More than 40 criminal charges against former Hamilton County Sheriff's Deputy Daniel Wilkey were dismissed Friday after a prosecutor said he "sees no avenue of prosecution" because of missing files in the case.
"Justice demands this case be dismissed," Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman said while granting the dismissal Friday.
In 2019, Wilkey was indicted and arrested on 44 charges, including six counts of sexual battery, two counts of rape, nine counts of official oppression, and multiple counts of extortion, stalking and assault, according to court records. He resigned from the Sheriff's Office after his arrest.
In a motion to dismiss the case filed Friday, prosecutor Kevin Allen said he was never given the main case file that supported the charges against Wilkey, which should have been kept at the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office.
Allen said several of the charges didn't have enough evidence to be prosecuted because the alleged victims connected to them did not speak to investigators or law enforcement before a grand jury indicted Wilkey.
Even without the complete case file, Allen said he made an effort to speak with investigators and others who had worked on the case to see if it could move forward.
"Based on information obtained from those sources and, more significantly, information assembled from the parallel civil litigation, the state sees no avenue of prosecution in this matter and moves to dismiss," Allen's motion said.
Allen and Wilkey both declined to comment further following Friday's hearing.
"When I heard about it, of course I was glad to hear it," Sheriff Austin Garrett said in an interview Friday afternoon. "It's a good resolution."
The charges came from three victims who alleged Wilkey had performed illegal body and cavity searches during traffic stops and another who alleged Wilkey coerced her into being baptized after a traffic stop where she admitted to having a small amount of marijuana, according to court documents.
Seventeen of the 44 counts against Wilkey were related to alleged instances of reckless driving, mostly speeding, found while investigators reviewed the deputy's dashboard camera footage in response to the rest of the allegations, court filings state.
Wilkey's attorney, Ben McGowan, said in an email to the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Friday that the dismissal supports what the defense team has said from the beginning.
"The former district attorney's criminal charges against Mr. Wilkey were factually unfounded and should never have been filed," McGowan said.
Wilkey still faces several claims of civil rights violations in federal lawsuits, many related to the same allegations.
Robin Flores, a Chattanooga attorney representing the estate of the late Shandle Riley, who alleged Wilkey baptized her in exchange for a lighter punishment, called Friday's dismissal "a joke." Riley died of an overdose in 2022, an autopsy showed.
"I've never once spoken to this district attorney," Flores said by phone Friday. "We have mountains of evidence and dispositions and discovery material filed in federal court. All he had to do was ask for it."
Allen, a prosecutor with the Nashville-based Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, was appointed to represent the state in August because the newly-elected Hamilton County district attorney, Coty Wamp, had worked as an attorney in the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office during litigation over Wilkey's actions.
Allen said he asked Neal Pinkston, the former district attorney ousted by Wamp in the 2022 Republican primary, to send him the case files during the final days of Pinkston's term. At that time, the motion states, Pinkston said the file was not in the District Attorney's Office but that he planned to send one at some point.
"None would ever be provided," Allen said in the dismissal motion. "As of the date of this pleading, no file has been located."
Pinkston said in a phone interview Friday the file should have been in his office when Allen requested it, but he does not remember receiving that request while still in office. He told reporters in a Friday news conference he does not know where the file is or was and didn't know why the District Attorney's Office could not find it after he left. He was never called to testify in court about the missing file, Pinkston said in an email Friday.
"There's some 50,000 cases a year that roll through the judicial system," Pinkston said at the conference. "Why is that the only case that can't be located?"
The former district attorney suggested Wilkey's criminal charges being dismissed may be politically motivated.
"It's politically driven by a number of forces that be, and they want to take a shot at me and blame me for it," Pinkston told reporters Friday.
Wamp said she was never involved in the Wilkey case and objected to the idea that his dismissal was political in any way. She said she did not know of any other instances in which a case file could not be found.
"I never believed I would handle it," she said by phone Friday. "I don't even know all the counts."
Pinkston said he communicated with Allen in January, months after leaving office, and gave him a spreadsheet of alleged violations based on dashboard camera videos with notes from officers who reviewed the footage. He also pointed Allen to footage from the traffic stops that the FBI and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation used while investigating some of the allegations against Wilkey, Pinkston said Friday.
Following the dismissal, Pinkston filed an affidavit in response to Allen's allegations, saying he did not conceal, destroy or withhold any evidence in Wilkey's case.
In July 2019, James Mitchell was arrested on narcotics charges after Wilkey allegedly found him with cocaine and marijuana during a traffic stop. Days later, an attorney representing Mitchell released a statement alleging Mitchell had been raped during an anal cavity search.
The Chattanooga-Hamilton County NAACP held a news conference following the release of video from the traffic stop, echoing allegations of rape and accusing the Sheriff's Office of brutality.
"I can't understand how you could take the information that was available and not prosecute the person," NAACP chapter President the Rev. Ann Jones Pierre said by phone following Friday's dismissal. "What will the Police Department, the Sheriff's Office do to make the citizens believe that they are really trying to protect us, that they hold their officers and deputies accountable for their actions?"
In arguing for the dismissal of charges of rape and assault connected to Mitchell's allegations, Allen said Mitchell did not disclose the alleged penetration during a medical screening at the jail or during two emergency room visits following his release. He also did not tell TBI investigators he had been raped, the motion states, but later told Pinkston about the anal search and reportedly said he had been embarrassed to disclose it earlier.
Allen said in the motion Mitchell, who had a lengthy criminal record that included several felony convictions for selling drugs, would have known the amount of drugs he was found with during the traffic stop could send him to prison for decades. The prosecutor implied Mitchell's history may have influenced his interaction with Wilkey.
"Crimes of violence and crimes of dishonesty are both among his history," Allen wrote.
Video shows deputies, including Wilkey, repeatedly beating Mitchell, pulling his pants down and reaching into his groin and bottom area for about two minutes before pulling out a plastic baggie.
"I would remind the public that there is no use of force that looks good," Garrett, the sheriff, said of the video Friday. "But you got to slow it down, and you have to look at all the facts and circumstances. ... A use of force can be somewhat excessive, but it doesn't make it criminal. Everybody's human. Everybody makes mistakes."
In his motion to dismiss, Allen said "most custodial arrests that police make require some sort of lawful assault or battery on the arrestee."
Garrett said he's unsure what that assertion is based on and did not know if that was true for the Sheriff's Office.
Mitchell's case prompted Pinkston, then the district attorney, to pull hundreds of hours of dash camera footage from Wilkey's patrol car for review. That review, Pinkston said Friday, came after repeated complaints about Wilkey from the community.
"The James Mitchell arrest on July 10, 2019, was the catalyst behind the entire indictment in this case," the dismissal motion states.
After Mitchell's allegations became public, Shandle Riley filed a complaint with the Sheriff's Office about the alleged forced baptism that Wilkey performed on her during a traffic stop earlier in 2019.
After admitting to having a marijuana roach in her car, Riley said in federal court filings that Wilkey offered to baptize her in exchange for writing her a citation he said would let her avoid jail time. Another deputy recorded the baptism on his cellphone, court documents state.
Riley's federal lawsuit alleged she was coerced and that Wilkey stripped to his underwear before performing the baptism. In court filings, Wilkey said Riley asked to be baptized and denied making any deal with her about the citation.
Allen said in the dismissal motion Wilkey made a poor decision to baptize Riley but violations of freedom of religion are not a prosecutable crime.
Riley and Mitchell filed their civil lawsuits against Wilkey within five days of each other in the fall of 2019, court filings show. In December, two more alleged victims also filed separate suits after Wilkey was indicted on criminal charges.
One, Kelsey Wilson, alleged Wilkey touched her inappropriately during a 2018 traffic stop after he smelled marijuana in the car. She also alleged that Wilkey stalked her, pulling her over 15 to 20 times in a 10-month period and touching her inappropriately during multiple searches.
Prosecutors said there is no video evidence from Wilkey's car of those stops and said that Wilson did not speak about her allegations with law enforcement or prosecutors until Mitchell's case was filed.
The final alleged victim, Maxwell Jarnagin, accused Wilkey of touching his groin during a traffic stop during which Jarnagin's father was found with methamphetamine. Jarnagin alleged the search was too long for the circumstances, which prosecutors say is a civil issue, not a criminal charge.