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Shortly after her debut as a fairy at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, Linda Clayton says entertainment director Carr Hagerman invited her back to his trailer with a group of colleagues.

Hagerman complimented her acting, she said. Then, according to her lawsuit, he slid his hand up her thigh. "I just froze," she recalled in an interview, saying she wanted to resist but feared the man in charge of renewing her contract.

The alleged 2002 incident was the start of Hagerman's long effort to groom Clayton for sex, according to the suit that she and a co-worker have brought against Mid-America Festivals Corp. The Shakopee event company that runs the medieval-themed fair denies knowledge of the incident.

Hagerman and Clayton eventually entered into a relationship. When she broke it off, the suit alleges, he sought revenge by waging a smear campaign against her.

Clayton and the other plaintiff, longtime performer Shelley Wolf, are accusing the Renaissance Festival of fostering what they call a "decades-long sexually hostile environment," owing to Hagerman's important position and what they say is the company's lack of harassment training and reporting. They say the company enabled Hagerman to trade sex for preferential treatment while punishing those who refused his advances.

Festival managers deny the allegations, saying they had a code of conduct at the time, and that they have no knowledge of such behavior. They say that maintaining the safety of patrons and workers is their top priority as they head into the 48th annual festival, which opens Aug. 18 and runs every weekend through September.

The civil suit charges Mid-America with failing to protect the plaintiffs from unwanted touching and serial misconduct by Hagerman and unnamed "male co-workers." It alleges that a former security director kept secret logs of "sensitive" incidents to cover up sexual assaults, a charge that Mid-America attorney Sheila Engelmeier called "absurd."

The allegations have prompted the company to require harassment training this season for cast members.

The lawsuit comes amid criminal sexual conduct charges filed in June against Hagerman, 60, who is accused of rape on the festival grounds last fall. His lawyers contend that Hagerman, who has been on paid suspension since November, is falsely accused.

"We will present a defense that proves it," said defense attorney Piper Kenney Wold.

Mid-America officials say they've launched an investigation into Hagerman's conduct that's been hindered by the reluctance of accusers to cooperate. Accusers say that's because they have little faith that company officials will hold Hagerman accountable.

"The charges are just horrific," said Bo Beller, Mid-America's business and legal affairs director. "But I'd like the legal process to play itself out."

Jim Peterson, Mid-America's president and founder, touted the company's record of hiring women for managerial roles usually held by men.

"We've done everything we can think of to have it be comfortable, safe and accommodating for women," Peterson said. "We thought that had worked. It's more than alarming to hear that it may not work in every instance."

'Stronger together'

In a realm built on larger-than-life personas and bawdy humor, the Renaissance Festival offers a sense of belonging — if not escapism — to artisans, actors and attendees.

The nation's second largest Renaissance fair, after the Texas Renaissance Festival, the annual Shakopee event draws an estimated 300,000 patrons during its seven-week run. It's the most successful event for Mid-America, which operates similar festivals in Michigan, Kansas City, St. Louis and the Tampa Bay Area.

Interviews with nine current and former Renaissance Festival employees described the festival as a boozy, sexually charged workplace. According to the lawsuit, the women "observed predatory male employees circling the area looking for the drunkest female they could find to have sex."

Last fall, a group of female entertainers formed the Sisterhood of the Pink Garter, a support network meant to combat sexual harassment. About a dozen veterans volunteered to mentor younger women who find themselves in uncomfortable situations. They repeat the mantra "My costume is not consent," and wear pink ribbons embroidered with "Simul fortes," Latin for "Stronger together."

Authorities say the 32-year-old woman charging Hagerman with rape was wearing a pink ribbon when he allegedly assaulted her. She later told police that he had become enraged at the sight of the ribbon and ripped it off her wrist.

John Klassen, a Minneapolis attorney who represents the alleged rape victim and the two women who filed the lawsuit, said the incident had a "chilling effect" on women.

'An open secret'

After more than 40 years of greeting patrons, Hagerman was a festival staple who had become, according to the civil suit, the event's "face and dominating personality." To the public he was best known as the Rat Catcher, a foul-mouthed vagabond who flung insults at passersby.

Hagerman worked his way up to artistic director, where he managed several hundred entertainers each season.

But Clayton and Wolf, according to their suit, heard him talking about women he had sex with, including festival employees, and jokes about his "casting couch" — preferential treatment for women who let him have sex with them or photograph them nude.

His misconduct, the civil suit alleges, was "an open secret." Those who rejected Hagerman's sexual advances were denigrated and often not reemployed, the suit says.

Several close to Hagerman dismiss such claims. They say he was a dedicated mentor who nurtured young actors and helped them find work.

"These reports are antithetical to the person I know him to be," said Jennifer Cowitz, a former festival employee and photo assistant of ­Hagerman's.

Shortly after college graduation, Hagerman and his wife rented their downstairs apartment to Cowitz. She said that he saved her during a struggle with depression, and spent much free time volunteering.

"He's fundamentally not violent," she said. "This community is torn apart by this."

Company 'open to change'

The civil suit filed by Clayton and Wolf describes a crude, angry and manipulative man who was protected, the plaintiffs say, by the company's lack of policy or training on gender discrimination, sexual harassment and unlawful retaliation.

The women allege that Hagerman purposely changed clothes in the same room as female actresses and sometimes asked them to judge his physique or ­genitals.

The suit claims he photographed girls as young as 16, but Hagerman — through his lawyer — has denied ever photographing an unclothed minor.

Clayton said that she feared being alone with him. While playing Queen Elizabeth I at the festival in 2011, she says she confronted Hagerman about preferential treatment for a colleague who she believed was sleeping with him.

According to the suit, Hagerman became enraged and punched the wall near her head, chasing her outside before others intervened.

Clayton reported it to police. "If people hadn't come around that corner, he would have beat the [expletive] out of me," she said.

The festival's internal investigation didn't back her account.

The report said that Hagerman yelled obscenities and shook a handrail, behavior it described as "inappropriate, disrespectful and unprofessional." But it found "no evidence that he attempted to physically harm" Clayton. Managers ordered Hagerman to complete an anger management class and maintain better boundaries.

In the wake of the charges, Hagerman's assistant, the security director and at least three other members of the festival's security detail have resigned. Managers have hired David "Fud" Williams, a festival alumnus and retired high school theater director, as entertainment director.

Beller said that Mid-America is open to change.

"It is very important that people who work there feel safe," he said. "If they don't feel safe, we will fix that."

Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly identified the location of one of several Renaissance fairs operated by Mid-America Festivals Corp. The fair is in Tampa, Fla., not the San Francisco Bay Area.