CLEVELAND, Tenn. — A Bradley County commissioner accused by Sheriff Eric Watson of involvement in a Florida murder case called Watson a liar and demanded an apology from the sheriff and the local newspaper.
"I want to make this clear: The attempt to link me to this or any murder is a clear fabrication," Commissioner Dan Rawls said from the dais during a commission voting session Monday.
He was referring to a March 12 story in the Cleveland Daily Banner that detailed a 1977 robbery-murder in Jacksonville, Fla. Two men, Donald Perry and Daniel Rawls, were charged in the case. Rawls was granted immunity and testified against Perry, who got a death sentence that later was commuted to life in prison.
Watson told the Banner that Commissioner Rawls "ran into some problems in Florida" and that the murder case went to the state's Supreme Court. The story seems to assume defendant Rawls and Commissioner Rawls are one and the same.
Commissioner Rawls said that was a different Rawls — and he said the sheriff had known it since 2015.
"Eric Watson and the Cleveland Daily Banner, you have 24 hours to apologize and admit the whole story is a fabrication and a lie. You owe this to the people of Bradley County and to my family," he said.
Asked for comment, Watson referred to a statement he made March 9.
"He left Florida with issues and perhaps Commissioner Rawls will explain his involvement with the justice system there, however, Commissioner Rawls' involvement with the justice system did not end there, it carried over to our great State of Tennessee," Watson's statement said.
"... Mr. Rawls [sic] criminal history is public information and can be accessed through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Criminal Information History Link and also by the Bradley County Criminal Clerks Office," Watson told the Times Free Press.
Cleveland Daily Banner Publisher Ralph Baldwin did not respond to a request for comment.
The sheriff and the commissioner aren't friends, to say the least. Rawls spearheaded a push to launch an inquiry by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation into the sheriff's office. That probe is in its eighth month and still active, TBI spokesman Josh DeVine said recently. The Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance also is investigating whether Watson sold numerous used cars without a license after a Times Free Press investigation revealed his activities.
Watson, for his part, has said Rawls is out to get him, because he refused to fire two Bradley County Sheriff's Office employees who are in a legal battle with the commissioner.
The latest war of words began with Watson reacting to a police report, saying someone saw the sheriff's wife try to run him down in her SUV on the grounds of the Bradley County Justice Center on Feb. 8.
A Cleveland Police Department report filed March 8 quotes Rawls as speaking for a BCSO employee who didn't want to be named for fear of retaliation.
The report states: "The employee witnessed a white SUV drive up on the back side of the sheriff's office. The employee advised the vehicle drove aggressively over the curb and drove through the grass. The employee explained there was a male standing outside on the grass running away from the SUV. The employee identified the male subject to be Sheriff Eric Watson."
The report also said the employee identified the vehicle as one that "belonged to Eric Watson's wife."
In his statement, Watson said: "This accusation is a lie; at no time did my wife drive a vehicle onto the grass at the Justice Center. In fact, at the time Commissioner Rawls report states the incident took place, we did not have possession of or own a white SUV. This shows the malicious nature and dishonesty of Commissioner Rawls."
Rawls said the officer who took the initial police report recorded the vehicle color incorrectly. An addendum to the report dated March 9 corrects his statement to say the vehicle was "dark-colored." The Banner story didn't note the addendum.
The report says Watson's wife, Tenille, drove a black SUV until recently, when she replaced it with a white one.
Rawls told the Times Free Press he filed the police report because there was evidence of vandalism and possibly attempted aggravated assault at the Justice Center.
Photos show muddy tire tracks crossing the sidewalk and gouged into the grass leading toward a door into the building.
He said when he first heard about the damage, he requested video recordings of the scene and was told the cameras weren't operating on that date. According to Lt. Mike Boggess, who has charge of the cameras, construction work in the building tripped the breakers and caused an outage.
Watson told the Banner it was he, not his wife, who made the tracks when he was delivering drinks or snacks for department employees. He said Rawls had "attacked me personally" and "filed an official police report to defame and bring shame on my wife."
The Banner article listed Rawls' own four arrests in Bradley County, for theft, assault (twice) and contempt of court. Rawls said he was convicted of simple assault in one case and the others were dismissed.
The newspaper outlined the Florida murder case and quoted Watson as calling Rawls "a bully and a liar" and saying Rawls "brought his problems to Tennessee when he moved here."
However, a rebuttal article in Sunday's Banner said Rawls provided copies of a mugshot of the Florida murder defendant — a black man. He also provided a 2015 letter from District Attorney General Steve Crump saying there was no evidence he had a felony conviction in Florida, though defendant Rawls was convicted of armed robbery in the case.
Rawls said in the article Crump told him "with all certainty" Watson had been told of the finding.
Rawls brought the same documents to Monday's meeting and passed out copies to the commissioners and media.
The 2015 letter from Crump was addressed to attorney James F. Logan Jr., Bradley County Litigation Counsel, and referenced Logan's belief Rawls was a felon and therefore could be ousted from the commission.
"... (T)his office finds that no evidence exists of the conviction which you alleged," Crump wrote to Logan.
Rawls' statement Monday in the commission meeting drew no comments from his colleagues.
Asked after the meeting for a response, Chairman Louie Alford said, "That's between him and the sheriff."
Commissioner Thomas Crye, who has been critical of the sheriff's office in the past, said that "with the resources available to our chief law enforcement officer and the fact the DA previously was aware of this, that's sufficient reason why this should not be an issue.
"I'm of the opinion that someone owes someone an apology."
Finance Committee Chairman Milan Blake called it an "unfortunate situation" when the commission has many serious issues to deal with.
"I look on this as an unnecessary distraction," he said.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at email@example.com or 423-757-6416.