State rests case in Harris retrial

Brad Hicks • Dec 12, 2012 at 10:14 PM

ERWIN — The state rested its case on the third day of the retrial of former Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris on the charge of theft over $1,000.

Testimony got under way quickly Wednesday in Unicoi County Criminal Court with the state calling Lynn Colbaugh to the stand. She is the wife of Tom Colbaugh, who provided testimony on Tuesday. The couple donated two bloodhounds to the county and possessed the two Buicks that are at the heart of the case.

It is alleged that Harris pocketed $4,500 in county funds for two vehicles that were donated to the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department by the Colbaughs. Harris’ defense contends that this funding from the sale of the vehicles, along with some of Harris’ own money, was to be put toward the training of bloodhounds previously donated to the sheriff’s department by the Colbaughs.

The first trial was declared a mistrial in early August when that jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. A new jury for the retrial was set Monday in Criminal Court.

Like her husband, Lynn Colbaugh testified that the two vehicles were donated to the sheriff’s department in September 2008 after Harris had approached them to see if they would be interested in doing so. Her testimony also corroborated statements given by her husband Tuesday that conversations to use money from the sale of the cars to fund search and rescue training for the bloodhounds.

Lynn Colbaugh testified that the titles for the vehicles, which were owned by her aunt and late uncle, with Lynn Colbaugh having power of attorney for her aunt, were taken to the Unicoi County Clerk’s office. Once the transfer of ownership to the sheriff’s department was completed, Harris met the Colbaughs outside the courthouse to present them with a pair of checks totaling $4,500 for the vehicles, according to Lynn Colbaugh’s testimony. She said while she questioned why she was receiving checks for the donated vehicles, she took Harris at his word and followed his directions to cash the checks and bring the $4,500 in cash back to him.

“I just looked at him and said ‘What are these for?’ I said ‘Kent, we are donating the cars, there’s no money involved,” Lynn Colbaugh testified. “I said ‘This is the county’s money. I don’t get anything.’ He said ‘I know that, Lynn. I know it’s a donation. This is what I have to do when something like this happens.’ He said ‘I have to put a value on these items so I can transfer my funds from one account to another.’”

Lynn Colbaugh said she had no knowledge of what happened to this $4,500 until she and her husband were questioned in November 2010 by a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent looking into allegations against Harris.

On Tuesday, Harris’ defense called into question whether the signature on the back of one of the titles may have been forged and backdated at the time of its transfer to the county. While the transfer of the vehicles took place in 2008, one of the titles was signed by Eugene Price, Lynn Colbaugh’s uncle who died in July 2007, with a date of sale of May 2, 2007. She testified that she did sign her late uncle’s name and backdate the title at the time of the transfer, as Eugene Price had willed his estate to his wife Edyth Price, who Lynn Colbaugh had power of attorney for. Colbaugh said she signed her uncle’s name and backdated the title on the advice of then-county clerk Ruby McLaughlin.

Jurors also heard from Mark Treece, an auditor with the Tennessee Comptroller’s office. Treece testified that a non-compliance finding was placed against the sheriff’s department in a previous county audit. Treece said this finding was in regards to an account containing funds for the sale of bloodhound puppies. According to previous testimony, Harris and the Colbaughs agreed to breed one of the donated bloodhounds and sell the puppies, and the money was kept in a personal account. However, Treece said the puppies belonged to the county. The account was eventually closed and the $1,750 in it was transferred to the county on auditors’ advice, according to testimony.

Treece also said any gift or donation would have to be remitted through the county trustee’s office and appropriated by the county commission. He said this would apply to the $4,500 for the transfer of the cars. According to previous statements, Harris kept this money in a safe in his office. Treece said this is also a violation, as state law stipulates that the funding would have to be quickly deposited and kept in an official account.

When the bloodhounds donated by the Colbaughs and the puppy kept after breeding one of them failed to receive the planned search and rescue training, the decision was made to find a new home for them as they had become an expenditure for the county, according to previous testimony.

After the state rested, the defense began calling its witnesses. One of the defense’s witnesses, Pattye Elliott, director of the East Tennessee Bloodhound Rescue, testified that she and Harris had agreed that her rescue would accept the bloodhounds if Harris provided a $5,500 contribution for the construction of a shelter for them. According to the defense’s opening statement made Tuesday, this was made up of the $4,500 that was to go toward training of the puppy plus $1,000 of Harris’ own money.

Elliott said when she arrived in Unicoi County to pick up the dogs and relocate them to her Knoxville-area rescue, Tom Colbaugh was present, which contradicts testimony provided by Tom and Lynn Colbaugh.

The trial continues today at 9 a.m.

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