How A Kentucky Rape Case Is Testing The Integrity Of The Criminal Justice System
The threats started on September 7, exactly one day after a grand jury indicted her alleged rapist.
The messages were dark, continuous and clear: she could die for testifying against wealthy, politically connected Daviess County farmer and businessman Billy Joe Miles.
She receiveda Facebook message with a photo of her attached, calling her a liar. It was from one of Miles’ employees, according to court records. Later, she found threats scrawled on the windows -- “last warning, no cops, you will die.”
Miles’ accuser was driving alone down the highway when a hammer hurled from a passing vehicle shattered her windshield. She replaced it. Someone carved “lying bitch” into the paint. She left the words there.
The vandalism didn’t last, because soon after, her car burst into flames as she was driving home late one night from a work assignment. Police are still investigating the fire, which destroyed the vehicle.
On other days, other warnings. She received six calls in three minutes from the phone of one of Miles’ daughters, according to prosecutors, who cited cell phone records. Minutes later the accuser’s house alarm sounded. Police found a window raised.
The woman, who is about five feet tall and weighs barely 100 pounds, said she kept a shotgun by her bed and a handgun in the car. At the prosecution’s request, a local constable began shadowing her as she traveled to and from work.
“I’ve had my world turned upside down,” she said recently.
She believes this is the price, so far, of accusing the 77-year-old Miles, whose extensive resume’ includes three terms on the University of Kentucky board of trustees.
Her case is testing the credibility of a criminal justice system when the defendant has connections in high places.
The Daviess County sheriff’s department has handled the investigation of Miles from the beginning, even though Miles is a friend of Sheriff Keith Cain. Rather than turn the case over to another agency, Cain has taken steps that seem to have favored Miles and threaten to undermine the prosecution, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found.
Now, Miles has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial on charges of rape, sodomy and the attempted bribery of the 30-year-old woman, who worked as his caregiver. She agreed to talk about her experiences as long as her name was not made public. KyCIR does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.
Miles' attorney, Rob Eggert, denied in court that Miles and his relatives contacted or harassed the woman. Debra Miles Seymour, the daughter who allegedly called the accuser, declined to comment.
After each incident, the accuser photographed the evidence of the threats and called authorities for help. But she only trusted certain officers.
That’s because Miles has a lot of friends. And she knows it: “I can’t call so many people because there's a conflict of interest for just about everybody.”
Sheriff's Friendship Poses Problem, Experts Say
Both circuit judges and the commonwealth’s attorney in Daviess County recused themselves from the case, to avoid even the possible appearance of a conflict of interest. Circuit Judge Joseph Castlen bowed out despite having met Miles just once.
“The nature of the case is one that draws a great deal of public interest here, and in a small town, gossip spreads faster than the speed of light,” Castlen told KyCIR.
Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear’s office took over the prosecution and Hardin Circuit Judge Kelly Easton is presiding over the case.
One person who hasn’t recused himself is Sheriff Cain, although he had ample reason to do so when Miles fell under his department’s microscope.
In addition to considering Miles a friend, Cain acknowledged to KyCIR that he visited Miles’ ranch in Bolivia in 2008 or 2009 -- at Miles’ expense. Cain said he wanted to go because he has an interest in cattle ranching.
Cain initially told KyCIR that he had paid for the trip. In a subsequent interview, he retracted that statement and said Miles footed the bill.
Miles also contributed $250 to the sheriff’s 2014 reelection campaign.
But unlike the other elected officials, the sheriff didn’t get out of the case. He didn’t turn it over to another law enforcement agency. And he didn’t fully distance himself from his office’s investigation.
Instead, Cain stepped into the prosecution and exerted his influence, leveling accusations that raise questions about his impartiality, KyCIR has found.
First, he wrote a letter that challenged the honesty of Miles’ accuser when she reported harassment and threats. Then Cain complained in a telephone call to the attorney general’s office about the prosecutor who had sought protection for the accuser.
In a series of interviews, Cain insisted he did nothing wrong. He said he believed he has adequately distanced himself from the investigation and was not directing or influencing it. And he denied intentionally favoring Miles.
“I was confident in our ability to do what needed to be done,” Cain said of the sheriff’s office.
He acknowledged that he read his investigators’ reports, though, and that he has discussed the case with his subordinates.
Kenneth Ray, a criminal justice authority with several decades of experience in law enforcement, said Cain’s involvement in the case could be seen as fueling “the perception of an undue influence for a preferred outcome.”
“If you really want to avoid any conflict of interest, you call the state police and turn the case over to them,” said Ray, who is based in Ashland and also has done consulting work for the U.S. Department of Justice. “It helps ensure the credibility of the investigation, and it’s just best for purposes of objective justice.”
David Harris, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, said that Cain should have handed off the investigation to the state police as soon as he realized that a friend and benefactor was under investigation by his office.
“At the very least it throws a cloud over the entire case,” Harris said.
“He’s clearly taking actions and weighing in. He should have gotten out immediately. He should not be writing letters, making phone calls. He’s not a private citizen and he knows it.”
Cain also apparently violated the Owensboro-Daviess County Board of Ethics code by failing to report Miles’ footing the bill for most of the Bolivia trip. The code requires that gifts of $200 or more from any single source must be reported.
It’s unclear how much round-trip airfare alone would have cost seven or eight years ago. But the cheapest fare today exceeds $1,600. Cain also acknowledged that he paid nothing for food and lodging at Miles’ ranch.
None of Cain's filings with the ethics board since 1999 disclose any gifts from Miles, or from any other source.
Public officials found to have violated the code can be fined up to $1,000.
Cain told KyCIR that he “didn’t give the trip any thought” at the time he filled out the forms. Cain said he offered to pay Miles, but the offer was refused. “I still consider it an unpaid debt,” Cain said.
The city-county ethics code also states that public officials “shall actively avoid conflicting interests.”
A grand jury handed up the indictment against Miles on September 6. A sheriff’s office detective was the sole witness to testify. The two-page document contains no details of the alleged offenses beyond the three charges. If convicted, Miles could be sentenced to up to 45 years in prison.
His trial is set for next September, though it may be held sooner because Miles has dementia. He is currently out of jail on a $150,000 cash bond. His attorneys, Scott Cox and Rob Eggert, both of Louisville, declined to comment on the case.
In recent court filings and hearings, prosecutors revealed that DNA evidence ties Miles to the accuser. A swab of his genitals recovered her DNA. Her rape examination kit hasn’t been tested yet.
Prosecutors have indicated that they may seek to introduce evidence of “similar prior acts” by Miles.
The scene of the July 2 alleged sex offenses, according to Miles’ accuser, was his 5,000 square-foot home, which is now for sale with an asking price of $499,000. It has five bedrooms, six baths and overlooks a golf course in an exclusive area of Daviess County known as The Summit.
After the alleged rape and sodomy, the woman said, Miles offered her money if she didn’t talk.
A Wealthy, Well-Known Businessman
Few in positions of power in Daviess County and the surrounding area could count Miles a complete stranger -- or trump his stature. His money comes from well-known farming and fuel companies, including Miles Farm Supply and Miles L.P. Gas.
He’s served on numerous boards and committees and is a member of Western Kentucky University’s Hall of Distinguished Alumni. One of his two daughters, Suzanne Miles, is a state representative who represents Union County and parts of Daviess and Henderson counties.
His accuser, by contrast, has a far lower profile. She lives much more modestly and works two and three jobs, sometimes logging up to 20 hours a day without sleep. She recently was named employee of the month by one of her employers.
As the threats against her mounted, Assistant Attorney General Barbara Maines Whaley grew increasingly concerned for the accuser’s safety.
Whaley, who took over the prosecution after the commonwealth’s attorney stepped aside, requested information from Sheriff Cain about possible witness protection, according to court records.
In late September, two days after a death threat was written on the accuser’s car, Cain responded to Whaley with a proposal. He offered the accuser three hours of protection per day, at a cost of $5,100 per month. The constable was hired instead, at a cheaper rate.
In his letter to Whaley, Cain also raised a new issue: concerns about the witness’ truthfulness.
Cain claimed that his investigators had “uncovered discrepancies” in her allegations of harassment since the indictment.
“We must consider the possibility that the witness has been less than truthful,” Cain wrote.
Some court records are sealed. But there is no evidence in public court records documenting any “discrepancies” in Miles’ accuser’s accounts. Indeed, when asked by KyCIR to elaborate on his concerns about the witness, Cain said he knew of just one alleged inconsistency, and he refused to provide details about it. Miles’ accuser said the confusion centered on where she was when someone snapped a photo of her, an act she considered threatening.
Instead, Cain referred a reporter to two other sheriff’s department employees, including the lead investigator on the case. Both refused to comment.
Shortly after Cain’s letter, Whaley filed a motion in Daviess circuit court seeking to prohibit Miles’ family members or employees from having contact with his accuser.
In the motion, which was granted, Whaley noted that because five different law enforcement agencies had responded to the various incidents, “there is neither a comprehensive investigation, nor complete knowledge of the facts of all of the events.”
That, she said, “has compounded the victim’s fear.”
After the no-contact order was issued, Sheriff Cain injected himself a second time into Miles’ case, calling Attorney General Andy Beshear to complain about Whaley.
Cain initially denied to KyCIR that he had made such a call, or had had “any contact with prosecutors.” When pressed, Cain admitted speaking to Beshear and his top deputy.
Beshear, through a spokesman, refused to discuss the call or its possible impact on the case.
Cain first told KyCIR that he contacted Beshear due to “an individual” attacking him and his department’s investigation. And he denied even knowing Whaley’s name, despite previously writing her a letter.
Later, Cain acknowledged knowing Whaley. He said he heard, second- and third-hand, that she had accused him of “unfairly discrediting” Miles’ accuser and failing to protect the woman.
“The prosecutor was acting in a fashion that we thought could be detrimental to the prosecution of this case” by disregarding his concern about the victim’s truthfulness, Cain said.
Asked why he called Beshear rather than Whaley, Cain said he “didn’t see anything good” coming from a conversation with her. “I thought she’d already made up her mind.”
The sheriff described his relationship with Beshear as “friendly” and “professional.”
Whaley did not respond to repeated requests from KyCIR for comment. Cain denied that the intent of his call was to have Whaley -- a veteran prosecutor -- removed from the case or given a lesser role in it.
But about the time of Cain’s call to Beshear’s office, Assistant Attorney General Jon Heck was added to the prosecution team.
Both Whaley and Heck appeared during a 45-minute court hearing in Owensboro on November 17. Whaley never spoke during the hearing.
Meanwhile, J. Michael Brown, Beshear’s second-in-command and a participant in the phone call with Cain, observed the proceedings from a seat behind Whaley and Heck.
After the hearing, Brown declined to discuss whether Whaley’s role in the case had changed.
However, Sheriff Cain and a spokesman for the Kentucky State Police post in Henderson both said they understood that Heck, not Whaley, is now heading the prosecution.
Accuser Refuses To Be Deterred
As soon as the no-contact order took effect, Miles’ accuser said, the phone calls, threats and vandalism stopped.
But there’s still eight more months until the scheduled trial. And it’s already been a long time since the woman slept peacefully. She’d rather keep busy, she said, than have time to think.
She considered moving away. Although her name was never made public, she felt that everyone in town knew.
Just before her car burst into flames, she talked with her husband about selling their house. She wasn’t sure then if pushing forward was worth it. Now, she said, her mind is made up. She’s lost too much to give up.
“It's just not right to walk away from it,” she said. “It's not fair to myself, not to see justice.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Assistant Attorney General Jon Heck.