A Life's Secret Unfolds
City Pays $55,000 for Disclosure, but Damage is Done
[DENVER, CO] - Dominique DeRemer had guarded her secret since the earliest years of childhood and fully intended to take it to her grave.
She told classmates in elementary school that her name was Dawn. At 25, she entered - and won - a beauty pageant in Denver. She'd married a man who was unaware of her past, helping to raise his 3-year-old son and a 6-year-old girl.
With long, blond hair and luminous eyes dark as molasses, she was, and is, a striking woman.
But DeRemer wasn't born female. She underwent three operations and legally changed her name in her 20s. Originally, she was a little boy named Charles Frederick Fleischman.
Her gender identity history was her secret to keep, she said, until a Denver County sheriff's deputy - who would later say he was amusing himself by seeing if any of his friends had jail records - discovered the truth.
The deputy, according to DeRemer, then told others.
"This was something I was born with. It was out of my control," DeRemer said. "Then someone chose to put it within their control and turn my world upside down."
Her attorney, David Miller, considers the case an egregious invasion of privacy.
"This is a matter that needs to be discussed, and it has to do with the privacy of the public in Denver," Miller said.
The city paid $55,000 in April to settle two federal lawsuits stemming from the incident. This year, six years after the case began, the deputy finally was reprimanded.
In the interim, DeRemer said, she lost her marriage, her business and, for a while, her belief in herself.
"My whole life has been centered on living like I do today. None of my peers, no one in my life knew," she said. "For someone to come up with that information, I was devastated. My heart just sunk."
DeRemer, 35, said her parents knew from early on that something wasn't right. She'd been born with small male body parts and developed into a feminine toddler.
Doctors have since speculated that DeRemer was born with a defect that caused an insufficient production of testosterone, perhaps resulting from medication her mother took to prevent a miscarriage.
DeRemer's mother sent her to a counselor at age 5. Throughout much of elementary school, DeRemer was presented to other classmates as a girl. Her mother, who asked not to be identified for this article, said DeRemer's childhood was a confusing time, and that she went back and forth about whether to send her child to school as a girl or boy.
DeRemer has lived primarily as a female ever since, except for two years as a teenager when she was sent to live with her father in hopes that a male role model would sort out her confusion.
For those two years, she was a boy, living as C.F. Fleischman. She earned her driver's license under that name.
The record would come back to haunt her.
DeRemer said she realized by her late teens that her years as a male were a mistake. She underwent two surgeries overseas and a breast augmentation operation then moved to Colorado to start fresh.
In 1989 and 1990, when she was 22 and 23, DeRemer was arrested in two misdemeanor cases. Because she had not yet legally changed her name and her driver's license listed her birth name, she was booked into the Denver City Jail as a male, even though she was living as a female.
Years later, in February 1996, Deputy Charles DeNovellis typed DeRemer's name into the criminal database at his office. DeNovellis, who had been friends with DeRemer's husband since childhood, would later say he was perusing the records for fun.
DeNovellis, his attorney and sheriff's officials declined to comment for this article.
But the deputy, in a statement to the Public Safety Review Commission in 1996, said he "not only looked up old friends of mine on our computer but also \[DeRemer's\] husband and my wife and several others for the sole purpose of entertainment, and to see if anyone I knew had ever been booked into the city or county jail."
DeNovellis told the commission, a group that reviews citizen complaints about law enforcement conduct, that a sergeant advised him that information from the jail computer is considered public and "a complaint would be unfounded if the information was divulged."
The commissioners disagreed, taking issue with the release of inmate information for non-law enforcement purposes. The commission sent a letter to then-Undersheriff John Simonet and encouraged the department to enforce its policies "in light of the potentially serious repercussions from the casual use of jail inmate records as a source of gossip."
DeRemer said DeNovellis called her Feb. 14, 1996, to confront her with his discovery.
Although she denied the deputy's assertions at first, she said she realized quickly that he knew too much. She alleges that DeNovellis told her he had asked his wife, who worked at DeRemer's dentist's office, to check her patient records to confirm her Social Security number. She said he also told her he knew that she had received estrogen, down to the dosage, while incarcerated.
"I knew it was me. He knew it was me. The information was there," she said. "It was a done deal."
DeRemer took a deep breath and told DeNovellis she had been born a hermaphrodite, someone who has male and female body parts.
It was a lie, she said, but she was afraid to tell him her male organs had been surgically removed.
"People don't understand. When you tell them or they see this on TV, you get people making jokes," she said.
But, she said, DeNovellis and his wife were reassuring and supportive, so much so that DeRemer attended a party at their home three days later.
What happened at the party is in dispute. But DeRemer alleged in her lawsuits that DeNovellis and his wife confronted her again, this time in front of about 17 guests.
DeNovellis acknowledged there was a conversation near the end of the party. But he said fewer than 17 guests remained, and he told the Public Safety Review Commission that DeRemer initiated the conversation.
DeRemer filed a complaint with internal affairs and the Public Safety Review Commission a few days later. The commission ruled in her favor, and she received assurances from the sheriff's office that a reprimand would be placed in DeNovellis' file. It never was.
DeRemer's attorney, Miller, said the lack of follow-through reinforced concerns about the Public Safety Review Commission, which some have called a watchdog with no teeth. The commission can only advise law enforcement departments about officer discipline.
DeRemer turned to the courts, filing her first lawsuit against DeNovellis and the sheriff's office.
In the meantime, she said, she tried to re-establish herself as a woman, taking a job as an exotic dancer. In 1997, she launched a new business, Dominique's Sports Pub. After she filed suit, she said, Denver police officers started going to the bar, at Federal Boulevard and West 50th Avenue.
She alleged, in a second lawsuit filed later, that several police officers showed customers her mug shot as a male and falsely claimed there was a warrant for her arrest.
"My business went downhill," she said.
The Denver Police Department referred all questions to its attorney on the case, Sonja McKenzie, who said she was prohibited from commenting because of provisions in the settlement agreement.
But court records show the department denied wrongdoing. Some of the officers acknowledged they had visited the bar as part of a liquor license evaluation, DeRemer said, but they denied showing others her mug shot and releasing unnecessary information.
A settlement in the two lawsuits was reached in February. The city agreed to pay $55,000, place a letter of reprimand in DeNovellis' personnel file and issue a letter of apology for the city's failure to punish the deputy in 1996.
But DeRemer is not satisfied.
"I feel like they threw me out there and I lost," she said. "What happened was wrong. The way I was treated was unfair and unjust."
One privacy expert agrees.
"It seems that $55,000 is cheap for the emotional trauma it caused," said James O'Reilly, a law professor at the University of Cincinnati, who chairs the American Bar Association's Committee on Government Information and Privacy.
O'Reilly questioned why the deputy wasn't charged criminally.
"Police officer misuse of personal data for private, as opposed to official law enforcement, purposes, is a crime in numerous states and in the federal Privacy Act," he said.
DeRemer said she never discussed the case with prosecutors. It could not be determined whether any law enforcement officials submitted the case to the Denver District Attorney's Office for review.
DeRemer, who did not want her picture published because she wants to preserve her privacy, said she hopes her case will raise public awareness.
"What they did to me was wrong," she said. "I was on a really good path, and now I hide. That's not fair."