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Accusations against Bill Tonnesen accelerated after a Facebook post.EXPAND
Accusations against Bill Tonnesen accelerated after a Facebook post.
Grace Marcellino

More Than a Dozen Women Accuse Art Maven Bill Tonnesen of Sexual Misconduct

It’s hard to drive through the Valley without seeing a building or sculpture that’s been touched by the hands of Bill Tonnesen. As a landscape architect, designer, and artist, Tonnesen has been a visible presence in the metro Phoenix creative scene for two decades. He’s well known for his eclectic plans and projects, some of which, like a Phoenix memorial to the Jewish Holocaust, never moved from concept to reality, while others flourished, like the Lavatory, a provocative, “toilet-themed” immersive art museum that opened in November 2018 and often attracts younger people who post photos of the experience on social media. He's been written about in the New York Times, Arizona Republic, and Phoenix Business Journal. People who have met Tonnesen describe him as wickedly intelligent, odd, and imposing. (In a self-published book, Tonnesen: Twelve Months to Fame and Fortune in the Art World, Tonnesen once said he resolved to be the world's "third most famous artist" within a year.) Control is important to Tonnesen, and he has a lot of it – both creatively, in the local art scene, and financially, owning properties throughout metro Phoenix.

For at least a decade, rumors of sexual harassment have followed the 66-year-old artist. People long have accused Tonnesen of using his position in the arts world to exploit the young, vulnerable women with whom he often surrounds himself. Last week, a Facebook post describing one such incident went viral in the Phoenix community, generating thousands of views and hundreds of shares and comments. The Lavatory has since temporarily closed, and Tonnesen’s own Instagram has been deleted.

Following the post, a reporter from Phoenix New Times spoke to 15 people who reported acts of sexual harassment by Tonnesen.

The allegations range from minor harassment to blatant sexual misconduct – including showing up at a woman’s house without warning, undressing women and sucking on their breasts without consent, verbally abusing female employees, and pressuring artists and others who worked for him to perform sex acts and make pornographic films. He paid one of those staffers $7,000 to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

Many of the alleged victims were women in their early 20s who were just starting their careers — from models to photographers to assistants — and who had few financial or influential resources in a field dominated by Tonnesen. Virtually all of them expressed fear of retaliation by Tonnesen, with most opting to speak only under some condition of anonymity.

The incidents, which go back at least a decade, suggest that Tonnesen has engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment for which there are few paper trails, and has used his power in the Phoenix arts community to isolate women, abuse them, and intimidate them into silence.

New Times attempted to reach Tonnesen via phone calls, email, and a visit to his home and the Lavatory, where his son was taping up a printed sign announcing the art museum's temporary closure. Tonnesen has not yet responded to requests for comment. He did, however, post an apology on the Facebook page of the woman who made the initial post. At this point, there have been no criminal charges or civil suits filed related to these accusations.

Here are the stories the women told to New Times:

Kristen: 'Show Yourself to Me'

“You have a boyfriend? How tall is he?”

Kristen recalled thinking that was a weird question to be asked in a job interview, but a lot of things about this experience in November 2015 had been unorthodox. She had been asked to send a picture of herself with her office manager application. Her potential boss, Bill Tonnensen, had started her interview with a tour of the property they were on, a building complex called “The Strip” in central Phoenix; he told her he’d named it after Hi Liter, the strip club next door. He’d said he wanted to recruit the neighboring dancers for an upcoming art project in the space; Kristen said he asked her if she knew any big-breasted women who could model for him.

Kristen, who asked that New Times print only her first name, had brushed it all off. The conversations were in the context of art, even if they felt sexualized. Tonnesen was well known in the Valley, now her new home. He was also well respected in the architecture community, a field she was trying to enter. This was an incredible opportunity, she thought, and surely, given Tonnesen's 30-year career, someone would have stopped him if anything was amiss.

So she answered: Her boyfriend was 6 feet, 5 inches tall.

Kristen said Tonnesen's whole posture and his tone of voice changed. “Oh, so you’re used to handling big men like me,” he said.

And then, she said, Tonnesen stood up, a towering 6-foot-6 himself, walked to the door of the concrete room, and locked it.

Kristen felt instant panic, but tried to remain calm. Okay, just get through this interview and get out of here, she thought.

He sat down, took out his wallet, and handed her a $100 bill, she said.

”Show yourself to me,” she recalled him saying in a commanding voice.

Kristen protested; she was on her lunch break for her current job, and the interview had already run long — she really had to go.

“Show yourself to me and then you can leave,” he said again, she recalled. “Just show me your pussy, and then you can leave.”

Kristen said she thought about trying to run and unlock the door, but was afraid of what would happen if she tried. “I felt genuinely scared for my life. In that moment, I was thinking, 'I just need to do what I have to do to get out of here.'”

She said no again; he still wouldn’t let her leave. Finally, wearing a dress, she pulled her underwear to the side and flashed him. “Okay, I’ve done what you wanted; I need to go now,” she said.

He just got up like it was normal, unlocked the door, thanked her for the interview, and let her out, she said.

Kristen left in shock. When she reached her car, she burst into tears, and called her mother, Tracey Halvorson.

The two discussed it, and in the end, Kristen decided not to report the incident. These were the days before the #MeToo movement, and Kristen had little evidence.

She had come to the interview in spite of an email she’d received late the night before, telling her the position had been filled. She figured she could still drop off her resume, in case something opened up in the future. But when she arrived to the Strip, Tonnesen seemed confused, she said. She said he told her the position was still open, and that the current office manager must have hacked his email, because she didn’t want to be replaced.

In total, she had a voicemail from Tonnesen asking her to interview, a $100 bill as nondescript as all others, and an email telling her not to come. “It was my word against his,” Kristen said. “He had everything lined up in a way that could have made it seem like I was someone who was just disgruntled I didn’t get a job.

“I feel lucky that he didn’t touch me or rape me,” Kristen continued. But the thing that really concerned her was how comfortable Tonnesen had seemed. “It felt like it was about power and domineering. The pleasure he got was not through sexuality in that moment, it was through terrifying and controlling someone,” she said.

Her mom asked her to email the voicemail from Tonnesen. “I told her, ’Get everything together, and keep it for when you need it someday.’” Halvorson said. “‘Because he’s going to keep doing this.’”

And there it sat, until four years later, after The Strip had become the home of the Lavatory. On August 28, Kristen saw a public Facebook post and began to weep.

It was time for her and other women to tell their stories.

TripShip: 'I Was Going to Show Him My Art'

On August 28, TripShip, a 20-year-old fashion designer who requested that New Times only use her professional name, posted on Facebook about an experience she’d had at an interview with Bill Tonnesen the week before.

“I wanna warn anyone who might be considering volunteering,” she said in the post, “because you don’t deserve this.”

TripShip said she’d responded to a call for volunteers on the Lavatory’s instagram — the way he recruits many of the young models and artists who collaborate with the Lavatory. It required her to message Tonnesen’s personal phone. He called and invited her to his house for an interview, which he called an “audition.”

TripShip was elated. “This thing felt really important to me,” she said in an interview with New Times. “I was going to show him my art, and have my art be a part of the Lavatory, in a way.”

Bill Tonnesen’s home in Tempe, which he designed himself, is located on a massive complex, spanning three yards' worth of property. His office is in a separate building off the main house, in a room underground, through a long hallway, and down a set of stairs, according to several who have been there.

“It look me five minutes just to get there. It’s such a cool place though, honestly, it made me let my guard down way more,” TripShip said. “I was impressed at first, but it’s so isolated ... if I were to scream, no one would hear me.”

The interview was normal enough at first. They sat down at his desk and continued chatting; when TripShip mentioned attending an event at the Lavatory earlier that month, he asked to see a photo. She found one and handed him her phone, thinking nothing of it.

But Tonnesen didn’t give it back. When TripShip asked, getting uncomfortable, he ignored her. “Just don’t scroll the other way, please,” she remembered saying. She instantly regretted it.

“You mean this way?” she said he asked. He began scrolling through her private photos, including naked photographs of herself.

TripShip stood up, trying to grab her phone. She said Tonnesen yelled at her, “Sit down!” His entire tone changed, TripShip said. She suddenly felt scared for her safety, and increasingly humiliated as Tonnesen worked his way through three months of photos.

“I just felt so violated,” TripShip said. “There was this one photo he was staring at for so long — it was a nude photo of me,” she said, noting that he called his assistant Lea in, and had her look at the photo, too. (New Times  has not been able to locate Lea or determine her last name.)

And then the interview was over. Tonnesen returned her phone, introduced her to his wife, Pilar, like nothing had happened, and invited TripShip to work at the Lavatory on Saturday. TripShip never went. “I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” she said in the public Facebook post.

The post went viral in the local Phoenix community, with almost 300 shares and hundreds of comments. Around 3,000 people clicked on the link to the post through Instagram. People began tagging their friends, and many said they’d had similar uncomfortable experiences with Tonnesen.

Tonnesen himself commented on the post, saying:

“TripShip,
“Wow…
“Terrible. I just read your post about your audition with me. I am so, so, sorry. Sometimes I am tone deaf and this is one of those times. I thought you were giggling with approval. I am so dumb. I would like to add that everything you say happened did happen including Lea and my wife. I was incredibly insensitive. It went right past me. In retrospect I’m embarrassed and ashamed.
“Very, very sorry,
“Bill.”

Meanwhile, TripShip was soon inundated with personal messages. Some were from newly created accounts, insulting her credibility; one was from a former staffer of Tonnesen’s, Lizzie Lubitsky, who stood up for him, and warned her not to jump to conclusions. (Lubitsky said she was not yet available for comment.) Many were from other women sharing their stories, like Stacy.

Stacy: 'It Was All So Smooth'

Bill Tonnesen’s alleged harassment dates back at least 10 years, according to Stacy, now 33 years old. She requested New Times use only her first name.

Stacy was just out of college and hoping to freelance as a website designer when she first met Tonnesen in 2008. He was her first potential client — a professor at Arizona State University had recommended that she reach out to Tonnesen. Knowing his reputation in the community, Stacy was elated when he invited her to his house to interview.

She said at first things seemed normal — they talked about the website that he wanted, and Tonnesen said she sounded like a great fit. He invited her for a tour of his studio on her way out.

Inside the studio, Stacy complimented a series of photographs featuring heavily inked models, and the conversation turned to tattoos. She said Tonnesen asked if she had any, and she said yes. He asked her to show them. “You can see this one,” she said, pointing to the star on her foot.

“The way you said that makes me feel like there’s some that I can’t see,” she recalled Tonnesen saying.

He wouldn’t drop it, Stacy said. He asked again and again to see her other tattoos, saying he was just intrigued; he was a professional artist and this was what he did, gesturing to the portraits on the wall.

“There was this undertone of, 'I’m not going to let you make my website unless you show me,'” Stacy said in an interview with New Times.

So she decided it wasn’t a big deal. She lifted up her shirt and bra just to the point where Tonnesen could see the tattoo on the bottom of her right breast – no more.

Stacy recalled Tonnesen looking at the tattoo for about a second. “And then he lifted my shirt and bra up to my shoulders, grabbed my boobs, and started sucking on my nipple,” she said.

She pushed him off, and said she needed to leave. He said okay, and walked her out through the kitchen, where he introduced her to his wife and son. “I was like, am I dreaming? You were just biting my nipple, and now you’re introducing me to your life,” Stacy said. “It was all so smooth.”

Stacy never saw him again.

'Julia': 'It Would Haunt Me Every Night'

In 2014, another woman took a job with Tonnesen. It was a position as a property manager and general assistant at one of his tenant buildings. The woman, “Julia,” who asked that New Times use a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation, was a former model who was also a single mother of a 5-year-old daughter.

She was excited to see Tonnesen’s posting on Craigslist. “I was excited about getting that job, and really wanted to learn more about the industry,” Julia told New Times. But from her first day of work, she said, Tonnesen began making degrading comments about her appearance, saying he couldn’t take her seriously because he couldn’t stop staring at her breasts. He then asked her to make a porn with him; when she declined, he asked if she’d film one with her boyfriend and show it to him, she said.

“It would haunt me every night as I left work,” Julia said. “I started looking for other jobs immediately – but I was scared to quit, because I needed to support my daughter.”

One Friday, she said, Tonnesen asked if she’d be willing to come in over the weekend for an extra $100, to clear out a hard drive he “didn’t want his wife to see.” Needing the money, Julia arrived to the property on Saturday. Tonnesen insisted on sitting with her as she opened the flash drive – it had over 400 up-close photos he'd taken of women’s anuses and vaginas.

“I can’t do anything with this,” she said, standing up to leave in a panic. Tonnesen asked her to just sit with him for a second and talk about her employment. She did, still unsure what to do. Julia said he then slid a couple of $100 bills between her thighs, and again asked her to show her body to him.

Someone walked in, she said, and she used it as her chance to leave.

The next day, she said Tonnesen asked her to meet at Whole Foods to discuss the terms of her employment. He again asked what she was willing to do for work. “I would like to do what I was hired to do,” Julia recalled saying. Tonnesen said okay, and they left. That night, as she was giving her daughter a bath, she said she received a text from him, telling her not to come in to work tomorrow – this wasn’t working out.

“Are you firing me because I won’t sleep with you?” Julia said she texted.

“Yes,” he replied.

Julia had worked there just two weeks. She said she forwarded screenshots of the texts to his wife.

She received a call from Tonnesen’s lawyer the following day, stating that Tonnesen was offering her two weeks pay in exchange for her silence. Julia hadn’t considered compensation until then.

She took the weekend to research. She hadn't been having luck with the other jobs she was applying for, and was emotionally exhausted by the prospect of searching for another career after just finding one she'd been so eager to grow in, while still needing to pay bills and provide for her daughter. After looking into typical sexual harassment compensation online, she proposed Tonnesen pay her $10,000 to settle out of court and allow her time to find another job.

Tonnesen counter-offered for less money and, in an email thread reviewed by New Times, Julia felt his lawyer pressured her not to sue, warning about the psychological toll of lengthy litigation, the small amount of money she could win in court regardless, and the "potentially embarrassing" testimony both parties would have to share.

In the end, Tonnesen paid Julia $7,000, and she signed a nondisclosure agreement, rendering her unable to tell others about Tonnsen’s behavior. She used the money to support her child for the next five months, too emotionally distraught to risk random employment again.

There Are More: 'Show Him Her Tits'

Since the Facebook post, several others have said Bill Tonnesen sexually harassed them. They told these stories to New Times:

• In October 2013, a 29-year-old artist who asked to remain anonymous said she asked Tonnensen to lunch to talk about his process. She had just moved to Phoenix, and was living near one of his properties. She said he asked her to send him a couple of photos of herself, and then said yes. He drove her from his house, where he’d asked her to meet. While they were at the restaurant, he asked her if she’d consider modeling nude for a sculpture, she said. When she said no, he asked if she’d at least “show him her tits.”

She declined, and said she wanted to leave. While driving her back to her car, he again asked her to show him her breasts, she said. When she again said no, he pulled out his phone, showing photos of many young women’s breasts. “They all did it, why won’t you?” the artist recalled him saying. He dropped her off, and asked her not to say anything about the incident.

• In July 2017, Victoria Joelle, a model and artist in Phoenix, interviewed for a job with Tonnesen alongside another friend. She said he asked her personally to get lunch the next day. While there, after making several suggestive comments about the strippers who worked next door to The Strip, he pulled out several $100 bills, offering to pay her in exchange for sexual favors, she said. She laughed and said no. He said, “Well, I don’t think this partnership is going to work out then.” Joelle was not hired for any job position.

• In September of that year, Emma, who asked New Times to omit her last name, was hired as the marketing manager for Tonnesen’s newest artistic endeavor, the Lavatory. The project manager at the time was a young, gorgeous woman, and Emma watched her quit after Tonnesen repeatedly ridiculed her. Emma took on the role of project manager, where she was expected to do anything and everything Tonnesen asked — her job description for the position simply stated: “everything; full time.”

For about a year, she watched as the Lavatory project transformed from what was supposed to be a “family-friendly” exhibit into something much more sinister. The models he brought in were usually around 18 or 19, and he would pay them in cash, if at all. “It’s all about power to him, in every relationship,” Emma said. She recalled him saying once, “If there’s no contract and they’re still showing up, why would we need it?” In June 2018, Emma said she turned in her two weeks' notice after Tonnesen motioned to lunge at her during a disagreement.

• In February 2018, Tonnesen hired another employee, who asked that her job title and name remain anonymous. She, too, reported becoming increasingly uncomfortable with how the Lavatory project developed, as models who arrived were placed in more and more sexual (and occasionally unsafe, as the space was still under construction) situations during photoshoots, even as the project continued to be marketed as a “darker version of the Museum of Ice Cream.” She quit the same week that Emma turned in her notice after she said she walked in on Tonnesen photographing a young model in her bra behind a closed door with his iPhone, despite there being two professional photographers on scene.

• In July 2018, Destiny K, who asked New Times to omit her last name, was modeling for the Lavatory ahead of its opening. During her last photoshoot, she said Tonnesen insisted she remove her strapless swimsuit for shots, and simply cover her naked breasts with her hair. “I was very uncomfortable, but he was very persistent,” said Destiny, who was then 21. Shortly after, he invited her for a meeting at the Lavatory — they usually met in his office. When she arrived, she said, he sat her down and told her he had to ask her something “very bad,” and made her promise not to tell anyone. He said she was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen, and that he couldn’t control himself around her. He said he’d pay any money to sleep with her.

The next thing Destiny knew, his hands reached into her pants, and he tried to kiss her. He pulled her shirt down, grabbing and sucking on her chest violently. Destiny, scared, paralyzed, and mortified, said she simply didn’t move. When Tonnesen was done, she said, he pulled out $100, and said he could help her with money if she ever needed it if she agreed to meet him at a Motel 6 the next day. Wanting to get out of the room they were in, she agreed. He texted her the room number – Room 228 – the next day. Destiny never went, and she said she never spoke to Tonnesen again.

• Also that same summer, Rachel, then a 22-year-old model who asked New Times to omit her last name, was featured on the Lavatory’s (now defunct) Instagram After the initial photoshoot, she said, Tonnesen offered to pay Rachel and her roommate $200 a month between the two of them in exchange for sexual favors — including things involving period blood and soiled panties. “We lived less than a mile from the Lavatory, and he said he wanted the convenience.”

Rachel said no, but he continued to ask her about it when she came to the Lavatory for work. Shortly after its opening, she said he asked if he could come over to “show her” the kinds of things he had in mind. She said she’d think about it, and texted him her answer when she got home, never intending to. But she said Tonnesen showed up at her door anyway, minutes after she’d walked in the door. Rachel was alone, but lied, saying she couldn’t talk because her other roommate, who didn’t know about Tonnesen’s offer, was home. Tonnesen persuaded her to walk to his truck to talk logistics.

“And I just thought, okay, fucking fine, anything to get him out of this gated apartment.” In the truck, he asked her to show him her “fat stomach.” She complied, lifting her shirt to show her belly. She said Tonnesen then stuck his hands down her pants. He shoved his finger up her anus. “I don’t like that,” Rachel said she said sharply. Tonnesen proceeding to smell, then lick, his finger, which had some of Rachel’s fecal matter on it. She motioned to leave, and he said “Wait,” — then handed her $80. She walked back to the house, and didn’t speak to anyone about the experience. “For the longest time, I didn’t feel valid,” Rachel said. “But hearing other people’s stories — it’s like he created the Lavatory to attract our community, and find ways of getting us alone.”

• In August 2018, photographer Grace Marcellino, then 31, caught Tonnesen smelling her neck at a photoshoot at the Lavatory. At a First Friday event at a gallery on Ninth Street, he covertly handed her a butt plug in a room full of people, telling her to go into the bathroom and put it in. After he patted her butt later to feel if it was there, Marcellino handed it back to him and left the event. At her second Lavatory photoshoot in October, he apologized for allowing one of her photos taken at the space to be published in Java Magazine without her permission. He pulled out $500, saying “Let me make it up to you,” and asked her to meet later to discuss more at midnight. Marcellino never went back.

• In November 2018, a 22-year-old model, who asked to go by “Nicole” out of fear for her professional reputation, was invited to discuss a “sculpture statue” project at Tonnesen’s office after participating in a group photoshoot for the art space. Once there, Tonnesen took her to a workspace, and said that he wanted to see if she’d be a good candidate for a sculpture. While Nicole was standing naked, she said he made a comment about how “cute her boobs are,” and proceeded to put one in his mouth. She moved away from him immediately. “I’m so sorry,” Nicole recalled him saying as he pulled out a $100 bill. “But you know, there could be more where that comes from.” Nicole felt she’d been targeted by Tonnesen. “He seemed like a pro — he knows his crowd. He tries to go for people who are more open-minded.”

• In 2019, Samantha McClintock said that when she was visiting the Lavatory with a friend, Tonnesen pulled her aside and offered to pay her $100 and fill up her gas at QuikTrip for “an hour of her time” at his house. He was very unspecific about what he wanted, but McClintock felt shaken. “When you go somewhere for an experience, that’s not what you’re expecting,” she said.

New Times spoke to eight others — including artists, models, and former tenants — who reached out to express negative experiences with Tonnesen, two of them also alleging sexual harassment.

“He just works in a world of young people,” Kristen said in another phone call with New Times this week. “When I look at the women who have come forward — he picked young women who were vulnerable. I feel like if this happened to me today, I have more resources, and it would be different. At the time, I was really broke.”

People play at the "ball pit" room in the Lavatory.EXPAND
People play at the "ball pit" room in the Lavatory.
Grace Marcellino

Finding Strength in Numbers

After TripShip’s viral Facebook post, members in the creative community in Phoenix who say they had been sexually harassed by Bill Tonnesen began to meet, talking in person and online. After receiving about 100 Facebook and Instagram messages, they decided to form a secret Facebook group, named “#FlushTheLavatory,” for victims to share their stories.

“I call this a beautifully tragic event, because it helped so many women to come together, and to get their voices back,” TripShip said. “I think that’s what he was trying to take from us.”

On Sunday night, the Lavatory’s Instagram was hacked, deleting all former posts. “THIS ACCOUNT IS NO LONGER CONTROLLED BY BILL TONNESEN AND THE LAVATORY // SHARE VIA DM,” the bio now states. The account, which has over 13,000 followers, invited women to share their stories via direct message, and initially posted several victims’ stories that had been shared in public Facebook comments without their consent.

TripShip got in touch with the hacker through direct messages to the account, which New Times reviewed, asking the hacker to remove the posts. The hacker apologized and removed several; in subsequent phone calls with TripShip, the hacker refused to be identified but claimed to be a former employee of Tonnesen’s. None of the individuals New Times spoke to said they were affiliated with the hacker.

The day after the hacking, Void, a model with almost 93,000 followers who had been affiliated with the Lavatory,  announced a separation from the museum. “This is the most complicated situation I’ve ever been put in,” read Void's statement on Instagram, “All I have to say right now is that I absolutely cannot stand with sexual harassment or anything of the sort, and I’m removing myself from the Lavatory.”

The Lavatory’s website currently states: “The Lavatory will be dark till October 1st, 2019 while we re-configure and re-imagine the experience. Please email us for a prompt refund or, if you would like to re-schedule, we’d like to offer you double the number of tickets purchased as an apology for the headache.”

Just last month, Kristen finally got rid of the $100 bill Tonnesen gave her. After carrying it all this time, it felt like a weight she was finally able to shed. She still drives past Tonnesen-owned apartments to leave her house every day.

Freelance writer Lynn Trimble contributed to this article.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Tonnesen's age.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated, “TripShip said Tonnesen had reached out to her via Instagram direct message.” This has been changed to clarify, “TripShip said she’d responded to a call for volunteers on the Lavatory’s instagram,” which required her to message Tonnesen’s personal phone, and he called shortly thereafter to invite her for an interview.

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