Hamilton County sheriff's deputies face $11 million lawsuit for allegedly forcing woman into late-night baptism

Gavel and scales. (Getty)
Gavel and scales. (Getty)

One of the Hamilton County sheriff's deputies who is under investigation for a reportedly inappropriate body cavity search is now facing an $11 million lawsuit for a separate incident involving a woman who he allegedly forced to be baptized.

The lawsuit, filed in Hamilton County Circuit Court on Tuesday, claims that deputies Daniel Wilkey and Jacob Goforth deprived a woman of her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to freedom of religion and to be free from injury or harm while in custody and her Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The deputies are also accused of negligence, battery, assault and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office referred all questions to county attorney Rheubin Taylor, who did not immediately return an emailed request for comment.

The lawsuit details a traffic stop in which Wilkey detained a woman between 10 and 11 p.m. while she was driving in the Soddy-Daisy area on Feb. 6 of this year.

The woman had first stopped at a Mapco gas station to buy some cigarettes and gas, the lawsuit states. Wilkey was also at the gas station, and when the woman left, he followed her.

As the woman pulled into a friend's driveway, Wilkey initiated a traffic stop, allegedly without any justification, and ordered her to get out of the vehicle, according to the lawsuit. She complied and got out of the vehicle, and Wilkey searched her by "feeling, through [her] clothing, her breasts, abdomen, buttocks, inner thighs, and her crotch."

Then, he ordered her to reach under her shirt and pull out her bra and shake it and her shirt, the lawsuit states.

The woman asked Wilkey if a female officer should be conducting the search, to which Wilket replied that "'the law' did not require a female officer to conduct the search," the lawsuit states.

According to sheriff's office policy, a stop and frisk search is limited to a "protective pat down for concealed weapons." If the suspect is wearing something like a heavy coat, "the officer may expand the pat down to the body area beneath the coat." It makes no mention of having suspects remove articles of clothing.

A strip search is defined by policy as "having an arrested person remove or arrange some or all of such person's clothing so as to permit a visual inspection of the genitals, buttocks, anus, female breasts or undergarments of such person." It is to be conducted in a "controlled and private environment" by at least two deputies of the same gender as the person being searched.

Wilkey was searching her because he said he believed she possessed methamphetamine, the lawsuit states.

(Read more: Hamilton County sheriff's deputies at center of alleged body cavity search face $17 million lawsuit)

A search of the vehicle yielded no drugs, and apart from the butt of a marijuana cigarette that she admitted to having, Wilkey found no other drugs, according to the lawsuit.

After searching the woman's vehicle, he asked her if she had ever been "saved" and whether she believed in Jesus Christ, the lawsuit states. He told her that God was "talking to him during the vehicle search" and that he "felt the Lord wanted him to baptize [her]."

Wilkey then told her to go inside the home she was visiting and grab two towels for a baptism, according to the lawsuit. He said if she let him baptize her, he would issue her only a criminal citation for the possession of marijuana rather than taking her to jail and that he would speak to the judge on her behalf.

The woman did as she was told and got the towels. The person she was visiting asked her if it was safe for Wilkey to baptize her, to which the woman replied that she "was not sure, but that she would find out and she would be baptized if it helped her avoid going to jail," the lawsuit states.

When the woman returned outside, Wilkey told her to drive her own vehicle and follow him. She did so because she "didn't feel free to simply ignore Wilkey and not do as he commanded," according to the lawsuit.

Wilkey didn't say where he was taking her, but they eventually arrived at a boat ramp at Soddy Lake, the lawsuit states. At that point, another deputy - Jacob Goforth - arrived and stood by watching Wilkey and the woman. Wilkey told the woman that Goforth was there because, "in order for a baptism to be valid, a witness must 'attest' to the ritual."

Wilkey then "stripped nearly naked" and gave the woman the option to strip, too. She declined, the lawsuit states.

He then led her into nearly waist-deep water, placed one hand on her back and the other on her breasts and completely submerged her under the water, the lawsuit states.

The low temperature was 55 degrees on Feb. 6, according to The Old Farmer's Almanac.

The woman was "shivering uncontrollably, and felt horribly violated."

The woman's attorney, Robin Flores, argues the actions of both Wilkey and Goforth violated several of the woman's constitutional rights. And due to a history of misconduct and an alleged lack of punishment, the county is also liable.

The lawsuit is one of two filed Tuesday against the same deputy. In both lawsuits, Flores details multiple instances of brutality by county deputies dating back to 2015.

One of the instances is a case in which Sgt. Rodney Terrell used a stun gun on a 61-year-old woman while she was in custody at the Hamilton County Jail in 2015, the Times Free Press previously reported. She had refused to hand over her earrings at intake and, without warning, was shot with the stun gun, according to a lawsuit filed in 2016. She sustained a fracture to her wrist.

The county agreed to pay $40,000 in a settlement, but according to Tuesday's lawsuit, Terrell only received remedial training and was later promoted to lieutenant.

Another case involves now-deceased deputy Daniel Hendrix. Hendrix was accused of assaulting a Silverdale Detention Center inmate in 2015. He was arrested a month later and charged with assault. But the charges were later dismissed because the victim couldn't be found, despite the county allegedly knowing she was being held in another jail, according to Tuesday's lawsuit.

After the charges were dismissed, Hendrix was reinstated as a deputy. Two years later, he was shot and killed by Chattanooga police after he became violent and drew his county-issued gun while celebrating his birthday in 2017. Hendrix had violated the county's use-of-force policy at least three times between 2015 and 2017, the Times Free Press previously reported.

"Despite the full knowledge of Hendrix's propensity to use extreme violence against citizens in general, the County allowed Hendrix to return to full duty with the full use and benefit of his county issued gun," Flores argues.

Finally, Flores details the 2018 beating of a man by detective Blake Kilpatrick. A video was posted to social media showing Kilpatrick punching and kicking a handcuffed suspect. The U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were asked to investigate the arrest.

The Times Free Press later reported that Kilpatrick had previously been accused of violent behavior by a former girlfriend while he was a deputy with the Meigs County Sheriff's Office. According to an order of protection, he forced his way into his then-girlfriend's home, threatened to hurt everyone there and hit her when he tried to punch another man. Law enforcement was called on Kilpatrick, who "had a violent temper" and refused to leave, the petition states.

Kilpatrick was also named in a 2018 lawsuit as one of the deputies involved in the shooting death of Christopher Dalton Sexton, 29, who was killed after leading police on a car chase in 2017.

More recently, Wilkey and another deputy, Bobby Brewer, were involved in an alleged roadside body cavity search of a man who was a passenger in a vehicle that was pulled over in Soddy-Daisy. Dash camera video shows Wilkey and Brewer kicking, punching and stripping the pants off the man on July 10 before performing the apparent body-cavity search.

Flores argues that the county's failure to address the alleged misconduct "created an environment that allowed [Wilkey and Goforth] to believe that abusive behaviour would not be properly monitored, investigated not punished and was tantamount to a policy of the County." And led them to believe they would "not be punished in any significant way."

Contact Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

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