Third Marion County coach relieved of duties in vandalism scandal

Third Marion County coach relieved of duties in vandalism scandal

November 19th, 2013 by Stephen Hargis in Local - Breaking News

Marion county assistant coach Joe Dan Grudger instructs the Warrior linebackers during drills.

Photo by Robin Rudd/Times Free Press.

JASPER, Tenn. - Shortly after Marion County sheriff's deputies made a second arrest in the case of vandalism at Marion County High School's football field house, the school relieved a third assistant coach of his coaching duties this afternoon and self-reported its football program for a major TSSAA practice violation.

According to Marion County schools superintendent Mark Griffith, Tim Starkey, a first-year assistant with the Warriors, was relieved of his coaching duties, effective immediately. Neither Griffith nor sheriff's deputies would confirm or deny if Starkey also will be charged with the vandalism at the school or other charges.

Earlier this afternoon, MCHS teacher and assistant coach Joe Dan Gudger became the second staff member in less than a week to be arrested on charges of vandalism of $1,000-$10,000. He joined Warriors assistant Michael Schmitt, who was arrested last Wednesday following a joint investigation by the county sheriff's department and Jasper police. Gudger was also charged with possession of alcohol on school property today.

Following Schmitt's arrest, county investigators were able to pull his cell phone records and discovered conversations between him and other coaches discussing painting the field house and making it look like South Pittsburg supporters were the culprits.

The vandalism charges stem from the school's field house and other property being spray-painted with vulgarities and having trash strewn over the parking lot during the early-morning hours of Nov. 1. Officers involved believe the vandalism was an attempt to inspire the Marion County football team before its game against county rival South Pittsburg that night. However, the Pirates won the game 35-17.

Also today, Marion County school administrators self-reported a TSSAA violation for having a non-student athlete suit up and practice with the team. According to the same cell phone records police used to arrest Gudger, it was discovered that former South Pittsburg all-state running back Raquis Hale was paid to show up for "several" practices to help Marion players prepare for South Pittsburg's speed advantage.

"We have evidence that shows that was factual," Griffith said. "We have discovered that having [Hale] come in to practice with the team did happen, and myself and [MCHS] school principal Larry Ziegler have notified the TSSAA that he was used to practice with the Marion football team for at least the week of the South Pittsburg game."

According to TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress, having someone who is not a member of the coaching staff, and is a former college athlete, practice with the team is considered a "major" violation.

"It definitely is a violation of the rules," Childress said. "We will set the appropriate penalty for those violations at the proper time. That will come after the criminal investigation is closed."

Practice violations typically result in having one week of practice taken away for every individual day the violation occurred.

One sheriff's department official said the investigation is continuing and that more charges could be coming, as early as Wednesday. He would neither confirm nor deny whether other members of the Marion County coaching staff were involved.

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293.