A federal program administrator who oversaw endangered species policy for Washington state was sentenced to a month in jail for sexually assaulting and tormenting a female co-worker while attending a conference in Sunriver.

The judge told Eric Rickerson, 53, his problem was “far bigger than alcohol.”

“There’s something wrong,” Senior Judge Michael J. Gillespie told Rickerson at his plea and sentencing Tuesday in Deschutes County Circuit Court.

“You didn’t get drunk and do something stupid. There’s something more here. You may have been drunk at the time this occurred but to do something like this to somebody repeatedly over an extended amount of time, that is far bigger than the use of alcohol.”

Sixteen months ago, Rickerson was the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service’s state supervisor for Washington, overseeing more than 100 employees implementing the federal government’s endangered species program.

Near the end of the business day Tuesday, he was led away in handcuffs to begin a 30-day term in the Deschutes County jail following an emotional hearing.

On July 10-12, 2018, Rickerson and other members of the agency attended a conference in Sunriver. He stayed in a condo with the victim — who worked for Rickerson — and another one of her superiors. The two superiors claimed rooms with locking doors, leaving the victim with a loft bedroom without a door.

On the night before the conference, Rickerson and the victim attended a get-together with co-workers at another condo. The victim left the party to go to bed after drinking a half-glass of wine. Meanwhile, Rickerson got “quite intoxicated” on six gin and tonics and followed her back to their condo, according to prosecutor Steve Gunnels.

“She was asleep when Mr. Rickerson walked up to her loft bedroom and told her it was time to get in the hot tub,” Gunnels said.

After repeatedly turning him down, the woman went down to the deck.

Rickerson got in the hot tub, naked, as she stood nearby, fully clothed.

“The defendant repeatedly exposed himself to (the victim) and touched (her) inappropriately under her clothing, and continued to try to cajole and persuade her to get into the hot tub,” Gunnels said.

But the woman testified in her victim statement this was just the start of her ordeal.

She excused herself and returned to her loft, but on five occasions that night, Rickerson climbed in bed with her, groped her and told her to “loosen up.”

“The defendant wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Gunnels said. “He said he knows she’s a lesbian and it’s, quote, no big deal.”

After he finally went to his own room, the woman crept down to the kitchen, took a knife and returned to her loft. As she sat and waited for Rickerson to return, she wrote herself an email describing what had taken place so there would be a record in case Rickerson came back and took her phone.

At about 3 a.m., she got in her car and drove home and missed the conference.

The next work day, the woman reported the incident to her supervisors at the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Office of Inspector General began an investigation and sent information to the Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office, which charged Rickerson with four misdemeanors and three felonies, including the Measure 11 charge of second-degree sexual assault.

Measure 11 is Oregon’s mandatory minimum sentencing law that assigns lengthy prison terms for sexual assault and other serious crimes.

On Tuesday, Rickerson pleaded guilty to third-degree sex assault, harassment, coercion, intimidation and private indecency.

Representatives of the U.S. Office of Inspector General attended Tuesday’s hearing, as did Rickerson’s wife.

The victim attended and read an encompassing statement that addressed Rickerson directly.

“I have nightmares regularly,” she told him. “Sometimes I’m trapped in houses that are like Escher paintings — no matter how I try to leave, I always end up trapped. Sometimes I dream that you’re on top of me, pushing me down into dirt with your hand over my face.”

Rickerson kept his eyes closed for much of the woman’s statement.

“The worst dreams are the ones where you’re hunting me,” the victim told Rickerson. “I run and I run, but I always end up trapped. I can never outrun you. For months I wondered why I had been assaulted and where I had gone wrong, but I figured out that I was overthinking things. You are a predator and that night I was your prey. It’s that simple.”

Rickerson joined the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in 1993 after receiving his master’s degree in wildlife science. He worked his way up to the position of deputy administrator for all of Oregon’s wildland programs. In 2015, he was hired by the Fish and Wildlife Service as its state supervisor for Washington, effectively running its endangered species program, according to Rickerson’s attorney, Ryan Mulkins.

Mulkins told the court his client’s alcoholism caused him to make some very poor choices that ended up costing him dearly.

“The sentence in this case is going to have some life-changing consequences for Mr. Rickerson,” Mulkins said. “Mr. Rickerson is almost certainly going to lose his job and career as a result of his conduct, but he realizes that alcohol can have no place in his life.”

Mulkins said his client hadn’t touched alcohol since the incident in Sunriver.

“I just want to say how profoundly sorry I am for my behavior and subsequent impact it had on her and her family. I’m sorry for the impact it’s had on my family, as well,” Rickerson said.

In addition to a month in jail, Rickerson received three years probation and was ordered to register as a sex offender and avoid alcohol and bars. The judge told Rickerson the alcohol provisions of his sentence were especially important in his case.

“I’m sensitive to instances of alcohol, and I think that often it’s a crutch, and I’m concerned that it’s a crutch here,” he said. “I know lots of people who get drunk and do stupid stuff, but they keep their hands to themselves and don’t victimize people because of their sexual orientation.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, gandrews@bendbulletin.com