ELIZABETHTON — A Johnson City man who is running in all 95 counties in Tennessee for the Democratic Party nomination for the United States Senate seat currently held by Bob Corker is also facing a felony charge in one of those counties.
Thomas Kenneth Owens, 36, was indicted by a Carter County grand jury on May 14 on a charge of solicitation of a minor. Owens was arraigned in Criminal Court on May 31. When asked about his employment and financial status, Owens informed the court that he was a candidate for the U.S. Senate. He then filed an affidavit of indigency and Judge Robert Cupp appointed a public defender for Owens. Cupp also ordered a mental evaluation.
When he was contacted Monday afternoon about the criminal charge against him and what impact it would have on his candidacy, Owens said “Those charges are false charges and there should not be any publication.” The telephone call was then disconnected.
The charge stems from an investigation by the Carter County Sheriff’s Department into allegations that a 7-year-old girl was riding her bicycle in front of the apartment where Owens lived on May 21, 2011.
The girl told her mother and later Lt. Randy Bowers that Owens came out of his apartment and asked the girl if she wanted a “twisty tie” ring that he had made. When she entered Owens’ apartment, she said he gave her the ring and asked her for a hug. After she hugged him, he allegedly unzipped his pants and exposed himself, asking her to perform an inappropriate act.
The girl told Owens she had to go home and finish her chores. She then ran home.
Sgt. Keith Range and Deputy Dave Ryan took the report from the girl and her mother and went to see Owens. The officers said Owens admitted the girl had been in his apartment and he had given her a ring. When asked about the allegations, the officers quoted Owens as saying “I have a problem with that,” but would not elaborate. The officers said he was wearing clothes that fit the description given by the girl. Lt. Bowers said Owens refused to give a statement on May 26, 2011. He was arrested on the solicitation of a minor charge on May 31, 2011.
The case was in General Sessions Court under Judge John Walton from June 6, 2011 until March 19. There were approximately eight appearances in court. During that time, Owens was sent to Lakeshore Mental Health Institute for an evaluation of his mental condition and whether he was competent to stand trial.
On Oct. 11, the Lakeshore team determined that Owens was competent to stand trial but concluded that “Mr. Owens was experiencing a severe mental disease or defect at the time of his alleged crimes. However, the team also determined that Mr. Owens’ severe mental disease or defect did not impair his ability to appreciate the nature or wrongfulness of the alleged behavior.”
On March 19, Judge David Shults, sitting in for Judge Walton, held a preliminary hearing and bound the case over to a grand jury.
The charge against Owens was a surprise to Brandon Puttbrese, director of communications for the state Democratic Party.
When he was informed of the charge Puttbrese said, “if they are true, our hearts and our prayers go out to the victim. This is obviously not what the Democratic Party is about or what it stands for.”
Puttbrese said the state party has had no contact with Owens. He said the state election laws make it very easy to become a candidate in one of the primary elections. He said it only takes 25 signatures to become a candidate in a statewide election.
“Normally, I am all for our generous election laws. It allows someone to become a candidate without the support of a powerful political machine,” Puttbrese said. “In this case though, it might have gone heartbreakingly wrong.”
He said both the Democrat and Republican parties have had undesirable candidates in the past as a result of the easy qualification requirements. He said in the last election, the Republican Party tried to remove a Hamilton County Republican candidate from the ballot but could not do so.
Although he has not yet had time to research the election laws, Puttbrese said the seriousness of the charge called for the party to take action.
“We will look for a legal remedy,” Puttbrese said. “The Tennessee Democratic Party wants in no way, shape or form to be a part of Mr. Owens’ candidacy.”