A deputy for the Ross County Sheriff’s Office (RCSO) says she was assaulted while pregnant by her lieutenant and has filed a federal lawsuit also alleging sexual harassment.
Jennifer Kessinger has filed a federal lawsuit against the Ross County Sheriff (RCSO) and RSCO Lieutenant Kevin Pierce. In the suit, Kessinger alleges a pattern of harassment, physical assault, and hostility while she worked within the law enforcement complex at 28 N. Paint Street in Chillicothe. One time, the suit says, Pierce punched her while she was pregnant.
Kessinger says in her suit that the attacks by the administration started after she stopped a woman from smuggling drugs into the county jail. That’s when, according to the filing, internal politics started and nasty comments were made.
“On July 7, 2019, Mrs. Kessinger was working as a dispatcher….[and] was taking a break and walking her bag to her car in the back parking lot when she observed a female subject trespassing on the property of the law complex and attempting to smuggle items into the jail to an inmate,” the suit reads. “Mrs. Kessinger is a certified law enforcement officer, and, thereby, has an inherent duty to act so as to prevent the crime the unnamed female was committing.”
Since Kessinger was working in dispatch and not road patrol that night, the suit says she contacted the on-duty shift sergeant, which was Sergeant Carl Lawhorn. The suit says Lawhorn told the female deputy that he had spoken with Lieutenant Pierce and was told that the woman smuggling drugs into the jail should not be charged for her actions. As Kessinger was preparing to release the woman from detainment, she received a call from RCSO Captain Mike Preston, the suit reads. Preston ordered Kessinger to take the woman into custody and book her for conveying drugs into a correctional facility.
A few days later, Kessinger was approached by RCSO Lieutenant Kevin Claypool, who told her, “do not ever go behind another supervisor’s back like that again,” according to the lawsuit. The suit says Claypool was referring to Preston calling Kessinger and giving her different orders than what Pierce had.
Later that week, Kessinger said she was harassed by a different administrator from the Sheriff’s office; this time, sexually.
Captain Dennis McKeever was sitting in a meeting room when Kessinger walked in to sit down and fill out paperwork, the suit claims. That’s when McKeever told her, “do you know how I know you’re in this building before I actually see you….because your perfume, it smells good,” Kessinger claims. Right after the comment, the filing says Pierce walked into the room and said, “it’s her hoe juice.” Pierce repeated the derogatory statement several times, stating “hoe juice” over-and-over making Kessinger feel uncomfortable, the suit reads.
Pierce reportedly continued to harass the female deputy by telling her “you’re just a dispatcher” and not a real deputy, despite Kessinger having a police officer certification. Moments later, that’s when Pierce got up to leave the room and punched Kessinger, who was pregnant, the suit alleges, while reportedly saying, “I hope that hurt.” The assault was reportedly documented with another female deputy later that morning while Kessinger and the woman went to lunch.
The co-worker told Kessinger that she should report the assault and harassment to Captain Preston, who had previously investigated Pierce for workplace harassment, according to the suit. After explaining to Preston about the attacks, the suit goes on to say that Kessinger felt the issue that started it all — the arrest of the drug conveyer — could be easily cleared up if Preston would simply explain that he reached out to Kessinger, instead of her calling him. She said that the harassment by Pierce might stop, if so.
“….Kessinger had explained to Captain Preston that she did not want to make it a sexual harassment issue because there were other people that currently work at the Sheriff’s office that have been going through the same things as her,” the suit reads. Preston reportedly vowed to launch an investigation into the complaint and said he would protect Kessinger’s identity.
“Kessinger has witnessed first-hand other deputies getting hazed by the command staff at the Ross County Sheriff’s office,” the case further says. “Pierce has made open statements in the past regarding his negative feelings toward Captain Preston, including that Captain Preston never actually worked the road as a commissioned law enforcement officer.”
Another time, Pierce was investigated for referring to another female deputy as “the fridge” because of her body shape.
A couple of weeks would go by, the lawsuit says before Kessinger was called into a meeting with Preston, McKeever, and Pierce. In the meeting, Kessinger was told that Pierce was made aware of the complaint against him, despite Preston vowing to protect her identity. In an effort to defend himself, Pierce said in the meeting that, “I’m sorry I offended you, but I even tell the Sheriff, and Mr. Munch (a court deputy) that she is wearing hoe juice,” the filing says.
The issue was said to have been forward to Sheriff George Lavender for review, and a few days later, the Sheriff met with Kessinger. In the meeting, Lavender reportedly told Kessinger that the punch, while she was pregnant, was “a generational thing.”
“In the old days you could slug your co-workers,” the Sheriff is reported having told Kessinger. She said that nothing happened to the investigation after the meeting with the Sheriff and that she would go on to be fired.
Kessinger states in her lawsuit that the chain of command essentially failed her at all junctures and that she feared for her health, safety, and welfare “as a result of the actions and/or inactions of defendants….”
Kessinger is seeking a jury trial in federal court and several hundred thousand in damages.
If you or a loved one has been a victim of sexual assault, free confidential help is available by calling 800-656-HOPE (4673).