ERWIN — Interim Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said he wants to set the record straight concerning what he feels are “politically motivated” accusations that have recently been disseminated by former sheriff Kent Harris and several of his supporters.
Hensley said disinformation concerning his work experience and qualifications, laying off department officers and supposed involvement on a prior Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe focusing on the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department is untrue and referred to it as a “vendetta” because Harris and some of his supporters believe that Hensley was “after his job” while Harris was the county’s sheriff.
However, Hensley said this is untrue and that he did not seek the county’s appointment to the sheriff’s post until Harris had officially resigned on March 1.
“The bottom line was Kent was always a friend,” Hensley said. “I always respected him and worked hard for him.”
Harris was injured in a fall from the roof of the Unicoi County Jail in August 2010 and routinely traveled out-of-state to receive treatment for injuries he suffered in the accident. It was after Harris’ fall that Hensley, who was then chief deputy of the sheriff’s department, had a meeting with County Mayor Greg Lynch and County Attorney Doug Shults. Hensley said that meeting was to discuss where he stood legally in signing his name to documents, such as invoices, pertaining to the county’s jailhouse annex while Harris was out.
Hensley said word of this meeting got back to Harris and his supporters, and that they took the meeting as Hensley seeking the sheriff’s position. Hensley said he met with Lynch and Shults to ensure that he could legally sign his name to the documents and that he would have Shults’ support should any issues arise from him doing so.
“It’s untrue,” Hensley said.
Hensley also addressed accusations that he was involved in the initiation of the TBI investigation centered on the sheriff’s department that eventually led to Harris being charged with 11 felonies. That investigation was not initiated by anyone in the sheriff’s department, but instead stems from an incident at Rock Creek Park involving Harris and former Unicoi County Jail inmate Josh Simpson, who was also previously on the county and the county’s 911 payrolls.
“I never called the TBI,” Hensley said. “Nobody here called the TBI as far as I know.”
Hensley said he was responsible for getting Simpson removed from the county’s payroll. He said several days before Harris fell, the Tennessee Department of Correction sent a letter to Unicoi County Jail Administrator George Berry to advise that Simpson, a state inmate, was to be transferred to the Morgan County Correctional Complex. Hensley said this is when he learned that Simpson had been on the county’s payroll and the 911 payroll.
Hensley said he subsequently sent letters to Lynch and county 911 director Patsy Ledford asking that Simpson be removed from the payrolls. Hensley said he was not questioning the legalities of whether Simpson could be paid by the county, but said these letters were sent because Simpson was being transferred and would no longer be in Unicoi County to receive the pay.
In September 2010, one month before a Unicoi County grand jury returned 10 true bills charging Harris with 10 felonies including six counts of official misconduct, Harris reprimanded Hensley and current sheriff’s department Chief Deputy Frank Rogers over what he felt was the mishandling of a marijuana confiscation case.
Earlier that month, Hensley, Rogers, and two other officers found marijuana plants hidden on the property of Jerry Honeycutt and Jerry Duncan in the Coffee Ridge area, according to police reports issued at that time. Officers said they found 21 plants on the property. Harris previously said the number of plants constituted a felony drug charge and arrests, and that the reprimands of Hensley and Rogers stemmed from the issuance of citations rather than the arrests of Duncan and Honeycutt.
Hensley said Friday that this reprimand was not the result of incorrect action, but because Harris’ uncle, Kenny Woods, felt “insulted” by insinuating that Hensley “spent all day” on Facebook when it was the use of Facebook that led to the discovery of the marijuana plants.
Hensley said the surveillance equipment necessary for drug investigations was later pulled from the department after the TBI began its investigation. This equipment, which is used to record drug transactions, is rented by the department from the Regional Organized Crime Information Center. Hensley said the ROCIC pulled the equipment from the department once the TBI began its investigation, making narcotics investigations much harder to prosecute.
“We did the best job with that we could under the circumstances,” Hensley said, adding that the surveillance equipment has since been returned to the department.
While Harris was out receiving treatment for his injuries, Hensley said members of Harris’ family were “trying to run the sheriff’s department,” and attempted to publicly attack him out of “jealousy.” He also said these people heavily scrutinized the operations of the department.
“That is the main problem right there,” Hensley said. “They wanted to run the department but didn’t have a clue what was going on.”
Hensley said Harris was not around the department to see the daily operations of the department and was “misled” on information concerning aspects of the department, taking those providing him with information at their word.
“Kent is still my friend, and he’s been told things on me that’s untrue,” Hensley said. “I hate that things have come to this, but the truth will stand when the world’s on fire. And I know the truth.”
Hensley also addressed the recent departure of departmental personnel. He said one left the department for a higher-paying job, another left to work with his father-in-law, and Hensley said Berry has not left his position as jail administrator, but is out on sick leave.
The Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission has previously stated Hensley meets the necessary requirements to hold and seek the office of Unicoi County Sheriff, and his volunteer work experience with the Carter County Sheriff’s Department was verified by a letter from former Carter County Sheriff John Henson as part of an advertisement Hensley had published in the Erwin Record earlier this week. Hensley’s POST certification and work experience with Carter County has been questioned by Harris.
Still, Hensley said he and Harris have never directed “ill” words toward each other.
“Kent Harris was my friend and still is,” Hensley said. “I know the man is sick, and I’m going to do the Christian thing and pray for him. I wish him the best.”
The Unicoi County Commission appointed Hensley to serve as the county’s interim sheriff until the August general election. At that time, a special election for the office of Unicoi County sheriff will take place, with Hensley and Unicoi resident James Lengel seeking the office.
“If they decide to elect me, I will do what I set out to do,” Hensley said. “I will do everything in my ability and power to make Unicoi County a safe place to live. I will do everything in my power to keep drugs off the street. I will do everything in my power to keep the D.A.R.E. program in our schools. I will do everything to work with the municipalities. ... It’s a proven fact that when we work together, things happen.”
Until that time, Hensley said he would like to see an end to the “negativity” in Unicoi County.
“It reflects on the families and the county as a whole,” he said. “It’s a sad situation for the county.”