursday following allegations by other women, declined to comment Sunday morning on the scope of the probe, citing state laws that require confidentiality for sexual assault victims. Her boss, District Attorney Jill Ravitch, also declined to comment Saturday night.

The Town of Windsor announced it will hold a special meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday to consider demanding that Foppoli resign. Members of the public can participate in the meeting by visiting https://zoom.us/j/93594176326 or by dialing 877-853-5247 and enter Webinar ID 935 9417 6326. All three fellow members of the Town Council have called on Foppoli to step down.

The explosive accusations followed three days of shocking disclosures involving five other women who told the San Francisco Chronicle that Foppoli sexually assaulted them, as well as escalating pressure on the 38-year-old unmarried mayor to resign from all elected and appointed posts.

Foppoli leveled the allegations about Lemus in a lengthy statement Saturday in which he asserted his complete innocence of “any such repulsive claims,” crediting the scandal to “political and social machinations.” He also vowed to fight back and “clear my name.”

Resources for survivors of sexual assault

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual violence, you can contact:

Family Justice Center of Sonoma County: 707-565-8255

Verity: 707-545-7273

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673 or online.rainn.org

But in addition, Foppoli said he too had “been pressured into an intimate experience that I did not want by someone more influential and with power over me,” who then threatened his political career if he told anyone of their “interaction.”

That individual was Lemus, he said.

“She used her political, professional, and community sway combined with alcohol to force me into a sexual situation that I did not want at a government conference,” he wrote. “Afterward, she used her position of power to try and silence me.”

At one point, he said, Lemus threatened to expose a 2017 complaint from a woman seeking to alert Windsor town officials of an incident she believed highlighted his “predatory nature and abuse of power.”

The letter, sent by a woman who had rented the guesthouse at Foppoli’s winery in 2013, alleged that Foppoli invited himself to dinner and later tried to remove guests’ bathing suits and underwear in a hot tub. In his statement Saturday, Foppoli said law enforcement dismissed the charges as unfounded, though town council members, asked about the resolution last week, have not described it that way.

“She (Lemus) intended for me to never disclose to anyone what she did to me or about the sexual acts I later, unwittingly, witnessed that she had with others,” Foppoli said in his statement.

Lemus, a deputy district attorney who has served on the Town Council for three years, said those claims were absurd, given that Foppoli was mayor after serving on the Town Council since 2014.

Foppoli also is a well-connected scion of a long-standing winery family, though his brother announced late Saturday that Foppoli had been asked “to step down from ownership, employment, and presence” at the family’s Christopher Creek Winery.

Lemus said she “never” threatened to release the guesthouse renter’s letter, made public to The Press Democrat last week and the San Francisco Chronicle under public record act requests.

“I will tell you I find it laughable that Mr. Foppoli is claiming himself to be a victim,” she said. “I’m shocked, as I think many people will find it, that he claims I’m a predator, given everything that’s come to light.”

“He had the power. He had the influence, which is the reason why many victims have been and have expressed fear about coming forward,” she said.

The explosive exchange of allegations between Windsor town leaders came three days after Foppoli, 38, was accused of sexually assaulting four separate women between 2003 and 2019 in stories emerging from a monthslong investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Each of the woman accusing Foppoli of assault described gatherings involving free-flowing alcohol in which they eventually became isolated with Foppoli. The first occurred during a small New Year’s Eve party involving two couples, but later incidents were reported by one woman who ended up in his car and another woman who was in a hotel room during an Active 20-30 club conference.

One woman, a 21-year-old French intern who said Foppoli forcibly kissed and groped her in September 2019 after she had been at a winery party, said she had started to feel strange and slow, fading in and out of consciousness, though her wine consumption had been normal.

Lemus, who said she was assaulted five months later, said that description resonated with her, as did the accounts of Foppoli routinely topping off womens’ drinks unsolicited.

A fifth woman accused Foppoli of sexual assault in a story published Saturday in the Chronicle, saying he handcuffed her to a bed in 2002 and sexually abused her.

After the first Chronicle story was published Thursday, Lemus said she received a voicemail from Foppoli asking her “to support him and not go against him like everyone else.” Lemus said she also heard he was telling people she would do so “because he had dirt on me.”

“It didn’t make sense to the me at the time,” she said Saturday. “It makes sense now. So Dominic Foppoli will do anything he can to discredit me, and any of the other victims. And I’m here to speak out. We’re done.”

Her attorney, former prosecutor Traci Carrillo, conceded much of the evidence Lemus made public Saturday is circumstantial. Nonetheless, she said, having sex with someone rendered incapable of granting consent because of impairment by alcohol or drugs is a crime, even if the victim’s memory is incomplete.

What Lemus said she does remember is attending a Windsor Boys & Girls Club crab feed in February 2020, during which she got up at one point and returned to learn from Foppoli’s then-girlfriend that he had refilled her glass. There was dancing and music, and then Lemus, Foppoli, his girlfriend and another male friend, whom she declined to identify, stopped by a brewpub before going home. Lemus’ husband had left earlier.

At some point, Lemus learned later, she left the group and was found outside becoming violently ill. The two men then left Foppoli’s girlfriend at the pub to drive Lemus home, but they were gone so long the girlfriend finally walked home, she later told Lemus.

Lemus, 48, was becoming ill again as she arrived home, and went into the bathroom. At one point she sat on the bathtub to remove her shoes, and fell in.

The next morning, she awoke on the couch, nude, with a small towel placed on her and the growing fear that she had been sexually violated.

But Lemus said she does not remember even leaving the crab feed. When she called Foppoli’s girlfriend the next day to find out what had happened to her, the woman said Foppoli had told her “he put me to bed, tucked me in or something,” Lemus said.

She said she cannot recall what happened inside her home. She was in pain and had rectal bleeding when she awoke, she said. She said she believes she was raped and sodomized while unconscious by Foppoli and/or the other man who drove her home. She said the experience of feeling drugged in his presence — that night and during a second assault that she said happened six months later at Foppoli’s winery — prompted her belief he was responsible.

The second incident occurred in August 2020 when she attended a gathering at Foppoli’s winery. She said Foppoli had inexplicably taken her phone and keys much earlier in the night. She later experienced the same cloudy disorientation and amnesia that she had felt after the February crab feed. She said she recalls being led off by a man Foppoli had just introduced to her, saying his friend “liked me,” and finding herself engaged in oral copulation in the tasting room.

She was next aware of falling and hurting herself some place, which Foppoli would later tell her was a vineyard. She later became violently ill. She eventually woke up and drove home.

She said the next day Foppoli showed her where she’d fallen in the vineyard and told her the sexual act in the tasting room was on camera. She and her attorney believe Foppoli set up the entire situation to acquire “leverage” to hold over her head, they said.

Lemus said she told her husband about the incidents and he has been supportive throughout. The experience has left her variously shocked, deeply distressed and ashamed — one that she wanted no one local to know about, not even her doctor, though she bled for a week after the February incident, she said.

She said she told three friends, all of whom live outside the area, about the first incident. She told a local friend about the second, she said.

Last September, she said she sent out some hair follicles to a private lab in Oakland to be tested for drugs, though she believes it was too late, given that she colors and treats her hair.

But she said she has learned a great deal in a deeply personal way about the manner in which denial and shame transmute themselves and allowed her to try to maintain a normal relationship with Foppoli, at least superficially on the surface.

Lemus said she has never experienced the sensation she believes was caused by being drugged, which caused her to lose consciousness during the February and August 2020 incidents and led to what she believes was criminal sexual assault.

“The common denominator both times was Dominic Foppoli,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette