Noteworthy crimes, court cases from 2013

Becky Campbell • Dec 30, 2013 at 4:17 PM

In addition to the numerous homicides and child abuse cases in the Northeast Tennessee region in 2013, there were also a number of other notable and newsworthy crime and court stories.

Some of those include convictions in high-profile court cases, arrests in older crimes and at least one major case that was overturned by an appellate court.

The overturned case was a first-degree murder conviction against Dale Larkin.

Larkin, 58, was convicted two years ago in the 2003 drowning death of his wife, Teri Larkin, in a bathtub at their Shadowood subdivision home. The delay between her death and Larkin being arrested was due to an initial finding that Teri Larkin’s death was not a homicide.

The case was overturned by the Court of Criminal Appeals after the panel determined the judge erred by allowing a forensic pathologist to testify for the state after she had worked with the defense in a civil suit relating to the death.

The panel also determined there was not sufficient evidence for a first-degree murder conviction, but allowed Larkin to be retried for second-degree murder. The case will go to trial next year.

Other high-profile cases expected to go to trial or otherwise be resolved include:

- Brenda Gray, 55, charged with 39 counts of reckless aggravated assault in connection to a September 2012 school bus crash that injured 39 students.

- Steven O’Dell Bennett, 30, charged with first-degree murder in the October 2012 death of Vonda Donaldson. He’s accused of killing Donaldson, then dumping her body off the Butler Bridge in Carter County.

- T.K. Owens, a former local TV news reporter and one-time U.S. Senate candidate, was arrested in August after he allegedly hired a hit man to kill his uncle.

Investigators said an informant went to the Carter County Sheriff’s Office with information that Owens was looking to pay someone to kill Ernie Widby, a part-time Carter County court bailiff and local minister. That led to a meeting in Johnson City where Owens connected with another individual — who was working undercover — and handed over $500 as a down payment for the $2,500 hit.

Owens took a picture of Widby as well as his home address to the meeting in the parking lot of Bailey’s Sports Bar. Owens was arrested after the payment was made.

The case is still pending in Washington County Criminal Court and scheduled for trial in late January.

In Washington County, three major cases were heard by juries in 2013. Those include:

- James Henry Allen was convicted in February of first-degree murder in the May 2010 shooting death of 45-year-old Rick Carter at the home of Allen’s ex-wife, Deborah Franklin.

Prosecutors said Allen was jealous over his ex-wife’s new relationship and waited outside her mobile home for the opportunity to kill Carter.

Allen was sentenced to life in prison.

- In March, Poncho Delgado was convicted of first-degree murder in the May 2006 stabbing death of 41-year-old Robert Curtis, whose body was found inside his burning home.

Delgado claimed he didn’t know Curtis and was not at the man’s house the night of the killing. But prosecutors proved otherwise and the jury convicted Delgado. He’s serving life in prison.

The case had been to trial previously, but there was a hung jury after a misunderstanding when the judge was sick and postponed testimony. Those jurors thought the judge had canceled the trial and the panel then read about the case, which defense attorneys said tainted the group’s objectivity.

- In May, three people were convicted in a case involving a Washington County deputy being hit by a vehicle with three people fleeing from an robbery.

Reginald Smith, Dalvin Stephens and Ashley McGraw were convicted of two counts of attempted aggravated robbery and all three guilty of felony reckless endangerment with a deadly weapon. They were on trial for attempted second-degree murder for the collision that severely injured Deputy Gary Daugherty.

Stephens was sentenced to five years in prison on each of two counts of attempted aggravated robbery, two years for aggravated assault and two years for reckless endangerment.

Smith was sentenced to six years on each of the attempted robbery counts and 18 months on the reckless endangerment conviction. McGraw was sentenced to four years on the attempted robbery and one year on the reckless endangerment conviction.

- In a Carter County case, the first of four charged in what’s been named the Facebook murders was tried. Marvin “Buddy” Potter was convicted of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of Billy Clay Payne, 36, and Billie Jean Hayworth, 22, in their home in Johnson County.

The couple’s six-month old baby was in his mother’s arms when she was shot in the head. The child was not harmed.

The first case involved extensive use of e-mail and Facebook communications to establish the motive and guilt for the couple’s slaying. Assistant District Attorney Dennis Brooks told the court there will be even more electronic communication evidence in the second trial, in which Potter’s wife, Barbara Potter; his daughter, Janelle Potter; and family friend Jamie Curd are expected to be tried together.

The trial is scheduled for May, but Brooks said he expects the complicated trial will start at a later date.

Arrests from other critical court cases still pending around the region include:

- On Jan. 3, a Gray man was arrested and later indicted on charges related to a high-speed chase and shoot-out with a Tennessee Highway Patrol officer.

Derrick Dakota Kitzmiller, 20, 297 Kitzmiller Road, was indicted on charges of attempted first-degree murder, felony evading with risk of death, reckless endangerment, criminal impersonation, possession of a weapon by a convicted felon, driving on a suspended license with a prior DUI and speeding 110 mph in a 70-mph zone.

The criminal impersonation charges were levied because Kitzmiller was operating some type of blue flashing light on Russell’s vehicle, which caused other drivers to think they were being pulled over. That’s what alerted the THP to Kitzmiller’s erratic driving on Interstate 81 around 2:15 a.m. Jan. 3. When Trooper Jeff Appleba attempted to stop the offending vehicle, Kitzmiller sped up and continued onto Interstate 26, then exited onto Eastern Star Road and turned onto Hog Hollow Road.

Kitzmiller lost control in a curve, ran off the road and hit two trees. Appleba testified at a preliminary hearing in January that he got out of his cruiser and heard several popping noises. He though it was the wrecked car at first, but quickly realized it was gunfire. Appleba took cover and returned fire, at least 14 rounds, according to testimony at that hearing. Neither Appleba, Kitzmiller nor Kitzmiller’s girlfriend, Jennifer Russell, was hit in the exchange of gunfire.

- On March 23, Tony and Jama Curtis were arrested on charges related to exploitation of an elderly couple from whom they allegedly stole thousands of dollars.

- In May, city residents were on high alert after several Tree Street home invasions.

- In December, six people were arrested for their alleged involvement in a home invasion at a Unicoi County residence and/or the prior burglary of a Unicoi restaurant.

Officials have identified Corey Livesay, 19, of Unicoi, and Anthony James Davis, 25, of Midway, as the perpetrators of a Dec. 9 evening home invasion on Pleasant Hill Drive. The two were arrested Dec. 18, and each faces charges of aggravated kidnapping, aggravated burglary, assault and theft under $500 chargs.

The victim reported she returned to her Pleasant Hill Drive home and was approached by two men wearing ski masks, officials with the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department said. Authorities said the two men grabbed the victim and forced her into the house, where they used duct tape to restrain her to a chair.

The victim reported the men demanded the combination to a safe and threatened to kill her husband upon his return if she did not provide it. After the victim told the men she did not have the combination and could not open the safe, the two men fled and ran toward nearby Marbleton Road, officials said. Court records state the men took two cordless phones from the residence before fleeing.

On Dec. 20, four additional men were arrested. Calvin Sams, 18, and Kevin Craig, 28, were charged with burglary and theft over $1,000. Jameson Foster, 28, was charged with burglary and theft over $1,000 for his alleged role in the Oct. 17 burglary of the Maple Grove Restaurant, as well as charges of aggravated kidnapping, aggravated assault, assault and theft less than $500 for his alleged role in the home invasion. Tyler Salyers, 19, was charged with aggravated kidnapping, aggravated assault, assault and theft less than $500.

Davis also faces charges of burglary and theft over $1,000 for his alleged role in the restaurant burglary. The Maple Grove Restaurant is owned by the home invasion’s victim, sheriff’s department officials said.

All six defendants will be in a Unicoi County courtroom later this week.

- Also in December, a Carter County gun shop was burglarized and nearly 50 weapons stolen. Two teens were arrested in the Dec. 1 burglary of the Blue Springs Gun Shop. Joshua Wade Ray, 18, and a 17-year-old were arrested on charges of aggravated burglary and theft over $10,000. Authorities will ask the 17-year-old be tried as an adult. Most of the guns — 46 of the 47 stolen — were recovered after an undercover officer purchased six of the stolen guns. More weapons were then recovered from an Elizabethton self-storage facility.

Major arrests in older cases:

- Three people charged in a June 2012 Carter County double murder were arrested earlier this year. Jeffrey Lynn Whitehead, Jonathan Scott Shell and Tyler Daniel Shell each face two murder charges in the deaths of Joyce Brock, 61, and Russell Glen Shell, 54. Brock and Shell were found dead in the burned garage at 120 Hemlock Lane in the Hampton Creek community of Roan Mountain on June 26, 2012.

Autopsies revealed Brock was shot in the throat and head. Shell had one gunshot wound to the head. Their bodies were soaked with gasoline and set on fire.

The murdered couple was living in their garage because their home burned three weeks before they were killed. After the initial fire, Shell told officers he heard someone attempting to break in around 3:30 a.m. When the man failed to get inside, Shell said he noticed was the smell of diesel fuel, then saw flames consuming the wooden deck and a line of flames leading back to the yard.

Other major arrests in Carter County in 2013 include:

- Richard Shane Mabe, 33, was tracked down only one day after he had been placed on the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s Ten Most Wanted List. Mabe was arrested by Johnson County Sheriff’s deputies following a short, but spectacular, police pursuit in which several shots were exchanged and Mabe was wounded in the right forearm.

The Sheriff’s Department had been searching for Mabe since for three days after a shootout in which Mabe had allegedly shot Jackie Harlis and Michael Laird, both of Mountain City.

- In October, Matt Ainsworth, a Carter County deputy at the time, was arrested on a domestic violence charge that led to his resignation. Ainsworth, 25, was charged with assaulting his girlfriend and a male neighbor who tried to help her.

- Tommy and Michael Brummitt were arrested on numerous charges after a drive-by shooting incident on Dry Creek and Sciota roads Oct. 28 in which shots were fired at numerous homes. Two women were shot in different homes. Two children and their grandmother were showered with glass when the front window of their home was shot out.

- Silas Edward Sams, the longtime treasurer of Beck Mountain Baptist Church, was arrested in November on a charge he had embezzled more than $60,000 in church funds over several years. Sams surrendered to deputies after a grand jury indictment. Sheriff Chris Mathes said the exact amount of money stolen could not be determined, but said it was more than $100,000. The sheriff said the investigation began when church leaders came to the sheriff’s department seeking help.

In Washington County, major arrests included:

- Ginger Holtsclaw, Ashley Harold and Anthony Phillips were arrested in the 2011 shooting death of Gary Couch. A fourth person, Justin “Puff” Stratton, had already been charged in the death. The cases are still pending in court.

- Sanders Dixon, 22, of Springfield, Mass., was indicted on two counts of attempted first-degree murder in an August incident at a Johnson City bus stop. Dixon’s pregnant girlfriend, 18-year-old Toni Johnson, was starting to board a Johnson City Transit bus at the corner of West Watauga Avenue and Baxter Street. The bus had stopped at the corner and Johnson was getting ready to board when Dixon came up behind her and stabbed her, police and court records said.

- Samuel Garland, 58, former Johnson City jail superintendent, was indicted on a single charge of theft over $60,000. His son, David Garland, 38, was indicted on charges of theft over $10,000 and two counts of official misconduct. The investigation began after David Garland — employed then as a part-time worker for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department — returned from Buffalo Valley Golf Course with inmates he supervised. Johnson City Police Chief Mark Sirois said the female inmates were visibly intoxicated.

That led to further findings involving Sam Garland, who is accused of billing the Boys and Girls Club for supervising a custodial inmate work crew for the agency on West Market Street. He was being paid by the police department for the same work.

The investigation also uncovered an inappropriate relationship between David Garland and one of those inmates and eventually led to the discovery he logged time with the city during hours he was also working at ETSU, Sirois said. David Garland was a full-time ETSU public safety officer at the time, but resigned after the investigation began,

- Floyd Eugene Bailey, 55, 293 Rockingham Road, Gray, was indicted in a single-count presentment in November 2010 for the Feb. 16, 2010, crash that killed 88-year-old Rita Groseclose, of Kingsport.

District Attorney General Tony Clark said Bailey had oxycodone in his system, a contributing factor in the wreck.

The crash happened in Boones Creek on North Roan Street near Roseview Drive around 2:30 p.m. Bailey was headed north on Roan Street when his 1994 Chevrolet pickup crossed the center line into the southbound lane and hit Groseclose’s Buick LeSabre head-on, the Johnson City Police Department’s crash report said.

Other notable cases and incidents:

- In June, a first-degree murder case against Codey Miller was dismissed after a judge threw out his confession and said the police interrogation was wrought with errors. Once Miller’s alleged confession was no longer in evidence, prosecutors had little evidence to present to a jury so the case was dismissed.

- Dr. William Kincaid pleaded guilty in federal court to knowingly purchasing misbranded cancer treatment medications and was sentenced to serve two years in prison. The case was the demise of a longstanding cancer treatment center operated by Kincaid and several partners.

- Dr. Anindya Kumar Sen and his wife, Patricia Posey Sen were indicted in federal court on similar charges as Kincaid’s, but chose to stand trial. His case was somewhat different — he said he did not know the misbranded drugs at his practice were misbranded. Sen and his wife were acquitted of felony charges, but were convicted of less serious misdemeanor charges related to the case.

The Sens, who run the East Tennessee Cancer and Blood Centers in Johnson City and Greeneville, were, however, convicted of purchasing the misbranded drugs despite claims they had no knowledge the meds were misbranded.

The charges stem from purchases not approved by U.S. Food and Drug Administration from a drug provider in Canada from April 2009 through March 2012.

- On March 12, numerous suspicious packages were left at various locations throughout Johnson City. The city bomb squad investigated the packages and destroyed several, but all were determined to be anonymous gifts left by a man who meant no harm, police said at the time.

- On May 1, a woman and her son were arrested after a domestic violence incident led to a lengthy standoff with Washington County deputies.

- In June, Dr. Robert Allen, 63, 117 Brentwood Drive, was charged with charged with reckless driving, drug possession, a weapons violation and vandalism in an incident. He was wearing nothing but a bathrobe and underwear at the time, police said. After the chase, Allen emerged from his Brentwood Drive home with a bicycle horn in one hand and an American flag in the other, honking and marching in front of his garage.

In December, Allen pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. As part of his plea, Allen was ordered to undergo outpatient evaluation and necessary treatment, after which his case would be resolved. A judge set a March 14 court date to determine compliance.

Press Erwin Bureau Chief Brad Hicks and Elizabethton Bureau Chief John Thompson contributed to this report.

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