KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Former employees trying to sue an elusive Englishwoman who operated a swanky Blount County treatment center have until Jan. 21 to serve her with legal papers, a federal judge has ruled.
Lawyers for the 21 employees think Jacqueline Dawes has taken up residency with Jehovah's Witnesses, specifically a place called Watchtower Farms operated by the faith in Wallkill, N.Y., a huge operation about two hours northwest of New York City.
Bryce Hemmelgarn, assistant director of communication for the United States branch of the Jehovah's Witnesses, said, however, the group has no record she has lived at the farm.
Since filing suit in Knoxville federal court in May, the workers haven't been able to verify that they've served her with the papers. They're trying to recover thousands of dollars they say she owes them in back wages.
A Morristown lawyer for the employees, who range from chefs to counselors to nurses, has declined to respond to requests for comment.
WBIR has reported numerous stories about Dawes, her high-flying life and her abrupt disappearance from East Tennessee.
In March 2019, she closed her Brookhaven Retreat in Seymour, leaving employees to scramble and send some clients in mid treatment back to their homes. At the time, Dawes was trying to sell her multimillion-dollar mansion, dubbed Bellamont, off Gov. John Sevier Highway.
She charged $50,000 a month for women to get mental health and substance abuse treatment. She pressed clients to stay at least three months, requesting payment ahead of time, according to former clients and their families.
Dawes attracted a clientele of the wealthy and the famous including entertainer Selena Gomez, who posted on social media about her time there in 2016.The bucolic center on I.C. King Road emphasized recovery that included equine therapy.
Public records, however, show Dawes also owed creditors a growing mound of money. She owed the Internal Revenue Service millions in unpaid taxes, records show.
Federal rules require someone filing a lawsuit to serve a defendant within 90 days. The employees, however, haven't been able to do that.
As they tried to find Dawes, they say they learned her mail was being forwarded to a Louisville, Ky., attorney's office. The court issued a summons in August for Dawes.
That didn't work, records show.
The lawyer told them he didn't represent her.
"It appears to counsel for the (employees) that defendant Dawes may be avoiding service of process in this matter," the employees noted to the court in late August.
In December, a lawyer for the employees said he believed Dawes was now living at Watchtower Farms. A creditor gave them the tip, court records state.
Among the activities at Watchtower is an international printing operation for the religious group.
In October the plaintiffs sent legal papers to the farm by certified mail restricted delivery. They got in return a "green return receipt document" indicating someone had signed and received it on Dawes' behalf.
They tried the same tactic a month later; they got the same result, according to documents. Lawyers asked the judge in December for more time to try options that might include hiring a private investigator.
U.S. District Judge Harry Mattice Jr. said it doesn't appear the employees have exhausted every way to find Dawes. Still, he ruled they could have until Jan. 21 to serve her "or the claims against her will be dismissed without prejudice."
The plaintiffs include seven nurses, two chefs, two housekeepers, a groundskeeper, a group therapist, a dietitian and a communications coordinator. Other former employees lost their jobs but have not filed suit.
The complaint identifies the plaintiffs as Megan Winstead; Tessa Batchelor; April Chandler; Denise N. Clark; Leslie L. Cook; Shalea Donegan; Melissa Galant; Amy Jackson; Crisie Jennings; Steve A. Kinser; Mildred Anastasia Main; Lisa Nobles; Alicia Ogle; Brenda Orcutt; Anna Palmer; Kristen Rials; Kayla Sherwood; Lauren Steier; Ashley A. Sullivan; Ashley Thomas; and Jaelyn E. Yount.
Dawes left so quickly in March 2019 she gave away the two horses that had been used for equine therapy at Brookhaven.
Her home off Gov. John Sevier Highway, variously offered for sale at $5 million up to $8 million, was sold in July for $3.56 million to a Nashville holding company, records show.
Pinnacle Bank foreclosed on Dawes' home in June because she had stopped making payments, according to property records. Some $4.8 million was owed on the property, not counting legal expenses.
The bank also has foreclosed on Brookhaven Retreat. Dawes had operated Brookhaven since the mid 2000s.