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Cochise County served $2.3 million claim for jail chaplain’s alleged sexual misconduct; Sheriff confirms ongoing internal review separate of criminal investigation

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last in a three-part series about the investigation of Douglas Packer, the former Cochise County Jail chaplain who has been charged with sexually assaulting several female inmates. Some readers may find certain details of the alleged acts graphic and upsetting.

BISBEE — Cochise County has been served with a $2.3 million notice of claim on behalf of two inmates named in a criminal indictment as victims of Douglas Packer, the former Cochise County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) jail chaplain accused of sexually abusing six female inmates from 2014 to 2019.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Mark Dannels confirmed to the Herald/Review that an internal review related to the chaplain’s activities is currently underway, but he insisted it won’t be influenced by the prospect of litigation.

“The Cochise County Sheriff has launched a separate administrative investigation into the incident in order to fully develop, and understand, the underlying facts and to ensure that all appropriate action is taken,” Dannels stated in an email. “While a civil demand has been presented to the County, the commitment of this Office — to do what is legally right and ensure accountability in a fair and equitable manner — has not changed.”

The notice of claim served on the county April 25 demands $1.9 million for a 21-year-old inmate who Packer is accused of forcing to perform oral sex on him in his jail office Jan. 4. She was also allegedly sexually abused by the chaplain two days earlier.

Another inmate who said she was made to watch the Jan. 4 sex act and then clean up after Packer’s alleged sex act has demanded $400,000 to settle her claims against the county.

State law requires a notice of claim be presented to a public entity before a lawsuit can be filed. The county has 60 days from service to reject or accept the claim.

The county’s response to the $2.3 million demand will be complicated by the fact Packer’s semen was found on the young woman’s jail uniform and on tissues investigators seized from his office within hours of the reported assault. In addition, the Cochise County Attorney’s Office is prosecuting Packer on eight felonies related to those two women.

Criminal inquiry

Packer was arrested Jan. 5, mere hours after an alleged sexual assault was reported by the 21-year-old inmate and immediately investigated by the CCSO, and later indicted by a county grand jury on nearly three dozen charges of sexual abuse involving six women. All the alleged offenses occurred at the main Cochise County Jail in Bisbee.

Detective Todd Borquez, the CCSO case officer, has spent more than four months heading the criminal investigation. An 80-page incident report shows he was assisted by other investigators in Cochise County and Maricopa County to interview more than two dozen current or former inmates, as well as past and present county employees.

“The Cochise County Sheriff takes seriously the allegations related to, and the investigation of, former Chaplain Douglas Packer,” Dannels said in his statement. “These allegations are currently being addressed on a multi-agency basis including personnel from the Cochise County Attorney’s Office, the Sierra Vista Police Department, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, and the Office of the Cochise County Sheriff, all working collectively to ensure a just and fair resolution.”

The investigation included several search warrants, DNA testing, a forensic examination of Packer’s home computer, and review of several years of jail inmate movement logs. Several women also turned over letters and cards Packer purportedly wrote to them in prison or after their release.

Borquez also obtained Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) records of dozens of calls Packer accepted from female prisoners and records of money he added to the commissary accounts of four women at the state prison.

The chaplain is accused of engaging in sexual contact with three of those women during their time at the county jail.

Among those interviewed was a former inmate who frequently visited Packer’s office during a months-long stay at the jail. The woman had worked as an exotic dancer and said her conversations with the chaplain often veered to sex, adding “they never talked about the Bible or God,” according to Borquez’s report.

Another inmate recounted her experiences talking to Packer about many topics, but never religion.

“She said she estimated she was in Packer’s office at least 40 times,” the detective wrote. “She added, he was weird, because if you asked him to pray for you, he would get uncomfortable and wouldn’t do it half the time.”

Internal review

Many of the women said they weren’t personally subjected to inappropriate sexual contact but were granted special privileges, such as use of an unmonitored phone and access to Facebook and email. One inmate said the chaplain allowed her to communicate with her husband, who was overseas.

“Packer would let her send her husband e-mails,” Borquez noted. “While she was typing these e-mails Packer would stand by the door to block it.”

Detectives interviewed at least three county employees who mentioned concerns about Packer’s interactions with female inmates, including a longtime probation officer and a former detention officer. The detention officer said she informed a supervisor of her concerns before retiring in early 2015.

A county health department employee said she heard rumors when she started working at the jail about Packer’s penchant for only helping “pretty girls.” The employee said the comment was made “in jest and she didn’t think anything of it,” according to Borquez’s report.

“Once this Office has completed its internal investigation, additional information will be released, but always with a view that any criminal prosecution or civil action will not be improperly influenced or prejudged, and that the rights of all participants will be protected,” Dannels wrote in his email.

Packer resigned his full-time chaplain position in March after being placed on administrative leave immediately upon his January arrest.

He is set to be back in court June 4 to set a trial date for all of his cases and remains in custody at the Santa Cruz County Jail in lieu of $550,000 bail.

Staffing changes coming to SVUSD

SIERRA VISTA — Tuesday’s Sierra Vista Unified School District governing board meeting drew a large number of parents, teachers, support staff and students, with the crowd packing the board room and overflowing into the adjoining hall.

Fourteen people addressed the board during the meeting’s call to the public, with all but one speaking out against adjustments in staffing and programs the district is implementing to remedy a $277,000 budget shortfall and prevent a potential $1.3 million deficit in the 2019-2020 school year.

Unpopular adjustments to the district’s current staffing model, to include sweeping cuts in support staff and changes to some programs, are sparking outcry from parents and staff.

Many spoke of the impact the changes could have on students, particularly those enrolled in special education programs. Others expressed dissatisfaction in how the district is communicating with teachers, support staff and the community, with several noting an overall drop in morale.

When she addressed the board, Stephanie Thomas identified herself as a parent with two children at Buena High School, an education advocate and founder of the Sierra Vista Parents Coalition.

“There is a theme that I’ve found in talking to parents, students and staff in the last two weeks,” said Thomas, who noted that the theme centers on a “general lack of communication on the district’s part.”

She said that it’s critical the district successfully manage staff and community expectations with transparency as an important component when dealing with tough issues.

“In difficult times like these, it is unrealistic to expect staff and parents to put on a positive face and grin and bear it,” she said. “A more realistic expectation is a shared bearing of the hardships and challenges.”

“Look at the turnout here tonight,” she continued. “I know you can feel the energy in this room. We definitely have a staff and morale problem and an issue with consumer satisfaction. And balancing the budget is not going to fix that.”

Buena teacher Linde Mohr also spoke of what she perceives as a breakdown in communications between the district and teachers.

“High school programs are being dismantled and reorganized without consulting the very people who know the strengths and weaknesses of those programs,” she said.

She described an atmosphere where teaching assignments are being handed out “seemingly at random without any regard to teachers’ strengths and weaknesses, interests or abilities.”

Mohr said there are teachers who feel they could be a valuable resource in the budget process, but have been “totally shut out.” Instead of being given an opportunity to have a voice in the process, she said teachers receive “emails announcing unilateral decisions that have far-reaching consequences in the lives of our children.”

Several people spoke in objection to a decision to move Buena High School’s Alternative Learning Center (ALC)— a program for students who have not found success in a traditional school setting — to the high school’s main building.

“Examples of these kids are students who have lost credits due to frequent moves or family situations, those who are working while in school to help with family support, or some are students who are taking responsibility for siblings during regular school time,” Williams said.

“These are great kids, but for different reasons, (they) do better in a nontraditional school setting.”

Issac Mendez, a Buena student enrolled in ALC, said he is on track to graduate in 2019 because of the program.

“None of this would have been possible if it wasn’t for the program, the way it is set up and currently run,” he said. Mendez believes that moving it to the main high school building is a bad idea because of the distractions found at the high school.

“This program has been around for at least 19 years and in this specific building since 2006. Hearing stories of so many people who graduated from this program gives other students, such as myself, hope.”

Elementary school teacher Donovan Working is the parent of one of the district’s special needs students. When addressing the board, Working and three classified staff members — Stacy DiMattio, Gwen Summers and Kelly Steffen — approached the podium together and spoke as a team.

Steffan, who is a member of the classified meet and confer team, spoke on behalf of the 24 paraprofessionals whose job has been terminated in the 2019-2020 year.

While presenting before the board, Working turned to the packed room and said, “Those of you who are here tonight in support of classified staff, please stand.”

Nearly every person in the room rose.

While sympathetic to the statements made, Williams said the district is attempting to deal with the deficit in the least harmful manner as possible.

“Unfortunately, no one on the board or in the district knew the depth of the budget issue until after our most recent audit,” she said. “The biggest staffing cuts are to paraprofessionals, but many of them will have the opportunity to move into other classified positions as they become available. All they have to do is submit a letter of interest,” Williams said.

Because of a number of misunderstandings that were expressed during the meeting’s call to the public, the board will be holding a work session at the earliest possible opportunity to address some of the issues, Williams said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story identified Kelly Steffan as one of the 24 paraprofessionals whose job has been terminated in the 2019-2020 year, which is incorrect.