WILLIAMSTOWN, Ky.—As a candidate for Grant County jailer in 2010, Terry Peeples promised change. Once in office, he delivered it.
But what he delivered — a jail wracked by allegations of sexual perversion, intimidation and threats, involving an array of employees as victims and Peeples as the perpetrator — couldn’t have been what voters had in mind.
Peeples, who lost his reelection bid last November, has been sued by current or former jail employees about a dozen times in different courts. So far, the county’s insurance carrier has paid about $585,000 to settle five of the suits.
The suits allege, among other things, that Peeples aggressively lusted after an employee’s bare toes; that he had non-consensual sex with another employee and groped or harassed others; and that he ordered at least two deputies to lie under oath to investigators probing his improprieties. Peeples has denied wrongdoing.
And that’s just the questionable behavior Peeples has been accused of engaging in while he was jailer. As the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting looked into civil rights abuses at the jail, it found several misconduct claims centered on Peeples.
As a jail deputy in 2007, Peeples allegedly forced a woman who had just been released from custody to perform oral sex on him as he drove down the highway, according to a lawsuit in which the woman testified.
And in 1998, Peeples was accused, but not charged, of molesting three young girls in his native Oklahoma, according to Kentucky State Police records. They claimed that his abuse included blindfolding, binding and gagging them; that he invited others to participate in the sex acts; and that he videotaped some of the encounters and threatened death to anyone who dared tell what happened.
Peeples also pleaded guilty in Oklahoma in January 1993 to a charge of making obscene telephone calls, was fined $500 and received a one-year suspended jail sentence.
When contacted, Peeples referred inquiries to his lawyer. Covington attorney Jeffrey Mando said neither he nor Peeples would comment for this story, due to pending litigation. They have not responded to nine additional requests for comment.
Qualifications to be a Kentucky jailer are minimal: be at least 24 years of age, and have two years’ residence in the state and a year in the county of candidacy. And there was seemingly little attention paid to the man overseeing a jail that had been wracked by controversy for nearly a decade and supposedly was operating under scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Peeples’ alleged misdeeds as jailer also involved administrative ineptitude. Less than a year into his term, a local grand jury issued a report concluding that supervision and training of jail employees were inadequate, and that flawed security had contributed to escapes by two inmates.
The grand jury recommended that Peeples “immediately” contact the Department of Corrections for assistance in developing better staff training. But the department told KyCIR that Peeples never requested help.
An audit last year, covering most of Peeples’ tenure, described record-keeping at the Grant County Detention Center as being in a “state of chaos.”
And a state Department of Corrections inspection in November found a “total lack of leadership” at the jail, and that “virtually no maintenance” had been performed there during the three previous years.
The inspector also noted that Peeples rarely had been a presence there recently — even though he was still drawing his $88,000-a-year salary.
“Mr. Peeples was there for personal gain. He wasn’t there really to serve in his office as jailer,” said Covington attorney Barbara Bonar, who has filed most of the lawsuits against Peeples. “He wasn’t there to run the jail. As a result, inmates suffered, employees suffered and I believe the county suffered.”
Peeples Pledged Reforms
During his campaign for jailer, Peeples touted himself as a conservative “Christian family man.” That, plus his corrections experience and the fact that he had married into a well-known Grant County family, may have resonated with voters. His wife, Michelle Willoby, is a local physician and her mother, Marylee Willoby, had been the Grant County coroner for nearly 25 years.
Peeples’ pledge to enact jail reforms also may have appealed to many in light of the considerable bad publicity that had beset the administration of the incumbent jailer, Steve Kellam.
On Kellam’s watch, the Justice Department issued a scathing report in 2005 on jail conditions. Jail guards and inmates had been accused of assaulting other prisoners. A high-profile federal detainee had escaped, raising questions about security. Other jurisdictions had pulled their inmates out of the jail, costing Grant County needed revenue.
Peeples, 54, defeated Kellam in the Democratic primary, then won the general election in November 2010. But under his leadership, the jail quickly took another wrong turn.
Peeples’ alleged foot fetish surfaced publicly in a lawsuit filed by former jail secretary Lee Ballard in September 2012. Peeples would “graze” her buttocks and breasts with his hands and asked provocative questions about her attire and personal grooming, Ballard claims in her suit, which settled this week for $125,000.
In late May 2011, the suit contends, Peeples approached Ballard outside the jail, knelt down, took off one of her shoes, grabbed her foot in both hands and, “in a lecherous tone of voice,” said: “I’ve waited so long to suck on these.”
After Ballard pulled back her foot and rebuked Peeples, her suit alleged, he began retaliating against her, including falsely asserting that she had failed a drug test. She quit her job a month later.
Roscella Trumble, a former jail inmate, has testified in a whistleblower lawsuit filed by an ex-jail employee that when Peeples was a shift commander at the jail prior to his election, he would come to the door of her cell late at night and make sexually suggestive comments and gestures.
Among other things, Trumble said, Peeples would rub his penis until it was erect, and she made sexual gestures to him in return, including dancing for him in thong underwear.
Trumble also claimed in her sworn deposition last year that Peeples funneled money to her through her mother, and said, “you’re going to owe me.”
And soon after her release from jail in 2007, Trumble testified, Peeples forced her to perform oral sex on him in his car while he was driving down the freeway.
Trumble, who was on probation at the time of that incident, was asked during the deposition whether she ever thought she could refuse Peeples’ sexual overtures. No, she replied.
“Mr. Peeples uses his high-ladder power and his position at the jail to prey upon the weak and the vulnerable and definitely use it, you know, for his perverted acts and thoughts,” Trumble said in her deposition.
Last October, in their own lawsuit, Kathi Silvey and Sandy Zavodny, two employees working in the jail’s substance-abuse program, raised additional allegations of sexual harassment and abuse by Peeples.
During a January 2013 party at Peeples’ home, Silvey claims he told her boyfriend in her presence: “Have you seen the tits and ass on that (Silvey)? I’d like to f— her!”
Peeples’ behavior at the party was so outrageous that he had to be physically restrained and many female jail employees walked out, another former deputy has alleged.
In April 2013, according to Silvey’s lawsuit, Peeples forced her to accompany him on a trip to New Albany, Indiana. Afraid of being alone with Peeples, Silvey said she convinced Zavodny to go too.
En route, Silvey asserted, Peeples stopped at a desolate, off-the-road motel and asked Zavodny whether she thought Silvey would have sex with him. He also allegedly suggested that the women stay in separate rooms; they refused.
Meanwhile, Peeples met up with a “young female teacher” from New Albany, who joined them for dinner, according to the suit.
In another pending suit, filed last year by former jail deputy Steve Skinner, Skinner alleges that Peeples had an intimate personal relationship with the teacher, and that she stayed with him at a state jailers’ convention at Grant County’s expense.
Skinner said Peeples spent time with the teacher instead of attending classes he later claimed to have taken, and that he told Skinner he did so because the teacher “was the best piece of ass I’ve ever had.” Contacted by KyCIR, the teacher refused to comment.
Skinner’s lawsuit, filed last October, also contends that he saw Peeples making “sexually charged comments and sexual solicitations” to at least 10 jail employees, including four who subsequently sued him.
After a state police investigation of Peeples was launched in 2012, according to Skinner’s suit, Peeples told him what to say if questioned, and later instructed him to lie in response to other employees’ claims of misconduct.
“If I go down, you know you go too,” Peeples allegedly told Skinner.
Lawsuits Allege Retaliation, Cover-Ups
Other male employees at the jail also have sued Peeples, among them Dennis Bailey, his former chief deputy. That suit, filed in October 2012 and settled recently for $249,758, alleged that Peeples and others at the jail were involved in “illegal conduct” there and that when Bailey complained about it, Peeples retaliated against him by fabricating a story that Bailey had inappropriate physical contact with an inmate.
As part of the settlement of Bailey’s case, Grant County Attorney Joe Taylor issued a letter last April stating that a Kentucky State Police inquiry had revealed “no criminal wrongdoing” by Bailey and that KSP was conducting an “ongoing” investigation of Peeples.
State police officials declined to discuss the investigation with KyCIR.
In July 2014, three other current or former jail employees joined the legal scrum against Peeples. One of them, Jessica Jump, claimed in the lawsuit that prior to taking office, Peeples offered her a job and later told her that he was alone at home and wanted her to come by to give him an “early Christmas present.”
“At first I thought he was just a creepy old man that said nasty things,” Jump said in a sworn affidavit. “But when I started working at the jail and he began constantly pulling me away from the cameras to confront me about my sex life and his sex needs, I felt very trapped.”
On December 29, 2011, while Jump was waiting at home for her boyfriend, the suit alleges, Peeples asked her in a text message if he could drop by later “for sloppy seconds.” Moments later, according to the suit, Peeples showed up at Jump’s door, came inside and sexually assaulted her.
Records show Jump told a state police investigator in July 2012 that she had sex once with Peeples, but she said nothing to the investigator about an assault. Rather, she said, she participated “out of boredom.”
But Jump’s attorney, Barbara Bonar of Covington, told KyCIR that Peeples warned Jump prior to the state police interview not to tell the truth about their sexual encounter, and threatened to fire her if she did.
Yet another lawsuit was filed in September 2011 by former jail lieutenant Jacquelyn Bodenhamer, alleging “financial abuses” at the jail and favoritism by Peeples toward employees who had been his political supporters.
In a July 2011 letter to Attorney General Jack Conway, written shortly before she resigned, Bodenhamer also referred to “complaints of sexual harassment” of female staff members by Peeples, including “inappropriate comments or gestures.”
Shortly after her resignation, Bodenhamer was hired by the state Department of Corrections as a jail inspector. Her lawsuit was settled in 2013 for $121,477.
Peeples’ alleged abuse of the three girls was investigated in 1998 by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, according to Don Bohon, chief of police in Ponca City, Oklahoma.
Bohon, who reviewed records of the case at KyCIR’s request, said they showed that the “reporting party” would not cooperate with police and that prosecutors declined to pursue the case without law-enforcement involvement.
The Oklahoma case came to the attention of Kentucky authorities in 2013, after an anonymous complainant expressed concern to state officials that, in light of Peeples’ past, one or more children currently living with him might be in jeopardy.
However, when a Kentucky state trooper and a social worker attempted in August 2013 to interview Peeples’ and Willoby’s biological son, they were turned away by Willoby’s mother, state police records show.
It is unclear what if any subsequent efforts were made by police or the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services to pursue the matter. Neither agency would discuss the matter. Peeples and his attorney, Mando, also were asked specifically about the Oklahoma-related allegations. Neither responded to several requests for comment.
This story was reported by Louisville Public Media’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 814.6533.