Polk County: In-laws, landlords charged in civil rights intimidation

Polk County: In-laws, landlords charged in civil rights intimidation

June 28th, 2011 by Beth Burger in News

Ellis Weatherspoon, of Turtletown, Tenn., stands near his kitchen window where someone threw a racial slurred note attached to a cinderblock on June 13. "It came all the way through and hit the coffee pot."

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

TURTLETOWN, Tenn. - The in-laws of a man who reportedly had part of a cinderblock thrown through his window with threatening, racial slurs attached in a note were arrested over the weekend.

The incident involved a domestic argument and was not related to the cinderblock incident, records show.

On Friday evening, Polk County Sheriff's Office deputies were called out to the home of 45-year-old Ellis Weatherspoon after his in-laws, who are also his landlords, told him to get out and used racial slurs, including the "n" word, according to arrest reports.

Jonathan Smith, 45, and his wife, Janet Smith, 35, were both arrested after the altercation, according to reports.

Jonathan Smith was charged with aggravated assault, prohibited weapon and civil rights intimidation. Janet Smith was charged with civil rights intimidation, according to reports.

The couple posted $750 bonds on Monday morning.

Jennifer Weatherspoon, 28, who is Janet Smith's sister, lives with Ellis Weatherspoon and the two have a 3-year-old son. She is white and he is black. On June 13, a chunk of cinderblock came through the window of their trailer with a note that read, "Get out of town N----- or u die" and signed with the initials "KKK."

After posting bond, the Smiths said they went to the trailer where the Weatherspoons live after Jennifer Weatherspoon came to stay with them on Friday, saying she left because of an argument with Ellis Weatherspoon. She sent the Smiths to the trailer to collect some of her clothes and personal items, they said.

While there, a heated argument broke out between Ellis Weatherspoon and Janet Smith and they began throwing rocks at each other, according to accounts. Jonathan Smith, who keeps a .38-caliber Derringer in his glovebox, then threatened Weatherspoon, police reports said.

Jonathan Smith said he never took the gun out of the glovebox, brandished it nor threatened Weatherspoon, he said.

"Of course not," he said.

Jonathan Smith was arrested Friday, then both Smiths were arrested Sunday night on the civil rights intimidation charges in connection with the racial slurs that reportedly were made.

"We didn't drop the 'n' word. They just made it up - like everything," said Janet Smith. "He's calling everybody 'cracker.'"

Ellis Weatherspoon said that, on Friday, he walked over from a neighbor's residence and found the couple at his home. He told the Smiths that Jennifer Weatherspoon could come to collect her own belongings, but otherwise, he would not allow them to get anything out of the trailer, he said.

"They went into a savage fit," he said. "She spit in my face and threw gravel. He pulled his little handgun out of his pocket on me because I was going to punch her in the face. I don't beat women up but, I mean, you get so fed up with stuff."

Sheriff's office records show the couples have a history of incidents, including a March 11 incident where Weatherspoon claimed the Smiths unlawfully entered the trailer and took some DVDs.

Some legal experts don't think the civil rights charges will stick because the racial slurs were used in a domestic situation.

"The First Amendment comes into play here as you can gather," said veteran criminal defense attorney Jerry Summers of Chattanooga. "Using the 'n' word in that context, it becomes a question, 'Did you pull this gun on me because I'm black or because I'm trying to keep you from taking some of my property?'"

Polk County Sheriff Bill Davis did not return numerous messages left Monday.

Civil rights intimidation is a class D felony punishable from two to 12 years, depending on prior criminal records.

It's unclear if the Smiths are suspects in the cinderblock incident. As of Monday, no arrests had been made in the case, but it is being investigated by the FBI.

FBI spokesman Ed Galloway said investigators continue to follow up leads in that case but declined to comment further.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@times freepress.com or 423-757-6406.