Allegations of sexual misconduct at Exodus Road

Photo+by+Wanaporn+Yangsiri+on+Unsplash

Photo by Wanaporn Yangsiri on Unsplash

Matt Carroll

This is Part 2 of a multi-part series.  Sign up here to be alerted when new stories are posted: Part 1: Furor erupts over anti-sex trafficker Exodus Road

 

 

Twenty years ago, Natasha Nelson was horrified by her trip to Bangkok: Women brazenly for sale on the street, with pimps offering printed menus. The sights are seared into her memory.

 

So the Arizona native was delighted when her friend, Eric Shark, was hired by a nonprofit — Exodus Road — to fight the sex trafficking of woman and children in Thailand. She and her husband gladly contributed more than $10,000 over two years to support Eric and his family and the mission of Exodus Road.

 

The joy dissolved into shock when she read an “open letter” aimed at Exodus Road and written by the Sharks and others. The post described an alleged sexual assault — against Eric — and sexual misconduct that Exodus Road allegedly failed to address in a meaningful way.

 

Exodus Road, Nelson said, “should have said, ‘Eric we are going to take this seriously, we will look at it further.’ They should have recognized they didn’t have all the answers and maybe don’t know everything yet.” Instead, they failed to investigate thoroughly, she added, based on her reading of the open letter. 

 

The open letter caused a stir in the relatively small Thai community that focuses on helping sex workers. The post, published in February, was signed by three former workers and 18 others, including people from other anti-trafficking organizations.

 

For these stories, Global Observer interviewed more than 15 people, including former employees and people who worked in the anti-sex work field.

 

Many in the anti-sex trafficking and aftercare community already had concerns about the organization. 

 

“For many, [learning about the alleged assault] was the last straw with Exodus Road,” said Celeste McGee, who is executive director and founder of Dton Naam, an anti-trafficking group which works with males and trans youth. If something similar happened within her own staff, “my concern would be for the staff member who was hurt or harmed. It would not be about dismissing their story.”

 

The Colorado-based nonprofit said the accusations in the open letter are false. “These baseless allegations from just a couple of disgruntled former associates are untrue and have no reliable evidence,” said Exodus Road spokesman Kyle Fisk in an email. 

 

Regarding the sexual assault allegations, “Eric Shark is not a credible source of information,” Fisk said. “These attacks are disappointing, but they will not distract us from our dedication to the vulnerable people we are serving, those trapped in sexual slavery and working to rescue them.”

 

He declined to name any partners Exodus Road works with because the allegations can be “viewed negatively and we’re going to choose to protect our staff and partners from any of that negative publicity.”

 

Alleged sexual assault

 

Shark worked as a senior investigator for Exodus Road on a two-year contract between 2015 and 2017. The sexual assault was allegedly committed against him by two other staffers, including a supervisor. Because Shark was unconscious, he did not know what happened until allegedly shown a phone video months later. 

 

What Shark saw appalled him. He reached out to Matt Parker, the CEO of Exodus Road. Shark said Parker had known about the incident for weeks at least, failed to inform Shark, and did not give Shark photographs Parker had seen of the incident. According to a press release and a text he sent Shark, Parker also did not believe the incident amounted to sexual assault and discounted Shark’s account.

 

In an interview, Shark said the alleged sexual assault happened at a staff retreat in August 2017, which he attended with the supervisor and others.

 

After arriving, he ate a little, drank one beer, and became extremely ill, he said. He believes he was drugged by another employee who was angry with him. 

 

Shark collapsed on his sleeping mat and didn’t remember anything until the next day. The assault allegedly happened that night, while he was unconscious. The next day he went home, still feeling ill. 

 

In the middle of January, Shark heard that two people, including the supervisor, had been fired, but did not know why.

 

Two weeks later, on Jan. 29, 2018, the day before he flew home with his family, another worker allegedly showed him a phone video of what happened that night at the staff retreat. 

 

In the video, Shark said, two other staffers strip naked and pretend to have sex with him, while he is lying unconscious on the mat. The pair were the men fired by Exodus Road two weeks earlier, including the supervisor.

 

Shark watched in shock. “I’m laying there [unconscious on the mat] and they are making sexual movements to my ass, resting their genitals on my face. I hit pause and ask [the man who shot the video], ‘Do I get raped? Because I don’t want to see that.’ No, no, [the man] says.” 

 

“I’m pleading with myself to wake up,” Shark said. “It’s surreal to watch yourself get assaulted on video. I’m saying, wake up, wake up, because I could fight all three,” said Shark, who was 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds.

 

Horrified, Shark texted his wife Corinne. The rattled couple told others what happened. Two confirmed they were contacted by the Sharks about the alleged assault and video. 

 

Spokesman Fisk said there is no evidence of a video. Through Fisk, the man who shot the alleged video declined to comment. Fisk declined to say if the person still works for Exodus Road, citing security. 

 

The names of the alleged assailants are not included because they could not be reached for comment. Shaken, the Sharks returned to the U.S. Shark filed a police report later. 

 

Parker, in emails to the Sharks and others, wrote that an incident with nudity took place, but disputed the details. 

 

Parker emailed Shark on Jan. 31, 2018: “Our investigation revealed that, during this retreat, [Eric Shark] passed out after drinking excessively.” (Shark denied that.) Another man “then undressed and posed next to you for a photo,” while two others took photos. “This conduct was clearly inappropriate” and two employees were fired, including the supervisor. 

 

There was no evidence of a crime “so the idea that we covered something up or hid something is totally untrue,” Parker texted Shark on March 6, 2018. But he declined to share the photos he had seen with Shark. (Global Observer asked for copies of the photos as well, and was turned down.)  

Shark wants to know why Parker didn’t tell him what happened as soon as he learned about the incident, which was on or before Jan. 15, when the two staffers were fired. Instead, Parker left Shark in the dark, until he found out on his own.

 

“The Board waited until the investigation was complete to notify Mr. Shark of what had transpired,” said spokesman Fisk by email. 

 

Fisk said the allegation was investigated. “We received reports of some isolated incidents in late 2017 in our Thailand office. There were two independent investigations and some people were fired over what happened. We conducted additional training to ensure our team was aware of the high standards we expect as an organization. Since that time there have been no additional issues in the Thai office.”

 

Fisk also noted: “We also know [Shark] has made these types of baseless allegations at other prior places of employment.”

 

Shark said he sued a school for firing him and won a settlement.

 

The firing of the supervisor did not stick. He was rehired in October 2018, the organization said in a press release. Exodus Road determined the supervisor “did not violate any ethical policies,” but instead violated “organizational reporting procedures.”

 

The rehiring of the supervisor, who was assigned to an office in Chiang Mai, led to more issues. 

 

A female Thai worker, whose team would work for the supervisor, sent a pointed email to Parker, asking why someone who had been fired for “serious misconduct” had been rehired and placed in charge of her team. Her identity has been withheld because she still works in that field in Thailand.

 

Parker, in an email, told her to stop asking questions outside her authority. She was warned by Parker about “insubordination” and was pushed to resign by Parker in 2019.

 

The supervisor no longer works for Exodus Road. Fisk, citing privacy, declined to say when the man left or under what circumstances.

 

Shark described other activities he thought were inappropriate. While in training, he said Parker told him they could follow the “three-second rule” while undercover — if a woman propositioned them by putting their hand on her breasts or between her legs, they could leave it there for three seconds.

 

“That didn’t sit well with me,” Shark said. “That to me sacrifices the dignity of women.”

 

Another top manager took Shark out to a bar for “undercover” work and encouraged a female to give Shark a lap dance and “get him hard.”

 

“It was very uncomfortable,” Shark said. “I’m like, what the hell is going on here?” He made the woman sit next to him, rather than on his lap.

 

Shark described an office environment that took on a raunchy boys’ locker room feel, as the supervisor repeatedly “joked” with Shark about Shark’s wife having sex with a neighbor or her sending him pictures from the shower. 

 

The supervisor also made comments about other women. The comments were so frequent Shark filed a formal report with Parker complaining about sexual harassment.

 

In the end, Shark felt the report was blown off. Exodus Road said they did a full investigation. 

 

Exodus Road refers to Shark’s report in separate press releases, which have some contradictions. The first, from Feb. 20, 2018, said an “allegation of sexual harassment” was made, investigated by a third-party consultant, and no substantial evidence was found.

 

However, the second press release, from February 2021, said the investigation “… found incidents of inappropriate sexual humor and discussions of a sexual nature in the workplace. After receiving the report, TER disciplined the individuals responsible.” It was unclear who was disciplined or what the discipline consisted of.

 

Kelly Garrity and Mihiro Shimano contributed to this story.

This is Part 2 of a multi-part series.  Sign up here to be alerted when new stories are posted: Part 1: Furor erupts over anti-sex trafficker Exodus Road