Judge dismisses kidnapping charge against former Chattanooga officer accused of fondling a woman he cited for theft, sends other charge to grand jury

Judge dismisses kidnapping charge against former Chattanooga officer accused of fondling a woman he cited for theft, sends other charge to grand jury

February 4th, 2019 by Zack Peterson in Breaking News

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Benjamin Dessalines appears before Judge Lila Statom in Hamilton County General Sessions Court in the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts Building on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter /Times Free Press.

This story was updated Feb. 4, 2019, at 4:47 p.m. with more information.

Gallery: Kidnapping charge

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A judge on Monday dismissed a kidnapping charge against a former Chattanooga police officer and sent his remaining sexual battery charge to a grand jury after a preliminary hearing.

Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Lila Statom ruled prosecutors didn't meet certain elements of kidnapping — one of two charges that Benjamin Dessalines faced after a 21-year-old woman and Army veteran told law enforcement that he drove her to his apartment after a theft citation on Nov. 8 and fondled her without consent.

Statom said she based her decision on a portion of the woman's testimony: that Dessalines didn't physically force her to go inside his apartment or get into his car. Dessalines' defense attorney, Rebecca Stern, elicited that response during a cross-examination. As a result, Statom said, she was only sending a sexual battery charge, a Class E felony, to the grand jury.

"[The grand jury] will review my decision as well and [could] decide my decision was in error," Statom told Dessalines, 28, from the bench. "But it's going through on the sexual battery charge."

The 21-year-old was the state's only witness Monday, and Assistant District Attorney Alan Dunn said her Nov. 8 encounter raises questions about whether Dessalines committed aggravated kidnapping, since he was dressed in his official police uniform at the time. The kidnapping charge could return if prosecutors present proof to a grand jury that causes jurors to believe Dessalines should be indicted for it.

Dunn also dismissed the theft citation against the witness Monday. The woman is not identified here under Times Free Press policy regarding alleged victims of sexual assault.

The witness testified Dessalines told her to wait in a nearby parking lot after he cited her and her mother for shoplifting earlier that evening at a Food City on Lee Highway. The witness said she waited about two hours before Dessalines pulled up in an SUV. Though the witness was unsure of the exact time, since her phone was in her aunt's car, she guessed it was about midnight when she got into Dessalines' vehicle.

The witness said Dessalines let her use his phone to call her aunt. But there was a catch: "He told me to tell her a friend was bringing her home. Don't tell her it was a cop." Then he asked if she smoke or drank.

The witness said no and asked Dessalines to drive her to her aunt's home in East Chattanooga where her two children were. She said Dessalines was already close when he said he needed to make a detour: His apartment in downtown Chattanooga near Champy's.

The witness said Dessalines made her nervous, but added she was scared to report or challenge her arresting officer. In the apartment's parking area, the witness said, Dessalines waited on her to get out of his car. She then followed him into an elevator and went upstairs to his apartment.

Dessalines tried to show her bedrooms once upstairs, the witness said, but she stayed near the door and eventually sat down on a bar stool. She said Dessalines then came up behind her, grabbed her breasts, and rubbed his hands between her legs. The witness said she told him no. Then he motioned to his bedroom, where the door was open, she said, wanting her to go inside so he could show her what he wanted to do.

After she rebuffed his advances again, the witness said Dessalines agreed to drive her home. But first, he wanted her help finding his gun, which they located in his car. Dessalines loaded the gun in front of her — which the witness said made her uncomfortable — because "[she] was taking him to an area he wasn't familiar with."

Once home, the witness said, she went inside to put her things away and went back outside three or four minutes later to speak to Dessalines. She said Dessalines asked for her number and Facebook account and messaged her twice in the next few days but she didn't respond.

Sterns questioned why the woman, who served in the Army, went back outside without saying anything to any family members inside about what happened. The witness reiterated she was nervous; she ultimately filed a complaint later that month after speaking with her family, and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office investigated the case.

Sterns declined to comment after Monday's hearing about whether Dessalines, who was fired from the police department last week during a disciplinary hearing, would appeal the finding and try to get his job back. Dessalines, who joined the department in 2016, remains out on a $15,000 bond and was surrounded by family during the hearing.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.