THE deepening crisis at the top of the NSW Ambulance Service's Hunter arm has taken a dramatic turn after a court heard a female paramedic was forced to hide out in the women's toilets to avoid repeated sexual harassment.
Former station manager John Charles Doepel was convicted on Monday in Muswellbrook Local Court of intimidating a junior female paramedic after repeatedly sexually harassing her over almost two years.
Doepel, a veteran paramedic with more than 30 years' service, pleaded guilty to intimidating Annette Henry at Merriwa with the intent of causing her to fear physical or mental harm.
According to an agreed statement of facts tendered to the court, the harassment was that bad that not long after Ms Henry started working at Merriwa Ambulance Station, she would hide out in the female toilets "for lengthy periods of time" to escape Doepel.
He would follow her "around the station constantly for no reason" and regularly asked her or guessed what colour underwear she was wearing.
Doepel once brought a sign to work which read: "Liquor in the front, poker in the back". After showing it to Ms Henry, he asked if she "liked it like that".
The court heard Ms Henry endured repeated harassment while the pair worked together at the Upper Hunter station from early 2014.
Doepel often made "sexually suggestive comments" about women the pair encountered during shifts, including that "she would go off" and "she would be good".
"The victim recalls the accused would often look at naked women who had body paint on using the Ambulance station computers and on his mobile phone," the facts read.
"The accused would regularly ask the victim to look at the pictures and ask if she liked them."
In mid-2015, Ms Henry was talking with colleagues about how she had completed the Kokoda trek and lost weight.
Doepel then said to another colleague as Ms Henry walked away, "as long as she never loses that arse".
Defence barrister Mark Preece applied to have the charges dealt with under section 32 of the Mental Health Act, under which charges can be dismissed.
He said at the time of the offence Doepel suffered from post traumatic stress disorder and a mood disorder.
Magistrate Bree Chisholm refused the application detailing how Ms Henry was made to "feel unsafe over a period of time" by Doepel's "unwelcome and inapproriate behaviour".
She also refused an application not to record a conviction and placed Doepel on a 12-month conditional release order.
Doepel has appealed the conviction.
The case comes after numerous Hunter ambulance bosses have been stood down over the past year following wide-ranging investigations not linked to this case.
The Newcastle Herald revealed last year that two of the region's most senior NSW Ambulance managers, husband and wife team Kerry and Robert Akester, resigned after being stood down, and inspectors Mick O'Connor and Brian Knowles were removed from duty four months later.
It's understood there were several investigations underway into the operations of the bitterly divided service in the Hunter.
As reported in May last year, two Sydney barristers, based at an inner-city Newcastle hotel, interviewed more than a dozen past and present paramedics over several weeks.
NSW Ambulance's Deputy Director of Clinical Operations, Inspector Jordan Emery, who is the most senior officer in the region, outlined plans last year to review the Hunter ambulance service and address "workplace grievances".
"It's no secret there have been significant cultural challenges in Hunter New England - that's been reflected in staff surveys and that's been reflected in people's experience," Inspector Emery said.
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