JAY — Delaware County commissioners voted on Wednesday to settle a lawsuit for $13.5 million that was brought against the sheriff by former female inmates who accused him of covering for jailers they said sexually molested them.
Property taxes could be raised by 18 percent to pay claims to the 15 women who claimed abuse.
“I did not cover up anything,” Sheriff Jay Blackfox said. “I would not have tolerated any kind of sexual misconduct out of my staff.”
Blackfox was never accused of sexual wrongdoing, according to the 36-page federal court complaint.
“It would have been easier for the commissioners to let this case go to trial instead of making the tough decision to settle this case,” District Attorney Eddie Wyant said. “It was in the best interests of the county to settle the lawsuit.”
Wyant said the two-year-old lawsuit could have gone to trial, and everybody would have heard both sides. When the allegations first surfaced, the former inmates would not cooperate with investigators, and some recanted their stories, he said.
“But the problem is, that was a huge gamble the county couldn't take a chance on,” Wyant said. “This settlement protects the county. There is no cap on what a jury could have awarded.”
Wiping away tears, county Commissioner Doug Smith said he would “like to apologize to anyone that has been harmed in the lawsuit.”
“This is the hardest thing I have ever had to do,” Commissioner Billy Cornell said after the meeting.
The women who brought the suit claimed jailers would “bargain” with female inmates and asked them to expose their breasts in exchange for food, cigarettes, candy and personal items.
Jail Administrator Lonnie Hunter and deputy Bill Sanders Sr., who is now deceased, were accused by the women of raping and groping inmates while driving them to doctor's appointments, in the jail shower or in a prison cell.
“We alleged the sheriff permitted his jail to be a sexual romper room,” said R. Thomas Seymour, attorney for the former inmates.
Seymour said the women were present at the settlement conference.
“No amount of money can restore their dignity that was lost,” Seymour said. “They are very unhappy the sheriff and Lonnie Hunter remain employed.”
Seymour said the settlement money will be divided based on the severity of the sexual allegation.
“The least amount of money a woman will receive who claimed to be raped is $1.215 million, and the most money a woman can receive who claimed to be raped is $3.375 million,” Seymour said.
For lesser sexual offenses, the settlement amount will range from $67,500 to $405,000, he said.
No criminal charges yet
Hunter and Sanders were at the center of most of the sexual allegations while Blackfox was accused of ignoring the female inmates' complaints.
When asked if Hunter confessed to any sexual wrongdoing, Seymour said his deposition was taken and its contents are confidential.
No criminal charges have been filed against Hunter. Wyant said he is waiting for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to complete its criminal investigation.
Hunter has been on paid administrative leave since April 19 and does not have a listed telephone number.
Sanders was dismissed from the sheriff's department and died in November 2008. Sandra Sanders, his widow, does not have a listed telephone number.
One of the former inmates is serving a five-year prison sentence based on what Seymour says is retaliation for her being a plaintiff in the lawsuit. Seymour declined to identify the woman.
“The sexual allegations vary from all across the board,” Seymour said. “They are the grossest kinds of sexual impropriety.”
Telephone calls to Chris Collins, Ambre Gooch and Phil Anderson, attorneys for Blackfox, were not returned. The Oklahoma City attorneys were hired by the county's liability insurance carrier to handle the case, Wyant said.
Smith said there is the potential that part or all of the settlement money will be paid by raising property taxes. It isn't known whether the settlement will be covered by the county's insurance policy. If property taxes are raised, the earliest the increase would go into effect is January 2013, Smith said.
Should the settlement fall to the taxpayers, the hike in property taxes would amount to about $171 for each of three years based on a $100,000 home, Delaware County Assessor Leon Hurt said. The county has an annual budget of $4.5 million.
Wyant said the agreed-upon amount is what Federal Judge Claire Eagan recommended “for the best interests of the county.”
The county has spent $600,000 on attorney fees, commissioners said.
Commissioners said they couldn't speak to any disciplinary measures regarding the sheriff's department. Blackfox was elected sheriff in 2004, and his current term expires next year.
Women involved in lawsuit
• Sherry England: Alleges she was groped.
• Katrina Rogers: Alleges she was groped.
• Cynthia Craig: Alleges she was raped.
• Marie Watson: Alleges she was groped, sexually assaulted and raped.
• Jessica Rodas: Alleges she was groped and
• Laurice Anderson: Alleges she was groped and sexually assaulted.
• Rebecca Blossom: Alleges she was raped.
• Kimberly Bledsoe: Alleges she was sexually
• Tamela Taylor: Alleges she was sexually assaulted.
• Billie Jo Gandert: Alleges emotional distress.
• Amy Johnson: Alleges she was groped and sexually assaulted.
• Jacquelyn Blossom: Alleges she was sexually assaulted.
• Tammy Beavers: Alleges she was groped and sexually assaulted.
• Debbie Back James: Alleges she was asked to participate in a homosexual act.
• Jamie Dale Fry Cook: Alleges she was sexual assault and rape by instrumentation.