published Thursday, June 26th, 2014

Bessie Smith Strut case takes twist: How much money was really stolen?

  • photo
    Chattanoogans crowd MLK Blvd. during the Bessie Smith Strut.
    Photo by Shawn Paik.
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Torrey Hines admitted to using his key to enter the Bessie Smith Cultural Center on the early morning of June 10. He admitted to using a sledgehammer to break holes in an office door. He admitted to spray-painting racial slurs on the wall to mislead police.

And he admitted to stealing a lot of money from a desk drawer in the hours following the Strut festival.

But Hines, a 35-year-old who worked at the center, did not admit to stealing even half the total amount of money that officials at the center say is missing.

During an interview at the police service center on Monday, Hines brought a box containing $39,921 and said that he had spent about $2,500 on bills and gas. But that was all he took, he told police.

"Mr. Hines denied taking the $88,932 that Bessie Smith Cultural Center employees claim is missing," Hines' arrest report states.

The nearly $50,000 discrepancy is a twist in a case that appeared to be all but closed. It is revealed in Hines' arrest report, which also details how investigators used DNA evidence to narrow their focus to a handful of workers at the center and leads to questions about what Hines did with the money -- or about how much was actually taken.

City Councilman Moses Freeman, who fielded Hines' confession before police did, believes Hines' claim that he did not steal the $46,511 that remains unaccounted for.

"Torrey is guilty of breaking in, burglarizing, robbing and the things they accused him of," Freeman said Wednesday. "There's no doubt in my mind about that. That's clear. But I believe him when he says that he gave us all the money."

Police estimated earlier in the investigation that the thief made off with close to $60,000, but the Bessie Smith Cultural Center accountant's report later reflected that $88,932 was actually missing, a source close to the investigation said Wednesday.

The center's president, Rose Martin, declined to comment when reached by phone Wednesday afternoon.

No new information was available Wednesday on what Hines might have done with the rest of the money if he did, in fact, steal more than what he admitted to. At any rate, Freeman is skeptical of that notion.

"That would be difficult for me to believe," said Freeman. He criticized the Bessie Smith Cultural Center for attempting to distance itself from Hines by calling him an "independent contractor" rather than an employee as media reports have referred to him.

"Well, an independent contractor had keys to the building and to everything else in the building," Freeman said. "That's not an independent contractor.

"He worked there. He had inside information, and if he was an independent contractor, why would you expose him to the places where you kept your assets? It's sloppy on their part."

The arrest report also shed new light on the specifics of the break-in.

Because security cameras were being installed, the building's alarm system was not activated.

The cash had been left in a desk drawer locked with a single key. That key was kept in an unlocked safe in the same office.

Though Hines said he entered the building with his key, a glass door to the building was broken out, and Hines apparently cut himself on the glass. Officers found blood near the broken glass and on a fake plant near the door of the office.

Police took DNA samples from several employees, including Martin, to compare with the samples that were found.

When Hines came in for his collection, police said he acted nervous and said he had cut his hand the night of the Strut.

Hines is free on bond awaiting a July 15 court date. He declined to discuss the situation Wednesday.

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

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