Hamilton County doesn't track ankle monitors after business hours, and criminals are taking advantage

Christopher Padgett

If nobody [in the county] is watching at 1:30 in the morning, that's a problem.

A note to criminal offenders in Hamilton County: If you're going cut off your ankle monitor, do it after business hours. And on weekends.

From 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. on weekdays, no county corrections officials are tracking real-time information that GPS monitors collect on 24 people who mostly face misdemeanor charges. A computer sends updates 24/7, but nobody's on the clock to view them.

The same goes for the 109 people who wear older monitors that only measure how far someone is from a box that's plugged into a power socket.

During regular business hours, if county corrections employees learn someone has tampered with a monitoring device, they can alert police, make contact with the offender, and resolve any problems.

But after the office closes?

"Any issues that take place outside of business hours are addressed the following [business] day," said Chris Jackson, director of Hamilton County Corrections Department.

The corrections department is responsible for alternative sentencing programs, such as probation, house arrest for nonviolent offenders, and ankle monitors aimed at easing overcrowding at area jails.

But recently, a man on trial for first-degree felony murder got into the program, made bond just days before his trial and then cut off his GPS monitor and escaped, getting a five-hour head start on police because no county employee knew he was missing until 6 a.m. the next day.

This isn't the first time the corrections department has admitted to not tracking its ankle monitors for violent offenders after business hours.

In 1997, 19-year-old Todd Peterson was gunned down by Evay Kelley, who was on house arrest for gun and drug charges. At the time, the corrections department admitted it only monitored people on house arrest during weekdays. When Peterson's family members accused the county of being negligent for not knowing Kelley had a violent prior record, it worked to expand its program.

But Jackson said a county employee hasn't monitored offenders on nights, weekends or holidays since 2011, when the county slashed five of those positions from its 2012 budget, archives show.

photo Christopher Padgett

Last week, a similar situation to 1997 unfolded when Christopher Padgett cut his GPS monitor and escaped as his murder trial was coming to a close.

Because of the special circumstances, Jackson said he asked the vendor who provides the monitors to let him know if anything happened with Padgett. Although Jackson received an automated text message around 1:40 a.m., he didn't see it until he woke up around 6 a.m.

A jury convicted Padgett of first-degree felony murder and especially aggravated robbery, despite his absence from the courtroom.

He's still at large, local authorities said Friday.

Even if a county employee was monitoring Padgett when he escaped, Jackson said, "they couldn't do anything without there being a warrant for his arrest."

Melydia Clewell, spokeswoman for the county district attorney, said a Criminal or Sessions Court judge can sign a warrant at any time.

"Police sometimes awaken a judge to sign a warrant in the middle of the night," she wrote in an email.

And bonding companies, other ankle monitor providers and police added that arresting someone isn't always the final goal. It's about having options with immediate information, they said.

"There's a lot of options on the table when you get notified of something like that," said Rob Simmons, a spokesman for the Chattanooga Police Department. "One of our reactions is to at least get eyes on him, especially if he's still a danger to the community."


Since 1989, the county has used monitoring to alleviate chronic overcrowding at the jail. Whether people were convicted or waiting for trial, officials considered it a cheaper alternative.

Officials began with radio frequency devices, which are commonly referred to as house arrest.

Offenders wear an ankle bracelet that transmits a signal to a box. Plugged into a power socket in a house, that box alerts corrections officials if someone strays out of the monitor's range.

But officials never give out the range, Jackson said, because people find ways to abuse it.

"We just tell them front door, back door when you're on house arrest," he said. "Anything else, you're subject to violation."

Critics say radio frequency devices have a few obvious weaknesses.

"They can only detect how far people are from the box," said Joel Davenport, who has run a private ankle monitoring company in Chattanooga since 2010. "So if you walked outside, it might lose signal. With GPS, they can go in their whole yard, mow their yard, and check their mail without being chained to a box."

In 2014, Hamilton County searched for GPS and alcohol bracelets, ultimately striking a deal with Alcohol Monitoring Systems in Denver, Colo. That company monitors all GPS device information from its servers, sending alerts back to the corrections department.

Jackson said the corrections department has a computer in Hamilton County that checks on people who wear radio frequency devices. The county still has 109 convicted felons or people facing misdemeanor charges on those monitors, he said.

This week, a publicist for Alcohol Monitoring Systems did not return multiple requests for comment on how Padgett managed to break his ankle monitor.

Until August 2018, though, Hamilton County has the option to lease equipment from Alcohol Monitoring Systems on a yearly basis. Jackson said the county offsets the costs by charging offenders directly. For example, offenders on a GPS monitor pay $26.60 a week, he said.

"If you got assigned to our program," he said, "you would pay for two weeks of monitoring. After that, as they report in, we try to keep them a week ahead. That way, if something happens, Hamilton County is not out any money."


More than four years ago, police found Nathan Deere, 31, slumped over the driver's wheel of his Millennium Taxi Services cab.

Working quickly, they found his cellphone, called one of the last dialed numbers, and heard Christopher Padgett's voice on the other end.

When he was arrested in April 2012, Padgett, then 18, sat in jail on a $610,000 bond until an appointed attorney convinced a judge to transfer him to the county's GPS monitoring program nearly three years later, records show.

Jackson said the GPS monitors extend to pretrial candidates and people facing misdemeanor charges. But pretrial only means someone's charges haven't been resolved yet.

"They may be on pretrial for a felony charge that hasn't been adjudicated yet," he said.

Although he faced felony murder and especially aggravated robbery charges, Padgett made it into the program because of a judge's decision, Jackson said.

But in June 2015, he violated his bond conditions and was returned to jail, where he sat until Sept. 30. On that Friday, four days before his trial, Padgett's mother paid four bonding companies $30,000 to get him out of custody.

When she testified in court, Cynthia Walker suggested she sold two cars to pay for the bond.

Walker could not be reached for comment this week.

But exchanging collateral on high bonds isn't uncommon, said Bill Speek, an attorney whose firm represents Key Bonding, one of the four groups involved in the deal.

The issue is that Walker loses that collateral. And now, Speek said, the four bonding companies are collectively on the hook for the $350,000 bond.

A bondsman's job is to ensure someone returns to court. But if the person fails to show several times in a row, a judge can "forfeit" the bond and make the company pay it back in full to the court.

Speek said Key Bonding was under the impression that county officials would alert them if something happened to Padgett's monitor. They could have driven out there "in minutes," he said.

But no one did, and now they're scrambling to find Padgett, he said.

When he was told county officials said they do not monitor bracelets after hours, Speek said he was surprised.

"Key Bonding would not have made this bond if they [knew] the GPS monitoring devices were not being monitored 24 hours a day," he said.


But whose job is it to report disturbances? And what could county officials do if they found Padgett with a broken monitor?

"We're not officers," Jackson said. "We can't execute warrants."

And he's right, said Scott Cranmore, vice president of Tennessee Recovery and Monitoring, a corporation that partners with several counties, such as Davidson and Knox, to provide alcohol and GPS bracelets.

"No. 1," Cranmore said, "there is no law currently that allows an officer to arrest an individual for technically violating a monitoring system."

But, Cranmore said, the bonding companies should have been wired into the process to receive notifications if somebody tampered with an ankle monitor. Because bondsmen, he said, have the ability to "surrender" a bond and take someone into custody.

"The No. 1 thing a monitoring company has to do is monitor," Cranmore said. "The second thing it has to do is report. If you don't do those two things, you're not providing the service that the court deserves."

Similar to Hamilton County Corrections, Cranmore said he runs an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. corporate operation. But after business hours, Cranmore said, he employs a team of people across the state who track any incoming information his monitor provider - also Alcohol Monitoring Systems - shoots out.

If something happens in Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis, "we notify the bonding companies," he said. "We also notify the courts and the DA's office directly, via email or text message. So they are able to get warrants signed very quickly in Davidson County and the same in Shelby County."

In smaller counties, Cranmore said, they alert the immediate monitoring authorities: the bondsmen, probation, the sheriff's office.

Davenport, the Chattanooga man who runs a private monitoring company here, said he and his four-person team have a similar operation. If someone tampers with a device, he gets an alert, calls law enforcement in the person's jurisdiction and asks for a "wellness check" at the address.

"My thing is to get eyes on them as quick as they can," Davenport said. "If nobody [in the county] is watching at 1:30 in the morning, that's a problem. It can be done."

Both Cranmore and Davenport stressed that offenders comply far more often than not.

Michael Dunne, spokesman for County Mayor Jim Coppinger, said the current tracking program keeps citizens safe. He did not say whether the county corrections department planned to hire a worker to watch the monitors on nights and weekends.

But he stressed that Alcohol Monitoring Systems is always watching - even if corrections is not - and said the county supervises about 1,000 clients daily for various charges. About 250 people, Dunne said, are on alcohol, GPS or radio frequency monitor devices.

"These programs are set up to offer an alternative to incarceration at the discretion of a judge," Dunne wrote in an email. "With any alternative to incarceration, there is an added risk."