Since at least 2014, Douglas Packer has been using his position as prison chaplain of Cochise County Jail in Arizona to abuse women who, by legal decree, aren’t free to walk away.
In January of this year, two women (called D.K. and E.L. in court documents) revealed to a female corrections officer that Packer had forced them into sex acts in his office on multiple occasions.
A month earlier, D.K. had been involved in a Bible study led by Packer, but abandoned it when he began making sexually suggestive remarks to her. She was unable to continue avoiding him, however, because Packer was in a position of authority and was granted the power to compel her to visit his office on a whim. As a prisoner, D.K. was not permitted to refuse.
Packer told the women that no one would believe them if they revealed his abuse — that other women had tried to accuse him in the past and had gotten nowhere. He also threatened to cut off his victims’ contact with the outside world, turning away loved ones as retaliation if the women reported him.
He reportedly also offered women special privileges, like food treats or special phone privileges, for compliance.
As investigators dug into Packer’s decade-long ministry in the penal system (beginning with volunteer work in 2008), they uncovered more victims. All told, Packer was charged with 39 counts of sexual abuse, sexual assault, kidnapping, aggravated assault, unlawful sexual conduct, and indecent exposure against six different inmates in his care at Cochise County Jail.
In late November, Packer (below) pled guilty to six counts of sexual abuse, kidnapping, and unlawful sexual conduct. In return for his guilty plea, he hopes to get the other charges against him dropped.
If Superior Court Judge Laura Cardinal accepts Packer’s plea, he could be sentenced to as many as 15 years in prison, with lifelong probation and a permanent place on the sex offenders’ registry. Prosecutor Lori Zucco reports that Packer’s victims support his plea bargain.
On top of the criminal proceedings against Douglas Packer, D.K. and E.L. are also seeking damages in civil court. A statement from their legal representative explains:
Employees of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office who worked at the jail were aware of Packer’s predatory behaviour toward young female inmates but took no actions to prevent this assault, and potentially dozens of others, from occurring.
An unnamed former detention officer (now retired) told detectives that she had warned her supervisor as early as 2014 about red flags concerning Packer’s interactions with inmates. Prison administrators responded by moving her to the graveyard shift shortly thereafter.
It’s not clear whether this is a story of religious leaders being offered undeserved trust or of institutional carelessness with women deemed less deserving of protection from abuse. Either way, it’s a scandal. No one deserves to be abused, least of all by an authority figure from whom there is no possible escape.