The Bradley County Sheriff's Office is investigating how a prisoner in chains and shackles was left overnight in a courthouse holding cell with no access to food, water or a bathroom.
The prisoner, Nathaniel Caldwell, sat in the dark in a small cell behind the courtroom while the Bradley County Republican Party held its regular meeting 10 feet away, but no one heard a peep.
He wasn't found until the courtroom was opened Wednesday morning, multiple sources told the Times Free Press.
Sheriff Jim Ruth could not be reached for comment. Interim Chief Deputy W.G. "Buck" Campbell said he could not comment until an internal investigation is complete. He said he hopes to have answers by next week.
No phone number or address could be located for Caldwell on Wednesday. Court records did not list an attorney for him, and the public defender's office said Caldwell is not a client.
Rich Keinlen, misdemeanor probation officer for Bradley County, said Caldwell went to court Tuesday and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor theft charge, reduced from a felony.
However, an arrest warrant for the felony theft charge already had been issued, and Caldwell was ordered to report to the probation office and was arrested, Keinlen said.
What happened after that, he isn't sure.
"I don't know what actually transpired; he was out of our custody at that point," Keinlen said.
Caldwell was placed in a holding cell at the Bradley County Courthouse about 3:30 p.m. Tuesday for transport to the Bradley County Jail, but the arresting officer apparently forgot to tell anyone to come get him.
He was in a cell normally used for women prisoners just a few feet from the court security office, but the guards apparently never checked the cell before the courthouse closed or anytime that night after the doors were locked.
Sheriff-elect Eric Watson, who was at one time captain over court security for the Bradley County Sheriff's Office, said he was concerned about apparent lax security and poor procedures. Watson said Wednesday he'd received several calls about the incident.
"I'm not real familiar with what happened, but it's very important to have good policy procedures when you take a prisoner into custody and when you transport him to the jail to be booked in," said Watson, who defeated Ruth in the May primary and will take office Sept. 1.
"I look forward to looking over procedures once we take over and making sure they are followed."
Keinlen said Caldwell was unharmed after his 18-hour ordeal and is due in court this morning.
Because Caldwell pleaded guilty Tuesday to a reduced theft charge, the judge could dismiss the probation violation.
"At this point we're not wanting to penalize him any more," Keinlen said.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at email@example.com or 423-757-6416.
Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...