The onetime jail chaplain for the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office indicted earlier this year on 39 counts of sexual misconduct against several female inmates pleaded guilty Thursday morning to six felonies, including kidnapping by restraining an inmate to inflict a sexual assault.
Douglas Robert Packer entered the pleas which resolve four criminal cases brought by the Cochise County Attorney’s Office for alleged offenses from October 2014 to January 2019. He will return to court Jan. 13 for formal sentencing, although the plea deal stipulates Packer must serve 15 years in prison.
Packer, 64, became the jail chaplain in 2012. He was arrested at his home in early January after two inmates reported being subjected to sexual abuse in the chaplain’s office. DNA evidence and a weeks-long investigation by sheriff’s detectives Todd Borquez and Jesus Davidson led to nearly 40 counts filed against Packer on behalf of six women, all onetime inmates.
The charges were split by prosecutor Lori Zucco into four planned jury trials, the first set to start in January 2020. In that case, Packer was accused of raping an inmate and engaging in numerous unlawful sexual acts against her in 2014-2015.
However, a change of plea hearing was added to Judge Tim Dickerson’s Thursday calendar after Zucco and defense counsel Jacob Amaru advised the judge on Monday that a plea deal had been negotiated to bring all four cases to a non-trial resolution.
During Thursday’s hearing, Packer also admitted to engaging in sexual abuse of an inmate in July 2018. The other four felonies to which he pleaded guilty fell under Arizona Revised Statute 13-1419, which makes it a felony for an employee of a detention facility to intentionally engage in “an act of a sexual nature” with an inmate in the custody of the facility.
Zucco stated the victims were informed of and supported the plea deal. The terms of the agreement call for Packer to register as a sex offender and serve lifetime probation once released from prison.
Several women told investigators that Packer afforded them special treatment during their time at the jail, including extra food, access to email and social media accounts, and unmonitored phone calls. Although only six reported being abused by Packer, Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre acknowledged the possibility that others may not have been forthcoming about the chaplain.
“As with all sexual crime cases, victims may come forward or not come forward based on a vast myriad of reasons,” McIntyre said. “Our primary goal through the process was to ensure that we identified and interviewed everyone that might wish to be heard.”
One former jail inmate interviewed during the investigation was Ajelina “AJ” Roth Lewis, who spent nearly two years in the county’s jail in Bisbee from 2012 to 2014 while she awaited a retrial on murder charges.
Lewis was identified by several former jail inmates and a former detention officer as someone who spent “an unusual” amount of time in Packer’s office. She was later found guilty of second-degree murder in September 2014 and is serving a 16-year sentence at the women’s state prison in Goodyear.
Borquez’s investigation report notes Packer attended a few of Lewis’ court hearings and that jail staff told him that Packer appeared upset when she was convicted.
According to the report, Lewis said she heard stories about Packer’s conduct toward female inmates, “but those rumors were recent.” She recounted a three-week stay in the jail in 2018 during which younger inmates called the chaplain “a creep.”
Lewis, who denied any inappropriate contact with Packer, described him as giving off “a different vibe” than the chaplain had before, and she recalled an incident during which she asked for a snack, something she requested several times in 2012 to 2014.
Borquez wrote that Lewis said Packer wanted to know what he was “going to get out of it.”
Dickerson accepted the guilty pleas after Packer acknowledged he understood the provisions and that he had in fact engaged in all six offenses. The judge dismissed the remaining 33 charges as stipulated to in the plea deal.
Packer, who resigned his county job in March, was recognized in 2015 as the Arizona Detention Association’s Chaplain of the Year. He has been in pretrial custody at the Santa Cruz County jail since shortly after his arrest in lieu of $550,000 bail.
Cochise County and Sheriff Mark Dannels have been sued by the two women who brought Packer’s conduct to light in January. In Arizona, an employer is usually not responsible for an employee’s criminal conduct, but the women’s lawsuit alleges county officials and employees knew of earlier misconduct by Packer.
The sheriff knew Packer was slated to enter a change of plea on Thursday, however Dannels did not reply to Arizona Daily Independent’s request for comment prior to deadline.