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Attorney Says Lawsuit Alleging Grooming In Trigg Co. Sheriff's Office Connected To Indictment


  An attorney who filed a lawsuit alleging a Trigg County High School student was groomed and pressured to have sex with county law enforcement during an internship says the lawsuit is directly connected to an indictment of the former sheriff.

The lawsuit, filed on Dec. 17 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky, states Layla Kunkle as a then 18-year-old high school student faced sexual advances and messages via various apps during her internship at the Trigg County Sheriff’s Office from multiple former deputies, a Cadiz Police Department officer, and former Sheriff Jason Barnes.


Paducah-based Attorney Wes Sullenger in a phone interview Wednesday with WKMS said his client Layla Kunkle is the underage person referenced in a previous indictment of Barnes in August, when he was charged for a misdemeanor of providing alcohol to a person under 21 and for a felony of tampering with the testimony of a potential witness. Barnes resigned on August 31 from his elected position mid-way through his term.


“Certainly it’s related in that sense that [the] one minor criminal charge he’s facing is a part of our allegations, but obviously our allegations concern more people and more conduct than just that,” Sullenger said. 


The lawsuit alleges that one evening after grooming Kunkle through messages from Barnes and others, Barnes invited Kunkle to his house and gave her a drink containing strawberry rum, that “quickly caused her to become very intoxicated.” The lawsuit states Barnes then had sex with Kunkle in the living room and subsequently had to help Kunkle to the bedroom “as she held onto the wall to be able to walk.”


Sullenger said when he and his client heard that a plea agreement was in the works regarding the charges Barnes faced and that no one else besides Barnes faced charges, he then decided to file the lawsuit “so that the whole story would be out there.” WKDZ-FM reported earlier this month a plea deal was in the works with Barnes.


Sullenger added that there’s a “substantial chance” there are other potential victims associated with the conduct of the sheriff’s office given that what’s being alleged tends “not to happen in isolation.”


“If it has happened to others in the past, that would be certainly great for those people to have a voice and to be able to get some recognition of what happened to them as well,” he said. 


Other Allegations 


The lawsuit states Kunkle began her internship with the sheriff’s office when she was 17 years old as a senior at the high school, taking part in ride-alongs with former Animal Control Officer Tori Davis. Davis during that time “vaguely warned” her that once she turned 18, she would be subject to sexual advances and treated differently. 


The lawsuit alleges Barnes made a “sexual come on” toward Kunkle after she turned 18. When Kunkle told Davis about the incident, Davis only told Barnes that Kunkle had mentioned the incident to her. Barnes then told Kunkle to not tell anyone about what happened during her internship. 


The lawsuit goes on to state that the “sexual come ons” continued to escalate via online messaging apps including Snapchat, with Barnes, former deputies Michael Parker, Jimmy Godair, Jeff Arena, and Cadiz Police Department Officer Doug Latham messaging her after work hours, mixing work messages and “flirtatious personal communications” in an effort to groom Kunkle. 


The allegations include that Parker and Latham continually messaged Kunkle, pressing and suggesting to meet in person. Parker and Latham then made in-person advances on Kunkle until she agreed to have sex with them. Arena and Godair are alleged to have taken Kunkle to secluded locations during ride-alongs to have sex. 


The lawsuit states Kunkle didn’t want to have sex with any of the defendants but was lured and groomed into letting it happen.


The lawsuit contends the Trigg County Board of Education, Barnes, and Trigg County Public Schools Director of Personnel and Student Services James Mangels were indifferent to the sexual harassment Kunkle experienced during her internship, causing her to lose an “educational benefit” in violation of Title IX. 


The lawsuit also alleges Kunkle was discriminated against because of her sex, as “[d]efendants did not require male interns or employees to endure sexual harassment or contact as a condition of their employment or internships.” It also claims the Trigg County Board of Education and Mangels failed to protect Kunkle despite the potential for harm of students given the nature of the internship program. 


The lawsuit asks for compensatory damages for emotional distress, pain and suffering, and embarrassment, along with punitive damages. 


A request for comment from Trigg County Judge-Executive Hollis Alexander was not immediately returned. A phone call to former Sheriff Jason Barnes was not immediately returned. 


See the full lawsuit complaint here.


"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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