Cover: Multiple women accuse Actual Brewing founder Fred Lee of sexual assault

Andy Downing

Natalie Phillips said the first time Actual Brewing founder Fred Lee attempted to force himself on her, she managed to ward him off. 

It was late summer 2018, and Phillips said she had just accepted a position to work as a sales rep for Actual, growing the market for the beer in Dayton, where she lives. The two had spent the evening celebrating her addition to the company with dinner and drinks, returning afterward to join others at the Actual Brewing taproom on the East Side of Columbus, where Phillips intended to retire to what some staff members have termed the “sleep it off” room — a small space in the brewery equipped with a bed. She said she awoke around 4 a.m. with Lee on top of her, his hands down her pants.

“I yelled at him: 'Stop touching me! Get off of me! This is never going to happen!” Phillips said in a late January interview. 

Lee stopped immediately and left the room, Phillips said. Driving back to Dayton the next morning, Phillips, 40, who has had a long career in the beer industry, chalked up the experience as yet another in a long line of harassments and indignities that numerous women interviewed for this story described as endemic to the profession.

Phillips said that on Friday, Sept. 14, she returned to Columbus to finalize the details of the new position prior to her start the following Monday. Lee again suggested a celebration, Phillips said, and she obliged, taking comfort in the fact that two other women would be joining them for dinner. The four shared a couple of bottles of wine during the meal, afterwards moving to a bar where Phillips ordered a Captain Morgan and Coke.

Her next recollection is of Lee on top of her, penetrating her inside of Actual’s East Side taproom, she said.

Via email, Lee declined comment on what he termed “recent false allegations of sexual assault,” referring Alive to his attorney, William A. Settina, who providedAlive with an emailed statement on Tuesday, Feb. 5.

“Fred Lee denies that he forced himself upon anyone at any time,” Settina wrote. “The claims leveled against Fred are unfounded and dubious at best. If anyone has such a claim, let them come forward to defend that accusation in a court of law.”

Phillips filed a complaint with Columbus police in October accusing Lee of sexual assault. 

Actual’s advisory board said it is investigating complaints of harassment, and late Tuesday, Feb. 5, a staff-wide email from Lee’s wife and Actual co-owner Mira Lee circulated in which it was announced that Lee would voluntarily step down as CEO, effective immediately, “out of concern for the impact that the accusations and investigation will surely have on livelihoods and day-to-day responsibilities of our 37 team members.” In the email, which multiple sources shared with Alive, Mira Lee wrote that “while the bulk of these claims are entirely unsubstantiated, we have to listen when people tell us that the corporate culture of Actual Brewing has not been comfortable and welcoming to everyone,” adding that the company would institute a formal sexual harassment training and reporting program. Mira Lee also noted that Nicole Felter would be taking over as acting CEO; Fred Lee would still maintain ownership of the brewery. 

Lee’s attorney Settina, responding via email to a request for comment, said while it is true Lee has agreed to step down as CEO, the internal email announcing the decision was not authored by Fred Lee or cleared by his legal counsel. “The part of the statement that reads ‘while the bulk of the claims are unsubstantiated’ is inaccurate, and unintentional,” he wrote. “It should be made clear, Mr. Lee is only stepping down to focus his effort on defending his reputation against the false and scurrilous accusations leveled against him. The decision to step down during this time is in no way an admission of guilt to any accusation of sexual assault or harassment.” 

In a series of interviews withAlive, women, former employees and professionals associated with the craft brewing industry described incidents of unwanted sexual advances and sexual assault and harassment by Lee, 41, who opened Actual in 2012. In the course of reporting,Alive talked to eight women who said they were assaulted or harassed by Lee, three companies whose representatives say they no longer do business with Actual due to Lee’s behavior, four former Actual Brewing employees who observed his behavior firsthand, and 10 individuals who were either directly told by Lee’s accusers about the assaults and harassment, or offered supporting details on background. 

Initially, Phillips walled herself off from her experiences. She told herself that she shouldn’t have been drinking with Lee, and that she wouldn’t have to see him often while working from Dayton. As a single mother, she needed the paycheck. Somehow, she could find a way to make it work.

Then, on Oct. 11, Lee asked Phillips to pick up some pews from a church in Springfield and deliver them to Actual Brewing Clintonville, which was under construction. (The space, located at 2808 N. High St., officially opened to the public in late January, making it the brewery’s second Columbus location.)

After completing the delivery, Phillips said Lee’s wife, Mira, asked Phillips to give Fred a ride home. Amid stop-and-go rush hour traffic on Route 315, Phillips said she again found herself cornered. “He starts rubbing between my legs … and then he pulls his dick out and starts talking about his pre-cum, about how I like to take it,” Phillips said. “I thought when we got [to his house] he was seriously going to pull me out of the truck.”

On Monday, Oct. 15, Phillips said she reported the assaults to a co-worker at Actual, sales associate Anthony Perry, who confirmed the exchange in a phone call withAlive. Perry then relayed the accusations to head brewer and de facto chief operating officer Chris Moore. After meeting with Phillips in Dayton, Moore said he filed a formal complaint with Actual’s advisory board, which includes John Estep and Kyle Andrews, in addition to Lee. Estep and Andrews then made an unsuccessful attempt to oust Lee from the brewery, according to Moore (Estep and Andrews would not comment on this particular detail). At that point, Moore, who started at Actual in September 2013, said he resigned from the company in support of Phillips. “I’m an advocate for Natalie and her voice,” Moore said.

In a statement emailed toAlive in response to a request for comment, Estep and Andrews, who serve on the advisory board in a voluntary capacity and have no authority over day-to-day operations of the brewery, said the board became aware that an employee filed a complaint about misconduct by a member of Actual Brewing in November 2018. “Given the nature of the allegations, the Advisory Board took steps to initiate an ongoing independent investigation,” the statement reads, in part. “Representatives of Actual Brewing, LLC approved the Advisory Board taking these steps and Actual Brewing, LLC has fully cooperated during the pendency of the internal investigation.”

On Oct. 30, Phillips filed a report with the Columbus Division of Police accusing Lee of sexual assault. Lee has not been charged. On Dec. 17, Phillips also lodged a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, confirmation of which was shared withAlive. In addition, Phillips shared a letter from EEOC dated Jan. 29 that acknowledged receipt of her complaint and noted that a copy of the charge was sent to the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. According to the letter, if the commission then processes that charge, an investigation would follow.

Immediately after she told her coworker about the assault, Phillips said her phone buzzed with a series of text messages from a phone number associated with Lee, which Phillips shared withAlive. (The contact number for Lee in Phillips’ phone matched the phone number for Lee listed on the police report obtained byAlive.) A message sent on Oct. 16 read, in part, “I just want to make sure you don’t feel weird or unsafe or anything. I’m on your team. Seriously. Please forgive me. I’m so very sorry.”

When Phillips declined to respond, another message followed the next day: “I’m sick to my stomach over this.”

In an email sent to Dispatch Magazines publisher Ray Paprocki, written after Actual was disinvited from Alive’s Jan. 26 Bands to Watch concert upon receipt of the police report in which Lee was accused of sexual assault (Actual had been signed on as a sponsor for the event), Lee said he had done nothing wrong. “This campaign against me while opening my new restaurant has been started by my competitors,” he wrote, in part. “There was no misconduct and the lies that continue are creating more problems for me and my employees.”

Following up Lee’s message to Paprocki at the time, Settina, Lee’s lawyer, wrote that “the criminal allegation was clearly without merit” and that the case had been “closed for insufficient evidence.”

In a late-January phone call with Alive, however, CPD Det. Joshua Martin said that the case had been classified as inactive, not closed, meaning it could be revisited if new evidence is found.

Phillips’ experiences with Lee resonated with some women in the Columbus beer and restaurant communities, as well as former Actual staffers. 

In the early spring of 2012, Faith Pierce, co-owner of Yellow Brick Pizza, said she met with Lee at Actual Brewing at 655 N. James Rd., ostensibly to talk about hosting the brand launch for Actual at Yellow Brick in Olde Towne East. But it wasn’t long before Pierce said Lee changed the subject. “He said, ‘I’m in an open relationship,’ and then he said something to the effect that he wanted to [screw] me all over his brewery,” Pierce said. She said Lee then slid his hand up her dress and attempted to kiss her.

“I immediately backed away, like, ‘This is not going to happen,’ and he didn’t really understand why,” Pierce said. “I couldn’t think of any other excuses, so I was like, ‘Look, I don’t think you’re attractive. Actually, I think you’re kind of ugly.’”

Pierce said she left and immediately told her then-husband and current business partner Bob Silver about what had transpired. (Silver confirmed in a phone call with Alive that Pierce shared the details of the encounter with him immediately after it happened.) In part because of this, Yellow Brick does not carry Actual’s beers, joining some other businesses that include St. James Tavern and the Hills Market Downtown, where Wine and Cheese Director Amanda Anderson, who also heads up beer purchasing, said she has repeatedly informed Actual sales reps that her decision to not stock the beer is tied directly to its founder’s behavior toward women.

“They hired one sales rep who was really persistent. … Eventually, I said, ‘Look, I’ve heard stories for years about Fred sexually harassing people, sending inappropriate pictures, and as a recipient of that myself from other people in the alcohol industry, I don’t want to support that at all,’” Anderson said.

Michael Ortiz said he experienced these exchanges from the other side in the 18 months he worked at Actual beginning in the early spring of 2014, the tail end of it as head of sales. “There were [businesses] that wouldn’t even meet with me,” he said. “There were places that I’d come and sit down, and when we started to talk they’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re with Actual? … I’m sorry. I can’t do it.’ And I would kind of poke around: ‘Does this have something to do with Fred?’ And every single time it was, ‘Oh, yeah. He used to hit on my girlfriend,’ or, ‘He used to say horrible things to me, and I don’t want to work with that company.’ And every time I was like, ‘I completely understand.’”

Pierce’s experiences are mirrored in the accounts of multiple women, who said they often would be drawn to the brewery under the pretense of job opportunities, only to be cornered and accosted by Lee.

Julia Sivertson said she met Lee in late 2011 or early 2012, when she worked in the Beer & Spirits department in Weiland’s Market. Sivertson is friends with Max Lachowyn, a brewer who was involved in the opening of Actual, so she started hanging around the brewery as it was being built out, hoping to land a role in sales, or to at least learn more about an industry and a craft about which she was growing increasingly passionate. (Lachowyn confirmed Sivertson’s visits in a phone call with Alive.)

According to Sivertson, Lee started making promises — “He’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re going to be my sales manager … and here’s how we’re going to break down the salary,’” she said — none of which materialized. Then, one night in 2012, she said Lee texted her when she was out with friends at a campus bar, Village Idiot, and Sivertson invited him to join the group. At one point in the evening, Sivertson said Lee cornered her outside and propositioned her to have sex on the patio. She said he then pulled out his phone and showed her a picture of an erect penis before grabbing her buttocks and attempting to pull her close. Sivertson said she managed to wriggle free and rejoin her friends. 

Later, Sivertson said, Lee sent her a text asking her to come by Actual so that he could apologize in person. Sivertson said then-brewers Lachowyn and Rob Camstra were present at the time but were not in the room when Lee, according to Sivertson, bypassed an apology, grabbed her face and forced his tongue into her mouth. She slapped him and left, telling a friend about the encounter long after. (The friend confirmed in an independent interview with Alive that Sivertson had shared the story.)

Kathryn Hille, who for a time worked at a business adjacent to Actual, gave a similar account of Lee groping her under her skirt and forcibly attempting to kiss her in the brewery space. She said she responded by kicking him in the groin. (Hille shared the account with a friend, who confirmed details in a phone call.) Later, Hille said, Lee asked her to lunch to talk about the possibility of taking a sales job with Actual. Hille said that, while driving, he groped her breasts and attempted to put his hands between her legs. When the two arrived at the restaurant, Hille said she excused herself to use the washroom, locating an employee who was able to escort her out through a staff entrance. Hille said she left her jacket at the table where Lee was seated; she never retrieved it.

Prior to the 2012 opening of Actual, Massie Lawson, who currently works as a bar industry consultant, said she was invited to the brewing space under the guise of advising Lee on building out a sales program. When she arrived, she discovered a brewery that was still far from production, and a founder who appeared dismissive of her legitimate business questions.

“I was like, ‘What capacity are you going to be? What size barrelage?’ [He said,] ‘I’m not sure.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, if you don’t know these things, why do you want to consult on a sales plan?’” Lawson said. “And he’s like, ‘I just wanted to get to know you first. Have a drink.’ And I knew off the rip this dude has no intention of paying me, consulting with me or working with me.” 

When she left, she called the friend who had set up the meeting, only to hear that Lee had asked for the introduction in hopes of procuring a threesome. (A friend Lawson shared the story with immediately following the incident confirmed these details independently in a phone call with Alive.)

Other women detailed instances of verbal and physical assault. Angie Thum recounted one evening out dancing with friends at O’Connor’s Club 20 in August 2017, during which she said Lee came up behind her and forcibly grabbed her breasts in front of numerous witnesses. Drink Up Columbus editor Cheryl Harrison, who was out with the group that night, said via email that she spoke with Thum immediately after that incident, at which point Harrison said she confronted Lee, who she said subsequently admitted the behavior and apologized to Thum. Harrison also wrote that while she has paired with Actual Brewing for events in the past, both with Drink Up Columbus and The Beers & Board Games Club, she would no longer do so as long as Lee remains at the helm of the company.

Holly Willer said she crossed paths with Lee around 2014 when she was employed at Gateway Film Center. (At the time, Actual also was a coffee roaster, and Willer had the idea of inviting the brewer/roaster to offer both products during the theater’s 24-hour “Groundhog Day” marathon.) The two exchanged phone numbers, and Willer said the next day, after sending her a text message, Lee met her and her friend at a bar. As the night progressed, Willer said, Lee started putting his hand on her thigh and on the small of her back. According to Willer, he then forcibly grabbed her by the wrist and said, “I want to [screw] you into a wheelchair.” (Willer shared the story with multiple friends at the time, one of whom confirmed the account in a phone call with Alive.)

Some Actual employees said they experienced harassment by Lee. Kayla McGuire, who worked at Actual from 2014 to 2016, most of it as taproom manager, said Lee’s behavior was so consistently upsetting that she started to document certain actions in a journal, which she shared with Alive. Most of the log was kept purposely vague, she said, but a handful of the entries offer glimpses into the harassment. These include:

Thursday, November 12, 2015

It was brought to my attention that Fred made inappropriate and vulgar comments to the owner of our visiting food truck today — apparently he told her he would "[screw] her straight." She seemed unbothered, but I followed up with her in an email to apologize.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Fred informed me that changes have been made to St. Patty's Day event without talking to me. He also grabbed his crotch and made a rude gesture in my direction. I tried to brush it off and reminded him that I was wearing steel-toed boots. He said I'd make a good dominatrix and when I didn't respond, he left the room.

Lisa Witkowski, who worked as a sales rep with Actual from August 2017 through January 2018, said in addition to the difficulty of selling the product — “Clients would refuse to do business with you, [saying], ‘Don’t come back here; your owner sent our bartender a dick pic,’” she said — the verbal harassment became a growing strain. Following her divorce, Witkowski said, Lee would make regular cracks about being able to “help with her frustration,” implying a lack of sexual activity in her life, according to Witkowski. Due to her experiences, Witkowski, who was once passionate about the brewing industry, no longer has an interest in pursuing a career in it.

“It’s been this deep, dark secret in the industry so long,” said Natalie Phillips, who is currently on administrative leave with Actual pending resolution of the internal investigation initiated by the brewery’s advisory board, as confirmed both by Phillips and the statement emailed to Alive by board members. “Nobody is doing anything about it. Nobody says anything. Nobody does anything. And, sadly, you get desensitized to it. … That’s why I started doing all of this. I’m not the first, but I needed to speak up to make sure I’m the last.”