Competency hearing canceled as murder-for-hire, child solicitation defendant expected to plead guilty

Becky Campbell • Jan 28, 2014 at 9:54 AM

A Jonesborough man charged in separate cases of solicitation of murder and solicitation of a minor was set for a competency hearing Monday and a trial starting today, but his attorney withdrew the motion and the trials were also canceled.

Instead of going to trial on solicitation of first-degree murder and solicitation of a minor, Thomas Kent “T.K.” Owens, 38, was set to enter a guilty plea in Jonesborough on Wednesday. That’s also where the competency hearing was scheduled, but Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks confirmed he received word late Sunday from Owens’ attorney, David Robbins, that the hearing was off.

“He met with his client over the weekend and (Owens) was stabilized,” Brooks said Monday morning.

At that point, the trials were still a go, but by mid-afternoon, word came from Brooks that there would be no trials and Owens will plead guilty. Brooks did not say if Owens will plead as charged or if he has been offered a plea deal.

If he pleads as charged, both crimes are Class B felonies and each carries 12 to 15 years in prison. With no criminal record, Owens would only have to serve 30 percent of his sentence.

Owens’ mental health had initially been an issue for the defense, and at a court appearance in November, Robbins and Brooks said they had a report from Frontier Health that indicated Owens’ competency to stand trial fluctuated from day to day. That instability could have prevented Owens from understanding the proceedings against him.

Also at that hearing, Robbins told Senior Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood that while the initial report indicated Owens was competent to stand trial, “there are real concerns about his competency. He’s in a very volatile state, and they’re worried week to week whether nor not he’s going to be competent to stand trial.”

In the solicitation of a minor case, Robbins had filed a motion of his intent to rely on a defense of insanity at the time of that alleged crime. It all became irrelevant when Owens apparently decided to accept a plea deal.

The solicitation of a minor case stems from a May 21, 2011, incident in which Owens is accused of unzipping his pants, exposing himself to a 7-year-old girl and asking her if she wanted to put it in her mouth.

The girl had been riding her bike in front of Owens’ Carter County apartment when he allegedly approached her and offered the girl a “twisty tie” ring he made. When she went into his apartment, Owens gave her the ring and asked for a hug, court records said. That’s when the girl said Owens exposed himself to her.

The girl said she told Owens she had to get home to finish her chores and then ran home, records said.

Owens was free on bond in that case when he allegedly tried to hire a hit man to kill his uncle, Ernie Widby, who is a local minister and part-time Carter County Sheriff’s Department bailiff.

Testimony in a preliminary hearing in the case said Owens believed Widby might kill him, and told the purported hit man it was “kill or be killed.”

The alleged meeting took place Aug. 23 in a Johnson City bar parking lot, and the man Owens tried to hire was a former Jonesborough police officer he happened to see at a convenience store the previous day.

The men knew each other from when Owens was a local TV reporter, and they had a casual conversation about what each had been doing since they’d last seen each other. Owens asked for the man’s number and allegedly called him the next day to ask about having someone killed.

At the Aug. 23 meeting, Owens provided a photo of Widby, his home address and a $500 cash down payment for the hit. Owens also allegedly requested that the hit look like an accident to keep from alerting law enforcement.

Owens has remained jailed on $100,000 bond since his arrest on the solicitation of murder charge. Aside from being a local TV reporter at one time, Owens made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 2012.

Criminal Court Judge Robert Cupp had the solicitation of a minor case, but when Owens was charged with murder for hire, he recused himself because of his acquaintance with Widby. Blackwood, a visiting judge, was appointed to the case.

The defense had asked that both cases be tried in Jonesborough based on publicity in the solicitation of a minor case. Blackwood granted that request.

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