'Kill or be killed': Agent says Jonesborough man claimed murder-for-hire plot was self-preservation

Becky Campbell • Aug 30, 2013 at 8:39 AM

A former TV reporter and one-time U.S. Senate candidate hatched a murder-for-hire plot to have his uncle killed because he believed the man was trying to kill him, according to testimony in a preliminary hearing Thursday.

Thomas Kenneth “T.K.” Owens, 128 Leach St., Jonesborough, appeared in Washington County General Sessions Court, where Judge Robert Lincoln heard a TBI agent detail the plan he said Owens crafted. He’s charged with solicitation to commit first-degree murder.

The victim in the alleged murder-for-hire plot was Owens’ uncle, Ernie Widby, Johnson City local minister who is also a part-time bailiff for the Carter County Sheriff’s Office.

Special Agent Brian Fraley testified that a former Jonesborough police officer, Mike Lewis, contacted law enforcement on Aug. 22 and said Owens had contacted him about a contract killing.

According to Fraley, Lewis ran into Owens several months ago when Owens working at a local convenience store. Owens and Lewis, who already were acquainted, conversed about what Lewis was now doing — working for a military contractor providing security details in the Middle East — and Owens got the man’s number.

On Aug. 22, Fraley said, Owens contacted Lewis and had a conversation about having someone killed.

It wasn’t until the two met that night in the parking lot of Bailey’s Sports Bar — and after Lewis was wired and working undercover — that Owens revealed whom he wanted killed.

Fraley said Owens provided a photo of Widby, his home address and a $500 cash down payment for the hit. The agent also testified that Owens said he wanted it to look like an accident to keep from alerting police.

When Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks asked Fraley why Owens said he wanted the hit carried out, the agent said Owens told Lewis that his uncle was trying to kill him.

“Basically it was either him or the intended victim,” Fraley testified. “It was kill or be killed.”

Defense attorney Wesley Taylor didn’t put on any witnesses, but questioned Fraley about how the initial contact between Lewis and Owens occurred and the procedural aspects of the undercover operation and interview after Owens was arrested.

After hearing all the testimony, Lincoln bound the case over to a grand jury. Owens remained jailed on a $100,000 bond with a Criminal Court hearing set for Nov. 18.

Owens has had several run-ins with law enforcement since 2011 when he was charged in Carter County with solicitation of a minor.

He was arrested May 31, 2011, after the 7-year-old girl’s mother told officials that Owens had invited her into his apartment to get a “twisty tie” ring he made.

The girl told her mother Owens gave her the ring and asked for a hug. After she hugged him, she said he unzipped his pants and exposed himself to her and asked her if she wanted to perform an inappropriate act. The girl told Owens she had to go home to finish her chores. She then ran home.

The case remained pending, with the latest hearing set for Oct. 3.

Owens was a reporter for WJHL-TV in the early 2000s. In the 2012 election, he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate seat held by Tennessee’s Bob Corker.

• Related article:

Update: Former U.S. Senate candidate accused of trying to have Carter Co. deputy killed

• More about Owens:

Local US senate candidate faces charge of soliciting minor for sex in Carter Co.

Corker, Roe easily win GOP primaries; Overall places third

Results of Democratic Primary both embarrassing, disappointing

• More about Widby:

New heart helps in man’s spiritual journey

Injured bailiff returns to job

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