COCHISE COUNTY – Two women who were sexually abused by Cochise County’s former jail chaplain while incarcerated have won their effort to have a jury in Pima County decide whether Cochise County and Sheriff Mark Dannels are civilly liable for the employee’s criminal conduct.
Doug Packer is serving a 15-year prison sentence after he pleaded guilty in November to unlawful sexual conduct with six female inmates in his office at Cochise County’s jail in Bisbee between October 2014 and January 2019. Once released from prison, Packer must register as a sex offender and serve lifetime probation.
According to a lawsuit filed in October 2019 by two of Packer’s victims, the chaplain was acting “within the course and scope of his employment” when he abused the women, some of whom were ordered by detention officers to report to the chaplain’s office. The two women also allege county officials knew Packer had a “propensity” for engaging in inappropriate sexual acts with inmates but failed to act.
In December, attorneys for the two women filed a motion seeking to move the case out of Cochise County. Last month Judge Timothy Dickerson granted the change of venue and ordered the case transferred to Pima County where it’s expected to be assigned to a judge next week.
One of the first matters to be taken up by the new judge is a motion filed by Jim Jellison for the Arizona County Insurance Pool to dismiss Cochise County from the case. The motion contends only Dannels has statutory responsibility for the operation of the county’s main jail in Bisbee and substations in Sierra Vista and Willcox.
As a result, Jellison argues Cochise County as a government body “had no right of control over Packer” and therefore isn’t responsible for any of his unlawful actions.
“An Arizona County cannot be held liable for the act of a Sheriff, Deputy Sheriff, or other person under control of the Sheriff’s Office, in his or her role in providing statutory law enforcement and public safety services because the County has not right to control those activities,” Jellison notes.
The motion to dismiss does not involve Dannels, who has already filed his answer to the lawsuit. In the answer, the sheriff denies he or any of his employees knew of Packer’s misconduct. In addition, Dannels provides notice that he may rely on various affirmative defenses against liability, including an entitlement to absolute and qualified immunity, and that the two women failed to mitigate damages.
The Pima County judge will also have to address a pending request by the women’s attorneys who are waiting to gather evidence related to Packer and the sexual abuse which may be under the exclusive control of Dannels and other county officials.
Packer became the jail’s fulltime chaplain in 2012 after volunteering for several years. Investigative reports show he was accused of providing several female inmates with special privileges over the years, sometimes using that to pressure the women to put up with sexual contact that ranged from hugging and kissing to intercourse.
Then in January 2019, Packer was arrested at his home after the two inmates named in the lawsuit came forward about being made to go to the chaplain’s office where he physically restrained and sexually assaulted one of the women while the other was forced to watch. Sheriff’s investigators later interviewed dozens of current and former inmates, and also collected evidence -including DNA- which corroborated the abuse allegations.
Court records show Cochise County was served a notice of claim by the two women in April 2019 with an offer to settle their claims for $1.925 million and $400,000, respectively. The county rejected the demand.