MYNORTHWEST NEWS

Expedia employees: We were left in the dark about bathroom spy cams

Feb 15, 2024, 8:38 AM | Updated: Feb 16, 2024, 7:40 am

Employees at Expedia’s Seattle headquarters said they were unaware of an investigation into cameras found in two bathrooms until the news surfaced online — weeks after the devices were first reported.

According to court documents, an employee sounded an alarm over suspicious devices in the restrooms — but the company, known for providing travel deals and bookings, didn’t act on it for over a month.

Marcelo F. Vargas-Fernandez, a 42-year-old former Expedia employee, has been charged with voyeurism after he allegedly placed two cameras underneath sinks in two all-gender restrooms on the campus between December and January.

Detectives from the Seattle Police Department (SPD) said the cameras were placed specifically to “view the private use and genitalia of restroom users.” Security from Expedia first contacted SPD about the incidents on Jan. 11. After an investigation, police arrested Vargas-Fernandez on Feb. 1 at his home in Lynnwood.

At least 10 victims, both male and female, have been identified so far, according to court filings. That number is expected to increase.

Employees say Expedia was slow to respond

An employee at Seattle’s Expedia headquarters, speaking on condition of anonymity, told KIRO Newsradio company leaders only addressed the incidents after they were first reported by national technology news site Geekwire Tuesday.

Screenshots of an employee-wide Slack channel within Seattle headquarters reveal many employees expressed shock and anger at the information Tuesday afternoon.

One remarked on the thread, “This definitely feels like something that should have been communicated to employees rather than buried.”

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Another added, “I’d like to know which bathrooms Shouldn’t we know if there are other potential victims?”

Sridhar Sukumaran — a vice president of human resources at Expedia Group — quickly responded with a message, confirming the company had recently investigated “an incident.”

“Although we do not typically provide comment on ongoing investigations, we felt it necessary to share an update on this sensitive matter because it occurred on campus,” he wrote. “Regarding this issue, we took immediate action the moment we discovered the issue and contacted local law enforcement.”

However, court documents on the investigation tell a different story.

Expedia alerted to cameras weeks before contacting police

An SPD report says Expedia security was made aware of a suspicious device in one of the bathrooms, but the company did not involve police until almost six weeks later.

The report says an Expedia vanpool driver identified only as “HS” first discovered “a white box with a cell phone-like device attached to it” under the sink in the bathrooms on Dec. 4. HS described seeing a camera lens and alerted the security desk. He was reportedly told that someone “would look into it.”

Image: This device was seized by the Seattle Police Department in January believed to be a spy camera that was placed in a bathroom at Expedia's Seattle headquarters.

This device was seized by the Seattle Police Department in January believed to be a spy camera that was placed in a bathroom at Expedia’s Seattle headquarters. (Photo courtesy of the Seattle Police Department)

Expedia Group contracts with a company called Securitas, and an officer took a photo of the device.

But according to the SPD report, “security supervisors made the decision not to take the devices because at the time they thought it was a music device or a battery backup for the soap dispensers.”

The next day, HS checked the bathrooms again and found the devices were gone. When he asked security if they had removed them, they told him they had not, per court documents.

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Cameras reappear weeks later

On Jan. 11, another vanpool worker dubbed “MT” alerted HS to similar devices in the same two bathrooms. Detectives say HS once again alerted security and “pointed out an individual who he thought had suspicious behavior and who had returned twice to try to use both bathrooms, after (HS and MT) had located the devices and closed off the bathrooms for use until security arrived.”

Expedia security contacted SPD, who seized the devices as evidence. After reviewing indoor security surveillance video, investigators observed a person they identify as Vargas-Fernandez entering and exiting the bathrooms on the morning of Jan. 11, holding what appears to be the suspicious devices.

SPD said Vargas-Fernandez purchased two spy cameras on Amazon in October that match the description of those found in the bathrooms. When initially questioned by police after his arrest Feb. 1, Vargas-Fernandez denied involvement, according to the probable cause affidavit. He claimed he used spy cameras for personal protection and had previously used them to conduct surveillance of his ex-wife, without her knowledge, during divorce proceedings.

Image: This device was seized by the Seattle Police Department in January believed to be a spy camera that was placed in a bathroom at Expedia's Seattle headquarters.

The device under the sink was seized by the Seattle Police Department in January believed to be a spy camera that was placed in a bathroom at Expedia’s Seattle headquarters. (Photo courtesy of the Seattle Police Department)

During a search of the suspect’s house, detectives discovered at least 33 additional spy cameras with a little help from specially-trained electronics-sniffing dog.

“This dog was able to find memory cards and things along those lines, electronics that could be then evaluated by police,” King County Prosecuting Attorney spokesperson Casey McNerthney said.

Expedia’s response to the investigation

After news of Vargas-Fernandez’s arrest broke Tuesday, Expedia employees told KIRO Newsradio the company released an internal email shortly after.

Michael Davis Velasco, chief people, inclusion and diversity Officer at Expedia Group, wrote in part, “Given the sensitive nature of this investigation, we cannot provide additional comments or responses to questions that may compromise ongoing security and law enforcement efforts.”

In a public statement, the company echoed those words.

“We continue to take this matter very seriously and are working closely with the appropriate authorities.”

The felony voyeurism charges carry substantial penalties if Vargas-Fernandez is convicted, though the estimate of potential prison sentence can vary.

His arraignment is scheduled for Thursday at 8:30 a.m.

You can read more of Kate Stone’s stories here. Follow Kate on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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Expedia employees: We were left in the dark about bathroom spy cams