Bradley County, Tenn., Sheriff Eric Watson lobbed attacks at the Times Free Press and a Bradley County commissioner Friday after a special prosecutor dismissed all 12 felony counts Watson faced on forging automobile titles.
Watson was charged with having or using forged titles for six cars he bought in Florida and sold in Tennessee in 2016. He was later booked into his own jail and posted bond on six felony counts, but Jimmy Dunn, district attorney in the 4th Judicial District, said Thursday he decided to dismiss the charges after Watson's attorney provided proof the sheriff paid local taxes on the vehicles.
"I've said from the beginning these falsehoods were based not from wanting to do the right thing for the public good, but from the motivation of revenge, politics and self-interest," Watson said at a news conference Friday morning.
"Yesterday, Thursday, at 11:04 a.m., my hopes were finally realized as I always knew they would be when [District Attorney] General Jimmy Dunn released his decision to not pursue the case against me and drop all charges. In doing so he has put an end for me and my family as well as this county and the sheriff's office of this painful episode which has gone too far and for way too long."
He used the conference as an opportunity to swipe at Bradley County Commissioner Dan Rawls, saying he'd "lost track of everything that Commissioner Rawls has tried to accuse me of." Watson also took aim at Times Free Press reporter Judy Walton, who has written extensively about Watson's legal troubles over the last two years.
"Also, for Ms. Walton, the tabloid she works for, they never failed to trumpet it was their investigative skills that led to the charges that was eventually filed against me, the sheriff of Bradley County. Well the facts here really turned out to be stubborn. These were the facts they either cared not to find or their stellar investigative skills failed to find. I wouldn't hire them to investigate the death of a house cat," he said.
"Bradley County has great people and they're tired and sick of the negativity from the Chattanooga liberal press. Get the facts straight. Get them straight. Print the whole truth, not just what you want to to try to damage somebody's reputation, because that's what you've done for the last two years."
Alison Gerber, Times Free Press editor and director of content, defended Walton's reporting with a statement released shortly after Watson's news conference.
"The Times Free Press stands by reporter Judy Walton's stories on Sheriff Watson and her reporting methods. The DA's report acknowledged that Watson violated the law, but said the office chose not to prosecute because he paid taxes on the cars he purchased. It does not contradict the Times Free Press investigation, published Dec. 4, 2016, 11 days before Watson paid taxes on the vehicles," the statement read.
"In more than two years of stories about Watson, he has never contacted the Times Free Press to dispute the accuracy of the reporting or to ask for a correction."
Watson also took time during his news conference to thank Dunn and his colleagues, who he said were "professional" during the investigative process.
"You know, we work on the same side of the street in law enforcement and I understand how difficult it must have been to be called upon to enter into the determination as to whether one of their own is breaking the law," he said.
"You know, guys, ladies, taking an oath as a law enforcement officer is a sacred one which comes with a high standard of trust, morals and honesty. It's the same one that I took as sheriff when I entered that field and uphold proudly to this very day. Sometimes justice comes hard and slow, but the judicial system does work and this ordeal has only hardened my faith in its operations."
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.