A class action lawsuit filed against Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Deputy Daniel Wilkey and the county sheds more light on the details surrounding a fourth victim named in a 44-count indictment against the deputy and suggests there could be many more victims who have yet to come forward.
The 26-year-old has been at the center of a criminal investigation and 11 civil lawsuits, including one for the wrongful death of a Rhea County man, over the course of his six-year career in law enforcement. Most of the civil suits involve traffic stops, during which Wilkey is accused of engaging in misconduct ranging from illegal drug searches and a roadside body cavity search to a forced baptism and the groping of female minors. He was indicted last week on 44 criminal charges, including six counts of sexual battery, two counts of rape and nine counts of official oppression.
While Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond publicly commented on the matter at the beginning of the investigation into Wilkey's alleged misconduct, stating he would "stand by his men in terms of their ability and their training," the sheriff's office did not return a request for comment Monday. Nor did the county.
Wilkey's alleged offenses took place within a seven-month time frame, and they involved four different people, according to the indictment. Details surrounding two of the listed victims were already known thanks to two civil lawsuits that had already been filed. The third alleged victim filed suit on Monday, and a fourth filed a class action suit on Tuesday.
The Times Free Press is not identifying the accusers because of the nature of their encounters with Wilkey.
The "face" of the class action is a man who, according to the criminal indictment and the lawsuit, was assaulted by Wilkey on March 30.
The man was traveling in a car around 8 p.m. in the 12500 block of Dayton Pike in Soddy-Daisy, a "sparsely populated, isolated location" when he was pulled over, according to the lawsuit. It doesn't state whether the man was the driver or a passenger.
Once the car was pulled over, Wilkey was reportedly joined by two other deputies — Tyler McRae and Jacob Goforth, who have been named in at least three other lawsuits alleging they stood by and watched Wilkey reportedly violate citizens' rights.
Wilkey ordered the man out of the car and handcuffed him, the lawsuit states. After initially patting him down, Wilkey then "put his hand down (inside) the front of [the man's] trousers and inappropriately touched [his] genitals."
"The fondling of [the man's] genitals served no recognized police policy," according to the suit.
The man suffered emotional and psychological pain, humiliation and fear, the suit claims.
THE CLASS ACTION
The class action, filed by attorneys John Cavett and Rip Biggs, is made up of "all those who were unlawfully, physically and/or sexually assaulted by Wilkey."
But it still needs to be certified by the court in order to move forward. If certified, the plaintiffs in the previous lawsuits could join if they choose to do so. But some may be unable to because their lawsuits name multiple defendants, some of whom are not listed in the class action.
Cavett and Biggs did not return a request for comment Wednesday.
In their argument in favor of certifying the class action, Cavett and Biggs point out the possible magnitude of such a case. They point out that, while the exact number of alleged victims isn't yet known, it's believed the number could be "well over 50."
"Based upon review of some of the known incidents, it appears that such incidents may have occurred several times a week on average," they state, adding that over 50 separate lawsuits "would be extremely burdensome for the attorneys, their clients, the judges whose time and resources are limited and the clerks, staff and personnel of the Court."
Another advantage of a moving forward with a class action, the attorneys note, would be that none of the alleged victims would be required to appear in open court to receive any damages.
"Being sexually assaulted by a Sheriff's deputy in a public place, and in most instances knowing the assault was captured on video camera, is humiliating and embarrassing for many people," the attorneys argue.
At least two of Wilkey's alleged offenses are known to have been captured, at least in part, by dash camera footage. One video showing Wilkey and another deputy, Bobby Brewer, beating and allegedly performing a body cavity search on a handcuffed man was released in July by Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston. And in October, the release of another video was blocked by Tennessee's Attorney General after the Times Free Press requested the footage that allegedly showed the forced baptism of a woman in February.
"Many [alleged victims] are unwilling or unable to testify in open Court about what happened to them," Cavett and Biggs state. "In most cases, this stigma is sufficient to cause victims to forego making a public claim for damages to which they are entitled."
In order to join the class action, plaintiffs would have to prove that they were assaulted by Wilkey in his official capacity as a Hamilton County deputy.
The proof needed to establish each person's claim will essentially be the same, the attorneys argue. Though some people may need to show individualized proof, depending on the nature of their encounter with Wilkey. Therefore, each person could be entitled to a different amount of compensation.
And because the county itself is named as a defendant, the group must show that the training provided to Wilkey by the county was "deficient in a way that led to or allowed Wilkey's unlawful behavior and/or that Hamilton County failed to properly supervise Wilkey in a way that allowed him to assault his victims."
The attorneys argue that Hammond's announcement that he stood by Wilkey and Brewer's training shows that their education and training "was therefore constitutionally deficient and the deficiency caused the injuries of the [alleged victims]."
Additionally, because the other deputies — McRae, Goforth and Brewer — did not stop Wilkey or report him to their superiors, it "shows a pattern or practice of deliberate indifference to the rights of the [alleged victims]."
Wilkey has been on paid administrative leave since July and will remain so pending his disciplinary hearing, which is set for Dec. 30, according to the sheriff's office. His annual salary is $41,483. That is approximately $19.94 per hour.
McRae, Goforth and Brewer have not been criminally charged. McRae and Goforth remain on active duty, and Brewer has been assigned to clerical duties while he is under internal investigation for the July incident. All three deputies make $42,676 per year.