JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Johnson City Police Chief Karl Turner and the city itself are defendants in a federal lawsuit alleging that Turner essentially fired a federal prosecutor last year after she pressed the department to investigate a string of suspected rapes tied to a downtown business owner.
Kateri “Kat” Dahl seeks court and attorney costs and unspecified punitive and compensatory damages for a federal due process violation and for “retaliatory discharge” under a Tennessee law, the Tennessee Public Protection Act. The lawsuit was filed June 23.
Dahl worked as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney (SAUSA) with the Johnson City Police Department (JCPD) and local district attorney’s office from September 2019 to July 31, 2021 through a partnership with the Eastern District of Tennessee’s U.S. Attorney’s office. Federal attorneys in the program work with law enforcement agencies to help them “bring federal charges in violent, firearm and drug trafficking cases,” according to the suit.
As Dahl was building a weapons and potential drug trafficking case against a suspect known as “Robert Voe,” the suit says, she “gathered substantial evidence” that “Voe” “had not just been dealing drugs, but was credibly accused of raping multiple women…”
The suit uses “Robert Voe” in place of the man’s real name out of “an abundance of caution,” according to a motion Dahl’s attorneys have filed requesting his name be unredacted.
The City of Johnson City declined a News Channel 11 request for a statement, saying they don’t comment on pending litigation.
The suit says “Voe” eventually faced a warrant for weapons charges, but was “tipped off” by police. It says three officers went to his fifth-floor downtown Johnson City condominium on May 5, 2021 — the same one a woman fell from and survived in September 2020 — and asked him through the closed door to come outside, saying they had a warrant for his arrest.
The suit claims “Voe” declined to leave his apartment and has been at large ever since. The plaintiff attorneys, Hugh Eastwood and Alexis Tahinci, have filed a motion requesting an unredacted version of the suit be permitted that includes “Voe’s” real name.
The lawsuit details what it claims were Dahl’s months-long efforts to convince JCPD investigators and Chief Turner to take more seriously the multiple sexual assault allegations against “Voe.” The suit says high-level JCPD staff and investigators neglected to pursue the potential cases due to either “plain incompetence” or “deliberate conspiracy to protect ‘Voe.'”
The suit alleges that Turner’s late June 2021 decision not to renew Dahl’s role “was motivated at least in part by Dahl’s previous protected statements and activity tending to implicate the Johnson City Police Department for corruption or plain incompetence.”
“A compelling reason”: The road from drugs and guns to alleged sex crimes
SAUSA’s duties are generally limited to pursuing drug trafficking, weapons and violent crime cases that are serious enough to warrant federal charges. In a February 2020 Johnson City Commission meeting updating city leaders on the partnership and introducing Dahl, then-City Manager Pete Peterson lauded the program.
“Y’all have been a great help to us and your work in connection with our folks is making a big difference in our community,” Peterson said after then-Eastern District U.S. Attorney Douglas Overbey outlined the program and introduced Dahl.
“I guess one way of looking at it, you go through the state court you’re probably going to serve 30% of your sentence,” Peterson said. “When you go through their court you’re going to serve day for day everything you’re sentenced to and it does provide a significant deterrent to illegal activity in our area.”
Dahl described her first six months of work in Johnson City, which had already yielded 22 cases, 31 defendants, two convictions and 20 indictments, in similar terms.
“A lot of my cases are looking at upwards of five years. There are the mandatory minimums that based on the drug weight some defendants are looking at upward of 10 years and that’s something that for serious offenders is greatly needed.”
But when Dahl was first informed of “Voe” on Nov. 13, 2020, JCPD detective Toma Sparks asked her to review a potential case for a felon in possession of ammunition.
The suit says the Greeneville USAG’s office usually declines those cases “absent a compelling reason” because convictions or plea deals for those cases yield “minimal prison time under the federal sentencing guidelines…”
The lawsuit says the “compelling reason” in Voe’s case was that Voe “was under investigation by Johnson City for attempted homicide after a woman, Jane Doe 1, had fallen from the window of ‘Voe’s’ fifth-floor condominium apartment on September 19, 2020.”
The suit says Sparks also “told Dahl about unproven, but pervasive, rumors within the local community that ‘Voe’ engaged in cocaine trafficking.”
Dahl agreed to pursue the case and let her supervisor, Wayne Taylor, and her predecessor and informal mentor, Tom McCauley, know about the case. She told Sparks she would indict “Voe” on the ammunition charge but that she wanted to build a broader case, partly due to “substantial evidence of sexual assault and attempted homicide warranting further investigation.” The suit says she told Turner and JCPD Criminal Investigations Divisions Capt. Kevin Peters about her goals for building a case.
It was at this point, the suit says, that Dahl first began questioning the JCPD’s work on the case. It says she was concerned about the JCPD’s investigation of “Voe,” including not getting a search warrant for his downtown garage, “where he was known to socialize, show off his sports cars, and keep some of his belongings.”
The suit says Dahl spoke to Wayne Taylor, her supervisor, who said he could get a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) agent involved. It says that around the same time, in late November and early December, Dahl was awaiting a copy of relevant JCPD files on “Voe,” including regarding the alleged sexual assault.
A rift develops as Dahl pursues more sex assault information
While Dahl waited on information from detective Sparks, the suit says, “another sexual assault victim, Jane Doe 2, came forward and filed a report with Johnson City Police Department alleging ‘Voe’ had raped her.”
Around the same time, it says, Taylor, Dahl’s boss, told her that Chief Turner had called him “angry that Dahl had arranged a TBI meeting without his knowledge or permission” and that Taylor had told Turner it was he, not Dahl, who arranged the TBI meeting.
The suit says Turner then called Dahl and met with her that same day (Dec. 8). It says she “expressed her alarm” about new evidence, said she didn’t think the ammunition charge (which carries a two to three year sentence) was serious enough given the evidence, and “expressed her concern that there were additional rape and sexual assault victims who might come forward.”
The suit alleges Turner cast doubt on some of the potential evidence, including a handwritten list recovered from “Voe’s” condo that allegedly had 23 women’s names written in ink with the word “Raped” at the top. It also said Turner “cast doubts about Jane Doe 1, who had fallen from ‘Voe’s’ fifth-floor window” and that Peters, who was also present, “cast doubts on the credibility of Jane Doe 2.”
According to the suit, Turner said of the “rape list”: “I don’t know if that’s girls he’s raped or girls he’s had consensual sex with and calls it whatever he calls it. All I know is there’s a piece of paper with some first names on it.”
The suit also claims that later, as Dahl continued to press the need to build a case, one investigator told her “In my 20 years on the force, I’ve only encountered one real rape” while another allegedly stated of Jane Doe 1, “You can see her on the security footage, and she’s dressed like a real … well I won’t say it.”
Despite the alleged rape incidents being outside her scope, the suit says Dahl continued to look into that subject. She contacted a third alleged victim, “Jane Doe 3,” whom detective Sparks had earlier told Dahl was uncooperative in an initial interview.
Wayne Taylor told Dahl federal prosecutors aren’t normally supposed to contact sexual assault victims without a detective’s involvement, to which she responded that she’d made the contact because she doubted Sparks’s explanation that the woman was uncooperative.
Jane Doe 3 re-interviewed Dec. 15, 2020, with Dahl and her predecessor, Tom McCauley, both present. The lawsuit says she gave a “very credible statement” alleging “Voe” had raped her on June 2, 2020 and that the statement “closely mirrored that of other Jane Doe victims.”
Jane Doe 3, according to the suit, described waking up in the condo and finding she’d been sexually assaulted, fleeing to the downstairs lobby, shoeless, and encountering JCPD officers there.
“She was in extreme distress, screaming” as she recounted what had happened upstairs, the suit says. It says officers drove the woman to her parents’ house “but declined to help her seek medical attention or a rape kit for her, make a full report, or follow up with Jane Doe 3.” It says officers also declined to get a statement from “Voe.”
Hours after that meeting, the suit says, Taylor called Dahl and told her that Turner had complained to him about Dahl’s job performance, saying she wasn’t communicating enough with JCPD officers. The suit says Dahl then asked three JCPD officers with whom she worked closely whether they had a problem with how she communicated. All of them, it says, said they had no issues and Dahl concluded Turner’s action was “an act of retaliation for her investigation of ‘Voe.'”
The suit says shortly after this, Dahl identified another victim (it doesn’t say how) and began to establish a “modus operandi” for how he conducted his assaults.
“Dahl obtained credible statements that ‘Voe’ would meet young women and invite them to come to his condo, often after he bought them alcoholic drinks and/or gave them cocaine,” the suit says.
“A young male associate of ‘Voe’s’ would sometimes help ‘Voe’ in meeting these young women. The women would then pass out at ‘Voe’s’ condo, and later awaken to find that ‘Voe’ had sexually assaulted them.”
More alleged victims, an ammo warrant and an non-renewed MOU
From December 2020 through May 2021, Dahl continued pressing the need to build a case against “Voe” while also trying to learn more about any alleged sexual assaults. The suit says she was “concerned and confused” by JCPD’s “failure to investigate” him and that JCPD “unreasonably delayed producing requested documents to Dahl.”
It says Dahl finally decided to pursue the felon in possession of ammunition charge and that even then, investigators failed to produce a certified copy of “Voe’s” felony conviction, which she eventually obtained through other means.
“Voe” was the subject of a sealed indictment on April 13, 2021, the suit says, and a federal warrant was obtained that same day. According to the suit, Dahl then asked JCPD’s special investigations unit and Sparks himself to arrest Voe “approximately 30 times” over the next three weeks and was either ignored or provided excuses.
On May 4, the suit says, Dahl “demanded” in a conversation with Sparks and another officer that someone within the JCPD make the arrest “immediately.” Two days later, the suit says, JCPD Lt. Don Shepherd left Dahl a voicemail describing the visit of three officers to “Voe’s” condo.
The voicemail said the officers, described as “John Doe” 1, 2 and 3, had gone to “Voe’s” condo the night of May 5 and told him and others inside that they had a warrant on “Voe.”
“This was improper because the target of an arrest warrant should not be notified when his or her indictment is still under seal,” the suit says. It says the officers failed in their duties by leaving without attempting to arrest “Voe” even after he refused to come out of his residence.
On May 6, “Voe” fled his condo “and became a fugitive from justice,” the suit says, adding that despite social media postings by “Voe” and others that have provided clues to his whereabouts, he remains a fugitive.
After the warrant was issued and “Voe” wasn’t arrested, Dahl continued pursuing the case “on her own initiative and outside her chains of command,” the suit says. She made a report to an FBI agent on May 11 expressing her concerns about JCPD’s handling of the case.
Later in the month she “began quietly investigating ‘Voe’ herself, including an interview June 14, 2021 with another alleged victim, “Jane Doe 5,” whose account also mirrored the others, according to the suit.
The suit says that while her investigation was “consistent with all laws and policies,” it was outside the “facial terms of her MOU in multiple respects.” For instance, she wasn’t tasked with prosecuting sexual assault or public corruption cases.
Dahl’s speaking to third parties about her concerns with the JCPD, including to other federal attorneys, to friends and to the FBI were also outside the scope of her duties.
Despite his allegedly telling Dahl in May that her memorandum of understanding would be renewed for another year, Turner called her June 25, 2021 and told her that her job would be terminated as of July 1, less than a week later, according to the suit.
Wayne Taylor then managed to get Turner to extend the existing MOU to July 31 so Dahl could have time to transfer pending cases to other federal prosecutors, the suit says.
Before her last day July 31, Dahl was contacted by a “Jane Doe 6” and said she’d been raped by “Voe” in January 2021. Also that month, the suit says, Dahl learned of a “Jane Doe 7” who had died Nov. 10, 2020 in a car crash after last being seen with “Voe.”
Dahl ended up speaking with “Jane Doe 7’s” family and learned one of her sisters had told JCPD officers about her suspicions that “Voe” may have sexually assaulted and/or drugged her, the suit says. That happened after Doe 7 had called another sister “in extreme emotional distress” before attempting to drive home against her sister’s advice.
Both sisters shared this information with Dahl, with one saying JCPD told her that Johnson City lacked jurisdiction because the death occurred in Elizabethton.
According to the suit, one sister told Dahl she confronted “Voe”, who allegedly admitted taking “Jane Doe 7” back to his condo after she had become disoriented while drinking with her sisters, boyfriend and friends at a downtown brewery.
The suit also says Dahl later contacted a Tennessee Alcoholic Bureau of Control investigator who confirmed they had contacted JCPD concerning the Jane Doe 7 case and “received no cooperation of follow up.”
‘A lawful whistleblower’
Dahl left the Greeneville U.S. Attorney’s office July 31, 2021 “with wide support and in good standing,” the suit alleges.
The office declined to answer an email request Wednesday about whether JCPD has or is establishing a new MOU and asking several other factual questions about Dahl’s tenure.
The suit calls Dahl, who spoke to two additional potential “Jane Does” after learning about them in January 2022, “a lawful whistleblower who suffered unlawfully termination as retaliation for engaging in repeated communications and activities in her role as SAUSA, and as a private citizen.”
It says Dahl has already filed whistleblower disclosure with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General and its Criminal Division, Public Integrity Section. Those disclosures described the facts and urged DOJ “to initiate investigations into the Johnson City Police Department and the circumstances of her termination.”
The suit says Dahl was exercising her First Amendment rights during her investigation. It says she lost meaningful paid employment, that her sudden termination “has tarnished her reputation” within Tennessee’s Eastern District and that it’s “created an adverse inference to future legal employers about her performance as an attorney.”
It says Turner’s conduct in terminating her under the MOU “was maliciously or recklessly indifferent to Dahl’s First Amendment right to speak about about Johnson City’s intentional or reckless failures to investigate and seize ‘Voe.'”
The suit alleges one count of First Amendment retaliation against Turner, and another count of procedurally violating Dahl’s right to due process by his short notice, unilateral termination of her MOU that left her no right to contest her termination or “request a ‘name-clearing’ hearing.”
Turner is also accused of “substantively” violating Dahl’s due process rights, by terminating her as a whistleblower. That termination, the suit claims, was “part of a conspiracy to protect a felon credibly accused of dozens of rapes from investigation and seizure, and to protect a police department that is either corrupt or incompetent” and therefore deprived her of employed without substantive due process.
Finally, the suit charges that Johnson City itself committed “retaliatory discharge” under the Tennessee Public Protection Act (TPPA) because Dahl was legally an employee of Johnson City, which is an employer under the TPPA.