Tennessee's attorney general blocks release of footage allegedly showing Hamilton County deputy baptizing woman

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

Tennessee's attorney general and the Hamilton County district attorney have blocked the release of dashcam footage allegedly showing a Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputy baptizing a woman during a February traffic stop.

The move comes after Hamilton County attorneys originally agreed to release the video.

The deputy, Daniel Wilkey, is at the center of a criminal investigation and four separate lawsuits involving traffic stops during which he engaged in alleged misconduct ranging from illegal drug searches to a roadside body cavity search.

The case garnered attention after Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston released dash camera footage of Wilkey and another deputy, Bobby Brewer, kicking, punching and stripping the pants off a handcuffed black man on July 10 before performing an apparent body cavity search on the side of a Soddy-Daisy road.

The case was referred to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which has since finished its investigation and handed its findings back to Pinkston's office, which will have to decide whether to present the case to a grand jury for potential indictment or close the case.

The man's attorney, Robin Flores, has filed a $17 million lawsuit against the county, Wilkey and Brewer.

The day before the alleged body cavity search, on July 9, a federal lawsuit was filed against Wilkey alleging an improper traffic stop during which the driver was detained until a K-9 unit from the Soddy-Daisy Police Department arrived and found nothing.

Flores has since filed two more lawsuits against Wilkey - one detailing the alleged groping of a 14-year-old girl during a traffic stop and and one detailing the alleged baptism.

The baptism suit, filed on Oct. 1, claims Wilkey detained a woman while she was driving in the Soddy-Daisy area on Feb. 6. Before the stop was over, he searched her by "feeling, through [her] clothing, her breasts, abdomen, buttocks, inner thighs, and her crotch" and then allegedly forced the woman to let him baptize her while another deputy, Jacob Goforth, stood by and watched. The deputy led the woman to believe that she could avoid jail time for having the butt of a marijuana cigarette in her car if she agreed to the baptism, the lawsuit claims.

The Times Free Press is not identifying the woman because of the nature of her encounter with the deputies.

On Oct. 3, the Times Free Press requested the dash camera footage from the vehicles of both deputies involved in that incident. Neither was wearing a body cam.

About two-and-a-half hours later, sheriff's office human resources director Carole Miller responded, saying, "The dash and/or body camera footage cannot be released at this time as it is part of an ongoing investigation."

Requests for certain records are typically denied when there is an open criminal investigation because of Rule 16 of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure, which states that only the defendants can have access to the investigative file through the discovery process.

However, a recent Tennessee Supreme Court decision - Scripps Media Inc., et al. v. Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, et. al. - states that "public records created in the ordinary course of business, which are non-investigative in nature, and which are otherwise accessible by Tennessee citizens under the [Tennessee Public Records Act], do not subsequently become exempt from disclosure because of the initiation of a criminal investigation in which those records become relevant."

The Times Free Press challenged the denial on Oct. 4, citing the decision in the Scripps Media case.

The newspaper argued that police body and dash camera footage are created "in the ordinary course of business" and are not inherently "investigative in nature," as they are not records that are created for or during an investigation.

Eighteen days went by before sheriff's office spokesman Matt Lea responded, saying he and Chief Deputy Austin Garrett were discussing the request and subsequent challenge to the denial. County attorneys met with Garrett and Sheriff Jim Hammond the following day.

Assistant County Attorney Sharon Milling then said it was determined it was appropriate to release the video and that it would be available on Oct. 28.

"The Sheriff previously made the decision not to release the video in order not to impede any possible criminal investigation of the allegations in this matter," she wrote in an email.

On Oct. 28, however, Milling said Pinkston had "advised this office that the State Attorney General has directed that this video not be released at this time."

District Attorney spokesman Bruce Garner said Pinkston "asked that the video not be released, because it is part of an ongoing investigation.

"General Pinkston also asked for an opinion from the state attorney general's office and received support for his position."

Garner said the Attorney General's Office agreed that the video is indeed part of the investigation and is therefore not subject to disclosure under Rule 16.

County attorneys confirmed Thursday that they independently reached out to the Attorney General's Office to verify the decision and clarified that it was decided that dash camera footage is, in fact, investigative in nature.

The Attorney General's Office declined a Times Free Press request to comment on the decision to block the release of the video, stating that "communication between our office and the client is considered confidential."

Garner declined to clarify why the dash camera footage of the apparent body cavity search was released while the footage of the alleged baptism has been blocked.

Wilkey was hired by the sheriff's office in February 2018, just six months after leaving the Rhea County Sheriff's Office in August 2017.

Six months before that, in February 2017, Rhea County reached a settlement in a federal lawsuit that claimed Wilkey fatally shot Steven Lee "Buddy" Howell while employed as a deputy with the Rhea County Sheriff's Office.

According to the suit, Rhea County deputies detained Howell, who was allegedly intoxicated and belligerent at a hospital in September 2014. Concerned Howell was reaching for a deputy's gun, authorities said, Wilkey shot Howell in the head at point-blank range. The Howells' attorney said the incident could have been avoided if Wilkey and another deputy had properly restrained Howell.

Since being hired in Hamilton County, Wilkey has had eight internal affairs cases opened against him. Two of those were found to be within policy. The rest, including two vehicle pursuits, do not list a disposition.

The sheriff's office did not clarify late Thursday if those cases are still under review.

Spokesman Lea did say Wilkey remains on administrative leave with pay and is not allowed to patrol. Deputy Brewer has been assigned to clerical duties. Goforth, however, returned to active duty Oct. 17.

With the help of the TBI and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Pinkston's office continues to review the cases. The FBI has been asked only to assist the investigation and not take over.

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