Artist Bill Tonnesen Accused of Sex Misconduct in Four Police Reports

Women protest outside the site of Tonnesen's former Lavatory museum, where many of his alleged acts of sexual misconduct occurred, on Nov. 4.
Women protest outside the site of Tonnesen's former Lavatory museum, where many of his alleged acts of sexual misconduct occurred, on Nov. 4. With permission from photographer
Three women have filed police reports against art maven Bill Tonnesen in the last week, and a fourth sex abuse case connected to him from 2013 has been reopened, Phoenix New Times has learned.

Two of the cases, filed in the cities of Tempe and Phoenix, already have detectives assigned to their investigations.

The crime reports come after a slew of sexual misconduct allegations emerged against the artist in September. As detailed in New Times' September 6 article, 15 women came forward to accuse Tonnesen, a local sculptor and architect with three decades of professional clout in the Phoenix community, of misconduct. Tonnesen has not responded to requests for comment on the allegations, which span over a decade. He officially closed his business "The Lavatory," an immersive art museum in Phoenix where many of the acts of sexual misconduct were said to have occurred, shortly after the article was published.

Now, after a month of public silence, three of those women have contacted law enforcement about their experiences. The women declined to comment on their cases, citing the pending investigations, and asked that New Times maintain the anonymity they requested in the original reporting out of fear of retaliation.

Kristen, who asked that New Times print only her first name, filed her report with Phoenix police on November 1. In 2015, Tonnesen allegedly locked her in a room during a job interview at The Strip, the property where the Lavatory would open three years later, and refused to let her leave until she showed her private parts to him.

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Bill Tonnesen created The Lavatory Museum in Phoenix.
Lynn Trimble
Detective Carrie Howard of Phoenix PD's Family Investigations Bureau, which investigates cases of sexual abuse, has been assigned to her report, the department confirmed. Howard has not yet responded to requests for comment.

The next day, TripShip, a 20-year-old fashion designer who requested that New Times only use her professional name, filed her own report with the Tempe Police Department.

Tonnesen allegedly looked through private images of her on her phone without her consent during a job interview in August, including some nude photos, and proceeded to show them to an assistant. A Facebook post about the incident sparked a viral conversation within the Valley arts community about Tonnesen's past history of alleged sexual misconduct. Tonnesen publicly apologized in a comment on her post, and confessed that everything the young woman had described was true.

A detective has not yet been assigned to her case, according to Tempe police.

On November 5, Rachel, a 23-year-old model who asked New Times to omit her last name, filed a report with Phoenix police. Tonnesen allegedly showed up at her house uninvited after an event at the Lavatory in the fall of 2018. She wanted to get him out of the house where she was home alone. Rachel said he suggested they talk in his car. He proceeded to grope her, she said, shoving his finger in her anus without her consent.

Phoenix Police have not yet assigned a detective for her case.

In addition to these three new reports, an old sexual abuse case against Tonnesen has resurfaced.

Shortly after the first article was published, New Times began receiving more accounts from women who alleged sexual harassment at the hands of Tonnesen. One of those women had filed a formal police report with the Tempe Police Department back in 2013, after Tonnesen allegedly touched her breast without her consent while she was modeling for pictures for a future sculpture.

The interaction had happened quickly, according to the police report. The woman had arrived to look at an apartment owned by Tonnesen, as a potential tenant, in January 2013. While there, after learning she was involved in the arts community, Tonnesen asked her if she'd be posing nude for a sculpture he wanted to make of her. She agreed, but during the shoot, which occurred that day in his office, Tonnesen walked towards her unannounced, and took hold of her breast.

“As she was posing Tonnesen grabbed (the victim’s) left breast and moved it into a different position,” the police report states, “(The victim) was startled by this and pulled away from Tonnesen.”

In the report, the woman told police that she had never been touched by a photographer when posing nude for a shoot — it's standard to give verbal direction on how to pose. After the shoot ended, Tonnesen gave her $50 for the photos, and then offered to pay her additional money for “erotic modeling,” which she declined.

Within an hour after the incident, Tonnesen sent her an email from a private address. (The pair had previously corresponded via Tonnesen's professional business email.)

“I must admit that touching your breast was done as much because I thought I could as needing to for the shot," Tonnesen said in the email, which was later submitted to Tempe police. "If the email or anything that happened in my office is uncomfortable please tell me and we can switch to the other email address and I will never speak of the dark side again.”

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Bill Tonnesen.
Victoria Rincon

In the email, he again asked if she would consider erotic modeling.

The woman filed the police report the next day.

During the initial investigation by Tempe police, officers had the woman call Tonnesen as the department recorded. He admitted to touching her and apologized for the incident. He told her he didn't remember the email, despite sending it less than 10 days earlier. "Whatever it was, if that could go away, it would be great," Tonnesen reportedly said during the call. He promised to delete the photos from the shoot.

Tempe police later interviewed Tonnesen at his home, and he again admitted to the touching, though he downplayed it as an "incidental moving of the breast" and saying he only "moved her breast slightly," according to the report. He additionally showed officers the woman's photos, despite having promised to delete them, and commented on the fact that she hadn't shaved her pubic hair, calling it, 'unusual.' This time, he admitted to sending the email and acknowledged that it was "flirtatious" because of how well he'd thought the shoot had gone.

With written, recorded, and verbalized accounts from Tonnesen, Tempe police forwarded the case to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office for the potential charge of sexual abuse. In July 2013, the woman learned that the county attorney's office had decided not to press charges against Tonnesen due to "no reasonable likelihood of conviction."

But on November 5, Tempe Police confirmed to New Times that the case is now open again. Detective Samantha Meadows in the criminal investigations division is currently assigned to the 2013 case. Meadows has not yet responded to requests for comment.

Due to a seven-year statue of limitations, if the department re-submits it to MCAO for prosecution, the attorney's office will have until only January to press charges.

The woman in the report declined to comment on the re-opening of her case, citing the ongoing investigation.

As for the three new police reports, it's too early to tell if Phoenix and Tempe police departments will recommend charges — that determination will play out over the course of their investigations.

If charges are recommended, the ultimate decision to prosecute Tonnesen remains with the county attorney's office.

“When cases come before our prosecutors, we look at the specifics of the case, the investigation that law enforcement did, and the specific statutes it may violate,” said Jennifer Lee, an MCAO spokesperson. “All of those things are taken into consideration when determining how and if we’re going to charge something.”

Lee could not speak to the specifics of any report, but noted that a case like TripShip’s is a potential violation of the state's revenge porn statute, and that the accounts described in the other women's reports could fit several sex crimes statutes listed in the Arizona Revised Statutes Criminal Code.

"It again all depends on what detectives determine," Lee said.

Tonnesen has not yet responded to requests for comment on the reports.
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Hannah Critchfield was an editorial fellow for Phoenix New Times starting in 2019.