Since his alleged involvement in the case against former Hamilton County Sheriff Billy Long became public, self-proclaimed confidential witness Rev. C. Eugene Overstreet says he has found himself destitute and alone.
“I have suffered great loss for what I consider to be the right thing,” Rev. Overstreet said with a sniffle during a phone interview Wednesday. “My business is not doing good. It’s because I’ve done good for others... When (others in the community) found out I worked with the FBI, I became poison ivy.”
The longtime preacher and funeral home operator said he had no relationship with Mr. Long prior to the FBI asking him to assist in an investigation into extortion, money laundering, drug trafficking and firearm offenses. The former sheriff pleaded guilty to 27 or the 28 counts on May 5.
Rev. Overstreet said he was not paid for his help, nor was he awarded any special treatment on a felony worthless check conviction for which he is still on probation.
He denied any ties to the recent arrest of Chattanooga City Councilman John “Duke” Franklin Jr., who was arrested on May 14 and charged with helping to launder drug proceeds, conspiring to obstruct justice and providing false statements to federal officials.
FBI officials have refused to confirm Rev. Overstreet’s involvement in either case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Humble, who is prosecuting Mr. Long’s case, reiterated Wednesday that the government cannot comment on specific dynamics of the investigation outside Mr. Long’s sentencing hearing, scheduled for Aug. 18.
Rev. Overstreet canceled two interviews with the Times Free Press at the last minute and failed to show up for a third before finally agreeing to a telephone interview Wednesday. He said he did not have anything to hide but that a hectic schedule and advice from attorneys delayed him until then.
He declined to discuss his financial situation in the interview, but on May 13 he told members of the Tennessee Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers that he and his sick wife had “depleted all of our funds, except for that which come from the federal government.”
He said he was on his way to the poorhouse because he was “living under the complete dictates of the FBI” and was receiving death threats. As a result, he said, he could not operate his East Lake funeral home, Family Mortuary, and he begged the board to grant an associate named Gregory Dawson a license to run it for him.
The board denied his request, as it had in February, when it ruled Mr. Dawson did not meet the proper qualifications.
Mr. Dawson was applying for a license of reciprocity from Georgia, records show. Previously, Rev. Overstreet had owned a funeral home in Dalton, Ga., but that facility was shut down over accusations that he owed back rent. Alleged drug paraphernalia was found on the premises as well, according to newspaper archives.
The reverend now has a valid establishment license with the state of Tennessee, confirmed Robert Gribble, the state funeral board’s executive director, but Rev. Overstreet has never been a licensed funeral director or embalmer here and therefore cannot perform any services at the facility.
He would be able to operate the mortuary legally if he were a licensed funeral director himself or if he employed a licensed funeral director as a manager, Mr. Gribble said.
State records show Family Mortuary paid a $3,500 civil penalty for operating without a licensed director.
The business has been the subject of a total 12 complaints since 2002, according to Mr. Gribble, who noted the mortuary also had to pay a fine in 2002, though he couldn’t immediately provide the amount paid or offense in that case.
Among the complaints on file was a July 2002 allegation that Rev. Overstreet exposed himself to a woman while she was trying to make funeral arrangements for a family member, records show. The allegation was never proven, according to a Chattanooga police report, which indicated there was not enough evidence in the case to obtain an arrest warrant.
Any infractions against the business in the past were minor and relatively routine, according to Rev. Overstreet.
“The record will show that my funeral business is legitimate. When you violate in any business, you pay a fine and keep going,” he said. “To me that’s minuscule, when you compare it to (Mr. Long’s case).”
On Wednesday afternoon, the mortuary remained locked tight but appeared to be an open business with a sign out front and a hearse parked nearby.
Rev. Overstreet admitted to abusing drugs in the past, but said it was his experience overcoming that problem that led him to assist authorities in charging Mr. Long.
“That word ‘felon’ there has been stretched to an ugly proportion,” he said, referring to himself as the convicted felon to whom Mr. Long has admitted to providing a gun. “I’m no despicable dog. I did what I needed to do. I did not take an oath to hold up the law; Mr. Long did. And if the FBI needed me, I felt that as a citizen I should... work with them in any way I could.
“We all are cooperating witnesses,” he continued. “That’s what the law is about. That’s what crime is about. People are afraid to tell what they see and what they know until it involves them.”
The reverend said he feels he has paid a price for his cooperation, and he believes that Mr. Long’s attorney, Jerry Summers, and several black pastors in the Chattanooga area have ostracized him from the community through comments in both public and private arenas.
Mr. Summers, who has alleged in prior interviews that Rev. Overstreet’s character may affect the strength of the case against his client, declined comment Wednesday.
The Rev. Harold K. Lester of Orchard Knob Baptist Church said he could not comment on any allegations of Rev. Overstreet’s alienation from the black community following his involvement in the case.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Rev. Lester said.