Sheriff: Double homicide over custody dispute

Sheriff: Double homicide over custody dispute

April 21st, 2011 by Joy Lukachick Smith in News

A flatbed wrecker from the Bradley County Sheriff's Office removes Aaron Lawson's vehicle from his uncle's auto parts business near Birchwood on Wednesday. Aaron Lawson faces charges in the Tuesday night shooting deaths of Charles and Deborah Phillips at their home north of Cleveland, Tenn.

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CHARLESTON, Tenn. - The Bradley County man charged with two counts of murder shot his daughter's grandparents over a custody dispute, the sheriff said Wednesday.

Aaron Lawson, 32, of Cleveland, Tenn., waited outside the home of Charles "Eddie" and Deborah Phillips near Charleston on Tuesday night until the couple came outside, Bradley County Sheriff Jim Ruth said.

Lawson is the father of the Phillipses' 11-year-old granddaughter, whose name has not been released. The sheriff didn't give details on the exact nature of the custody dispute but said the Phillipses and Lawson had argued about the subject.

Ruth didn't say why the couple came out of their house or if a fight broke out. But at some point Lawson apparently pulled out a 9 mm pistol and shot the couple - both in their 50s - several times each, Ruth said. Lawson then sped out of the driveway in his pickup truck around 8:45 p.m.

A manhunt involving multiple agencies lasted all Tuesday night and half of Wednesday. Then authorities got a tip that Lawson was hiding at the business of a family member off Highway 58 in north Hamilton County. A SWAT team and other officers staked out the business for several hours until they were able to arrest Lawson without trouble, police said.

"You never know what way they are going to react," said Bradley County Chief Deputy Wayne Bird, explaining authorities were ready for "suicide by cop," a situation in which someone provokes police into shooting.

Lawson was charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

Police have not released the name of the child's mother, who lives in Cleveland. They said she and Lawson had been in a relationship but could not confirm if they had been married or when the relationship ended.

She has custody of the daughter but Lawson was allowed visitation, authorities said.

Bird said authorities believe Lawson went over to the grandparents' home intending to kill them.

A woman at the home of Lawson's parents answered the phone Wednesday and identified herself as Mrs. Lawson, but declined to comment.

"[Lawson's parents] are very upset by this," the sheriff said.

The quaint neighborhood on Leatha Lane N.W. where the Phillipses lived was silent Wednesday morning except for chirping birds. The house the couple built in 1988 - a cottage-style home with a green tin roof - looked untouched.

The shooting took place between the garage and the couple's camper at the end of the driveway, authorities said. But rain Tuesday night seems to have washed away any evidence, a deputy at the scene said.

As the sun rose Wednesday, neighbors began to stir, coming outside, chatting and shaking their heads.

"It's just a tragic situation," said Luci Moore, who has lived across the street from the Phillipses for about 15 years. "They have just been real good neighbors."

Other neighbors were in shock, saying that nothing violent ever has happened in the neighborhood.

"On Leatha Lane of all places," said Virginia Wilkins, who lives several houses from the Phillipses.

Eddie Phillips, 58, and his wife, Deborah, 54, were often seen gardening in their flowerbeds and taking care of the lawn, Moore said. A grandson frequently was seen playing in the couple's yard, she said.

Eddie Phillips also owned an auto repair shop in Polk County, Ruth said.

"You can go in their house and see a lot of pictures of kids and grandkids," the sheriff said. "You can just tell that they share a lot of love with a lot of folks."

Lawson was out on bond for an aggravated assault charge in February, the sheriff said.

A police report showed the charge came after Lawson and another man got into a fight at Bonnie's Talk of the Town bar in Cleveland. The men were kicked out of the bar and Lawson stabbed the other man in the stomach, then fled, the report showed.

Since 1996, Lawson also has been arrested multiple times on charges of DUI, reckless endangerment and speeding. He also has a theft charge from 2002, court records show.