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Seven men arrested in Erwin in undercover human trafficking sting

Seven men have been arrested and accused of trying to solicit sex from minors after a two-day undercover joint investigation in Erwin.

According to a press release from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, authorities put up “several decoy advertisements on websites known to be linked to prostitution and commercial sex cases” in an attempt to identify individuals looking to solicit commercial sex from minors.

The investigation, which began on June 9, was an attempt to address human trafficking in the region.

The investigation involved the Erwin Police Department, the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Office, the Jonesborough Police Department, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, the TBI Human Trafficking Unit and the office of 1st District Attorney General Ken Baldwin.

Authorities arrested seven men and booked them into the Unicoi County Jail. The following is a list of those arrested as a result of the investigation and their charges:

• Mark Daniel Higgins, 59, Asheville, North Carolina: Charged with solicitation of a minor by electronic means, solicitation of a minor;

• Jeffrey Lynn Rhoney, 61, Arden, North Carolina: Charged with trafficking for a commercial sex act (two counts), solicitation of a minor;

• Steven Charles Mayes, 47, Morristown: Charged with trafficking for a commercial sex act, solicitation of a minor;

• Benjamin Bouchot Moreno, 50, Asheville, North Carolina: Charged with trafficking for a commercial sex act (two counts), solicitation of a minor (two counts);

• Jose Raul Delgado Andrade, 41, Johnson City: Charged with trafficking for a commercial sex act, solicitation of a minor;

• Alberto Vazquez Gonzalez, 46, Bristol, Virginia: Charged with trafficking for a commercial sex act, solicitation of a minor; and

• Randall Dale Staton, 54, Bakersville, North Carolina: Charged with trafficking for a commercial sex act, solicitation of a minor.

Johnson City staff decorates city founder's cemetery monument

Members of Johnson City’s marketing and communications department decorated a monument to Johnson City’s founder in Oak Hill Cemetery on Friday.

Timothy McKinney, the owner of Oak Hill, said decorating the memorial to Henry Johnson, who is buried along with his wife, Mary, at the site, is part of the historic cemetery’s annual Decoration Day. Descendants are urged to visit the cemetery on Saturday to place flowers on the graves of their ancestors.

The birth of the city: Johnson, the city’s namesake, bought a half-acre piece of land in 1856 for $50 dollars and built a small residence that also served as a store. This would become what is known as “Johnson’s Depot.”

That parcel was located on what would today be Market Street near the intersection at Fountain Square.

Johnson was also elected the city’s first mayor in 1870 after receiving 60 votes.

A place of history: Established in 1870, Oak Hill is one of the oldest cemeteries in Johnson City. It is located on a 7.2-acre site bounded by Lamont, Boone, Wilson and Whitney streets.

The cemetery has the graves of many prominent residents in Johnson City’s history. It also overlooks the city’s aptly named Founders Park.

A final resting place: In addition to Henry Johnson, Tennessee National Guard Col. LeRoy Reeves, the designer of the Tennessee state flag, is buried in Oak Hill, as is Sam R. Sells, who served as 1st District congressman from 1911-1922, and May Ross McDowell, the first woman to serve as Johnson City’s mayor.

The McKinney Center in Jonesborough hosted the first of two "Mini Markets" on Friday, despite some wet weather that came and went for most of …

Judge dismisses defamation suit against restaurant accusers

A Washington County judge dismissed a Cootie Brown’s Inc. lawsuit against two women who last year accused the restaurant on social media of not adhering to recommended COVID-19 precautions during the pandemic.

Washington County Circuit Court Judge Jean Stanley issued the ruling April 27 with prejudice, which means the issue is dead.

The company sued Abigail Honeycutt and Emily Barnes, administrators of a Facebook page named Tri-Cities Hospitality Assistance, alleging defamation, false light invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of temporal, economic and property damages.

On that page, Honeycutt, Barnes, and others — some criticizing and others supporting — wrote comments about their concerns regarding Cootie Brown’s employees testing positive for COVID and still working, employees not wearing their masks once Washington County’s mandate was in place, and that there was no “deep cleaning” effort made by either of the restaurant’s locations.

“This is a huge win for my clients because the Tennessee Public Participation Act did its job,” defense attorney Grace Studer said. “It protected my clients from being forced to remove constitutionally protected speech simply because someone with deep pockets had the financial means to force them to endure lengthy and costly litigation.

“It is a message to all that speech on matters of public concern that is published with the proper due diligence is protected and the ‘little man,’ or in this case, ‘little women’ will not be bullied.”

Ricky Curtis, who represented Cootie Brown’s in the case, maintained that the restaurant never violated any COVID restrictions or regulations, but that the company followed those rules completely.

Curtis also said the restaurant “absolutely” did deep cleaning each night.

“They didn’t violate any regulations. The Facebook post (about masks) was made before the mask mandate. Once it was put into place for Washington County, they followed it religiously.”

Curtis said he believes the women, and others involved in the Facebook page, wanted Cootie Brown’s to shut down completely for three weeks like other restaurants in the area did.

“They had the Washington County Health Department come out … they received a glowing report as to what they were doing,” he said.

One of the allegations is that the restaurant did not close to “deep clean” after learning of a positive COVID case of more than one employee, and “has made no response to these assertions, or effort to clean their store, protect their staff, or their customers,” Studer wrote in her motion to dismiss.

She also noted the 30-day time limit has passed for a proper appeal filing from the restaurant.

Foreigner to rock Freedom Hall on Oct. 15

Foreigner is bringing “The Greatest Hits of Foreigner On Tour” to Freedom Hall Civic Center on Oct. 15.

Tickets start at $39 plus applicable fees. They go on sale Friday, June 18, at 10 a.m. VIP packages are available at www.foreigneronline.com.

Tickets are available at the Freedom Hall box office, online at www.freedomhall-tn.com or by phone at 423-461-4884.

With 10 multi-platinum albums and 16 Top 30 hits, Foreigner is considered one of the most popular rock acts in the world, with album sales exceeding 80 million.

Foreigner is responsible for some of rock and roll’s most enduring anthems, including “Juke Box Hero,” “Cold As Ice,” “Hot Blooded,” “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” “Feels Like The First Time,” “Urgent,” “Head Games,” “Say You Will,” “Dirty White Boy,” “Long, Long Way From Home” and the worldwide No. 1 hit, “I Want To Know What Love Is.”

Streams of Foreigner’s hits are approaching 10 million per week.

Founded in 1976, Foreigner‘s debut album produced the hits “Feels Like The First Time,” “Cold As Ice” and “Long, Long Way From Home.”

The album Double Vision followed, as did a string of hits including “Urgent,” “Juke Box Hero” and “Waiting For A Girl Like You.”

Those songs helped give Foreigner‘s next album, 4, its impressive run at No. 1 on the Billboard chart.

At the zenith of 1980s sound, Foreigner‘s fifth album, Agent Provocateur, gave the world “I Want To Know What Love Is.”

This musical milestone followed the record-breaking song “Waiting For A Girl Like You.”

More about Foreigner — including individual band member bios, tour dates and merchandise — can be found on the band’s official website, www.foreigneronline.com.