Two North Carolina women are accused of sexually assaulting a transgender woman inside a locked bathroom at a popular Raleigh bar. Amber Harrell and Jessica Fowler were arrested this week on sexual battery and kidnapping charges accusing them of groping the trans woman in December, The News & Observer reports.
Harrell, 38, and Fowler, 31, were both charged with second-degree kidnapping, a felony, and misdemeanor sexual battery, Wake County Detention Center records show. Harrell turned herself in on Sunday, January 7, and was released on bail on Monday. Fowler turned herself in on Monday, January 8, and was released the same day after posting bond.
Harrell and Fowler could not be reached for comment by Heavy and it is not clear if they have hired attorneys who could speak for them. The incident occurred on December 9 at the Milk Bar in the Glenwood South neighborhood in downtown Raleigh.
Here’s what you need to know about Amber Harrell and Jessica Fowler:
1. One of the Women Grabbed the Victim’s Genitals & Buttocks in the Locked Bathroom & Continued to Grope the Victim After Letting Her Back Into the Bar, Police Say
The incident happened Saturday, December 9 at Milk Bar in downtown Raleigh, according to The News & Observer. On Sunday, the day after the incident, it was reported to Raleigh Police, according to a 911 call made public this week, The News & Observer reports.
According to the call, the victim was alone in the bathroom with two women. Police said Harrell and Fowler followed the 29-year-old woman inside the bathroom and then locked the door, according to court documents.
They began to have a friendly conversation until one of the women grabbed her genitals and asked if she had a penis, the newspaper reports. The other woman then started laughing and pulled up her shirt to flash her breasts at the victim, asking the woman if she wanted to “see her boobies,” while pressing the woman against a stall with her bare chest, according to the 911 call.
One of the women also grabbed the victim’s buttocks, the 911 caller said. It is not clear which woman is accused of doing what. Police said the victim was able to leave the bathroom, but at least one of the women continued to grope her buttocks and stomach after they were back into the bar, until a bartender told her to stop.
“One of the girls is still touching all over me. She would not let go. I asked her numerous times. She (bartender) could see I was visibly uncomfortable,” the victim told the dispatcher in a 911 call obtained by WRAL-TV.
Witnesses told police it was clear Harrell and Fowler targeted the victim because she is transgender. The incident caused the woman to have a panic attack, police said. The victim had to escape from the bathroom, and was not allowed to leave by the two women, which led to the kidnapping charge, police said.
“I was going to the bathroom to check hair and makeup and there were two females in the bathroom,” the victim told the police dispatcher, according to NPR. “I thought they were two drunk people just being friendly.”
It is not clear if Harrell and Fowler are friends or if they knew each other prior to the incident at Milk Bar in December. Neither could be reached for comment and they have not spoken publicly about their arrests or the accusations against them.
Milk Bar issued a statement through its parent company saying, “Bunch of 5s handles all matters that threatens our patrons in a timely fashion to ensure their safety and ability to enjoy themselves at all of our locations. This matter was handled with cooperation and full transparency with the Raleigh Police Department and the detective that was assigned this case. Bunch of 5s and Milk Bar seek to continue to welcome all patrons into a safe environment.”
The statement from Jennifer Heasty added, “We do not condone this type of behavior to any of our patrons or staff. We pride ourselves on having fun, diverse, and safe environments at all of our locations. It’s a shame that two women can do so much harm to a wonderful person. Once they came out of the restroom and it was made clear of what was happening, we immediately stepped in to stop the situation and make sure she was ok. We have supported her ever since she started coming here and will continue to welcome her at all of our locations.”
2. Amber Harrell, a North Carolina Native & a Mother, Was Arrested on a Simple Assault Charge in an Unrelated April 2018 Case, Records Show
Amber Nicole Harrell, of Raleigh, is a North Carolina native. Harrell appears to have been married twice, according to public records, and has used the names Amber Harrell Toppin and Amber Nicole Hardison. Her Facebook profile has been deleted, but other social media pages show that she is the mother of a young daughter.
Harrell has a previous arrest record in North Carolina, including an April 2018 arrest in Wake County on a simple assault charge. Her mugshot from that arrest appears in a county database.
The details of the case were not immediately available. According to jail records, Harrell then 37, was arrested in Holly Springs, North Carolina, by the Holly Springs Police Department on April 3, 2018, and was booked into jail at 11 p.m. The outcome of that case was also not immediately available.
Harrell was also arrested on simple assault charges in November 2010 in Sampson County, North Carolina. The case was later dropped by the district attorney’s office in December 2010. In 2006, Harrell, then going by Amber Hardison, was arrested on DUI charges in Pitt County. Her driver’s license was revoked, but the case was dismissed, records show. She was convicted of DUI in 2003 in and sentenced to 12 months probation.
3. Jessica Fowler Is a Graduate of East Carolina University, Has Worked at a Defense Contractor & Doesn’t Appear to Have a Criminal Record
Jessica Leeann Fowler also lives in Raleigh. She previously lived in Greenville, North Carolina. Fowler and Harrell both appear to have deleted their social media profiles after they were arrested.
An archived version of a Linkedin profile shows Fowler graduated from East Carolina University in 2011. She worked as a provisioning specialist at Northrop Grumann, a defense contractor. It is not clear if she is still employed there.
Like Harrell, Fowler has been married. She is now divorced. She has used the name Jessica Fowler Brewer and Jessica Leeann Brewer. Unlike Harrell, she does not appear to have a prior criminal record, aside from a minor traffic violation in Virginia.
4. An LGBTQ Group Says Trans People Are Often Targets of Sexual Violence, While the Company Who Owns the Bar Says They Are Committed to Having a ‘Safe Environment’
Ames Simmons, of Equality NC, told WTVD-TV that trans men and women are often the targets of sexual violence and the crimes are often not reported. “They don’t get helpful reactions when victims try and come forward,” Simmons told the news station. “This is the kind of violence we’re trying to work on. We’re trying not to address these incidents after they happen.”
A 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality found 47 percent of the nearly 28,000 surveyed had been sexually assaulted. And 46 percent said they had been verbally harassed in the prior year because they were trans.
“Unfortunately it isn’t (rare). We don’t often hear about it, because sometimes it does go unreported,” said Kori Hennessey, office manager of the LGBT Center of Raleigh, told the news station. “At least in Raleigh we don’t hear of too many things because it’s a slightly more accepting area.”
Kendra Johnson, also of Equality NC, told CBS 17 Raleigh:
Incidents like (this) are really common, but unfortunately, many transgender and non-gender-conforming folks don’t have the resources or the ability to actually pursue any sort of support through law enforcement. This is nothing new. It speaks very much to the need for protections for LGBT people in general. We can do better than this.
When we give a pass to hatred in country, these are the types of incidents that we see,” Johnson said. One of the things that is most heartening about this time is that while some of the bigots are attacking, we are finding more and more allies that are willing to stand up and stand with us. Don’t be a bystander that grabs a phone to take a picture of something. Stand up for people who are being attacked because of their difference. That’s the single most important thing that people can do as allies is to speak up so that people are not suffering because of their difference in the public sphere.
North Carolina has been at the center of the trans rights and safety issue since 2016, when then-Governor Pat McCrory and the legislature passed a state law that said people must use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender they were assigned at birth. The law, House Bill 2 or HB2, sparked nationwide outrage and led to protests and boycotts. The so-called “bathroom bill,” led to the state losing out on business deals and events, including pro and college sports games and tournaments. A new law was passed in 2017 that rescinded the bill.
But activists say the replacement law did not go far enough to ensure the rights of the LGBT community, The Associated Press reported in June 2018. A lawsuit was filed to fight the new law.
“The replacement law did away with (the gender requirement), but it also spelled out who was in charge of making such bathroom rules in the first place: state lawmakers — and not local governments. The new law also prohibited local governments from enacting new nondiscrimination ordinances for workplaces, hotels and restaurants until December 2020,” the AP wrote. “The lawsuit claims the replacement law still hurts transgender people by creating ambiguity about restroom access and preventing local officials from providing clarity or passing laws to protect LGBT rights. The GOP leaders argue, however, that the new law doesn’t deprive the LGBT community of legal protections and that any uncertainty over bathroom rules doesn’t amount to legal harm.”
Chris Brook, of the ACLU’s North Carolina chapter, told the AP, “There’s evidence in the record that students in the public school system have been told by their schools that H.B. 142 makes it illegal for them to utilize the restroom that accords with their gender identity.”
Hennessey, who is trans, told WRAL-TV, “I still have this underlying fear and this nervousness about using the restroom in public spaces. All we’re trying to do is use the restroom. No one is going in to hurt anyone. No one is trying to cause problems. We just want a safe space. It’s a reminder that this stuff happens and it will continue to happen.”
5. Harrell, Who Was Released on $50,000 Bail & Fowler, Who Is Free on $30,000 Bail, Both Face Prison & Having to Register as Sex Offenders if Convicted
Amber Harrell was released on $50,000 bail after her arrest. Jessica Fowler is free on $30,000 bail. Both were charged with second-degree kidnapping, a felony, and sexual battery, a misdemeanor.
According to state law, sexual battery is a class A1 misdemeanor, which is the most serious crime of that level. It is punishable by up to 150 days in jail. Second-degree kidnapping is a class E felony, which is punishable by 15 to 63 months in state prison.
Without a serious or any criminal record, neither Harrell nor Fowler would be likely to serve anywhere near the maximum. But state law does require those convicted of sexual battery to register as a sex offender for a period of up to 30 years.
Harrell is scheduled to appear in Wake County court on January 29. Fowler’s first court appearance is scheduled for January 30, also in Wake County court.