Issues strong denial of any wrongdoing, claims plaintiff’s firing was performance-based

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Johnson City’s police department and the city deny all the claims against them in a June 23 federal lawsuit filed by former special prosecutor Kateri “Kat” Dahl in a response to that lawsuit filed Thursday.

The response also suggests it was initially the police, not Dahl, pressing to get an indictment against the downtown Johnson City business owner and suspected drug dealer and rapist known in the suit by the pseudonym “Robert Voe.”

Dahl’s suit asserts essentially the opposite – that she pressed the Johnson City Police Department (JCPD) to more aggressively investigate potential sexual assault claims against “Voe” and that they refused and then retaliated against her. The city’s written response and comments from City Manager Cathy Ball Friday claim Dahl’s contract wasn’t renewed due to performance issues.

“We have attorneys who have been doing interviews and conducting those, so they have provided the written report — in the written report it does state that the reason for not renewing was because of lack of performance on the part of Ms. Dahl,” Ball said.

The lawsuit’s main claims are that the city and police chief Karl Turner wrongfully failed to renew Dahl’s contract in mid-2021 and that the JCPD covered up its failure to arrest Voe in May 2021 because that failure stemmed from either corruption or “plain incompetence.” Dahl worked in a role in which the Eastern District of Tennessee’s U.S. Attorney’s office enters agreements in which its attorneys work with law enforcement agencies to try and help get federal charges in certain drug, violence or weapons cases.

The answer refers several times to a May 19, 2021 meeting between Turner and Dahl in which Turner reviewed some pending cases with her.

“Chief Turner does not recall if he told Dahl on May 19, 2021 if she could expect a ‘smooth renewal’ (of her contract at the end of June),” the answer reads.

“(H)owever, as of May 19, 2021, Chief Turner expected that Dahl (who worked with JCPD from September 2019 to July 2021) would move certain cases forward as she represented in that meeting, and her contract would be renewed.”

Dahl’s suit also claims JCPD officers botched their attempt to serve a warrant on “Voe” on May 5, 2021, after she had spent nearly six months trying to get them to pursue multiple sexual assault claims more seriously.

In their 29-page “answer” to Dahl’s original complaint, attorneys Erick Herrin and Thomas Garland Jr. repeatedly claim that the police thoroughly and properly investigated any sexual assault allegations against Voe that were brought to them.

Ball said that’s what the attorneys and internal investigations thus far have found, at least with the allegations specifically related to “Voe” and Dahl’s lawsuit.

“It is admitted that a rape report was made by a Jane Doe on November 24, 2020,” the answer reads, adding “that report was investigated, and the District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute.”

The suit has prompted protests about the alleged handling of sexual assault cases in Johnson City, and city leadership has solicited an independent law firm to review all such cases going back to the beginning of 2018.

“I can see how our community could be very confused,” Ball said of the potential for conflating the Dahl lawsuit with the external review. “In our response, we say of the cases around Mr. Voe, those have been reviewed by our attorney (and found to have been handled properly).”

‘Compelling reasons to charge “Voe” quickly’

While Dahl’s lawsuit alleges JCPD dragged its feet after she learned of “Voe’s” multiple sexual assault claims against Voe, the answer essentially flips that script.

Because he was a felon, JCPD officers approached Dahl about helping get a felon in possession of ammunition, or “FIP-ammo,” indictment against him. Dahl’s suit says the fairly low sentencing range for such a conviction meant her office didn’t typically pursue it without the likelihood of additional charges.

Dahl’s suit says she learned of Voe’s alleged drug dealing and sexual assaults and wanted to build a broader case before indicting him, presumably on more serious charges as well.

The lawsuit says police “unreasonably delayed producing requested documents to Dahl.” In early November 2020, “Dahl began seeking a federal search warrant for ‘Voe’s’ computer and phone SIM card, but Johnson City officers did not provide needed documentation until mid-January 2021. By that point, the evidence for the probable cause affidavit was too old and stale to meet federal requirements for obtaining a search warrant.”

But Johnson City’s response suggests JCPD wanted Dahl to pursue the ammo indictment and not wait. It says seeking an indictment would “be of interest to the U.S. Attorney’s Office since it was the only clear means of obtaining a conviction of ‘Voe.’”

The response suggests the JCPD pressed Dahl to more quickly get an indictment of “Voe” after Detective Toma Sparks told her of rumors that Voe “might be selling cocaine.” The response also admits that in mid-November 2020, Voe was facing two claims of sexual assault — but the JCPD apparently didn’t subscribe to the notion that taking some time to build a case was the right move.

“Dahl had been advised of rumors of cocaine trafficking and had been provided irrefutable evidence to support a federal charge of a felon in possession of ammunition,” the answer reads. “Therefore, investigating ‘Voe’ for all potential crimes could lead to evidence of cocaine trafficking or felon in a possession of a weapon.”

Later, the answer says “Chief Turner and (CID) Captain Peters considered a prompt indictment of ‘Voe’ on the “Ammo FIP” charge to be the most feasible option to facilitate further investigation of potential charges for cocaine trafficking, gun possession or sexual assault.”

That was what JCPD leadership wanted from Dahl, Ball said.  

“In the response that we gave, we specifically have information saying that we requested Ms. Dahl, or that the indictment happen in 2020,” Ball said. “And it did not happen for five months … That’s what we’ve learned from doing the investigation.”

After the indictment — a delay and then no ‘Voe’ on May 5

Dahl’s suit says she finally decided to obtain an indictment just on the ammo charge, which was issued under seal on April 13, 2021. It says the U.S. Attorney’s office policy would have given JCPD responsibility for arresting “Voe” as he was not yet a fugitive and that Dahl urged the department’s Special Investigations Squad to serve the warrant more than two dozen times between April 13 and May 5.

The response admits Dahl at least made “several communications” with officers “expressing her anxiousness to have ‘Voe’ arrested.” But as Dahl alleges, officers did not seek to arrest Voe by apprehending him at his home.

“It is denied her concerns were ignored, but admitted officers were attempting to spot ‘Voe’ out and about in the downtown area instead of staging an apprehension,” the response says.

Eventually, officers did go to Voe’s condominium. In its ninth of 10 defenses -one that says Turner didn’t conspire with three officers who are also being sued by Dahl because he had no knowledge of the incidents of May 5 – the response delves into the events of May 5.

It says that an Officer Jason Lewis chose to go to Voe’s high-rise “after the issuance of the BOLO (be on the lookout) on May 5, 2021.” The response doesn’t make any other mention of the BOLO or explain it.

The defense also references that Lewis called for backup and an Officer Vanessa McKinney responded, and it refers to a “person in ‘Voe’s’ condo calling 911 and requesting a supervisor, which resulted in Sgt. Jim Talmadge arriving on the scene.”

Dahl’s lawsuit describes an officer knocking on “Voe’s” door that night, announcing there was a warrant, and Voe refusing to come out.

While the response doesn’t admit to that, it does refer to “a decision by a supervisor to have these officers vacate the premises.”

A later section of the response is an answer to Dahl’s contention that when officers notified “Voe” of the warrant and then left without attempting an arrest, they “violated their duties under clear policy and almost universal historical practice.”

Herrin and Garland’s answer denies those scathing allegations but admits the following:

  • Responding officers “had conflicting information as to whether ‘Voe’ was the person communicating with them;”
  • The initial officer on the scene (Lewis) “does not recall if any reference about the existence of a warrant was made” and the other two who arrived later don’t remember a warrant being mentioned;
  • Talmadge “contacted his supervisor who advised to vacate the building because they could not verify that ‘Voe’ was the person in the condo.”

Hugh Eastwood, one of Dahl’s attorneys, told News Channel 11 he was limited in what he could say about the response to the suit at this point, but offered the following statement:

“We stand by our pleading. Kat Dahl looks forward to her day in court.”

For its part, the city said in a news release it is “defending this lawsuit with confidence that it will result in repairing unjustified damage to the City, Police Chief Karl Turner, and the Police Department.”

No trial date has been set.