ERWIN — The prosecution has rested in its case in the trial of former Unicoi County sheriff Kent Harris, which continued Tuesday.
While the trial’s second day saw testimony from county officials and employees, the majority of testimony came from Tom and Lynn Colbaugh, the Unicoi County couple who possessed the vehicles that are related to the charges Harris is currently being tried on.
Harris is on trial for theft over $1,000 and criminal simulation, two of the 10 felony charges a Unicoi County grand jury indicted Harris on in October. It is alleged that Harris sought and received county funds to pay for two vehicles that were donated to the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department in September 2008.
In his opening statement made Monday, District Attorney General Tony Clark said the prosecution would prove that the vehicles were indeed located and that the $4,500 in county funds ended up in Harris’ hands. Attorney Stacy Street, Harris’ co-counsel, said in his opening statement that the $4,500 in question, plus an additional $1,000 of Harris’ own money, was to go to the care of two bloodhounds previously purchased by Tom Colbaugh to serve as search and rescue dogs for the sheriff’s department per an agreement between Colbaugh and Harris.
Lynn Colbaugh testified that she and her husband became acquainted with Harris through their encounters with him at the Carolina Deli restaurant in Erwin, a business ran by Harris’ relatives. She testified that the vehicles relating to the charges Harris is currently being tried on were in fact donated to the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department.
These vehicles, Colbaugh testified, belonged to her aunt and that she had power of attorney over her aunt’s property after she entered the care of a nursing home. She said that around April 2008, Harris initially told her to keep the vehicles at her aunt’s home to give the appearance of someone being home, but in August 2008 Harris approached her and her husband to see if they would be interested in donating the vehicles to the sheriff’s department.
“Without hesitation, we said ‘Sure, we’ll donate them,’ ” Lynn Colbaugh said.
She said that once the titles were turned over to the sheriff’s department, Harris handed her two checks, one for each of the vehicles, totaling $4,500 payable to her.
“I said, ‘Kent, why am I holding these checks? This is a donation,’ ” Lynn Colbaugh said.
Lynn Colbaugh testified that Harris said he was aware the vehicles were a donation, but told her and her husband that a value must be placed on the vehicles to transfer funds “from one account to another.” She said she was asked by Harris to cash the checks and return to him with $4,500 in $100 bills. Lynn Colbaugh said she did this without question because of her trust in Harris.
“I just know it was a donation and I did what he asked me to do,” she said.
She also testified that no mention of the bloodhounds was ever made in reference to these funds and that she and her husband were paying to care for the dogs, which she said they continued to do through January 2011.
Lynn Colbaugh said she and her husband were close to Harris and at one point had willed their entire $1.5 million estate to him. They had also made monetary and other donations to the sheriff’s department over the years, she said.
“We loved him like a son,” Lynn Colbaugh said. “Tom and I never had any children. We thought the world of him.”
However, she said this changed following a meeting with Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Agent Chris Bevins, who was assigned to the Harris investigation. She said Bevins met with her and her husband in late 2010 and advised them that the $4,500 in county funds could not be located and showed them documents signed by Harris and submitted to the Unicoi County Mayor’s office requesting payment for the vehicles.
“I couldn’t believe he had done us that way,” she said of Harris.
Harris’ counsel attempted to call Lynn Colbaugh’s credibility into question. Attorney Stacy Street, Harris’ co-counsel, asked her about the signature on the title of one of the vehicles when it was transferred to the sheriff’s department in September 2008. Street said this title had been signed by Eugene Price, her aunt’s husband. Price died in July 2007, but the signature on the title was dated May 7. In response to Street’s questioning, Lynn Colbaugh said she signed under Price’s name because of the power of attorney she had on her aunt’s property and had backdated the signature prior to his death. She also said the will was changed to remove Harris after their second and final meeting with Bevins, but Street questioned why Bevins’ report included information regarding the will change.
Tom Colbaugh corroborated much of his wife’s direct testimony. He also said the vehicles had been donated to the sheriff’s department, and that his wife was following Harris’ instruction when cashing the checks made payable to her and providing Harris with the cash.
He also testified that no mention of the $4,500 was made in regards to the care of the bloodhounds he had purchased for the sheriff’s department in 2004. He also said the couple’s will was changed after their meeting with Bevins.
The state also presented jurors with copies of documents they said showed a request from Harris submitted to the county mayor’s office seeking payment for the vehicles. Clark also called several other witnesses throughout the day, including County Mayor Greg Lynch, sheriff’s department bookkeeper Joy Grindstaff, County Clerk Mitzi Bowen and state auditor Mark Treece, who testified auditors found no receipts of the $4,500 coming back into a county fund.
Most of this testimony was focused on the process that a county department or official must go through when attempting to make a purchase using county funds, which includes a requisition being submitted to the county mayor’s office and checks coming from the county trustee’s office if the request is approved.
Bowen, whose office is responsible for keeping the minutes of county meetings, testified Harris had stated at a county finance committee meeting that the vehicles had been donated.
The state rested its case at around 4:20 p.m., and Harris’ defense got under way with its case before court was recessed at 5 p.m. The defense called Pattye Elliott, director of East Tennessee Bloodhound Rescue, where the bloodhounds eventually ended up, to testify. Elliott said that when she was contacted by Harris a little more than a year ago to see if the bloodhounds could be sent to the rescue, she told him that her sanctuary did not have the resources or housing to accept them. She said Harris offered to provide a donation to go toward housing and care for the dogs if they could remain at the rescue for the remainder of their lives.
Elliott said her husband came to pick up the dogs and received a check from Harris for $5,500 dated May 28, 2011. This was after the Unicoi County Commission voted to donate the dogs to the rescue last May. She also said Tom Colbaugh was briefly present for a meeting she previously had regarding the dogs with Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department officials.
The trial continues today at 9 a.m. in Unicoi County Criminal Court.