The Case of The Sexual Predator
For years, Judge David Lanier harassed and assaulted the women of Dyersburg, Tenn., with impunity. Finally, some victims fought back
Whatever ill will David Lanier held toward his father, it did not stop him from exploiting the family name. In 1965, at 31, David became the youngest mayor in Dyersburg history, with the help of his father. And on the job, he imitated Mr. Jimmy's personal style. He controlled jobs in city hall and used strong-arm tactics to intimidate voters and opponents. Eventually, in 1979, he was deposed--but was elected to the chancery court in 1982, a post that gave him final say in such things as divorce cases and child custody proceedings.
Townsfolk say David Lanier's fall began in the rancorous squabbling between the judge and his older brother, James O. Lanier, a long-serving state representative and district attorney. The two brothers quarreled ceaselessly, first for their father's affections and later over his vast political legacy. Their relationship was so poisoned that James O. helped orchestrate his brother's political defeat in 1979.
The investigation begins. Even though the feud was well-known, Dyersburg voters put the Lanier brothers in charge of most of the city's law enforcement establishment by 1990; David was a powerful judge and James O. was prosecutor. But all was not well in the town. The FBI began investigating several problems there in 1990: allegations that David Lanier was involved in judicial payoffs and an extortion scheme (nothing ever came of this probe), reports that a drug market was thriving in a part of town called "crack alley" and allegations that James O. had promised local businessmen they could bring lucrative but illegal poker machines into their bars, lounges and private clubs. In the midst of the probe, in 1991, James O. died of cancer and new charges surfaced. Federal agents began hearing rumors that David had also used his judicial office to abuse female court employees.
When FBI agent Bill Castleberry and Steve Champine, of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, began to ask questions about David Lanier and sexual abuse, they encountered a wall of silence. Some of the nearly 100 women they interviewed were afraid to reveal what they said had at first been consensual relationships that crossed the line into coercion. Some said that Lanier was stalking them and making telephone calls to their homes. Others didn't trust the investigators at all. "They came to us and said they were our friends," says Lisa Atkins, who asked that her full name not be used. "The judge was supposed to be our friend, too." Agent Castleberry eventually decided he had to coax the stories out of them, even if it meant confronting some with perjury charges.
The abuse. Officials say there is evidence Lanier's assaults were taking place as early as 1979. By 1986, says Steve Parker, one of the federal prosecutors who helped convict the judge, he was a man possessed by his seemingly limitless power: "He could no longer distinguish between sexual propositions and outright rape." He became expert at testing potential victims, attuning his behavior to his victim's response.
One of Lanier's main techniques was to seek out attractive young women and offer them plum courthouse jobs. He questioned them, often for hours. Apparently encouraged if they appeared to be in emotional or financial straits, he would introduce sexual innuendo or hugs that were a bit too tight. If the job applicant did not protest too loudly, she was hired. Then the judge would strike.