A grand jury in Hardin County, Ky., dismissed a felony assault charge against an Army sergeant involved in a February road rage incident after watching a surveillance video of the incident and hearing testimony from the sergeant and the other driver on Thursday.
Police in Elizabethtown, Ky., had obtained a second-degree assault charge against Sgt. 1st Class Kai Waters, 33, with a minimum five-year prison sentence if convicted. Waters claimed she was acting in self-defense and said she was pleased with the grand jury’s actions, although she said she still had work to do to restore her military career. She testified before the grand jury Thursday morning and said afterward, “I was happy they allowed me to speak and give my side of the story, and happy they were able to see the evidence and make the best decision for my case.”
Waters, a 15-year veteran with combat tours of Afghanistan and Iraq and a clean military record, told The Washington Post last week that she had driven off the post at Fort Knox toward her home in Elizabethtown when another motorist began aggressively tailgating her, then bumped her car from behind, over an eight-mile stretch of highway in western Kentucky. At a stoplight, Waters said, the other driver called her a “black b----,” said she didn’t like “your kind,” and challenged her to a fight.
Waters dialed 911 and pulled into the nearest gas station. While still on the phone with Elizabethtown police, Waters said, the other driver pulled in behind her, ran over to her car and attacked her. Surveillance video from the gas station, which showed Waters screaming at the other driver and fending her off, while maintaining her phone connection with police. At some point in the confrontation, Waters said, she grabbed a ceremonial knife given to her by soldiers from her previous posting and stabbed the other driver in the leg.
When Elizabethtown police arrived, they promptly arrested Waters. She spent the next three nights in the county jail, and when she was released, a judge ordered her to post $10,000 bond, undergo psychiatric evaluation and remain confined to Fort Knox, although she lived in her townhouse in Elizabethtown. An officer who provided first aid to the other driver was credited with saving her life and given an award by the local chamber of commerce. The charge of second-degree assault filed against Waters carries a minimum five-year prison sentence and a maximum of 10 years.
In March, Waters and her attorney, Jeremy S. Aldridge, obtained the gas station surveillance video from prosecutors, although not the recording of the 911 call Waters made. With the support of her superior officers at Fort Knox, Waters posted the video and a detailed account of the event on Facebook and launched a GoFundMe page to raise $10,000 for her legal costs. The page swiftly rang up $15,000 in pledges.
The case took on racial overtones because Waters is black and the other driver is white. Waters said she did not know if race motivated the woman to harass and attack her, but said she hoped the other driver got help. Waters said the officers at the scene did not seem interested in her side of the story, that she was denied access to an attorney once taken to the police station, and that a detective asked her what she was doing in that part of town, which is an upscale area of Elizabethtown.
Elizabethtown Police Chief Jamie Land has said race had nothing to do with his officers’ decision to charge Waters and not the other woman. He did not want to discuss the case while it was pending but told The Post, “It’s not as cut-and-dried as Ms. Waters is making it appear. The story she’s presenting is not exactly the complete truth.” Land added, “This did not start at the gas station parking lot.”
Land issued a statement Thursday acknowledging the grand jury’s decision. “We support the decision of our dedicated citizens serving on the grand jury and we thank them for their service and participation in the criminal justice system,” the chief said.
Hardin County Commonwealth’s Attorney Shane Young said last week that he was not involved in the charging decision, and prosecutors in Kentucky do not handle felony cases until after they’ve been through a preliminary hearing and certified to circuit court. Young told The Post he would present all the evidence to the grand jury, allow Waters to testify, and let the jurors make a decision on whom to charge.
Young said Thursday that in addition to the Waters and the other driver, the Elizabethtown officer who investigated the case also testified, and that the grand jury then issued a “no true bill,” or no charges. Under Kentucky law, the circuit court is then required to dismiss the pending charges that were presented to the grand jury.
Aldridge, Waters’s attorney, said, “I’m pleased that Hardin County’s grand jury got it right, even when the police might not have, and the justice system worked in this particular case.” Aldridge said he would resubmit Waters’s complaint to the county attorney’s office “in the hopes they charge” the other driver.
Waters said she was not focused on either a criminal or civil case involving the other driver, a 58-year-old Elizabethtown woman.
“I have no hard feelings for her,” Waters said. “I just pray for her that she gets help. I think she was just going through some stuff and I’m just happy that this is over with.”
The other driver has declined to comment on the case and told WAVE 3 News that she could not comment while the case was pending.
After being ordered to live on Fort Knox by the arraigning judge in the case, Waters said she would not move back to Elizabethtown. “I probably don’t plan to ever live off post the rest of my career,” Waters said. “I still respect law enforcement. Unfortunately, there’s a couple bad seeds that can make a whole organization look bad.”
Waters said she was going to work on restoring her military career, after losing her security clearance and her job as a chemical, biological and radiological nuclear specialist following her arrest.
“It’s not really over for me,” Waters said. “I’ve still got to work on fixing my records and my security clearance.”
The sergeant also said she suffered from the publicity the case attracted. “I’ve been harassed, threatened, my accounts hacked, my personal information shared.” She had to take down her Facebook posts after receiving threats. She said support from her commanding officers at Fort Knox convinced her to fight the case, rather than just surrender and plead guilty.
“No matter the outcome,” Waters said, “my life will be forever altered by this situation.” She said she hoped Hardin County would consider filing charges against the other driver.
“I just want her to be held accountable for her actions,” Waters said, “but I do forgive her for what she’s done.”